National Catholic Reporter ®

January 31, 2003
Vol. 2, No.23

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Priest who was present at the start reviews bold ecumenical vision of Vatican II

“From the outside we can appear idealists, and we are, but we are also realists. . . Is it really a good idea to irritate a billion Muslims?” 

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state
Jan. 18-25 marked the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and two events were among the highlights on this side of the ocean.

     Paulist Fr. Thomas Stransky gave a marvelous talk at the Centro Pro Unione, the ecumenical nerve center in Rome, on Jan. 23. His topic was “An Unique Case Study of Dialogue: The Delegated Observers at Vatican II.”

     Stransky, 72, was one of the four original staff members of the Secretariat for the Union of Christians, founded by Pope John XXIII on June 5, 1960. Stransky worked alongside Cardinal Augustin Bea, the future cardinal Johannes Willebrands, and Bishop Jean-Francois Arrighi. Bea and Righi are dead, while the 93-year-old Willebrands is seriously disabled and cared for by a community of nuns in Holland.

     Stransky was president of the Paulist Fathers from 1970-78, and from 1987 to 1999 rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies in Jerusalem. 

     Stransky said that over the four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), there were 167 ecumenical observers and 22 guests. At the beginning, he said, many non-Catholic Christians were lukewarm about the very idea of a council. 

     Many Orthodox Christians regarded the decision to convoke an “ecumenical council” as an act of papal arrogance, since no council could be truly ecumenical without the Orthodox churches. Protestants, who saw the Council of Trent and Vatican I as deviations from the faith, worried that Vatican II would be another affirmation of a “Rome is home” ecclesiology. The Baptist World Alliance actually asked not to be invited because of concern the council would sanction a model of church/state relations justifying the persecution of Protestant minorities in Catholic nations such as Spain and Portugal. 

     Those cautions, over time, dissolved. One marvelous anecdote: the American Baptist delegate was Stanley Stuber, whose book A Protestant Primer on Roman Catholicism had been assigned to Stransky in his Paulist seminary — to refute! In Rome, however, they met as partners rather than debaters.

     Most of the observers lived in a pensione near the Castel Sant’Angelo, entirely taken over by the Secretariat for Christian Unity. They met in the Centro on Tuesday afternoons to discuss the conciliar schema in sessions led by Willebrands. The observers were given front-row seats at the council, received all the secret documents, took part in regular deliberations organized by Stransky’s office, and had an influence on the council’s work, especially the document on ecumenism. Protestant luminary Oscar Cullman put things this way towards the end: “In everything which concerns the council, you have hidden absolutely nothing. There is no ‘Iron Curtain’ here.” 

     The influence of the observers was real. Cullman, Stransky revealed, was partially responsible for the famous language on the “hierarchy of truths” found in #11 of Unitatis Redintegratio, the decree on Ecumenism. (“When comparing doctrines with one another, [theologians] should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of Christian faith.”) The idea came from discussions at the pensione with Cullman, other ecumenical observers, and two Catholic theologians who served as consultors — Gregory Baum and Johannes Feiner. When the phrase made it into the document in the council’s third session, Cullman said it represented “the most revolutionary to be found, not only in the ecumenism schema but in any of the schemata.”

     Vatican II, Stransky said, amounted to a Catholic reform of the Counter-reformation, “within limits and without schism.” 

     Stransky said his counciliar experience suggests a three-step understanding of ecumenical dialogue. The first step, he said, is to enter inside the other church, see them as they see themselves. The second is to evaluate that way of seeing things from the point of view of Catholic tradition. The third is to incorporate those truths that the church needs for its own reformation.

     Ecumenism has, of course, never lacked critics. At Vatican II the Coetus Internationalis Patrum, the conservative opposition, complained to Paul VI that the non-Catholic observers were too influential. The pope, concerned not to alienate the traditionalists, took the complaint seriously. He wrote to Bea, asking if perhaps the presence of the “separated brethren” and their “mentality” were “excessively dominating the council, thus diminishing its psychological freedom.” Paul emphasized that protecting “the coherence of the teaching of the Catholic Church” was more important than pleasing the observers. According to Cardinal Jean Villot, the secretary of state, Pope Paul considered “disinviting” the observers to the fourth session. Stransky said that he does not know how Bea responded, but he recalled Willebrands saying privately that, “We did not invite them to particular periods, but to the entire council.” 

     In any event, the observers returned. “The pope’s concern never reached beyond our small sub secreto circle,” Stransky told his audience at the Centro.

     As evidence of how much changed over four years, Stransky cited the moving words of Paul VI in a sermon at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls on Dec. 4, 1965. “We are about to separate,” Paul said to the observers. “The council is ending. Each of you is about to take the road of return to your own home, and we shall be alone once more. Allow me to confide in you this intimate impression: your departure produces a solitude around us unknown to us before the council, and which now saddens us. We should like to see you with us always.”

     It was, as Stransky said, Paul’s best self. 

     I sat down with Stransky for an interview on Jan. 28 at the Casa Internazionale del Clero, near the Piazza Navonna. I wanted to hear Stransky talk about the present ecumenical situation.

     He reminded me of a line he used immediately after the council: “The first challenge is to convert Catholics to the Catholic Church,” by which he meant getting ordinary believers to understand and accept the ecumenical aims that had been adopted by the council. That challenge, he suggested, is still with us.

     One remaining headache is inter-communion, or the sharing of one another’s Eucharist. Stransky said it’s a red herring to think that “if you had inter-communion, all the other problems would go away.” It annoys him that some churches do little for ecumenism for 51 weeks out of the year, then complain that they can’t have inter-communion during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

     At the same time, he said, the possibilities for inter-communion should be expanded, especially in mixed marriages. “The difficulties of a mixed marriage are not the fault of the couple,” he said. “The Christian family is divided, and we have to figure out how to live with it.” Stransky pointed out that according to Catholic sacramental theology, the bride and groom are the ministers of marriage, hence a mixed marriage is communicatio in sacris, sharing in the sacraments. “Shouldn’t that be confirmed by sharing the Eucharistic bread?” he asked.

     Stransky said he believes a new push for inter-communion may come from the Third World, where the Christian churches are involved together in struggles against corruption, corporate exploitation, and injustice. “Is the Eucharistic meal going to be the only thing we can’t do together?” he said.

* * *

     On Jan. 25 my wife and I caught a train to Perugia, in the Umbrian hills, to hear a lecture by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (the successor to the ecumenical office created by Pope John). Kasper had gone to Perugia, where Cardinal Gioacchino Pecci served as bishop for 32 years before becoming Pope Leo XIII, to talk about Leo and the ecumenical movement. 

     2003 marks the 100th anniversary of Leo XIII’s death, and his pontificate is worth a look back. Leo launched modern Catholic social doctrine with his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. He broke with his 19th century predecessors by dropping their nostalgic desire to revive the Catholic monarchies, cautiously embracing democracy. He made John Henry Newman, the Anglican convert whose views were frowned upon by the church’s traditionalist wing, a cardinal in 1879. Newman had expressed reservations about the proclamation of papal infallibility at Vatican I. 

     Archbishop Giuseppe Chiaretti of Perugia, a man deeply in love with the memory of his illustrious predecessor, told me with passion (and perhaps a touch of exaggeration) that Leo actually “founded” inter-religious dialogue. In 1884, Chiaretti said, Leo became the first pope ever to officially receive a Buddhist, when he granted an audience to the ambassador of Siam (today’s Thailand) to Italy. One year later he became the first pope to receive a Muslim when he met with the Sultan of Johore (Malaysia). In 1897, Leo was the first pope to receive a non-Christian head of state, King Chulalongkorn of Siam. 

     Kasper credited Leo’s pontificate with representing the “dawn of ecumenism.” He was especially strong with the Orthodox. Leo stressed the Eastern tradition as the common inheritance of the entire Christian church. He insisted that Propaganda Fide, the Vatican’s evangelization department, respect the traditions and rites of the Eastern Catholic churches, who had complained to him about being “Latinized.” On Sept. 30, 1880, he extended the cult of Saints Cyril and Methodius to the entire church.

     Leo’s record with the Anglicans was more mixed. He encouraged Fr. Ignatius Spencer to found a society of prayer for unity with the Anglican Church. Yet in the bull Apostolicae curae (1896), Leo declared Anglican ordinations “null and void,” deepening the theological divide.

     In Perugia, Kasper revealed something to his audience that even historical experts had not known. 

     On March 19, 1885, Leo broke with all papal precedent by establishing in the Roman curia a “commission for the promotion of reconciliation with the dissidents,” composed of cardinals with a staff of consultors and experts. (He did so in a motu proprio called Optatissimae.) It was, Kasper said, “the first stable curial dicastery of the modern type, with structures and functions analogous to those assigned to the post-tridentine Roman congregations.” The commission was authorized to open relations in the name of the pope with the hierarchies of the Christian churches separated from Rome.

     As it turned out, Leo was too far ahead of the game. The separated churches were suspicious of the commission, the Roman curia hostile. Leo’s successor, the anti-modernist Pope Pius X, suppressed the commission in 1908, and the idea of a curial agency for ecumenism lay dormant for more than a half-century until John XXIII created the secretariat that Stransky served. (Proof anew of that old Roman saw, “What one pope can do, another pope can undo.”)

     “The courageous ecumenical path indicated by Leo XIII quickly appeared too far-sighted and magnanimous for the prejudices of the mentality of that epoch, whether Catholic or Orthodox and Anglican,” Kasper said.

     The story of Leo’s commission is, I suppose, a bit of a “glass half full or half empty” test in perception. Should one be discouraged that it took more than 50 years for John XXIII and Vatican II to revive Leo’s vision, or encouraged that Pius X’s attempts to “turn back the clock” merely delayed, but could not prevent, its flowering? 

     Perhaps the moral of the story is that in Catholic affairs, “good things come to those who wait.”

* * *

     An unexpected ecumenical front that has opened up in Europe in recent years is the common struggle of the Christian churches to ensure that religious bodies have a voice in the new European Union. 

     The pope and other Christian leaders were badly rattled in December 2000, when all direct references to religion were eliminated from the Charter of Basic Rights signed at Nice in France. (A further reason why some of the more conservative elements in European Catholicism look upon the EU with approximately the same affection they feel for the Freemasons and the Communist Party). Instead, a rather vague reference to Europe’s “moral and spiritual heritage” was inserted. 

     A Jan. 27 conference at Regina Apostolorum, the Legionaries of Christ university in Rome, brought together Vatican officials and European politicians, mostly from center-right parties, to talk about the new “constitutional treaty” currently being elaborated for the EU. The highest profile speaker was Gianfranco Fini, the number two figure in Italy’s governing coalition. The aim was to ensure that religion is not “sanitized” in the treaty the same way it was in Nice.

     The Vatican and other Christian leaders are pressing for a formal recognition of the “Christian roots” of Europe in the document, seen as a question of cultural identity. One speaker noted that according to U.N. statistics, out of a total European population of 730 million, some 560 million are Christian. Fini quoted a German political thinker who observed that if one wants to feel a son of a common Europe, of a single culture, there is only one place to go: a cathedral. 

     Church-linked European politicians have proposed language for the treaty based on the Polish constitution. It reads: “The union values include the values of those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty as well as those who do not share such a belief but respect these universal values arising from other sources.” 

     Though that phrasing may seem innocuous enough, it remains controversial. French President Jacques Chirac, for example, recently expressed opposition. “As the representative of a secular state, I am not for a religious reference,” Chirac told the French daily Le Figaro.

     Yet as Fr. Pietro Parolin of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State pointed out, even if the church wins this argument, by itself a verbal reference to religion could be empty symbolism. To have teeth, he said, the treaty should also include three specific provisions for religious groups:

• Juridical recognition of the right of churches and religious communities to organize themselves freely in accord with their own statutes;

• Creation of a “structured dialogue” between the EU and the religious bodies of Europe;

• Respect for the peculiar status each church and religious community enjoys within national laws and ordinances.

     Parolin observed that the common struggle for these points has become “an important and effective moment of ecclesial communion and fraternal ecumenical collaboration.”

     One interesting footnote is that several speakers at the Regina Apostolorum conference, both politicians and Vatican officials, stressed “subsidiarity” as a specific contribution of Christian values to the construction of the new Europe. It holds that decisions should be made at the lowest level possible, with higher authority intervening only when local powers are insufficient to resolve a problem. 

     “The union will have to augment subsidiarity in order to … reduce the risk of centralized and bureaucratic degenerations, with the most ample recognition possible of the autonomous initiatives of citizens as well as their associations,” said Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. 

     This is especially noteworthy since Vatican officials have shown less enthusiasm for subsidiarity in the internal life of the Catholic Church. 

     It was not always so. Pius XI spoke positively of subsidiarity, and in 1946 Pope Pius XII picked up on his comments: “Such words are indeed enlightening; they apply not only to society, but also to the life of the church within its hierarchical structure.” The Synod of Bishops of 1967 voted to make subsidiarity one of 10 guiding principles for the revision of canon law, and the 1969 synod voted to apply subsidiarity to episcopal conferences. The preface to the revised 1983 Code of Canon Law says subsidiarity “must all the more be applied in the church since the office of the bishops and their powers are of divine law.” The 1985 Synod of Bishops called for a study of subsidiarity (with an explicit reference to Pius XII’s 1946 address).

     Since 1985, however, the tide has shifted. Efforts by participants at the 1998 Synod for Asia to invoke subsidiarity in defense of the rights of local churches, for example, were rebuffed. At the 2001 Synod of Bishops, a call for a study of subsidiarity and its application to the church appeared to have strong support, but did not survive in the final propositions presented to the pope. Instead the propositions called subsidiarity an “ambiguous” idea that may be in conflict with the powers of the pope.

     The argument is that subsidiarity is a concept from political theory that doesn’t translate well into ecclesiology. In secular governance, power comes from the people, while in the church power comes from the risen Christ and is transmitted through the apostles. Hence a bias in favor of local levels of authority may be appropriate in the secular realm, this view holds, but not in the church.

* * *

     Joseph Nye, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and now the dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, was in Rome this week. Nye is the author of The Paradox of American Power, where he argues that the U.S. would make a mistake by going it alone in world affairs. He says we should rely less on “hard power,” meaning military might, and more on “soft power,” meaning the power of our ideals to persuade. 

     Nye spoke at a Jan. 29 conference on “The United States and Europe: The Challenges of the 21st Century” along with Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University, and Italian scholar Ernesto Galli della Loggia. I was invited to a lunch with Nye and Fisichella before the event, along with a few Italian journalists. The event was sponsored by the Centro per Orientamento Politico, a think tank founded by Italian Gaetano Rebecchini, a councilor of the Vatican city-state and the son of a former mayor of Rome.

     Nye told reporters that he believes the Bush administration needs to do a better job of making the case that Iraq poses an imminent threat, but he thinks a war may be justified.

     Nye observed that it’s interesting how American attitudes have mutated since the 1991 Gulf War. The Kennedy School hosted a debate on Dec. 3 between Fr. Brian Hehir, president of Catholic Charities USA, and journalist Christopher Hitchens, in which Hehir opposed a war in Iraq on grounds of Catholic just war theory, while Hitchens argued for it from a leftist human rights viewpoint. Both men, Nye noted, took the opposite positions in 1991. Hehir felt that the Gulf War could be justified, while Hitchens opposed it.

     I asked Nye, who is not Catholic but very attentive to the Catholic world, what impact the strong Vatican line against the war was likely to have. The Vatican is, after all, a state with nothing but “soft power.”

Nye said given the fact that there are 65 million Catholics in the United States, positions taken by the Vatican are taken seriously. At the same time, he said, it’s clear to the White House that not all American Catholics agree with the pope on the merits of a war in Iraq. Hence the more the pope turns up the volume, thus bringing the American church along, the more seriously policy-makers will take what he’s saying. The pope’s opposition won’t necessarily stop the president from going to war, but it will be heard.

     “Compared to Greenpeace or Oxfam or something like that, the Vatican is, if you like, an NGO with a much greater standing,” Nye said.

     Nye pointed to the evolution of American policy on Latin America in the 1980s, where growing Catholic criticism eventually prompted a cluster of American Catholic members of Congress, in tandem with others, to adopt policies hemming in the Reagan administration. “That’s what eventually got John Poindexter into trouble,” Nye said. “So you can sometimes trace an influence.”

* * *

     Speaking of turning up the volume, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state and hence the number two man in the hierarchy after the pope himself, held a lunch for Italian journalists Jan. 29 in which he spoke against a war in Iraq in remarkably blunt terms.

     “I said to an old American friend: didn’t the lesson of Vietnam teach you anything?” Sodano said, as quoted in Italian press reports.

     “The Holy See is against the war, it’s a moral position,” Sodano said. “There’s not much to discuss, whether it’s a preventive war or non-preventive, because this is an ambiguous term. It’s certainly not a defensive war.”

     “The keys in this moment are in the hands of the United States and Great Britain, and we’re trying to provoke reflection not so much on whether it’s just or unjust, moral or immoral, but whether it’s worth it,” Sodano said. 

     “From the outside we can appear idealists, and we are, but we are also realists,” Sodano said. “Is it really a good idea to irritate a billion Muslims?” 

     “Not even in Afghanistan are things going well,” Sodano said. “For this reason we have to insist on asking the question if it’s a good idea to go to war.”

     Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran also reiterated the Vatican’s strong anti-war line. Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, took questions from reporters in conjunction with a talk on Christianity and development sponsored by the Association of Volunteers for International Service on Jan. 30.

     “People are talking about a preventive war, but the question we must put before ourselves is how to prevent the war,” Tauran said.

     “We are not pacifists, we are realists,” Tauran said, but added that in this case a strike against Iraq does not appear to pass the “just war” test. He mentioned the traditional criteria of proportionality and protection of civilian populations as two obvious concerns.

     I asked Tauran if he shared Sodano’s concern about the impact of a war in the Islamic world, and he replied by quoting, as he has before, an Arab foreign minister who warned that war would “open the gates of hell.”

     “Specifically, a war would exacerbate extremism and threaten to inflame the situation in the Middle East. These are two obvious concerns,” Tauran said.

     I also asked Tauran if the Vatican’s position would change should the United Nations approve a strike in Iraq. He seemed to suggest it would not.

     “A U.N. resolution would be a different track,” he said. “It would address the legality of the action. But humanitarian and moral concerns would remain.”

     In response to another journalist’s question, Tauran denied that the U.S. embassy to the Holy See is applying extraordinary pressure on the war. “We are having conversations, but they are calm and serene,” Tauran said. “I would say they are persevering in making their argument.”

     Finally, Tauran was asked if the pope might try some gesture of peace in the near future, such as sending emissaries to Baghdad and Washington. “We’re thinking about it,” Tauran said. “Something might happen in the coming days. But for now there is no concrete plan of action.”

* * *

     Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, widely seen as papabile, or a candidate to be the next pope, has compared the situation of Christians in today’s Europe with the hostility faced by Jews throughout the centuries of their diaspora in the midst of Christianity. 

     “This hostile, rejecting attitude in our secularized countries is felt ever more frequently. … We are increasingly regarded as foreign bodies, disturbing the peace in a neo-pagan society,” said the Dominican Schönborn, 58.

     Just as the Jews were often the object of “excessive accusations” by a society that regarded them with contempt, so too the church is today “held responsible for all the evils of mankind,” Schönborn said.

     In that sense, Schönborn said, the situation of European Christians today is analogous to that facing both Jews and Christians in antiquity, when their refusal to place their God into the pagan pantheon along other gods was considered “highly intolerant.”

     Schönborn spoke in late January at Vienna’s Edith Stein House on the subject of inter-religious dialogue. 

     Schönborn did post-graduate studies at the University of Regensburg under Joseph Ratzinger in the late 1970s, and was later tapped by Ratzinger as general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

* * *

     There are signs that John Paul II’s unusually direct rebuke of Russia in his Jan. 13 address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See has had an effect. 

     “As far as the Catholic Church is concerned,” the pope said in his annual speech to the ambassadors, “I will mention but one situation which is a cause of great suffering for me: the plight of Catholic communities in the Russian Federation, which for months now have seen some of their Pastors prevented from returning to them for administrative reasons. The Holy See expects from the government authorities concrete decisions which will put an end to this crisis, and which are in keeping with the international agreements subscribed to by the modern and democratic Russia. Russian Catholics wish to live as their brethren do in the rest of the world, enjoying the same freedom and the same dignity.”

     While Russian Orthodox leaders reacted testily to the pope’s complaint, the response from the government seems more positive. On Jan. 28 came news that the Russian government has granted a permanent residency permit to Bishop Clemens Pickel of San Clemente a Saratov in southern Russian, which means that Pickel can leave the country without worrying about getting back in. 

     Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran told me Jan. 30 that the Russian foreign minister actually responded to his most recent inquiry, which is the first time in recent months that’s happened. Tauran said the Russian Catholic Church will be able to replace five priests who were expelled in the past year. There is as yet no progress, however, on the case of Bishop Jerzy Mazur. In April, the Russian government blocked Mazur, the bishop of Saint Joseph’s diocese in Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia, from re-entering the country.

     “It seems the pope’s words have already borne fruit,” Tauran said. He called the Vatican’s approach to Russia “a policy of small steps.”

* * *

     Blessed Pope John XXIII’s star has not dimmed in Italy. Last year a TV mini-series starring Ed Asner aired on the state TV network RAI, earning a massive audience of some 11.5 million people in a nation of 57 million. This week, another mini-series was broadcast on the competitor Mediaset network, and it too captured enormous ratings. The production starred English actor Bob Hoskins, who recited his lines in English and then was dubbed into Italian.

     Hoskins was quoted in the local press saying that he comes from a non-believing, communist, and “proletarian” family, and before this role he knew little of John XXIII. He was impressed with what he found.

     “To play a bad guy is simple, because all of us have some evil in our soul,” he said. “But giving voice to goodness is a much more difficult challenge. You risk rhetoric and fiction. Right away I rejected the idea of playing a saint. Instead I tried to present a man who came from the land, and even if he became powerful, he never stopped being in dialogue with the most humble.”

     Having watched both nights of the program, it was perhaps tinged with hagiography (the young Roncalli was more angelic than any human child could possibly be), but Hoskins convincingly brought out the deep humanity of “good pope John.” The scene of his visit to Rome’s Regina Coeli prison, just after his election, was an especially moving example. 

     My wife, as the final credits rolled, turned to me and declared: “He was the best pope ever.” Such was the general tone of the production.

     One hopes both the RAI and the Mediaset series will become available on video so they can reach an international audience.

* * *

     A final sign of the times, this one from the inter-religious front.

     Bishop Jacques Noyer of the French diocese of Amiens, who is 75 and preparing for retirement, recently insisted that a conservative priest by the name of Abbé Philippe Sulmont comply with a diocesan restructuring scheme that made him an associate rather than a pastor. Though the change had been in the works for some time, it coincided with some highly critical language about Islam published by Sulmont, 80, in his parish bulletin. (Sulmont suggested, among other things, that Islam is diabolical). A human rights group has threatened to sue Sulmont for incitement of racial hatred. Noyer wrote Sulmont, saying that his attitudes “are not consistent with the position of the Catholic Church outlined at the Council in the document Nostra Aetate.” 

     Scholars estimate that there are between 4 and 5 million people of Muslim extraction living in France, making it one of the most important laboratories in the world for the Christian/Muslim relationship.

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

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