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Notebook Religion


Religion Notes

Preserving the Trinity

The Virgin Mary will not be upgraded to co-redeemer, and there are no plans to study the possibility. That was the Vatican's response to a Newsweek cover story floating the idea. The magazine reported the delivery to the Vatican of a petition bearing 40,383 signatures urging Pope John Paul II to make such a declaration. It also said 4.3 million Catholics, the late Mother Teresa, nearly 500 bishops, and 42 cardinals from around the world had made the same appeal. Catholic scholar Michael Novak said the article was misleading, either misused or failed to define key terms, and generally mishandled complex theological issues. He warned it could disrupt relations with evangelicals and other Protestants, and could confuse many Catholics. A papal study commission last year concluded Mary could never be "named on the level with the Word of God in his particular redemptive function." Pope John Paul II, who prays to Mary and credits her with saving his life from a would-be assassin's bullet and with the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, has addressed the issue numerous times. "It is always necessary in Marian doctrine to safeguard the infinite difference existing between the human person of Mary and the divine person of Jesus," he said in one talk.

Opening eyes on Capitol Hill

Christian groups on prayer tours of the U.S. Capitol now pray with their eyes open, pending a decision in federal court. "If we don't bow our heads or clasp our hands, the Capitol police don't seem to mind," says Gretchen Trump, coordinator of Capitol Hill Prayer Alert, a small ministry that arranges prayer tours. Some people pray silently, others aloud in low conversational tones, she adds. Police last fall warned the leader of a tour group of eight that prayer in the Capitol Rotunda is considered a demonstration, and demonstrations there are illegal. Violators could be subject to penalties of up to $500 in fines and six months in jail. The leader was Pierre Bynum, Prayer Alert's editor and an assistant pastor at the Waldorf (Md.) Christian Assembly. He filed suit, seeking clarification of his rights. Federal courts have never ruled on whether the Rotunda is a public forum, which would allow all expressions of free speech, his attorney said. The police contend it is a workplace. A hearing was set for this month.

Supervising the shepherds

Catholic officials in Dallas asked the Vatican to nullify the ordination of the priest at the center of a sexual abuse lawsuit that led to a $119.6 million judgment. The diocese said Rudolph Kos deceived church officials about his background and sexual orientation. A jury ordered the award to 11 plaintiffs in the civil suit on July 24, finding unanimously that the diocese was grossly negligent and concealed information in its handling of Kos. The diocese did not deny the plaintiffs were abused but contended its handling of the situation was not negligent. It suspended Kos more than a year after a youth complained of sexual abuse by him. Given Catholic theology concerning the priesthood, Vatican watchers say there is little chance the nullification request will be granted. The last such action on misrepresentation grounds occurred 47 years ago. Besides, says former Vatican embassy lawyer Thomas Doyle, "the damage has been done.... Is this a ploy to make the church look a little better? They ignored warnings for years and didn't do anything. You can't undo that." Meanwhile, a church accused of not adequately supervising its pastor was found not guilty by a jury in a civil court case in Santa Fe, N.M., last month. First Baptist Church, Chama, N.M., which has about 60 attendees, had been sued by a man who said his 13-year marriage fell apart after his wife became romantically involved with the church's pastor at the time. The suit said the church was negligent for not adequately researching a man's background before calling him as pastor, not adequately training him to fulfill his pastoral responsibilities, not adequately supervising him, and not firing him for cause. Defense attorneys said the pastor resigned immediately after the affair became known-before the church could fire him. The plaintiff collected $4,000 from the ex-pastor in a separate action, according to Baptist Press. The suit originally also cited the New Mexico Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. The two Baptist bodies were dropped from the suit after lawyers explained the autonomy of local churches. Observers speculated that millions of dollars of judgments against the Catholic Church for sexual abuse by priests may have been behind the naming of the Baptist groups in the lawsuit.

Studying faith's effects on health

The John Templeton Foundation awarded grants of $25,000 each to eight more medical schools in the United States to develop programs for teaching future doctors about the role of religion in health care. So far, 19 of the nation's 126 medical schools have received funding from Templeton for such programs. Approaches vary among the schools. Many offer courses aimed at helping medical students understand the religious and ethical beliefs of patients and how to respond to them during treatment. Some look at how faith affects patients facing long-term illness, chronic pain, and death. At Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, students will be paired with terminally ill patients from the day of the diagnosis until the day of the funeral. The awards are administered through the private National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR). It is headed by David Larson, a former researcher at the federal government's National Institutes of Health. The NIHR has been compiling and distributing a number of scientific studies that suggest religious faith and practice can help prevent illness as well as relieve pain and suffering in illness or death. The group also has been conducting conferences for doctors for the past three years. Dr. Larson, an Episcopalian, says the aim is to create a cadre in medicine that is familiar with the scientific findings and can talk professionally about their application. "We're truly helping to lift the taboo against spirituality in medicine," he said.

Regent gets new president

Broadcaster Pat Robertson announced that Terry Lindvall, 49, will leave the presidency of Regent University, Virginia Beach, Va., and return to the classroom. The new president will be retired Army Lt. Gen. Paul G. Cerjan of Alexandria, a member of Regent's board. The change takes effect in November. Mr. Cerjan has served as president of the National Defense University and the Army War College, both in Washington, D.C. He will be the fifth president since Mr. Robertson founded Regent (originally known as CBN University) 19 years ago. Mr. Robertson tapped Mr. Lindvall, a well-liked zesty communications professor at Regent, for the presidency in 1993, during a period of faculty shakeups and turmoil on campus. With major expansion plans for the graduate-level university pending, Mr. Lindvall said he felt the time had come to return to his first love, teaching. He will take over a $2 million endowed chairmanship in visual communications.

Promise Keepers hit by new attack

First it was the National Organization of Women that declared war on Promise Keepers as the ministry made plans for a national "Stand in the Gap" gathering of men on the Washington Mall on Oct. 4. NOW launched a "No Surrender" campaign to "take the mask off" the PK movement and show the group's real goal is to repeal women's rights. It said it will stage demonstrations during the six-hour afternoon rally. This month, the New York-based Center for Democracy Studies (CDS) launched a media campaign, warning that PK's goal is to force a Christian agenda onto local, state, and national levels. CDS is headed by lawyer Alfred Ross, a former researcher for Planned Parenthood. He alleged the Oct. 4 gathering is "a dry run for a more ambitious holy war." PK founder Bill McCartney and other PK leaders have denied such charges repeatedly. No politician is among the 40 scheduled speakers. Said Mr. McCartney: "America is suffering from a severe shortage of integrity, and men are behind some of its worst manifestations.... The focus of [the rally] will be on the responsibility of men to seek God, confess their sins, and begin making the necessary changes, as God empowers them." As of early this month, more than 500,000 have arranged to attend, PK organizers announced.

Never, never on a Sunday

When a pharmaceutical firm told workers they needed to work some Sundays, three workers begged off for religious reasons. The company conditioned approval on their finding someone to work their Sunday shifts. They filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor. A Labor compliance unit concluded last month that Novo Nordisk Pharmaceutical, a federal contractor, had not discriminated against the employees. But it found the company had violated federal law by requiring workers to find Sunday substitutes. Laws banning discrimination based on race, sex, and religion also require employers to make "reasonable accommodations" to the religious practices of their employees. "Companies must bear the burden of accommodations and cannot shift this responsibility to employees," the compliance unit said. For two of the workers, it's a moot point. They were fired for alleged errors on the job, company officials say. The workers claim they were targeted because of their complaint. The compliance ruling followed the issuance of new guidelines on religion in the federal workplace by President Clinton earlier in the month (World, Aug. 23/30). The guidelines were drafted mainly by Steven McFarland of the Christian Legal Society and Marc Stern of the American Jewish Committee. Completed in January 1996, the document was sent to the White House three months later. A revision by the Justice Department, Mr. McFarland said, rendered the guidelines "almost unrecognizable." Mr. McFarland and Mr. Stern, with support from a broad section of religious leadership, fought for reinstatement of much of the original language, and Mr. Clinton sided with them.

PCUSA: Chastity or "integrity"?

Should church officers be either "living in fidelity within the covenant of marriage" or practicing "chastity in singleness"? Or should they be allowed to "demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life," with fidelity and integrity left so undefined as to allow for homosexual relationships? That is one of the questions that local and regional bodies of the Presbyterian Church (USA) are voting on now and over the next several months. The voting by presbyteries comes in the wake of this year's PCUSA general assembly in June. The general assembly last year adopted an amendment to the denomination's Book of Order that required all married church officers to be faithful and all single officers to be chaste. One effect was to bar from church leadership self-affirmed, practicing homosexuals. However, all that was put in jeopardy by the success of denominational bureaucrats, homosexual advocates, and other liberals at this year's assembly. By a 60-40 percent margin the assembly favored a new amendment that if adopted by the presbyteries will open the door to ordination to homosexuals and other sexually impure persons. Evangelicals who have remained in the PCUSA hope they can defeat the new amendment at the presbytery level. They are also thinking about what to do if the new rule passes. Some may leave. Others may stay, forming a "confessing movement" while withholding their funds from denominational agencies, ignoring church courts above the local level, and seeking fellowship and cooperation with each other. Denominational bureaucrats have charged that some of the battling evangelicals are troublemakers. This is reminiscent of the situation earlier this century when theologian B.B. Warfield before one general assembly was asked to pray for peace at the meeting. He responded, "I am praying that, if they do not do what is right, there may be a mighty battle." Shortly before his death in 1921 Mr. Warfield talked with his colleague J. Gresham Machen, who later founded Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Mr. Machen expressed the hope that there might be a split in the church "in order to separate the Christians from the anti-Christian propagandists." Mr. Warfield's reply was, "No, you can't split rotten wood." These conversations illustrate the ways evangelical Presbyterians have responded to the decline in mainline Presbyterianism that has proceeded with little abatement since the 1920s. Some have followed Mr. Machen, splitting from the mainline denomination to seek to form a more pure expression of the church. At this point the PCUSA, though bleeding 35,000 members a year, still has 2.7 million members. The largest of the theologically conservative groups, the Presbyterian Church in America, has 278,000 members. Others have followed the example of Mr. Warfield, and though not many of them still hold to Mr. Warfield's staunch Calvinism, those evangelicals in the PCUSA soldier on in hope of a better day.

California cross lamp must be kept under a bushel

San Francisco civic and religious groups are hailing an arrangement that will keep in place the 103-foot-high concrete cross atop Mt. Davidson. It has stood there, often robed in fog, as a sentinel overlooking the city since its dedication by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934. For years, it was a magnet for Easter sunrise and prayer services. In response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that a religious symbol on public land violates the state constitution. It rejected claims that the cross was a landmark, not a religious icon. In a carefully crafted plan to save the cross, city supervisors in July voted unanimously to sell at auction the one-third of an acre of the park on which the cross stands to an Armenian American federation for $26,000. The group pledged to maintain the cross and grounds. It also agreed to stipulations by the lawsuit's plaintiffs. Among them: The cross no longer can be illuminated except twice a year, although ground lighting will be allowed year-round for safety purposes. The court is expected to grant its blessing next month, followed by voter approval in November.

A rise in born-again Catholics

A growing number of U.S. Roman Catholics say they are born-again Christians, according to pollster George Barna. In just two years, there has been a 41 percent increase in the number of Catholics in his annual surveys who affirm two statements: "I have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in my life today," and "I believe that after I die I will go to heaven because I have confessed my sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior." In Mr. Barna's 1997 survey, 43 percent of all respondents agreed with both statements, up from 39 percent in 1996 and 36 percent in 1995. The overall increase, he said, was due mostly to a change in the number of Catholics who meet the criteria: from 22 percent in 1995 to 31 percent in 1997. The study involved a scientific sample of 1,007 adults nationwide.

Knesset sits on evangelism bill

An anti-evangelism bill is still pending in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. It has passed the first of four required readings. Messianic Jewish pastor Baruch Maoz in suburban Tel Aviv told reporters a poll he took of Knesset members indicated that about 60 percent would support its passage. Critics of the proposed legislation claim a strict interpretation would ban possession of the New Testament. Sponsors insist there is no intention to ban the New Testament or the freedom of Christians to practice their faith. The aim, they say, is to regulate proselytism pitches that offend a large segment of the population. Officials say the bill was introduced in reaction to protests by thousands of Israelis who received an especially offensive tract in the mail from controversial San Diego TV evangelist Morris Cerullo. Under pressure from Israeli tourism officials and evangelical groups from abroad that have been traditionally pro-Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken out against the bill. He also pledged in a form letter to keep it from becoming law. Mr. Cerullo vows on his World Wide Web site to continue mass distribution of literature in Israel.

Communities dealt a bad hand

Gambling could be the fastest-growing cause of record rates of bankruptcy in America, a study for the credit-card industry concludes. The findings by SMR Research Corp. of Hackettstown, N.J., suggest a connection between the spread of legalized gambling in 298 counties in the United States and the rise of bankruptcy filings in those areas. The study found bankruptcy rates are 18 percent higher in counties with one gambling business, and 23 percent higher in counties with five or more such businesses. In Atlantic City, the bankruptcy rate was 71 percent higher than in any other county in New Jersey last year. Court records show a total of 1.3 million bankruptcy cases were filed in the past year, a record level. And despite the booming economy, current rates are soaring ahead of last year's, they indicate. The findings were released as a new federal commission, the National Gambling Impact Commission, opened hearings in Washington. Commission member Francis Dobson of Focus on the Family urged the panel to look closely at the impact riverboat casinos in Tunica, Miss., have had on the region around Memphis, Tenn. Counties with the highest bankruptcy rates in the nation were the counties in Tennessee and Arkansas close to Tunica, the SMR study found.