National Catholic Reporter ®

January 3, 2003
Vol. 2, No.19

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Top 10 neglected Catholic stories of 2002

 . . . I hope this run-down illustrates why the Catholic Church, especially as seen from Rome, is the most exciting beat in journalism — a unique mix of politics and spirituality, cult and culture, intrigue and theatre. It is, quite simply, the Greatest Show on Earth, and I hope we can tell more of the story in 2003.

Coverage of the Catholic Church in the English-speaking world experienced the journalistic equivalent of a solar eclipse in 2002 with the sex abuse scandals. They blocked everything else from view; any Catholic event, trend or development unconnected to the crisis, from the point of view of the Anglo-Saxon press, didn’t exist. 

    The scandals and their consequences are of monumental importance, and they deserve the coverage they got. Yet there were moments when the focus on sex abuse seemed almost comic, given that other news didn’t just go on hiatus. 

    My favorite illustration came in Bulgaria during the pope’s May 22-26 visit. That trip formed a crucial element in John Paul’s strategy to heal the East/West rift in Christianity, a 1,000-year-old fracture that has shaped a great deal of world history. Yet those of us in the American press corps spent most of our time hounding Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls about the resignation of Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, or asking the Bulgarians for their comments on the American crisis. Most locals looked at us like creatures from another planet. We pursued this angle, however, because tying the trip into the scandals was the only way to get into the paper or on the air. 

    The result is that many Catholic stories in the past 12 months received less coverage than they merited, while others were seriously distorted or misreported. Still others were ignored altogether, victims of a limited cultural attention span for religious news in a year in which there was only one religion story. 

    In this light, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compile a list of the Top Ten Neglected Catholic Stories of 2002. This is not the result of any polling or sampling on my part, and hence reflects nothing but my subjective judgment. If nothing else, I hope this run-down illustrates why the Catholic Church, especially as seen from Rome, is the most exciting beat in journalism — a unique mix of politics and spirituality, cult and culture, intrigue and theatre. It is, quite simply, the Greatest Show on Earth, and I hope we can tell more of the story in 2003. 

10. ICEL Transformed

    Over the 1990s, few issues in the English-speaking Catholic Church were as contentious as the liturgy. Critics of liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) pushed for a more traditional mode of expression, while reformers sought a kind of speech rooted in local cultures. Though the debate can be arcane, it’s also phenomenally important. A well-worn expression — lex orandi, lex credendi — suggests that the way the Church expresses itself in worship shapes what it believes. Move in one direction, and the Catholic imagination is given a shove toward Latinitas; in another, the value becomes a living language in dialogue with a changing world. Over time the debate focused on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), an agency founded at Vatican II to translate liturgical texts into English. 

    Beginning with its rejection of a translation of the ordination rite in 1997, the Vatican brought ICEL into its sights, demanding a series of changes in policy and personnel reflecting the traditionalist critique. That process reached its crescendo in 2002. On Feb. 22, ICEL announced the resignation of its executive secretary, John Page. At a July 29-August 1 meeting in Ottawa, the English-speaking bishops who govern ICEL tapped Fr. Bruce Harbert, an English priest from Birmingham, to succeed Page. Harbert had over the years sided with ICEL critics, so his appointment signaled a philosophical shift. In a 1996 article in New Blackfriars, for example, Harbert described the commission as “something of a tyranny, which individual bishops’ conferences are in effect powerless to resist.” The bishops also replaced Scottish Bishop Maurice Taylor, a longtime stalwart of the inculturation approach, as chair of ICEL with English Bishop Arthur Roche. Given these changes, plus the May 2001 document Liturgiam Authenticam enshrining fidelity to Latin as the cornerstone of the translator’s task, the transformation of the old ICEL is virtually complete. 

    The last step will be a new set of statutes giving Rome formal control over staff and advisors. In late October, Cardinal Francis Arinze, the new prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, sent a letter criticizing a draft set of new statutes because they fail to deliver those controls. Aside from liturgical issues, some observers see the ICEL debate as illustrating another fault line — collegiality. Through this lens, Rome’s effort to wrest control of the agency from bishops’ conferences becomes an example of the centralizing thrust of this papacy. 

9. The Unsinkable John Paul II 

    The sex abuse crisis fed already existing media images of an elderly, rapidly declining pope. Coverage of John Paul in the English-speaking world accents his physical condition to an almost ludicrous degree. Take this example, from a 278-word wire story on the pope’s Dec. 29 Angelus address: “The pontiff noted that the World Meeting of Families was coming up in Manila, Philippines, on Jan. 22-26. John Paul himself won’t attend, another example of his diminishing activities due to frail health. John Paul suffers from hip and knee ailments and the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, including slurred speech and hand tremors.” Or this, from a 524-word story on the pope’s Christmas day Urbi et Orbi speech: “Bowing to illness, John Paul, now 82 and very frail, no longer says mid-morning mass in the basilica. … Early on Wednesday, John Paul struggled through much of the midnight mass.” 

    The pope’s health is certainly part of the Vatican story, but reasonable people can find this sort of thing excessive. It creates the impression that the pope is sitting around waiting to die, when close observation generates the opposite impression. The real story is that John Paul has remained remarkably productive despite his physical limits. Consider the trips in 2002 to Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, and Poland. Moreover, the last few months have witnessed an improvement, not decline, in the pope’s condition. (This even led to speculation in August that the pope was taking a concoction of papaya extract suggested by French Dr. Luc Montagnier, co-discoverer of the AIDS virus, for his Parkinson’s disease). John Paul in September passed Hadrian I to become the fifth longest serving pope in the line of 265. Aside from St. Peter himself, the top placeholders are Pius VI (24 years, six months, seven days), Leo XIII (25 years, five months) and Pius IX (31 years, seven months, 21 days). Will this pope of firsts surpass the man he beatified, Pius IX, to claim the top spot? While seven years is a long time, one hesitates to bet against him. Footnote: Rumors are swirling in Rome that the pope is about to publish a poetic meditation on death. If so, prepare for another round of speculation about his own imminent demise. 

8. The Church and the Silver Screen 

    For all those who suspect the media of anti-Catholic bias, 2002 looms as a golden case in point. The Sept. 11-style coverage of the sex abuse scandals is the obvious example. At the level of popular culture, however, the year also offered four feature films overtly hostile to the Catholic Church. They include the French movie “Amen,” about the alleged silence of Pius XII on the holocaust; the Italian film “God’s Bankers,” about the Vatican bank scandals of the 1970s and 1980s; the English release “The Magdalene Sisters,” about abuses of young women at institutions run by Irish nuns in the 1960s; and the Mexican sensation “The Crime of Father Amaro,” whose plot focuses on a host of misdeeds by priests, including adultery, guerilla warfare and drug-dealing. Each film generated controversy, which was undoubtedly the point. The outrage was especially widespread in Mexico, where Cardinal Norbert Rivera Carrera said the movie contains “lies of the worst and vilest sort,” calling it “an atheistic smear on the church and its priests, designed to stir intolerance.” 

    Cooler heads, however, could also be found. Fr. Rafael Gonzalez, speaking for the Mexican bishops, called it an “honest movie” and described it as “a wake-up call for the church to review its procedure for selecting and training priests and being closer to the people.” 

    Without passing judgment on the artistic merits of these films, it is striking that each projects a similar image of the Catholic Church: arrogant leaders out of touch with the people, and a tendency to cover up wrongdoing rather than assisting victims. A thoughtful Catholic might ask where these images come from. Paul VI wrote in Evangelii nuntiandi (1976) that the split between the gospel and the culture is without doubt “the drama of our time.” If the church once inspired artists to tell its story in stone and on canvas, it seems today to prompt artists to denigrate that story on screen, and this counter-propaganda cannot be without consequence in terms of the church’s mission. One can blame the culture, but perhaps Catholics also need to ask if there is something about the church today, the way it is viewed and experienced, that helps shape this animus. 

7. Catholics and Jews 

    The past year saw two important documents on the Jewish/Catholic relationship. The first was a 213-page book published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and its Sacred Scripture in the Christian Bible. (The study is dated 2001, but it first came to wide public attention last year). It reads: “The Jewish Messianic wait is not in vain. It can become for us Christians a strong stimulus to maintain alive the eschatological dimension of our faith. We, like them, live in expectation. The difference is in the fact that for us, he who will come will have the traits of that Jesus who has already come and is already active and present among us.” (Section 21, paragraph 5). 

    Then in August came a joint statement from the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. bishops and the National Council of Synagogues, commenting on the current state of the dialogue between the two bodies. On the Catholic side, participants declared: “Campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church.” Taken together, the two documents signal recognition by Catholics that Judaism has independent theological validity. That such overtures have borne fruit can be glimpsed from a Dec. 26 piece in the Jerusalem Post by Yossi Klein Halevi, Israel correspondent for The New Republic, who wrote: “Generations of persecution have conditioned Jews to see the Vatican as an enemy. It is time for Jews to recognize how much the Church has changed and to take yes for an answer.” 

    As the Catholic Church reconceptualizes its relationship with Judaism, however, it must proceed carefully. The statements of 2002 generated criticism from Catholics worried that the Church may compromise its proclamation that Christ is the universal savior of all humanity, including the Jews. Protecting the evangelical thrust of the Christian message while still honoring God’s covenant with Judaism is indeed a serious theological puzzle. The tragic history of the 20th century suggests, however, it is an effort worth making. 

6. The Vatican and the War 

    Despite a mind-boggling investment of personnel and money by the world’s news agencies to cover a possible war in Iraq, there are important aspects of the story that have not received much attention at all. One is the loud chorus of Vatican opposition to the war, reaching all the way up to John Paul himself. During his Dec. 25 Urbi et Orbi address, the pope made his most explicit comments to date, calling on the world “to extinguish the ominous smoldering of a conflict which, with the joint efforts of all, can be avoided.” His aides have been far more blunt. Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the Council for Justice and Peace, said Dec. 16 that “a preventive war is a war of aggression. There is no doubt.” In early September, Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican’s office for ecumenism, told reporters that he rejected attacking Iraq, saying there are neither “the motives nor the proof” to justify a war. In mid-September, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal office, said, “The concept of preventive war does not appear in the Catechism.” In an exclusive Sept. 24 interview with NCR, Archbishop Stephen Hamao, head of the Vatican office for migrants and refugees, said, “I’m very worried by what the U.S. is doing. … A war between the United States and Iraq could not help but seem to many of the world’s people a war between white Westeners and Arabs.” 

    In a Dec. 23 interview with the Roman daily La Repubblica, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the pope’s foreign minister, said he was convinced war in Iraq would be a “disaster,” and said many other diplomats in Europe and elsewhere share that point of view. He cited one Arab minister who said an attack on Iraq would “open the gates of hell.” Other Vatican officials who have come out against the war include Cardinals Roger Etchegaray, Ignace Moussa Daoud, and Camillo Ruini, as well as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Fr. Pasquale Borgomeo, head of Vatican Radio. One wonders how aware American Catholics are of the strong anti-war line of the pope and his closest aides, and to what extent they are prepared to take it to heart. 

5. Autonomy of Religious Orders 

    Canon 586 of the Code of Canon Law promises religious orders “a true autonomy of life, especially of governance.” Traditionally this autonomy has been protected in order to allow religious orders to play a prophetic role in the church that would be difficult were they under the direct control of diocesan bishops or the Roman Curia. Periodically, however, church officials have sought to limit their freedom of action, and 2002 marked another chapter in this tug-of-war. In late June, the Vatican annulled the election of Capuchin Brother Bob Smith of Milwaukee as provincial of the Detroit-based Province of St. Joseph, on the grounds that a layperson cannot exercise jurisdiction over priests.Yet the Capuchins’ constitution makes no distinction between lay and ordained friars, in part because St. Francis himself was never a priest. 

    In October came a more sweeping development, tangentially related to the sex abuse crisis but with far broader implications. In a last-minute surprise, religious orders were included in the new sex abuse norms of the U.S. bishops. The change came in a footnote crafted during negotiations in Rome between representatives of the Vatican and the U.S. bishops, without consultation. Both the U.S.-based Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) as well as the Rome-based Union of Superiors General (USG) have voted to appeal the decision. Marist Fr. Ted Keating emphasized that the religious see this as an issue of independence. “The point is not protecting abusers. The concern is having bishops so deeply invaded into religious life and its governance,” Keating said. At present, the CMSM is readying for dialogue with the U.S. bishops, and the USG with the Vatican. Given the critical role that religious communities play in every area of Catholic life, this is a story that bears watching. 

4. Holy Rehabilitation 

    Often enough in 2002, when other Catholic stories did break through the noise, they got only transitory coverage, leaving many interesting angles unexplored. Hence the two mega-canonizations of the year, Padre Pio and Josemaría Escriva de Balaguer, became 24-hour stories focused on crowd size and atmospherics. The pope’s trip to Poland Aug. 16-19 was likewise told as a sentimental farewell journey, with the inevitable excursus on his “declining health.” Few bothered to report that the pope had actually come to propose 20th century Polish nun St. Faustina Kowalska and her message of Divine Mercy to the world. One fascinating sidebar that virtually no one developed: All three of these figures, so near and dear to John Paul’s heart, were distrusted, marginalized, and harassed by the Vatican in their day. Padre Pio and Faustina were both the object of official investigations. Padre Pio was repeatedly silenced and his ministry restricted by the Vatican, which suspected him of fraud, self-aggrandizement, and various shenanigans of both the financial and sexual sort. Faustina’s 600-page diary, recounting her spiritual experiences (the only mystical text composed in Polish), was suspected of doctrinal error and banned for almost 20 years beginning in 1959. Escriva, though never formally investigated by the Vatican, had his problems. Paul VI’s top aide, sostituto Giovanni Benelli, had reservations about the role Opus Dei played in Spanish politics, where Benelli had served in the papal embassy from 1962 to 1965. Benelli was pushing the Spanish church to be more critical of the Franco regime, and found that effort impeded by some Opus Dei members. (Escriva argued that Opus members were free to choose their political orientation, and in fact some Opus members opposed Franco). A sign of the deep freeze is that after June 25, 1973, Escriva was never granted another papal audience, despite repeated requests. He died two years later. Note that Padre Pio, Faustina, and Escriva are all 20th century figures. The swift reversal in their fortunes is perhaps the ultimate proof of the old Roman saying: “What one pope has done, another can undo.” 

3. Latin American Catholicism 

    John Paul’s July 29-August 1 swing through Guatemala and Mexico City might as well have taken him to the dark side of the moon in terms of English-language media interest. Yet there is arguably no region of the world more consequential for the future of the Catholic Church. Latin America is where almost 50 percent of the world’s Catholics live, and the population is disproportionately young. The region is home to a number of sharp cardinals mentioned as candidates to be the next pope — Rivera Carrera of Mexico, Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, Bergoglio of Argentina, Hummes of Brazil, López Rodriguez of the Dominican Republic. These cardinals are the only group openly thinking of themselves as a block. Rodriguez Maradiaga recently said: “I believe that there will be a Latin American pope, and that Latin American pope will be able to help to solve the North-South conflict as John Paul II helped to solve the East-West conflict.” 

    On his 2002 outing to Latin America, John Paul came to promote an indigenous Christianity, responding to the inroads of evangelical Protestant groups among indigenous populations. He canonized Juan Diego, an Aztec visionary to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe is said to have revealed herself, and beatified two 18th century Zapotec Indian martyrs, Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles. During the latter ceremony, Indian women bearing smoking pots of incense brushed branches of herbs on the pontiff in a limpia, or purification ceremony that is believed to cure spiritual and physical ailments by driving off evil spirits. This sort of thing wounds liturgical purists, but the pope wanted to make a statement that Catholicism and indigenous traditions are compatible. Yet in the same year, John Paul’s Vatican cracked down on a similar effort in southern Chiapas, where two bishops in a row, Samuel Ruiz and Felipe Arizmendi, had aggressively pursued the training of 344 Indian deacons. Many indigenous communities, they argued, do not respect celibate priests, but have higher esteem for married deacons with families. 

    On Feb. 1, the Vatican ordered Arizmendi to suspend the program for five years, saying that the diocese needs more priests instead. This reflects a broad feature of John Paul’s Latin American policy, which has embraced some forms of inculturation but opposed others (liberation theology). Some see this approach as discerning, others contradictory. By any standard, however, the condition in which John Paul leaves the Latin American church is a story that deserves a deeper look. 

2. The Deal in Campos 

    Here’s a story that had no traction whatsoever, in part because it didn’t fit the sex abuse script, in part because it took place in an isolated part of Brazil, and in part because it involves theological and canonical complexities that make editors’ eyes glaze over. It just might be, however, one of the most significant developments in the internal life of the Catholic Church in this pontificate. The setting is the diocese of Campos, Brazil, where Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer reigned for 33 years, from January 1949 to November 1981. 

    De Castro Mayer was the brains behind the Coetus Internationalis Patrum, the conservative opposition at Vatican II, and over the years he inoculated his people against the infections of what he saw as “modernism.” Priests in Campos did not celebrate the New Mass of Paul VI until after de Castro Mayer’s retirement in 1981. (Though de Castro Mayer was a close friend of Swiss Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and took part in his 1988 ordinations of four bishops that sealed his break with Rome, Campos was never part of Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X). When de Castro Mayer’s successor made the new Mass obligatory, a majority of the priests and people walked out and built a parallel diocese. They erected churches, schools, clinics and convents, all in defiance of the local bishop. 

    The priests of Campos openly attacked Paul VI and John Paul II’s theology both on liturgy and on ecumenism, citing Innocent III that in questions of faith the pope can be judged by the church, and St. Robert Bellarmine about the moral duty to resist orders that contradict the faith. In some cases they sued the “official” bishop, in other cases they physically resisted his orders to turn over church property. It was an open ecclesiastical rebellion that makes “Voice of the Faithful” protests in Boston look like a mannered Victorian tea party. (The story is recounted in The Mouth of the Lion: Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer and the Last Catholic Diocese by David Allen White, published in 1993 by Angelus Press). Then in February 2002, the unthinkable happened: the 27 Campos priests made peace with Rome, gaining the canonical status of “apostolic administration.” 

    They now form, in effect, their own independent diocese. A ceremony of reconciliation was held Jan. 18 at the Campos cathedral, celebrated by Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. Campos cleric Licínio Rangel, whose 1991 ordination as a bishop was rejected as illicit by the Vatican, was recognized as administrator. (Rangel has since died). The “Prodigal Son”-style outcome is being studied by other estranged parties in the church as a possible model for healing their own schisms. The Campos saga suggests that today’s rebels may be tomorrow’s heroes, and that in the Catholic Church every final act is really only provisional. 

1. Healing the East/West Divide 

    John Paul’s outreach to the Orthodox is the towering priority in this phase of his pontificate, and 2002 will be remembered as a pivotal year, for good and ill, in the effort. Despite the 1,000 years of recrimination that separate Eastern and Western Christianity, there were moments in 2002 that seemed to mark progress. In March, a six-member delegation from the Greek Orthodox Church in Athens visited Rome. The pope’s May 22-26 trip to Bulgaria, a historically and cultural Orthodox nation, generated positive notices in the Orthodox world. The warmly received early October visit of Romanian Patriarch Teoctist to Rome was another promising moment. Yet the year’s thunderclap came Feb. 11, when the Vatican announced that four apostolic administrations in Russia had been upgraded to full-fledged dioceses. It was taken as an act of war by the Orthodox, who cancelled a scheduled visit by Cardinal Walter Kasper and cut off dialogue. On March 16, Kasper shot back with an essay in the semi-official Vatican journal Civilità Cattolica, accusing the Orthodox of an “ecclesiological heresy” in their insistence that Russia is their “canonical territory.” 

    In return, the Orthodox produced a report documenting what they consider Catholic “proselytism” in Russia. It posed the seemingly logical question of why the Catholic Church needs four new dioceses to serve its tiny, largely Polish and Ukranian flock, if not to provide “room for growth” from a missionary point of view. Over the next several months, one Catholic bishop and several priests had their visas annulled, preventing them from re-entering Russia. Many observers wondered how the Vatican could have made such a provocative decision in light of the pope’s obvious desire for better relations, but the truth is that the Catholic Church is just as divided as the Orthodox in terms of ecumenical attitudes. Doves want peace at almost any price, while hawks favor a harder line against what they see as the historically and theologically suspect motives of the other. One observer who knows the scene well, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Ukraine, has said that the present generation in Eastern Europe is so shaped by the psychology of mistrust that it will have to die off before real ecumenical progress can be made. Yet even during the year-long deep chill, informal contacts continued. 

    A Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Sant’Egidio conference in Terni, an hour north of Rome, on Eastern and Western monasticism brought the number two official in the Russian hierarchy, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kalingrad, in touch with Catholic counterparts. Though the Vatican has never officially confirmed the visit, Kirill also came to Rome over this time for secret talks. Finally, at the very end of the year, Russian Patriarch Alexy II sent a Christmas message to John Paul II calling for a resumption of “brotherly dialogue.” It seemed to suggest hope. At one level, the East/West divide can seem a matter of arcane theological disputes such as the filioque clause; or it can seem largely a question of church politics, of how much papal power is too much. Both are indeed at stake. But there is something more, which even by the standards of secular journalism turns John Paul’s ecumenical crusade into a crucially important story. Recall that in his famous Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington sees Orthodox-inspired Eastern Europe as one of the cultures aligned against the West. If John Paul succeeds in promoting a common Christian Europe that “breathes with both lungs,” East and West, he will have profoundly changed the global equation … again.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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