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 The Word From Rome

February 27, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 27

global perspective


"The hard task of the church today is not to beat the bushes for new priestly vocations, but to clear away every obstacle not precluded by divine revelation that might prevent our church from properly discerning and empowering the many charisms that are now present, 'ripening on the vine.' When we do that, we may just discover that our 'priest shortage' will appear in a quite different light."

Richard Gaillardetz,
an American lay theologian

'The Passion' and 'liturgy wars'; A tour of Denver; Annual Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles; Canadian talk show TV; The John Jay report


I’m in North America this week, having lectured in Denver and Los Angeles, followed by an appearance on Canadian television in Vancouver. Aside from the John Jay study on the sexual abuse crisis in the United States (more on that later), two stories keep coming up as I move around: Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” and the most recent developments in the Catholic Church’s “liturgy wars.”

The former comes up with just about anybody, while the latter belongs to the rarified sphere of liturgical specialists (which will tell you something about the people I tend to hang around with). But as I sat in a hotel room in Los Angeles reading a leaked copy of the ratio translationis, a 70-page set of principles for translation in English recently circulated by the Vatican, I had a flash of insight.

 There’s an odd sense in which the movie and the liturgical battles are really the same story.

More precisely, there is a common element underlying both stories, along with a slew of other recent developments in religion. It’s a trend towards bold assertion of identity from Christian conservatives tired of asking permission to proclaim who they are and what they believe, in their own language and on their own terms.

Let’s consider “The Passion” first.

The usual case against the movie reflects the psychology of an enlightened Christian majority. Given how images of “the Jews” and their role in the death of Christ have been exploited by anti-Semites though the centuries, the argument runs, one must show extra sensitivity. It is not enough simply to tell the Gospel story; one must ensure the story is properly understood, that it does not inflame hatred or prejudice. The implicit assumption is that Christians still more or less set the cultural tone.

This is not how things seem, however, from Mel Gibson’s side of the fence.

For Gibson and those Catholics and evangelicals most supportive of him, the dominant culture today is in fact post-Christian and rabidly secular – at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, to traditional Christian belief and practice. In such a context, they believe, Christianity has too long sought to put on a socially acceptable face in order not to give offense. In the bargain, it has sometimes sacrificed a clear sense of self.

The visceral appeal of “The Passion” for many Christians lies precisely in the fact that no rough edges have been sanded off, no potentially divisive elements have been smoothed over. It is not the Gospel “lite.”

The same impulse to self-assertion cuts across the liturgical battles, even though the issues are more complex and public interest much smaller. Here too, conservative forces have long insisted that post-Vatican II translations for worship in English gave too much away to the argot of secular modernity, as well as to nice-sounding ecumenical formulae that they regard as spotty in terms of fidelity to Catholic tradition.

The Vatican’s new ratio translationis, a document that sets out principles to guide translation of liturgical texts from Latin into English, instructs translators to seek a distinctive “liturgical vernacular.” They are to resist influence from academic style manuals, psychological or emotional verbiage, colloquial speech, or language drawn from Protestants. The idea is to sound more “Catholic.”

“To the extent that a vernacular is a liturgical one, it refrains from using ‘expressions of the moment’ and instead searches for words that can draw from its own literary history to express the divine realities found in the liturgy,” the ratio says.

Because academic style manuals are “unconcerned with properly liturgical practices” and ignorant of “biblical and theological contexts,” those manuals, “like many other handbooks of grammar or usage derived from commerce, advertising or politics … cannot be used as reliable standards for liturgical translation.”

This identity impulse cuts across a wide range of issues, from doctrinal debates (such as Vatican insistence on Christ as the lone savior of humanity) to trends like home schooling. In part, the assertion of traditional identity is a reaction against the cultural homogenization driven by globalization. It’s not just religion – there’s a strong trend towards assertion of traditional languages and cultural practices too, in disparate areas such as cooking and crafts, within communities all around the planet fearful of losing their sense of self.

What is new, perhaps, is the extent to which practicing Christians feel themselves one of these besieged minority communities. Given the way the cultural winds are blowing, the “identitarians” will likely be a growing force inside and outside the church.

* * *

One of the most controversial points of liturgical translation has long been the use of “inclusive language,” that is, avoiding gender-specific terms, both in a horizontal sense (for people) and vertical (for God). The idea is two-fold: 1) to show respect for women by avoiding language that excludes them, and 2) to better render the actual meaning of ancient texts, whose content was often intended to be inclusive, even in some cases where the terminology was grammatically exclusive.

Conservative critics, however, have long argued that this form of adjustment to modern sensitivities can distort the text. The place to comment on texts is in catechesis, they argue, not translation. It was thus to be expected that the new Vatican ratio translationis, prepared under the guidance of the Vox Clara committee led by Cardinal George Pell of Australia, would discourage inclusive language.

The subject is treated most extensively on page 44, in example 25, “Collective terms and gender.” The ratio quotes the May 2001 document Liturgiam Authenticam to the effect that when the original text uses a term that expresses the interplay between an individual and the entire human community, it must be retained in English. The obvious reference is to the word “man.”

Thus, the ratio insists: “When speaking of Christ’s Incarnation, the term ‘man’ is used to designate not simply his own assumption of human nature as an individual male but, as well, his unique role in taking all humanity unto himself for the sake of the redemption of the whole world.”

English translations of the Creed must read that Christ “became man,” the ratio stipulates, and similarly, the title “Son of Man” in liturgical settings must be retained. Sayings of Christ such as “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” may not be reconfigured as “fishers of men and women.”  Eucharistic Prayer IV must be translated as “You formed man in your own image, and entrusted the whole world to his care,” since this is a case of “clear parallelism or interplay between God and man.”

Later, in example 39, the ratio stipulates that in the Creed, the translation should be, “For us men and our salvation, he came down from Heaven,” despite the fact that it is common practice in many English-speaking congregations to drop “men” when the Creed is recited.

The ratio follows Liturgiam Authenticam in rejecting solutions such as a transition from singular to plural, the splitting of unitary collective terms into masculine and feminine parts, or the introduction of impersonal or abstract words.

For example, according to example 40, to render the Latin Unus enim Deus, unus et mediator Dei et hominem, it would be unacceptable to say “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men and women.” The clear implication is that it must be “between God and man.” Several similar examples are offered.

This position contrasts with the moderate approval of inclusive language approved by the U.S. bishops in their November 15, 1990 statement, “Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts proposed for Liturgical Use.” It will no doubt disappoint some Catholic women and others who believe that inclusive language, used in the right measure, is an appropriate step of “inculturation,” adapting to the sensitivities of contemporary English speakers.

It should be noted, however, that the forces behind the ratio are not always dogmatically opposed to inclusive language. In fact, a draft translation of the new Order of Mass circulated by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, reflecting the philosophy of the ratio, drops “man” in a few instances where it was judged inessential to meaning.

Nevertheless, in a general sense it would seem that the use of “man” to mean “humanity” is with the Catholic liturgy to stay.

The Congregation for Divine Worship has asked for feedback on the ratio translationis from English-speaking bishops by March 1.

A footnote. One of the most serious criticisms leveled against the first generation of liturgical translations into English following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is that they were done in haste. Some liturgical observers believe the same thing may eventually be said of the translation of the Order of the Mass currently making the rounds, as well as the ratio translationis intended to guide it. Due to overwhelming pastoral pressure to produce a text, these observers say, the process of reflection and review has been short-circuited. Hence some critics of the new ICEL translation and the ratio are hoping to persuade at least a few bishops to push to slow things down, in hopes of “buying time” to take a second look.

* * *

In Denver, I lectured in Bonfils Hall at the John Paul II Center, where the two seminaries in the archdiocese are located – St. John Vianney, the archdiocesan seminary, and Redemptoris Mater, run by the Neocatechumenate, one of the new movements in the Catholic Church.

I had been invited to speak in Denver by Archbishop Charles Chaput, with whom I share a connection through the Capuchin Franciscans. (Chaput is a Capuchin, while I grew up in Capuchin schools in Western Kansas). Several Capuchins from the local friary attended the lecture, which gave me a chance to publicly thank the community for its many gifts to me over the years.

Chaput is a national point of reference for conservative Catholics who appreciate his strong stands on doctrinal questions and his pastoral dynamism. For that reason, some see the Denver archdiocese as a stronghold of the Catholic right, but Chaput disputes the characterization.

“People sometimes have the impression that Denver is full of neo-conservatives or retrograde whiners for the past,” he told me. “Actually, it’s a very balanced diocese full of energy and enthusiasm and evangelical zeal, and all kinds of new and creative programs that aren't at all conservative. We do focus on faithfulness, both in teaching and in acting, but isn't that what the Catholic church is all about?”

Chaput invited my wife Shannon and me to dinner at his residence, which is located on campus so that his seminarians can have ready access. The meal was served by members of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, who in addition to teaching philosophy, theology and other academic disciplines at the seminary, also seek to serve in more humble ways. Chaput took pains to present each sister to us, asking her to share a bit of her story and her interests.

Prior to my talk, I received a whirlwind introduction to the archdiocese through a series of appointments graciously arranged by the chancellor, Fran Maier. It’s difficult to take the temperature of a place in eight hours, but I can at least confirm the energy and enthusiasm of which Chaput speaks.

I had breakfast, for example, with a young lay professor named Tim Gray, who directs the archdiocese’s Catholic Biblical School, a rigorous four-year program of scripture study for adults. This is not a glorified Bible study group; homework is required each week and a “memory retrieval exercise” is given at the end of each 10-week quarter. Yet the program is growing beyond Gray’s capacity to meet the interest – a sign, he believes, that Catholic laity are hungry to be challenged.

The archdiocese also has a catechetical school for adults linked to the Lateran University in Rome, which is seeking professional accreditation in North America. Both programs aspire to be national models.

I also met Terry Polakovic, the founder and director of ENDOW (“Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women”). It’s an outreach program for young women designed to help them challenge destructive social stereotypes about beauty, sexuality, and lifestyles, drawing upon Catholic teaching and especially the writings of John Paul II. Polakovic brought Jamila Spencer to our meeting, a 20-something Catholic woman who helps run ENDOW presentations. Spencer passionately believes John Paul’s “new feminism” offers what it takes to resist the impossible expectations society thrusts upon women.

Polakovic and Spencer described what it’s like to talk with women these days about the Catholic church. Almost always, the question of women priests come up, and Polakovic and Spencer do their best to defend the church’s position. What struck me was not so much the cogency of their argument, which one can find more or less convincing, but the passion with which they believe that all women, even those sometimes furious with the church, should have a place at the table.

I also met with Sergio Gutierrez, a dynamic young Latino Republican who’s worked on the staffs of Colorado Governor Bill Owens and President George W. Bush, and who is the archdiocese’s new communications director. Nancy Walla, an attorney with international corporate experience, offered me an overview of the situation in Denver with respect to compliance with the national charter on sexual abuse. Deacon John Neal and Fr. Michael Glenn briefed me about operations at St. John Vianney Seminary.

I did not meet with anyone from the Neocatechumenate seminary, nor was I offered a look around.

Finally, I spent the late afternoon with Linda-Ann Salas, special assistant to the auxiliary bishop of Denver, Bishop Jose Gomez (who is a member of Opus Dei). Gomez has a special responsibility for the Hispanic community in Denver, and Salas drove me out to the new Juan Diego Pastoral Center, a refurbished old girls’ school converted into a center for English and business classes, retreats, and community events. Salas and the Hispanic ministry team are some of the most positive, passionate Catholic professionals I’ve ever met.

The overall impression I had in Denver is of a group of bright, competent people excited about their work – and their boss.

* * *

From Denver I moved to Los Angeles for the archdiocese’s annual Religious Education Congress, an event that draws almost 40,000 teachers, catechists, lay professionals and men and women religious to Anaheim. It’s supposedly the largest gathering of Catholics in the country, and it is indeed breathtaking in both size and energy level. Like last year, I was dazzled by the diversity, the dynamism, and the good vibes.

Like last year, I gave a lecture on the main stage in the arena, where again I felt I should be belting out rock-and-roll numbers rather than making observations about Vatican politics.

If Denver is seen as a center of conservative energy, Los Angeles is a point of reference for the Catholic center-left under Cardinal Roger Mahony.

That moderate-to-progressive spirit was clear in Los Angeles, both from the speakers and the audience. The Saturday and Sunday keynoters, for example, were Richard Gaillardetz and Scott Appleby, two lay American theologians who articulate a moderate, inside-the-tradition argument for church reform. Gaillardetz is seen by many observers as his generation’s version of Frank Sullivan, an expert representing the broad middle of American Catholicism on ecclesiology and church structures. (Sullivan, a Jesuit priest, taught for many years at Rome’s Gregorian University).

Gaillardetz has a genius for imagery that brings complex theological ideas home to non-specialists. Here’s his explanation of Catholic liturgy as communion:

“Perhaps, instead of thinking of the worshiping assembly as 500 private phone lines connected, through the altar, up to God, we should be thinking of our worship as a conference call in which the liturgy is our shared conversation with God,” he said.

Gaillardetz delivered what amounted, in part, to a stirring defense of American Catholicism. He noted, for example, that while pockets of the American church have a priest shortage, there is no vocations shortage. He pointed to a corps of some 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers in the American church, many of whom are paying their own tuition costs and making other sacrifices to serve the church while also raising a family.

“The hard task of the church today,” Gaillardetz argued, “is not to beat the bushes for new priestly vocations, but to clear away every obstacle not precluded by divine revelation that might prevent our church from properly discerning and empowering the many charisms that are now present, ‘ripening on the vine.’ When we do that, we may just discover that our ‘priest shortage’ will appear in a quite different light.”

Given that many lay ecclesial ministers were in his audience, it’s no surprise he drew stirring applause.

I also heard the English Dominican Bishop of Nottingham, Malcolm McMahon, discuss “Leadership in a Changing Church.” He argued in favor of collaborative ministry and subsidiarity, somewhat in the spirit of his fellow English Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, former master general of the order.

I gave two presentations. Gauging from how audiences reacted, and the questions they asked, it seemed that these people – most either volunteers or employees of the church, thus core Catholic faithful – seemed especially interested in two questions: opening up decision-making in the church to lay participation and the role of women. By the latter, I mean not necessarily women’s ordination to the priesthood, but the broader question of how the church can be more responsive to the concerns of women, and more convincing when it says it values the gifts and contributions women have to offer.

In the end, I again came away from the Religious Education Congress awed by the commitment and positive spirit of so many wonderful Catholic laity – better, in a sense, than the institutional church sometimes deserves.

* * *

In Vancouver I taped a segment of the Vicki Gabereau show, who is, I was told, something of a Canadian analogue to Oprah Winfrey. I had a good time, in part because Gabereau gives her guests time to speak, so you can actually develop a thought or two. She struck me as a host who does her homework; she seemed to have read my book Conclave with care. She wanted to talk about the pope, the Vatican, and the Catholic church, and in my line of work TV doesn’t get any better than that.

It’s revealing, therefore, that Gabereau still seemed to suffer from the “perception gap” about the Catholic church that anyone who bases their impressions entirely on the newspapers and TV tends to contract.

She started out asking me about the priest shortage, and with a rising voice, wanted to know how in God’s name anyone could offer their life to a church that had engaged in such outrageous immorality in the treatment of children. The reference was to the sex abuse crisis, and her tone of voice seemed to suggest that someone signing up for the priesthood these days is the moral equivalent of someone registering as a lobbyist for Big Tobacco.

I tried to respond by referencing the Los Angeles gathering I had just attended, where I saw 40,000 people passionate about their faith. It has always been thus, I said; the church goes through periodic cycles of crisis and reform, but most Catholics seem capable of distinguishing between their faith and their church, and the failures of the human beings in charge. This does not make the scandals less repugnant, or the work of reform any less urgent, but it does mean that when a young person chooses to offer his or her life in a religious vocation, it is for something more fundamental than the moral perfection of church leaders.

Bottom line: Most Catholics want to feel good about the church, and given half an excuse, they will find a way to do so, sometimes against all logic. They will give their time and treasure to the church, they will pour their hearts into service and devotion, and they will ask precious little in return. Some will do so in religious life; others will pursue other vocations.

To people looking in on the institution from the outside, and that describes most journalists, this will always seem puzzling, and never more so than now. Therein, perhaps, lies the difference between reason and faith.

* * *

The long-awaited John Jay study on the American sexual abuse crisis appeared today, and as expected, it revealed a higher number of incidents and accused priests than previously believed. Victims’ groups expressed skepticism, suggesting that because the data is self-reported, it may actually lowball the true dimensions of the problem.

One crucial point is that the study asked dioceses to report every accusation in their files, regardless of credibility. Thus when the study concludes that 4,392 priests have been accused, it does not necessarily mean that 4,392 priests are guilty of sexual abuse.

As the report puts the crisis back on the front page, one aspect that has drawn relatively little attention is the canonical resolution of priests’ cases. Under the terms of canonical norms adopted by John Paul II in 2001, all cases in which a priest is alleged to have sexually abused a minor are to be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The CDF is then to determine whether the case will be resolved immediately on the basis of the available evidence, sent back to the local level for trial, or handled in Rome.

Indications are that there is a serious backlog in Rome. Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Maltese canonist who serves as promoter of justice in the CDF, faces hundreds of files awaiting review.

The result is that some cases sent over more than a year ago are still awaiting replies. One American cardinal told me that he has stopped asking the CDF for status reports; the only thing he’s received, he said, is a fax asking him to confirm that the CDF has an accurate list of all the cases he’s sent over. A prominent American canonist said that his diocese is awaiting replies on cases that should be fairly straight-forward, such as a priest who is incarcerated  and petitioning for laicization after pleading guilty to the rape of a child.

One prelate told me he has a priest of whose innocence he is morally certain, given the nature of the charge and the shady reputation of the person bringing it. He would like to be able to hold a canonical trial locally, and if the evidence bears out his belief, the priest could be reinstated. He needs permission from Rome to proceed.

I had lunch in Los Angeles with a priest from the East Coast who has retired out West, and had been helping out in a local parish. Only when the West Coast diocese contacted his East Coast diocese after he applied for a chaplain’s card did he learn that an accusation had been brought against him back East, and he was subsequently suspended. He is contesting the charge, and has filed a canonical appeal. He has been waiting months, with no word, and meanwhile the elderly pastor at the parish where he had been assisting has to do without his help.

I have no way of assessing this man’s guilt or innocence. As an observer, however, I can say that he and many priests like him with whom I have spoken are deeply demoralized. One hopes they get their day in court, and soon.

Finally, one American canonist suspects that some bishops are short-circuiting Rome altogether by asking priests to resign or retire when guilt seems established, seeing that as an adequate resolution, and hence they are not forwarding their cases to the CDF. The problem, the canonist pointed out, is that such a strategy normally means that the diocese bears ongoing financial responsibility for the priest, meaning ongoing civil liability for wrongdoing. Moreover, it is a violation of canon law … and a lack of respect for the law was part of what got the church into this mess in the first place.

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

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