The miracle worker

Most barbers are happy with a nice big tip, but the man who used to trim Pope John Paul II says the late pontiff miraculously cured him of a hernia. But as the Times of London notes, even if the Vatican were to recognize the cure as miraculous, it would still not count toward John Paul’s eventual canonization as a saint. Pope Benedict is expected to recognize another miracle in the cause of John Paul’s beatification, the honor just short of sainthood, which will probably be bestowed sometime this year. A second miracle would be required for canonization — but it would have to have occurred after beatification. (All clear now?)

COMMENTARY: And the first shall be last …

(RNS) Ever since I moved to an island in the middle of Puget Sound two years ago and no longer travel frequently, the friendly skies have grown less friendly. Alas, I slid from Premier Executive status to Premier. Yesterday, I learned I am no longer even Premier. How low can you go, I wondered? I was about to find out.

Off to Oxon.

Health care summit or no health care summit, I’m heading to England today, to give a talk at Oxford entitled, “From Christian to Judeo-Christian to Abrahamic: the Shibboleths of American Civil Religion.” Theology Faculty Seminar Room, 31 St Giles. Tuesday, March 2. 5 pm. Research Seminar on the Abrahamic Religions: Contemporary Perspectives.

ACLU files suit over USAID’s abstinence programs

WASHINGTON (RNS) The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the U.S. Agency for International Development for not providing information about “religiously infused” abstinence programs the agency has funded. The lawsuit, which was filed Thursday (Feb. 18), follows a report last July from USAID’s inspector general that found “some USAID funds were used for religious activities” during 2006 and 2007. According to its complaint, the ACLU twice filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act seeking documents related to programs that promoted sexual abstinence. USAID acknowledged receiving the requests but never responded by sending the requested documents.

Jewish groups agree to civility despite differences

(RNS) Jewish agencies have resolved to handle internal disagreements over Middle East policy, health care reform and other polarizing issues calmly and respectfully, while banding together to confront what one leader called “a growing, global campaign to delegitimize Israel.” About 300 delegates representing 14 national and 47 community groups gathered in Dallas for the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Rabbi Steve Gutow, the JCPA’s executive director, said delegates were particularly concerned about recent campus protests against Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, who was one of the assembly’s speakers. These and any other anti-Israel actions — including proposed boycotts, divestment and sanctions — require swift, organized responses, delegates agreed. Within the American Jewish community, a swell of counterproductive clashes over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and domestic politics prompted the group to pass a resolution on civility, Gutow said.

Top German bishop steps down after drunk-driving arrest

BERLIN (RNS) Bishop Margot Kaessmann, the first female head of Germany’s Protestant church, stepped down from her position Wednesday (Feb. 24) amid controversy surrounding her arrest on Saturday for drunk driving. Kaessmann, 51, said she had made a “serious mistake” which she “deeply” regretted, reported the EPD, the official news service of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church in Germany. “The office and my authority as a regional bishop and the head of the council have been damaged,” she said. “I would not have had, in the future, my freedom to point out ethical and political challenges and to make judgments as I do now.”

Muslims finally get someone to root for

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (RNS) The 100 or so young couples, college students, middle-aged parents and grandmothers in headscarves that packed a movie theater could have been mistaken for an audience in Mumbai, Lahore or other South Asian city. They had come to see “My Name is Khan,” a new Bollywood film that has shattered box office records in India and is now making a respectable showing in the United States. The film features dramatic plot twists and sensitive social subjects, but throughout pounds home a tolerant message that the main character learned from his mother: There are two kinds of people in the world, the good guys and the bad guys. And until recently, Muslims — at least those depicted by Hollywood — have nearly always been the bad guys.

COMMENTARY: A `sincere, humble and brave’ apology

(RNS) Apart from the Dalai Lama — who reportedly had never heard of him until earlier this week — Tiger Woods is the probably the most famous Buddhist on the planet. But until Woods invoked his Buddhist identity during a televised mea culpa for cheating on his wife and a spectacular fall from grace, like most of his fans, I had no idea the golfer was a follower of the Eight Fold Path. “I was raised a Buddhist and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years,” Woods said. “Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and learn restraint.

When journalists attack

Every day, we ink-stained wretches shove our noses all into church’s business, reporting frequently on their failures, and occasionally on their successes. Is it only fair, then, when a church hires journalists to investigate a newspaper? The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz reported on Monday that the Church of Scientology has hired three prize-winning journalist to go sleuthing on the St. Petersburg Times after the paper published a scathing multi-part series on the religion’s leaders last summer. The Times, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Scientology in 1980, has long feuded with church leaders.

Wednesday’s roundup

A report issued Wednesday says the U.S. needs to pay greater attention to religion in foreign affairs. WaPo’s David Waters boils it down: American foreign policy is handicapped by a narrow, ill-informed and uncompromising Western secularism that feeds religious extremism, threatens traditional cultures and fails to encourage religious groups that promote peace and human rights, according to a two-year study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Speaking of, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has new leadership, while the ambassador-at-large position for international religious freedom remains vacant. The nation’s top Catholic bishop went to BYU to cement the growing bond between Catholics and Mormons over conservative social issues: “BYU freshman Katie Bates said she felt `kind of like the Catholic Church was hugging the Mormon Church.'” The lesbian-turned-evangelical mother who’s on the run in a nasty custody dispute now has a warrant for her arrest after she failed to make another court hearing in Vermont. In Saudi Arabia, women will now be required to show their faces in court to prove their identities; apparently there’s a problem of identity theft with women posing as false heirs in inheritance cases.

Cruise companies navigate choppy religious waters

(RNS) Before stepping aboard her first cruise back in December 2008, Pam Biedenbender and her husband attended Mass at a Catholic church in Miami; later, onboard the Carnival Valor, she learned she’d have to miss Christmas Mass because the ship had no priest. “When I booked the cruise, I specifically asked, and they said there is usually a priest on board at Christmas and Easter,” said Biedenbender, who regularly seeks dispensation from her priest when she’s going to miss Mass. She inquired about attending Mass in port at Belize on Christmas Day, but the ship’s crew discouraged her, citing safety reasons. Biedenbender said she enjoyed the cruise, but missing Mass on Christmas made her feel like she missed out on Christmas itself. “I plan around holy days now,” said Biedenbender, of Fredericksburg, Va.

Germany’s mega Passion play is back, and Jews are watching carefully

OBERAMMERGAU, Germany (RNS) With its focus on the last days of Jesus’ life, a Passion play should, by its nature, arouse passions. But here, the world’s most famous Passion play keeps stirring the wrong kind. As it has almost every 10 years since 1634, this Bavarian town is putting the final touches on the Oberammergau Passion Play, keeping up its end of a divine compact after residents survived the bubonic plague amidst the Thirty Years War. And, as has become almost routine in recent decades, plans for the play — particularly the choice of words in the script — are causing heartburn among some of the world’s Jewish leaders. “Passion plays, by their very nature, present serious problems,” says Rabbi James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser.

10 minutes with … Stephanie Sinclair

(RNS) This month’s National Geographic magazine cover story “The Polygamists” offers a rare look inside the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamous off-shoot of the mainstream Mormon Church. The story wouldn’t have been the same without the access that photographer Stephanie Sinclair was granted after federal raids on an FLDS compound in Texas in 2008. Sinclair talked about how she got involved with the project, the photography that stands out to her and gaining FLDS members’ trust. Answers have been edited for length and clarity. Q: What brought you to the project?

Arianna Does Religion

With Steve Waldman gone to the FCC and Sally Quinn trying to sort out her family wedding schedule, comes Huffington Post with a new religion section. Despite the central role religion plays in American life, all too
often, when talking about it, we end up talking at each other instead
of with each other….The conversation starts now.Mercy mercy.