The Word From Rome
?Signup for weekly e-mail alerts |  1 Archives  | *Send this page to a friend | 3Printer friendly version

January 27, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 21

John L. Allen Jr.


Check Out
This Week's Issue 

  Login / Register
The Word From Rome

John L. Allen Jr.

From Where I Stand

Joan Chittister

The Peace Pulpit

Thomas Gumbleton

Washington Notebook

Joe Feuerherd

 MORE . . . 
  Celebration Magazine
  Directory / Contact Us
  Electronic Edition
  Global Perspective
  NCR in the News
  Pentecost in Asia
  Rome Bureau
  Special Documents
  Washington Bureau
  Writer's Desk Archive
A digest of links to media coverage of clergy abuse.

NCR's Latin America Series

The churches in Asia gather
Papal Coverage: Read NCR's 25 days of non-stop coverage of the death of John Paul II and the elction of Benedict XVI. This includes Sr. Joan Chittister's essays, An American Catholic in Rome

The first encyclical; What the encyclical says about Benedict; Reactions to Deus Caritas Est: Cordes, Wolfensohn, and George; Copyrighting the pope's words; The family and economics


Dear Reader of The Word From Rome,

We need your help. We are pleased to make available -- at no charge -- The Word From Rome. But we cannot do all we need to do without your financial assistance.

Please take a moment to consider contributing to our annual appeal and join the ranks of readers who give to the Friends of NCR campaign. National Catholic Reporter is a nonprofit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible in the United States.

Contributions may be sent to:
National Catholic Reporter
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO   64111

Make checks out to: NCR

If you wish, you may print a form for submitting your donation.
You may also use this form for credit card donations.


Donate Now Online

P.S.: Everyone who donates will receive the fourth in a series of specially designed NCR Christmas ornaments connecting us in a special way to the gospel of peace on earth. Thank you.

By now, the heart of Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is already familiar - that all love, including erotic love, is a gift from God, but it must be "purified" into agape, or self-giving love. Agape flows into service of one's neighbor, especially the poor and vulnerable, which is the basis for Catholic charitable work.

Noted Italian Vatican analyst Orazio Petrosillo said that the encyclical revealed the man once known as il Grande Inquisitore, "the grand inquisitor," as instead il Grande Innamorato, "the grand lover."

The encyclical, released on Wednesday, consists of two parts: a spiritual meditation on love, followed by reflections on Catholic charitable organizations. In a Jan. 24 audience with members of Cor Unum, the Vatican's charitable agency, Benedict said that at first blush these two sections may appear to have "little connection with one another," but said he believes the two topics "can be understood properly only if seen as one."

The heart of the first section is that eros, or human sexual love, must be transformed through "a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing" into agape, meaning the complete gift of oneself for another.

The second part draws on material previously circulated for a draft encyclical under John Paul II about church-run charitable works. In it, Benedict argues that charitable works are as essential to the church's life as liturgy and the sacraments.

While the church is obligated to work for social justice, the pope writes, it must never neglect individual acts of charity. Benedict warns Catholic charities to steer clear of "parties and ideologies." He also said that Catholic charitable groups must work in concert with the church, and especially the bishops.

The pope also reflects on the relationship between church and state, supporting the autonomy of each.

"We do not need a state which regulates and controls everything," Benedict writes, "but a state which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need."

Benedict has voiced satisfaction that the encyclical appeared during the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, since, he said, love is a theme that unites Christians across denominational lines.

The encyclical can be found on the Vatican Web site:

back to top
* * *

Even apart from policy questions, there's much to learn about Benedict XVI's papacy from Deus Caritas Est.

First, he will not, as some feared, lead the Catholic church to collapse in on itself and become preoccupied with its own internal business. One can hardly imagine a theme of more universal human concern than love.

Second, while he possesses vast erudition (in the first 20 pages of Deus Caritas Est, he manages to cite Nietzsche, Descartes, and Plato), Benedict expresses himself as a pastor. He treats a core theme of Christian faith, and for the most part uses terms that don't require a license in systematic theology to grasp. While history will remember John Paul II as a great evangelist, Benedict XVI may go down as the most classic example of a "teaching pope" in modern times.

Third, for all the talk about Benedict as an Augustinian pessimist, he actually believes there are still people in the world who can be influenced by unadorned argument, shorn of theatricality or grand symbolism. In its own way, it's a remarkably optimistic stance.

Fourth, Benedict grasps the old bit of wisdom about governing the Catholic church expressed by John XXIII, who once said, "I have to be pope both of those with their foot on the gas, and those with their foot on the brake." Deus Caritas Est reflects an obvious concern for balance. He warns Catholic charitable groups they must not forget about Christ, yet understands there are times when this faith must go unspoken, so charity workers don't give the appearance of "proselytism"; he stresses the "vertical dimension" of prayer and worship, yet also writes that "a Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented."

Finally, the encyclical shows that Benedict's determination not to impose his personality upon the papacy will sometimes mean we don't get what some consider the "real" Ratzinger. One senior Vatican official, for example, told me that he felt Deus Caritas Est could have been a courageous encyclical on sexual morality, but the pope's collegial willingness to pick up the threads of a pre-existing document on charity prevented that. The reaction is analogous to frustrations that the pope is not moving fast enough to "shake up" the Curia, to reverse "business-as-usual" in the appointment of bishops, or to bring dissenting forces into line. For good or ill, his approach seems to be patient, gradual, and articulated in a "still, small voice" rather than bellowed from the rooftops.

For example, prior to the release of Deus Caritas Est, Benedict submitted his text to examination by Vatican doctrinal consultors, an act of humility that even Archbishop William Levada, the pope's successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, admitted Jan. 25 that he found "a little bit surprising."

In an age when public figures normally distinguish themselves by shouting and showboating, it is a fascinating management style to watch.

back to top
* * *

Last fall, plans called for the encyclical to be released in early January, so Cor Unum scheduled a late January conference premised on the assumption that there would be a text to discuss. Instead, the Jan. 23-24 conference became a kind of informal introduction to the encyclical, which was released the day after it concluded.

At one stage, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, who moderated several of the sessions at the conference, described it as a kind of "marriage prep course for the encyclical."

back to top
* * *

Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, a German who heads Cor Unum, has long harbored concerns about the rapport between some Catholic charitable agencies and the institutional church. That preoccupation is reflected in the encyclical, as well as in his remarks to the conference.

E-mail Alerts
      To receive an e-mail notice when The Word From Rome is posted everyweek, signup here.
      Click on the link at the top rightof this page to send the column to a friend or colleague.
"Without a solid theological foundation, the large church organizations could be tempted, in practice, to disassociate themselves from the church and to drift away from their tie with the bishops, even preferring to identify themselves as independent, non-governmental organizations (NGOs)," Cordes said.

"In such cases, their 'philosophy' and projects are indistinguishable from those of the Red Cross or an agency of the United Nations."

At the Jan. 25 news conference, I asked Cordes if he could offer a practical example of how Catholic organizations might avoid this risk.

Cordes said he was uncomfortable with talk about "risk," because "you can't characterize all the church's charity work in this sense." Still, he said, the spirit of secularism, which has made many aspects of modern life seem disconnected from religion, at times also is reflected in the church's own organizations.

"Thus a church agency can forget it has something to do with the bishop," Cordes said. "It works directly with the state. The bishops are unhappy and complain to us, because these agencies sometimes undertake projects without any contact with the bishop or the local church in the country they want to help."

back to top
* * *

Another speaker at the conference, James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, called for greater collaboration between religious groups and international financial institutions at the Cor Unum conference.

Though he didn't explain the background to that appeal, religious leaders often suspect global financial bodies of promoting a kind of soulless capitalism, while financial experts often complain that religious leaders have good intentions but scant understanding of market dynamics.

"One of the assumptions that divides institutions of faith from those based on politics and international agreements is the automatic assumption that you have to teach me spirituality, that you have to give me a moral center, that you must convince me there's more to development than economic mechanisms," Wolfensohn said.

"In truth, we're both concerned with human beings and linked by values," he said. "It's possible to love, to care, even if you're not in the church."

Wolfensohn said that of the 6 billion people on earth today, 5 billion live in the developing world, and receive only 20 percent of global income. He said that projections call for the Catholic population to grow by 400-500 million in the next 25 years, mostly in Latin America and Africa - precisely the regions of the world where poverty has proved most difficult to reduce.

Ten years ago, Wolfensohn said, an initiative called the World Faith and Development Dialogue was launched to bring religious bodies and international organizations into partnership, but that effort is now in limbo.

"It's tragic," he said. "We really started to make some progress, but in another five years no one will remember it."

In that regard, Wolfensohn said that because the church "has a memory," it may be capable of sustaining such initiatives despite changes in funding and political outlook that often hamper secular organizations.

back to top
* * *

Wolfensohn's plea for cooperation brought varied reactions.

Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, expressed a degree of skepticism.

"Your point is very well-taken," said Onaiyekan, who serves as president of SECAM, the association of African bishops' conferences. "You have succeeded in speaking with the Catholic church. But where is the forum to address the other party? After all, it takes two to tango."

"Given the failure of structural adjustment programs in countries like ours, many have a negative impression of the role of the World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary Fund] in our problems. To many of us, the prescriptions seem worse than the disease. They seem intended to kill, not to cure."

In response, Wolfensohn pointed to examples of fruitful cooperation.

"Debt relief would not have been possible without the partnership between religious faiths and international institutions," he said. "I couldn't have done it without the people in this room, and you couldn't have done without Michel Camdessus (head of the International Monetary Fund) and myself."

"We should rejoice in that experience," he said, "not continue in the old antagonisms."

Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston, said he favors cooperation between the church and secular international bodies, but is also concerned about "a struggle within the church in the face of poverty."

"There's a tension between helping the individual who here and now needs the peace of God, and the effort to address the system that perpetuates poverty," Law said. "In the midst of addressing systemic change and mega-problems, we cannot lose sight of the individual before us who needs a cup of water and a piece of bread."

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, asked about the possibilities for cooperation with Muslim groups.

Denis Viénot, President of Caritas Internationalis, the largest consortium of Catholic charities in the world, acknowledged that while he's an optimist, "not everyone in the field thinks the same way." Viénot said that bishops from former Soviet states, for example, experience difficulties in working with Islamic groups.

At the same time, he said, Russia offers a good example of the ecumenical dimension of charity, since Caritas often draws upon Russian Orthodox volunteers, creating a natural forum for Catholic/Orthodox exchange.

back to top
* * *

On Jan. 24, the day before the release of Deus Caritas Est, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago had the unenviable task of offering a theological overview of a document that, at least officially, no one in his audience had read. (Even most cardinals at the Cor Unum conference -- at the high water mark, 18 were present -- said they had not yet seen the text).

Striving to discern what could be said publicly, George revised his text until the very last moment.

The theological foundation of the encyclical, George argued, is the principle that "the giving of oneself to others constitutes the nature of God."

"God does not create or relate to the universe to gain something," George said. "God cannot even in principle be involved in economic exchange with his creatures. His relationship can only be one of pure generosity."

George noted that Jacques Derrida, the Algerian-born French literary critic and philosopher, once made a pun in German about gifts being a kind of poison (the German word Gift means "poison"). Gifts are poison, Derrida suggested, because they involve both giver and receiver in a relationship of debt and obligation, inferiority and superiority.

The only way out, George argued, is to enter into the logic of God, who has no need of our gifts, and we have no claim upon God's. The Roman Missal expresses the point by saying that God "has no need of our praise." Thus we enter into the "loop of grace," George said, rather than the "carefully calculated loop of exchange and obligation."

"That's the solution to Derrida's problem," he said.

George made an intriguing point about Benedict's motives for writing Deus Caritas Est, which most other commentary has missed.

"Love is the measure of, and the source of, a truly lasting peace," he said. "The desire to be a peace-maker is, I think, a driving factor behind the Holy Father's writing to the world about love in his first encyclical."

George warned about three "separations" that the pope wants to overcome: between eros and agape, between justice and love (charity), and between longing and fulfillment.

George said the difference between eros and agape can be expressed as the difference between love as an experience and love as a choice.

"When love is seen just as a spontaneous experience, it implies a loss of personal freedom," he said. "It's a kind of determinism. People say 'we fell in love, we couldn't help it.' It can be reduced to an experience, and the person is lost. As a free choice, however, the loss of self in love is not to an experience but to the other person, which is finally a finding of the self."

back to top
* * *

George is recognized as one of the deepest thinkers in the College of Cardinals, and is notoriously difficult to pigeonhole. That unpredictability often means that his off-the-cuff comments are among the most interesting moments in any discussion, and that was clear at the Cor Unum meeting.

In response to a question about why the distinction between eros and agape can be difficult to communicate, George veered into commentary on priestly celibacy.

"The church's witness to celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is much weakened today, certainly in my own country, through the sexual abuse scandals," he said. "People don't believe that we are celibate, or even that it's humanly possible. People think that sexual experience defines a human being."

"In my own experience, self-giving makes sense as someone called to total love of God and the other, and hence to living celibately," he said.

George said the "contradictions" of the world have crept into the church.

"The church seems to have incorporated into herself all the divisions of the world, which makes her a less effective missionary, and, I think, betrays the intentions of the Second Vatican Council, which still have to be fulfilled," he said.

Archbishop Ramzi Garmou, the Archbishop of Tehran in Iran, said during the question and answer period that he felt the conference "has not tried sufficiently to define the causes underlying inhuman situations of poverty." One such cause, he said, "is the policies of countries with economic, military, and scientific power, seeking to impose their priorities on others to protect their selfish and illegal interests."

Though Garmou was not specific, the reference to the United States seemed clear.

"What kind of appeal," he asked, "can we launch?"

In response, George said the question "from my brother in Iran" was "profoundly important for me as a citizen of the United States," and vowed that he would take it home.

"I will try to tell my fellow Americans how the world resents us, not because we are rich and free, but because too often we're deaf and blind," George said. "We find it difficult to break out of our own world, to place ourselves in the position of another, and to be available in such a way that we can be changed," he said.

"Many Americans recognize the truth of this, and we are working," he said. "It's not enough, it's not even a majority, but the possibility of redemption is there."

Yet George went on to nuance his response.

"An adequate analysis is also necessary about the sources of injustice in the world," he said. "We are all agents in some sense. No one is simply a victim, and no one is simply an actor."

George cited the growing conversations between bishops of the United States and Latin America as an example of fruitful exchange.

"The bishops of Latin America recognize that corruption and a history of authoritarian government in their own culture is also responsible in part for poverty and injustice," he said.

"All of us are called beyond resentment, some of it justified, towards the love that the pope speaks of in his new encyclical," he said.

Speaking directly to Garmou, George said, "I have to hear you, and I will say it in the United States. But if the United States ceased to exist tomorrow, there would still be poverty and injustice in Iran. We need a more ample conversation born in mutual trust and mutual love."

back to top
* * *

In a footnote to the encyclical's release, Benedict's lofty meditation on love appeared in the same moment that the Vatican was mired in a decidedly this-worldly dispute over money and copyrights.

Last May the Secretariat of State issued a decree assigning the rights to all papal texts, including those published before Joseph Ratzinger became pope, to the Vatican publishing house. It was a pro forma move, since the same thing was done in 1978 when John Paul II was elected. The difference this time, however, is that it appears the Vatican is determined to enforce the copyrights.

The Vatican sent a 15,000 euro invoice, for example, to Italian publisher Baldini & Castoldi for a small anthology of Ratzinger's writings published immediately after his election by journalist Marco Tosatti of La Stampa. It also dunned Piemme, another Italian publisher, for 5,000 Euro for reprinting John Paul II's nine-page final testament in a book by Andrea Tornielli, who writes for Il Giornale. Tosatti's case may end up in court.

When news broke that the Vatican was charging for papal texts, four kinds of criticism followed.

First, some worry that small religious publishing houses could be put out of business, though Vatican officials insist this is not their intent. The concern, they say, is with larger commercial publishers who routinely repackage papal and Vatican documents without any concern for copyright infringement.

Second, some object that the pope is akin to the president of the United States, whose official statements and texts are considered public domain. In reality, this is likely to be a live issue only in Italy, since differences in copyright laws in other parts of the world could make the decree difficult to enforce under civil law.

In protest, the liberal Italian Catholic news agency Adista published a blank page rather than the encyclical, accompanied by a rhetorical question: "Can you imagine the first Christian communities having to pay in Roman coin for the complete letters of the apostles?"

Third, others fear that the Vatican will use its control to punish journalists and publishers it doesn't like. While that's a possibility, it should be noted that Tosatti and Tornielli are hardly considered "anti-Vatican"; indeed, most people would see them as rather friendly in their coverage.

Fourth, some people object to the whole idea of charging for access to the pope's words, when the mission of the church is to spread its message to the world.

On that point, the most one can say is that from the very beginning, there have been two impulses in the church that often rest in uneasy tension. The first is the evangelical desire to give without asking anything in return, since that's the nature of grace; the second is the institutional reality that churches too have to pay the light bill. This appears to be one of those cases where the right balance is tough to strike.

back to top
* * *

Almost as a matter of principle, theological debates are insusceptible of empirical resolution. There's no scientific test to determine whether God is really three persons in one, for example, or whether salvation really comes through faith alone.

Some Catholic thinkers, however, believe there is a growing body of empirical confirmation for at least one aspect of church teaching, which is Paul VI's 1968 assertion in Humanae Vitae on the immorality of separating the unitive and procreative functions of marriage. The toxic consequences of rewriting traditional concepts of marriage and the family, they believe, are grimly evident in the current demographic implosion in Europe.

The lowest fertility rates in human history are being recorded in such traditional Catholic strongholds as Spain and Italy, around 1.2 live births for every 1,000 females of child-bearing age. ("Replacement level," the number of births required to maintain a stable population, is generally reckoned to be 2.1). Continent-wide, the fertility rate hovers around 1.5, meaning that without immigration from other parts of the world, Europe would actually be de-populating.

This demographic crisis took center stage in discussions at a conference on "The Family in the New Economy: Reflections on the Margins on Centesimus Annus" sponsored by the Acton Institute Jan. 21 at the North American College, the American seminary in Rome. Centesimus Annus is John Paul II's 1991 social encyclical.

Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, the President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, was the keynote speaker.

Lopez Trujillo warned against a "privatized, atomized" view of the family, which focuses only on the rights and freedoms of individuals rather than the family unit as such. In that context, for example, he opposed the push for legal recognition of de facto, but unmarried, couples.

Especially in light of the demographic challenges of Europe, Lopez Trujillo argued that an investment in the family is smart economic policy.

"A great historical failure of our day is to forget the human capital and the economic importance of the work of mothers," he said.

Jennifer Roback Morse, a senior fellow at the Acton Institute, argued that the population implosion in Europe illustrates the failure of what she called "Western European Socialism."

"This is a population decline on the scale of the Black Death, with serious economic ramifications," Roback Morse warned.

Roback Morse said that a social welfare state "marginalizes marriage" by reducing the dependence of elderly people upon their children, and women upon their husbands.

"Children become a consumption good, an optional lifestyle appendage," she said.

Roback Morse suggested that it is almost impossible to reverse fertility declines through expanded social benefits for families, noting that countries that have tried have seen only marginal increases in birth rates after pouring large amounts of resources into the effort. Instead, she said, it is the entire social welfare model that must be re-thought.

"Islam adds to the urgency of solving the problem," she warned. "Europe is importing workers it can't assimilate, and who reproduce rapidly … Islam may win for this reason."

back to top
* * *

In the brief period of question-and-answer that followed, Francis Campbell, the Ambassador of the United Kingdom to the Holy See, challenged Roback Morse, saying that he did not recognize England or Ireland in her description of the "social welfare state."

Moreover, Campbell said, earlier periods of social change in Europe have produced periodic expansions and contractions in fertility rates, and the present experience may be nothing more than one of those cycles.

In response, Lopez Trujillo insisted upon the "frightening fact" of demographic trends in Europe, offering to send a document of the Council for Life on this question to Campbell.

"We are realizing the worst prophecies of aging and demographic implosion, and European politicians are seeing this with alarm," he said. "The myth of over-population has collapsed."

back to top
* * *

Australian Jesuit Fr. Gerald O'Collins is such a universally popular figure in Rome it's possible to forget that beneath his avuncular exterior stirs the mind of one of the finest theologians of his era, arguably the best Christologist in the English-speaking world.

Fortunately, the Australian government has come along to remind us, by making O'Collins a "Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia."

The honor is akin to a knighthood in England.

The announcement came on Thursday, Jan.y 26, citing O'Collins' "service to the Catholic church internationally and to scholarship as a renowned theologian, academic and influential contributor to ecumenical relations." Plans call for an investiture ceremony in Rome in April.

O'Collins told the Australian press that he will probably "pop around" to see the pope wearing his new medal.

(As a footnote, O'Collins is in the same crop of new Australian "companions" as actress Nicole Kidman.)

O'Collins' graciousness is of a piece with his theological method, which is unmistakably rooted in Roman Catholicism, but at the same time open to insights from other traditions. As one indication of O'Collins' ecumenical commitment, the foreword to a 2001 festschrift in honor of his 70th birthday was written by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2006 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280