True Power as Service


At the special Mass celebrated for the beginning of his new pontificate, Pope Francis focused his homily on the protection of the weak, the poor, and the environment.  Some passages from the homily make it possible to understand what Pope Francis has in mind when he speaks of a renovated way of understanding the nature of power and its use.

In the homily, Pope Francis stated, “I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men  and women of goodwill: Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” And he added: “Let us never forget that authentic power is service … . Only those who serve with love  are able to protect.”

The election of Pope Francis comes at a time of profound changes in the Church and also in the wider society. The invitation I have quoted from his homily probably should be read as an appeal to both realities. The changes in the governance of the Church will be an important issue on the new Pope’s agenda and Francis probably wanted to signal the necessity of understanding and making use of power in a reinvigorated way. In this regard, it is noteworthy that he will hold Mass on Holy Thursday at Casal del Marmo Detention Center in  Rome and will wash the feet of the young inmates detained there.

The coherence between words and actions seems to be what Pope Francis is asking of the Church and society’s leaders, political and non-political.

The full text of the homily is available here.


Heimbach-Steins on the German Circumcision Case

In May 2012, a regional court in Cologne ruled that the circumcision of a boy, carried out for religious reasons, qualified as a crime under German law. The court reasoned that the child’s right to physical integrity trumps religious and parental rights—a decision that greatly concerned Germany’s Jewish and Muslim communities. The decision is available in German here and in English in an official and abbreviated version here.

In December 2012,  the ReligioWest project at the European University Institute sponsored a lecture by Marianne Heimbach-Steins (Institut für Christliche Sozialwissenschaften- Universität Münster) on the decision and the general topic. She has now published the paper for ReligioWest. Here’s the abstract:

In May 2012, a German court in Cologne ruled that circumcising young boys represents grievous bodily harm. This decision, which touched upon the questions of freedom of religious practice, identity and children’s rights, was condemned by Jewish and Muslim representatives in Germany, but it was also widely and controversially debated by civil society and politicians. The German Parliament recently passed legislation protecting circumcision as a religious practice, but the debate is likely to continue. In this paper, Marianne Heimbach-Steins, director of the department of Christian Social Ethics at the University of Münster (Germany), discuss this case and its implications for the definition  of religious freedom.

Her working paper can be downloaded here.

Pussy Riot Goes to Strasbourg

Year by year, it becomes clearer that Russia will be an important participant in global conversations about law and religion. This is true with respect to religious law—the canons of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)—and also with respect to church- state and religious freedom issues.

For European scholars, it will be crucial to understand how the vocal and active presence of the ROC in the courts will influence the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). I have already shown that the ROC was a key player in the Lautsi case on the display of the crucifix in Italian public schools. After the first decision in Lautsi, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the ROC’s Department of External Church Relations, clearly expressed his opinion–on the judgment, the Court, and the need for action by religious groups–in a letter to the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone:

“We consider this practice of the European Court of Human Rights to be an attempt to impose radical secularism everywhere despite the national experience of church-state relations. The above mentioned decision is not the only one in the practice of the Court, which has increasingly shown an anti-Christian trend. Taking into account the fact that the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights have clearly lost touch with legal and historical reality in which most of the Europeans live, while the Court itself has turned into an instrument of promoting an ultra-liberal ideology, we believe it very important that religious communities in Europe should be involved in a discussion concerning its work”.

For these reasons, it will be interesting to see how the ECtHR decides the recently-lodged case of the Pussy Riot punk band (above), some of whose members were arrested after performing a “punk prayer” in one of the most important Russian churches. Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Natalia Tolokonniva were in fact sentenced to two years in prison on the charge of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. The complaint at the ECtHR, filed one month ago, alleges that the group’s conviction amounts to a violation Convention’s guarantees of  freedom of speech, the right to liberty and security, the prohibition of torture and the right to a fair trial.

If the cases moves forward, it promises to be an important one in many regards: both for the legal arguments and standards that the Court will apply to balance (or not) the different rights at stake, but also for the position religious groups, like the ROC, take in any third party interventions before the Court.

The Rise of the “Stars and Stripes” Cardinals in Rome

The College of Cardinals began its pre-conclave meetings (the so-called Congregazioni Generali) this week in Rome, with 153 members in attendance. Of them, 115 are under the age of 80, and therefore eligible to participate in the papal election. The question popping up in every Italian newspaper article and commentary is, of course, the same: who will be the new Pope?

While, for obvious reasons, it is impossible to predict the most likely outcome of the cardinals’ decision, it is true that European, and especially Italian, media have devoted particular attention to Cardinal Timothy Dolan and to American cardinals in general. For instance, two days ago the daily Corriere della Sera, the most influential Italian newspaper, had a long interview with the Archbishop of New York . Yesterday, La Repubblica published a long article on the “Stars and Stripes cardinals” and how they are approaching the conclave.

Why are American cardinals receiving so much attention? One obvious, and superficial, reason is that they are much more skilled, as compared to other cardinals, in communicating and establishing relationships with the media. But there is another factor. The United States’ ability to preserve a vocal religious presence in the public sphere has always raised interest and curiosity in Rome, and especially now, in a time when the secularization of Europe is growing at an unprecedented level. It is not to reveal a secret to say that Benedict XVI himself, on many occasions, expressed appreciation for the “American model,” a model in which religious arguments in the public sphere are heard and debated much more than in Europe.

Why did this American model fit better with Benedict XVI’s approach and teachings? According to John L. Allen, Jr., Benedict XVI, contrary to the conventional narrative, tried to shape his teachings on the basis of an “affirmative orthodoxy.” In a conversation with Archbishop Dolan (A People of Hope, Image Books, 2011) Allen defined affirmative “in the sense of being determined to present the building blocks of orthodoxy in a positive key.” The emphasis would therefore be on “what Catholicism embraces and affirms, what it says ‘yes’ to, rather  than what it opposes and condemns.” This affirmative orthodoxy works much better in a social context, like America’s, which welcomes religion in the public sphere and in which religious arguments are heard.

Today, the real challenge for the Catholic Church, especially according to many European cardinals, is religious indifference and the coming of a post-Christian world represented by a new type of man: the homo indifferens. As a result, the American experience, which represents, in many accounts, a hopeful and affirming Catholicism,  is seen as a success story in Rome. This does not mean that in a few days we will have an American Pope. But  I’m sure, like it or not, that the “American model” will matter in discussions on the future of the Church.