Vatican Fires Back at Critics

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After he bravely battled illness at the end of his life — and now as he heads toward sainthood in the after-life — it's easy to forget that Pope John Paul II was widely and sometimes loudly criticized earlier in his pontificate. The jabs from inside and outside the Catholic Church often related to his steadfast opposition to abortion rights, refusal to sanction condom distribution in AIDS-plagued Africa and other stands linked to his traditionalist view of doctrine.

In the wake of John Paul’s poignant twilight, his successor and friend Pope Benedict XVI was largely granted a honeymoon from public criticism in the first year of his papacy. That of course ended abruptly with reaction from Muslims and non-Muslims alike to his provocative September speech in Germany about faith and reason, though even that died down with his well-received visit to Turkey in November. But over the past few months back in Rome, there has been a steady flow of criticism of the now 80-year-old pontiff, much of which also relates to his rigid views on doctrine, such as his speaking out against an Italian Parliament bill to allow civil unions for gay couples. But perhaps the most visceral criticism came when the Church denied Catholic funeral rites to an Italian victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease, named Piergiorgio Welby, who had campaigned for euthanasia before dying when a doctor unplugged his respirator.

That very incident is at the center of the latest controversy, after an Italian comedian used an annual city concert in Rome to blast the Pope. Andrea Rivera, one of the MC’s of the concert, said to some 700,000 youths and a national television audience: "I can't stand the fact that the Vatican refused a funeral for Welby but that wasn't the case for [Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet or [Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco." He also tried this one-liner: "The Pope says he doesn't believe in evolution. I agree, in fact the Church has never evolved.”

The Vatican wasn’t laughing, and on Tuesday its official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano went further, lashing out at the remarks as a “vile attack” and “terrorism.” "It's terrorism to stoke blind and irrational rage against someone who always speaks in the name of love,” the paper wrote.

Rivera’s remarks may not have belonged at this feel-good concert, and it’s not surprising that Osservatore rushed to the Pope’s defense. But clearly, at a time when there is all too much actual terrorism in the world, the newspaper overreached with its analogy. Even Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi seemed to recognize Osservatore’s excess when he subsequently downplayed Rivera’s comments as simply “foolish”.

Still, if the Vatican’s collective nerves are a bit frayed these days, it’s not hard to understand why. The recently chosen President of the Italian Bishops Conference, Angelo Bagnasco, has been repeatedly targeted with graffiti-scrawled threats in his hometown of Genoa and elsewhere. On Saturday, Bagnasco received an envelope containing bullets.

It is likely that both the Pope and Bagnasco will continue to face criticism in Italy, where the Church-State rapport is a constant source of conflict. At least for Benedict, there is a four-day trip to Brazil beginning May 9, which might be a nice break from the rising tension at home. Naturally, though, there’s no guarantee that going abroad will be a honeymoon.