National Catholic Reporter ®

January 10, 2003
Vol. 2, No.20

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Iraqi bishop welcomes latest papal appeals for peace; the trouble with labels; on U.S. Catholic higher education

 “The sanctions, from my point of view, are themselves a weapon of mass destruction .  It is a different kind of war. To kill people in this way is simply not fair.”

Andraos Abouna
Auxiliary bishop of Baghdad
Over the holidays John Paul II intensified his appeals for peace, voicing his most transparent opposition yet to the idea of a U.S.-led war in Iraq. 

     During his Christmas Mass, the pope prayed that humanity will strive “to extinguish the ominous smoldering of a conflict that, with the joint efforts of all, can be avoided.” On New Year’s Day, he spoke in similar terms. “In dealing with ongoing conflicts and tension growing more threatening, I pray that peaceful ways of settling conflicts be sought after, driven by loyal and constructive cooperation in accordance with the principles of international law,” John Paul said.

     Few people were probably listening more attentively than Andraos Abouna, the new auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, who was personally consecrated by the pope along with 11 other new bishops on the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6. Abouna will aid Patriarch Raphaël I Bidawid of Baghdad in shepherding a community of some 600,000 Iraqi Chaldean Catholics, who may soon find themselves at ground zero of the war John Paul is begging the world to avoid.

Andraos Abouna
Auxiliary bishop of Baghdad

     Abouna, 59, sat down for an interview with NCR on Jan. 8, on the campus of Rome’s Urbaniana University, where generations of seminarians from “mission countries” have come to study.

     The prospect of war isn’t just theoretical for Abouna. The Amiriya bomb shelter in Baghdad, which was obliterated by U.S. stealth bombers on February 13, 1991, killing 600-1,000 civilians, was located right next to the parish where he served as pastor. He actually helped remove the bodies, which he described as “burned beyond recognition.” Abouna had by that point studied and served in the United States in San Francisco, San Diego, Detroit and Chicago, and he has a great affection for Americans. Hence, he said, it was heartbreaking for him to see so much death caused by American bombs.

     Since 1991, Abouna, who was born in Zakho in northern Iraq, has served as pastor to the roughly 650 Chaldean Catholic families in London. By March, however, he expects to be back in Baghdad. He was there a month ago, he said, making arrangements for the move. He found the Iraqi people anxious but largely fatalistic about what is to come.

     Abouna said he was grateful for the pope’s calls for peace, and even if John Paul had not mentioned Iraq by name, “it’s clear” what he means. 

     “We asked the Holy Father to pray for peace in Baghdad,” Abouna said, “and you could see that he was moved. When he speaks about Baghdad, he does so from the heart, because this is the land of Abraham, the first believer in God. For us it is the Holy Land.”

     Abouna said he also appreciates the letter from the U.S. bishops on Iraq, which he described as a “very, very good statement.”

     Still, he is a realist about the potential impact of such interventions from religious leaders, given that John Paul opposed the Gulf War in 1991 and it didn’t stop the bombs from falling.

     “Politicians act in their own interest, often for economic reasons,” he said. “They don’t so much care what religious leaders say.”

     Abouna was in London when a disparate coalition of opposition forces met Dec. 14-16 to talk about a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The meeting was marred by bickering, and Abouna said he didn’t see anyone there who looked like a potential national leader. He said if you ask most Iraqis, “they prefer what they know to what they don’t know.” 

     Of course Abouna is preparing to return to Baghdad, so there are lots of reasons why he undoubtedly watches what he says about Saddam. Yet I had the impression that he wasn’t raising doubts about what might follow Hussein just for rhetorical effect.

     Hussein is no saint, Abouna conceded, but it is also true that Iraqi Christians under his secular rule enjoy more freedom than in most Arab nations. (It is often pointed out that Tariq Aziz, Hussein’s key aide, is himself a Chaldean Catholic. I asked Abouna if Aziz is practicing, and he smiled, saying: “He has no time.” He added that Aziz’s family, however, is devout). Iraq also does not have a problem with terrorists, he said, because Hussein keeps them under wraps.

     Abouna said that most Iraqis feel that if the opposition groups really want to help the country, they should do so from the inside. “It’s not a case of sitting in the hotels and holding conferences, declaring this and that,” Abouna said. “It doesn’t make sense. We need acts, not just speaking.”

     Ironically, the greatest population of Chaldean Catholics outside Iraq is in the United States, with some 150,000 in and around Detroit. In 1991 there were Chaldeans who served in the U.S. forces invading Iraq, and that will almost certainly be the case again if there is another war. Though such situations are agonizing, Abouna said, the Chaldean Church understands that American citizens must do their duty.

     “The church says you have to be grateful to the country where you live,” Abouna said. “They say the war is not good, but they can’t do anything. I don’t think they’ll refuse to serve.”

     In Iraq, one advantage of being a tiny Christian minority is that the denominational differences that loom so large in the West seem almost inconsequential. Relations between the Caldean Catholic Church and the Assyrian “Church of the East,” numbered among the Orthodox churches, are strong, with almost complete inter-communion. In Baghdad, the Chaldean seminary also accepts Assyrians, Armenian Orthodox, and Syrian Catholics, and all the students take the same classes together. Abouna also announced that the Vatican has plans to offer five scholarships for Orthodox seminarians from the Church of the East to study in Rome.

     Although Abouna is pleased to be returning to Baghdad, he realizes the enormity of the challenges facing him, including the impact of more than a decade of sanctions, which by some counts have led to as many as one and a half million deaths.

     “The sanctions, from my point of view, are themselves a weapon of mass destruction,” Abouna said. “It is a different kind of war. To kill people in this way is simply not fair.”

     As I readied to leave, Abouna implored me to pray for peace in Baghdad. Whatever one’s politics, a peaceful exit to this crisis, so that good men such as Bishop Abouna do not once again find themselves digging bodies out of ruins, is surely a consummation devoutly to be wished.

* * *

     One of the problems with labels such as “conservative” or “liberal” to describe positions in the Catholic Church is that they beg the question of one’s frame of reference. Often people use “conservative,” for example, to mean “loyal to the pope,” but that leaves out a sector of Catholic opinion that strives to “conserve” certain traditions and beliefs, often critiquing the current pope in the process.

     A locus classicus is offered by the Italian Catholic publication Si Si No No, a name taken from Matthew 5:37: “Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” It’s put out by the tiny “St. Pius X Catholic Center for Anti-Modernist Studies” in Rome, and every issue offers a strong critique not merely of post-Vatican II reforms, but of the council itself. Vatican II, from its frame of reference, was a surrender to the forces of modernism and liberalism that a string of 19th and 20th centuries popes resisted. The publication is said to have a handful of admirers in the Vatican; I know one of them myself.

     In the most recent issue (Dec. 15), Si Si No No carries a fascinating analysis of the infallibility of canonizations.

     Readers with good memories will recall that on June 30, 1998, the Vatican released an apostolic letter from John Paul II entitled Ad Tuendam Fidem, adding penalties to canon law for dissent from “definitive” teachings. These are matters not formally part of divine revelation, but connected to it by a logical or historical necessity, and hence are to be regarded as de facto infallible. In an accompanying commentary, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith listed examples of “definitive” teaching arising from historical necessity: the legitimacy of the election of a given pope, the acts of an ecumenical council, Leo XII’s declaration on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations, and the canonization of saints.

     It is, therefore, more or less the official position of the Vatican that a canonization involves the exercise of a pope’s infallible teaching authority. (Though doctrinal czar Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, writing in the Irish journal Céide [May/June 1999, pp. 28-34], said that this list of examples was not itself infallible, and that “no one need feel an authoritarian imposition or restriction by these texts”). 

     Si Si No No strongly challenges the idea that popes always pick the right people to canonize. The lengthy article, by the way, is signed simply by “Hirpinus,” in the grand tradition of anonymous polemical tract-writing.

     The author distinguishes between two doctrinal aspects of canonization: the general affirmation that those who practice Christian virtue in a heroic fashion go to Heaven, and the application of this principle to a concrete individual. A canonization is unlike the condemnation of a heresy, the author says, which also involves a pronouncement on a specific case. In the case of a heresy, grave harm would be done to the church if the pope were to err, and so these judgments must be protected by the charism of infallibility. Not so in the case of a canonization, as the experience of doubtful and even non-existent saints shows. Can anyone point to some harm done to the faith by centuries of belief in St. Philomena, recently removed from the Roman Martyrology because of a lack of historical evidence that she existed?

     The author proceeds to a careful analysis of the wording of papal decrees of canonization, comparing them to the Latin texts of doctrinal proclamations such as that of Pius IX and the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Pius XII and the Assumption. In both cases, the formulae included a specific anathema for anyone who challenged the teaching, language missing in virtually every canonization text. Hence it cannot have been the intention of the church to invoke infallibility in making saints, the author concludes.

     Finally, the piece notes the statement of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758), who said that while he personally favored the hypothesis that canonizations are infallible, it is “licit” to sustain the opposite view.

     Why this interest in canonizations? After quoting St. Thomas Aquinas to the effect that “whenever there is a danger to the faith, the subjects of the church are obliged to rebuke their prelates, even publicly,” the author comes to the bottom line: “This would be the case if (and God doesn’t want it!) John XXIII and Paul VI are ever canonized in order to legitimize the Council and the catastrophic inversion of course it imposed on the Catholic world.” 

     Thus Si Si No No wants to arm its readership with theological ammunition to resist church officials, up to and including the Holy Father, should they ever decide to canonize two previous popes identified with the reforming spirit of the Second Vatican Council. 

     All this suggests a thought exercise: Is someone who argues for a right of dissent from acts the Vatican regards as infallible a “conservative”? The answer depends, in part, on what one is trying to conserve. 

* * *

     Recently I interviewed Archbishop Giuseppe Pittau, S.J., the secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, for an upcoming piece on the future of Catholic higher education in the United States. Pittau, 74, is one of the real gentlemen of the Roman Curia, someone who defies all the stereotypes about preening hierarchs and scheming careerists. He comes across as mild-mannered, humble, and open.

     Pittau spent much of his career in Japan, where he served as rector of the Jesuit-run Sophia University and also as the Jesuit provincial. Pittau has always prized the life of the mind; he studied political science, for example, at Harvard University, and he retains a fluent command of English. 

     In October 1981, however, he was recalled to Rome when Pope John Paul II imposed new leadership on the Jesuits. The pope named Fr. Paolo Dezza (later made a cardinal in 1991) as temporary head of the order, with Pittau as his deputy, rather than allowing the Jesuits to hold a General Congregation to elect a successor to the ailing Pedro Arrupe. It was a signal of disapproval, and some Jesuits were angry with Dezza, who was 80 at the time and nearly blind, and Pittau for going along with it. 

     When the pope finally allowed a General Congregation to meet two years later, in September 1983, the Jesuits did not elect Pittau to any of the offices under the new Father General, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. Even though this was more an assertion of independence from Vatican control than a personal affront to Pittau, nevertheless it had to be difficult for someone who had never sought to be the object of controversy.

     After the dust settled, Pittau returned to academic work, serving from 1992 to 1998 as the rector of Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University, the city’s flagship papal university. In 1998, he was appointed to his present Vatican job.

     I can anticipate here two of the more interesting points from our December interview.

     We spoke a fair bit about Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the pope’s August 15, 1990, apostolic constitution on higher education that caused much controversy in the United States. Pittau said his office is monitoring the implementation of the American norms for Ex Corde, which were finally approved by both the U.S. bishops and the Vatican in 2000 after a decade-long debate. Those norms call for theologians to receive a mandatum, or license, from the local bishop. Anecdotal accounts suggest widely varying practices across the United States, with some bishops simply inviting theologians to apply for the mandate, and others doing nothing at all. 

     Pittau declined to say whether the Vatican was “satisfied” with implementation of the norms, saying merely that they are following the situation. He acknowledged that the sexual abuse crisis of the past year has made it very difficult for many American bishops to take up the challenge of Ex Corde (or anything else).

     Pittau stressed repeatedly, however, that the aim of Ex Corde was not to set up an adversarial relationship between bishops and universities, but to ensure that the universities are fully integrated into the local church, and that bishops and academics see themselves as partners in fulfilling the church’s pastoral mission.

     Aside from the mandate, another controversial point from the Ex Corde debate has been the idea that Catholic universities should strive to maintain a certain percentage of Catholic faculty members. This idea is expressed in article 4, point 4.a, of the American particular norms: “The university should strive to recruit and appoint Catholics as professors so that, to the extent possible, those committed to the witness of the faith will constitute a majority of the faculty.”

     Here Pittau actually struck a less prescriptive note. He argued that on-going formation of faculty in the Catholic faith, not necessarily a certain percentage of Catholic professors, should distinguish a Catholic university. He appealed to his experience in Japan, where most professors at Sophia University in Tokyo were not Catholic, and yet, he said, “They had a great respect for the Catholic faith and were able to transmit that.” Pittau said that the non-Catholics, some of whom were Buddhists and some if whom had no religious background, had a strong appreciation of the need for “coherence” between faith and life. (With a twinkle in his eye, Pittau jokingly added, “Sometimes more than the Catholics!”)

     The bottom line, Pittau said, is that he would place less emphasis on the numerical ratio of Catholics to non-Catholics, and more on what the university does to foster a sense of Catholic identity. 

     We also talked about what the future might hold for Catholic universities in the United States, and Pittau had a surprising pitch to make. American Catholic colleges, he said, should seek to help build the intellectual framework for an effective international political order.

     “The Holy Father has spoken about the need for a public authority at the international level with power to serve the common good, such as human rights,” Pittau said. The interview took place shortly before the release of John Paul II’s message for the World Day of Peace, in which he stressed this idea. 

     “The United States must play a central role in this effort, and the Catholic universities, perhaps especially those in Washington, are in a position to offer a very important contribution.” Though Pittau did not say so explicitly, it seemed that he regarded this as an especially urgent task given that the present U.S. administration has serious reservations about the role and authority of international political entities, above all the United Nations.

     There’s a challenge for places such as Georgetown and Catholic University to chew on.

* * *

     All leaders have their ways of signaling favor, and over the holidays there were a number of small but telling gestures that suggest deep papal affection for the Legionaries of Christ, a religious order founded by Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado in 1941, and its lay branch, called Regnum Christi. Both the Legionaries and Regnum Christi are conventionally seen as “conservative” (though note what I said above about the slippery nature of these labels).

     First, L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, carried a laudatory page four piece in its post-Christmas issue about the Dec. 24 ordinations of 44 new Legionary priests. It mentioned the presence of Maciel at the ceremony, celebrated by Archbishop Leonardo Sandri (the sostituto, hence the number two official in the Secretariat of State). The article says that Maciel has seen the “small seed” he planted 62 years ago become a “great tree.”

     Second, on Dec. 25, Christmas day, John Paul II offered the traditional Urbe et Orbe blessing in St. Peter’s Square. Despite offering greetings in 62 languages, the pope was in good form at the end, and bantered with the crowd. There were a number of Regnum Christi members present, holding banners and chanting a traditional Spanish cheer for the pope: “Si vede, si sente, il papa sta presente!” (“You can see, you can feel, the pope is present!”) The pope beamed, then shot back: “Regnum Christi sta presente!” The crowd exploded.

     Third, on Sunday, Dec. 29, the pope again acknowledged Regnum Christi members, this time a contingent in St. Peter’s Square for his Angelus address. He improvised a greeting for them that was not in the official text of his prepared remarks. I happened to be watching the event on Telepace, an Italian channel that carries the official Vatican TV feed, and the commentator added that he was “especially moved” by that papal touch. The commentator, it turns out, was a Legionary priest.

     Fourth, on Jan. 6 the pope ordained 12 new bishops, including two destined for important positions in the Roman Curia. One is Bishop Brian Farrell, who is the new secretary, or number two official, in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Farrell is also a member of the Legionaries of Christ. He becomes the second Legionary of Christ to be ordained a bishop. The first is Bishop Jorge Bernal, the prelate of Chetumal-Cancun in Mexico, who was consecrated in 1974.

     Finally, on Jan. 8 a group of Legionary priests, including the 44 newly ordained, and around 500 Regnum Christi members took part in the regular Wednesday general audience, and were greeted by the pope. Vatican Radio carried a lengthy feature on Regnum Christi later in the day.

     L’Osservatore Romano carried a picture of the pope with a smiling Maciel on Jan. 9, with the young Legionary priests looking on.

     All this will strike many readers as simply the natural fondness any pope would feel for a youthful, enthusiastic movement that makes a point of its loyalty. Some, however, will question these gestures, since Maciel faces charges of sexual abuse by seven ex-members of the Legionaries. The Vatican has never publicly rendered judgment on a canonical complaint these ex-Legionaries filed in 1998, although both Maciel and the Legionaries have strenuously denied the charges. Given the crisis in the United States and elsewhere provoked by the sex abuse scandals, John Paul’s embrace of Maciel is noteworthy indeed.

* * *

     Speaking of Brian Farrell, his appointment to the Council for Promoting Christian Unity raised a few eyebrows because he had been in the English section of the Secretariat of State since 1981, with little direct involvement in ecumenical work. Some saw the move as an effort by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State, to place someone he trusts in the inner circle of Cardinal Walter Kasper, who runs the Christian Unity office, and whose independent-mindedness does not always go down well in some Vatican circles. According to this theory, Farrell’s role would be to supply “balance.”

     (A footnote: Perhaps it is just coincidence, but shortly before Farrell’s arrival, Kasper announced administrative changes to his staff that beef up the role of mid-level officials, meaning that fewer decisions may be referred to the secretary).

     As I have mentioned before, Farrell is not entirely a newcomer to ecumenical concerns. His 1984 doctoral thesis at the Gregorian University was written under Jesuit theologians Fr. Karl Becker and Fr. Francis Sullivan. The former is a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the other a theologian legendary for his ecumenical concern. The subject was inter-communion among Catholics and other Christians.

     I recently popped over to the library at the Gregorian to read the thesis, entitled “Communicatio in Sacris: A Theological Study of the Policy Adopted by the Second Vatican Council.” It offers an analysis of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on inter-communion, which Farrell found to be scattered and sometimes implicit. Nevertheless, he argues that Vatican II marked a breakthrough, not because it changed the traditional principles governing inter-communion, but because it changed the Catholic Church’s understanding of the ecclesial status of non-Catholic churches and communities. The key idea was the vestigia Ecclesiae, genuine elements of the one Christian church retained to varying degrees by non-Catholic bodies, above all valid baptism. On this basis one can say there is a “real if imperfect” communion between Catholics and other Christians.

     Farrell quotes approvingly from a 1970 article by J.L. Witte: “The exclusive Church is changed into the inclusive Church; not inclusive in the sense of dominating over all, but as acknowledging that every Church is used by the Spirit of Christ as an instrument for the sanctification of its believers and is gifted with several visible elements of Church-unity.”

     “In a changed ecclesiology, the ‘old’ principles produce a ‘new’ policy!” Farrell observes.

     Although Farrell was described by the Irish Times on Jan. 6 as “ultra-orthodox,” his thesis does not read that way. He lists the traditional four criteria for determining when a non-Catholic may participate in the Catholic Eucharist: a valid baptism, acceptance of the Catholic understanding of Eucharist, “good faith” with regard to the Catholic Church, and “grave necessity” of the sacrament. While ecumenical conservatives would interpret “grave necessity” in a highly restrictive manner, Farrell seems more tolerant. 

     “Situations of need, then, are not merely extreme cases of necessity such as danger of death and other circumstances, but rather situations that are not normal,” he wrote. He suggested that mixed marriages and inter-church families might create such “need,” still a debated point. He also quoted approvingly Cardinal Jan Willebrands from the 1980 Synod of Bishops, who argued that inability to approach one’s own minister is “less closely connected with Eucharistic doctrine and faith” and hence may not be an absolute condition for establishing “need.”

     Farrell’s general conclusion was cautious, but sensitive.

     “Because communio in sacris reflects the ‘sinfulness’ of division with the Church, it must remain the exception and not the rule, and we must share the suffering of not being able to have as much communication as we might wish, even in cases where the theological conditions of its possibility have been met. ‘The danger of disregarding this rule,’ said Cardinal Suenens, ‘is not primarily that of disobedience but of compromising the efforts towards visible unity by taking for granted that all our ecumenical concerns are already resolved and by dismissing their true finality.’”

     The overall impression given by the thesis is not of someone thinking daring new thoughts, but of a writer struggling to understand the teaching of the Council and to interpret it from a reasonably pastoral, ecumenically inclined point of view. 

     Of course there can be differences between someone’s views as a graduate student and the choices he makes as an administrator. For precisely that reason, the ecumenical community will be watching.

* * *

     A few other notes from the Vatican beat.

  • John Paul II will seemingly be making only four brief trips, all to European destinations, this year. In Spain, Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela and the Spanish bishops’ conference have confirmed a May 3-4 visit to Madrid, while Croatian authorities say the pope will visit their nation June 5-8, with stops in Dubrovnik, Rijeka, Zadar and Osjek. The pope is expected to beatify Maria Di Gesu Crocifisso Petkovic and Ivan Merz during his Croatia tour. Reports also suggest the pope will make a day-trip to Bosnia, to the city of Banja Luka, in June, and a quick visit to Slovakia in September. 

  • On Jan. 3, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, who heads the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, celebrated Mass in Rome’s Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle (where the first act of Puccini’s opera “Tosca” is set) commemorating a Sicilian saint, Giuseppe Maria Tomasi, a Teatine priest and later cardinal. It was a marvelously inter-cultural event; Somalo, a Spaniard, preached to the largely Sicilian crowd after an African priest sang the gospel in perfectly accented Italian. Tomasi, it turns out, was a forerunner of the liturgical reformers of the Second Vatican Council. As early as the seventeenth century, Tomasi was making an argument for Mass in the vernacular languages. Somalo offered a cautious endorsement of liturgical reform, insisting that “authentic aggiornamento,” or updating, must “build on the antique.” Somalo, 75, was appointed in 1993 as the “camerlengo,” which means that he will administer the property and finances of the Holy See in the interregnum when the pope dies.

  • An indication of what John Paul II is up against in his efforts for unity with the Orthodox came in early January from the holy island of Mt. Athos, off the coast of Greece. (In one sign that feminism has yet to penetrate much of the Orthodox world, no female, not even livestock, can set foot on the island). The 107 monks of the Esfigmenou monastery on Mt. Athos have been given until Jan. 28 to vacate. The reason? The monks’ defiance of the Orthodox authorities who govern the island, especially over the issue of ecumenical dialogue with John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church. The monks’ attitude can be glimpsed from a flag proclaiming “Orthodoxy or Death!” that has flown for 30 years above Esfigmenou. Recently another with the slogan “The Pope is Anti-Christ” appeared. It’s not clear where the monks will go, but they have said they will continue opposing détente with the Catholic Church. The Esfigmenou monks are legendary for their tenacity; the name of the monastery is said to come from the founder, who wore his cassock tied very tightly with a belt to stress the need for discipline. Hence the monastery became tou Esfigmenou (“of the tightly belted one”).
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