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February 17, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 24

John L. Allen Jr.


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The Word From Rome

John L. Allen Jr.

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Joan Chittister

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A digest of links to media coverage of clergy abuse.

NCR's Latin America Series

The churches in Asia gather
Papal Coverage: Read NCR's 25 days of non-stop coverage of the death of John Paul II and the elction of Benedict XVI. This includes Sr. Joan Chittister's essays, An American Catholic in Rome

Behind the changes at the interreligious council; Australia and RU486; The church and the media; The coming consistory; Update on the murder of Fr. Andrea Santoro


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In the wake of Wednesday's nomination of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, formerly President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, as the new nuncio in Egypt, a number of reporters called to ask if this was a demotion for the 68-year-old English prelate, or a case of putting the right man in the right place at a very delicate time for Christian-Islamic relations.

The honest, if unsatisfying, answer is in a sense "both."

Fitzgerald was informed of the move late last week, by the Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano. The official announcement gave him just enough time to inform his staff.

In the world of the Vatican, some will see the appointment as a step backwards.

The last man to serve as the church's top official for interreligious dialogue, Nigeria's Francis Arinze, was made a cardinal while still in the position, and was later promoted to run the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, making him one of the church's most important power-brokers. Fitzgerald, who missed the red hat in the consistory of 2003, has now been taken off the cardinal's track altogether, since nuncios do not become cardinals until after their service is over, if ever.

It's certainly not a question of personality. Nobody dislikes Fitzgerald, who is universally admired for his graciousness, his work ethic and his content-area expertise. He is an Oxford-educated expert on Islam, probably the best mind working on Christian-Islamic relations among the senior leadership of the church.

Yet within the Roman Curia, Fitzgerald is -- rightly or wrongly -- identified with what was seen by some as a "soft" approach to Islam under John Paul II. That line was never fully embraced by senior figures who advocate a policy more akin to "tough love." One example is Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome. These officials desire good relations with Islam, but also a more robust capacity to challenge and critique Islamic leaders, especially on issues of "reciprocity" -- the idea that if Muslim immigrants benefit from religious freedom in the West, Christians should get the same treatment in Islamic states.

It's a view that to some extent Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, shared while at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In that sense, Fitzgerald's transfer could be interpreted as a choice for a somewhat different approach.

To read the move entirely in this key, however, risks missing the bigger picture.

For one thing, Fitzgerald is not being sent out to pasture. Cairo is home to the Al-Azhar University and Mosque, arguably the closest thing in the Muslim world to a Vatican, and hence Fitzgerald will remain a privileged interlocutor with Islam. In fact, one could make the argument that his skills will be better utilized in Egypt than they were at the Vatican, where much of his work was ceremonial and administrative.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald
Further, Fitzgerald's move is not necessarily the death knell of his prospects for becoming a cardinal.

Given that Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, 73, is closing in on retirement age, some observers believe that Fitzgerald could eventually end up in Westminster as his successor. Fitzgerald's familiarity with religiously pluralistic environments would be well suited to the United Kingdom, and his cautious moderation would, at least in the eyes of some, be a good fit with the English episcopacy.

In that sense, Cairo may prove to be a detour, rather than a dead-end, for Fitzgerald's cursus honorum.

So what's the larger context?

People close to the pope say he has long been concerned that interreligious relations should not be understood on the model of ecumenism, i.e., as a search for doctrinal agreement with other traditions. Conceiving of dialogue with other religions this way, Ratzinger worried, could induce a kind of syncretism, in which the goal becomes blending elements of various faiths into a kind of New Age pâté agreeable to modern tastes. This was one concern, for example, underlying the 2001 document Dominus Iesus.

The pope believes that while theological dialogue is a good thing, interfaith relations ought to focus more on applying shared ethical values to pressing social and cultural questions. This explains, among other things, why Benedict XVI is taken with Hans Küng's "world ethic" project, an attempt to build a moral framework among the religions to support a humanistic critique of global injustice and conflict.

Fitzgerald's departure thus could trigger a reexamination of how the Vatican pursues interfaith relations. Current speculation suggests this could end in the Council for Interreligious Dialogue being subsumed into another dicastery -- the Council for Culture, for example. At a minimum, it will likely involve some formal reconsideration of the mission and priorities of interfaith relations.

If so, the trick will be to manage this transition in a way that does not send a signal to the outside world that Catholicism is pulling back from interfaith engagement, at a moment when the question of peaceful co-existence among the religions, especially Christianity and Islam, is more delicate than ever.

Among the first to anticipate those complications, and to work constructively to resolve them, will undoubtedly be Fitzgerald himself, who has a reputation for discretion and loyalty. That's another reason to suspect that his move to Cairo does not mean Fitzgerald will simply drop off the ecclesiastical radar screen.

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The Fitzgerald transfer amounts to the opening act in what is likely to be other important reconfigurations of the Roman Curia in the near future. One impending move is a consolidation of the Vatican's communications operation - intended, at least in part, to address concerns about too many voices speaking on behalf of the Vatican, sometimes saying contrasting things.

As it happens, I'm in Australia and New Zealand this week, a trip which got started because the Australian bishops' conference invited me to speak at the launch of their new pastoral letter on the media Feb. 16.

At a Thursday public luncheon at Cardinal George Pell's residence in Sydney, Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth, chair of the bishops' committee on the media, explained that Archbishop John Foley, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, was unable to come to Australia for the meeting. He explained that Foley was unable to come, not because of recent kidney surgery, but because Foley had been asked to remain in Rome for a meeting about the restructuring of the Vatican communications operation and the role his office will play in whatever streamlined system that results.

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While it's the balmy days of summer here, that doesn't mean church news is on holiday. For one thing, the Australian church has recently been embroiled in a national debate over RU486, the so-called "abortion pill."

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To sum up, approval of the drug had been blocked by Health Minister Tony Abbott, a Catholic, and a member of the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard. In response, members of parliament decided to have Abbott's authority reassigned to a regulatory body called the "Therapeutic Goods Administration," in effect clearing the way for RU486 to enter the Australian market. The measure had already passed the Australian Senate, and was approved by the lower house on Thursday. It remains an open question, however, how many doctors and pharmacists will actually petition for use of the drug.

The debate at times reached an intensely emotional pitch, with a female legislator who supports RU486 revealing during floor debate that she was among the estimated one in three Australian women who have had abortions, and a government loyalist warning that if women keep having abortions at the current rate Australia could become a Muslim country within 50 years.

That legislator later apologized.

In keeping with Cardinal George Pell's strong convictions, the Catholic church has been an active opponent of RU486. Pell, the Cardinal of Sydney and an increasingly important point of reference for English-speaking Catholicism worldwide, made a fiery statement on the controversy Feb. 14.

"Future generations will look back on today's encouragement of abortion the way we now look at owning slaves," Pell said.

"Public opinion is moving," he said. "The tide is changing in Australia; not as fast as in the United States, but it is changing. Eighty-seven percent of Australians support finding ways to reduce the number of abortions."

Pell also said that health concerns surrounding RU486 "can't be airbrushed out of existence."

On Feb. 6, Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney argued before a Senate panel that women should have more alternatives to abortion, not a wider choice of methods. Fisher also suggested that if RU486 were approved, the total number of abortions in Australia would increase.

None of this means, however, that Catholic opinion on the issue is entirely uniform. At a panel discussion hosted by the brand-new Notre Dame University of Sydney on Thursday night, Feb. 16, the eminent Australian Jesuit Fr. Frank Brennan said he believed Catholics of good conscience could have voted either way on the RU486 bill.

Ironically, Pell was sitting in the audience. Brennan candidly acknowledged, "I know Cardinal Pell would disagree with me on this."

Pell and other Catholic leaders have argued that the government should make investments in alternatives to abortion.

"The challenge is to encourage births, to encourage free personal choices for life, to give women the support and resources they need to give birth to their children," Pell said. "This is the role of parliaments and governments."

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On that Thursday panel discussion at Notre Dame, a prominent Australian TV personality named Geraldine Doogue asked us to talk about the importance of identity in people's concepts of religion.

I took a descriptive tack, saying that hunger for a clear sense of Catholic identity is an important impulse coursing through global Catholicism at the moment, cutting across a wide range of debates -- in liturgy, in education, in health care, and so on. The slogan of this movement is often lifted from French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who warned the church against "kneeling before the world."

Partly in response, Brennan said he agreed with the importance of identity issues, as long as they're not narrowly construed.

"Catholic tradition, ideas, and identity are all terribly important, but they're far more complex than what we sometimes put out there, and what the media sometimes puts out there for us," Brennan said.

"We must not paint with just one brush," he said. "People today don't believe reality can be captured with just one brush."

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The pastoral letter is entitled Go Tell Everyone: A Pastoral Letter on the Church and the Media, and was officially released on Thursday, Feb. 16, by the papal nuncio, Archbishop Ambrose De Paoli, a veteran of the Vatican's diplomatic service.

For the most part, it consists of pastoral common sense. The church should see the media as an opportunity for evangelization, the bishops say. There is much good in the media, they say, as well as much grist for concern. They offer practical suggestions for parents, such as placing the home computer to be used for the Internet in a common room, to discourage children from surfing out of bounds. They also call for media education programs in schools.

The bishops offer a "good news kit" with practical tools for parishes to promote media interest in positive things happening within their communities.

There are two additional points which perhaps merit mention.

First of all, the bishops utter words that will be welcomed by any reporter who has ever sought to obtain comment from church sources, only to run into a wall of unreturned phone calls and terse "no comments."

"The Catholic church must be part of this marketplace of ideas," the bishops write, "and regularly accept opportunities to be quoted, seen or heard upon matters of consequence."

Second, the bishops acknowledge that Catholic media outlets should not sanitize unpleasant stories when the truth is at stake.

"Catholic media must always report in honesty, even if, when scandal is involved, this is painful for the church," they write.

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It looks increasingly like a consistory may be held on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. Word is that it will be a small consistory, as Benedict XVI wants to stay as close to the "ceiling" of 120 cardinals under the age of 80 as possible. As of today, there are 110 cardinals under 80, but between now and March 25, Cardinal Bernard Agré of the Ivory Coast and Irish Cardinal Desmond O'Connell will celebrate their 80th birthdays, leaving a total of 108.

Announcement of the consistory could be made as early as Pope Benedict's Wednesday Audience on Feb. 22.

While cardinals are personal appointments of the pope, and therefore Benedict XVI can name anyone he wants, those candidates commonly reckoned as probable include the following:

  1. Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, Krakow, Poland
  2. Archbishop Antonio Cańizares Llovera, Toledo, Spain
  3. Archbishop André Armand Vingt-Trois, Paris, France
  4. Archbishop Carlo Caffarra, Bologna, Italy
  5. Archbishop William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  6. Archbishop Franc Rodé, Prefect of the Congregation for Religious
  7. Archbishop Stanislao Rylko, President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity
  8. Archbishop Angelo Comastri, Archpriest of St. Peter's Basilica and Vicar General for the Vatican City-State
  9. Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, President of Cor Unum
  10. Archbishop Agostino Vallini, Prefect of the Apostolic Segnatura

The star will be Dzwisz, especially given that the event will probably fall just a few days short of the first anniversary of the death of John Paul II, whom Dzwisz served as private secretary.

This list leaves at least two additional spots for candidates "on the bubble." Different observers assess their chances in varying ways, but commonly mentioned possibilities include the following:

  1. Archbishop Diarmiud Martin, Dublin, Ireland
  2. Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Hong Kong, China
  3. Archbishop Sean O'Malley, Boston, United States
  4. Archbishop Lluís Martínez Sistach, Barcelona, Spain
  5. Archbishop Joăo Bráz de Aviz, Brasilia, Brazil
  6. Archbishop Raymundo Damasceno Assis, Aparecida, Brazil
  7. Archbishop Raúl Eduardo Vela Chiriboga, Quito, Ecuador
  8. Archbishop Gaudencio Borbon Rosales, Manila, Philippines

Asian news sources have already cited "Vatican sources" to the effect that Zen's nomination is all but assured.

Foley is a sentimental favorite. Now 70, Foley arrived in Rome in 1984, and ever since has earned a reputation as one of the kindest and most gregarious people in the Vatican. He is a widely sought after speaker, in part because with his gentleness and good humor he puts a positive face on Catholic officialdom.

Over the years, Foley has been rumored as a candidate for various American dioceses, or for other curial appointments, but instead has remained in place. The argument for making him a cardinal this time would be as a tribute to his decades of loyal, steady service -- an argument which may cut ice with Benedict XVI, a man with experience of staying put in a Vatican job.

The difficulty is that there are already a disproportionate number of American cardinals -- 13 all told, including 11 electors. The United States is the fourth largest Catholic country in the world, yet it has the largest block of cardinals after the Italians. The Americans have more electors than the Brazilians, Mexicans and Filipinos combined -- a block that represents over 30 percent of the Catholic population on earth. Hence it will be difficult to argue that the Americans merit two or three additional cardinals, and one American is already certain to be named -- Levada.

I ran into an Italian prelate recently, who asked me about the possibility of a consistory, and then ventured an opinion.

"I hope there aren't any more American cardinals," he said. "There are too many already."

That view is fairly widely held, and complicates consideration of any American candidate, Foley included.

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When cardinals fanned out after their April 19 election of Joseph Ratzinger as pope in order to explain the logic of their choice, most said that among other things they felt Benedict would be a "listening pope," a man of genuine collegiality.

It struck some observers, especially Western liberals, as a counter-intuitive claim, since Ratzinger had been seen in those circles as the architect of John Paul II's "imperial papacy," which led some theologians and even bishops to complain about over-centralization in Rome. Yet the cardinals insisted that their personal experience of Ratzinger suggested that he is an extremely adept listener, capable of grasping widely differing perspectives and reluctant to impose his own personal conclusion on matters about which there is disagreement among bishops.

This week another move suggested some merit to the cardinals' reasoning.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the powerful vicar of Rome, turns 75 next February and will conclude his third five-year term as president of the Italian bishops' conference. The pope, as the Primate of Italy, appoints the president of the Italian conference, and in the past popes canvassed Italian cardinals before making the choice. This time, however, Benedict XVI instructed the nuncio in Italy to solicit nominations from every bishop in the country, a total of 226, a move the Italian press has dubbed a sort of "primary" for Ruini's successor.

Some Italian bishops have long argued that they ought to be able to elect their own president, as bishops everywhere else do. The request for nominations suggests that's not going to happen, but it also means Benedict wants to exercise his authority collegially.

Early speculation about who might succeed Ruini has focused largely on the predictable major Italian prelates: Cardinals Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, Angelo Scola of Venice and Ennio Antonelli of Florence. Once Caffarra becomes a cardinal, he too will be on many short lists.

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Beatifying Fr. Andrea Santoro, the Italian priest gunned down last week in Turkey while his teenage assassin shouted Allah Akhbar, could be complicated by claims that the killer was psychiatrically unbalanced.

The reports appeared this week in an interview with the teenager's father in the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.

In his homily at the Feb. 10 funeral Mass, Ruini announced that he intends to open a sainthood cause for Santoro. Ruini said that the 61-year-old Roman priest's death contains "all the constitutive elements of Christian martyrdom."

If Santoro is found to be a martyr, then there is no need to establish miracles performed after death in order to beatify him, and just one to canonize him. In practical terms, it means the cause could move along more quickly. (Ruini seemed to suggest he would not petition Benedict XVI for a waiver from the standard five-year waiting period before the cause can begin, saying he would "respect fully the laws and the rhythms of the church.)

The traditional standard for martyrdom is odium fidei -- that the person was killed out of hatred for the faith. John Paul II appeared to stretch the standard on a couple of occasions -- including the 1982 canonization of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who died at Auschwitz because he volunteered to take someone else's place, not because he was Catholic or a priest. Some have even spoken of a de facto new standard for martyrdom -- odium amoris, "hatred of love" that could also apply to candidates such as Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Fr. Pino Puglisi of Sicily.

Yet on the whole, experts at the Congregation for Saints generally want to see evidence that there was a specifically anti-Christian, or anti-Catholic, motive for the person's death.

If it turns out that Santoro's killer was mentally unhinged and has been under psychiatric care, as his father told the Italian press this week, it could make the process more complicated, since it would be difficult to know whether odium fidei or psychosis caused him to pull the trigger.

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Here's an English translation of an interview with Hikmet Akdin, 58, the father of 16-year-old Ouzhan Akdin, which appeared in the Feb. 12 Corriere della Sera.

Q: Your son shot Fr. Andrea while he was praying in church. He shouted Allah Akhbar, 'God is great,' and he said that he was upset by the cartoons about Mohammed published in Europe. Why do you rule out a religious motive?
Because my son is a child. He's only 16. He's said a lot of things, many of them contradictory. He's been under psychiatric care for a couple of years and takes medicine, because his head doesn't always help him. It's not true that he's in contact with Islamic radicals, and it's not true that he took orders from anyone to kill Fr. Andrea.

Q: Then how did it happen?
Exactly how it happened only he knows, and he will explain it to the court. I know that his mind is confused. I'm separated, and he lives with his mother. The night of the murder he was at home with her. The television said that the priest of Trabzon had been killed, and all of a sudden he said, 'Mom, I killed him.' She said, 'Don't say that, even as a joke.' But he insisted: 'I'm not joking, it was me.'

Q: When did you realize he was serious?
We never did, because we didn't believe him. His mother called me and I went over. We were sure that it was one of his fantasies. We were arguing because he didn't want to admit it was all a stupid joke. Then the police knocked at the door …

Q: Have you seen him since?
Yes, a brief conversation at the prison. We spoke over a telephone, in front of glass. We didn't say very much because the emotion was too strong and I couldn't hold back my tears. I thought about him in his cell. He's afraid of the dark, and at home he sleeps with a nightlight. Now what will he do?

Q: Did he ask for something?
Yes, a science magazine and a math book. He's always been fascinated with math. He was in the first year at the Fatih school [a school for science], he is a very good student. His dream is to become a scientist and work on genetics.

Q: Is he a heavy user of the Internet?
Since a few months ago. He was always a good Muslim, but since he started going to the Aktif Internet Café he didn't pray anymore. He's a good chess player, but lately he played on the computer, and chose war games.

Q: Your son shot Fr. Andrea with a Glock. It's an expensive weapon, and hard to come by, even for experienced criminals.
I don't know where he got that pistol, but if you Westerners knew Trabzon like we do, you'd know that to get a gun, even one like that, all you have to do is ask on the street.

Q: The youths who live near the Church of St. Mary say that Ouzhan received money from Fr. Andrea.
My son didn't need money. I always gave him plenty. Even if we're not exactly rich, we're lucky, believe me.

Q: Fr. Andrea's mother said she has forgiven Ouzhan 'with all her heart.'
I know, and ever since I heard those words I have a desire in my heart. I want to save enough money to go to Italy and kiss that woman's hands as a sign of gratitude. Please tell her how much I appreciate her goodness, which has touched me. I want to embrace her. She's a courageous woman, and I'm sure is an excellent mother. I'll kiss her hands, if it's the last act of my life."

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

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