|When papal spokesperson
Joaquin Navarro-Valls was asked recently by the Associated Press for a
comment on the National Catholic Reporter, he would say only that
it is “one of hundreds of publications we receive from around the
world.” Maybe Navarro was just busy that day, but the comment sounds dismissive,
like a way of signaling disapproval by making the paper seem marginal.
I hasten to add that
Navarro and his staff have been nothing but helpful to me, and that in
my experience the Vatican is far more relaxed about critical journalism
than certain U.S. chanceries. Nevertheless, my guess is that NCR
is probably not on Navarro’s “recommended reading” list.
Of course, I understand
why representatives of an institution may grind their teeth when reading
publications that are sometimes critical. Recent experience, however, has
brought home for me anew why Navarro and his employers should welcome independent
specialized reporting on Vatican affairs.
One of the big religion
stories of the past month was the issuance of new Vatican norms for handling
internal discipline of priests accused of certain grave offenses, including
sexual abuse of children. The norms create a new tribunal in the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith to handle these cases, specify that Rome
must be informed of all accusations, and allow the Vatican to decide if
the case will be handled first at the local level or in Rome.
For those of us who follow
the beat, it was not news; Catholic News Service broke the story,
and I first wrote about it in the NCR of Dec. 14. It was not until
a papal document enacting the new norms was published in early January,
however, that the major international news services took note.
Much of the coverage
was hostile, emphasizing in dark tones that the church wanted these cases
handled in “secret courts” in Rome, thus hinting at cover-ups and stonewalling.
When the story broke,
I spent the better part of two days doing radio and TV in England, Ireland,
Canada and the United States, explaining that this was not a Vatican cover-up,
and that the norms seem a balanced solution to a real problem. I think
my comments, with those of other observers, helped diffuse what had threatened
to escalate into an anti-Vatican media crusade.
For one thing, these
norms deal only with the church’s internal discipline of a priest accused
of wrong-doing, specifying what procedure is to be followed before a man
can be deprived of his right to act as a priest. They do not affect existing
policies in virtually all dioceses that call for cooperation with criminal
investigations or civil lawsuits.
For years, many bishops,
especially in the United States and Canada, have been pleading with the
Vatican to be able to defrock guilty priests more quickly. In part, this
reflects good pastoral sense, since obviously the priest should never again
be in a position to harm anyone. In part, there’s a financial motive. American
juries have sometimes awarded large damages in civil lawsuits when the
church has not taken action against a guilty priest. In a few of these
instances, the bishop had wanted to discipline the priest, but the case
was tied up in lengthy canonical appeals.
At the same time, the
Vatican, especially the Congregation for Clergy, has emphasized the priest’s
natural law right to defend himself. They don’t want a situation in which
a panicky bishop can simply exile a man to the ecclesiastical equivalent
of Siberia, with no right of appeal.
The new norms are designed
to strike a balance. On the one hand, by centralizing the process in the
CDF, the Vatican is assuring bishops that these cases will get expedited
“priority” treatment. At the same time, by insisting that the process remain
a canonical one, the Vatican is trying to protect the due process rights
of the accused. As far as secrecy, another word for that is confidentiality
— respecting the privacy of all parties involved.
There is, in short, nothing
(There are still a couple
missing pieces of the puzzle. We need to see the norms themselves, not
just a description of them, and we need to know how the new tribunal will
work. But the intent is good).
When I said this to CNN,
or BBC Radio, or “As it Happens” in Canada, my colleagues in the press
listened in a way they did not when Vatican spokespersons made similar
points. Why? Because, simply put, independence buys credibility.
My colleagues know that
I am not a Vatican lapdog, just as I am not a knee-jerk Vatican critic.
I form judgments in light of information from as many points of view as
I can find. Sometimes that means I report facts or ideas that the Vatican
may not like, but it also means I can credibly defend the Vatican when
it is unjustly maligned.
The point applies to
all who try to cover the Vatican as journalists, not as evangelists and
neither as anti-clerical crusaders. The occasional hard swallow provoked
by a critical story is the price Vatican officials must pay, and should
welcome paying, so that when they’re right, there’s someone around who
can say so out of something other than self-interest.
* * *
Speaking of being critical,
this is not just the province of independent-minded journalists. Sometimes
criticism of papal decisions even comes from within the College of Cardinals
itself. A recent case in point is offered by changes in the rules for papal
elections introduced by Paul VI and John Paul II.
In 1970, Paul VI decreed
that cardinals over 80 could not vote. Thanks to the November 2001 issue
of 30 Giorni, an Italian Catholic periodical, we now know that in
January 2000, Italian Cardinal Vincenzo Fagiolo, former president of the
Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, wrote to
John Paul II to urge a reversal of this decision. Fagiolo argued that Paul’s
reform inflicted “a mortal wound to the supreme rule” of canon law, according
to which the body of electors is constituted by the College of Cardinals.
Fagiolo also quoted John Paul’s own statements about the wisdom and maturity
of the elderly to suggest that aging cardinals, too, have their contribution
Cardinal Angelo Sodano,
secretary of state, wrote a brief reply to Fagiolo, saying the pope had
read his letter carefully, and his arguments were “not without foundation,”
but that the pope “feels himself bound by what his predecessor decreed.”
The reply was also published in 30 Giorni.
In 1996, John Paul made
another change in conclave rules, permitting cardinals to elect a pope
by a simple majority vote rather than the traditional two-thirds, if roughly
30 ballots fail to produce a winner. At the May 2001 extraordinary consistory,
a gathering of all the world’s cardinals, German-speaking cardinals asked
that the pope undo this reform too.
Critics have long worried
the change could encourage a slim majority to “hold out” in order to ram
through their candidate. Others find such a scenario unlikely, pointing
out that the longest conclave of the 20th century was fourteen
ballots (the election of Pius XI in 1922).
The German-speaking group
at the consistory was stuffed with heavyweights: Walter Kasper, head of
the Vatican’s office for ecumenical affairs; Karl Lehmann of Mainz; Joseph
Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal officer; and Christoph Schönborn
of Vienna. Schönborn was the relator for the group.
Last July I asked Schönborn
about rumors that the Germans wanted the majority vote provision changed,
and he said: “It is true that in the German-speaking circolo minore
during the consistory, the issue of the rules for the election of a pope
introduced in 1996 was raised by some members. I referred this also to
the plenary session. During the consistory no decisions or votes were made,
but all the material of the plenary sessions and of the circoli minori
will be handled over to the pope.”
It is up to the pope,
of course, to decide whether or not to accept the advice. In at least that
one way, the cardinals are in the same boat with the rest of us.
* * *
Last week Fr. Richard
McBrien was in Rome to help celebrate the 70th birthday of Jesuit
Fr. Robert Taft, a famed specialist on Eastern Christianity at the Pontifical
Oriental Institute. (I wrote a profile of Taft for the print edition of
McBrien, the Crowley-O’Brien
professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, also gave a press
conference co-sponsored by NCR and the Tablet of London,
and then gave a talk at something called the “Caravita Forum.”
Every Sunday there’s
a Mass in English at 11:00 am at the Oratory of St. Francis Xaver del Caravita
(on Via del Caravita, just off the Via del Corso). The community that has
formed around this Mass wants to take advantage of the presence of interesting
people in Rome by sponsoring public talks, giving them a chance to disseminate
The crowd at the McBrien
talk was a terrific cross-section of scholars, leaders of men’s and women’s
religious communities, students, and other people in Rome interested in
Hence a request. When
readers of this column know of people coming to Rome who might make interesting
guests for the “Caravita Forum,” would you drop me a note? I will pass
the information along to organizers. That’s no guarantee that every suggestion
can be taken, but every idea is welcome. My e-mail address is at the top
and bottom of this page.
Rome needs to hear all
the voices in the Catholic conversation.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
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