Sunday, May 20, 2012

“What goes around, comes around,” they say.  But usually not like this.

Chuck O’Neal, the Beaverton, Oregon, pastor who has recently gained notoriety for suing a former parishioner for libel, has found himself on the receiving end of a law suit—for the very same reason.   And while the defendants in O’Neal’s law suit have drawn considerable sympathy for being dragged into court by the pastor of a large church—presumably benefitting from the resources and good name of his congregation—O’Neal the defendant faces a significantly more formidable legal foe: The Vatican.

Pope Benedict XVI, acting through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,  has filed a $1 million law suit against Pastor O’Neal for defaming the Pontiff, the papacy as an institution, and the Roman Catholic Church as an ecclesiastical organization, in comments he made to his congregation in a series of sermons preached at Beaverton Grace Bible Church in April, 2005, following the death of Pope John Paul II.   Particularly damning (no pun intended) were comments O’Neal made in an e-mail to a group of pastors, elders and layman just prior to these sermons: 

“May we unite in prayer that the pulpits of the world will indeed be protestant this Lord’s Day,” O’Neal wrote to the Shepherd’s Fellowship Forum in early April 2005.  “Declare, define, and defend the faith dogmatically.  Dear brothers, the battle rages.  Let us stand in the day of battle and be counted among the Lord’s mighty men by his grace—full armour on swords in hand shields up with constant prayer.  Rome yet wars against souls. Let us war for souls, the gosepl of Jesus Christ, and the Glory of the true and only Holy Father.  Preach the whole counsel of God and the specific counsel of God.  Be not found wanting in the day of battle.

          By Grace Alone,

          Chuck O’Neal

Rome yet wars against souls.  It was that line that drew the ire of the papacy, and, in our increasingly litigious society, even the pope can only take so much.

"Stirring for our own relief?"  Papal nuncio Ottaviani Tarlati
looks forward to being on the other side of the courtroom.
“We’ve been on the receiving end of our fair share of law suits,” said Fr. Ottaviani Tarlati, the U.S. Papal Nuncio in Charge of Pacific Northwest Operations.  “So to be able to sue someone else for a change is refreshing.”  When asked whether a law suit on behalf of one of the wealthiest and most powerful organizations in the world might lead to a backlash of negative PR for the Roman Church, Father Tarlati replied confidently: “Nobody looks as bad as this guy does right now.”

But speculation that money has nothing to do with the law suit abounds.   Before news of the papal suit broke, much attention was paid to the nature of Pastor O’Neal’s law suit against his former congregants.  Specifically, the suit was being characterized as a “SLAPP”: A strategic lawsuit against public participation, in which the intent is to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.  In some cases, the plaintiff in a SLAPP suit has no realistic intention or expectation of recovering.

"Pure SLAPP vs. PAP-SLAPP?" Fr.
Ted Haskins of the Unicarp Institute

Many legal observers suggested that this was the case with O’Neal.  In addition to public censure at the prospect of a minister suing his own former congregants, O’Neal faced further opprobrium based on the Biblical injunction against taking fellow believers to court.  But now the case has become even more complicated with the interfaith, Catholic-vs.- Protestant angle. Fr. Ted Haskins, of the Unicarp Institute in St. Louis, is a practicing attorney as well as a Reformed Episcopalian clergyman.  As such, he is technically neither Catholic nor Protestant—without a dog in this race.  “The whole situation is fascinating on many levels.  Frankly, I don’t think either plaintiff is financially motivated.  In the case of Chuck O’Neal the plaintiff, I think it’s ‘pure SLAPP.’  Same goes with Chuck O’Neal the defendant.  But of course, because of the papal involvement in the suit, I guess we would have to call it a ‘PAP-SLAPP.’”

Roman Catholic apologist Scott Hahn needs every
inch of his enormous hand span to emphasize
the significance of the pope's lawsuit

And what about free speech?  Irrespective of the outcome of either case, a chilling effect of some kind seems inevitable.  But that might be a good thing, at least according to Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian minister who converted to Catholicism, now an apologist for the Catholic faith.  Author of the bestselling Rome Sweet Home, he is now a regular fixture on EWTN, the Roman Catholic cable television network.  “I think this will be a marvelous opportunity for Protestants to tone down the rhetoric,” Hahn said during a Q-and-A session during a speaking engagement in Collegeville, Minnesota.  “Protestant evangelicals own the airwaves.  That’s been the case pretty much going back to Luther.  As Catholics, we need to stand behind the Holy Father, whatever the outcome, and be prepared to make the most of it.”

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