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 The Word From Rome

February 20, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 26

global perspective


In Bosnia, one of the first things combatants did was to blow up the bridges. They wanted to close people in on themselves. The focolarini are builders of bridges.

Walter Veltroni,
mayor of Rome,

speaking about the Focolare Movement founded by Chiara Lubichis in Italy in 1943

The most fascinating residents of Rome; In appreciation of Denis Hurley; Vatican diplomacy; Anglican-Roman Catholic commission wraps up Mary document; Pro-choice Catholic politicians


One aspect of Rome that I’m often at pains to explain is that it’s not just the Vatican that makes the city so journalistically fecund. There are many other interesting circles of life: embassies, national colleges, pontifical universities, the Italian Catholic scene, NGOs, media outlets. All can open windows onto the church and the wider world.

For my money, however, the title for “most fascinating residents of Rome” often goes to the men and women religious who serve on the leadership teams of their religious orders here. They come from all corners of the planet, they form exotic multi-cultural and multi-lingual households, and they travel constantly, providing them with a cosmopolitan vision few professional groups can rival. (They also sometimes ply my wife and me with great meals, but that’s another subject).

A Feb. 13 conference sponsored by SEDOS, an umbrella group for missionary communities, offered proof of the point.

The topic was “International Religious Communities in a Multicultural

World,” and two speakers offered their perspectives: Fr. Antonio Pernia, a Filipino who leads the Society of the Divine Word, and Sr. Rosanna Marin, an Italian who belongs to the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary.

Pernia said religious orders can be international by force, by chance or by choice.

A culturally homogenous congregation may be forced into accepting vocations from other parts of the world, Pernia said, due to a lack in their home country. Or they may stumble into internationalization when vocations arise from local churches in other parts of the world where they have pastoral responsibilities. A congregation can be more deliberate, however, choosing to integrate diversity into its charism, norms and practices.

Pernia clearly prefers the third approach.

It is not enough, Pernia said, to import Asian novices to do the manual labor in European houses, a tactic that amounts to “putting Asian rice in a European breadbasket.”

The transition, Pernia said, is from a model in which a community has one internal culture, usually European, to which it expects members to assimilate, to a model in which the same charism is expressed in a variety of cultures.

“Diverse is divine,” Pernia said.

Marin brought things down to a practical level, listing some of the challenges of international living. For example, attitudes to authority can differ. Some religious women emphasize collegiality and shared responsibility, Marin said, while others expect those in authority to make decisions. It’s not that the former are incapable of obedience nor the latter of criticism, Marin said, but they have different comfort zones.

There are also theological and spiritual questions to be faced, such as how to handle biblical texts about God’s promises to Israel in a house that includes sisters from Islamic nations.

Like Pernia, Marin emphasized the riches of diversity. She brought the point home with an anecdote about an Australian sister who is a missionary in Morocco, who went home to visit her family. She was at a street corner with her aunt when they overheard a group of immigrants speaking their language.

“I can’t stand these immigrants who don’t learn English. You can’t understand a thing they say,” the aunt said.

“You know, when I’m in Morocco, I’m always thrilled to find someone who speaks English,” the nun replied.

After returning to her mission, the nun received a letter from her aunt, who wrote: “Now when I hear immigrants speaking their language, I think about you and I’m happy for them.”

That, Marin suggested, is how change happens: one heart at a time.

* * *

Archbishop Denis Hurley, the emeritus archbishop of Durban in South Africa, was in Rome last week for a Sant’Egidio event. He called me and we talked about getting together, but couldn’t make our schedules work. On Tuesday he shared a meal with his Oblates of Mary Immaculate brothers, and asked a mutual friend to tell me hello at a Mass on Sunday that both of us attend.

I assumed I would have another chance to see Hurley, who seemed spry despite his 88 years. It was not to be, however, as Hurley died in Durban on Friday, Feb. 13, of a massive stroke.

John Page, former executive secretary of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and a longtime friend of Hurley, has written a magnificent tribute for NCR. Readers can find it here: An appreciation of Denis Hurley.

In 1947, Hurley became the youngest Catholic bishop in the world, and in 1951 he became the youngest Catholic archbishop. He served as archbishop of Durban for 41 years. He was never made a cardinal, a snub whose deliberateness was confirmed when his successor, Wilfrid Napier, received the honor in 2001. (Hurley once told me he felt the denial of the red hat was related to his criticism of Humane Vitae, both in 1968 when it appeared and again at a 1980 synod on the family).

Hurley was a determined opponent of South Africa’s apartheid regime. In 1957, he was the driving force behind a pastoral letter that described the system as “intrinsically evil.” In 1984 he was charged with making false statements about the activities of the “Koevoet,” a South African paramilitary unit in Namibia. The prosecutor dropped the case days before the trial was to begin.

Hurley was a member of the preparatory commission of the Second Vatican Council, and attended every session. He was one of the founding fathers of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, and became an ardent defender of ICEL in the 1990s when its personnel and translation philosophy came under attack from conservative critics.

My first contacts with Hurley concerned ICEL, when I was reporting on the “liturgy wars” in the late 1990s. He and I spoke on the telephone and exchanged e-mails many times. I met him in person for the first time in the fall of 2000, when he came to Rome for a lecture. His first words to me, even before “hello,” were: “What do you say we go find this Medina fellow and toss him in the Tiber?”

Classic Hurley.

The reference was to Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, the Chilean who at the time was prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Medina was the driving force behind Rome’s clampdown on ICEL. Hurley, who felt a bit like a grandfather seeing his beloved grandchildren under assault, wasn’t in the mood to mince words.

Yet Hurley also had a twinkle in his eye, signaling that he wasn’t really serious about doing anyone harm. In fact, part of Hurley’s genius was his optimism and sense of humor in the bleakest circumstances. One had the impression that a man who stood up to apartheid was not about to allow his good cheer to be impaired by comparatively trivial ecclesiastic fracases.

Recently Hurley published a series of remembrances of Vatican II in South Africa’s Catholic paper, The Southern Cross: Eyewitness To Vatican II. One of the best things about it is the humor. For example, Hurley recalls an exchange in which Archbishop John Heenan of Westminster complained about periti, meaning theological experts, who were wandering around stirring people up. Everyone understood it as a criticism of liberal Redemptorist theologian Fr. Bernard Häring, who had recently lectured in England. A Benedictine abbot pointed out that several centuries ago a group of “wandering periti” had shown up in Canterbury and evangelized England! Hurley records the resulting quip: Heenan suffered peritinitis from too much herring, and the remedy was Benedictine.

I’m aware that Hurley wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I had dinner with a South African diplomat in Rome not long ago, a man who had been part of the inside-the-system push for glasnost, who found Hurley’s public activism shrill, divisive, and counter-productive. I know Catholic observers around the world who thought Hurley, especially in his later years, a tad predictable in his unabashed liberalism.

Whatever one makes of his politics, however, Denis Hurley was a man of moral courage and personal kindness. Those are qualities perennially in short supply, and he will be missed.

Hurley’s funeral is set for ABSA Stadium in Durban on Saturday, February 28, at 10 a.m.

* * *

In last week’s column, I noted that three political heavyweights visited the Holy See on Feb. 12: the President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe Vélez; the Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, Ahmad Qurei; and the Foreign Minister of Iran, Kamal Kharrazi. I wrote that each man saw the pope and then met with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State.

As it turns out, that’s not accurate. While all three saw the pope, only Uribe and Kharrazi met with Sodano. Qurei met instead with Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican’s foreign minister.

While some might find political significance in this distinction, a senior Vatican diplomat told me Feb. 16 that it was a question of logistics. The meetings with Sodano take longer than those with the pope, and Uribe and Kharrazi were scheduled first. “It would have been materially impossible” for Sodano to also see Qurei, the Vatican diplomat said.

Some observers expressed surprise that in the pope’s statement to Qurei, in which he reiterated his opposition to the Israel security fence, there was no reference to terrorism. It is the usual pattern in Vatican statements on the Middle East to strike a balance by denouncing injustice, understood as a criticism of Israel, as well as terrorism, understood as a criticism of the Palestinians.

The senior Vatican diplomat, however, said “the pope can’t always say everything,” noting that his remarks to Qurei were a scant two paragraphs long. He said that the issue of terrorism was a “principle theme” in the bilateral conversation with Lajolo.

“This is absolutely not a shift in the position of the Holy See,” he said.

The diplomat also noted that the pope urged Qurei to follow “the path of dialogue and negotiation,” which at least implicitly suggests the way forward is not through suicide bombings.

* * *

Group Discussion of 'The Passion'

NCR has produced a study guide for group discussion of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." The guide appeared in the Feb. 20 print edition of National Catholic Reporter.

Extra copies of the guide for use in small group or classroom settings, brochure-size copies of it are available for a nominal fee. Call Jo Ann Schierhoff at (816) 968-2239.

There’s no indication the controversy surrounding “The Passion of the Christ” is abating. On Feb. 17, veteran Italian Catholic writer Vittorio Messori published a front-page essay in Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, praising “The Passion” as a work of “radical Catholicity.” Messorio exonerated the film against charges of anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League and perhaps the leading Jewish critic of the movie, was in Rome Feb. 15-18. He saw Archbishop John Foley, president of the Council of Social Communications and an admirer of “The Passion,” on Feb. 16. Foxman was to meet Fr. Norbert Hofmann, who runs the desk for relations with Jews in the Council for Unity, on Feb. 18.

Foxman sat down for an interview Feb. 16.

Foxman came to Rome to propose a deal: he’ll drop his complaints if both Mel Gibson and Christian authorities, especially the Vatican, acknowledge that “The Passion” is not true to the Bible. It is instead, Foxman argued, a personal vision that blends the Bible, private revelations such as those of 19th century mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, and Gibson’s own theological stance. The cumulative effect, Foxman believes, is to exaggerate the guilt of the Jews for the death of Christ.

In other words, according to Foxman, it is not as it was.

“If Gibson sold it as his version, his interpretation, God bless him,” Foxman said. “But that’s not been the marketing. He says he’s telling the gospel truth, the historical truth and the biblical truth. This is what makes it troubling.”

Foxman saw a preliminary version of the film during a screening for evangelical pastors.

Foxman’s qualms about the film are so pervasive that he acknowledges “there’s nothing Gibson could do to fix it,” so his latest tactic is to ask the Australian superstar to appear at the end of the film with a “postscript.”

Foxman’s proposed text: “My name is Mel Gibson. This is a passion of love. I’ve been inspired by the gospel to do this. I believe Jesus suffered for all mankind, therefore all mankind is guilty. There are some who have blamed the Jews. Don’t do that. That would make it a passion of hate.”

So far, he said, Gibson has not responded to the request.

A colleague and I pressed Foxman on whether, by raising such a fuss, he is actually helping the film.

“I don’t have the luxury to ignore it,” Foxman said.

“Hitler saw [the passion play] in 1934 in Oberammergau  and said, the whole world should see it, ‘they’ll understand why I despise the Jews,’ ” Foxman said. “I can’t ignore the fact that Christians killed Jews Monday through Friday in Auschwitz and went to church on Sunday. So they had this disconnect. Why? Because they were killing Christ-killers.”

* * *

During the first week in February, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, the formal vehicle for dialogue between the two bodies, met in Seattle to wrap up five years of work on a document on Mary. The text will eventually be published and submitted to the court of Anglican and Roman Catholic opinion.

Sources told NCR that the text is likely to play well among “High Church” Anglicans who pray the rosary and take part in Marian devotions, while it will be a tougher sell for evangelicals who harbor suspicions of Marian “idolatry.” Given the sensitivity, the drafting process was a down-to-the-wire affair, with final touches being applied to the text just before a concluding vespers service in the Seattle cathedral.

This just scratches the surface, however of the significance of what transpired in Seattle.

First, the text has been awaited with great interest not merely for what it says about Mary, but for how it handles the problem of dogmas that arose after the separation between Catholics and other Christians. The Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception (1854) and the Assumption (1950), for example, were promulgated centuries after Henry VIII separated the English church from Rome. What can be asked of Anglicans in terms of adherence to dogmas they had no role in formulating?

Sources told NCR this problem is briefly grappled with in the document, but no solution is given. One source characterized it as “a question for the future, which somebody will ask.”

Second, the Seattle meeting was also the last event in the current round of the ARCIC process. Given the crisis in Anglican-Catholic relations created by the consecration of an openly gay bishop by the Episcopalian church in the United States, some have wondered if the ARCIC process will continue.

Though the gathering in Seattle did not discuss this question, sources told NCR that it is assumed there will be another round. “The intent is to continue the dialogue,” one source said. It may be some months, however, before that happens. The first ARCIC round finished in 1981, a decision was made to continue in 1982, and the second round did not commence until 1983.

This decision will to some extent be dependent upon decisions reached by the Anglican Communion about its future.

The Lambeth Commission, set up by the archbishop of Canterbury to guide the Communion’s reflection on the crisis, met just after the Seattle session (several ARCIC members on the Anglican side are also members of the commission). Due to report to Archbishop Rowan Williams in September 2004, the commission decided to study five topics:

• Issues of process in the Anglican Communion.
• The nature and purposes of Communion.
• The obligations of Communion.
• Authority.
• The role of the instruments of unity in preserving fellowship.

As part of that reflection, an ad-hoc Anglican-Catholic sub-commission has been created to give Catholics a voice in these Anglican deliberations. It met for the first time in Seattle. While it reached no conclusions, the sub-commission, whose work has been wrapped in confidentiality, talked about resources that it might offer as “signposts for a way forward,” including the work of ARCIC on authority and the nature of the church.

One source said Catholic participants are “hopeful,” if not necessarily “optimistic,” as to where the dialogue might lead.

* * *

Focolare is perhaps the largest of the “new movements” in the Catholic Church, and one of the most prominent. Founded in Italy in 1943 by Chiara Lubich, today Focolare claims to reach 182 countries, “touching” 4.5 million people. Its primary emphasis is unity and universal brotherhood, which prompts the focolarini, as members are known, to be especially involved in ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue.

A new book, Un popolo nato dal Vangelo: Chiara Lubich e i Focolari, tells the story of the movement. It was launched in Rome in a gala event held at the Campidoglio, or City Hall, attended by Rome’s mayor, Walter Veltroni; the secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Bishop Josef Clemens; and Andrea Riccardi, founder of another new movement, the Community of Sant’Egidio.  The testimonials were punctuated by a small ensemble playing classical scores.

A center-left politician with a strong track record of concern for social causes, Veltroni praised Focolare’s commitment to dialogue.

“In Bosnia, one of the first things combatants did was to blow up the bridges,” he said. “They wanted to close people in on themselves.” The focolarini, Veltroni said, are builders of bridges. He called their way of life an “anticipated paradise,” and said that Rome is grateful.

Lubich, in brief remarks at the end of the evening, stressed that from her point of view, “the primary author” of Focolare’s progress “is God.”

* * *

Catholic News Service this week obtained an advance copy of a forthcoming Vatican report on the crisis of clerical sexual abuse, based on an April 2003 symposium of scientific experts. As previously reported in “The Word from Rome” and elsewhere, those experts were near-unanimous in questioning the “zero tolerance” policy for clerical abusers adopted by the American bishops. According to the CNS report, “They said it effectively prevents troubled priests from seeking help before they commit abuse, removes leverage with abusive priests to accept treatment, can leave priests emotionally devastated, and effectively passes responsibility for an abusive priest on to the larger society — where there is less monitoring and supervision of his behavior.”

The American norms were approved for two years, with an expiration date of March 2005. Sometime in 2004, therefore, the American bishops will have to begin the process of requesting renewal. The forthcoming Vatican report is another sign that the Holy See may wish to reconsider the “zero tolerance” approach before signing off.

* * *

Archbishop Raymond Burke’s ban on pro-choice Catholic politicians from communion (in a decree Burke issued while bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin), plus the frontrunner status of pro-choice Catholic Senator John Kerry as the Democratic nominee for president in the United States, has renewed debate over the relationship between morality and politics.

One crucial aspect of the debate pivots on this question: Is there any room, however slight, within Catholic tradition for a Catholic politician to both uphold the church’s teaching on the immorality of abortion, and yet not actively promote its legal prohibition?

Two noted Catholic thinkers in Rome, one a moral theologian and the other a philosopher, say there might be. Both emphasize, however, that the circumstances under which such a distinction could be justified must be carefully circumscribed, and do not necessarily describe any actual politician’s circumstances.

I put the question to Fr. Brian Johnstone, a moral theologian at Rome’s Redemptorist-run Alphonsian Academy, and Fr. Robert Gahl, a philosopher at the Opus Dei-run Santa Croce University.

Here’s the hypothetical: Suppose a Catholic politician was firmly convinced of the church’s teaching on abortion, and was personally involved in efforts to oppose abortion at the social and cultural level. The politician, for example, might give money from his own resources to support unwed mothers, might volunteer at counseling centers to help pregnant women explore options other than abortion, and would make public his opposition to abortion in all circumstances.

At the same time, this politician is genuinely convinced that legal prohibition will backfire, causing an escalation in unsafe procedures whose impact will fall disproportionately on the poor, and may even result in more abortions as women are scared away from exploring their options for fear of legal fallout. In other words, the politician believes that effective prohibition of abortion may not be achieved through civil legislation.

Is such a position defensible on the basis of Catholic moral principles?

“That position could be argued,” Johnstone said, emphasizing that he did not necessarily agree with it. He noted, however, that such a stance would be virtually impossible to reconcile with recent magisterial documents such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life.

“A politician may never foster laws that open the way to more abortions,” Johnstone said. “But if a person is convinced that attempts to eliminate abortion by law are not feasible under present circumstances, and genuinely pursues other social means to accomplish that end, that could be judged coherent with Catholic moral thinking,” he said.

Gahl agreed, but placed two conditions.

First, the politician would have to make publicly clear that abortion is gravely evil and that the eventual goal is abolition. Second, the judgment that legal prohibition won’t work would have to be expressed as a “contingent, provisional” analysis, not as a general principle. In other words, the politician cannot propose legal tolerance of abortion as a norm, but merely as a concession to a particular set of circumstances.

“Abortion is a violation of a fundamental, if not the fundamental, human right,” Gahl said. “The purpose of law is to promote justice and to defend the weak, and any politician must desire that law do this. Otherwise the very idea of law would be emptied.”

Both Johnstone and Gahl emphasized that the burden of proof would be on the politician who wishes to argue that attempts to promote prohibition would be ineffective in a given context.

Gahl also stressed that a Catholic politician cannot base such a view on the notion of tolerance. “The right to life is a principle so fundamental that it precedes all tolerance,” he said.

Nevertheless, both men said there is a conceptual distinction, though not a separation, between moral analysis and political strategy. The latter involves prudential judgment, and there may be times and places when the aim of eradication of abortion cannot be achieved with legal means.

This remains to some extent a theoretical discussion, since the profile sketched above does not appear to exactly fit the positions of any of the politicians currently at the center of the debate over the distinction between personal morality and public policy.

* * *

My wife Shannon and I had the honor last week of playing host, in a minor way, to Peter and Margaret Steinfels (Peter writes the “Beliefs” column for the New York Times, and Peggy, as she is universally known, is the former editor of Commonweal). They didn’t stay with us, but we shared a couple of meals, and I helped Peter arrange a few meetings in and around the Vatican.

The Steinfels are endlessly informed, and refreshingly free of the pomp from which people at their level of accomplishment often suffer. Their graciousness, however, did not stop Peggy from engaging in a bit of amateur psychoanalysis in my case. She opined that I fall into a category she calls feliciopaths, meaning people (mostly reporters) who are pathologically positive. I think it was the 107th time that I said of some Vatican official “he’s actually a nice guy when you get to know him” which prompted the diagnosis.

All journalists have their biases, of course, and I suppose one of mine may be a tendency to concede the benefit of the doubt too readily. Yet in a climate of spleen-venting and ideologically driven commentary, I like to believe a different approach has its place.

Obviously the key is balance, and both Steinfels’ fair, informed journalism, critical in the best sense, helps point the way. All of us are in their debt.

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

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