Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Pax Christi = "Fringe Group"?

Well known for its ecclesial advocacy on humanitarian issues worldwide, a newly-formed Virginia chapter of the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi found itself denied permission to use a church for its launch celebration... even despite the presence of the area's former ordinary, now retired Richmond Bishop Walter Sullivan, a past president of the global group.

Its rejection owing to strict speaker-approval guidelines issued by Sullivan's successor, current Richmond Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, the diocese has come under heavy criticism in the move's wake:
Asked Tuesday why the event was rejected, Vincent Sansone, the diocesan theologian who vets proposed speakers, said that Pax Christi is not a diocesan organization.

Sansone would not say how many speaker requests he vets annually and declined to take any further questions about the process.

The kickoff's keynote speakers included Bishop Walter Sullivan, the retired leader of the Richmond Diocese. Sullivan is a past bishop-president of Pax Christi International.

Sullivan said he didn't know why the event didn't get diocesan approval.

"I think it's just a big disappointment that we couldn't be at one of our parishes," he said.

Sullivan was known nationally as an anti-war spokesman when he led the diocese.

The denial also puzzled Steve Baggarly, a leader at the Norfolk Catholic Worker house, a social justice center. Baggarly was one of the organizers of the new Pax Christi chapter.

"If the church isn't interested in peace, what are we interested in?" Baggarly asked.

The event's other speaker was Marie Dennis, the global-concerns director for Maryknoll, a Catholic religious community of priests, nuns and laypeople.

The kickoff event was held at Virginia Wesleyan College, a Methodist school in Virginia Beach.

The vetting requirement was decreed by Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo weeks after he succeeded Sullivan as the diocese's leader in 2004. His first theologian, the Rev. Russell Smith, said at the time that speakers would be judged by their alignment with Catholic doctrine.

The diocese's guidelines state that speakers must be "in good standing in the Church" and provide proof they've taken a course in protecting against child abuse. They also must provide a resume and a letter from their bishop or pastor "attesting to their orthodoxy....

Earlier this year, Sansone also rejected peace organizers' proposal of the Rev. Louis Vitale as a speaker for the chapter launch.

Vitale, a Franciscan priest and Catholic peace activist, has been arrested scores of times for nonviolent civil disobedience. In 2007 and 2008, he spent several months in prison for his torture-training protest outside an Army base.

Baggarly said his group was told that because of Vitale's arrest record, "it wouldn't be in the best interest of the parishes to have such a person speak."

Baggarly questioned the decision.

"We see that record as a badge of honor and a sign of Christ, who was arrested and tortured by authorities," he said.

Teresa Stanley, another local Catholic activist who was laid off this year as a staffer in the diocese's peace and justice office, also criticized the screening process.

"I can respect the authority of the church, and, yes, if someone is going to be speaking on Catholic teaching, they should have a certain amount of credibility," she said. "But we weren't aware Pax Christi was a fringe group."
It might not count for much in Richmond, but PC's Vatican cred was recently upped some more after Pope Benedict named the lobby's global president to lead Africa's largest local church.

As chief pastor of the 3.6 million-member archdiocese of Kinshasa, Archbishop Laurent Monswengo Pasiya will likely receive the cardinal's red hat at the next consistory, which is expected sometime in mid-2010. Likewise head of the bishops' conference in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a delegate to this month's Synod of Bishops for Africa, Monswengo, 68, has served on Pax Christi's executive committee since 1999.

On a related note, the Catholic presence at a Connecticut rally against capital punishment last week was significantly curtailed due to the participation of other groups which, despite their concordance with church teaching on the death penalty, publicly maintain stances in favor of abortion rights.