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 The Word From Rome

January 14, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 17

John L. Allen Jr.


"This is why the European left hates George Bush. Their political philosophy says that modernity and de-Christianization have to go hand in hand, but America shows that it isn't so."

Rocco Buttiglione,
the Italian politician whose nomination as the Justice Minister of the European Union was derailed because of his views on abortion, homosexuality and the family

The pope on food; Interview with departing ambassador; Buttiglione, Europe's anti-abortion politician; Pius XII, the Holocaust and the Jews; Remembering Cardinal Jan Schotte


Popes, like all figures who speak in public a lot, tend to recycle certain key themes. However important their message, it's hard to get excited about it hearing it yet again. Thus anyone who glanced at newspaper headlines following John Paul II's address to the Vatican diplomatic corps on January 10, especially the New York Times' ultra-familiar "Pope Denounces Gay Marriage," could be forgiven for filing the report under "dog bites man" and moving on.

That headline is misleading, however, because there was more than gay marriage on John Paul's mind. The pope laid out four great challenges facing the human family as 2005 opens: life, food, peace, and freedom.

Of the four, the most unexpected was food.

"The statistics on world hunger are dramatic," the pope said. "Hundreds of millions of human beings are suffering from grave malnutrition, and each year millions of children die from hunger or its effects."

Some data from the United Nations' World Food Program supports those assertions:

  • 852 million people across the world were hungry in 2004, up from 842 million a year ago. This is more than the combined populations of the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan.
  • Hunger and malnutrition claim 10 million lives every year, which works out to 25,000 lives every day, or one life every 5 seconds.
  • Six million children under 5 die every year from hunger.

"An adequate response to this need," John Paul II said, "which is growing in scale and urgency, calls for a vast mobilization of public opinion."

In this regard, John Paul reminded the diplomats of a core principle of Catholic social teaching: "the universal destination of the earth's goods," meaning that the individual right to private property and profit, though legitimate, is not absolute.

"While this principle cannot be used to justify collectivist forms of economic policy, it should serve to advance a radical commitment to justice and a more attentive and determined display of solidarity," the pope said.

Whether this call remains mere rhetoric, or is translated into meaningful education and advocacy, will depend to some extent on what Catholic leaders do with it. One focus for advocacy efforts could be the United Nations, since the first of the U.N.'s eight "Millennium Goals" is cutting the percentage of the world's population that is hungry in half. Progress has been made in East Asia and the Caribbean, according to U.N. data, but in sub-Saharan Africa, Western Asia and Eastern Europe, hunger and malnutrition is actually worse.

It's interesting to note that the pope was silent on one aspect of food policy where he has been getting some diplomatic pressure in recent months, above all from the Americans -- the question of genetically modified organisms. Some of the opposition to GMOs has come from within the Catholic church, especially in parts of the developing world such as Africa and Asia. The fact that John Paul called for a "vast moral mobilization" on hunger and did not make any mention of biotechnology would suggest that the jury is still out in terms of Vatican reflection.

On the life issues, John Paul singled out abortion, assisted procreation, stem cell research and cloning as of special concern, in addition to the definition of marriage and the family. "The family … must never be undermined by laws based on a narrow and unnatural vision of man," the pope said.

On peace, John Paul pointed to hopeful signs such as the apparent peace deal in Dafur and the elections in Palestine. He also applauded the growth of the European Union as a positive development, suggesting that countries that were once bitter enemies can make common cause. The pope also appealed for religious freedom, pledging that the Catholic Church will not abuse the freedom granted it under civil law to intrude upon the "competencies proper to the State."

* * *

Speaking of American diplomacy, James Nicholson's term as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See draws to a close this month. President George Bush has nominated Nicholson to run the Veterans' Administration, and assuming he's confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he could be in the job as early as February.

Nicholson represented the United States during a dramatic stretch of time. He presented his credentials just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, bombings in New York, and had to make the case for the U.S.-led war in Iraq over strong Vatican opposition. Nicholson's term also overlapped with the American sexual abuse crisis, not to mention a hard-fought 2004 presidential election in which the Catholic vote played a decisive role.

I sat down with Nicholson Jan. 11 for a farewell interview.

What are the one or two most important things you've discovered about the relationship between the United States and the Holy See?
I think there is an underlying reliance on the United States, on the part of the Holy See. Overall, they believe we will be there when we're needed. We're a very generous people. They haven't been disappointed by that. I think in some cases they sort of take it for granted that the United States, both in the sense of the government and also the people of the American church, will be there to help other people. My hope, and one of my goals with the Holy See, has been to try to develop more appreciation for this enormous generosity of the American people.

What is the most surprising thing you've learned about the Holy See, seeing it up close and personal?
That the Holy See is a place of many voices. I'm not plagiarizing your book, this is an independent conclusion … [there are] many and disparate voices. It makes it difficult for a diplomat representing a country to them. You want to know, and you're entitled to know, if this person, because they are part of the government, if they speak for the government. Your government is very curious, as are the people who read the press reports. Today, 'a senior Vatican official said,' and tomorrow on the second-day cycle, it's 'the Vatican says.' That surprised me. I thought it was far more hierarchical.

Do you see that as a liability or a strength?
From my point of view as a diplomat, representing a country very interested in close collaboration with the Vatican because of our commonality of values, I find that to be a detriment. You're asking the American people to cough up $15 billion for global AIDS, or 60 percent of the World Food Program, or collections for Catholic Relief Services, and they do that because they're generous and humanitarian, and then those same people hear these curious remarks from that 'senior Vatican official,' or from 'the Vatican'… it sends a confusing message, and it can be discouraging.

Is there something the Vatican still struggles to understand about the United States?
We could do better in trying to foster more understanding and more appreciation for our system of business, our free market, highly competitive, highly capitalistic society. There are still too many really wonderful people [in the Vatican] who are totally faithful to the magisterium of the church and all that means, a love of humanity and a desire to help, who have a jaundiced view about American capitalism. They see it as being exploitive, especially of people in the Third World. That's one of our challenges.

The full text of my interview with Nicholson can be found in the Special Documents section of NCRonline.org: Interview with Ambassador James Nicholson.

* * *

As of this writing there was no firm word on Nicholson's replacement, though a few names were making the rounds in American Catholic circles. For its part, the Holy See has long encouraged the United States to break with the tradition of always sending a Catholic as ambassador. From the Vatican's point of view, the job should be a serious diplomatic posting for the best person available, not a reward for a fat-cat Catholic supporter of the president.

The Vatican also doesn't want a gung-ho Catholic who will define his or her job as being the pope's ambassador to the president, rather than the other way around, as some felt happened with Ambassador Raymond Flynn in the Clinton administration. That approach risks losing stature in the administration the ambassador is supposed to serve, which makes them less valuable as a conduit. With Nicholson, the Holy See knew it was dealing with somebody who had the President's ear. One piece of evidence came when the Vatican asked Bush to intervene on a visa problem with Vladimir Putin. Nicholson reached the Bush staff on Air Force One on their way to Russia, and Bush raised the point with Putin when he touched down. That's the kind of access that the Vatican wants its ambassadors to enjoy.

* * *

Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian politician whose nomination as the Justice Minister of the European Union was derailed because of his Catholic views on abortion, homosexuality and the family, has become a cause célèbre for those who feel that a "new inquisition" is afoot in Europe.

Buttiglione spoke Jan. 11 at a gathering sponsored by the Vatican Forum, a group of Rome-based journalists, and the Acton Institute, a U.S.-based Catholic foundation that promotes individual liberty and is usually seen as "conservative," which recently gave Buttiglione its Faith and Freedom Award.

I asked Buttiglione about the debate in the United States over whether pro-choice Catholic politicians should be denied communion. Should they?

"I don't know," he said. "I'm not a bishop. As a politician, my response is to make an alternative proposal in the sphere of politics. I may have my opinions, but I have no right to judge others."

On abortion, Buttiglione said he felt the most creative response is to support a comprehensive pro-family policy.

"We anti-abortionists should consider that it's not possible to defend the child against the mother," he said. "Rather we must help reconstruct the natural alliance between the mother and child. The solution is not just sending the mother who has an abortion to jail. We need a policy of the family." Such a policy, he said, would contain elements such as support for mothers who stay at home to raise children, child care for working mothers, tax breaks, assistance for home buyers, and so on.

Some in the audience voiced skepticism that the European Union is redeemable, but Buttiglione warned against disengagement.

"If anybody has a good reason to feel bitter about the EU, it's me," he said. "But is there another Europe in which we can take refuge? Can Poland alone, or Italy alone, defend Christian values? This is the Europe we have, and we must struggle to make it better. It would be terrible to abandon it in the hands of our opponents," he said.

"We have suffered a defeat, but the war is not over," Buttiglione said.

Asked about the relationship between Europe and the United States, Buttiglione said that "Europeans and Americans are brothers, we have the same DNA, but we are not twins."

In America, Buttiglione said, the state accepts that it needs values that by itself it cannot produce. In Europe, he said, under the influence of Rosseau and others, the tendency is towards treating the state itself as a civic religion. Further, he said, America is "more modern" than Europe, in that is that has reached the peak of secularization and the sexual revolution, and has cycled back to more traditional values. He predicted the same thing will happen in Europe in ten years.

"This is why the European left hates George Bush," Buttiglione said. "Their political philosophy says that modernity and de-Christianization have to go hand in hand, but America shows that it isn't so."

On the American Catholic church, Buttiglione said that he felt it has been divided between a wing that was corrupted by secularization, like the mainstream Protestant denominations, and a wing that resisted, like the evangelicals. He called the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York "the leader of the reaction against secularization," and said that this wing of the church "has acquired a greater capacity to give moral orientation to the American people."

The sex abuse scandals, Buttiglione said, "are a last consequence of the invasion of the ideology of sexual permissiveness in the 1960s and 1970s." He said he hopes "they will soon be over, and will leave the church purified."

Asked about the admission of Turkey to the European Union, Buttiglione said he has "no certainty" but many doubts.

"Is the fact that Turks are not Christians a problem? Religion is the core of an anthropological model. Maybe they don't have the same idea of relations between males and females, for example. Is polygamy a problem? I think it is," he said.

"It would be fascinating to see an Islamic country in which there is real religious freedom," Buttiglione said. "It doesn't exist today. Let's wait and see how Turkish culture restabilizes."

* * *

Since late December, Roman newspapers have been full of back-and-forth essays about Pius XII, the Holocaust and the Jews. The blizzard was set off Dec. 28 by the publication in Corriere della Sera of a church document from October 1946, unearthed by Italian historian Alberto Melloni, which summarized instructions from the Vatican regarding Jewish children who were placed in Christian institutions for safekeeping during World War II. The document, written in French and found among papers of the papal embassy in Paris, suggested that if those children had been baptized, they should not be handed over to Jewish institutions where their Christian upbringing could not be assured.

The note was widely denounced as demonstrating a chilling indifference to the Holocaust, even though the policy itself was already well known. Daniel Goldhagen, author of Hitler's Willing Executioners, called for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the church's conduct. Because these instructions were said to have the personal approval of the pope, they quickly became swept up in debates over Pius XII and his wartime role. Finally, because the 1946 document was directed to the Vatican embassy in France when Angelo Roncalli, the future John XXIII, was the ambassador, it also became part of a tendency to see Pius XII and John XXIII as embodying two styles of leadership, one bureaucratic and authoritarian, another pastoral and humanitarian. Melloni suggested that Roncalli had discretely ignored the instructions.

The story was put in a different context Jan. 10, with the publication in Il Giornale of a longer 1946 text, in Italian, of which the one-paragraph French note unearthed by Melloni was a summary. It was a Sept. 28, 1946, dispatch from Cardinal Domenico Tardini, the Vatican's Secretary of State, to Roncalli. The letter is in response to a request from the Grand Rabbi of Jerusalem that Jewish children cared for in Catholic facilities be turned over to Jewish institutions:

"The Eminent Fathers decided that if possible, there should be no response to the request of the Grand Rabbi; in any event, if it's necessary to say something, it should be done orally, given the danger of abuse and distortion of anything written from the Holy See on the subject. Eventually, it will be necessary to explain that the Church must do its own research and observations in order to discern case by case, it being evident that children who were baptized cannot be entrusted to institutions that can't guarantee their Christian education. For the rest, also those children who were not baptized and who no longer have living relatives, having been entrusted to the Church who received them, as long as they are not able to care for themselves, they cannot be abandoned by the Church or delivered to parties who have no right to them. It would be something else if the children were requested by their relatives. The decision of the Eminent Fathers and the criteria here presented were referred to the Holy Father in an audience of March 28, and His Holiness deigned to provide his august approval."

This text suggests that the issue was not so much giving children back to their families, but the fate of children who had no close living relatives and who were being claimed by Jewish institutions, in part with the foundation of the State of Israel in mind.

I spoke to Jesuit Fr. Peter Gumpel Jan. 12, the vice-postulator in charge of the beatification cause of Pius XII, who said it was never the intent of Pius XII to withhold Jewish children from their families. It was a different matter, Gumpel said, when those children had no close relatives, and had already been taken in by Catholic families.

"Some of these children had been saved by Catholics at the risk of their own lives, and treated very well," Gumpel said. "It would have been very cruel" to turn them over en masse to other institutions, he said.

Some Italian conservatives believe that the Dec. 28 revelation was a maneuver on the part of Melloni, who along with Giuseppe Alberigo directs the John XXIII Center in Bologna, to drive a wedge between the two popes, Pius XII and John XXIII. The so-called "Bologna school," according to this theory, wants to see John XXIII as a liberal reforming hero, and hence needs a conservative villain for him to stand out against. Some believe the document was dredged out in an attempt to derail moment towards the beatification of Pius XII.

Melloni, however, told me Jan. 12 that his interest as a historian was simply to explain why John XXIII and other churchmen of his generation, such as Cardinal Augustin Bea, seemed to have a special feeling for the relationship with the Jews.

"They had experienced the bureaucratic coldness of the church's earlier response to the Jews, and they understood that something was wrong," Melloni said. In that sense, he said, Pope John Paul II shares the same sensibility, which explains his request for pardon at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 1999, and a similar "mea culpa" during a liturgy in Rome in 2000.

Gumpel said that he knew both Pius XII and John XXIII personally, and that he believes any speculation about "dissent" or "opposition" between the two men is "an old hoax."

* * *

Melloni points out that the key sentence of the Tardini dispatch, "It would be something else if the children were requested by their relatives," doesn't mean it was Vatican policy that children should always be returned when relatives requested them.

As proof, he pointed to the well-known Finaly case in France. In 1943, a Jewish couple, Fritz and Annie Finaly, were deported from Grenoble to Auschwitz. They left their one and two-year-old sons, Robert and Gerald, with a Christian neighbor, with instructions that if the parents did not survive, the boys should be handed over to relatives. The parents perished at Auschwitz, but the boys in the meantime had been turned over for safekeeping to a Notre Dame di Sion convent, and eventually found their way into the care of the principal of the Catholic kindergarten of Grenoble, Miss Baron. She baptized the boys and began raising them as Catholics.

At war's end, Finaly relatives sought the boys. Baron refused to turn them over, which began a long legal battle between her and the boys' family. Barron was supported by a broad swath of Catholic opinion, including the Vatican in the person of Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo, at the time the secretary of the Holy Office, who wrote a French bishop on Jan. 23, 1953, to say that the church should support Baron.

Eventually, the children were smuggled into a convent in Spain, to try to hide them from the Finaly relatives. They were tracked down by a French Catholic named Germaine Ribière, who brought them back to France and turned them over to their relatives. On July 18, 1967, Yad Vashem recognized Ribière as "Righteous among the Nations." The Finaly brothers ended up in Israel, and returned to the practice of Judaism. (Robert is a medical doctor at Ben Gurion University).

To demonstrate the complexity of these debates, however, Gumpel points out that there are a number of instances in which Pope Pius XII personally ordered children returned to their Jewish families, even if they had been baptized. One such case came with a Polish Catholic woman named Leokadia Yaromirska, who wrote to the pope to ask his blessing in her refusal to return a Jewish boy to this father after the war, since in the meantime Yaromirska had baptized the child. Pius XII wrote back, advising Yaromirska that it was her duty to return the child "with goodwill and friendship."

* * *

The College of Cardinals is down to 120 voting members under 80, after the death of Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte on Tuesday, Jan. 10. Schotte, 76, had been hospitalized in late December but had been expected to recover.

Most church-watchers remember Schotte as the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, a post he held from 1985 to February 2004. He developed a reputation as an iron-fisted conservative, ensuring that proposals that might challenge current Vatican policy were softened or edited out. Though Schotte did not invent the synod, he strenuously defended it against complaints that it amounts to an expensive talk shop, in which there's little real clash of ideas and conclusions are often determined well in advance.

Yet it would be unfair to reduce Schotte's memory to a control-oriented bureaucrat, because he was also a charming, urbane figure who was capable of laughing about disagreements. He maintained a close friendship with Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, for example, despite the fact that he and Mahony have different theological instincts on many questions.

I caught up with Mahony at the North American College in Rome Jan. 12 to talk a bit about Schotte.

"I got to know him in the early 1980s when he was the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and we became good friends early on," Mahony said. "I was always impressed with his concern that the messages of the council speak to concrete realities. He wanted to avoid pious platitudes, whether the subject was disarmament, or corruption, or whatever."

Mahony often stayed in Schotte's apartment when business brought him to Rome. Schotte inherited the apartment from Justin Rigali, now cardinal of Philadelphia, after Rigali left the Vatican to become archbishop of St. Louis. Schotte told both Rigali and Mahony they were welcome to stay there. The lone drawback to staying with Schotte, Mahony said, is that every morning the apartment would be pungent with the aroma of cigar smoke, since savoring a fine cigar in the evening was one of Schotte's passions.

Mahony said he didn't always agree with the way Schotte ran the synod, but one could at least challenge him about it.

"You could talk to Jan about anything," Mahony said. "You could tell him 'That's crazy,' and you never had the sense he was uptight about it."

Mahony said that on doctrinal matters, Schotte was cut from much the same cloth as Pope John Paul II -- "quite conservative theologically but very engaged and progressive on issues of justice and peace." Mahony noted that Schotte had asked to stay on a president of the Labor Office of the Holy See even after he stepped down from the synod, in part, Mahony said, "because he didn't want to lose contact with the ordinary person." Mahony sits on the council of cardinals for finances, and said a 9 percent pay raise for Vatican employees in January 2004 owed much to Schotte's influence.

Schotte's funeral Mass was celebrated Friday, January 14, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

* * *

The long-awaited document from the Congregation for Catholic Education on the admission of homosexuals to Catholic seminaries may be nearing publication. In mid-January, word was that the document could be released in a Vatican press conference as early as February. On the other hand, sources advised caution -- desk drawers in Vatican offices are full of documents that once reached the brink of publication, but for one reason or another never saw the light of day.

If released in something like its present form, the document is expected to say that "homosexuals" should not be admitted to seminaries, and hence should not be ordained as priests.

Sources told NCR that it is unlikely, however, that the document will go into detail in terms of defining "homosexuality" -- whether it refers to a transitory impulse, an enduring orientation, or something in between -- which means that in practice some discretion would be left in the hands of bishops and seminary rectors to determine whether a given case amounts to "homosexuality" in the sense intended by the policy.

* * *

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesperson, put out a statement this week responding to speculation about a papal visit to Poland this summer. The statement read: "For this year, a trip of the Holy Father is not anticipated to Poland, a country in which in 2005 there will be electoral consultations." Generally the pope avoids traveling to countries in the midst of elections, in order to avoid being drawn into the political debate by one side or the other.

* * *

I did two news stories for NCR this week, one on the latest delay in negotiations between Israel and the Holy See, and one on the coming of age of Opus Dei in the United Kingdom, with a new parish and a member in Tony Blair's cabinet. Both stories are in the Jan. 21 issue of NCR and will be available on the NCR web site Jan. 19, but you have to be a subscriber to access them.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

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