“Secrets of the Vatican”

February 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Vatican | 8 Comments
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As you may have discerned, I am not a wild fan of the Vatican. I have been working for forty years to get women ordained in the Catholic Church, and such endless banging of the head against Vatican walls has not warmed me toward the boys over there. I also think that the church’s teaching on homosexuality, if not changed significantly, will seriously reduce our numbers sooner or later, even in Africa. That’s certainly what’s happening in the U.S.

But I also spent the 1990s getting a Ph.D. in religion, with a specialization in Catholicism. During that time I learned a good deal about anti-Catholicism. I learned, for example, that in the mid-19th century, a bestseller, The  Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, virtually identified Catholicism with pornographic sexuality. The book was later almost completely discredited, but it has been reprinted many times. And lest you think U.S. anti-Catholicism is a purely pre-Civil War phenomenon, consider that during the 1960 presidential campaign, leading U.S. Protestant ministers, including Norman Vincent Peale, portrayed John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Vatican stooge, more or less. And as historian Philip Jenkins argues in The New Anti-Catholicism, since the onset of the sex abuse scandals, Americans say things about the Catholic church that had been socially unacceptable since JFK’s election.

So I wasn’t too hopeful about the February PBS Frontline “documentary,” “The Secrets of the Vatican.” The title itself sounds like something Maria Monk dreamed up. In fact, the film is about problems during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But a title like that wouldn’t attract leering millions, would it? And the PBS channel here in New York showed the documentary in the 9 PM slot, instead of the usual Frontline slot of 10 PM. I wonder why?

It’s hard, too, not to call to mind Maria Monk during the first fifty minutes of the eight-four minute film, devoted as they are almost exclusively to clergy sex abuse and lewd homosexual practices ostensibly by very many priests and hierarchs in Rome. This is not to say that I am in favor of child sex abuse (!), or clerical hypocrisy either. But things have come to a point where it’s almost impossible to say anything positive about the Catholic church without someone bringing up clergy sex abuse–and this applies to many liberal Catholics, not just Protestants and seculars. In point of fact, the Catholic church is the single largest provider of health care in the world. Some Vatican congregation supervised all of that under the last two popes. Should they maybe get a mention, along with the congregations that covered up clergy pedophilia and adult sodomy?

The film’s characterization of various aspects of the Vatican State, too, is problematic, overstated, sensationalized. Take, for example, the ominous references to the Vatican’s being a free-standing state, with no accompanying mention that before 1861, the Papal States constituted a significant portion of Italy, from one coast to the other. In 1870, it was deprived of all its territory except Vatican City and became the smallest state in Europe.  Some challenge the Vatican’s right to be a state at all, but it has as much historical legitimacy as the British monarchy, or more.

Similarly, Thomas Doyle’s description of the church as an absolute monarchy is seriously over the top. I have said myself on numerous occasions that the governance structure of the institutional church is that of an absolute monarchy. Please note the qualification there: of the institutional church. Doyle, a canon lawyer who has fought heroically for the rights of sex abuse victims, says the church is an absolute monarchy down to each individual member. If that were true, I’d be in jail. And I am theoretically self-excommunicated for continuing after 1994 to speak out in favor of the ordination of women. But that matters only if one of my pastors since then cared to pursue the issue. None of them have, or would. Lots of them are similarly theoretically self-excommunicated.

Some may dispute my argument that “The Secrets of the Vatican” is anti-Catholic because of the enthusiasm shown for Pope Francis in the last quarter of the film. And indeed, this section of the film is more nuanced than the rest, with some of those interviewed offering cautions about how much (or little) Pope Francis will be able to do in the few years that may be available to him; he was 77 years old when elected, after all. But the “pope-mania” expressed in the last quarter of the film also strongly reinforces, by contrast, the film’s portrayal of the previous two popes as demons.

Dealing with representations of the Vatican is a tricky business. There’s a lot in the Vatican that really does demand reform. But I refuse to err in the opposite direction, becoming a participant, even inadvertently, in the virulent anti-Catholicism that has poisoned this Protestant country for much of the last few centuries. In point of fact, last October, Boz Chividijian, Billy Graham’s grandson, and the head an organization fighting clergy sex abuse in Protestant settings, wrote in the Huffington Post that he believes, with regard to sex abuse, that Evangelicals are worse than Catholics. I wonder what the odds are that a future Frontline documentary will be titled “Secrets of the Evangelical Underground”?


Beatifying Pope John Paul II

January 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I am not enormously enthusiastic about the beatification of Pope John Paul II which, we learned this week, is scheduled for May. JPII was a very smart man and deserves a great deal of the credit for making Roman Catholicism the second largest religious group on earth. And he is certainly a celebrity for many.

He also reversed, or at least undercut, the ground-breaking, hope-inspiring work of Vatican Council II. He not only spearheaded the defeat of Communism in Eastern Europe, he also learned from Communism, and from a career in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, how to control millions of people. Beatifying, and then quickly canonizing him, is an example in action of what feminist philosopher of science Donna Haraway called “the god trick.” People divinize those who embody a way of life to their own benefit. The current pope justifies his unilateral decisions by beatifying somebody who did the same sort of thing before him.

I could go into more detail about the actions of JPII that cause me to say all this, but the International Movement We Are Church has done an excellent job of outlining most of what I would say on its webpage. Why don’t you check it out?

Sex Abuse Bibliography

April 24, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Those of you follow my blog know that I am occasionally subject to an obsession with the Vatican that I consider a serious personal failing. A falling off the wagon, as it were. Of course, the (as virtually ever journalist in the world describes it) “mounting” Catholic sex abuse scandal certainly helps to explain my current mania. You can  barely turn on the radio without hearing a reference to the Vatican and sex abuse. Still…

In an attempt to “achieve some closure” on this latest episode of Vatican mania, I have decided, in classic professorial style, to construct  a list of articles about Catholic clergy sex abuse that in my opinion add at least some nuance to the “conversation.” Your paper on same is due May 1.

I have already mentioned the Ross Douthout April 11 NYTimes op-ed piece about Benedict XVI being “The Better Pope” with regard to sex abuse. I mention it again because it doesn’t seem to have gotten much play. Hard to fathom how somebody who was in charge of the Catholic Church for almost three decades within the period during which a massive cover-up of sex abuse ostensibly took place could continue to get a pass. But JPII was a brilliant tactician; perhaps he continues to be so even after death.

Another article on sex abuse and the church, “On Scandal and Scandals,” by priest-psychologist Brendan Callaghan, appeared last week on Thinking Faith,  the on-line journal of the British Jesuits. The striking thing about this article is that, although it’s written by a Catholic priest, it exhibits neither the inept defensiveness of the Vatican nor the vituperative tone of too much  journalism on the scandal. Callaghan’s concluding thoughts on sin and reconciliation in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus instilled more hope in me about this great mess than anything I’ve read in a long time. (Thinking Faith, by the bye,  is free, and well worth subscribing to.)

On another front, one well to the south of the countries where the scandal is getting the greatest play, the Catholic Information Service of Africa (CISA) has published a talk on clergy sex abuse by the Archbishop of Johannesburg, Buti Tlhagale. Archbishop Thlagale is unambiguous in his condemnation of sex abuse by Catholic clergy. And he speaks of the clergy in first person plural–“we,” not “you,”–detailing the enormous harm that has been done to the Church by priests. But he doesn’t stop there, ending, instead, with words of hope, those spoken by Jesus to Francis of Assisi at the time of his conversion: “Francis, go rebuild my house, which, as you see, is all being destroyed.” Would that Archbishop Tlhagale’s emphatic condemnation had been quoted alongside those of the Vatican nitwit who, during Holy Week, compared the treatment of the Church to the oppression of the Jews. (CISA’s email coverage of the Church in Africa is also free and worthwhile. Subscription info here.) 

Finally, I bring to your attention yesterday’s article in the New York Times  (April 23) about an $18.5 million sex abuse judgment  against the Boy Scouts of America. Apparently the Scouts for decades kept a secret file of sex abusers that ostensibly “detailed many instances across the country in which troop leaders or volunteers were allowed to continue working with children even after the Scouts had received complaints that they had committed sexual abuse.” The Scouts’ lawyer argued that “the files proved that the Scouts were ahead of their time in tracking child sexual abuse, even if the system was ‘not foolproof.’” One commentator, at least, suggested that the setting up of the file actually was well intentioned, initially at least.

Ross Douthat: Benedict XVI is Better

April 12, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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This is more a transmission than a blogpiece, but I was struck, just now, by an op-ed in today’s New York Times  in which Ross Douthat argues that Benedict XVI is a better pope than John Paul II was. I know a lot of people who will disagree with that, and a number more who will say “Who cares?” But I find the article an interesting one in the midst of all the venom and condemnation swirling around lately.

By the way, does anybody know how to pronounce “Douthat”? Is it “Doubt-hat?” “Do that?” Something else altogether?

Sex Abuse Intolerable; Diphtheria Less So

April 11, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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I may have spoken too soon. As my Catholic cousin Maureen Dowd reports in today’s New York Times, the AP has broken “the latest story pointing the finger of blame directly at Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, quoting from a letter in Latin in which he resisted pleas to defrock a California priest who had sexually molested children.”  So here is the proof I said in a previous blog didn’t exist. The pope, in his previous position, took years to respond to a letter from the bishop of Oakland, John Cummins, asking permission to “defrock” an admitted child abuser. And when he did respond, “God’s Rottweiler” urged “the diocese to give the 38-year-old pedophile ‘as much paternal care as possible’ and to consider his young age” as well as “the good of the universal church.”

Now it’s possible to quibble a bit with Dowd’s  interpretation.  For example, we might take into account a report on NPR Saturday attributing part of the problem here to Pope John Paul II’s decision to staunch the flood of men leaving the  priesthood after Vatican II by making it much more difficult for them to receive laicization.  

But this is precisely the kind of buck-passing for which the Vatican is much criticized of late. Let’s stick to Maureen Dowd’s column. Let’s consider, for example, the column’s sub-head: “Suffer the little children. Don’t make the little children suffer.”

Now it seems perfectly obvious which little children Dowd is referring to here: the thousands of American and European Catholic boys and girls who have been sexually abused by Catholic priests. In recent years, however, I have become interested in another group of little children, those who live in the Global South and die in large numbers from water-borne diseases (diphtheria, typhoid, and cholera, for the most part). Experts tell us that one child dies of such a disease every fifteen seconds.

Now you may well think that there’s no comparison between the millions of children who die of these diseases every year and children abused by priests. After all, the children in the Global South die. Their sufferings are over. Sexually abused children, however, suffer for the rest of their lives.

My late mother would disagree. When she was four, her six-year old brother, my uncle Jimmy, died of diphtheria. Mom told me many times that her parents never recovered. After her brother was buried (he could not have a funeral because of the contagion), her father sat looking out the window for six months. My grandmother took in laundry so they could eat. And that grandmother heaved deep and frequent sighs throughout my own childhood.

Others may argue that unlike sex abuse, these diseases are natural. Nothing can be done about them. You will note, however, that epidemics of diphtheria, typhoid, or cholera are pretty rare in the US these days. After World War II, we became rich enough to put in sewerage systems and make potable water almost universally available. The debt-burdened countries of the Global South, on the other hand, can’t afford to do this, so their kids die in droves. 

There is something you can do about the suffering of some of these little children, however. The nuns who educated me, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, are constructing a photovoltaic grid in Congo, where their African sisters work, to provide electricity. Such electricity will, among other things, make it possible to purify the water that local children and their families drink.

You can make a donation right now toward the construction of this photovoltaic  grid.  Just send a check made out to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Here’s the address: Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Congregational Mission Office, 30 Jeffreys Neck Road, Ipswich, MA, 01938.

But perhaps you are hesitating. Your life is pretty complicated. You have many commitments, many things to consider. You’d better not hesitate too long, though, because just since you began reading this column, a child or two died. And if you wait much longer, someone may denounce you for temporizing while little children suffer, much as Maureen Dowd denounces the evil Cardinal Ratzinger  in today’s Sunday Times.

Tiger Woods and the Pope

March 31, 2010 at 8:50 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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So what do Tiger Woods and Pope Benedict XVI have in common? They’re both celebrities. And of course, recently they have both gotten some very bad publicity about sexual misbehavior, either for engaging in it, or, apparently, for covering up somebody else’s.

For a long time–from the liberal European revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries till the second half of the twentieth century, more or less–that the pope would be a celebrity was inconceivable. The “prisoner of the Vatican” was no star. Rather, he was pinched, hidden, and adamantly opposed to the world many of us lived in–the modern one.

I suppose the change started with Pope John XXIII announcing Vatican II and pointing the Church in the direction of the “modern world.” But the real credit for making the pope a celebrity goes to Pope John Paul II. John Paul, now called by some Catholics “John Paul the Great,” studied drama as a young person, and his acute stage presence, whether in his popemobile, the papal helicopter, his journeys around the world, his addresses to sports stadiums full of cheering followers, even, I’m tempted to say, his managing to survive an assassination–made him a global celebrity. Perhaps the global religious celebrity.

Besides JPII’s  gift for acting, another thing that has made the popes  celebrities is the amazing get-ups that they wear. I am reminded here of Mark Noll’s question, the title of one of his books, “Is the Reformation Over?” In thinking about the pope, I’m inclined to say: yes, and the Catholics won. For a long time this seemed not to be the case, of course. The Protestant ethic underpinned the emergence of capitalism. And the shift to the Word from the Image at the beginning of the modern era seemed a no-brainer, with the printing presses running, and only illiterate peasants peering at stained glass and statues anymore.

But since the invention of television, and even more, the internet, I’m not so sure. Think of my poor husband, the ordained American Baptist. He occasionally wears an academic gown, but mostly, he makes his way through the world in a suit and tie. Whereas the pope looks like a character in Avatar.  He’s the symbol of world Christianity,  just by virtue of his vestments, even if half the Evangelicals in the world still don’t believe  Catholics are Christians.

Now I have to admit that the current pope, Benedict XVI, doesn’t have anything like the stage presence of the previous pope (though he does have those red shoes!) But the veneer of celebrity achieved by JPII does not wear off all that easily. 

Which brings us to the similarities between B-16 and Tiger Woods. In each case, nothing sells more newspapers, draws more viewers, gets googled more often than celebrities and sex. And so we have Benedict XVI in the news about as often as we had Tiger a few months ago.

Never mind that there are certain dissimilarities between them as well. That there was actual evidence against Tiger, who confessed his infidelities, and apologized to the world. Benedict XVI, on the other hand, has offered no such confession for failing to turn in priest sex abusers. Of course, it may be that he actually was not aware of these abusers, no matter how many times reporters announce that the scandal is “getting closer to the Vatican every day.” No text messages have been discovered in Benedict’s case. There were four hundred parishes in the archdiocese of Munich when Benedict was the archbishop there. Hard to tell what he knew and if he knew it.

In point of fact, in last Sunday’s New York Times, NCR’s John L. Allen, without minimizing the current crisis, argued that Benedict has done better than any pope in history at responding to clergy sex abuse. Better, it would seem, than John Paul II, about whom a documentary will run on PBS this weekend that proclaims him a saint. 

But the current pope is another matter. He’s not a saint; he’s a celebrity. And the beat goes on.

The Rupture of Inculturation?

March 9, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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In my last post, I held forth about a talk by Cardinal Rode, head of the Vatican office behind the current  investigations of American Catholic sisters.  I was struck by his use of the word “rupture” to describe the “wrong” interpretation of Vatican II. Never in my life have I heard anyone but Cardinal Rode (et al) describe Vatican II as a rupture. Event, yes. Paradigm shift, yes. Rupture? Never.

I am also struck by the conclusion of the cardinal’s talk, where, to explain what gives him hope for the future of religious life, he recounts the thunder of applause that greeted a talk he gave just after the election of John Paul II in 1978 in which he criticized the communist regime in Slovenia.  What gave Rode and his listeners courage to confront falsehood, we learn, was fidelity to the new pope. Just so, if we are to reform religious life, we must adhere to what John Paul II taught yesterday and what Benedict is teaching today. (p. 21).

Never mind the curiosity of using an event that occurred a third of a century ago under a regime that collapsed twenty years ago in a country most Americans couldn’t  find on the map if their lives depended on it to conclude a talk in Boston Massachusetts in 2008. Consider instead the spectacle of using such a Eurocentric story to illustrate fidelity to John Paul II.

I am not a big JPII fan. But one thing I do give John Paul credit for is his understanding of the critical place of the Global South in the future of the church. So if we’re confronting a rupture here, it’s one between this profound insight by John Paul II and  Benedict’s fixation on Europe, its secularization, its schisms, its ideal past.

One story about a talk in Slovenia in 1978 may seem like thin evidence on which to argue that the current papacy is oblivious to the future of the church. But to get the whole picture, shift your attention now to Vatican efforts to reform the liturgy. In an article in NCRonline, John L. Allen reports on comments by the papal liturgist, Msgr. Guido Marini. Msgr. Morini has said that the pope will be patient in reforming the liturgy; nothing will be forced on the church, at least not yet. At a conference in Rome, though, the pope’s liturgist did seem to call into question some Vatican II liturgical reforms,–among them, active participation by the laity in the liturgy (!!) and “greater ‘inculturation,’ meaning adjusting the church’s rites to reflect local cultures.”

Now you may have noticed that the word “inculturation” doesn’t figure massively in discussions of liturgy in the US. It is used frequently, however, in discussions of the church in the Global South. And when Catholics in Africa and Asia and Latin America use the term, they aren’t just referring to drumming and dancing at Mass. They’re talking about the reconfiguration of Catholicism by their cultures. For an especially compelling example of this,  see From Crisis to Kairos: The Mission of the Church in the Time of HIV/AIDS, Refugees, and Poverty by Nigerian Jesuit theologian A. E. Orobator (Paulines Publications Africa 2005).

The people Father Orobator writes about don’t seem awfully focused on   fidelity to the pope. For them, their faith in Jesus and the Gospel is what enables them to survive and keep their brothers and sisters alive in the face of war, destitution and epidemics. Let’s pray that the profound role the church plays in their survival doesn’t get ruptured anytime soon.


Persistent Vegetative States

February 22, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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 I lied. I said I would make a new prediction on Sunday, but here it is Monday and I’m only just now doing it…

My prediction grows out of an article by Benedict Carey in the February 3 Health section of the New York Times. It concerns  a scientific discovery about people in persistent vegetative states. The article reports that a 29-year-old patient apparently in a persistent vegetative state in a clinic in Liege, Belgium, has been responding to yes-no questions presented via an MRI. 

The piece draws on an article in the New England Journal of Medicine  and indicates the limits of the findings.  The study:

“does not suggest that most apparently unresponsive patients can communicate or are likely to recover. The hidden ability displayed by the young accident victim is rare, the study suggested. …Nor does the finding apply to victims of severe oxygen depletion, like Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who became unresponsive after her heart stopped and who was taken off life support in 2005 during an explosive controversy over patients’ rights. …Moreover, experts said the new test was not ready for wide use; serious technical challenges remain to be worked out. …The hidden ability displayed by the young accident victim is rare…”

Despite all these qualifications, the article suggests this new limited two-way channel opens up a world of ethical challenges. “We know (the patients ) are responding, but they may not understand the question,” an ethicist at Weil Cornell Medical College observed.“Physicians and society are not ready for ‘I have brain activation, therefore I am,’ ” another physician added.

So here’s my prediction: before very long, the Vatican, or the US Catholic bishops, or certainly some of those bishops, will use this study to argue that everyone in a persistent vegetative state must be kept alive by artificial means. In point of fact, Pope John Paul II already more or less made such an argument, asserting  that not to use artificial feeding and hydration to keep patients alive constitutes “passive euthanasia.” In his 2004 papal allocution, “Care for Patients in a Permanent Vegetative State,” the Pope stated, “Administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act.”  (Continue reading; do not pause to consider what it means that something artificial is always natural.)

As the Jesuit ethicists Peter Clark argues, however, this position is a clear reversal of Catholic teaching on the question dating back at least to the 16th century and perhaps to Thomas Aquinas. Clark writes, “Traditional moralists made a clear distinction between allowing to die and direct killing or euthanasia. The former was always morally permissible; the later was forbidden. Allowing to die included the refusal of nutrition and hydration if they were considered burdensome and nonbeneficial to the patient.”  

Clark  also points out that such a revision of traditional teaching, forcing Catholics to use extraordinary means to keep alive those who would not survive by ordinary means, places on them potentially extreme moral, legal and financial burdens. These include the obligation to provide expensive care not covered by health insurance or that violates a “do not resuscitate” order;  another danger is that those who previously did not sustain a loved one by extraordinary means will now fear that they murdered him or her. Finally, in a country where more than 40 million people are uninsured or underinsured, the investment of billions of dollars a year in artificially prolonging the lives of those in persistent vegetative states is ethically troubling at best. (Clark, “Tube Feeding and Persistent Vegetative State Patients: Ordinary or Extraordinary Means” Christian Bioethics 12: 43-64, 2006).

Nonetheless, I predict that some branch of the institutional Roman Catholic Church will, probably in the near future, use the recent study to restate its claim that the use of “natural” artificial  means to keep alive those in a persistent vegetative state is a moral obligation. Stay tuned.

Infallible Holiness

January 23, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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In his op-ed piece in the Times last Sunday, the religion journalist David Gibson highlighted something that had escaped my attention: all four of the previous popes –Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II–are now in the canonization pipeline. Is every pontiff a saint, he asks? 

Gibson begins by reviewing the recent controversy over the beatification of Pius XII, especially the harm it has done to Jewish-Catholic relations. He  goes on to question whether any pope should be made a saint, suggesting that to do so dilutes the meaning of sainthood. Following Notre Dame theologian Richard McBrien, Gibson suggests that more saintly lay-people ought to be canonized, not popes.

I sympathize with Gibson’s position, as I intimate in a previous blog recommending the beatification of the Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri instead of Pius XII. But I have to tell you, David, that your proposal hasn’t got a prayer. The Vatican will go right on beatifying and canonizing previous heads of the Vatican as the sun is going to go on coming up in the morning.

So I offer an alternative proposal: why don’t we canonize all popes at the time of their election? The canonization process is lengthy and expensive and if the church is going to go ahead and proclaim the heroic virtue of all popes anyhow, why don’t we/they just do it right off and get it over with? All other considerations aside, such an approach would save the Vatican the embarrassment of announcing that the archives from the reign of a pope half a century ago aren’t yet in good enough order to be open to scholars.  

And would canonizing popes at the time of their election actually change very much? Bear in mind that the pope is already referred to as “Your Holiness.”  

Finally, automatic canonization would offer a new and thought-provoking experience for Catholics in the pew whose relationships with the saints up until now are limited or perhaps we could say diffused by the fact that those saints are dead.  Now we would know that the living breathing person we are speaking with or listening to actually is a saint. Consider the great certainty such an experience would afford us in this time of crisis and confusion.

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