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 The Word From Rome

February 4, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 20

John L. Allen Jr.


John Paul's health has been in a gradual process of decline, and this episode marks another stage. Curtailing his schedule and carefully adjusting his medical regimen, both of which have become standard practice, are no longer sufficient to ensure he doesn't enter a zone of grave risk. Age, Parkinson's disease and other ailments mean that, assurances of "full recovery" to the contrary, John Paul will never be out of the woods in a definitive sense.

Covering the pope's hospitalization; U.S.-Vatican commission on sex abuse norms meets; Religion in the public square; Combating 'Christianophobia'; Italy debates artificial reproduction


Nothing gets things moving in Rome like a papal health scare, and this week provided a doozy. At approximately 10:50 p.m. Rome time Tuesday, Feb. 1, John Paul II was rushed from the papal apartments to the nearby Gemelli Polyclinic Hospital, where the tenth floor is permanently set aside for his use. Several hours later the Vatican reported that he had been suffering from respiratory problems complicated by spasms of the larynx, and that he had been placed under the care of the department of emergency medicine as a precautionary move.

Long into the night, speculation swirled urbi et orbe, in the city and throughout the world, that a death-watch might be underway. By morning, it became clear that the illness was not life-threatening, but by then a media juggernaut was in motion. (One comic aside: Word of the hospitalization broke around 11:00 pm in Rome, at which time a substantial chunk of the city's journalistic community was at the Foreign Press Club at a dinner. I'm told that the cacophony of cell phones going off simultaneously was deafening, though I wasn't there to witness it. My cell phone jarred me from the early stages of a good night's sleep, which, alas, was not to be.)

John Paul has in the past jokingly referred to the Gemelli as the "third Vatican," after the actual city-state and his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. This is the ninth time the pope has been hospitalized there, though it is the first time it happened in such dramatic fashion, in response to a crisis in the middle of the night.

The pope's inner circle had apparently hoped to hospitalize him without fanfare, and then make a quiet announcement in the morning. How they expected to keep the news of an impromptu papal hospitalization under wraps for 12 hours is unclear, but in any event word leaked moments after the papal entourage pulled through the gates, and from that point forward, it was off to the races.

The hospitalization was not a complete bolt from the blue, since on Sunday, Jan. 30, during his regular Sunday Angelus, the pope's voice was strikingly hoarse and weak. Yet his body language did not seem alarming; John Paul was flanked by a couple of small Italian children who helped him release two "peace doves," one of which flew back into the room, with John Paul laughing and playfully trying to bat it away.

Later that night, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls announced that due to a case of the flu, the pope's appointments would be cancelled for the next day. On Monday evening, word broke that the pope's schedule for Tuesday and Wednesday had been scrubbed as well. By midday Tuesday, however, the sense was that he was improving and would probably return to work on Thursday; at noon on Tuesday, a senior official in the told me that the pope would meet with Condoleeza Rice, the new American Secretary of State, on Tuesday, Feb. 8. The same day, I spoke by telephone with Navarro, who is also a medical doctor, and who joked that "a flu given proper treatment lasts seven days, whereas the flu without care runs seven days." In other words, he expected the pope was on his way to a normal recovery.

Obviously, however, something dramatic transpired after dinner that night. Navarro later described it as "acute laryngeal tracheitis." Given his age and Parkinson's disease, the pope has long struggled for breath, and thus his personal physician, Renato Buzzonetti, decided not to gamble with the possibility of respiratory arrest. The pope was placed in an ambulance and driven through a side entrance to the Vatican to the Gemelli, about two and one-half miles from St. Peter's Square.

Vatican spokespersons attempted to calm fears by insisting that there was "nothing alarming," but that didn't stop observers from scrambling. Wednesday morning, Navarro went to Gemelli to see the pope, and then told journalists that John Paul was in good spirits. The pope's vital signs were normal, he slept during the night, and was under the care of the hospital's department of emergency medicine. In remarks to journalists, Navarro added that the pope had a "slight fever," had never lost consciousness, had not undergone a cat-scan as had been initially reported, and was preparing to say Mass with his private secretary Archbishop Stanislaw Dzwisz. Later in the morning, Navarro told Vatican Radio that the pope was expected to remain at Gemelli for "a few days."

Reassuring bulletins were issued Thursday and Friday as well. On Friday, Navarro told the press that the pope's condition had improved, and that there would be no further bulletins until Monday. Pushed by Alessio Vinci of CNN as to why the Vatican would, in effect, go silent about the pope's condition for 48 hours, Navarro responded: "I can think of American situations where there's been less information than we've given. I can't feed your television station 24 hours a day."

Navarro also told the press that the pope would follow a ceremony scheduled for Saturday in his audience hall with Roman seminarians from a television monitor in his room, and that he wanted to do his regular Sunday Angelus address but the exact way in which it might happen was still to be determined.

Navarro added that the Vatican had received a flood of phone calls and faxes wishing the pope a speedy recovery, including a call from the Chief Rabbi of Rome, who wanted to tell the pope that "we are praying for him."

Some Vatican officials attempted to project a testy "there they go again" air with respect to media sensationalism. When Navarro was asked whether the pope had ever lost consciousness, for example, his literal response in Italian was per carità!, which translates roughly as "for God's sake." No doubt there was over-interpretation involved. Yet journalists can be forgiven for jumping the gun, since it is not every day that the pope is taken to the emergency room. Moreover, in the absence of swift and reliable information, speculation and worst-case scenarios are bound to take over.

Seen with a bit more perspective, the week's events seem to illustrate a couple of points.

First, John Paul's health has been in a gradual process of decline, and this episode marks another stage. Curtailing his schedule and carefully adjusting his medical regime, both of which have become standard practice, are no longer sufficient to ensure he doesn't enter a zone of grave risk. Age, Parkinson's disease and other ailments mean that, assurances of "full recovery" to the contrary, John Paul will never be out of the woods in a definitive sense. There will be other sleeplessness nights in Rome, awaiting word about the pope after a potentially serious incident. Ultimately, despite the best efforts of all involved and the prayers of much of the world, one of these nights will be the beginning of the end. That reality means one has to take even slight down-turns seriously, but it's equally important not to over-interpret any particular crisis. We may be through several more scares, even several more hospitalizations, before it's over.

Second, discussion in Catholic circles about what to do in the event of papal incapacitation will no doubt grow. The pope did not lose consciousness this time, but one can easily see how acute respiratory failure might induce such a result. If the pope were still alive but permanently unresponsive, what would happen? Many canon lawyers consider this one of the great lacunae in the Code of Canon Law, since there is no procedure to cover such a case. Some have envisioned scenarios in which the College of Cardinals or another group might declare the See of Peter vacant and begin the process of electing a successor, but such maneuvers are difficult to imagine in practice, and in any event they would raise questions about the legitimacy of the successor. For now, the Vatican will likely continue recent trends, with the pope playing an increasingly symbolic and ceremonial role, providing only general orientation on policy questions, and his senior aides picking up much of the slack in day-to-day governance.

* * *

As a measure of the global interest in the papacy, at one stage I decided to keep a list of the countries from which news agencies called me between Tuesday night and midday Thursday, when the pope's recovery seemed on-going and interest in the story began to drop off. During those 36 hours, aside from the U.S. media, I heard from: Canada, Holland, France, Belgium, Ireland, Austria, England, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, India and Australia. That's just the messages I jotted down; in some cases, I didn't have time to do anything other than a general "dump" of my voice-mail box and start over. Many of my colleagues had similar experiences.

One can call all of this an over-reaction, but it reflects an instinctive understanding that the papacy matters. A pope is not the Queen of England, meaning a largely symbolic figure. A pope is a powerful religious, social and political actor, and how he chooses to exercise that influence can have profound global ramifications. Sending an army of producers and correspondents to Rome every time the pope gets the flu can seem morbid, but the truth is that in the Roman Catholic system, this is how a transition in leadership occurs. If the College of Cardinals were to announce 12 months in advance when the next conclave would take place, people would hold their fire. But in the absence of such predictability, people will jump at bulletins such as what we heard Tuesday night.

In a media universe in which the competition for airtime could well be the Michael Jackson trial, papal health speculation, however exaggerated, is at least anchored in solid news judgment.

* * *

As of Thursday night, Vatican officials were still holding out hope that the pope would be able to meet with Rice on Tuesday. Friday morning, however, the U.S. embassy to the Holy See received definitive word that the meeting with the pope would not happen. Thus Rice will meet with Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and the "foreign minister" of the Vatican, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, around 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday.

That meeting is expected to focus on the Middle East, given that Rice will be arriving in Rome from Jerusalem and the West Bank, and meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian leader Abu Mazen. Iraq is also likely to come up, especially the outcome of the elections and the question of protection of the Christian minority.

Beyond those issues, the Vatican may raise religious freedom issues in other parts of the world. In previous meetings, Sodano has asked former Secretary of State Colin Powell for assistance on religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, where a large population of Catholic migrant workers from the Philippines and elsewhere sometimes struggles under Islamic law. Sodano in the past has also discussed religious freedom in China, where the Catholic minority numbers some 13 million, with President George Bush.

* * *

On Tuesday, Feb. 8, the Vatican will release a long-awaited instruction on annulment cases, called Dignitas Connubii, or "The Dignity of Marriage." It's a successor to the 1936 document Provida Mater, which came almost 20 years after the issuance of the 1917 Code of Canon Law. This new instruction likewise comes 22 years after the publication of the 1983 code, and in both cases the purpose is to specify how the procedural sections of the code apply to the handling of annulments.

The document will be issued by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, which prepared the text in collaboration with other agencies of the Roman Curia. A drafting team has been working on the instruction for several years.

In general, the document, which contains 308 articles, is expected to streamline canonical procedures, aiming to prevent pointless objections and delays. Based on earlier drafts that circulated among experts, many canonists believe the instruction will be helpful.

The document will be presented in a Vatican press conference.

* * *

The mixed commission of U.S. bishops and Vatican officials on the American sex abuse norms met this week, Monday and Tuesday, in the offices of the Congregation for the Clergy. No statement was issued at the end of the meeting, and participants agreed not to speak with the press, so information has been hard to come by about what transpired.

Sources indicate, however, that no definitive decision was made during the two-day meeting Instead, there was an "exchange of views," which will help shape the discussion of the U.S. bishops during their June meeting. One source told NCR that he does not expect major changes in the norms on the basis of these discussions, and that in fact more time was spent discussing the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People than the procedural norms themselves.

On that front, sources said, the main concern expressed from the Vatican was ecclesiological -- what is the relationship between the National Review Board and the Office of Child and Youth Protection, on the one hand, and the bishops' conference and individual bishops? The fear has been that these new agencies exercise a kind of semi-autonomous authority that could undercut the traditional role of the bishops.

"This has long been a worry around here, but the American bishops know that, and they seem to have it under control," one source said.

One approach, sources said, would be for the Ad-Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse to become a standing committee of the bishops' conference, so that the Office of Child and Youth Protection would function as its staff, and the National Review Board as an advisory body.

Other concerns expressed in the meeting included the question of protecting the rights of accused priests. The Congregation for Clergy has long been alarmed that a priest's reputation could be tarnished by the premature release of information about an accusation, a concern many bishops share, though reporting requirements and the nature of the media makes preserving confidentiality often problematic.

On the vexed question of what happens between now and June with the norms, since technically they expire in March, one source said this was not a major concern in the meeting. Whether there is a formal extension or not, he said, they would simply continue as existing practice. That's a view disputed by some canonists, however, who say that in the absence of a formal act, the law ceases to have force after the expiration date.

* * *

Believe it or not, there was life in Rome prior to the papal health scare. On Monday, Jan. 31, political philosopher Christopher Wolfe gave a provocative lecture at Rome's Opus Dei-run Santa Croce University on "Religion and Politics in American Constitutionalism."

Wolfe is a devout Catholic, and clearly a fan of what he sees as the underlying assumption of the American approach to church/state relations, which can be characterized as a presumption in favor of religion along with neutrality among the various denominations. His catchphrase for this system was "benevolent accommodation."

Wolfe argued that part of the reason the founders wanted to foster religion was because they were convinced that a purely naturalistic, or evolutionary, basis for human rights was unsustainable. Without a popular conviction that human beings are created by God with certain inalienable rights, Wolfe said, what's ultimately to stop majorities from imposing their will on minorities?

Wolfe traced the history of 20th century Supreme Court jurisprudence that he described as a process of "banishing religion from the public square," including a 1962 decision, Engel v. Vitale, which barred prayer in public schools. He posed an intriguing thought exercise: "After Engel, would it be legal for a teacher in a public school in the United States to teach that the Declaration of Independence is true?" It's not clear, he said, if, legally speaking, a public school teacher could affirm that people are created by God.

"It's a very odd situation to be in," he said, "if you can no longer teach your founding document as true."

Wolfe said this effort to circumscribe religion has been influenced by several factors: 1) the influence of Jewish intellectuals in American political and legal life, since, he said, Jews are especially sensitive to the potential mistreatment of religious minorities; 2) Nativist anti-Catholicism in American culture; 3) a generalized anti-religious bias among "secular elites," who, Wolfe said, used the Supreme Court as a "battering ram."

In response, Wolfe said, Protestant evangelicals, conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews in the States mobilized politically, becoming the "religious right." That development in turn led to the "culture wars."

On that score, Wolfe didn't hold out much hope that the bitter and divided tone of the Bush/Kerry election would pass from the scene any time soon.

"You can compromise on tax policy or labor contracts," he said. "But how do you compromise on abortion?"

Finally, in response to a question I asked about how "exportable" the American experience of church/state relations might be, Wolfe said he isn't terribly sanguine about the prospects for Europe.

"It's at least arguable that Europe is a lost cause, that it's just dead," he said. "That's not a foregone conclusion, but it's possible that Christianity is dying on the vine in Europe. It's engaged in demographic suicide. Within a generation or two, it could be little more than an outpost of the Islamic world."

"I can't say that I'm more optimistic about France than the Sudan," he said.

* * *

Recent months have seen a string of highly public setbacks for the Vatican in European affairs, including the failure to get a mention of God or the Christian roots of Europe in the preamble to the new European constitution, an on-going standoff with the Spanish government over social policy, and the rejection of Rocco Buttiglione, a Catholic politician and friend of Pope John Paul II, as the European Minister of Justice.

What has not garnered as much attention is a European victory the Holy See notched up in December, when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, under intense Vatican diplomatic pressure, added "discrimination against Christians" to a list of forms of religious bias to be investigated by three new personal representatives of the organization's chairman. Originally, plans called for including just anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bias.

The OSCE, headquartered in Vienna, Austria, is the largest regional security organization in the world, with 55 participating States from Europe, Central Asia and North America.

Gert Weisskirchen, a German politician, was appointed in late December as the OSCE representative on anti-Semitism, while Ömür Orhun, a Turk, will focus on discrimination against Muslims. Originally, the mandate of the third appointee, Anastasia Crickley, an Irish academic and human rights activist, was the generic "combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination." After repeated appeals from the Vatican and other Christian bodies, "discrimination against Christians" was added to her brief; though reflecting the political sensitivities of today's Europe, the official phraseology is "discrimination against Christians and members of other religions."

The mandate of all three personal representatives is to run at least through 2005. Currently, Crickey is collecting information about anti-Christian bias in OSCE member countries, and papal nuncios in those nations have been encouraged to participate in that process very seriously.

Vatican engagement on this issue arises from at least two concerns. One is a broad commitment to religious liberty, and the conviction that anywhere religious minorities are threatened, it undercuts the value of religious liberty everywhere.

Second is the sense that an ideological form of "laicism," meaning a secularist bias against religion, has taken root in Europe that has produced a virtual taboo against expression of traditional Christian beliefs and practices. The Buttiglione case, some observers in the Vatican and elsewhere believe, revealed the existence of a de facto litmus test against the presence of orthodox Christians in public life at the European level.

This concern by the Holy See about discrimination against Christians has found expression elsewhere. In November, for example, the United Nations held a conference on religious intolerance in Barcelona, Spain, and American Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen was asked by the Holy See's Mission to the United Nations in Geneva to prepare a report on "Christianophobia."

"Religious discrimination is the last prejudice to receive governmental attention," Christiansen said, "and offenses against Christians, the last form of religious intolerance to become a public issue."

"Despite the revolutionary changes made by Vatican II regarding religious liberty, respect for other religions and missiology, the historic power of the Catholic Church appears to continue be an excuse for anti-Catholic prejudice and anti-clerical initiatives on the part of militants, politicians and even religious liberty activists," Christiansen said.

Surveying anti-Christian discrimination not just in Europe but around the world, Christiansen argued that its recent sources include five factors: (1) the war on terror, (2) assertive secularism, (3) religious nationalism, (4) religious defense of human rights, and (5) Christian evangelism.

Christiansen recommended that common standards be developed for identifying and responding to anti-Christian bias, and that church-based human rights groups should be included in this effort.

* * *

On Feb. 19, 2004, Italy went from being one of the most permissive climates for artificial reproduction in the world -- in the absence of a law, it was basically the Wild West -- to one of the most restrictive.

Article One of Law 40, passed with broad Catholic support, recognizes an embryo as a holder of rights. On that basis, it enacts a series of bans - on freezing embryos (except in rare cases), on the use of donated genetic materials from anyone other than the man and woman wanting to have a child, on the use of surrogate mothers, and on scientific research utilizing embryos. The law also bans gays and singles from use of artificial reproduction, and limits its use even by heterosexual couples to cases of infertility or sterility.

The Italian bishops opposed the law, because even with all its limits, it still legalizes in-vitro fertilization. Nevertheless, most Catholic legislators saw Law 40 as a "lesser evil," in contrast with the possibility of an even more permissive law similar to most other European countries.

Today, Law 40 is under assault from a variety of political forces. All told, there have been five proposals for nationwide ballot propositions:

  • Complete abrogation of the law
  • Eliminating the clause restricting use of artificial reproduction to cases of infertility and sterility
  • Allowing donation of genetic materials from third parties
  • Allowing scientific research on embryos
  • Eliminating the clause that refers to the "rights" of the embryo

On Jan. 13, Italy's top constitutional court approved proposals two through five as ballot items, tossing out only the proposal for complete abrogation. Under the rules, a national vote will have to be held sometime between April 15 and June 15, unless the Italian parliament overhauls Law 40 in the meantime.

Cardinal Camilo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops' conference, has indicated that the existing law, "although not corresponding to the ethical teaching of the church," nevertheless "safeguards essential principles and criteria" concerning the dignity of the human person. The proposed modifications must be rejected, Ruini said.

Some commentators immediately denounced Ruini, saying he was speaking more like the head of a party than a pastor. Others applauded the church's intervention, saying the moral gravity of the issue left no choice.

Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, an eminent moral theologian in Rome, told me that the item of greatest interest for non-Italians is likely to be the debate over article one, which contains the language recognizing the embryo as a rights-holder. The Italian statute is one of the few in the world, and certainly the most prominent, to contain such a codicil.

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

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