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 The Word From Rome

January 28, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 19

John L. Allen Jr.


"We pray together, eat together, drink scotch together, we articulate our own faith to each other, and we look for the presence of Christ in each other. Through this process, we often discover the dialogue partner as one who authentically is trying to follow Christ, one who loves God, one who tries to live open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit."

Fr. Donald Bolen,
the Vatican's point person for the dialogue with Anglicans and Methodists

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; 'One strike' abuse policy being looked at; Condom discussion takes nuance and clarity; A 'war between the generations'; The little Madonna of Civitavecchia


Jan. 18-25 marked the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the theme of which this year was “Christ, the One Foundation of the Church.” A number of events around town focused on the promise and perils of the ecumenical movement, forty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

* * *

As usual, the grand closing event was an ecumenical liturgy held at St. Paul Outside the Walls, a natural setting given the strong ecumenical commitment of the Benedictines. Abbot Primate Notker Wolf was in the front row at the Jan. 25 liturgy, which would normally have been presided over by John Paul II. Health concerns, however, dictated that this year the liturgy was led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.


In his homily, Kasper picked up on the “one foundation” theme, arguing that Christians can achieve unity only on the basis of a clear and strong Christology, unambiguously proclaiming Christ as the lone savior of all humanity. In that regard, Kasper criticized “liberal” Christologies that would style Christ as one among many prophets or saving figures.


“Aren’t we in a situation in which our primary duty, our major challenge, is to remember and reinforce our common foundation, and to make sure that it isn’t undercut by so-called ‘liberal’ interpretations, which define themselves as progressive, but which are really subversive?” he asked. “Precisely today, in a post-modern society in which everything becomes relative and arbitrary, and everyone creates his or her own religion à la carte, we need a solid foundation and a trustworthy common point of reference for our personal life, and our ecumenical work.”


Kasper argued that the path toward Christian unity is built on three elements: the Bible, baptism, and love for the Church.


“We split over the Bible,” Kasper said. “Only reading, studying and thinking about it together can we find unity.”


Secondly, Kasper said, we must realize that “our ecumenical journey does not start from scratch, since it is through baptism that we are already in a fundamental communion.”


Yet common baptism, Kasper noted, does not automatically resolve all ecumenical problems.


Today, he said, “We risk what is already a sad truth, namely becoming divided over new ethical questions, and digging new fault lines on issues that for centuries united us.”


At least in part, Kasper surely had in mind recent developments over homosexuality and gay marriage, such as the consecration of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopalian Church in the United States.


Finally, Kasper called Christians to grow in common love for the church, which he acknowledged is not without “stain or wrinkle,” but is loved by Christ nevertheless.

“If Christ loves the Church and gives Himself for her, shouldn’t we grow in the love of the Church, in the Sentire ecclesiam, that is, feeling part and parcel of the Church?” he asked.

* * *

Louis Weil, an American Episcopalian and an expert on Anglican liturgy, gave an address at Rome’s Centro Pro Unione, the city’s most prestigious ecumenical venue, on January 20. Weil teaches at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

The title of his address was “Rome and Canterbury: Steps toward Reconciliation through the Sharing of Gifts.” A convert from Judaism, Weil is part of the “Catholic” wing of the Anglican Communion.

The bulk of Weil’s talk was devoted to the vexed question of authority, which is at the heart of much internal tension within both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism these days.

Weil observed that at every stage of the recent consecration of Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, “our canon laws were meticulously obeyed.” The problem is not that a rebel province acted illegally; the problem is that there is nothing in the laws of Anglicanism to prevent a province from doing something to which other provinces are profoundly opposed.

Ultimately, Weil’s argument was that Catholicism and Anglicanism have something to learn from each other. Catholicism is struggling to revitalize local and intermediate decision-making structures, while Anglicanism is groping towards a stronger central authority. Weil hinted, though he did not say explicitly, that the papacy is in fact the “universal primacy” towards which Anglicanism is gravitating, albeit a restyled papacy exercised collegially.

The lecture was followed by an ecumenical Celebration of the Word, led by Rev. Thomas Noffke of the Waldensian Church. Rev. William McCulloch of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Rome preached.

* * *

Fr. Donald Bolen, a Canadian who is the Vatican’s point person for the dialogue with Anglicans and Methodists, delivered a homily on ecumenism Jan. 23 at the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier del Caravita, where an English-speaking community meets for liturgy each Sunday at 11:00 am.

We make a mistake if we think of ecumenical work as fundamentally about negotiations, trying to come to a common position,” Bolen said. “We make a category error if we start with or focus primarily upon our relationship with each other, as though unity was something that we could bring about by ourselves if only we worked hard enough and convinced enough people,” Bolen said.

Instead, Bolen suggested, the right way to approach ecumenism is as a common exercise in placing ourselves before the mysteries of the faith.

“We pray together, eat together, drink scotch together, we articulate our own faith to each other, and we look for the presence of Christ in each other.  Through this process, we often discover the dialogue partner as one who authentically is trying to follow Christ, one who loves God, one who tries to live open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” Bolen said.

“In our dialogues and our relations with other Christian churches and people, we learn, first of all, that they belong to Christ.  And if they belong to Christ, well, then they also belong to us, for better or worse.”

* * *

Most Americans probably regard the sexual abuse norms adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002, the heart of which is the “one strike” policy, as by now more or less written in stone, a permanent part of the church’s response to the crisis. In fact, however, those norms were approved by the Vatican only for two years, and that trial period is up in March. What happens next is unclear.

A “mixed commission” of Vatican officials and American bishops to discuss the norms will meet in Rome in the offices of the Congregation for Clergy, Jan. 31-Feb. 1.

Concerns linger about the norms – about the fairness of the ‘one strike’ policy, the definition of the “sexual abuse,” the routine lifting of the statute of limitations, and various due process issues – though opinion is divided both in Rome and in America. Some canonists and Vatican officials, and most American bishops, believe the norms are working and should be continued largely as they stand. Other Vatican officials, however, and many overseas bishops, remain opposed.

Sources told NCR in late January that this meeting of the mixed commission is not necessarily expected to produce a decision, but to air experiences and concerns on both sides.

“It’s a follow-up and evaluation,” a senior Vatican official told NCR Dec. 28. This official said that this meeting may or may not produce a document, depending on how serious the revisions decided upon by the group turn out to be.

One open question is what happens to the existing norms if March comes and goes without Vatican reauthorization. Some canonists say the new American rules would thereby expire, “and we would return to the status quo ante, though a lot older and wiser,” as one put it. Under the previous standard, there was no uniform national legislation, and no guarantee of a “one-strike” approach.

Others, however, believe the norms would stay in force until revised or formally withdrawn.

“We’re going to try to be sure that there’s no period that’s not covered by a norm,” the senior Vatican official said.

Representatives from the Vatican are expected to be: Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, a Colombian and prefect of the Congregation for Clergy; Cardinal Julian Herranz, a Spaniard, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts; Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, another Italian, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops; Archbishop Piergiorgio Nesti, Italian, secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; and Monsignor Thomas Green, an American in the Secretary of State.

In the meeting of the mixed commission in 2002, then-Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone represented the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but in the meantime he has gone on to become the cardinal of Genoa.

For the Americans, the members last time were Cardinal Francis George of Chicago; Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco; Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Illinois; and Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, who serves as chair of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, has been added to the U.S. group this time around, as has Sulpician Fr. Ron Witherup, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the major umbrella group in America for men’s religious communities, as a consultant.

George is the head of the American delegation. 

* * *

Speaking of the sexual abuse crisis, when Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado declined reelection on Jan. 20 as head of the Legionaries of Christ, some observers concluded he did so to avoid sex abuse charges directed against him by several former members, or that he acted under Vatican pressure.

Just yesterday, however, the Vatican’s top official for religious orders was full of praise for Maciel and the Legionaries. Archbishop Franc Rodé, a Slovenian who serves as prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, celebrated a Mass Jan. 27 marking the conclusion of the Legionaries’ General Chapter at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“I extend a warm greeting to all the participants in the third ordinary general chapter of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ,” Rodé said. “I greet especially the new director general, Fr. Álvaro Corcuera, and his council, who assume the leadership of a tested and powerful congregation, with an undeniable apostolic dynamism and a penetrating vision of its present and future mission in the church and the world.”

“A particular greeting is directed to Fr. Marcial Maciel, who was the instrument chosen by God to carry out one of the great spiritual designs in the church of the twentieth century,” Rodé said. “Esteemed and beloved Fr. Maciel, after having exercised with great prudence, wisdom and firmness the task of director general for more than 60 years, you leave the leadership of the Legion in younger hands, with the legitimate sense of having fulfilled your duty like a true soldier of Christ, accompanied by the veneration and gratitude of your children. I am sure that fidelity to the many precise norms you have left to the Legion of Christ, which make her a model of harmony and maturity, will continue shining in the congregation like a beacon of light for the generations to follow.”

I have a story in the Feb. 4 print edition of the National Catholic Reporter about the potential impact of Maciel stepping down on the Vatican investigation of sex abuse charges against him. Subscribers can access that story on the NCR Web site on Feb. 1.

* * *

As was clear in the recent brouhaha over comments from a spokesperson for the Spanish bishops’ conference about condoms and AIDS, the Catholic Church is better at communicating its abstract moral principles than its realism in applying those principles in concrete situations. Everyone knows, at the level of principle, that the church is opposed to condoms; what came as a shock in some circles was that many church officials also realize that in some situations, condoms may be a lesser evil to prevent the spread of disease.

Why don’t people understand that the church’s position on condoms is not as simple as a blanket ban? It arises, at least in part, from reluctance among some officials to speak too openly about the “lesser evil” clause, for fear of creating a slippery-slope towards promiscuous sexual behavior.

“The problem is, anytime we try to give a nuanced response, we see headlines that say, ‘Vatican approves condoms,’ Msgr. Angel Rodriguez Luño, an Opus Dei priest and consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told the Washington Post Jan. 23. “We cannot tell a classroom of 16-year-olds they should use condoms. … But if we are dealing with someone or a situation in which persons are clearly going to act in harmful ways, a prostitute who is going to continue her activities, then one might say, ‘Stop. But if you are not going to, at least do this.’” Sex outside marriage already breaks the sixth commandment, Luño said; unprotected sex outside marriage risks breaking the fifth commandment too, “thou shalt not kill.”

Officials are thus striving to express both nuance and clarity, and it’s tough to strike the right balance. If you look closely, you can sometimes spot this tension in the joints and welds of Vatican statements.

For example, Feb. 11, 2005, will be marked by the Catholic Church as the World Day of the Sick. Pope John Paul II released a message for the day back in September, in Italian, which has subsequently been translated into the other working languages of the Vatican.

In the original, the pope wrote that the sexual transmission of AIDS can be avoided “soprattutto mediante una condotta responsabile e l’osservanza della virtù della castità.” This comes out as, “above all through responsible conduct and the observance of the virtue of chastity.” The gist was that monogamy, fidelity and chastity are the preferred means of preventing AIDS, but he did not rule out less desirable strategies, such as condoms as a lesser evil.

By the time the document was rendered into English, however, the Italian sopratutto, meaning “above all,” became only. In English, the line now reads that AIDS can “only be avoided by responsible conduct and the observance of the virtue of chastity.”

Most other languages follow the Italian, not the English. The French is en particulier, meaning “particularly”; Portuguese is sobretudo, “above all.” The German does not have either term.

This is a case, therefore, in which the pope allowed a bit of nuance, a choice with which some English-speaker tapped to do the translation was uncomfortable – no doubt in the name of doctrinal clarity – and hence he or she touched it up. Ironically, the result is an even greater lack of clarity, because now we have rival versions of what the pope meant to say. Although we’re only talking about one word, a great deal hangs on the difference.

The translations may be found on the Vatican Web site www.vatican.va.

* * *

The Vatican released John Paul’s annual Message for Lent on Thursday, Jan. 27. The pope devoted the text to the defense of life, especially care for the elderly.

“Human life is a precious gift to be loved and defended in each of its stages,” he wrote. “It is a command that applies even in the presence of illness and when physical weakness reduces the person’s ability to be self-reliant.”

Archbishop Paul Cordes, head of the Vatican’s charitable agency Cor Unum, and Belgian Bishop André-Mutien Léonard, an expert on euthanasia, presented the document at a Vatican press conference Jan. 27.

Cordes warned that a “war between the generations” is underway in the West, with fewer and fewer young people supporting an ever-growing population of elderly. That reality will lead to increasing pressures for old people to accept a “good death,” Cordes said, in order not to impose burdens on the young. All this will shape a “culture of death,” unless the church and other people of good will resist.

Léonard gave an impassioned argument against the decriminalization of euthanasia in Holland and Belgium, provocatively waving a book from 1932 on eugenics that was used by the Nazis to justify the elimination of “lives not worthy of living,” insisting that it is the same arguments that justify pro-euthanasia legislation today.

I asked Cordes if he wanted to comment on the Terry Schiavo case in the United States, given the news from Jan. 25 that the Supreme Court declined to intervene, which may mark the beginning of the end of legal efforts to block removal of her feeding tube. In response, he made the same distinction recalled above between principle and application.

“It’s always very difficult to judge these cases from a distance,” Cordes said, “not knowing the details, not knowing the medical situation completely, not having spoken with the doctors. We have the general line of the moral teaching, its values, but these have to be applied to concrete cases, taking account of the precise situation. These cases have to be judged in dialogue between the local bishops, informed local priests, and with the doctors in the place.”

“The doctrine is clear and precise,” Cordes said. “But you have to take account of all the details, because pastoral care can’t remain abstract. Legislation for the universal church has to be abstract, but it requires application to a specific situation.”

A colleague tried to draw Cordes out on a case in Genoa, but he wasn’t taking the bait. He argued that the media always reduced these cases to a few spectacular elements, but to make an informed judgment he’s have to know all the particulars. In the meantime, he said, it’s the role of the local bishop to comment.

Finally, Léonard made the interesting claim that it’s easier to get people worked up about euthanasia than abortion, because the former concerns everybody directly. “We’re all already born,” Léonard said, “so in a certain sense the law on abortion may not affect me. But all of us will get old and face death, and so we’re all concerned with that.”

* * *

The famed “little Madonna” of Civitavecchia, a statue brought from Medjugorge to Italy that devotees believe shed tears of blood a decade ago, has “no human explanation,” according to an investigation carried out under the auspices of the Civitavecchia diocese.


The 17-inch tall statue, a gift to the family from a Spanish priest who had visited Medjugorge, reportedly cried 14 times between February and March. Thousands of faithful flocked to the site.


The owner, an Italian worker named Fabio Gregori, was charged with fraud in a civil court by a consumer protection group. The civil judge ruled there was no deceit, and now an ecclesiastical study has determined that the origin of the bleeding must be supernatural.


Perhaps the most interesting element of the story is the diary kept by Bishop Girolamo Grillo of Civitavecchia, a product of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State – an environment known for its pragmatism and sobriety, and hence not someone given to flights of mystical fancy.


“One week after the announcement of the first weeping, I told the parish priest to get a hammer and destroy the little statue,” the bishop said. “Instead he hid it, entrusting it to Gregori’s brother.”


Grillo then took possession of the statue himself, intending to bring an end to the circus. Instead, Grillo recounts the story of his change of heart after having held the “little Madonna” in his own hands, watching the blood flow from her eyes, feeling it on his own finger.


Authentication from the Vatican will likely be a bit longer in coming, and not just due to the Holy See’s legendary caution in such matters. Because the “little Madonna” comes from Medjugorge, to ratify it as supernatural would be tantamount to a backdoor endorsement of Medjugorge. Reservations in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about the famous Marian apparitions in Bosnia-Hercegovina are well-known, above all because of ecclesiastical in-fighting between the Franciscans who administer the site and the local bishops. In 1996, then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Tarcisio Bertone, at the time secretary of the CDF, replied to queries from French bishops that parish and diocesan pilgrimages to Medjugorge, which would imply a church-approved cult, were not permitted.


All this means that Vatican review of the “little Madonna” is part of a much bigger picture – and don’t hold your breath.

* * *

Two weeks ago I carried some comments from Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione, who was blackballed as the European Commissioner of Justice for his strong Catholic views on abortion and homosexuality. On the American sex abuse scandals, Buttiglione said he believed they are “a last consequence of the invasion of the ideology of sexual permissiveness in the 1960s and 1970s.”


That brought a response from Dominican Fr. Tom Doyle, who in the 1980s was a lonely voice warning of a looming crisis, and who has long been critical of what he sees as a pattern of denial in the way the church has responded.

Doyle writes:

Buttiglione’s views reflect those of many ‘moral conservatives,’ yet they are almost totally inaccurate. … This approach to the clergy abuse scandal is myopic at best but generally erroneous. 

“I have met and ministered to victims for 20 years and a significant number were sexually abused by clergy during the 50’s and 60’s when the institutional Church was at the height of its power, image and influence.  The so-called sexual revolution of the late sixties had little if anything to do with it.  Clerics were sexually abusing the vulnerable before, during and after this era.  It does provide a convenient scapegoat, though, especially for those whose level of denial renders them incapable of accepting the most criminal and immoral dimension of the scandal, namely the blanket of lies and cover-up as well as the constant shifting of perpetrators by the hierarchy.

 ”Since much of the reported sexual abuse has been same sex abuse it is of course facile to blame it all on homosexuals within the clergy.  This is equally myopic but rather than being simply erroneous, this accusation is patently uncharitable because it victimizes an entire segment of our society and our Church.  To claim that it is a ‘homosexual problem’ makes as much sense as saying that marital infidelity is a ‘heterosexual problem.’

 ”The sexual abuse nightmare is far from over, and contrary to the impression given to the Vatican by the U.S. hierarchy, the bishops do not have it under control by resorting only to dispatching any priest accused to some sort of ecclesiastical limbo.  It is a mess and will continue to be a mess.  The hierarchy, encouraged and enabled no doubt by Vatican officials, have staunchly resisted any and all efforts at a serious and honest self-examination into the reason the civil cases take place and the grand juries investigate.......and this reason is not the sex abuse but the mismanagement and cover-up by the leadership.

 ”Jason Berry has been urging people over here in the US to write to the Vatican officials with detailed information about what is happening. I totally agree because I believe the leadership of the universal Church needs an accurate, honest and complete picture.....and that is not what they are getting now.”

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

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