National Catholic Reporter ®

January 4, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 19

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Praying for peace; angst over the Middle East;
A plea for kindness to biblical scholars

When John Paul scans the world scene, the one conflict that obviously troubles him most is the Middle East. He said in his Christmas Urbi et Orbi message: “Day after day, I bear in my heart the tragic problems of the Holy Land.” 

In part, this attention reflects a genuine horror that the birthplace of the Prince of Peace is so scarred by war. In part, however, there is also a Realpolitik motive for Vatican concern: Christian depopulation. 

John Paul II’s next big turn on the world stage will come Jan. 24 in Assisi, when he summons leaders of the world’s religions, for the third time, to the birthplace of St. Francis. The agenda is to pray for peace.

     One can reasonably wonder about the efficacy of such made-for-TV events. The 1986 gathering did not end the Cold War, and the 1993 summit hardly stopped the bloodletting in Bosnia. Moreover, the Vatican’s theological skittishness about syncretism will once again put the pope in the embarrassing position of declining to pray with non-Christian spiritual leaders. Every group will retreat to its own corner for prayer, a symbol of division rather than unity.

     (That, by the way, has not been enough to stop Catholic ultra-traditionalists from blasting the event. I recently saw a letter to friends and benefactors of the St. Pius X Society, followers of schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, warning that the Assisi summit “forever reduces truth to the level of a subjective, personal opinion, having no meaning outside of one’s own personal consciousness”).

     For myself, I still believe the papal bully pulpit is important. As I was writing this column, I happened to hear George Bush on the BBC World Service describe Osama bin Laden as “pure evil.” When the commander of the most powerful army in the history of the planet defines an enemy in such apocalyptic terms, one can sense a bad moon rising. Any voice of peace and pardon, especially one that can guarantee prime time exposure on CNN, is welcome. 

     I will be in Assisi to cover the story for NCR.

* * *

     When John Paul scans the world scene, the one conflict that obviously troubles him most is the Middle East. He said in his Christmas Urbi et Orbi message: “Day after day, I bear in my heart the tragic problems of the Holy Land.” 

     In part, this attention reflects a genuine horror that the birthplace of the Prince of Peace is so scarred by war. In part, however, there is also a Realpolitik motive for Vatican concern: Christian depopulation. 

     The Christian exodus from the occupied territories, to which such appeals are an increasingly desperate response, is dramatic. In Bethlehem, 20 percent of the population is Christian and 80 percent is Muslim. Thirty-five years ago, those numbers were reversed. By most estimates, some 1,000 Christians a year are leaving the region, a serious hemorrhage from a total Christian population of some 170,000 in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Christians find themselves squeezed by fundamentalist Islamic intolerance, the corruption and chaos of the Palestinian Authority, and the bone-crunching economic consequences of the Israeli crackdown.

     The nightmare scenario is that Bethlehem and Nazareth could become Christian holy sites with no living Christian presence, under the control of Muslim extremists.

     Driven by this fear, the Vatican has become increasingly critical of the Sharon government, considering it the stronger party and hence most responsible for the impasse. Relations between the Vatican and Israel are frosty. 

     I recently interviewed the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Yosef Lamdan. Choosing his words very carefully, he said, “Vatican diplomacy does not put great emphasis on outreach.” It is a polite way of putting the point. Other sources told me that while Lamdan is frequently asked by his superiors to make representations to the Vatican, mostly along the lines of why the Israelis are victims of Palestinian terrorism, the Vatican has not once initiated a policy conversation with Lamdan.

     Though the Vatican has also been critical of the Palestinians, it’s clear where the preference lies. Small gestures as well as policy statements tell the story. The small chapel in the synod hall, for example, is lined with a set of pearl-white Stations of the Cross, a gift to John Paul from Yaser Arafat.

     Christians on the ground, meanwhile, tend to be still more fiercely pro-Palestinian. This is in part because most are Arabs. Many of the early authors of pan-Arabist ideology were Christian; the idea was that being Arab, rather than being Muslim, might become the touchstone of regional identity. In part, their bias is simple realism. Christians realize that if they have a future in places such as Bethlehem and Nazareth, it will be under the Palestinians.

     Of course, this is a complex, tangled mess, and no simple assignment of blame will suffice. For one thing, as Israeli officials point out, there is no commensurate Christian depopulation in Israel; in fact, the Christian population has inched up each of the last three years. Moreover, Christian leaders in the region were not always so enthusiastic about the Palestinian cause. Not long ago, many Christians wanted Bethlehem annexed into greater Jerusalem, on the theory that the Israelis would never abandon Jerusalem and hence would never abandon the Christians. Thus some Israelis find the current finger-pointing from the Christian side disingenuous.

     For all of John Paul’s well-intended concern, the papacy also has its share of historical responsibility. As Italian journalist Gad Lerner points out in Crusades: The Millennium of Hate, Christian abandonment of the Holy Land is related historically to the debacle of the crusaders, whipped into a frenzy by a string of popes. They left Jerusalem, as Lerner puts it, a city “full of churches and empty of Christians.” Of its 600,000 people, some 10,000 are Christian.

     One hopes peace will finally come. One also hopes there will be room for a faithful remnant of Christians, who remind us of our origins — and of our destiny in the “heavenly Jerusalem” that, after Sept. 11, seems more distant than ever.


     The holiday season is a time for savoring book treats long promised to oneself but oft-delayed. One title I can recommend is I Call You Friends, by former Dominican Master General Timothy Radcliffe (Continuum).

     Radcliffe is currently on sabbatical after finishing his nine-year term. I know him personally and consider him a treasure, so I was not surprised by the vision in the book, which is intelligent, warm, and traditional in the best sense. 

     It’s a pity that Radcliffe has been seized upon in certain circles as a standard-bearer for Catholic liberalism, because nothing is further from his spirit than being a partisan in ecclesiastical debates. His special gift lies in pointing a way beyond polarities. As he puts it, Catholics should be “mendicants of truth” -- hands outstretched, begging for pieces of the truth wherever one can find it, from whatever ideology or life experience or point of view.

     Radcliffe also has a wonderful human touch. I recall seeing him in action at a missionary conference in Rome in December 2000 (his text is in the book), where he followed the fiery Joan Chittister. At one point Sr. Joan made a typically uproarious joke about men in the church, forgetting momentarily that Radcliffe was sitting to her left. He smiled impishly, and when Joan realized that her quip could be taken as a shot at Radcliffe, whom in fact she adores, she grimaced. Radcliffe smiled even more broadly, leaned over, and planted a kiss on her cheek. The crowd, needless to say, went wild.

     Talk about preaching without need of words.

     Something I had forgotten about Radcliffe, which his book called to mind, is that he taught Biblical studies at Oxford for twelve years. As I think about it now, this may have something to do with his open, confident Orthodoxy, a kind of faith that does not need heresy-hunters rushing to its defense.

     In my experience, Biblical scholars tend to be theologically tolerant and non-defensive folk, in part because they know pluralism is at the heart of Christian origins. In the first century we had not one “Christianity,” but several “Christianities.” Biblical scholars are not scandalized by historical or scientific challenges to the faith; they realize that over the long run such challenges are usually productive. Biblical scholars realize that every literary formulation, even of a dogma, is provisional, always open to new understandings.

     At Vatican II, many of the prelates responsible for the council’s progressive direction were graduates of the Pontifical Biblical Institute: Joseph Frings, Achille Liénart, Giacomo Lercaro, Bernard Alfrink, and Franz König. Of course, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan is also a scripture scholar.

     Consider the recent transition in Australia from the former archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Edward Bede Clancy, to the current man, George Pell. Clancy took a licensiate from the Biblicum in the 1950s. As cardinal, he was no radical. He once said women’s ordination would be like adding a fourth person to the Trinity. Yet he left room open for local flexibility, and he defended the moderate tone of the Australian church against a handful of shrill conservative critics. That moderation is noticeably absent under Pell.

     Did Clancy’s Biblical studies make the difference? By themselves, maybe not. But exposure to scripture study helps shape a turn of mind that in my opinion is almost always tonic. (And yes, for the record, my graduate studies were in the New Testament and early Christian literature).

     Find yourself pondering papabile with this in mind?

     Someday I’ll scour the academic backgrounds of all the candidates. For now I can point out one interesting tidbit. Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga Rodríguez of Honduras, an attractive figure for a variety of reasons, did his theological work at the Alfonsian Academy in Rome. He studied under famed Redemptorist moral theologian Fr. Bernard Häring, who jousted with the Vatican a time or two. Rodríguez calls Häring a “mentor.” 

     When Rodríguez was named a cardinal in February, I dropped by the Alfonsian to read his thesis, written in 1974. (Judging from the layer of dust, I think I was the first person to ever pull it off the shelf). It breathes the post-conciliar air. Rodríguez wrote that the Christian moral life cannot be reduced to “a series of prohibitions,” but instead should be a loving response to “the dignity, the nobility, the ideal of a new creature in Christ.”

     The subject? 

     Moral thought in the letters of St. Paul. 

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

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