COMMENTARY: Into the great hereafter

(RNS) In the hothouse world of a high school gymnasium, one basketball player in my class seemed to float through the air. He was tall, thin, elegant, with an imperturbable expression on his face. Game after game, in a city and state where basketball meant so much, a full house shouted his praise. Although I never knew him, I knew the game was winnable if he was on the floor. After graduation, our paths diverged — they had never really connected in the strange world of 1960s integration.

Two lawyers, two styles, one church

(RNS) To victims’ advocate Jeff Anderson, the Vatican is Nixon, the clergy sex abuse scandal is Watergate, and he’s the legal version of Woodward and Bernstein, gradually linking the cover-up to the highest levels of authority. For opposing counsel Jeffrey Lena, serving as the Vatican’s U.S. attorney is a lot like being a history professor: abuse lawsuits against his client present “teaching moments” that require a patient explanation of the intricacies of canon law and church structure to courtrooms, rather than classrooms. Lena, 51, is a bookish solo practitioner who answers his own phone and avoids cameras; Anderson, 62, courts publicity to expose predatory priests and their protectors, with a righteous anger honed over three decades of representing hundreds of victims in lawsuits against the church. “Our styles and strategies are diametrically opposed, legally and morally,” Anderson said. “I have an approach that’s emotional and intense, motivated by the pain and suffering of the victims and their families. His approach is intellectual and detached, and his clients are more interested in keeping things confidential and secret.”

What’s God trying to tell us with Eyjaffjallajokull?

(RNS) What do homosexuality, health care reform, and British advertising standards all have in common? They’re all things that have ticked God off, some religious leaders say, and he’s venting his frustration with the angry fires of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Moscow’s Interfax newswire reported that the Association of (Russian) Orthodox Experts blamed the April 14 eruption — whose gigantic cloud of ash grounded transatlantic flights for more than a week — on gay rights in Europe and Iceland’s tolerance of “neo-paganism.” Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, said God was angry over health care reform. San Antonio megachurch pastor John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, said God was unleashing his wrath on Britain for deciding that Israeli tourism ads actually featured parts of the disputed Palestinian territories, not Israel.

Tuesday’s roundup

President Obama, who is hosting a summit in Washington devoted to building economic ties with international Muslim entrepreneurs, announced a new exchange program with Muslim countries. The Council on American-Islamic Relations wants evangelist Franklin Graham booted from the National Day of Prayer event on Capitol Hill because he has called Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.” Graham, Billy’s outspoken son, was earlier dis-invited from the Pentagon’s prayer day shindig. Speaking of Congress, the House Chaplain just celebrated his tenth anniversary at the job. A video has emerged of the Underwear Bomber training with al-Qaida in Yemen.

Clerical Penance: A Modest Proposal

Fr. James Martin, S.J. has been been hither and yon urging that what’s been missing in the Catholic hierarchy’s response to the current abuse crisis has been penance, as in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As warrant for his position, he cites the pope’s recent suggestion that some penance might be in order at this time. But so far as Martin is concerned, what’s needed is not generalized penance for the entire Church, as called for by the bishops of England and Wales a few days ago. The laity should not do atonement for the sins of the fathers.

Faith leaders decry `anti-immigrant’ immigration law

(RNS) Religious leaders planned legal action and civil disobedience after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill into law Friday (April 23) they believe is “anti-immigrant” and will foster racial profiling. The National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders is developing a suit against the law that allows law enforcement agencies to detain people who cannot immediately prove their U.S. citizenship. “There is no fairness or respect for due process in the implementation of this law and we expect the courts to find it unconstitutional,” said the Rev. Miguel Rivera, chairman of the coalition and its legal defense fund. The Rev. Jim Wallis, who had joined other religious leaders in petitioning Brewer to veto the bill, said the law crosses both legal and moral lines. “This law will make it illegal to love your neighbor in Arizona, and will force us to disobey Jesus and his gospel,” the founder of the anti-poverty group Sojourners said of churches.

Brits apologize to pope for `foolish’ memo

LONDON (RNS) The British government was forced to publicly apologize to Pope Benedict XVI over a “foolish” internal memo that suggested, among other things, that the pope launch his own line of condoms during a September visit to Britain. The document, described as a product of a “blue skies thinking” session at the Foreign Office, suggested among other ideas that the pope might use the tour to launch a line of “Benedict” condoms, bless a gay marriage and sing a duet with Queen Elizabeth II. The band of government civil servants who authored the paper also suggested Benedict apologize for the 16th-century Spanish armada that fought the English navy, and that he reverse his ban on women priests. A red-faced Foreign Office told the Vatican over the weekend it was “deeply sorry” for what it described as “this foolish document.” The BBC reported that the paper was one of three “background documents” that resulted from “some blue skies creative thinking about how to make the (papal) visit a success.”

Pastor agrees not to rock the boat and stop preaching on ferry

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. (RNS) Technically, Michael Ihedioha still can hawk salvation aboard the Staten Island Ferry. But odds are that the preacher who scuffled with cops on the boat will remain mum — or greatly reduce the volume — during the 25-minute ride, after cutting a plea deal on April 21 to a misdemeanor obstruction charge. Ihedioha will be sentenced on June 18 to three years’ probation stemming from an Oct. 23 incident on a ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island. According to court records, Ihedioha, 47, a Nigerian native, was preaching around 12:45 a.m. with his arms outstretched, blocking an aisle.

Obama, Graham meet at evangelist’s home

(RNS) President Obama and ailing evangelist Billy Graham exchanged prayers during their first meeting Sunday (April 25) at Graham’s home in western North Carolina. Obama had traveled to nearby Asheville, N.C., and requested the visit — the first time a sitting president has visited Graham at his residence, said Graham’s longtime spokesman, A. Larry Ross. Graham, 91, issued a statement saying he was pleased with the visit and encouraging “Christians everywhere to pray for our president.” The White House described the meeting as one of conversation and “private prayer” and said Obama “is extraordinarily gratified that he took the time to meet with him.” During the 35-minute meeting, the men — joined by Graham’s son and fellow evangelist Franklin Graham — discussed their wives, golf and Chicago.

Welsh church, government at odds over graveyards

LONDON (RNS) The Anglican Church of Wales is facing off against government authorities over who is responsible for paying for the upkeep of the church’s diminishing number of graveyards. In a newly issued report, the Welsh church has warned that hundreds of its 1,053 burial grounds will be filled to capacity within the next 10 years and that outside financial help is needed to maintain the ones it has. But the Welsh Assembly Government, the province’s ruling body, says maintaining burial grounds is the church’s problem, and any alteration “would require a change in legislation.” The Welsh church wants local and regional governments to take on the work and expense of graveyard maintenance. While local authorities under existing legislation have the power to assist the Church of Wales, the Welsh Assembly says “there is no obligation upon them to do so.”

Outspoken cardinal has long history of making headlines

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos’ ability to make headlines landed him on many journalists’ short lists as a possible future pope — but lately, those same headlines also show why he was probably never a serious contender. The retired Colombian cardinal has become the most prominent lightning rod for controversy in the Catholic Church’s clerical sex abuse scandal since Cardinal Bernard F. Law was forced to resign as archbishop of Boston in 2002. On April 15, the website of a French Catholic magazine published a letter Castrillon wrote in 2001, praising a French bishop for refusing to hand over a pedophile priest to the police. At the time, Castrillon headed the Vatican office overseeing priests around the world. The Vatican’s response, in an environment where even implicit rebukes of senior churchmen are practically unheard of, was remarkable for both its swiftness and severity.

Thank God it’s Friday

Michael Jackson’s former rabbi (and the author of “Kosher Sex”) has a big agenda for his upcoming rope-line handshake with Pope Benedict XVI: pitching his plan for a jointly sponsored “global family dinner night.” Rabbi Smuley Boteach writes that the Catholic church, with its image suffering from the clerical sex abuse scandal, “must return to its previous posture as a champion of family and what better way than to mandate that all Catholic families worldwide do as Jesus did. Put the worldly stuff away on Friday nights and consecrate it as an evening of holiness and togetherness.”

Researchers probe whether ‘free will’ exists

ORLANDO, Fla. — Are people really responsible for all the things they do? Do they have what theologians call God-given free will to choose between right and wrong? Those questions are at the heart of a four-year research project underway at Florida State University that aims to determine whether, and how, free will exists. Funded by a $4.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the project will gather together scientists, philosophers and theologians around the question of what factors — free will, genetics, environment, God or something else — lead us to do all the things we do.

Monday’s roundup

President Obama paid a call on ailing evangelist Billy Graham on Sunday — son Franklin Graham described the visit as “very friendly, very cordial.” In a statement marking the 1915 slaughter of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks, Obama again refuses to use the word “genocide.” Arizona’s harsh new immigration law is creating political headaches for Obama; the Rev. Al Sharpton compares the bill to apartheid and Nazi Germany. The NYT’s Ross Douthat takes a dim view after South Park’s “knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force” and refuses to include an image of the Prophet Muhammad. Obama will host an entrepreneurship summit for Muslim leaders in DC today.

Obama, Graham: mountaintop meeting

While he was in the neighborhood, President Obama met with evangelist Billy Graham Sunday, marking the first time a sitting president has met in Graham’s North Carolina home, said A. Larry Ross, spokesman for the evangelist. “I am pleased to have had President Obama in my home this afternoon,” Graham said in a statement issued Sunday. “He requested a meeting since he was spending the weekend nearby in Asheville. My son Franklin and I enjoyed a brief visit with the president, followed by a time of prayer together.” The evangelist added that he encourages “Christians everywhere to pray for our president.” The White House issued a brief statement about the meeting in the mountains of western North Carolina.