TIME Religion

United Church of Christ Sues North Carolina to Allow Gay Marriage

It's the first time for a national Christian denomination to sue in favor of same-sex marriage, citing restricted freedom of religion. Currently ministers who marry couples without a marriage license can face misdemeanor charges punishable by up to 120 days in jail

When Kathleen Smith and Lisa Cloninger got engaged last October, they hoped to get married at Holy Covenant United Church of Christ. It was after all, their religious community and the church that had been their home for their 13-year relationship. But there was a problem: Holy Covenant is in Charlotte, North Carolina, a state that does not allow ministers to perform legal same-sex marriages. Ministers who do marry a couple that has not yet obtained a marriage license can face misdemeanor charges punishable by up to 120 days in jail.

On Monday morning, Holy Covenant’s denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC), along with ministers of other Charlotte area congregations including a rabbi, filed a lawsuit challenging state marriage laws for restricting ministers’ free exercise of religion. The UCC is also seeking preliminary injunction that would allow ministers to choose whether to perform a religious marriage. The case appears to be the first time a national Christian denomination has challenged a state’s marriage laws.

The lawsuit has been in the works since 2012, when North Carolina voters approved Amendment One, a constitutional ban on gay marriage, with 61% of the vote. State laws prevent ministers from performing weddings if the couple does not already have a marriage license, and so religious wedding ceremonies are at odds with the law even if ministers are not sanctioning civil marriages.

Earlier this spring, the UCC, the lead plaintiff, reached out to local congregations, including Holy Covenant, to ask pastors if any church members might be candidates to join the suit. Three other couples from other churches have joined the Smith-Cloningers, and the group is suing the state’s attorney general Roy Cooper as well as other county district attorneys and registers of deeds.

The effort is part of the UCC’s long history of social justice advocacy. The mainline Protestant denomination—President Barack Obama’s own church denomination in Chicago—has more than one million members and 5,100 congregations nationwide, including 150 churches in North Carolina, and the UCC general synod passed a resolution supporting marriage equality in 2005. “For 40 years or more we have been seeking justice and equality for gay and lesbian people,” explains Geoffrey Black, president and general minister of the United Church of Christ. “This is the moment when we have an opportunity to seek justice and equality for gay and lesbian people, and so we are taking that matter very seriously.”

Smith and Cloninger are planning to have their religious ceremony at Holy Covenant in October no matter the outcome of the case. “We’ve bought dresses, we’ve sent save the date cards, we’ve booked a reception hall,” says Smith, who along with Cloninger is a North Carolina native. “Nothing could make us happier than if we were able to have both a religious and legal ceremony with everyone that we love around us and our pastor legally able to officiate that ceremony.”

Nancy Allison, the pastor of Holy Covenant and an individual plaintiff in the case, is willing to face any repercussions that may come. “I can’t imagine the law enforcement of North Carolina coming after a clergy person for doing their job, but if I were to be arrested for this, I would gladly face those arrest charges,” Allison explains. “I can do no other than move forward under my convictions.”

TIME Religion

Faith for Hillary Website Launches

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Speaks At The Marketo Marketing Nation Summit 2014
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles during a keynote session at the The Marketo Marketing Nation Summit 2014 in San Francisco, April 8, 2014. David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The group behind the website that went live on Friday morning, Faith for Hillary, is in the process of filing as a PAC, marking a strong push by Hillary Clinton's religious supporters ahead of her potential presidential bid in 2016

The Faith for Hillary website went live on Friday morning, Faith Voters for Hillary, and the group behind it has begun the process of filing as a PAC. Faith for Hillary began informally about a year ago as a network for people of faith who support Hillary Clinton, and it is co-led by Burns Strider, vice president of the Democratic super-PAC American Bridge and senior advisor of its Correct the Record project, and Rick Hendrix, a Nashville gospel and country music promoter who also supported Clinton in the 2008 cycle. Faith for Hillary, Strider says, is not connected with either Ready for Hillary or American Bridge.

The group’s social accounts have been growing slowly but steadily over the past year: @Faith4Hillary now has 34,000 Twitter followers and 40,000 likes on Facebook. Strider, a Baptist, and Hendrix, a Pentecostal turned non-denominational Christian, share the outreach responsibilities. “As she makes up her mind, we just want to provide the space,” explains Strider. “It is not necessarily encouraging or saying, You’ve got to run, but it is saying, We are here, we are organizing, and we are really ready to support if you do get into this but if not we are going to support you regardless because of the mission you have to play out, whatever position you choose to do.” He adds: “Obviously, I hope she runs.”

Faith for Hillary has also started hosting small breakfasts for faith leaders. The first one took place in Little Rock, Ark. on March 26, and about 15 local clergy and civic leaders came, mostly Baptists and Methodists. Most attendees were new supporters, says Strider, but some of her 2008 supporters joined as well. A second breakfast is planned for next Friday in Columbia, South Carolina.

The breakfasts also serve to drum up support for Democratic candidates in key 2014 races. Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor is running for re-election in Arkansas against Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, who has had support from the Tea Party. Democratic state senator Vincent Sheehen is running for governor of South Carolina against incumbent Republican Nikki Haley. Other breakfasts are in the works, but none are on the calendar yet. “The breakfasts that we have will be places where we can also help turnout voters and do some organizing around in 2014,” Strider notes.

Hillary Clinton herself, who has no affiliation with Faith for Hillary, will give the keynote address to the United Methodist Women Assembly in Louisville on Saturday. A lifelong Methodist, Clinton addressed the United Methodist City Society in November for the group’s 175th anniversary, and she praised the Methodist women for their early social work in the infamous Five Points New York slum.

TIME

‘Jesus Wife’ Fragment Holds Questions for Christians

Jesus' Wife, Papyrus
This Sept. 5, 2012 photo released by Harvard University shows a fourth century fragment of papyrus that divinity professor Karen L. King says is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife. Karen L. King—Harvard University/AP

Twelve centuries ago, an Egyptian community thought Jesus had a wife. Our reaction says as much about modern faith as any ancient one

Scholars at the Harvard Theological Review announced Thursday that they see no evidence of forgery in an ancient text mentioning “Jesus’ wife.” The fragment of parchment made waves 18 months ago when scholars first made its discovery public. But before jumping to any conclusions, here’s what’s most important to keep in mind.

Carbon dating of the “Jesus Wife” fragment dates the text to the 8th century in Egypt. That is some five hundred years after the official Biblical text was already agreed upon, even by the latest dating estimates. The point of the fragment has never been to prove that Jesus was or wasn’t married—the gospels themselves, written within a hundred or so years of Jesus’ death, are silent on that point.

Today it is easy to imagine that the Bible has always been one cohesive book. But it actually took centuries for early church leaders and theologians to agree on what letters, gospels, and writings counted as “canonical,” allowed to be counted as the official Word of God. Hundreds of different gospel writers and authors wrote hundreds of texts about God and Jesus. Today we have fragments upon fragments of these documents, some are quite long, some are no more than a word, or a half a word.

While not all of them were accepted as Scripture, they do tell us something about how communities worshiped and what was important to them. So, if the parchment fragment is indeed authentic, it tells us that there was at least one community of believers that imagined that Jesus did have a wife, and it meant enough to how they lived their spiritual lives that they recorded it in a parchment. Without more information, we are left to imagine what that meant for how they allowed women to work in churches or what role they gave women in society.

It also tells us something about our own contemporary views about God. We are fascinated with the idea that maybe, a God made human could have married. We wonder what implications that has for how we should view women, especially in a time when Pope Francis seems to be nudging the door open for women in the Catholic Church.

And, one thing is for certain: everyone wishes the fragment could have been bigger.

TIME Newsmaker Interview

Jimmy Carter Talks About Iran, Campus Rape, Jesus Christ and the Paintings of W.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter attends an interview with Reuters in Cairo on Jan. 12, 2012.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter attends an interview with Reuters in Cairo on Jan. 12, 2012. Amr Dalsh—Reuters

The former President speaks openly on a range of topics, from his desire to meet Pope Francis and the U.S.'s role as the world's largest warmonger to Kerry's "notable" efforts to secure Middle East peace and Bush's "interesting" paintings

Former President Jimmy Carter, a hobbyist painter for more than two decades, counts himself a fan of George W. Bush’s art. “He does very interesting work,” Carter told TIME in an interview by phone on Wednesday. “I have been very interested and intrigued and congratulatory toward President Bush and his paintings.”

Just don’t expect a joint Carter-Bush gallery showing anytime soon. “Oh, I doubt that,” the 39th President of the United States says, when asked about the possibility. The truth is, Carter remains as outspoken as he has ever been, even as Bush has largely receded from any public role in the policy issues of the day. And on matters of politics and policy, the two men still remain far apart.

After speaking Tuesday night at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Carter spoke with TIME by phone about his recent efforts, including his correspondence with Pope Francis and Secretary of State John Kerry, the shortcomings of Hillary Clinton’s time in office and his recent book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power.

He also spoke about how Obama should handle Russian President Vladimir Putin and criticized the current American President for not taking a more hands-on role in working toward Middle East peace in the first term. “I know from experience that the best way to have the United States be a mediator is for the President himself to be deeply involved,” he said. “In this occasion, when Secretary Clinton was Secretary of State, she took very little action to bring about peace.”

The following interview has been edited for length.

You say in A Call to Action that Jesus Christ was the greatest liberator of women in his culture. Why was that?

He set an example that should be emulated down to the ages, and one of the examples that he set invariably in every word and deed of his life was to emphasize the equality of women and even to exalt women well beyond any status they had enjoyed in any previous decades or centuries or even since then. But unfortunately there have been interpretations of what Jesus did by very wonderful theologians that wrote individual letters to individual churches all across Asia minor and so forth, that can be misinterpreted and to prove by male religious leaders that women should not be equal in the eyes of God.

You wrote a letter to Pope Francis urging the Catholic Church to do more to condemn things like genital mutilation and child marriage. What do you hope the Pope can do? What was his response?

His letter was very gracious to me, his response. He said that he thought that the status of women and the role of women in the Catholic Church in the future should be improved or enhanced. I was very pleased to get that response. I noticed that now, about 10 days ago, Pope Francis appointed an eight-person committee to deal with the problem of priests abusing children. Half of the committee members were women, one of whom had been abused as a girl by a priest.

Will you get to meet Pope Francis anytime soon?

I hope so, if he comes to the United States. I’d like very much to meet him. If I go to Italy, I will certainly request to meet with Pope Francis, whom I admire very much.

How can colleges and collegiate athletic programs more effectively address the issue of rape on campus?

There’s a common perception among college administrators that they should conceal the high level of sexual assaults that take place on their campuses because it would bring discredit to the university, bring them a bad name if it was publicized. So they counsel girls who are raped or sexually abused not to make an issue of it legally, not to prosecute the boys who are the rapists. What this does is give the young men, who are inclined to be rapists, the conviction which is accurate that they can do it with impunity. The Justice Department of the United States believes that, as reported, half the rapes on college campuses are caused by serial rapists just a few male students who are rapists because they know they can get away with it on the campus. Only 1 out of 25 sexual-assault cases on campus are ever reported to the authorities.

What could the U.S. do better to address human trafficking?

What we’ve done so far is a tiny step. Congress mandated, or required, that the U.S. State Department give an annual report on global human trafficking or slavery. It is much greater now than it ever was during the 19th century when black people were brought out of Africa to the New World. It amounts to about $32 billion a year. The United States is heavily involved in human slavery. The officials particularly at the local level throughout America look the other way for prostitution. The policemen are either bribed or they are given free sexual favors or they get orders from their chief of police that come from the mayor and city council, “Oh, let’s not rock the boat.” So prostitution thrives in the United States. We focus in this country on punishing the girls. For every brothel owner or pimp or male customer, there are 50 girls who are arrested for being prostitutes. Other countries have tried the other way around, and it works beautifully. Sweden is the No. 1 example that other countries are now emulating, where they bring the charges against the brothel owners and the pimps and the male customers, and they do not prosecute the girls, who quite often are brought into that trade involuntarily. It works quite well, by the way.

Is that an example the U.S. should follow?

I think so, yes. I would like to see our country follow it, but so far there is not any question about it. Everybody just sits back and says this is the way it is to be. But it you arrest two or three prominent men in a community, in Atlanta, New York or wherever, the prostitution would drop off immediately and you would remove almost completely the involuntary sale of prostitutes against their will in those communities.

You said last week that “the U.S. is the No. 1 warmonger on earth” —

Yes, it is. It has been. You can look at the record: ever since the United Nations was formed after the Second World War, the United States has almost constantly been at war somewhere. There are about 30 countries where we have initiated armed conflict.

Do you feel that Iran and the U.S. can be friends and allies again, like they were before the 1979 revolution?

Well, even after the ’79 revolution, that’s what people forget. After the Shah was overthrown and the Ayatullah Khamenei established his revolution, I immediately recognized that government, and I sent diplomats over — those were the ones taken by the Iranian militants — so yes, I think we should and we ought to. If we can’t have full diplomatic relations, we can certainly work out an agreement whereby we can avoid armed conflict.

What’s your take on Secretary Kerry’s efforts so far in the Middle East?

I think they are notable, and I have a great admiration for him. I stay in touch with him fairly often by email. I send him messages and tell him what my thoughts might be, and he has responded very graciously. He has had a very difficult time operating pretty much on his own. I know from experience that the best way to have the United States be a mediator is for the President himself to be deeply involved. In this occasion, when Secretary Clinton was Secretary of State, she took very little action to bring about peace. It was only John Kerry’s coming into office that reinitiated all these very important and crucial issues.

Can you share some of the advice you’ve given him?

I don’t want to reveal what messages I’ve sent to Secretary Kerry. But I’ve urged him as he formulates the framework not to deviate from long-standing international law that has always been observed by the United States and by all the Europeans and by the Israelis and the Arab countries, and I think to reverse all those basic United Nations that everyone has agreed to establish would be a step backward.

How would you deal with a Vladimir Putin?

Well, I had the same thing happen to me when I was President. On Christmas weekend of 1979, [Leonid] Brezhnev ordered Soviet troops to invade Afghanistan. I took action there just like the United States is doing now after Russia has taken over Crimea. I couldn’t undo what was already done. But I said to Brezhnev, as stern as possible measures, I withdrew my adviser, I broke diplomat relations with the Soviet Union, I formulated a boycott of a shipping grain and so forth, a trade boycott, and I notified Brezhnev publicly that if he went any further with military action, that we would respond militarily, and that I wouldn’t withhold any weapons that we had at our disposal. It was a very stern and very heartfelt and sincere warning, which I would have carried out. Of course, it never went any further. We also, secretly, gave weapons to the freedom fighters in Afghanistan so they could prevent the invading forces from taking over Afghanistan, and that effort was successful.

What’s your No. 1 tip for a woman seeking to get a raise?

The No. 1 thing she can do is insist, even in court, that the salaries paid by employers are made public. So if a woman is working side by same with a man, equal hours and equal levels of responsibility, that she will know and that everyone in the company will know, that she is being paid 23% less, that’s the average for the United States. I believe that we also need to be sure that our government takes action, as other countries in Europe have done to prescribe that a certain percentage of women be allowed to work on corporate boards. Norway, Sweden and others do that; it has worked fairly well.

TIME Foreign Policy

USAID Using Technology to Fight Poverty

The USAID has plans to end extreme poverty by 2030, and it wants to use technology and science to make it happen

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will announce Thursday a new high-tech program to fight poverty across the globe.

The program, called the U.S. Global Development Lab, is a partnership between USAID and 31 universities, corporations and foundations that will support and develop solutions to global problems using science and technology. Its goal is to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030.

For USAID administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, the project has been a long time coming. Since taking the helm at USAID—and before, when he served as undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture—Shah has worked to develop solutions to solve the world’s problems through science, often alongside Clinton.

Shah was at the USDA finding ways to improve agriculture through science while Secretary Clinton was constructing a global food initiative. Shah says he proposed marrying the efforts to take a meaningful jab at ending world hunger.

“I said, look, if we could get and invent new seeds, new mobile technology and open new data centers to help farmers connect their crop prices and understand weather variability we can do something transformational against hunger,” says Shah. “And not just reach a small percentage of the people that are hungry with food.”

By using a strategy based in science and technology to approach the myriad issues faced by poor communities across the globe, Shah says America can lead the effort to end poverty. Any change, however, won’t happen overnight. The USAID has spent the past four years cutting programs and reallocating funds so the Lab would have the resources necessary to launch. In 2008, the USAID spent only $127 million on scientific developments. In 2013, they spent closer to $800 million. They’re expecting as much as $30 billion in individual investment over the course of the project with the help of their partners, including The University of California at Berkeley, Coca-Cola, and the Gates Foundation.

Those partners are developing products that marry cost-effective strategies with science and technology, often creating simple strategies to tackle problems ranging from hunger to disease to literacy in the process. A group of Stanford University graduates are shopping a low-cost, environmentally friendly home lighting product that set out to reach 22 million people in Africa who currently rely on kerosene lamps to light their homes at night. USAID partners at Berkeley created a mobile application that can detect water borne diseases using an iPhone camera and parts built from a 3-D printer. And by working together, USAID hopes the solutions will reach a higher number of people at a faster pace.

“We see this as a transformation in how you do development,” said Lona Stoll of USAID. “By tapping into things that really make America what it is, which is our entrepreneurial spirit, our scientific expertise, and our real commitment to help people, you have a real ability to accelerate our impact.”

TIME Newsmaker Interview

Interview: Rick Santorum Eyes 2016

Rick Santorum takes the stage to speak during day two of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.
Rick Santorum takes the stage to speak during day two of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., March 7, 2014. Lexey Swall—GRAIN for TIME

In an interview with TIME, the former Pennsylvania senator who finished second to Romney in 2012 says he's sure he would have defeated Obama had he won the GOP nomination. He also previews some of the themes he might emphasize should he run for president in 2016

Two years after finishing second to Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican presidential primary, Rick Santorum sounds like he’s ready to try again.

In a wide-ranging interview with TIME on Thursday, the former Pennsylvania senator said he was sure he would have defeated Barack Obama had he won the Republican nomination, panned the President’s foreign policy (“what he’s done is start a nuclear arms race”) and offered a preview of a potential 2016 message that might help Republicans connect with “the average guy.”

Santorum, a longtime social-issues warrior who won 11 primary and caucus states two years ago, said he won’t have to talk as much about them if he runs again, because his conservative positions are well known to the GOP’s base. “This time around I don’t have to go out and prove by bona fides on being a conservative,” he says. “I can focus in on how I differentiate myself from the rest of the field and how I think we can develop a winning message for the fall.”

Even Santorum’s current gig as CEO of the Christian movie company Echolight Studios serves, in some ways, as preparation for another try at the GOP nomination. “I’m a storyteller. I see this in some respects as refining my craft,” he says. “Reagan did it the other way, right?”

Below are excerpts of the conversation, condensed and edited for clarity:

Have you gotten the itch to get back into politics?

Absolutely. I can’t sit here and watch our country decline in stature as dramatically as it has in the last five years and not be concerned about the future of America. I just look at the overall culture of the country and see a lot of people who are fearful, don’t believe that good times are coming, feel like there are people out there left behind. That’s a very dangerous thing for a democracy.

With regard to Crimea, what would you do differently than Obama?

It’s really important to understand this situation didn’t happen overnight. This was five years in the making. Year one, we pull our missile defense system out of Poland and the Czech Republic. So we send a signal: we’re going to reset with Russia, and Putin is going to work with us. What do we get for that? Virtually nothing.

So you go through a whole variety of other things—from what we did in Iran during the revolution, which was nothing; turning our back on Mubarak; what we did in Syria. I would not have drawn a red line on chemical weapons. I thought it was a mistake to do it. But he did. And he didn’t follow through. He punted to Putin. What we’ve seen over time is the President serially deferring, backing away from red lines or lines in the sand, saying that the US needs not to be involved in all these things. You send a signal.

This president has singlehandedly elevated Vladimir Putin from a babysitter over a bunch of oligarchs to a world leader who’s now grabbing territory with no consequence. What can you do now given this? Well, you can try to repair an image, to show you mean what you say and you will stand by the countries that we have promised to stand by. We have not done so in Ukraine. So now what do you think if you’re Lithuania, Estonia, Poland? What do you think if you’re Georgia? You think the U.S.’s commitments aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. And as a result of that, you start having to make deals with the devil. And then things really get out of hand.

Here’s a president whose main goal is stopping nuclear proliferation, to get a deal with the Russians, which was a bad deal that gave the Russians a decided edge in nuclear weapons – that was his big thing, START II. And what he’s done is start a nuclear arms race because the U.S. is not standing by its commitments.

It’s not only Barack Obama who has been advocating a more cautious foreign policy. It’s also Republicans.

Agreed. You’ve seen me out there taking on the Paul faction. I did during the campaign. I took on Ron Paul at debate after debate on Iran, on Pakistan. I see the Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party for what it is: allied with Barack Obama’s foreign policy. I think that’s a very serious threat to our own security.

How do you convince the young voters this faction is reaching out to that this is the wrong course?

What we have to do is have the people who believe in the conservative message go out and articulate a positive vision for the country based on those principles. You can deliver a positive message for the country on national security without saying we need to be in a war in every country. Which of course we can’t do, and we wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean we need to disengage. There’s a cost to disengagement.

There was a lot of soul-searching within the party after Romney lost. What’s the best thing the GOP has done since, and what has been the worst?

In both cases, Obamacare. The objective of focusing on Obamacare is the right thing; the tactics [that led to the shutdown] were not well thought-out. And the problem is it created a division within the Republican Party that doesn’t do us any good. It created a black hole right before their black hole, which was the implementation of Obamacare. Why would you create that moment right before it becomes apparent to the American public that you were right?

Do you think you would have beaten Obama?

Without a doubt.

Why?

Because I would have been able to attract the voters in the states that mattered. Romney would probably do better than me in New Jersey and California and New York. But I’d do better in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia—in the states that were going to decide the election. Look at how we did in Ohio in the primary. We got outspent by huge amounts. I didn’t run a single ad in the Cleveland market, and we still almost beat him in Ohio.

If you ran again in two years, how would you do things differently?

I’d raise a lot more money. We’d have to have a stronger team, and a stronger fundraising base. [In 2012,] I had to establish myself in the conservative world as sort of the authentic conservative across the board, including moral and cultural issues. A lot of people didn’t know that much about me and my positions on those issues. So I had to, on occasion, talk about it. And of course any time I did, there’s Santorum out there talking about social issues.

By the time it got down to me and Romney, I talked mostly about Obamacare on the campaign trail. But I was able to talk more about the blue-collar stuff, energy and manufacturing. Things like that really started to create some momentum for us. But by then, I was the social conservative candidate, the alternative to Romney. And what I said and the policies that I put forward, they just didn’t get any coverage. This time around I don’t have to go out and prove by bona fides on being a conservative. I can focus in on how I differentiate myself from the rest of the field and how I think we can develop a winning message for the fall.

What’s your sense of the 2016 field?

I’m the guy that sat there last time and watched seven people go to the top of the pack and fall.

There might be twelve this time.

You know what, they can get to the top of the pack and fall too. One of the things I know is that when I got to the top of the pack I didn’t fall. I ran out of money, and I ran out of time. And the forces were against me. It’s tough running against City Hall.

The amazing thing, here we are looking at 2016, and many of the national polls don’t even put my name on the list. They review the candidates, and I’m not included on the list of people who they look at, which I sort of get a kick out of. It’s sort of been my strength over the course of my political career that I’m always underestimated. Always. The Democrats did that for a long time and I won four straight races. And now it’s happening on the Republican side.

What lessons does Pope Francis offer to conservatives?

There have been a lot of people who have been led astray, doctrinally and otherwise, by the liberalism of the Church, the scandals within the Church. And what Francis is saying is look, what they just need to hear is the good news. They need to hear that God loves them, and that here’s the Gospel and the Gospel’s for you. And so he’s tried to focus his message on the average guy. And so I think that’s a good message for Republicans.

TIME Religion

Boehner and Pelosi Invite Pope Francis to Congress

Pope Francis holds his weekly general audience on March 5, 2014 at St. Peter's square in Vatican City.
Pope Francis holds his weekly general audience on March 5, 2014 at St. Peter's square in Vatican City. Andreas Solara—AFP/Getty Images

Congressional leaders used the occasion of Francis' first anniversary as Pope to invite him to Washington. President Obama is going to the Vatican to meet with His Holiness on March 27

Happy one-year anniversary, Pope Francis: You are invited to come to Congress.

Almost one year to the minute after Pope Francis was named Benedict XVI’s successor, House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday afternoon that they were formally inviting the popular Holy Father to address Congress. President Barack Obama is going to the Vatican to meet with His Holiness on March 27, and the Holy See has not announced formal plans to visit the United States. Pope Francis has made it clear that his priorities for international visits are the Holy Land, Asia, and then Africa.

Congress could use some peace-building right about now. Leaders appear divided even on inviting the Pope: Boehner and Pelosi, both Catholics, issued the invitation, but Boehner did not include Pelosi’s name in his announcement of the invitation.

Pelosi’s statement:

“As we approach the first anniversary of the inauguration of Pope Francis, I am pleased to join Speaker Boehner in inviting His Holiness to address a Joint Meeting of the United States Congress.

“I had the privilege of attending His Holiness’ inauguration at the Vatican and was inspired by his message of peace, compassion, and brotherhood.

“Whether inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, who cared for all of God’s creation, or by St. Joseph, protector of the church, Pope Francis has lived his values and upheld his promise to be a moral force, to protect the poor and the needy, to serve as a champion of the less fortunate, and to promote love and understanding among faiths and nations.”

Boehner’s statement:

“It is with reverence and admiration that I have invited Pope Francis, as head of state of the Holy See and the first Pope to hail from the Americas, to address a joint meeting of the United States Congress.

“Pope Francis has inspired millions of Americans with his pastoral manner and servant leadership, challenging all people to lead lives of mercy, forgiveness, solidarity, and humble service.

“His tireless call for the protection of the most vulnerable among us—the ailing, the disadvantaged, the unemployed, the impoverished, the unborn—has awakened hearts on every continent.

“His social teachings, rooted in ‘the joy of the gospel,’ have prompted careful reflection and vigorous dialogue among people of all ideologies and religious views in the United States and throughout a rapidly changing world, particularly among those who champion human dignity, freedom, and social justice.

“These principles are among the fundamentals of the American Idea. And though our nation sometimes fails to live up to these principles, at our best we give them new life as we seek the common good. Many in the United States believe these principles are undermined by ‘crony capitalism’ and the ongoing centralization of political power in the institutions of our federal government, which threaten to disrupt the delicate balance between the twin virtues of subsidiarity and solidarity. They have embraced Pope Francis’ reminder that we cannot meet our responsibility to the poor with a welfare mentality based on business calculations. We can meet it only with personal charity on the one hand and sound, inclusive policies on the other.

“The Holy Father’s pastoral message challenges people of all faiths, ideologies and political parties. His address as a visiting head of state before a joint meeting of the House and Senate would honor our nation in keeping with the best traditions of our democratic institutions. It would also offer an excellent opportunity for the American people as well as the nations of the world to hear his message in full.

“It is with deep gratitude that I have asked Pope Francis to consider this open invitation on behalf of the Congress and the millions of citizens of the United States we serve.”

TIME Vatican

Pope Francis the Popular

Pope Francis greets the faithful as he arrives at Copacabana Beach to celebrate mass on his sixth day in Rio de Janeiro
Pope Francis greets the faithful as he arrives at Copacabana Beach to celebrate mass on his sixth day in Rio de Janeiro, July 27, 2013. Ueslei Marcelino—Reuters

A new poll released Thursday finds that American Catholics aren't just overwhelmingly in favor the Holy Father, but have become 'more excited' about their faith. Four-tenths of them are praying more and one-fifth are reading the Bible more often

Pope Francis has been Pope for almost a year, and now there’s actual data to support a trend everyone has noticed: Pope Francis is one popular dude.

A new Pew Research Center report released Thursday finds that U.S. Catholics overwhelmingly have a favorable view of the Holy Father. More than half view Francis very favorably, and a third view him mostly favorably, giving Francis a net favorability rating of 85%. That’s generally about ten points higher than Pope Benedict XVI’s overall favorability ratings between 2005 and 2013, but a few points shy of Pope John Paul II’s ratings that soared to 93% two decades ago.

What’s most interesting about the report’s findings however is not that Francis is popular—that’s been fairly obvious—but rather that his papacy coincides with the growth of Catholics’ personal expression of their faith. Over the last year, a quarter of Catholics say they have become “more excited” about their faith, four-in-ten Catholics say they are praying more, and one-in-five say they have been reading the Bible more often. The survey questions did not explicitly tie personal religiosity to Francis, but did indicate a more intense religiosity among Catholics since he has been the Holy Father.

More fast facts from the Pew findings:

  • 71% of U.S. Catholics say that Pope Francis represents a major change in the direction of the Catholic Church, and only 2% say that change is for the worse
  • More than half of non-Catholics in the U.S. agree that Francis is a change for the better
  • There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic since Francis was elected
  • There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Catholics who attend mass or confession since Francis was elected

You can read the full report here.

TIME Vatican

Pope Francis Willing To “Evaluate” Civil Unions, But No Embrace of Gay Marriage

Pope Francis greets the faithful as he arrives at Copacabana Beach to celebrate mass on his sixth day in Rio de Janeiro
Pope Francis greets the faithful as he arrives at Copacabana Beach to celebrate mass on his sixth day in Rio de Janeiro, July 27, 2013. Ueslei Marcelino—Reuters

The deeper symbolic power of Francis’ latest tone-shifting statement lies in the day that his words broke

It’s tough being Pope Francis: one day he’s accidentally using vulgarities, and the next day everyone thinks he’s upending the church’s doctrine of marriage. The latest fuss about the Holy Father’s views of gays came after the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published an interview with him on Wednesday. When asked about civil unions, Pope Francis said that states seek “to regularize different situations of living together” in order to ensure health care and other economic benefits, according to the translation by Vatican Insider. And, he added, “We have to look at the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.”

Predictably, the internet exploded: a Huffington Post headline read, “Pope Francis Suggests Gay Civil Unions May Be Tolerable By Church.” ThinkProgress’s LBGT vertical touted a story, “Pope Francis Suggests Support For Civil Unions.” Catholic News Service was slightly more measured with its tweet: “Pope, in interview, suggests church could tolerate some civil unions.”

First, it is important to be clear about what Pope Francis did and did not just say. He did not affirm gay marriage. He did not announce Holy See support for civil unions. He reiterated, yet again, the traditional and non-changing Catholic teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman. Today his words about civil unions actually appeared to be about health care and economic equality, not marriage itself.

He also, once again, reminded the world that his papacy seeks to welcome gays, not to judge. It pointed to his desire to see a church of pastors, not of doctrinaires. It was a loud echo of the five most famous words of his papacy so far: “Who am I to judge?” He uttered them in reply to a reporter’s question on gays in an impromptu press conference last July. Even that brief gesture of increased compassion from the Holy See sent shockwaves through global Catholic communities, and it signified the shift in tone that put Francis on the cover of LGBT magazine The Advocate’s as their 2013 Man of the Year.

Beyond the furor over civil unions, the latest papal interview is important for other insights Francis shared about his first year. He critiqued globalization’s role in systemic poverty. He addressed priest child abuse, credited Pope Benedict XVI for his courage standing up against the crimes, and defended the church for its increased transparency. He denied sneaking out of the Vatican at night to feed the hungry. He shared how he wrote to Chinese president Xi Jinping when he was elected just three days after Francis himself took the papacy, and affirmed that relations exist between China and the Holy See. He opened up about his own awareness of his high calling and the personal sacrifices being the People’s Pope demanded—he would like to visit his sister, his last living sibling, in Argentina, but because he has already visited Latin America for World Youth Day, his next pontifical visits must be to the Holy Land, Asia, and then Africa. In yet another sign that Francis is focusing papal attention on the entire world, he did not mention visiting the United States. And, in an endearing moment, he bristled at his celebrity stardom: “Sigmund Freud said that in every idealization there is an aggression,” he said. “To depict the Pope as a kind of superman or a star seems to me offensive.”

The deeper symbolic power of Francis’ latest tone-shifting statement lies in the day that his words broke. Today, March 5, is Ash Wednesday, one of the holiest days in the Catholic calendar, and this evening in Rome, Pope Francis bowed to receive the ashes in the sign of the cross on his forehead.

It is a religious act that symbolizes humility, repentance, and a recognition that ultimately, human beliefs and actions bow to God’s mercy. It is the day that Francis, for the first time, begins to lead the church through Lent, a 40-day period of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, when congregants are asked to examine at their own sins and let God deal with the sins of others. Francis is a charismatic leader, and there’s no mistaking his symbolism: his attitude of mercy for all is the new tone for the world’s largest church.

“Lent calls us to ‘give ourselves a “shake-up,”‘ to remember that we are creatures, that we are not God,” he preached in his Ash Wednesday sermon.

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