National Catholic Reporter ®

January 18, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 21

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Independent voices can bring
balance to views of the Vatican

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. 

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 nefarious here.

     (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 to make. 

     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 NCR Jan. 11).

     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 their ideas. 

     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 church affairs.

     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

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