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February 11, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 21

John L. Allen Jr.


"If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone."

- Canon 332

The pope's prognosis; Would he, could he resign?; The annulment instruction; Condi Rice at the Vatican; Jesuit Haight barred from teaching Catholic theology


Pope John Paul II has survived yet another rumor of his demise.

The pope returned to the Vatican on Thursday, Feb. 10, after spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls announced that his inflammation of the larynx was healed, that his general conditions continue to improve, and that all diagnostic tests were clear. How soon he will resume normal activities was left up in the air.

The length of the pope's stay at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic Hospital, nine nights all told, suggests that things were a bit more serious than the reassuring tones would suggest. In part, however, Vatican sources suggest a logistical motive: the annual Lenten Retreat in the Roman Curia begins Sunday, and by bringing him back to the Apostolic Palace near the end of the week, the Vatican does not have to explain why the pope is not being seen for several more days. The retreat buys some time to monitor his condition and determine what level of activity he'll be able to sustain.

His return on the eve of Feb. 11 was propitious, since today is both the anniversary of the Lateran Pacts in 1929, and hence more or less Vatican Independence Day, as well as the church's annual Day of the Sick.

Given John Paul's age and medical history, there is no such thing as a "full recovery." The pope will likely emerge somewhat weaker and more limited. Given his breathing and speech difficulties, it seems likely that increasingly the pope will be seen but not heard.

As expected, John Paul appeared at the window of the 10th floor of the Gemelli Hospital on Sunday, Feb. 6, for the Angelus. The text of his message was read by the sostituto, or "substitute," in the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri. John Paul spoke briefly, reciting two final invocations in the Angelus as well as the Sign of the Cross.

Though his voice was weak and raspy, the body language seemed relatively good. The pope first appeared slumped over, but at a couple of points he straightened up and seemed in control of himself. Perhaps the most reassuring element of the event was that his doctors permitted him to sit for roughly 10 minutes in front of an open window on what was another chilly Roman morning. Especially since his time in front of a window in his study last week was among the factors that many people believe brought on his flu, this choice suggests that his doctors were not worried that another gust of cold air might send the pope back into crisis.

Yet there were at least two elements of the Angelus appearance that triggered new controversy. First, a debate broke out over whether or not what we heard was actually the pope's voice or a recording. Listening carefully to the playback, there does appear to be a clear shift from an exceptionally weak and soft voice on the initial invocation, to a stronger, louder and deeper voice for the Sign of the Cross, and between the two there is a distinct "click" that some interpreted as the sound of switching on a tape recording. In the past when the pope has been hospitalized, tape recordings have been made of his greetings in case he's not capable of delivering them live, and then his condition was analyzed shortly beforehand to determine if the tape was necessary. Some believed a tape may have been triggered halfway through the pope's comments by accident. Yet by week's end, many seemed convinced that the comments were indeed live, and that the clicking and shift in voice quality were related to moving the microphone in his room.

At 5:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Navarro-Valls sent the following declaration to journalists via e-mail: "Naturally, the words of the Holy Father in the benediction this morning were pronounced by him in the same moment in which we heard them in a live broadcast. Thus the affirmation of a previous recording of those words transmitted in that moment doesn't make sense."

In any event, whether the pope was live or Memorex almost doesn't matter, if the point was to get a reading on his physical state. I talked with people who were in the room Sunday morning, and all said that the pope spoke the words he was supposed to speak, and did so without obvious struggles. Whether they were broadcast live, or whether a tape kicked in at some point, is therefore perhaps irrelevant in terms of establishing his condition.

Another question mark concerns why a papal aide held a piece of paper in front of John Paul, presumably with the lines of the Angelus and the Sign of the Cross. Some thought it was to disguise the use of a recording. Others asked why the pope needed to be reminded of the words of a prayer he presumably knows by heart, fueling speculation about his mental state. The official answer, given to me by Vatican officials who deal with papal protocol, is that the pope always has a sheet with the Angelus prayers in front of him, but usually we don't see it because it rests on a small lectern in front of the window in his studio. It's not because he can't remember the prayers, they say, but it's the same reason that priests always have a book with the prayers of the Mass in front of them -- because exact recitation is important, and anybody can experience a "mental block."

Finally, there was a mini-tempest when the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, answered a couple of questions from reporters on the sidelines of a book presentation Monday evening. He expressed the hope that he would pass the record of papal longevity set by Pope Pius IX, who reigned 32 years and seven months, a milestone John Paul would not pass until 2010.

Yet when asked about a possible resignation, Sodano did not seem to rule it out completely: "If there is a man who loves the church more than anybody else, who is guided by the Holy Spirit, if there is a man who has marvelous wisdom, that's him. We must have great faith in the pope. He knows what to do."

In substance, what Sodano seemed to say was, "it's up to the pope." Nevertheless, in a news cycle in which there's tremendous interest but little to report, anything that flits across the radar screen is likely to be blown up into a major development. Here, the fact that Sodano was not more emphatic, along the lines of "never in a million years," became in the retelling a rebel yell for papal abdication.

The truth is, there's no indication that John Paul has any intention of resigning. In his Angelus message on Sunday he struck precisely this note: Even in the hospital, the pope wrote in the message read by Sandri, "I continue to serve the church and all of humanity."

* * *

The Lenten retreat will be preached this year by Bishop Renato Corti of the diocese of Novarra, the vice-president of the Italian bishops' conference. Corti is known as an ascetic and spiritual figure; some would say almost too much so. Corti was an auxiliary bishop and vicar general of the Milan archdiocese under Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, long the champion of the church's progressive wing. In Italian ecclesiastical circles, Corti is rumored to be a candidate to succeed Cardinal Dario Castillon Hoyos as prefect of the Congregation for Clergy (Corti is presently a consultor to that congregation). If that were to happen, it would make him an important figure in the Anglo-Saxon world, since that congregation has played an important role in the sexual abuse crisis. His meditations have as their theme "The Church at the Service of the New and Eternal Covenant." The exercises begin Sunday evening and last one week.

* * *

One question that repeatedly surfaced is whether John Paul II might have left a resignation letter in case he becomes incapacitated. This is not entirely baseless speculation, because in December 2001, Bishop Pasquale Macchi, who served as Pope Paul VI's private secretary, revealed that Paul had written just such a letter. On page 129 of the book Paolo VI Nella Sua Parola (Morcelliana), Macchi wrote: "Paul VI, after having written his testament, also prepared a letter of resignation to be delivered in case conditions occurred that would make it impossible to continue to govern the church in an adequate way." Paul VI wrote his testament on June 30, 1965, meaning that the resignation letter was written sometime afterward. It was never invoked, since Paul VI remained lucid until his death in 1978.

Senior Vatican officials have denied to me that such a letter from John Paul II exists, although it's possible that only he and Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, his private secretary, know about it.

Even if it does exist, there's debate among canon lawyers about what legal force it might have. Canon 187 of the Code of Canon Law states: "Any person of sound mind can resign an ecclesiastical office for a just cause." This seems to imply that the person resigning has to be conscious at the time, not years earlier when a letter was written. In this regard, Fr. James Provost wrote in America in 2000: "He [the pope] would have to be of sound mind on the date when the letter is eventually dated for it to be canonically valid."

It's likely, therefore, that if the pope were to slip permanently into a coma, even if a resignation letter were produced, debate would ensue about its validity. Of course, canon lawyers joke that no one ignores canon law like bishops, and often enough if the Vatican wants to do something, it finds a way around the code. Yet in the super-sensitive case of papal succession, there would be great caution about doing something that would seem to bring the legitimacy of the new pope into question.

* * *

Canon 332 is the article in canon law governing papal resignation, and it states: "If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone."

Many people look at John Paul II and ask, why not resign? Those opposed to a papal resignation most commonly give one or more of three arguments.

First, they warn that a resigned pope could be an agent of division in the church, with some Catholics expressing loyalty to the old pope and some to the new one. At its worst, such a situation could lead to schism. On the other hand, many observers believe that such logic runs afoul of the experience of retired bishops in dioceses around the world, where the presence of two bishops generally does not lead to schism.

Second, many observers believe that John Paul II is providing precious testimony about bearing suffering with dignity, and the inherent value of human life. In a culture that worships youth, beauty and efficiency, the reminder that elderly and infirm people can provide important contributions is perhaps a valuable one. When I was in Lourdes last summer with John Paul II, there was a remarkable identification between him and that vast crowd of suffering people. Others, however, say that John Paul could still make that contribution as a sort of "good will ambassador" as a retired pope, but relinquish the reins of government to someone else.

Third, others point out that the theology of the papal office is ad personam, meaning that being pope is not just a role you play, but it's who you are. It "sticks to your skin," as one theologian I know put it. In effect, one becomes the Successor of Peter, and it is more akin to being a father than being the chief executive officer of a multi-national corporation. As Paul VI said, one cannot renounce paternity.

None of this means that papal resignation is inconceivable, and in fact more than one cardinal has said to me that he believes the next pope will resign, perhaps at 80. What this background does help explain, however, is why resignation, which seems an obvious step to some, is a more complicated matter in Rome.

On the other hand, some senior Vatican officials don't find the prospect of a resignation unduly alarming. In an interview with CNN Feb. 10, Archbishop John Foley, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said, "The Holy Father himself approved the new Code of Canon Law, which forsees the possibility of the pope resigning. He went through it line by line. He obviously finds it thinkable. He's not unaware that his life is mortal."

At the same time, Foley acknowledged that resignation might pose some political difficulties.

"The Holy Father would not wish to be the focus of comparison with anybody who could succeed him," Foley said. "He knows it could be unwise to have a double focus of people's loyalties."

I asked Foley if the pope's physical condition is having any impact on the work of the Vatican.

"I personally have not experienced a slowdown or lack of direction," he said.

* * *

One of the Roman papers this week reported that some time ago, John Paul created a "secret commission" to study the question of papal resignation. I contacted a senior Vatican official Feb. 9, who said that there would be no official comment "so as not to give importance to it," but that the report was "150 percent not true."

The beauty of reporting on alleged secret bodies, of course, is that the story is essentially undeniable -- when officialdom says it's not true, one can always respond, "Of course they say that. It's a secret."

* * *

The Vatican released a long-awaited instruction on annulment this week, Dignitas Connubii, which had been in the works for almost 10 years. Most of the day-after coverage focused on what the document contained, especially whether or not it would reduce the number of annulments granted in the United States, which represents almost two-thirds of the world's total.

The story behind the story, however, is not so much what Dignitas Connubii contained, as what it didn't.

Astute observers noted the oddity that Herranz presented the document, rather than the head of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's Supreme Court, who would have been the logical figure. Currently that's Archbishop Agostino Vallini.

In fact, the former head of the Signatura, Cardinal Francesco Pompedda, was the champion of an earlier draft of the document that contained several points American canon lawyers and bishops had hoped for. That draft, which was on the brink of publication in 2003, contained several procedural reforms that would have made the process of obtaining an annulment faster and easier.

At the last minute, however, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory, and that draft was scratched in favor of a third version, which in substance returned to the first draft generated in the late 1990s.

First, article 35 of the 2002 draft would have allowed declarations of even one party, meaning the husband or wife, to constitute full proof of the nullity of the marriage. Under existing law, those declarations usually have to be supported by other proof, such as testimony from third-party witnesses. Many observers believe this reform would have been helpful especially in cases where the marriage dates back many years, and other proofs are hard to find.

In Dignitas Connubii, however, this provision is removed. One Roman canonist told NCR the logic was, "A marriage case is supposed to be about ascertaining the truth, and we all know that that the interested parties often have strong motives to lie."

Second, article 43 of the 2002 draft would also have dispensed with the requirement of a second finding in favor of annulment, most notably if the two parties and the church's own canonist were all in agreement. Dignitas Connubii, on the other hand, confirms the necessity of a favorable finding from a second court.

One expert who worked on Dignitas Connubii told NCR that the aim of the document was to avoid pointless delays and objections, but at the same time to ensure that the outcome is not automatic, and that a serious judicial process is observed.

In general, the outcome is a victory for those who want annulments to be somewhat harder to come by, on the grounds that the process is not just about healing a difficult situation, but establishing the truth.

Observers say that Pompedda's mistake was treating the 2003 draft as a fait accompli, speaking about it in public on several occasions. That gave other forces in the Curia time to organize opposition, and in the end the draft was sent back to the drawing board. The natural agency to take over the work would have been the Roman Rota, the main appeals court in the Vatican that handles marriage cases, but its dean, Monsignor Raffaello Funghini, is not a bishop. In the world of the Curia, one can't have a monsignor "correcting" a cardinal. Hence the job was entrusted to Herranz, whose agency is charged with interpreting church laws.

Experts from five offices of the Roman Curia were involved: the Roman Rota and the Apostolic Signatura, the two chief Vatican courts that handle marriage cases; the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, charged with interpreting church law; and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Read more about the instruction here: Annulment Instrution.

* * *

American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice met Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's Secretary of State, Tuesday morning in a 45-minute session.

Rice spoke with Sodano about her recent trip to the Middle East, saying that both the Israelis and Palestinians seem determined to move ahead with a peace process. She said that the American government will work with both sides to move things forward.

Sodano underscored longstanding Vatican concerns about the Middle East, especially the need for guarantees of access to Christian holy sites in any final status arrangement, and the idea of an international status for Jerusalem. Rice assured Sodano that the Americans would take those concerns into consideration.

Sodano did not mention another traditional element of Vatican thinking, which is the need for international observers to monitor a cease-fire and to assist with an eventual peace deal.

American sources told NCR that Sodano also discussed the difficulties facing Christians in the Holy Land, especially the problem of Christian out-migration, which has increased dramatically since the beginning of the second intifadah.

On Iraq, Rice described the outcome of the recent elections, and also pledged that the Americans were aware of the difficulties faced by the Christians in the country, especially the Chaldean Church in union with Rome. She said that the United States would "work hard" to help the new Iraqi government ensure protection of the rights of religious minorities.

Sodano raised the question of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, where it is virtually impossible for Catholic priests to give pastoral care to the substantial population of Catholic migrant workers, many from the Philippines and Korea. Similarly, Sodano spoke about the struggles of the Catholic Church in China, where, for example, bishops are sometimes prevented from visiting the Vatican, at times for fear that they would not be allowed back into the country.

In both cases, Rice said that the United States would continue to raise these issues with the Saudi and Chinese governments.

On the cultural front, Sodano expressed appreciation for Bush's stand on "moral and spiritual values," and said he hoped there would be further cooperation on these issues.

Rice pressed the Vatican to adopt a positive stand in favor of genetically modified foods, a favorite concern of the former Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson, touting them as a way to alleviate hunger and famine. Sources told NCR that Sodano did not express a response.

Read more about the Rice's visit here: Rice and Vatican meet.

* * *

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal agency, has denounced the book Jesus: Symbol of God by Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight as containing "grave doctrinal errors against the divine and Catholic doctrine of the church." Haight, an American, has been prohibited from teaching Catholic theology "until his positions have been corrected so as to be in full conformity with the doctrine of the church."

Since Haight is now teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a non-Catholic institution, the ban is expected to have little practical effect.

Haight has described Jesus: Symbol of God as an attempt to express traditional doctrines about Christ in a language appropriate to post-modern culture. Some reviewers found it an exciting new approach, but others were critical. One prominent theologian in Rome told NCR, "I don't see how the book can be defended." That was apparently the sentiment in the Vatican, where one official said, "Any first-year theology student could see what's wrong with it."

The "notification" presents seven criticisms:

o Theological method: Haight, the notification says, "subordinates the contents of the faith to their plausibility and intelligibility in post-modern culture."

o The pre-existence of the Word: The notification asserts that Haight's book undercuts the doctrine that Christ existed as the divine Word of God prior to his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth.

o The divinity of Jesus: The notification asserts that Haight's book presents Jesus as a human being who "symbolized" or "mediated" the saving presence of God, as opposed to being truly divine and truly human.

o The Holy Trinity: Haight, according to the notification, interprets the Son of God and the Holy Spirit as two different "mediations" of God, arguing that to think they are different "persons" would compromise the oneness of God. That position, the notification says, contradicts church teaching.

o The saving value of the death of Jesus: Haight, the notification contends, suggests that "to affirm that Jesus accepted to suffer punishment for our sins, or to die to satisfy the justice of God, does not make sense in the world of today."

o The oneness and universality of the saving mediation of Jesus and the church: Haight, according to the notification, holds that it is not necessary to believe that God saves only through Jesus. He proposes a shift from Christocentrism to Theocentrism, arguing that "it's impossible in a postmodern culture to think that one religion can insist on being the center to which all the others have to be brought back." Such arguments, the notification asserts, contradict the church's traditional faith.

o The resurrection of Jesus: On the principle that "it should not be supposed that something happened in the past that would be impossible today," Haight proposes, according to the notification, that belief in an empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are not essential to the faith.

Read more about Haight here: Jesuit Haight barred from teaching Catholic theology .

* * *

Santa Susanna, the American parish in Rome, said goodbye to former American Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson and his wife Suzanne at the 10:30 am Sunday Mass, Jan. 31. The Nicholsons were active members of the parish, and were given a farewell blessing by the Paulist fathers and the congregation before their return to Washington, where Nicholson was sworn in as the new Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Embassy sources in Rome tell NCR that it may be some time, perhaps a matter of months, before a new ambassador is on the job. Various names have made the rounds, but to date there are no firm indications of whom Bush may appoint.

In part in recognition of his service in Rome, Nicholson recently won the "Association of Graduates Distinguished Graduate Award" for 2005 from West

Point, the U.S. Military Academy. Nicholson will receive his award at a ceremony, including a parade by the Corps of Cadets, at West Point in late May.

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

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