National Catholic Reporter ®

February 22, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 26

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Making sense of things when church appears at odds with itself;
Greek Catholics in Russia; transvestites’ pilgrimage raises ire

The bottom line is that Vatican policy will always have its puzzling aspects, and we are entering a historical moment in which the contradictions seem likely to widen. Perhaps Catholics can take cheer from Walt Whitman: “I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”


Who’s actually calling the shots in the Vatican? 

     It’s a question I get often, usually in the wake of a move people find especially difficult to understand. The recent decision to elevate four apostolic administrations in Russia to full dioceses offers a case in point. It enraged the Orthodox and makes the pope’s desire to visit Moscow more difficult to realize. How, many wonder, could John Paul do something contrary to his dream of a church that “breathes with both lungs?” 

     Consider these other examples of seeming schizophrenia:

• The September 2000 beatification of Pius IX, the pope who removed six-year-old Edgaro Mortara from his Jewish family in 1858, and who re-consigned Roman Jews to their ghetto after briefly liberating them in1848. Many found the choice difficult to reconcile with John Paul’s March 2000 visit to Israel, where the pope left behind in the Wailing Wall a note of regret for Christian anti-Semitism. 

• The Vatican’s repeated overtures to mainland China, including a statement by Archbishop Giuseppe Pittao in October 2001 that the pope is willing to be flexible even on the nomination of bishops, seem at odds with the October 2000 beatification of Chinese martyrs. That move irked the government, both because most of the martyrs were missionaries linked in the communist version of history to colonialism, and because the ceremony fell on Oct. 1, the anniversary of the birth of the People’s Republic. 

• A 1998 Vatican commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem, stating that the invalidity of Anglican ordinations is an infallible teaching, certainly makes John Paul’s December 1996 gift of a gold pectoral cross to Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, along with silver pectoral crosses to his associate bishops, seem a remarkable act. A pectoral cross is the symbol of a bishop’s office, and if, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith insists, Carey and the other Anglicans are not bishops, then John Paul was in effect guilty of falsifying the sacrament. (I owe this last observation to Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers).

     One can, with the aid of a little mental gymnastics, offer readings that render these things consistent. The point is that a papacy concerned with the appearance of coherency probably would have done things differently.

     Some see these tensions as evidence the pope is losing his grip. I believe the situation is more complex, with four factors at work.

1. Wojtyla’s Style. No pope can personally resolve all the questions that face him, and this reality has been amplified by the administrative style of John Paul II. Cardinal Franz König of Vienna, one of the electors who propelled Wojtyla to the papacy in 1978, told me during a 1999 interview that when John Paul came into office he chose to pursue certain big ideas, and to leave day-to-day management largely in the hands of his lieutenants. He has pursued this policy ever since.

     To take one example, it is well known that John Paul does not have a keen personal interest in liturgical questions. (That is not to say liturgy is unimportant to the pope. Anyone who has ever seen him celebrate Mass up close is struck by his reverence. But the mechanics of liturgy, as well as its politics, have never engaged him).

     At the moment, the pope’s two key advisers on liturgy are from very different schools of thought. Piero Marini, responsible for all the papal liturgies, is a reformer in line with the post-Vatican II emphasis on participation and inculturation. Jorge Medina Estévez, on the other hand, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, is a more conservative figure, seeking to recover a bit of Roman-centered traditionalism. Marini’s liturgies often incorporate practices that, according to Medina, are dubious. (Liturgical dance is a leading case in point).

     Some in the Vatican say this pluralism is a good thing, a creative tension. Others see it as poor management. In either case, it is a hallmark of the Wojtyla approach.

2. Age and illness. As the pope becomes older and weaker, the range of things over which he can exercise personal attention becomes more narrow. His limits are clear. Today John Paul is often rolled through the Vatican on a large mobile staircase because he finds walking taxing. He takes medicine to cope with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, wears hearing aides in both ears at least some of the time, and uses a laptop lectern in order to steady his shaking hands. 

     These facts must, of course, be held in context. John Paul remains intellectually sharp, and despite occasionally flagging energy and attention, is a good listener. When he wants to, he can still assert his will, sometimes over the forceful opposition of some of his subordinates. The Jan. 24 inter-religious summit in Assisi offers proof.

     Yet the pope’s attention span is more limited, his good hours more precious, and hence the number of decisions upon which he can expend personal energy is becoming smaller. 

3. Competing camps. In English-language journalism, we have personalized the terms “Vatican” and “Rome,” as if there is a single being out there called the “Vatican” with a unified intellect and will. We write phrases such as, “The Vatican wants …”

     The truth is that it is virtually unintelligible to speak about what “the Vatican” thinks or wants, because there are competing forces inside the place with differing agendas.

     Relations with the Orthodox offer a perfect example. Doves inside the Vatican hold that since Catholicism is the larger, richer, and more powerful branch of the Christian family, it should always take the first step. Vatican hawks, meanwhile, accuse the Orthodox of dishonesty and hypocrisy, and oppose allowing them to “dictate terms.”

     In the dispute over the new Russian dioceses, the Orthodox have argued that the move signifies a Vatican desire to proselytize, or make converts, in Russia. What they conveniently forget to mention is that the Orthodox themselves have bishops and ecclesiastical structures in places such as Italy, France and England, obviously not traditional Orthodox “canonical territory.” These structures are not just for pastoral care of the Orthodox diaspora. Some are receiving converts. (The February 2002 issue of an Orthodox church bulletin published in Paris quotes an English Orthodox bishop raving about new Orthodox believers coming “from all nationalities, origins and cultures.”) To hawks, Orthodox finger-pointing about Catholic proselytizing thus seems disingenuous. 

     Part of the inconsistency of papal policy-making, therefore, is the natural tug-of-war between differing blocks of opinion. 

4. End of the regime. No one knows how much longer John Paul will serve, but we are nearer the end of his pontificate than the beginning. That reality generates psychological dynamics that also breed contradictions.

     When a papacy nears the end, its architects tend to want to nail down its legacy, complete all its unfinished business. Hence the flow of documents and disciplinary decisions from offices such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship becomes more intense. The Council for the Family, for example, is producing documents at a remarkable pace, in part because Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo wants them to be on the magisterial record. (A new treatise on “The Family and Procreation” is now in the pipeline).

     At the same time, many Vatican officials cannot help thinking about the next papal administration. Because they cannot anticipate what the character of the next pontificate will be like, the tendency is to gravitate to the center, keeping lines of communication open. 

     A classic case of this dynamic at work: On July 6, 2000, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts issued a document that, for the fourth time under John Paul II, asserted that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics may not receive the sacraments. Yet just six months later, in January 2001, German bishops Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper are named cardinals. Both men in 1993 had signed a very public letter permitting divorced Catholics to receive the sacraments under certain circumstances, a provision that was struck down by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

     Someone obviously felt a concession to the reform wing was in order, even if the nominations of Lehmann and Kasper left some observers scratching their heads.

     The bottom line is that Vatican policy will always have its puzzling aspects, and we are entering a historical moment in which the contradictions seem likely to widen. Perhaps Catholics can take cheer from Walt Whitman: “I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

* * *

     Someone in the habit of waiting for other shoes to drop might ponder this point about Russia. 

     There are thousands of Greek Catholics on Russian territory, many of whom were exiled to Siberia under force of Soviet arms from places such as Ukraine. They are so-called “Eastern rite” Catholics, who follow Orthodox liturgical and theological traditions but are in union with the pope. At present these Greek Catholics in Russia have no ecclesiastical structures. Privately, it’s well known that some of those who show up for Mass at Latin rite churches in Russia are actually Greek Catholics. Others don’t go to Mass at all, or take part in local Orthodox liturgies.

     Vatican hawks argue that the Greek Catholics in Russia, like anybody else, have a natural law right to pastoral care. They hope the Vatican will send an apostolic investigator to study the problem, who might recommend the creation of a structure such as an apostolic administration. Doing so would doubtless trigger yet another eruption in Catholic/Orthodox relations.

     The idea faces other roadblocks as well. Archbishop Thaddaeus Kondrusiewicz, head of the new Latin rite archdiocese in Russia, is also said to be opposed, because he doesn’t want his tiny Catholic community further divided.

* * *

     Two recent items in the Italian press illustrate the way media focus on conflict can distort the reality of the church.

     On Feb. 2, a group of Italian transvestites made their annual pilgrimage to a Marian shrine in Montevergine, in the south of Italy, home of the Mama Schiavona. It’s a sanctuary that dates from the pre-Christian era, centered on a mother-protector, and it’s traditional at carnival time for male devotees to approach the Madonna dressed as women. Transvestites have long seen in the Mama Schiavona a sympathetic figure, and some 100 made the trip this year.

     During a procession, a young priest noticed a few of the transvestites simulating what he thought were sexual acts as they danced, and shouted “shame on you.” The abbot of the sanctuary then repeated the reproof in a homily. The contretemps was picked up by local TV, and thus became a scandal. Some accused the abbot and the church of launching an anti-gay crusade.

     To me, the interesting point is not that a public spat led to hard feelings. It’s rather that a Catholic shrine and its pilgrims have for years, without incident, tolerated the participation of transvestites in their annual devotion. Indeed, even the abbot at the end of this affair confirmed, “We don’t want to expel anybody.” 

     The second item is related. Bishop Pier Giorgio Debernardi of Pinerolo recently declared that one of his priests, Fr. Franco Barbero, is “no longer in communion with the Catholic church.” The act was triggered in part by a newspaper article in which Barbero defended the transvestites of Montevergine.

     It turns out that Barbero has, since 1978, welcomed in his parish gays, lesbians, persons of other faith communities, and divorced and remarried Catholics. He has officiated at commitment ceremonies for gay couples. Bernardo was able to offer this ministry for some 24 years without so much as a nasty note. 

     Whatever one makes of the need for discipline when disputes go public, the journalist in me finds all those years of quiet tolerance at least as newsworthy. What, really, is “the mind of the church?”

* * *

     Recently I wrote in this space about a Thai bishop, John Bosco Chuabsamai Manat of Ratchaburi, who has become sympathetic to the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. I wrote: “He [Manat] was the first licitly ordained Catholic bishop to speak at a Lefebvrite seminary.”

     Several readers pointed out that aside from the fact that Lefebvre himself was licitly ordained, at least two other fully licit Catholic bishops have spoken at society seminaries. They were Antonio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil, and Salvador Lazo of San Fernando de la Union, the Philippines. I am happy to make the correction.

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

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