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 The Word From Rome

January 30, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 23

global perspective


Multinational drug companies "refuse to make [anti-retro virus medications] affordable in Africa even after they reported a $517 billion profit in 2002. This is a moral issue that shows the lack of social conscience by these capitalistic enterprises, which could easily save the lives of the 25 million sub-Saharan Africans who are HIV positive and otherwise doomed."

Jesuit Fr. Angelo D'Agostino,
founder of the Children of God Relief Institute in Nairobi, Kenya

Cardinal Stafford on the Apostolic Penitentiary; Cheney meets the pope; Another note on liturgy translation; Fr. Bruno Forte to lead the Lenten retreat for the Curia; Cardinal Kasper on Christian Unity


One area where the cultural gap between the Vatican and the Anglo-Saxon world is especially clear is in personnel policy.

It often startles outsiders, especially business school graduates and policy wonks, to discover that senior managers in the Vatican are frequently appointed with little regard for expertise in their area of responsibility. The president of the Council for Health Care, for example, has no background in medicine; the prefect of the Congregation for Education is not an educator; the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship is not a liturgist; and the prefect of The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the office that oversees missions, is not a missionary.

The latest entry on this list is Cardinal Francis Stafford, an American appointed in October to head the Apostolic Penitentiary, a key church tribunal, despite the fact that he has no advanced training in canon law.

From an Anglo-Saxon point of view – influenced by the Enlightenment, scientific thinking and capitalist notions of efficiency – such an approach cannot help but seem cavalier. How can the pope’s top advisors give him proper advice if they don’t have a grasp of their fields? It would be as if President Bush were to appoint someone who’s never handled a foreign policy job to run the State Department, or Bill Gates were to turn over Microsoft’s R&D operation to someone who never booted up a computer.

In the cultural world of the Holy See, however, shaped more by Augustine and Aquinas than Adam Smith, content-area expertise has never been the highest value. The system puts the premium on loyalty, understood as internal assent to the philosophical and theological fundamentals of the church. The role of a superior in the Vatican system is not to make the trains run on time, but to make sure they all head in the same direction.

To put the point differently, the logic in appointing non-specialists is to ensure that Vatican departments are run according to the moral and theological principles of the Catholic church, rather than the codes of the American Medical Association or the National Association of Trial Lawyers. If you have a man who understands the big picture, this theory runs, he’ll be able to acquire (or subcontract) whatever expertise he needs.

In a Jan. 28 interview with NCR, Stafford, who despite being American is thoroughly familiar with the cultural tradition of the Vatican, endorsed this view.

“I think that the church has relied too much on experts. That’s one of the great problems we’re having in the United States,” he said. His argument is that bureaucrats, therapists and social scientists, among other classes of experts, have sometimes played too strong a role in determining the American church’s policies, one factor he sees contributing to the sexual abuse crisis.

“The basic necessity for leaders within the church is prudence ­– a virtuous life and an ability to make discerning judgments from common sense, based on the common good,” Stafford said. “Our reliance upon experts is one of the great faults of the post-modernist society.”

One person’s negligence, in other words, is another’s prudence. All of which helps illustrate how, in many ways, Anglo-Saxons are from Mars, the Vatican from Venus.

* * *

Stafford is the second American to hold the job of Major Penitentiary, after William Baum of Washington, in a succession that stretches back to the 12th century and includes six popes plus the great Counter-reformation saint Charles Borromeo.

Stafford was appointed to the job Oct. 4, and the move raised some eyebrows. Although the Penitentiary is the oldest organ of the Curia, it is seen as a rather sleepy and non-career-track post. Its last occupant, Italian Archbishop Luigi De Magistris, was left off the list of new cardinals last fall. Because most of the work deals with matters of the confessional, it’s sensitive and secret. There are no great initiatives to announce, no favors to bestow, no headline-grabbing statements to make.

Stafford said he sees the Penitentiary as a sort of “Rorschach test” for one’s attitudes towards the church, about what’s important and what’s peripheral.

“It’s a hidden work,” Stafford said, “as grace is hidden.”

“We’re dealing with the keys to bind and to loose. One meditates a lot about the meaning of the keys that Peter carried that were given to him by Christ. These are really the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, which is incredible if you think about it,” Stafford said.

Stafford sat down Jan. 28 with NCR to discuss this “hidden work.”

The Penitentiary deals with the so-called “internal forum,” meaning issues known only to a penitent and his or her confessor or spiritual director. These can include five latae sententiae, or automatic, excommunications reserved to the Holy See: a priest breaking the secrecy of the confessional; a priest absolving his accomplice in a sexual sin; physically attacking the pope; a bishop consecrating another bishop without the permission of the Holy See; and a person desecrating the Eucharist. In these cases, a confessor may absolve someone of the sin itself, but the penalty (i.e., excommunication) can be lifted only by the pope acting through the Apostolic Penitentiary.

A confessor or a spiritual guide who feels stumped by any conflict of conscience, however, can submit the case to the Pentitentiary. Occasionally a petition can come directly from the individual.

When cases arrive, the penitent is described merely as “person x,” which at least in theory makes the judgment thoroughly objective.

The petition goes before a standing body of canonists and theologians, called the congress, which makes a recommendation to Stafford. (The congress is led by the reggente, currently Franciscan Fr. Gianfranco Girotti, formerly under-secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). If Stafford wants further reflection, he can refer the case to a body called the segnatura that currently meets once a month. It’s composed of a theologian, who since the 16th century has been a Jesuit, and canonists.

If Stafford approves a request to remit a penalty, which often means lifting an excommunication, he issues a decree in the name of the pope, usually with a penance attached. He might ask that the confessor or spiritual director report back within a year’s time to confirm that the individual followed through. Otherwise the penalty could be re-imposed.

The Penitentiary is also responsible for authorizing indulgences, which offer a remission of the penalties due to sin. For example, a diocese may be celebrating the 100th anniversary of a saint, and it wants to offer an indulgence for anyone who visits the saint’s tomb during the year. It has to ask the Penitentiary for permission.

Stafford said his office may get 200 such requests a year, and almost invariably they’re approved.

In effect, Stafford said, his job is to dispense God’s forgiveness – never turning it into a pro forma exercise or a spiritual commodities market, but always ensuring that mercy tempers justice.

“It’s humbling. I’m not worthy to do this,” Stafford said. “None of us are. We have to come from that as the starting point, otherwise we’re lost.”

“I rely totally upon Christ and my brothers here, praying that we don’t make this into a cheap grace.”

* * *

I was in the papal library this week, watching a strikingly robust John Paul II receive U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney on Tuesday, Jan. 27. The pope urged the vice-president and all Americans “to work, at home and abroad, for the growth of international cooperation and solidarity in the service of that peace which is the deepest aspiration of all men and women.”

The comment seemed a gentle, albeit indirect, challenge to Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration to work through the international community and especially the United Nations.

“The American people have always cherished the fundamental values of freedom, justice and equality,” John Paul said. “In a world marked by conflict, injustice and division, the human family needs to foster these values in its search for unity, peace and respect for the dignity of all.”

John Paul and Cheney spent roughly 13 minutes behind closed doors. The pope spoke English, so the two men were alone, without a translator. Later, after introducing his entourage to the pope, Cheney sat down with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican’s foreign minister. That meeting lasted roughly 40 minutes.

I spoke with James Nicholson, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, after the Cheney visit. He told me that Cheney found John Paul “clear, focused and lucid.” The two men, Nicholson said, discussed terrorism, the Middle East, and Iraq.

On Iraq, Nicholson said the pope did not reprise his opposition to the U.S.-led war, but was “forward-looking,” focusing on efforts to bring freedom to the country, especially religious freedom.

During a formal exchange of gifts, Cheney, widely known as a hawk on defense issues, offered the pope a crystal dove, which John Paul stroked appreciatively.

 As for the meeting with Sodano and Lajolo, Nicholson said it focused largely on the Middle East, especially the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The Vatican officials stressed to Cheney that resolution of this conflict is the “lynchpin” to bringing peace to the broader region.  They also stressed the Vatican’s concern for the continuing exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.

The Middle East generated the only real clash. Sodano expressed reservations about the security wall being erected by the Israelis, and in response Cheney insisted that Israel has a right to protect itself against terrorism.

On Iraq, Nicholson said that Sodano made what he considers a “significant statement.” The cardinal expressed condolences for American troops killed in Iraq, Nicholson said, referring to them as “people who were working for peace.”

In the past, Vatican officials have sometimes used the visits of senior U.S. statesmen to request specific interventions from the Americans. This time too, Sodano asked Cheney to use American leverage with China to press for greater religious liberty, especially a halt to harassment of clergy. 

Sodano also asked Cheney for his impressions about the nuclear threat in North Korea, Nicholson said, and Libya’s recent disarmament pledge.

According to a brief Vatican communiqué, other themes touched upon with Cheney included “moral and religious problems affecting the United States, especially those concerning the defense and promotion of life, the family, solidarity and religious freedom.”

In the 20-minute car ride to the Rome airport, Nicholson said Cheney told him he found the meetings “very positive,” as well as “meaty and meaningful.”

On the papal health front, several members of the Cheney delegation remarked at how surprised they were to find John Paul in such relatively good form. The pope read his brief remarks in clear English, then remained alert and expressive as gifts were exchanged and Cheney’s entourage was presented. The pope gave large bronze medallions to the men in the party and rosaries to the women.

* * *

Despite the rather traditionalist thrust of a new translation of the Mass now awaiting reaction from English-speaking bishops’ conferences (see NCR Jan. 23, New Mass translation said to be 'elegant,' closer to the Latin), one much-anticipated choice is likely to leave the most ardent traditionalists disheartened. In the new translation, just as in current practice, the priest says that Christ’s blood will be shed “for all,” rather than “for many.”

Rendering the Latin phrase pro multis as “for all” has long been Exhibit A in the traditionalist case against the English translation of the Mass following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Not only is it a loose translation, these critics insist, it flirts with heresy by suggesting that all human beings will be saved regardless of their moral choices or religious affiliation.

At one stage, a draft of the new translation from the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) appeared to endorse this criticism, translating Christ’s words as “for the many.” When the bishops who govern ICEL met in mid-January, however, they opted to maintain “for all” instead.

The outcome is something of a surprise since the new translation reflects a general sympathy to the traditionalist impulse, restoring “sacral” language in several places where it was dropped after Vatican II.  At one stage, the traditionalists seemed poised to win the pro multis issue too. In at least one draft that made the rounds, the words of institution were translated as follows: “Take this, all of you, and drink it, for this is the cup of my blood of the new and eternal testament, which will be poured out for you and for the many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Defenders of “for all” argue that Christ’s sacrifice is objectively valid for all – Christ is the universal savior of all humanity. Whether individuals accept that redemption is another matter. Further, they point to occasions when St. Paul used the word “many” to mean “everyone.”

Sources told NCR Jan. 25 that in their mid-January meeting, the ICEL bishops opted to revert to “for all.” The decisive issue was a desire to avoid changes in the Eucharistic Prayers wherever possible.

The bishops, however, would obviously not have adopted a translation they felt risked heterodoxy. In fact, the Vatican’s own liturgical publication, Notitiae, carried two pieces offering a theological and linguistic justification of “for all” back in 1970, just after the New Mass was promulgated by Pope Paul VI.

One footnote. John Paul II has never declared himself explicitly on this issue, but one may glimpse his thinking in the recent encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia. When the pope refers to the words of institution, he uses the phrase “for all” rather than “for many.” Most notably, this phrase appears not merely in the modern languages, but even in the Latin version, where the text reads: hic calix novum aeternumque testamentum est in sanguine meo, qui pro vobis funditur et pro omnibus in remissionem peccatorum.

Hence we have a further instance where, despite media stereotypes of a “conservative pope,” some staunch Catholic conservatives actually feel dismayed by John Paul’s “liberal” instincts.

* * *

When John Paul II named Belgian Fr. Gustaaf Joos a cardinal in October, most observers saw it as a touching and largely symbolic honor for an old friend. Joos, who was a classmate of Karol Wojtyla at Rome’s Belgian College from 1946-48, was already 80, so he will never vote in a papal conclave.

What John Paul perhaps did not anticipate is that by elevating Joos, he put a spotlight on this humble Flemish priest’s theological and political views. His opinions might have been lovingly tolerated from a country pastor, but they now have a worldwide resonance coming from a prince of the church.

All this boiled to the surface last week, when Joos spoke to a Belgian magazine on several subjects, including homosexuality.

“I am willing to write in my own blood that of all those who call themselves lesbian or gay, a maximum of five to 10 percent are effectively lesbian or gay,” Joos said.  “All the rest are just sexual perverts.”

“Don't hesitate to write that down. I demand you write it down. If they (homosexuals) come to protest on my doorstep, I don't care. I will not open the door,” Joos said.

The Belgian Center for Equal Opportunities and Struggle against Racism said it would sue the cardinal for violating anti-discrimination laws. Cardinal Godfried Danneels said that Joos was speaking in his own name and not on behalf of the Belgian bishops.

Joos also expressed doubts about democracy.

“Politics, democracy. Don't make me laugh,” he said.

“The right to vote, what is that all about? I think it is curious a snot-nosed, 18-year-old has the same vote as a father of seven. One has no responsibilities whatsoever, the other provides tomorrow's citizens.”

Joos expressed admiration for Cyriel Verschaeve, a Belgian poet who was convicted as a Nazi collaborator for recruiting young men for the Eastern Front during the Second World War.

Regardless of what one makes of the content of these statements, the language and tone were explosive. Given Joos’ generation and life experience, this was perhaps predictable. Sources in Belgium say that some bishops were dumbfounded by Joos’ elevation as a cardinal, but none raised objections out of respect for the pope.

No doubt John Paul wished to honor a brother priest whose lifetime of fidelity and service he admires. It’s not clear, however, that he did Joos any favors. The episode may give future popes an extra note of caution about plucking old friends out of obscurity.

* * *

For the seventh time in John Paul’s papacy, someone other than a bishop or cardinal has been invited to lead the annual Lenten retreat for the Roman Curia. Sources tell NCR the honor this year will fall to Fr. Bruno Forte, an Italian theologian who heads the Pontifical Faculty of Theology of Southern Italy in Naples. He’s a member of both the International Theological Commission and the Pontifical Academy of Theology, and a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

Forte is considered a theological moderate, influenced by the late German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. He’s said to have close ties to the emeritus cardinal of Milan, another Jesuit, Carlo Maria Martini.

The invitation to preach the Lenten retreat is considered a sign of papal favor. Previous preachers include Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger, Christoph Schönborn and Claudio Hummes. Two Americans have led the retreat: Cardinals James Hickey in 1988, and Francis George in 2001.

In late January the Pontifical Academy of Theology held an international forum in Rome, where Forte delivered a paper on the “Ecclesial Nature of Theology: Between Tradition and Innovation.”

The heart of Forte’s argument was that theologians and church authorities need each another.

The magisterium  “objectifies the research [of theologians] and puts it at the service of the community, in order that theologians don’t become adventurers or isolated navigators of intelligence, making sure they stay together with the others on the Barque of Peter,” he said.

Theologians, meanwhile, can help church authorities “open themselves to more adequate ways of proclaiming to the people of today the transforming and realizing encounter with the Risen One.”

* * *

Traces of the legacy of Pedro Arrupe, the famous Jesuit general who called the members of his order to be “men for others,” can sometimes be found in the most surprising places.

Like Nairobi, Kenya, and the Children of God Relief Institute.

In 1981, Jesuit Fr. Angelo D’Agostino, today 77 (he’ll be 78 on Monday, Feb. 2) and a little hard of hearing, was a young Jesuit psychiatrist finishing a yearlong stint working with refugees in Thailand. On a visit to Asia, Arrupe met D’Agostino and explained that the order was opening a Jesuit Refugee Service operation in East Africa, and suggested that the young Jesuit help out. D’Agostino protested that he was expected back at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., but Arrupe persuaded him to commit “just a few months.”

That few months turned into 23 years.

D’Agostino’s conversation with Arrupe took place on August 6, 1981. The next day Arrupe boarded a plane for Rome, where he had a stroke shortly after his arrival that rendered him virtually incapable of speech for the rest of his life. Hence D’Agostino’s was one of the last conversations Arrupe ever had, and it obviously left a deep imprint.

On Jan. 29, D’Agostino took part in a Vatican press conference to present the pope’s annual message for Lent. John Paul II called particular attention to the suffering of children.

“What too of the tragedy of AIDS and its devastating consequences in Africa?” the pope asked. “It is said that millions of persons are now afflicted by this scourge, many of whom were infected from birth. Humanity cannot close its eyes in the face of so appalling a tragedy!”

The Vatican has issued a special postal stamp bearing this quote. Proceeds, which are hoped to reach $620,000, will go to D’Agostino’s Children of God Relief Institute.

D’Agostino explained the work of his project, which has a residential population of 93 HIV-positive orphans, and also works with more than 1,000 additional HIV positive orphans in difficult living areas of Nairobi.

The greatest frustration, D’Agostino explained, is that none of these children need die from AIDS, since today’s anti-retro virus medications turn the disease into a manageable condition. The problem, however, is that the price of the drug renders it all but inaccessible to large segments of the African population.

That reality led D’Agostino to issue a scathing indictment in the Vatican news conference.

“Today at least 400 people die every day in Kenya because of AIDS,” he said. “Yet in Europe and North America it is no longer a fatal disease, it is only a chronic disease. Why the difference? It is the genocidal action of the drug cartels who refuse to make the drugs affordable in Africa even after they reported a $517 billion profit in 2002. This is a moral issue that shows the lack of social conscience by these capitalistic enterprises, which could easily save the lives of the 25 million sub-Saharan Africans who are HIV positive and otherwise doomed.”

D’Agostino later sat down with NCR, arguing that the drug companies could cure every child in Africa who is sick with AIDS for a total price tag of about $7 billion.

“No one seems to do anything about it,” D’Agostino said. “It doesn’t seem to get through to the newspapers or the people.”

Readers wanting more information can visit the Children of God Relief Institute website at

* * *

On Sunday, Jan. 25, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, led an ecumenical vespers service at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. The event closed the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

“In recent decades, we are aware of having made, thanks to God, great progress,” Kasper said, summing up the state of the ecumenical project. “No longer do we appeal to expressions of hate, of disrespect and of reciprocal derision. A new spirit of brotherhood has been developed. We live, work and pray together. We have become friends.

“But, if we look at the world with objectivity, we can’t pretend that everything is perfect,” Kasper continued. “Sometimes we note feelings of ecumenical exhaustion, signs of a new confessionalism, attempts to mine the path to unity. After having filled in the trenches that at one time divided us, we find them opening up anew in the field of ethics.”

Though Kasper did not spell out what he meant, the reference seemed, at least in part, directed towards the recent crisis in Anglican/Roman Catholic relations created by the consecration of an openly gay Episcopalian bishop.

From a human point of view, Kasper admitted with candor, there are reasons to “worry and lose heart.”

At the same time, Kasper said, Christians must not forget who they are – a people of hope. “When the Spirit of God starts something, he always see it through to completion,” Kasper said.

* * *

Arguably the most powerful woman in Rome, the superior of the Brigidine Sisters, Mother Tekla Famiglietti, is in some hot water this week.

Six Indian novices who were assigned to an abbey outside Rome have accused the Brigidines of taking their passports, denying them Italian health cards, and forcing them to engage in manual labor. At first, according to newspaper accounts, Tekla tried to have the Indians deported, but a local magistrate has made a preliminary ruling in their favor. Critics have charged that young sisters from the developing world, such as the Indians, are held in conditions “little better than slavery.”

It may not be coincidental that “Mother Tekla,” as she is universally known, is up for reelection as abbot general of the Brigidines on Monday, Feb. 2. It would mark an unprecedented extension of her 24 years in power, which already go beyond canonical limits with special permission of the pope.

Reputedly more powerful in the Vatican than even the legendary Sr. Pasquilina was under Pope Pius XII, Tekla has detractors who wouldn’t mind seeing her fall from grace. Hence the revelations about the Indian sisters could mark a sort of “January surprise.”

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

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