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 The Word From Rome

January 20, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 18

John L. Allen Jr.


"You have defended the Jewish people at every opportunity, as a priest in Poland and in your pontificate."

Gary Krupp,
an American Jew addressing Pope John Paul II at a Jan. 18 audience

Christians in Iraq; The pope and rabbis; More on Pius XII and Catholic-Jewish dialogue; Spain stirs debate on condoms


Some Vatican stories never seem to die, as the tit-for-tat in the Italian press over Pius XII and baptized Jewish children, still going strong as of this writing, illustrates. Others, however, disappear in the blink of an eye, as was the case with the Jan. 17 kidnapping, and Jan. 18 release, of the Syro-Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Iraq, Basil Georges Casmoussa.

I barely had the chance to explain what a "Syro-Catholic" is on CNN's Wolf Blitzer show before word broke that Casmoussa had been released.

Casmoussa said that his kidnappers released him, at least in part, in response to an appeal from Pope John Paul II. A Jan. 18 statement from Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls expressed satisfaction, and indicated that no ransom had been paid.

Of course, one rejoices that the archbishop was returned quickly to his flock. Yet a longer news cycle would have carried at least one advantage, in that it would have provided an occasion to talk more about the struggles facing Iraq's Christian community. In a perverse sense, religious minorities are among the biggest losers in the post-Saddam Hussein era, since his secular police state kept inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict largely under wraps.

The kidnapping of Casmoussa should not be seen as a freak incident, but as part of a pattern of increasing harassment of Iraq's roughly one million Christians. The Chaldean Christians are the largest group at 800,000, with the rest divided among four Catholic and Orthodox rites, plus a handful of more recent Protestant denominations.

Within the last few months, some 10 Christian churches have been bombed in Iraq, most of them destroyed. The residence of a Chaldean archbishop was blown up in December. There are also reports that in certain zones of Iraq, especially in the north, some Christian women have been forced to wear the Islamic veil. In addition, some Christian merchants, especially those who sell alcohol, say their stores have been ransacked.

Iraqi Christians say that these acts are not being carried out by Iraqi Muslims, with whom they enjoy good relations stretching back hundreds of years. Instead, they say, this is largely the work of Islamic radicals from outside Iraq, often part of a Taliban or Al-Qaeda network.

Whoever's responsible, the cumulative effect of this anti-Christian intimidation, coupled with the generally bleak security and economic situation, has been to accelerate the out-migration of Christians from Iraq. Fr. Philip Naijm, the representative of the Chaldean patriarch in Europe, told me Jan. 17 that there are some 40,000 Chaldean Christians in exile in Syria, with similar numbers in Jordan.

Naijm said he is convinced this exodus will continue. "There is clear discrimination against the Christian community in Iraq," he said. "They will leave."

Iraqi Christians sometimes make another point, which is that the unwillingness of Islamic radicals to distinguish between Christians, even Iraqi Christians, and the Western forces has been exacerbated by the arrival in Iraq of large numbers of American Protestant missionaries, usually from evangelical or Pentecostal groups. Naijm said there's a perception that these groups, often very aggressively missionary, are part of the American "occupation," which fuels fears about a Western anti-Islamic "crusade." Resentment against Christians in general grows, and ends up labeling as "foreign" Christian churches that have actually been established in Iraq longer than Islam itself.

Casmoussa told the Fides news agency that his kidnappers accused him of being a "collaborator" with the Americans, "but, as we conversed, they realized that I work instead for the unity and sovereignty of our country, at peace with all the neighboring nations."

Whatever the causes, these are not easy days to be a Christian in Iraq, or anywhere in the Middle East.

Ironically, however, this reality may create a sense of brotherhood with other believers who also know what it is to suffer. Rabbi Moses A. Birnbaum of the Plainview Jewish Center in Long Island, New York, was part of a delegation of 130 rabbis and other Jews that met with John Paul II on January 18. Birnbaum, who told me that he thinks a failure to speak up for Christian minorities today is morally comparable to the failure to speak up for Jews in Germany in the 1930s, shared the message he delivered when he shook John Paul's hand: "I'm praying for the oppressed Christians in the Middle East," Birnbaum said he told the pope.

* * *

I was in that Jan. 18 audience with the pope, which, as I told the BBC Tuesday morning, sounds a bit like an old pub joke: "A hundred rabbis walk into a room with the pope " In this case, however, the punch line was not a laugh, but a hearty expression of gratitude from Jews who said they feel that sometimes Jewish organizations don't give adequate credit to the Catholic church, either for the historic changes in its teaching on Judaism since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), or the personal commitment of this pope to combating anti-Semitism.

This was by most accounts the largest papal audience ever with a group of Jews. Normally when the World Jewish Congress or the Anti-Defamation League comes to visit, the delegation is composed of 15-20 people.

Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, who directs the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, said that while some Catholics "don't know" about the revolution since Vatican II, many Jews "don't believe it." In that light, Ehrenkranz said, the Jan. 18 audience was an opportunity for Jewish leaders to publicly acknowledge that the transformation is for real.

The event was organized by an American Jew named Gary Krupp, a medical supplies professional who was named a Knight of St. Gregory by John Paul II in 2000 for his support of the southern Italian hospital founded by the famed Capuchin mystic and stigmatic, Padre Pio, called the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza ("house for the relief of suffering").

I met Krupp and his wife Meredith over dinner in Rome, and he explained that the award came as a shock. It makes him only the seventh Jew, and just the third one still alive, to be a papal knight. That reality, he said, made him think that perhaps God wanted something from him by way of promoting understanding among the religions.

The result is Krupp's "Pave the Way" Foundation, the motto of which is, "Embrace our similarities, savor our differences." Its vision is not limited to Jewish-Catholic relations, and in fact Krupp's support staff on this Rome trip was composed in part of a handful of volunteer Scientologists. Yet given Krupp's background, the Jewish-Catholic relationship seemed an obvious place to start.

The agenda of the Jan. 18 audience was two-fold. The overt part was to thank John Paul II for his unique personal commitment to Jews and to Judaism.

"You have defended the Jewish people at every opportunity, as a priest in Poland and in your pontificate," he said. He recalled John Paul's 1986 visit to the Roman synagogue, the first by a pope since the time of the primitive church, and his 2000 trip to Israel. Krupp said the pope embodies the "spirit of Aaron, the high priest of ancient Israel."

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," Krupp said. "Shalom, shalom, shalom." After he finished, three rabbis blessed John Paul in Hebrew and English.

John Paul gave a brief set of remarks.

"This year we will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's Declaration Nostra Aetate, which has significantly contributed to the strengthening of Jewish-Catholic dialogue," he said. "May this be an occasion for renewed commitment to increased understanding and cooperation in the service of building a world ever more firmly based on respect for the divine image in every human being."

Krupp's next project is to try to help get negotiations between the Holy See and the State of Israel back on track. He's a good friend of both Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger, a principal negotiator for the Holy See with the Israelis, and Oded Ben-Hur, the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See. Krupp said he hopes he can mobilize American Jewish support to galvanize Israel's government to bring the talks to a swift conclusion.

One specific goodwill gesture he intends to urge upon the Israelis is the return of the Shrine of the Cenacle, the location where Christian tradition holds that Christ instituted the Eucharist, to the Franciscans who lost it under the Ottomans in 1551 and have been trying to reclaim it ever since. Since 1967, it has been the property of the Israeli government, entrusted to the Ministry for Worship. The building, which is regarded as the first seat of the newborn church, is also an object of pilgrimage for Jews, as they believe that King David is buried there. The room where tradition holds that Jesus washed his disciples' feet today is a synagogue. In the past, it was also used for worship by Muslims. The cloister leading to the second floor, where the cenacle is located, at present is used as a museum of the Holocaust and a rabbinical school.

As we dined In Rome, Krupp's toast was to the hope that Franciscan priests may once again be able to say Mass in the cenacle within the year.

* * *

Speaking of Pius XII, Rabbi Jack Bemporad of the Center for Interreligious Understanding, who also serves as a professor at the Angelicum University in Rome, said that the discussion over Pius' wartime role is not yet resolved. He spoke in a Jan. 17 lecture at Rome's Centro Pro Unione, and responded to a question about Pius XII.

"Look at what happened in Greece and Thessalonika, where over 96 percent of the Jews were rounded up and sent to the camps," Bemporad said. "There both the Catholic and the Orthodox bishops did speak out, and they were rounded up and shipped off too. How could Pius have known what the effect of a public statement on his part would have been?"

Further, Bemporad pointed out, Pius also did not issue public denunciations of the killing of priests and nuns in Poland, despite requests from the Polish bishops during their ad limina visits to do so.

"Are we supposed to think that Pius XII was anti-Catholic because he didn't condemn the killing of Catholics in Poland?" he asked.

"By his judgment, he did what he had to do," Bemporad said. "It was not clear who was going to win the war, and if the church would even be able to survive." Bemporad also referred to plans by the Nazis at one stage to kidnap Pius XII.

"He was told that after the collapse of Mussolini's regime in 1943, when the Germans occupied Italy, that Hitler would not be as gentle with him as Mussolini had been," Bemporad said.

Bemporad said he's convinced that John Paul II in the same circumstances would have reacted differently. "He would have spoken out," he said. At the same time, Bemporad said, it's extremely difficult to pass judgment on Pius XII, given the unique threats he faced.

Birnbaum, the rabbi from Long Island, had much the same reaction.

"Let's not forget that Jewish groups praised Pius XII after the war," he said. "The jury is still out."

Further, Birnbaum said, he believes Jews should stay out of Catholic debates over the possible beatification of Pius XII.

"It's unseemly for us to comment on something as internal as picking saints," he said. "I don't believe in Catholic saints, so it's not for me to get involved. It's as if the Catholics were telling us how to keep shabbas."

* * *

What might the fallout be if Pius XII is beatified?

It's impossible to predict, but one theory making the rounds, which I picked up both from Catholics and Jews this week, is that the potential for Jewish protest might be somewhat muted by the political realities of the moment vis--vis Israel. Many Jews today feel that relations are strained with their traditional allies in mainline Protestant churches, largely because of those churches' strong stance in favor of the Palestinians. The June 2004 vote of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States to divest some of its nearly $8 billion holdings of companies that do business in Israel is one clear expression of that trend.

In that context, there is a growing tendency for many Jews to see more theologically centrist and conservative Christian denominations, especially the Catholic church, as more natural "friends." In addition, the Vatican has a global diplomatic standing that no other religious body enjoys. For those reasons, some analysts believe, at least some Jews would be reluctant to disengage from the Catholic church in any lasting way, despite whatever reservations they may feel about Pius XII.

Time will tell.

* * *

Bemporad told his audience that he worries about what will happen to the Catholic interest in Judaism after John Paul II, since it's unlikely that another pope will have the same personal, biographical commitment to Jewish-Catholic relations, what Bemporad called a "dialogic imperative." It's urgent, he argued, that the gains in the relationship be consolidated.

Specifically, Bemporad called upon the Vatican to produce a document explaining "the role of Judaism within Catholic self-understanding."

Bemporad did not unpack what he meant, but presumably he wants the Catholic Church to explain, in theological terms, how it reconciles the universality of Christ's redemption with recognition of the on-going validity of God's covenant with the Jews.

Salesian Fr. Norbert Hofmann, who is the Vatican's primary staff person for the dialogue with the Jews, was in attendance at the lecture. He responded to Bemporad, suggesting that this is still an "open question" in Catholic theology, and that a premature document might have the effect of choking off that discussion.

That view seems to track with what one hears among the upper echelons in the Vatican. The questions such a document would have to address, many believe, are simply too unsettled.

This perspective was expressed, for example, in the Dec. 6, 2004, address of Cardinal Walter Kasper at Cambridge University on "The Relationship of the Old and the New Covenant as One of the Central Issues in Jewish-Christian Dialogue." In that lecture, Kasper charts various theological positions on the relationship between God's covenant with the Jews and the universality of the redemption won by Christ, but does not attempt to settle the question.

"We are still far removed from a synthesis, and even more from a consensus," Kasper said.

* * *

One further proof of the evolution in Jewish-Catholic relations should come in September, when Ehrenkranz plans to take a delegation of rabbis and American Catholic bishops to Auschwitz, and then to Rome for a blessing by both the pope and the chief rabbi of Israel.

The bishops will be led by Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee. Plans call for the group to fly from the United States to Rome, then to Krakow, and to take a bus to Auschwitz. They will have a tour followed by a dinner inside the camp, with an open dialogue between the rabbis and bishops.

Afterwards, the group will return to Rome where they will be blessed both by the pope and by the chief rabbi of Israel, who will travel to Rome for the occasion. The Community of Sant'Egidio will host a dinner for the group in Rome.

"One thing I hope to explain is why the Jewish people feel so intensely about Israel," Ehrenkranz said. "For many of us, Auschwitz is what happens if there is no Israel. If you don't have an Israel, you don't have a path out. You can't understand Jewish thinking about Israel without grasping that."

Ehrenkranz, by the way, said he shares Bemporad's concern about what might come after John Paul II. "You're not going to get anybody with his sensitivity. The fear is, whatever you've got done can be undone," he said.

Reacting to the "Latin American hypothesis" for the election of the next pope, Ehrenkranz said that a Latin American would likely mean a pope with less personal experience or interest in dialogue with Judaism.

One exception, however, according to Ehrenkranz, would be Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit cardinal of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bergoglio was an auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994, when 86 people were killed and hundreds more injured in an explosion that destroyed a seven-story building housing the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association and the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations.

It was one of the worst anti-Jewish attacks ever in Latin America, and Ehrenkranz said that Bergoglio was "very concerned with what happened he's got experience."

* * *

Despite dramatic headlines announcing a challenge to the Vatican, a Jan. 18 statement from a spokesperson for the Spanish bishops' conference about condoms and the fight against AIDS (the precise meaning of which is still debated), does not necessarily represent a break with church teaching, according to a leading Roman moral theologian.

"At the level of principle, the church's teaching is that the only legitimate sexual activity is between a husband and wife, and must always be open to life," said Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone. "Therefore contraception is always wrong."

"The issue here, however, is one of pastoral application. Does the use of a condom where one partner is infected and the other isn't, and the intent is to prevent disease, necessarily constitute contraception?"

On that specific question, Johnstone said, there is no definitive pronouncement, either from Pope John Paul II or the Vatican.

The story began Jan. 18, when Jesuit Fr. Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, secretary general and spokesperson for the Spanish bishops' conference, met with the Spanish health minister to discuss anti-AIDS efforts. Afterwards, he was quoted as saying that condoms "have their place in a comprehensive and global prevention of AIDS." Reports also quoted Martinez as adding that condoms should be acknowledged as a third option, with sexual abstinence and marital fidelity clearly seen as preferable methods for stopping the spread of AIDS.

Three days after the fact, Spaniards are still debating what exactly Martinez Camino, 51, meant to say (see below). Whatever his original intent, media outlets around the world announced a historic challenge to the Vatican's anti-condoms stance, and political parties and pressure groups with a liberal stance on reproductive issues put out statements celebrating the Spanish position.

On Jan. 19, however, the Spanish bishops issued a second statement, which said that Martinez's comments "must be understood in the context of Catholic doctrine, which holds that use of condoms is immoral sexual conduct."

While critics saw the statement as an about-face, Johnstone said there is a reading of it consistent with Catholic moral analysis.

The question is whether, applying the traditional Catholic moral principle of double effect, one could argue that in a case in which a husband is infected and the wife is not, for example, it would be legitimate for the wife to ask the husband to wear a condom if they are going to have sex in any event. In that case, there are two effects of condom use -- preventing the spread of disease and blocking pregnancy. Since only the former is directly being intended, Johnstone said, one could argue that it's morally permissible.

Whatever conclusion one draws, Johnstone said, it is a matter for open discussion among Catholics, since there is no formal statement from the church's teaching authority.

In fact, last October, in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, the Vatican's top official for health appeared to allow for such a pastoral application.

"If an infected husband wants to have sex with his wife who isn't infected, then she must defend herself by whatever means necessary," Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, President of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Health, said in comments published Oct. 1, 2004. This position, he said, is consistent with the tenets of traditional Catholic moral theology, which teaches that acts of self-defense can extend to killing in order to not be killed.

"If a wife can defend herself from having sex by whatever means necessary, why not with a condom?" he said.

Barragan said this belief informs his decisions as head of the Council for Pastoral Health, but adds that his views are personal and do not speak for Pope John Paul II.

"The Holy Father has never spoken explicitly on the subject," Barragan said.

Barragan repeated the point in a Jan. 20 interview with La Repubblica, a Roman daily. Asked if a woman could ask her infected husband to use a condom, he said: "That is her right."

Other Vatican officials, such as Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of the Pontifical Council for the Family, have taken a more dim view of even this limited possibility.

This is not the first time that a Spanish cleric has suggested some flexibility on the use of birth control. Bishop Juan Antonio Reig Pla of Segorbe-Castellon said in 2001 that religious sisters who face a danger of rape, such as missionaries in war zones, may use the pill as "self-defense against an act of aggression."

That comment too made international waves, yet it too actually built on earlier Vatican approaches. In the early 1960s, Johnstone said, the Vatican gave permission for religious women in the Belgian Congo to use contraceptives as a defense against rape.

"It was seen as a protection against pregnancy arising from unwanted, unfree sexual intercourse," Johnstone said.

* * *

On Jan. 19, the Spanish bishops released the following statement with regard to Martinez Camino's comments on condoms:

"The Secretary General of the Episcopal Conference, Fr. Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, visited the Minister of Health and Consumption yesterday, Doctor Elena Salgado, to talk about ways to collaborate in the best possible way in the prevention of the AIDS pandemic. It is a subject that concerns the Church a great deal, as well as all Catholics and ecclesial institutions who work in an outstanding way in Spain and everywhere in the world to provide social and sanitary care to those affected by this disease.

"The Secretary General spoke with the Minister about the program of prevention known as 'ABC,' which is supported by prestigious scientists and specialists of international rank. (See the medical magazine The Lancet of November 2004). The advice of specialists is that policies of prevention of the transmission of AIDS by the sexual route, to be complete and effective, have to be based on the recommendation -- in this order -- of abstinence, fidelity and the use of condoms. The World Health Organization says the same thing.

"He explained, therefore, to the Minister that it is certainly not the case that when the Church promotes the correct use of human sexuality, especially the virtue of abstinence, that it is somehow at odds with scientific recommendations of the day in terms of how best to prevent infection with AIDS.

"On the contrary, abstinence from improper sexual relations and mutual fidelity between spouses constitute the only universally safe conduct with regard to the danger of AIDS. The recommendations of the experts in public health agree in this with the moral doctrine of the Church.

"The Secretary General responded briefly to journalists when coming out of the Ministry of Health that the use of condoms has a place in the program called 'ABC,' a comprehensive technical plan for the prevention of AIDS. This declaration has to be understood in the sense of Catholic doctrine, which maintains that the use of the condom implies an immoral sexual act. For that reason, the Church collaborates effectively and reasonably in the prevention of AIDS, promoting the education of persons for faithful conjugal love open to life, attempting to avoid in this fashion improper and promiscuous relations that give rise to the so-called 'at-risk situations' for health. In accord with these principles, it is not possible to advise the use of condoms, being in itself contrary to the morality of the person. The only truly advisable thing is the responsible exercise of sexuality, in accord with moral norms.

"In conclusion, as opposed to what was affirmed in several instances, it is not true that the doctrine of the Church on condoms has changed."

Some conservative Spanish Catholics were critical of Martinez Camino, arguing that last July he appeared to approve a policy of the Aznar government that allowed experimentation on "surplus" embryos, and that Martinez Camino was also insufficiently aggressive about reducing the influence of Spanish Redemptorist moral theologian Fr. Marciano Vidal, after his work was criticized in a 2001 notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

On the other hand, many observers believe that Martinez Camino is simply walking the tightrope that most Catholic officials do when treating this subject in public. On the one hand, many believe that in situations in which abstinence and conjugal fidelity are not realistic options, there is a good moral case for treating a condom as a "lesser evil." Yet they are also leery of saying this too clearly, for fear that it will be misunderstood, either as a license for irresponsible behavior or as a challenge to the church's teaching -- fears which Martinez Camino's experience this week would seem to amply confirm.

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

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