In Cash-Strapped Italy, Vatican Pushed to Pay More Taxes

Time has just published my piece about the Italian government’s effort to clarify the Catholic Church’s tax status.

Much of the coverage of a controversial new law winding its way through the Italian Parliament has portrayed the measure as a Nixon-to-China moment. It takes somebody like Prime Minister Mario Monti, the thinking goes, who is not only a practicing Catholic but also a graduate of a Jesuit school, to take on the Catholic Church in Italy and make it pay taxes on its commercial property.

In truth, however, the proposed law would do very little to change the existing legal situation. While the current legislation is muddled in many ways, one thing is clear: religious organizations have been required to pay taxes on property used for commercial purposes since at least 2005, when the country’s high court issued a ruling to that effect. The problem is that with the law currently on the books, it’s not always clear what is and what isn’t a commercial property. Monti’s proposal doesn’t upend the status quo — it merely reinforces it, cleaning up the legislative language and eliminating gray areas. “It’s not a new law,” says Marco Tarquinio, the editor of Avvenire, a daily newspaper owned by the Catholics Bishop’s Conference. “It’s a clarification of law that already existed.”

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Catholic Tastes: The Vatican Enters the World of Contemporary Art

Time has just published my story on the Vatican’s moves into contemporary art.

It wasn’t the type of gift you would normally think of for an 84-year-old Pope best known for conservative theology and critiques of secular culture. And indeed, as Benedict XVI moved through the exhibition of contemporary art that had been installed in his honor — one work for each of the 60 years he has been a priest — there were times when he looked more than a little bemused: pausing, say, in front of a flat blue canvas broken by a raised geometric pattern, or staring up at a metal etching of a face with a thin tree branch sprouting from between its eyes.

And yet, the Pope was clearly pleased with the project — the first incarnation of an effort he has championed to reconnect the Catholic Church with the world of art. It was a realm the Vatican once dominated, but one in which it has had little presence for more than a century. “Make the truth shine in your works — never separate artistic creation from truth and charity,” Benedict urged the assembled artists, who had joined him at the show’s opening in Rome in early July. They ranged from Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui to American painter Max Cole.

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Scandal and the Vatican: Let’s Not Talk About Kansas City

Time has published my story on the Vatican’s non-response to the Kansas City sex scandal:

The news that an American bishop had been charged with failing to report child abuse should have been colossal news in the Vatican. But the response has been as if the case is far away and far removed from the Holy See — and the papacy that is so quick to come down on questions of celibacy, women priests and the rights of gay Catholics appears to regard the American scandal, involving a priest and what seems to be child pornography, as a matter for local jurisprudence.

On Friday, prosecutors in Kansas City, Mo., secured an indictment from a grand jury that alleges Bishop Robert Finn neglected to inform the police for months after discovering “hundreds of disturbing images of children” on a priest’s laptop in December 2010, including photographs focused on the crotch, up-skirt pictures and at least one image of a child’s naked vagina. The offending priest — Shawn Ratigan — was relieved of his position as a church pastor and transferred to a convent, but neither the police, his parishioners nor parents of students at a nearby Catholic school were informed of the pictures until May 2011. In the interim, Ratigan continued to attend events involving children, including birthday parties and a first communion, and allegedly attempted to take lewd pictures of a 12-year-old girl. Finn and Ratigan have both pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

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Vatican Gets Tough on Child Abuse, but Not Tough Enough

My story on the Vatican’s latest efforts to fight child abuse is up at Time.

When the Vatican issued a letter on Monday ordering bishops across the world to draw up tough guidelines for dealing with priests who rape or molest children, it addressed only half the scandal that has been rocking the Catholic Church.

To be sure, when it comes to the abusive clerics, the Vatican’s new edict takes a firm stand, obliging local bishops to cooperate with local law enforcement in reporting sex crimes and recommending that policies be put in place to exclude accused priests from public ministry if they pose a continued danger to minors or could be a “cause of scandal for the community.”

But what Monday’s letter fails to do is put in place any sanctions on the bishops who oversee those clerics, should they fail to follow through with the recommendations. Child abuse is by no means unique to the Catholic Church. What sets the scandal apart is the sustained and widespread effort by church authorities to cover up for and protect the accused. And, in this regard, the new guidelines change little. “No threat of penalty will deter a child molester from committing a child sex crime,” says David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which criticized the proposal as too lax. “But penalties can deter bishops from ignoring or concealing those crimes.”

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Blessed, John Paul II Moves Closer to Sainthood

I was up early enough Sunday morning to meet the Saturday night crowds going home on my way to cover the beatification of John Paul II for Time.

Even before the sun had risen, the crowd attending the beatification of Pope John Paul II had overfilled the square around the St. Peter’s basilica. By the time dawn broke, the faithful had spilled down the road towards the Tiber and into the side streets around the Vatican, where the ceremony — the first major milestone towards sainthood — was set to take place.

Many had spent the night, in tents or on blankets spread over the cobblestones. More than a million had risen early Sunday morning in order to join in the veneration of a larger-than-life Polish pope, who many felt had personally touched their lives. “I felt, when he was alive, that if I met him on the street, he would know my name,” said Danuta Kowalik, 36, a teacher who had driven from Poland for the occasion.

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Pope John Paul’s Path to Sainthood: A Rush to Judgment?

Time has just published my piece on how victims of sexual abuse are criticizing the beatification of John Paul II.

When hundreds of thousands of Catholics gather in Rome Sunday for the beatification of Pope John Paul II, not everyone will be celebrating. For the victims of sexual abuse by predatory priests, the ceremony — a major step towards sainthood — is too much too soon for a Pontiff they say failed to adequately confront the crimes committed by members of his church. “It’s the rubbing of salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of thousands of victims,” says David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “The signal that his beatification basically sends to church employees across the globe is that no matter how many children are harmed because of your inaction, your clerical career won’t suffer.”

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The Father, The Sun, and the Holy Spirit

The Atlantic has just published my piece on Pope Benedict’s plans to green the Vatican.

To say I was standing in the shadow of St. Peter’s would be to some extent getting things backward. To be sure, from my vantage on the curved roof of the pope’s audience hall in Vatican City, the bronze dome of the basilica next door loomed large. But the main attraction for me lay in the full glare of the sun: 2,400 solar panels, curled over the sweep of the hall’s roof, which were busy transmuting photons into electrons—generating electricity and preventing, according to the Vatican, some 230 tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere this year.

Yet if the high-tech power plant seemed anachronistic atop an institution better known for swinging censers and festooned Swiss guards, its importance was clear: for the Vatican, the solar panels signify a path forward, silicon monocrystals on which the heir to Saint Peter could continue to build his Church.


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Why the Pope’s Rejection of Jewish Blame Matters

My piece on Pope Benedict’s statement that Jews are not responsible for the death of Christ has just been published by Time.

When Pope Benedict XVI writes that the Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus, what’s important is less the passage itself than the man who set it down on paper.

By tackling the subject in a book to be published March 10, Benedict, who has struggled in his relations with the Jewish community, doesn’t so much state something new — the affirmation that the Jewish people as a whole were not responsible for the crucifixion is an old one, uncontroversial in the modern Catholic Church — as lend the idea the ecclesiastical equivalent of a celebrity endorsement. “The significance is in the author,” says Joseph Sievers, professor of Jewish history at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. “He brings together an awareness of the issues in the texts themselves with the history of how these texts have been interpreted through the last 2,000 years.”

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Catholic AIDS Workers Debate Pope’s Condom Remarks

Time has just published my piece on the Pope’s comments about AIDS and condoms.

Almost a week after news emerged that the Pope had told an interviewer that there are some situations when using a condom could be morally justified in the fight against AIDS, people on both sides of the issue are still debating what the implications of his comment will be. “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be … a first assumption of responsibility on the way toward discovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants,” Benedict XVI was quoted as telling the German journalist Peter Seewald during a series of interviews in July.

The Pope could not have been unaware of the impact his words would have. In March 2009, he ignited a firestorm of controversy when, on a trip to Africa, he told journalists that the distribution of condoms increased the problem of AIDS. Intended or not, the Pope’s recent statement has reignited a hotly contested debate in the Vatican and sent ripples through the Catholic community, particularly in areas hard-hit by the AIDS virus. “It’s a big deal,” says Günther Simmermacher, editor of the Southern Cross, a weekly Catholic newspaper in South Africa. “If the Pope is talking about it, then the debate has been opened.”

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Money-Laundering Probe Sparks Another Vatican Scandal

My piece on the banking scandal at the Vatican has been published by Time.

When news first broke on Tuesday that Italian prosecutors were investigating the Vatican Bank for violations of anti-money-laundering regulations, the story seemed to be that the bank had returned to its old ways. Reports in the press referenced the Vatican’s connection to a 1980s financial scandal in which Italy’s second largest bank, Banco Ambrosiano, went spectacularly bankrupt, collapsing under $1.3 billion of debt amid allegations of involvement by the Mafia and Masonic lodges. “The Vatican Bank has a very negative image,” says Philip Willan, author of The Last Supper, a book about the death of the Banco Ambrosiano’s chairman, who was found hanging under a London bridge, his pockets stuffed with rocks and thousands of dollars in cash. “Every time there’s a whiff of scandal, all the papers dig out their files.”

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