The Word From Rome
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Februrary 25, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 23

John L. Allen Jr.


My advice to the Vatican: Visit the L.A. Religious Ed Congress; Report card on ecclesiology; World Youth Day in Cologne; An appreciation of Fr. Luigi Giussani; The 'three-kick rule'

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As a rule, I don't give advice to Vatican officials. My role is as an observer in ecclesiastical debates, not a participant, and running the church is a hard enough job without my armchair quarterbacking.

This week, however, I'm going to make a small exception. As I write this column, I'm returning from Los Angeles, where for the third year in a row I spoke at the annual Religious Education Congress, a massive gathering of more than 20,000 catechists, parish ministers, and clergy, in addition to over 12,000 youth. (Total attendance last year was 37,779, making it probably the largest annual gathering of Catholics in the United States). My small suggestion to the senior personnel of the Roman Curia: At some point during your tenure, come to this Congress. It provides a unique, and encouraging, perspective on Catholicism in the United States.

The vitality and positive energy of the Congress is striking, from the multicultural liturgies in the main arena, to the smorgasbord of workshops, talks and how-to sessions during eight break-out periods. In 2004, there were 183 speakers who presented 272 workshops in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. The exhibit hall offers a microcosm of Catholic life in America, from book publishers to social justice and pro-life groups to devotional societies. It's a beehive of ecclesiastical life.

At a time when the story of the American church as told in the press is one of scandal, crisis and dysfunction, the L.A. Congress is a reminder that at the retail level, American Catholicism is alive.

Among the things one is impressed by:

  • Youth: Some aging veterans of the church scene are Congress regulars, but there's also a high-octane Youth Day, which this year featured keynote presentations from Jesuit Fr. J-Glenn Murray from Cleveland and Fr. Tony Ricard from New Orleans -- both African-American priests, speaking to Anglos, Hispanics and Asians as well as other African-Americans, reflecting the diversity of the American Catholic experience. Beyond that, in each session of the regular Congress one sees a mix of young and old faces, with much of the youth wing being composed of 20- and 30-something laity who are teaching in Catholic schools, working in Catholic parishes or otherwise serving the church. The result is a kind of youthful energy, a "buzz," that's unlike many other gatherings of "professional" Catholics.
  • Passion: A number of sessions are standing-room-only, and it's not just because some participants get continuing education credit and hence feel obligated to show up. There's a genuine drive to learn about the church, to deepen skills in ministry or service, as well to share with like-minded friends and colleagues. Most of the time, when I get off the stage after an hour and a half, I feel like the session could have gone on twice as long, given the lines to ask questions
  • Optimism: One doesn't find a great deal of hand-wringing at the Religious Education Congress, though there are occasional flashes of frustration and anger about this or that issue in the church. For the most part, what one finds is excitement and a sense of new possibilities; it's more like a wedding than a wake. One has the sense that these people are having a great time being Catholic, anxious to share that with the rest of the world.
  • Granted, the composition of the crowd at the Congress is perhaps slightly unrepresentative of the whole of American Catholicism, in that it tends to skew a bit to the center-left -- reflecting, in that sense, the personality of the Los Angeles archdiocese under Cardinal Roger Mahony. Granted, too, one cannot simply applaud the Congress and ignore the multiple challenges facing the American church. The continuing fallout from the sexual abuse crisis is perhaps nowhere more clear than Los Angeles, in fact, where the eventual cost of settling ongoing litigation is expected to be enormous. It's not enough simply to put on a good show; otherwise we risk a "bread and circuses" style of running the church.

    Still, the Religious Education Congress is a reminder that American Catholicism is dazzlingly alive in parishes and youth groups and ministries - there's a dynamism, a capacity to dream and to act, that can take one's breath away to see it in such a concentrated form.

    * * *

    Beyond my own talks, the Congress gives me a chance to hear presentations by a wide array of Catholic luminaries, many of them friends and colleagues.

    This year, for example, I sat in on part of Sulpician Fr. Gerald Coleman's session on the sexual abuse crisis. Coleman brings an informed perspective, having served for 16 years as President/Rector of St. Patrick's Seminary and University in Menlo Park, Calif., and is currently on sabbatical at the Carmelite Monastery in Carmel, Calif. Coleman has written a number of books on moral and pastoral theology as well as medical ethics.

    Coleman offered a detailed overview of the American crisis, making a number of interesting observations along the way. For example, he noted that virtually none of the accusations lodged so far concerned behavior while a candidate for the priesthood was in the seminary. The abuse happened once the abuser was out in the field, under much less supervision and often with little "support system." Obviously, a seminarian is not quite the authority figure an ordained priest is, and perhaps has less capacity to act on the impulse to abuse. Granted, too, the formation offered in seminaries on human sexuality in earlier eras was undoubtedly deficient. Still, Coleman's point is that by and large the seminary system managed to "keep things under control," suggesting that the isolation and lack of supervision of priestly life is one of the factors that fueled the crisis.

    At the end of his talk, Coleman suggested that what's needed is a balance between the presumption of innocence and protecting the good name of accused priests, alongside an aggressive commitment to ensuring that children are not abused. He argued that permanent removal from ministry, under the terms of the American procedural norms, is not so much a matter of "punishment" as it is about protecting the church, and especially children, from the risk of recidivism.

    At the same time, Coleman introduced a neologism into the debate - "charter creep," referring to the tendency to treat any accusation of sexual misconduct against a priest as if it were the sexual abuse of a minor, even when it's matter of acts between consenting adults. Obviously, Coleman was not calling for laxity regarding violations of the vows of celibacy, but he insisted that legally and morally, the abuse of a child, and a sexual act with a consenting adult, are different situations calling for different remedies.

    * * *

    Richard Gaillerdetz, a lay theologian at the University of Toledo in Ohio, is among the most popular speakers at the Congress. He radiates an enthusiasm for occasionally arcane matters of ecclesiology and church history, and represents the coming of age of the lay voice in American Catholic theology.

    Gaillardetz offered a "report card on the church" 40 years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), grading the implementation of the council's vision in four areas: understanding of church, the church in the world, liturgical and sacramental life, and structures and exercise of church leadership. Gaillardetz would be the first to admit there are many different perspectives in all of these areas, and that the convention of assigning "grades" is terribly subjective. Nevertheless, his approach is of interest because he articulates views that are doubtless shared across a broad swath of moderate-to-liberal sentiment in the United States and elsewhere.

    To cut to the chase, here's how Gaillardetz says we've done:

    Understanding of church: A-
    Church's mission in the world: A-
    Liturgical and sacramental life: C+
    Structures and exercise of leadership: D

    On the understanding of church, Gaillardetz says we've negotiated the transition from a "clericalist, juridicist and triumphalist" ecclesiology to one premised on the church as the Body of Christ and the People of God. As evidence, he pointed to growth in lay ministry, the "purification of memory" through the acknowledgment of past faults, and the sense of "ownership" demonstrated by Catholic laity in the response to the sexual abuse crisis.

    In terms of the mission to the world, Gaillardetz says we've moved from a siege mentality to a posture of "dialogic engagement" with the world. As evidence, he cited inter-religious dialogue, a growing détente between religion and science, a recognition of cultural diversity and engagement with cultures, and advocacy for justice.

    On liturgical and sacramental life, Gaillardetz said a growing sense of active lay participation and legitimate diversity in liturgical celebration are positives. At the same time, he was troubled by a return to "rubricism and formalism," citing recent Vatican documents such as the revised General Instruction on the Roman Missal and Redemptionis sacramentum, plus suspicions in the Vatican about liturgical diversity and a re-centralization of liturgical decision-making in Rome. Ten years ago, he said, he would have given the liturgy a "B," but things are different today.

    Finally, he was most dour about the exercise of leadership, arguing that according to the council, bishops and priests were supposed to be pastors more than rulers, that collegiality was supposed to guide the relationship between the bishops and the pope, and that the laity were supposed to be consulted in a meaningful sense. Little of that, in his view, has transpired. Curial authority, he said, lacks an adequate ecclesiological basis, and attempts by Rome to "rein in" bishops' conferences have weakened the authority of local bishops. The current system for appointment and transfer of bishops, he said, undermines the tie of bishops to the local church. (Among other things, Gaillardetz wittily remarked that if a small diocese gets a prelate who's even halfway competent and energetic, it's clear from the outset that he's a "Rent-A-Bishop" - in other words, before long he'll be transferred somewhere else). Large numbers of laity, Gaillardetz said, are not persuaded by the theological rationale for mandatory celibacy or the ban on women's ordination, and there is little serious effort to consult either the laity or theological and Biblical scholarship across a wide range of perspectives.

    When Gaillardetz flashed the "D" grade for leadership on his Power Point presentation, the crowd cheered.

    Obviously, these conclusions are, of course, eminently debatable. Complaining about Rome is an ancient instinct in the organizational dynamics of the Catholic church, and you'll never go wrong with an American audience poking fun at "those guys over there." Yet Gaillardetz's critique is deeply thoughtful, and whatever one makes of it, it invites very useful reflection about where we've arrived after 40 years, and where we're going.

    * * *

    Prior to leaving for this American swing, I attended a luncheon in Rome at the residence of the Ambassador of Canada to the Holy See, Donald Smith, and his wife Elizabeth Ann. The guest of honor was Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, who was the chief organizer of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, and who now heads the new Salt and Light Catholic TV service in Canada.

    Rosica had been in Europe to confer with the planning team in charge of World Youth Day in Cologne later this summer, August 15-21. Among other things, Rosica brought two young Basilians to assist the German staff in pulling off what has become probably the biggest logistical operation staged on a regular basis in global Catholicism.

    Rosica told the small group at Smith's luncheon that the German operation seems to be going well, despite some disappointments from the civic authorities. Among other things, apparently a massive public space in Cologne that would have been ideal for the week-long series of events was too pricy, and the government did not give World Youth Day a price break, so instead some of the events will be spread across three different cities.

    Rosica said the Germans are still operating on the firm conviction that John Paul II will be present. Msgr. Heiner Koch, general secretary of World Youth Day, has been as blunt as possible on the subject: "The pope will come to Cologne," Koch has stated. "Preparations are still going on."

    Part of this, of course, is marketing, because planners realize that a World Youth Day without the pope would likely not draw the same massive crowds. Nevertheless, Rosica said, there also seems to be a genuine conviction that John Paul will move heaven and earth to be in attendance for the concluding Saturday vigil and Sunday Mass. So far, Rosica said, the Germans have not run any numbers on what the impact might be if the pope is unable to appear; in the case of Toronto, Rosica said, his team estimated that attendance at the final Mass might have been cut in half.

    At the same time, Rosica said, World Youth Day has by now become such an important feature of Catholic life that it shouldn't be dependent on the personal charisma of a given pope. In that sense, he said, he hopes that Catholic families and parishes will make the commitment to go regardless of speculation about John Paul's health.

    * * *

    On Feb. 22, John Paul II named Archbishop Renato Boccardo secretary general of the Vatican city-state, a position that makes him the top aide to Cardinal Edmund Szoka, an American, as head of Vatican City's government. Boccardo comes out of the Vatican's diplomatic corps, and served in Bolivia, Cameroon, and France before being recalled to the Vatican, where he became the master of ceremonies for papal liturgies. He later served in the Pontifical Council for the Laity on World Youth Days, then became the chief organizer of papal travel before moving to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications as secretary.

    Rosica, who knows Boccardo well from the World Youth Day experience, offered the following reaction to the appointment:

    "Boccardo has a deep love and respect for the church, but also a great openness to young people and the future. He is the "brains" of World Youth Days. ... He taught us about dialogue, collaboration, clarity, generosity and fidelity and love of the Holy Father and the church. He was not afraid to raise serious questions about the church, always in a spirit of great charity and hope. … Several international church leaders 'under the microscope' have invited universal admiration and respect. Two such leaders are in my mind Boccardo and Archbishop Piero Marini. Both are key team players in World Youth Days and have won the respect of thousands of young people throughout the world.

    * * *

    This week brought news of the death of Fr. Luigi Giussani, 82, the founder of the Communion and Liberation movement. By any standard, Giussani was among the most important figures in European Catholicism in the 20th century.

    Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls announced that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dean of the College of Cardinals, would preside in the name of the pope at the Feb. 24 funeral Mass at the Duomo in Milan.

    Many of us believed that if Giussani's health had held out, he would have been one of the "honorary" over-80 cardinals appointed by John Paul II in the next consistory, whenever that comes.

    Communion and Liberation is today present in 75 countries, with more than 100,000 followers.

    Giussani's spiritual writing was dense, but at bottom his instinct was that true freedom is possible only through communion with others, and that society should promote the Christian ideal of communion. That led Giussani in part to stress the political consequences of Christian faith, and so the ciellini, as Giussani's disciples are known, have traditionally been remarkably unabashed about seeing themselves as a political force. Their annual convention in Rimini in early September always draws the A-list of Italian political life.

    Yet Giussani's imagination was not limited to politics. He also emphasized the aesthetic dimensions of the faith, the idea that love of God should express itself in beauty -- that somehow the promises of the faith ought to be reflected here-and-now in beauty, even at the level of architecture and urban design.

    Communion and Liberation is an important part of ecclesiastical life in Italy, numbering such luminaries as Giulio Andreotti and Rocco Buttiglione among their supporters. For decades, they were seen as in effect a parallel church in Milan, a more conservative alternative to the progressive establishment under Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Because of that reputation, it was something of a jolt when Angelo Scola, who comes out of the Communion and Liberation movement, was made the cardinal-archbishop of Venice. Most observers believe those old rivalries have subsided.

    * * *

    Last week Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame responded to a summary I provided of a talk delivered by Christopher Wolfe of Marquette at Rome's Opus Dei-run Holy Cross University. McBrien criticized the claim that the U.S. Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale "barred prayer in public schools."

    This week, Wolfe carries the conversation forward.

           For the record, I was characterizing the effect of Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp, taken together, when I said that they barred prayer in public schools.
           Does Fr. McBrien think that in our country it is no business of Congress to "compose an official prayer for any group" when it places "In God We Trust" on our coins -- as it has since the earliest years of our nation?...
           I'm not a particularly big supporter of prayer in public schools, precisely because I doubt that public schools can really adopt any approach that is truly "neutral" on the big questions in life about which society and religions have intersecting concerns. That impossibility of adopting any truly neutral position … leads me to think that there should be a universal voucher program… with wide-ranging freedom for parents to include the moral values they want their children to learn, as long as the school satisfies the legitimate public interest in teaching the children what they need to learn to be good citizens (for example, reading, writing, and arithmetic and basic civics lessons) and excludes exhortation to engage in illegal activities (e.g., racial discrimination, human sacrifice, etc.).
           That parents should have as little control over their own childrens' education (especially the direct and indirect moral education that is an inevitable part of any elementary and secondary education, including public schools) as they do in our society today is appalling in a free nation, and a flagrant violation of Catholic social teaching."

    * * *

    On my West Coast swing, I also spent a day in the Bay Area, where I gave a talk at Christ the King Parish in Pleasant Hill on Feb. 22. Fr. Brian Joyce, the pastor, had asked me to speak on "Possibilities for Dialogue in a Divided Church," and so I delivered more or less my standard treatment, focusing on what I see as the five prerequisites for a "spirituality of dialogue": epistemological humility, foundation in Catholic tradition, patience, perspective, and a robust commitment to Catholic identity.

    I added, however, a new joke at the end, which goes like this.

    A lawyer from the East Coast is duck hunting in Iowa, and at one stage he spots a duck, takes aim, and drops it. He begins walking to pick it up, but comes across a fence clearly marked "private property." Feeling justified in reclaiming his duck, he starts to climb over. Just then the farmer appears.

    "What do you think you're doing?" he asks.

    "Picking up my duck," the lawyer replies.

    "No way," the farmer says. "That duck landed on my property."

    "Look, you don't understand," the lawyer says. "I'm one of the best trial lawyers in the United States, and if you don't let me have that duck, I'll sue you."

    The farmer sighs.

    "That may be the way you handle problems where you come from, but around here we have something called the Three-Kick Rule," he said.

    "What's that?"

    "Basically, I kick you three times, you kick me three times, and we keep going until somebody gives up. Whoever wins keeps the duck."

    The lawyer decides this will probably be less expensive than a lawsuit, and agrees.

    The farmer walks up and promptly kicks the lawyer hard in the private parts, bringing him to the ground. Then he gives him a shot to the face, almost breaking his nose. Finally he delivers a swift kick to the kidney, eliciting a cry of deep pain. The lawyer is writing in agony, but finally manages to bring himself to his feet.

    "Okay, you old coot," he says, "now it's my turn."

    "Nah, that's alright," the farmer responds, smiling. I give up. You can keep the duck."

    My worry, I told the group at Christ the King, is that too often the way we handle division in the Catholic church boils down to an ecclesiastical version of the Three-Kick Rule.

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

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