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 The Word From Rome

January 9, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 20

global perspective


"There doesn't seem to be any objective motive for surprise, or worse, for scandal, in the extension Vatican II made in the doctrine of 'seeds of the word' from the limits taught by some fathers and apologists, to the universality, today better understood and experienced, of the religions and the cultures of the various peoples."

Jesuit Fr. Giandomenico Mucci
writing in La Civiltà Cattolica

U.S. bishops issue abuse report; More on 'The Passion'; Religious diversity debate; A memoir of Ernesto Cardenal; Differing diplomatic and political visions


On Jan. 6, the U.S. bishops issued the first of three much-anticipated reports on the sex abuse crisis. Two more will come Feb. 27, including a study from John Jay College in New York on the scope of the crisis — which should offer the first official accounting of the number of priests involved, the number of victims, and the financial impact.

The report presented this week was an audit of American dioceses on their compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted by the bishops in Dallas in June 2002. It found that 90 percent of dioceses are in basic compliance, a result that played to largely positive comment in the American press, although victims’ groups argued that since the auditors worked for the bishops it was not a credible probe.

As the news broke on Tuesday, colleagues in the secular press called me looking for Vatican reaction. Aside from the fact that Jan. 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany and therefore the Holy See was closed, I pointed out that the Vatican does not usually comment upon the documents of bishops’ conferences, regarding that as something for the bishops. Hence there was no official “reaction” to the report.

Speaking on background, however, several Vatican officials talked with me about the audit. Most were appreciative. They admired the professionalism of the work, which relied largely on former FBI agents, and the apparent determination of the bishops to live up to their commitments. They also felt that given the meltdown of the last 24 months, any positive news about the Catholic church in the States is a sign of progress.

At the same time, however, officials continued to voice reservations about some aspects of the American approach.

For one thing, officials told me, it’s still unclear to them what “sexual abuse” means in the American context. Thus if the John Jay report lists “x number of incidents in y years,” these officials will wonder what the criteria were for classifying something as an “incident.” This becomes a particularly acute problem if one review board in one diocese decides that a given behavior constitutes sexual abuse and thus a priest is removed for life, while in another diocese similar behavior triggers no disciplinary consequences.

Second, some officials still question the “zero tolerance” policy itself, which stipulates that a priest will be removed from ministry for life for even one incident of sexual abuse of a minor. These officials believe that in cases of a less serious offense in the distant past, priests should, at least in some instances, be able to resume a ministry. Since the norms were approved by the Holy See with an expiration date of March 2005, the U.S. bishops will have to begin the process of requesting a new recognitio, or canonical approval, in 2004. The “zero tolerance” issue will likely come up in talks with the Holy See.

A related concern has to do with due process rights. One hears horror stories in the Vatican about priests who have been suspended as a result of an accusation, and then “cut off” by their bishops, with no further communication and hence no chance for their day in court.

Finally, some Vatican officials continue to express reservations about the role of the National Review Board, especially the concept that laity are exercising a sort of ill-defined authority over bishops. Encroachment on episcopal authority from prosecutors and lawmakers in the civil sector has also created alarm. If the heart of the sexual abuse crisis was a failure of some bishops to do their jobs, these officials reason, it’s unwise to create other means to “pass the buck.”

To some in America, especially victims and their families, it might seem almost obscene to fret over the authority of bishops when the issue is the sexual abuse of children.  Yet from the Vatican’s point of view, this concern has deep historical and psychological roots. Periods when the church has been fuzzy about the role of bishops have tended to coincide with crises. The corruption that paved the way for the Protestant Reformation, for example, was made possible in part by absentee bishops who let clergy go to seed. (By the time the Council of Trent opened in the mid-16th century, no bishop had lived in Milan for 100 years). Ensuring that bishops are clear as to their powers and responsibilities is thus, rightly or wrongly, considered the best means to prevent all manner of abuse.

While the Vatican will receive with satisfaction any good news from the States, it’s safe to say these underlying concerns have not gone away.

* * *

About the only serious criticism I received in response to last week’s rundown of the “Top Ten Vatican Stories of 2003” was that I didn’t include Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of Christ.” Since it hasn’t even opened yet, I felt I’d have plenty of time to deal with it in 2004. Recent events suggest the subject isn’t going away.

For the moment, controversy surrounds John Paul II’s reported thumbs-up for the film: “It is as it was.”

I reported the pope’s reaction, meaning that John Paul believes the movie is a faithful depiction of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life as described in the New Testament, in a breaking news piece on the NCR web site on Wednesday, Dec. 17, at midday (see Pope likes Gibson's new film). At virtually the same moment, the Wall Street Journal posted a column by Peggy Noonan in which she too quoted the pope, with the same words. Noonan cited the pope’s private aide, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, as the source, relayed to her through the movie’s producer Steve McEveety; my piece quoted an unnamed senior Vatican official. I had not been aware of Noonan’s column, as I presume she was unaware of my report.

The pope’s quote made the rounds of major news agencies, alternately citing the National Catholic Reporter or the Wall Street Journal.

On Dec. 24, however, Catholic News Service quoted two Vatican officials, once again unnamed, to the effect that the pope had made no such remark. “The Holy Father does not comment, does not give judgments on art,” one official said to CNS. “I repeat: There was no declaration, no judgment from the pope.”

Rumors swirled in Rome this week that a major American newspaper would soon carry a piece also suggesting the pope did not make the remark.

One factor fueling the confusion is that Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls has so far not responded to requests for clarification. Normally, if a major newspaper quotes the pope as saying something he didn’t actually say, Navarro would issue a denial. Initially, therefore, most people took Navarro’s silence as confirmation of the original story. As he remained silent after other news agencies, including the highly respected CNS, issued contradictory reports, uncertainty grew as to what the truth actually is.

In the wake of all this, I went back to the original source of my report, a well-placed Vatican official who is normally a reliable guide to the pope’s mind. The official is adamant that the original story was right — the pope did indeed say, “It is as it was.”

The source added a few details. The pope watched the film in two segments over the evenings of Friday, Dec. 5, and Saturday, Dec. 6. He did so in the company of Dziwisz, his secretary. The two men watched the film, by themselves, in the pope’s private apartment, in the dining room that has a television with a fairly large screen and a VCR. The pope watched the movie on a European-format VHS videocassette. The next day, Dziwisz had a conversation with McEveety and the film’s assistant director, Jan Michelini, in which he relayed John Paul’s reaction, which this source said was accurately quoted in NCR and The Wall Street Journal.

If this is so, why doesn’t Navarro confirm the remark?

One possible explanation, according to Vatican sources, is that some individuals in the papal household were unhappy with the way the movie’s producers seemed to be milking John Paul’s reaction for publicity purposes. Although the pope wanted the people responsible for the film to know he enjoyed it, he didn’t necessarily intend “It is at it was” to end up on posters and newspaper ads. Hence the silence has perhaps been styled to dampen commercial exploitation.

A simpler reason is that the Vatican doesn’t like to comment on matters it perceives as the pope’s private affair. I recall asking a Vatican official a year ago about speculation that John Paul II had been swimming at Castel Gandolfo over the summer, surely not a state secret, and was told: si tratta della vita privata del papa, meaning, "that’s a matter of the private life of the pope."

Unfortunately, this is not like a debate that might have occurred 25 years ago, when the press could ask him about it in the back of the plane on the next trip. Today John Paul II never gets close enough to journalists to take questions. The only way to resolve the matter is an official clarification from Navarro.

In the absence of such a statement, those who don’t want to believe the pope said “It is as it was” are free to deny it, while those eager for a papal seal of approval can continue to assert it. This sort of confusion is not only frustrating, but it feeds images of an aging pope and an out-of-control Vatican bureaucracy, where even the pope’s very words are up for grabs, to be spun by whatever constituency has an agenda.

* * *

In the high-stakes theological debate over religious diversity, the Vatican has often played the role of “Doctor No,” fixing boundaries to speculation. The best example was the September 2000 document Dominus Iesus, which asserted that followers of other religions are in a “gravely deficient situation” with respect to Christians. Investigations of theologians such as Jesuits Jacques Dupuis and Roger Haight also make the point.

Yet if the Vatican has reined in the avante garde, it has not thereby endorsed the reactionaries. The latest proof of the point came in the January 2004 edition of La Civiltà Cattolica, with an article by Jesuit Fr. Giandomenico Mucci on the ancient Christian doctrine of  “Seeds of the Word.”

Several early Christian writers, such as Justin, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, spoke admiringly of Hellenistic religious and philosophical figures, saying they drew upon “seeds of the word” — anticipations of Christ’s revelation. In that sense, for example, Justin praised Socrates as a kind of proto-Christian who lived according to the Logos.

Some Catholic theologians who today want to find a positive role in salvation history for non-Christian religions have appealed to this doctrine. Critics, however, argue that this is a distortion of what the church fathers meant. The fathers, they insist, used this doctrine to convince pagans that Christianity is the fulfillment of their imperfect ideas, not to confirm them in that imperfection. The late theologian Paul Hacker, a Lutheran who joined the Catholic church, once sneered that while the fathers used the “seeds of the word” doctrine to produce apologies for Christianity, today liberal theologians use it to produce apologies for paganism.

Mucci is aware of this criticism, citing Hacker in a footnote, and he agrees that non-Christian religions as such cannot be regarded as paths of salvation because they contain “lacunae, insufficiencies and errors.” (Obviously this does not mean non-Christians cannot be saved).

At the same time, however, Mucci’s main point is to reject a Catholic “fundamentalism” that holds there can be no forward development or organic growth in doctrine. Just because the fathers of the church didn’t apply the idea of “seeds of the word” to non-Christian religions, rather than individuals, doesn’t mean the church of today can’t make such an application, Mucci argues. Doing so will lead, as it did at Vatican II, to a more positive evaluation of non-Christian religions, acknowledging the many elements of “truth and grace” they contain, as the conciliar document Ad Gentes said.

Thus Mucci’s bottom line: “There doesn’t seem to be any objective motive for surprise, or worse, for scandal, in the extension Vatican II made in the doctrine of ‘seeds of the word’ from the limits taught by some fathers and apologists, to the universality, today better understood and experienced, of the religions and the cultures of the various peoples.”

Mucci’s last paragraph is worth quoting at length.

“The Church in its historic experience, as it grows in the penetration of the data of revelation, also grows in an ever more perfect consciousness of its duty to understand and to love. [The Church] is the depository of the charity of Christ and the vessel of his Spirit. Charity possesses total liberty before historical and pastoral situations: a liberty that faithfully safeguards that which pertains to revelation, and excludes, precisely because of its faithfulness to revelation, a pure and simple archaeological cult of the past.”

La Civiltà Cattolica is edited by Jesuits, but is reviewed by the Secretariat of State prior to publication and hence is considered a semi-official Vatican journal. It arguably reflects Vatican thinking more reliably than L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, which is edited by layman Mario Agnes and is not reviewed by anyone in officialdom. Thus this signal of encouragement for doctrinal development, however cautiously circumscribed, should strike attentive readers as significant.

Mucci, by the way, is the spiritual director at the prestigious Accademia, where the church’s future diplomats are trained. The Accademia has produced five popes: Clement XIII, Leo XII, Leo XIII, Benedict XV, and Paul VI. Two high-profile American graduates are Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Archbishop James Harvey, the pope's public secretary.

Two footnotes.

First, Mucci’s implied criticism of Paul Hacker is all the more remarkable given that Hacker, who died in 1979, was an important intellectual influence and personal friend of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official and the man responsible for Dominus Iesus. In his 1997 memoir Milestones, Ratzinger wrote of Hacker: “His work is hardly taken into account nowadays, but I am convinced that someday it will be rediscovered, and then it will still have much to say.” Ratzinger wrote an admiring foreword to Hacker’s study of Martin Luther.

Second, the battle over the “seeds of the word” crops up in the Dec. 15, 2003, issue of Sì Sì No No, a favorite publication of the Italian Catholic far-right. It carries a long feature critiquing Fr. Piero Coda, a theologian at the Lateran University (traditionally known as “the pope’s university”) for his views on inter-religious dialogue, and specifically his appeal to “seeds of the word” to argue that non-Christian religions can have their own divine revelation.  Since Sì Sì No No enjoys the informal backing of certain Vatican conservatives, the attack on Coda, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, is an indication of how sensitive this issue can be … and how unresolved in some important ways the Vatican’s own thinking is.

* * *

A remarkable concert will take place in the Vatican on Jan. 17, in the Paul VI Audience Hall. Styled as a “Papal Concert of Reconciliation,” it features Christian, Muslim and Jewish guests, who will hear an original piece of music penned for the event by American composer John Harbison. It’s based on the Old Testament figure of Abraham, venerated by all three Western monotheistic traditions.

The concert is sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, at a cost of more than $500,000. The star attraction (other than the pope himself) is world-renowned conductor Gilbert Levine, a personal friend of John Paul II. He will be leading the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, whose participation has been arranged through Bishop Donald Wuerl, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, and U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson.

Wuerl will lead a delegation from Pittsburgh at the event, while Santorum is unlikely to attend.

Harbison’s piece will be sung by a chorus including members of the London Philharmonic Choir, the Krakow Philharmonic Choir, the Ankara State Polyphonic Choir from Turkey and Members of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.  Among other things, this marks the first time an American orchestra has performed for the pope.

“It’s significant that all three faiths of Abraham will be involved in performing for the Holy Father,” Nicholson told NCR in a Jan. 8 telephone interview from Washington.

Nicholson said he had just finished a two-and-a-half day consultation in Washington for American ambassadors in Europe, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

“The transcendent message was the need for public diplomacy and outreach, especially to the Muslim communities of the world, espousing American values and vision,” Nicholson said. “We need to reach out, embracing religious diversity, seeking understanding of others and their understanding of us. For us to be a catalyst for such a significant event for the Holy Father fits in perfectly.”

Nicholson said the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christianity Unity, which handles relations with Jews, and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, responsible for relations with Muslims, have both been supportive.

Nicholson told NCR that bringing an American orchestra to Rome to perform for John Paul II has been a goal since he became ambassador in 2001, in part because it would symbolize the “universality” of music and its capacity to bridge differences.

“John Paul II is committed to inter-faith understanding and outreach,” Nicholson said. “The United States embraces that and reflects it. We both want reconciliation among the children of Abraham.”

The other major composition to be performed in the Jan. 17 concert is Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. The concert also celebrates John Paul’s 25th anniversary as pope.

* * *

Anyone who followed the battles over liberation theology in the 1980s knows the name of Ernesto Cardenal, the Catholic priest and poet who served as Minister of Culture in the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

John Paul II’s public rebuke of Cardenal on the airport tarmac in Managua in 1983 became the leading icon of the struggles over liberation theology in the Roman Catholic Church.

Cardenal has now produced a memoir covering 1979-1990, the period from the successful anti-Somoza revolution through Daniel Ortega’s electoral defeat to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. The book was published by the Nicaraguan house Anama Ediciones, and was presented recently in Managua.

Cardenal cedes little ground to John Paul, more than 20 years after their famous encounter.

“What most displeased the pope about the revolution in Nicaragua is that it was a revolution that did not persecute the church,” he said, presumably ironically. Cardenal drew a comparison with nearby El Salvador, where several priests and Archbishop Oscar Romero were assassinated by right-wing forces.

During the same 1983 visit to Managua, John Paul was forced to shout “silence!” at a group of Sandinista enthusiasts at his Mass who were protesting the deaths of 17 youths in a Contra attack, refusing to quiet down even during the homily. Many found their behavior boorish, but Cardenal was defiant.

“The people should show respect to the pope, it is true,” he said. “But before that the pope must show respect to the people.”

One aspect of Cardenal’s biography of which I had not been aware: At age 31, he began his pursuit of a religious vocation as a Trappist novice in Gethsemani, Kentucky, under the direction of famed American monk and writer Thomas Merton. The two men apparently became friends. Cardenal’s first collection of poetry in 1960 is named for Gethsemani.

* * *

The murder of Archbishop Michael Courtney in Burundi Dec. 29, especially as it came during the holiday season, hit the Vatican hard. It was the first time a papal nuncio, or ambassador, had been killed in the line of duty.

On Jan. 8, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, celebrated a memorial Mass for Courtney in St. Peter’s Basilica. Cardinal Francis Arinze, who consecrated Courtney a bishop, was dispatched by John Paul II to lead the funeral Mass in Courtney’s native Ireland.

John Paul said Courtney was killed “while he carried out his mission in favor of dialogue and reconciliation. Let us pray for him, hoping that his example and sacrifice will bring about the fruits of peace in Burundi and the world,” the pope said.

* * *

An epilogue to the controversy over Cardinal Renato Martino’s expression of sympathy for the captured Saddam Hussein, complaining that Hussein was treated “like a cow.”

While the remarks triggered a flood of angry e-mails, faxes, and letters from Americans and others, the response was not entirely hostile. I noted two weeks ago, for example, that Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan was appreciative of Martino’s comments at a Rome press conference.

Another positive review has come in.

In the Dec. 28 La Stampa, one of Italy’s major dailies, noted leftist writer Barbara Spinelli praised Martino’s defense of the “inviolable transcendence” of the human body.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve heard similar language from the ecclesiastical hierarchy,” she said, “words that come from afar, that have the sound of the Psalms and the prophets, which resuscitate the linguistic ardor of Dante.” She also compared Martino’s language to that of St. Francis.

Spinelli concluded that Martino’s comments reflected “the beauty of holiness.”

All of which goes to show that one person’s gaffe is another’s epigram.

* * *

In a Dec. 30 interview with the Catholic News Service, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson said that despite tensions over the war in Iraq, U.S./Vatican relations are strong, based on what he called a “foundation of shared values.” He said the Roman Curia has a positive impression of President George Bush, based in part on the fact that Bush has responded affirmatively to requests for interventions in Russia and China.

The account largely rings true. In the Vatican, and especially in the Secretariat of State, there is great respect for the United States, for Bush, and for Nicholson. There is a sense that on many questions, especially matters of religious freedom, the U.S. and the Vatican share common interests.

At the same time, however, matters are a bit more complex. For one thing, some Vatican officials share the political prejudices of other European leaders, resenting what they see as Bush’s “cowboy” style.

More fundamentally, there are four areas where the United States and the Holy See appear to have contrasting diplomatic and political visions. They are:

Preventive War: The Bush administration believes that since the primary threat today comes from terrorist organizations, you can’t wait for formal declarations of war, or even traditional threats such as troops massing on one’s borders, before taking action. The Holy See believes that a State has the right to use force only in clear cases of self-defense. Otherwise, “preventive war” is a euphemism for aggression.

International Law: The Vatican believes in a robust system of international law to ensure the strong do not impose their will on the weak, while the United States has long been ambivalent about features of the international legal system such as the International Criminal Court. Moreover, the Bush administration believes some aspects of international law are not adequate to the challenges posed by terrorism.

The United Nations: The United States sees the U.N. as a forum for cooperation among sovereign states, but not as an organization whose blessing is mandatory before action can be taken. The Vatican seeks a U.N. with teeth to ensure that globalization works for the common good, and to ensure that all nations participate democratically in framing of global policies.

The U.S. Role in the World: The Vatican is an advocate of multi-lateralism, in part because it’s leery of a world dominated by Washington. Some Vatican thinkers believe that American culture — which they see as individualistic, hyper-capitalistic, and dualistic — leaves something to be desired as a vehicle for Roman Catholic anthropology and social ethics.

I expand on these points in an article that appears in the January 16 issue of NCR.

* * *

Over the holidays, I was called upon to do a bit of media commentary about the pope and his various messages. Twice I was on National Public Radio, which you can find here: NPR Jan. 4 and NPR Dec. 25.

I was honored to join two terrific religion writers in the States, Cathy Grossman of USA Today and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, on PBS’ “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” to look ahead at the big religion stories of 2004. You can find a transcript here: PBS transcript

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

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