Friday, April 11, 2014

Catholic civil war hits Charlotte

Surprised by the intensity of the uproar over a conservative nun’s remarks about homosexuality to students at Charlotte Catholic High School? You shouldn’t be.

It’s part of a cultural war within American Catholicism pitting traditionalists – including many bishops – against those who want to see changes in the church.

Headline: U.S. Catholic bishops cast the Affordable Care Act as an attack on religious liberty, citing provisions to include contraceptives.

And yet: A 2012 Gallup poll found that 82 percent of American Catholics consider birth control “morally acceptable.”

Headline: U.S. Catholic bishops help lead campaigns to ban same-sex marriage.

And yet: About half of American Catholics say gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry, according to a 2012 Pew poll. That’s up from 40 percent who said so in 2001.

Headline: U.S. Catholic bishops stand by celibacy requirement for priests.

And yet: In a 2013 Pew poll, 58 percent of American Catholics said letting priests marry was a good idea; 35 percent said it was a bad idea.

Headline: U.S. Catholic bishops feud with President Barack Obama on a host of issues.

And yet: Obama won the Catholic vote in 2012 (50 percent to Mitt Romney’s 48 percent) and in 2008 (54 percent to John McCain’s 45 percent).

Given this division, it’s easier to understand the polar-opposite reactions to the local storm that followed Sister Jane Dominic Laurel’s remarks at Charlotte Catholic.

Most parents who spoke up at a meeting with high school officials last week criticized the sister and the chaplain who invited her. But Bishop Peter Jugis, who heads the Diocese of Charlotte, found major fault only with parents who had exhibited a “lack of charity.”

Traditionalist Catholics are quick to point out that Catholicism is not and never has been a democracy. It’s a hierarchical church, they say, with the pope in Rome and bishops around the world explaining and enforcing church doctrines and rules.

But a big percentage of the flock, at least in the United States, also consider the church a community. And they’re hoping that Jugis and his fellow U.S. bishops will start to take seriously Pope Francis’ recent suggestion that leaders do more listening.

-- Tim Funk

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Graham to give keynote at NRA prayer breakfast

The National Rifle Association has tapped North Carolina-based evangelist Franklin Graham to give the keynote address at a prayer breakfast during its annual convention of meetings and exhibits this month in Indianapolis.

At least one liberal group is using the selection of Graham to revisit and criticize some of his comments following the 2012 incident in which a deranged gunman massacred young schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Media Matters For America points to a 2012 interview on an American Family Association radio show, in which Graham said the slaughter "is what happens when society turns its back on God."

But most of Graham's comments on the show focused on his concern about the prevalence of violent images on TV, in music, and on video games.

"The violence that we see now on TV and what we hear in music -- it's so graphic," he said. "In arcades . . . there (are) murder simulators and you can have an electronic gun in your hands and you can point that at a video character and pull that trigger and you can see the bullet impact their flesh and blood flies and body parts fly."

The National Rifle Association is meeting April 25-27. The prayer breakfast, with Graham speaking, starts at 7 a.m. on the last day.

Graham heads both the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse, a charity relief agency based in Boone.

-- Tim Funk 

Priest says sins committed in Charlotte Catholic High School 'fight'

The controversy over a recent speaker at Charlotte Catholic High School continues to churn, with the pastor at St. Ann Catholic Church in Charlotte telling parishioners that sins were committed by some parents and students for their "utter lack of charity and vicious disrespect . . . in this fight."

In his Sunday homily, or sermon, the Rev. Timothy Reid had a lot to say about the uproar over a March 21 address by Sister Jane Dominic Laurel, who angered some students and parents with her comments about homosexuality, single parent homes and divorce. 

The priest, known for his traditionalist views and for bringing the Latin Mass back to St. Ann, called on his flock to offer up additional penance during Lent as "reparation for the terrible sins against charity that have been committed in this sad situation."

He suggested a trip to the confessional for those on both sides of the debate who let their anger morph into "hate-filled tirades and malicious and calumnious accusations."

Some students offended by Laurel's remarks -- including that children raised by single parents had a greater chance of becoming gay or lesbian -- launched an online petition. Some parents disturbed about the nun's speech and the high school's failure to alert them ahead of time urged a letter-writing campaign. Those actions prompted other parents and supporters of Laurel to begin a counter-petition, saying the nun was only upholding traditional Catholic teachings.  

Then, last Wednesday night, diocese and high school officials met with nearly 1,000 parents. Some rose to question and seek an apology from the Rev. Matthew Kauth, the high school chaplain who invited Laurel to speak and did not notify parents that she would be speaking about sexuality.

Reid acknowledged that parents "have a right to know beforehand when such delicate matters are going to be discussed in such great detail."

And "while (Laurel) spoke of nothing contrary to our faith and actually upheld the teachings of the church," he added, "certainly there are legitimate reasons to criticize Sister's talk."

Specifically, Reid said he would have preferred that boys and girls hear about sexuality in separate assemblies.

But Reid's strongest criticisms in his homily appeared directed at students and parents angry with Kauth and Laurel.

"Many of you have told me that numerous people launched venomous and malicious attacks upon the school's high school chaplain, Father Kauth, at Wednesday night's parents' meeting," he said.

Reid also addressed homosexuality during last Sunday's Mass. While those "who suffer from same-sex attraction" must be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity, he said, the church teaches that homosexual acts are always wrong and that gays and lesbians are called to lives of chastity.

The Charlotte Catholic High School controversy, he said, "has revealed that a large number of . . . our students and parents either do not know the Church's teaching on homosexuality or, worse yet, they reject it outright -- even misusing papal comments to do so."

Reid said it's now time for healing, and invited parishioners -- especially students at Charlotte Catholic High School and their parents -- to come to the church's Holy Hour of Reparation at 6 p.m. Friday. The hour of prayers, he said, "will be offered for all the sins committed in this situation" at the high school.

Read or listen to Reid's entire homily here.

Laurel, meanwhile, has canceled all of her upcoming speaking engagements and will take a sabbatical from her teaching post at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn.

The college's president, Sister Mary Sarah, wrote in a statement on the Aquinas web site that Laurel had veered from "the scope of her expertise" during parts of her speech at Charlotte Catholic High School.

Laurel is a sister, or nun, in a Dominican order.

The storm caused by the nun's speech has attracted national media attention. And local Catholics have turned in higher-than-usual numbers to the reports about it on the diocese's Catholic News Herald web site.

The site usually gets 12,000 to 14,000 hits, or reader visits, per month, said diocese spokesman David Hains.

By April 7, Hains said, the site had already gotten 19,000 hits.

The Charlotte Catholic High School story, he said, "has generated quite a bit of interest and traffic."

-- Tim Funk  

Monday, April 7, 2014

Nun at center of Charlotte Catholic High controversy goes on leave

The Dominican nun whose comments about sexuality caused a storm at Charlotte Catholic High School has cancelled all of her speaking engagements and is taking a sabbatical from her teaching post at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn.

In a statement on the college's web site, the school's president also wrote that Sister Jane Dominic Laurel went too far in part of her March 21 address to students at Charlotte Catholic High.

Sister Mary Sarah, the president, wrote that Laurel "spoke clearly on matters of faith and morals," as she is qualified to do as a theologian trained at a Pontifical University  -- a school established or approved by the Vatican.

But, the president wrote, "her deviation into realms of sociology and anthropology was beyond the scope of her expertise."

Diocese of Charlotte officials have said there is no video or audio recording of what Laurel said at the school. But students who attended told their parents that Laurel cited studies and statistics that she said indicated gays and lesbians are not born with same-sex attractions and that children in single-parent homes have a greater chance of becoming homosexual. She also suggested there were correlations between masturbation and homosexuality, some students said.

These reported remarks led some students to launch a petition that denounced Laurel's address as "offensive." That prompted a counter-petition defending Laurel as a faithful presenter of Catholic teaching.

Last Wednesday night, the school and the diocese held a meeting that drew nearly 1,000 parents. Most who rose to speak objected to Laurel's comments or to the school's failure to warn them in advance that Laurel would speak to students on such a sensitive topic.

Charlotte Catholic promised to better scrutinize future speakers and better communicate with parents ahead of time, said diocese spokesman David Hains.

The Observer has emailed and called Laurel, but she has not been available for comment.

The story about the uproar over Laurel's comments has been picked up by national news sites, including Huffington Post and USA Today. 

In the carefully worded statement on the Aquinas College website, Sister Mary Sarah, the school's president, publicly addressed the controversy at  Charlotte Catholic High School for the first time and at some length. But some of her words are open to interpretation.

"The unfortunate events at Charlotte Catholic High School are not representative of the quality of Sister's academic contributions or the positive influence that she has had on her students," the president wrote. "The students at Charlotte Catholic were unprepared, as were their parents, for the topic that Sister was asked to deliver. The consequence was a complete misrepresentation of the school's intention to bring a message that would enlighten and bring freedom and peace."

Added the president: "There are no words that are able to reverse the harm that has been caused by these comments."

The statement also announced that Laurel "has cancelled her speaking engagements and, at her request, is preparing to begin a sabbatical from teaching at Aquinas College."

Read the college president's full statement here.

-- Tim Funk 


Friday, April 4, 2014

Church answering plea to 'take care of me'

A few weeks ago, Paul Owens, who cares for the buildings and grounds at Charlotte’s Park Road Baptist Church, came upon something unexpected in the columbarium.

There, near the Memorial Wall, was a box containing a new toy for a small child. Hanging from the box: A crucifix. Leaning against it: A tiny metal urn, with ashes inside.

And scribbled on the box: “No money for propper service. Please take care of me.”

Owens brought the box and the urn to the church office, where co-pastors Amy and Russ Dean puzzled over it for a week.

Finally, they came up with a story that seemed to make sense: The plea was made by a mother on behalf of her infant, who had, perhaps, been born prematurely. The urn contained the baby’s cremains.

Then the pastors prayerfully decided to act.

“Even in the midst of all of the unknowns and questions, we feel pulled to respond,” Amy, a mother herself, wrote in last week’s Good Tidings, the church newsletter.

Then she invited the congregation to a funeral, to be held Sunday (April 6), right after the regular 11 a.m. service at the church, 3900 Park Road.

“We will gather in the columbarium,” she wrote, “and read Scripture and offer a prayer and scatter the ashes among the flowers.”

This isn’t the first time Park Road Baptist has agreed to “take care” of someone whose name was unknown to them. Several years ago, Russ said, they scattered the ashes of a homeless man who was cremated anonymously. A plaque on Memorial Wall identifies him as “known only to God.”

The Deans, who have lived with this latest mystery for a few weeks, are approaching Sunday with a mix of sadness and gratitude.

“We are sad for whoever left this,” Russ said. “We know, from some members in our congregation, how traumatic this kind of loss is. … And we are sad that this someone would not have a community of faith to help in her grieving.”

But they are also grateful, he said, “that we are able to do this. And we would hope that the mother would get word that we’re going to honor her wishes and give her child a final resting place.”

Amy also proposed, in her writing, that Sunday’s funeral could offer meaning for others as well:

“As we walk along our own paths, may we be ever mindful of what we might find – unexpectedly – and ponder our own sacred responses to all we come across.”

-- Tim Funk

Friday, March 28, 2014

God most compelling character in 'Noah'

Sometime over the millennia, we have managed to domesticate the Bible’s terrifying story of Noah and the great flood that wiped out most of creation – the subject of a startling new movie, “Noah.” I had a chance to see it this week.

As a child, I’m sure I was exposed to toy replicas of those cuddly animals Noah herded into his ark. And like a lot of baby boomers, I remember laughing at this story from Genesis, as retold on records and TV by that great theologian, Bill Cosby.

In one of his earliest and best comedy routines, Cosby re-imagines that first conversation between Noah, a carpenter sawing away in his rec room, and the invisible Lord, who commands Noah in a booming voice to build an ark and fill it with two of every creature.

“Right,” responds a skeptical Noah, who’s thinking this is a prank. “Who is this really? What’s going on?”

“I’m going to destroy the world,” God answers.

“Right,” says Noah, smiling. “Am I on ‘Candid Camera’?”

As I sat in the theater, watching director Darren Aronofsky’s visually stunning film, it became obvious why we have long candy-coated this biblical epic.

Without the comedy and the cutesy animals, this is one scary tale to watch and to ponder: In it, God drowns people. Lots and lots of them.

And Aronofsky, whose previous films (“Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”) explore dark subjects, does not spare us the agony of the doomed. As Noah (played by a brooding Russell Crowe) and his family float away in the ark, they can hear the desperate cries of those clinging to every shrub and piece of mountain on the rapidly disappearing land.

The film and the Bible make it clear that many, if not most, of those people had become corrupt and beastly in their violence toward each other and the environment – all sins that are not exactly unheard of today.

So the Creator, as God is called in the film, decides to destroy virtually all of creation and start over.

We never see God in this cinematic blockbuster, which is true to the spirit if not all the details of the Bible’s version (Crowe’s Noah gets older, for example, but never reaches 600 years old, as Genesis put his age at the time of the flood).

But God is as much of a character as Noah. And a much richer, more mysterious one.

He communicates his will – and a stark preview of the flood – in the images that invade Noah’s dreams.

He also “speaks” through the beauty of nature, in the words of the women in Noah’s life, and in a father’s lullaby.

And, in the end, this character God surprises again: Using a white dove and a dazzling rainbow, he turns his back on destruction and affirms love and mercy for all creation.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, March 21, 2014

It's campaign season for some Baptist pastors

The Rev. Mark Harris, who'd like to be North Carolina's next U.S. senator, isn't the only Baptist pastor from Charlotte running for office these days.

But the two other preacher candidates have their eyes on national denominational offices.

The Rev. Clifford Jones Sr. of Friendship Missionary Baptist has been campaigning since last year for the presidency of the National Baptist Convention. America’s oldest and largest black Baptist organization, with 7 million members, it will hold its 134th annual session – and presidential election – Sept. 1-5 in New Orleans.

The Southern Baptist Convention, still the country’s largest Protestant denomination, with 15.9 million members, will convene its annual gathering June 10-11 in Baltimore. And, for now, the only person expected to be nominated as the SBC’s first vice president is the Rev. Clint Pressley of Hickory Grove Baptist.

No stepping-stone

Pressley said it was not his idea to run, he’s not campaigned a lick and he’d happily withdraw if “somebody else wants it so bad.”

But he did agree to be nominated. And, if elected, Pressley will do the job for a year. Mostly, he said, the first vice president gives speeches at seminaries and mission boards round the country and, at the SBC’s 2015 national gathering, will moderate business meetings.

For those wondering whether Pressley will use the veep job as a stepping-stone to the presidency of the SBC: “Nah, I’m not old enough yet.”

For now, the 45-year-old Pressley is busy preaching five services at two locations every weekend, looking out for the church’s school and pastoring the 5,000 people who worship at Hickory Grove Baptist.

Even a website

At the National Baptist Convention, open campaigning – at least for the top spot – is expected.

So I didn’t get to talk to Jones this week because, you guessed it, he was out-of-town -- Nashville, to be exact -- looking for votes.

Jones, one of five candidates for the presidency, has also campaigned in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, New York and Washington, D.C.

He has a campaign office and a state-of-the-art campaign website.

And all the expenses are paid for with campaign contributions, not church funds, said Carolyn Mints, his campaign coordinator.

-- Tim Funk