National Catholic Reporter ®

February 28, 2003
Vol. 2, No.27

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Blocking war remains high on Vatican to-do list; An interview with Cardinal Lopez Trujillo

Americans, . . .  are simply not in the habit of thinking about how the rest of the world sees them. 

A cardinal at the Vatican

Vatican diplomacy aimed at blocking a war in Iraq continued this week, with a visit from English Prime Minister Tony Blair and comments from Vatican officials suggesting that armed force without U.N. authorization would be a crime, and that the U.S. may be acting on the basis of oil interests. 

     Also arriving for talks with the pope were Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Mohammad Reza Khatami, the speaker of the Iranian parliament and brother of the country’s president. 

     The peace blitz unfolded on lower levels too. On Feb. 14, the Vatican called in the ambassadors from countries represented on the United Nations Security Council for a briefing by Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister. On the afternoon of Feb. 27, all the countries represented at the Vatican had a similar session with Tauran.

     Nor was the spiritual dimension of the campaign absent. On Sunday, Feb. 23, John Paul II invited Catholics to a day of fast on Ash Wednesday, March 5, as a way of expressing their desire for peace. L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, featured the pope’s words about the war on the front page of its edition the next day, with the word “never” in enormous type.

     “Believers, whatever their religion, should proclaim that we will never be able to be happy opposing each other, and that the future of humanity can never be assured by terrorism and the logic of war,” the pope said.

     Blair’s visit was officially private, so details were scarce. He was asked before the meeting, during a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, about his differences with the pope on Iraq. Blair repeated that he “does not want war,” but also insisted that there is a moral case to be made for the conflict. The Iraqi people are suffering under a regime that does not respect their human rights, Blair insisted, and the cost of inaction could be paid in human blood.

     In the past few weeks, in fact, leaders of the Western coalition such as Blair and Berlusconi have been using a much more moralistic rhetoric to justify the war. Initially the argument was made on security grounds, that Hussein has weapons that terrorists could use against the West. Now the argument is a moral one, that Hussein brutalizes his own people and the West has a moral obligation to liberate them. 

     That shift is, in a sense, a back-handed tribute to the effectiveness of the moral criticism being offered by the pope, Vatican officials, and other religious leaders. Obviously Blair feels the need to argue this is a just war.

     The meeting between the pope and Blair was cordial, and despite some odd speculation in the British press, eagerly anticipated by both sides. As is well known, Blair is a sort of “virtual Catholic.” His wife is Catholic, the children are Catholic, Blair himself goes to Catholic Mass and it is widely expected that he will convert upon leaving office. He and the family attended a private Mass with the pope Sunday morning.

     That said, there remains a serious gulf in opinion between 10 Downing Street and the Apostolic Palace on the war in Iraq. Blair believes a moral case can be made, but John Paul simply isn’t buying it.

     Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, dialed up the diplomatic rhetoric another notch Feb. 24, warning that “a war of aggression would be a crime against peace.” The comments came at a conference on peace at a Roman hospital. Tauran said the conflict would be illegal without U.N. warrant, especially if it were launched “by one or more states” outside the framework of the United Nations. 

     “For us, everything must be undertaken and decided in the context of the United Nations,” Tauran said. 

     “No rule of international law authorizes one or more states to have unilateral recourse to the use of force for changing the regime or form of government of another state, because for example they may possess weapons of mass destruction,” Tauran said. “Only the Security Council could, on the basis of particular circumstances, decide that those facts constitute a threat to peace.”

     The Vatican’s top diplomat also warned of the likely response to a war from countries in the region, which “in solidarity with Iraq could assume extreme attitudes.”

     Tauran appeared to downplay one of the key motives advanced by the Americans for this conflict, Saddam’s arsenal.

     “Weapons of mass destruction are present not only in the Middle East, but also elsewhere,” Tauran said. “Their destruction is certainly a pressing necessity, but it can be achieved with the inspections now underway.”

     A war would lead to “disproportionate damages in relation to the objectives to be reached and would violate the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law,” Tauran said, in language widely taken as a reference to the Geneva Convention.

     Tauran indicated that Iraq must act in ways consistent with its membership in international organizations, and that Bush should opt for “the force of law instead of the law of force.”

     On Tuesday, Feb. 24, Jesuit Fr. Pasquale Borgomeo, director of Vatican Radio, repeated during his weekly broadcast a suggestion that the Americans and the British have vociferously denied: that the offensive in Iraq is in part about Western oil interests.

     Borgomeo took his cue from signs reading “no blood for oil” that many American anti-war protestors have been carrying, and suggested that perhaps they have a point. He noted that in late November representatives of American oil companies met with Iraqi opposition groups in London to open talks about the disposition of oil rights in a post-war Iraq. 

     Despite the fact that Blair has called the suggestion a “conspiracy theory,” Borgomeo said it is “difficult” not to believe that Iraq’s vast resources, estimated at some 112 billion barrels, has something to do with the military build-up.

     It’s this sort of talk that has some conservative voices within European Catholicism increasingly frustrated with what they see as an unbalanced Vatican line. 

     Bishop Alessandro Maggiolini of Como voiced this sentiment to Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most authoritative daily newspaper. “I have the impression that by now the Catholics who count are increasing lined up under the banner of anti-Americanism,” he said.

     Despite the diplomatic frenzy, senior Vatican officials seem privately pessimistic that war in Iraq can be avoided.

     “I hope for it strongly, but I don’t have much faith,” a senior official told NCR Feb. 25. 

     “I’m sorry to say this to your countrymen, but my impression is that America wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein at all costs, and even if he does disarm that won’t be enough to save himself,” the official said.

* * *

     On Tuesday, Feb. 25, I had the chance to sit down with Fr. Philip Najim, the procurator of the Chaldean Patriarchate of Baghdad, responsible for the 70,000 Chaldean Catholics in Europe. Najim told me his people are “praying that a war may yet be avoided.”

     The small Chaldean Catholic community in Rome, made up of some 100 Iraqis, is centered at the basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, in the Piazza della Repubblica. Once a month Najim celebrates a Mass for them in the Chaldean rite.

     Najim noted that in the past few days some 5,000 Chaldean Catholics have fled Baghdad and are presently somewhere in the mountains between Iraq and Turkey, seeking to escape both Western bombs and the potential wrath of their Islamic neighbors, who may blame them for the war.

     I pressed Najim on whether his Iraqi Christians might actually appreciate a “regime change” with the fall of Saddam Hussein.

     “Up to now we’ve had relative freedom,” Najim said. “We’ve got our own churches, parishes, seminaries, colleges, and they are by and large left alone. How do we know that what comes after Saddam won’t be worse?” 

     Najim said he has greater problems with religious freedom in Greece than in Iraq. In Greece, he said, his priests can enter the country as Iraqi citizens, but because the Chaldean Catholic Church is not recognized in the overwhelmingly Orthodox nation, those priests cannot receive permanent residence permits as pastors.

     I noted the shift in rhetoric from the Western powers in recent days, towards the argument that the suffering of the Iraqi people demands a military intervention. Najim turned the argument around, blaming the West for the suffering imposed by 12 years of sanctions.

     “You are torturing me, and asking me at the same time what I think of Hussein,” Najim said. “It doesn’t make sense. Let me eat, then let me think. Let me have my medicine, and then I can tell you whether I want Saddam Hussein to continue in power.”

     Najim stressed that he sees himself as a priest, not a politician, but he believes a war will “destroy everything.” He recently celebrated a Mass for peace in Rome with the participation of Italian Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, and another in Sicily with Bishop Sarhad Jammo, a Chaldean bishop now based in San Diego.

     “I’m worried for the religious identity of my people,” Najim said. “If Christianity in Iraq is wiped out, they will lose their identity. We can’t be Chaldean Christians if there is no Christianity in Baghdad.”

     I asked if the church is shifting some of its 200 clergy inside Iraq to neighboring nations to care for a likely flood of refugees if war comes, or if the Baghdad headquarters is duplicating baptismal and marriage records, financial documents, and so on, in case of damage from the fighting. Najim looked at me and sighed.

     “No,” he said at last.

     Why not?

     “The future is too bleak,” he said. “Mostly they pray.”

* * *

     In recent weeks much of my time has been passed talking with Vatican officials about the war. I recently had the good fortune of spending some time over coffee with a veteran curial cardinal, a non-American, who brought home for me a key element of how the Vatican sees the United States: its lack of self-criticism.

     The cardinal’s comments offer a valuable window into Vatican psychology, and how it may influence the Vatican line on the war.

     Americans, the cardinal said, are simply not in the habit of thinking about how the rest of the world sees them. They have a self-image fueled by their own media and history that rarely is “corrected” by contact with other points of view.

“Look at American newspapers,” he said. “Aside from five or six large national dailies, the coverage of foreign news is non-existent. Americans don’t speak many languages and don’t think much about other countries.”

     The cardinal pointed out that isolationism is a perennial temptation in American political psychology, paradoxically joined to willingness to project American power in defense of perceived national interests anywhere in the world.

     The Vatican, by way of contrast, is a genuinely cosmopolitan institution. The world’s one billion Catholics are scattered in every corner of the planet, which means that Vatican officials have to worry about how their policies and statements play not just in the American press, but also in the councils of theocratic Islamic states and in totalitarian regimes such as China. Multilateralism courses in the Vatican’s diplomatic bloodstream, because as a tiny state with no military or economic muscle it relies on the good will of others to protect its interests. While the United States sees the U.N. as a threat to its sovereignty, the Vatican sees it as the lone possibility for a global political order capable of advancing the common good.

     There is, the cardinal said, a basic symphony of shared values between the Vatican and the United States on issues such as democracy, human rights, and the defense of human freedom. The Vatican’s fear, he said, is that the United States will end up undercutting these values through the illusion that it can force its will on the rest of the world.

     I challenged this assertion, pointing to the conviction of many in the Bush administration that when Islamic nations see the Iraqis celebrating the fall of Saddam Hussein, they will be grateful to the United States.

     “What do they know about the Islamic world?” the cardinal asked. He pointed to the American experience in Vietnam, when the rationale for military action was the fight against global communism — even though Vietnamese communism was fundamentally a form of nationalism that had little to do with communism in the Soviet Union or China.

     “Why didn’t someone explain this to Johnson?” he asked. “I fear that the United States has its heart in the right place but often doesn’t understand the history and psychology of the places where it decides to intervene.”

     In the interests of fairness, when I pressed, the cardinal acknowledged that some recent rhetoric from the Holy See has flirted with anti-Americanism. Most of those calling the shots in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps are sons of what Donald Rumsfeld has called “old Europe,” he said, and they may indeed have some prejudices in this regard. He added that he thought it was a mistake for Etchegaray to return from Baghdad testifying to Hussein’s desire for peace, and for the Franciscans in Assisi to make a public event out of Tarik Aziz’s visit.

* * *

     Here’s one of the thousand and one ways in which war, and even the talk of war, creates fear.

     On Jan. 6, Feast of the Epiphany, the pope always personally ordains a set of new bishops. This year I assumed someone had been attentive to apostolic symbolism, and put together a group of twelve. I recently learned, however, that the number at one stage was supposed to be 13. The pope was supposed to lay hands on a new Eastern rite bishop destined for a local church in the Islamic world, a country with a rising Islamic fundamentalist movement. 

     The head of that church, however, decided at the last minute that the new bishop should come home and be ordained locally. If he were made a bishop in Rome, that head of the church feared, he might be seen by the Islamic fundamentalists as an imposition from the West. (The head of the church is said to have a general preference for doing things on the home front, but his concern in this case was amplified by the war clouds).

     Hence the new bishop missed his chance to be ordained by the pope. One of the smaller prices that may yet be paid in this conflict, but then the story of war is composed of thousands of prices, large and small, almost always paid by innocent people.

* * *

     For the past two weeks, Fr. Charles Scicluna of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has conducted two behind-closed-doors briefing sessions for canon lawyers in the United States on cases involving charges of sexual abuse of children by priests. Scicluna crossed the ocean to explain how the tribunals created in the congregation to deal with these cases will work.

     Scicluna, who is Maltese, was joined in leading the sessions by two distinguished North American canonists: Fr. Thomas Green of the Catholic University of America, an expert in procedural and penal law, and Oblate Fr. Francis Morrisey of St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada.

    The centerpiece of Scicluna’s agenda was to explain a set of changes made in secret by the pope Feb. 7 to the church’s norms on sex abuse cases, issued on April 30, 2001, in the motu proprio called Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, “Defense of the Most Holy Sacraments.” Those norms were secret until NCR published them in November 2002. (The norms may be found at

     The changes allow deacons and lay people to serve on criminal tribunals in the Catholic Church, even as judges. Under rules decreed by the pope in April 2001, those roles had been restricted to priests. The changes also drop the requirement that tribunal members must have a doctorate in canon law, insisting only that they hold the lesser degree of a licentiate. Both moves should expand the pool of judges and lawyers and hence make it easier to form tribunals.

     In what experts say is a notable departure from canonical tradition, the changes also give the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office now charged with adjudicating sex abuse cases, the power in “clear and grave” situations to dismiss someone from the priesthood without a trial. That administrative power had heretofore belonged only to the pope himself.

     The congregation has also acquired the power to “sanate,” meaning clean up, procedural irregularities in the acts of a local tribunal. That means that if a case comes to Rome on appeal on procedural grounds, the problem can be resolved without remanding the case for a new trial.

     The changes permit a recourse, or appeal, against decisions of the congregation only to the regular Wednesday assembly of cardinal members of the congregation. All other appeals are excluded, meaning that the congregation’s decisions are final.

     All told, canon lawyers told NCR, the changes should speed up church trials of accused priests. 

     “These changes read like they were done by someone who deeply understands the practical realities of how the system works,” one canonical expert in Rome said.

     The promise of swift action was implicit in the Vatican’s reaction to the proposed sex abuse norms adopted by the U.S. bishops in Dallas in June 2002. Those norms envisioned removing priests through a bishop’s administrative authority. The Vatican insisted instead that accused priests have the right to a trial, but vowed to make sure that the process moves as swiftly as possible.

     On another matter, a Vatican official told NCR this week that the expected flood of requests for recourse, the technical canonical term for appeal, from disciplinary measures under the new sex abuse norms has yet to materialize. Some 300 priests so far have been removed from ministry under the program the U.S. bishops finalized in Washington in November, and some canonists worried that many, if not most, would request recourse, placing an enormous strain on the Vatican’s judicial resources. So far, however, it hasn’t happened; the actual number of appeals is closer to 10 than 100, the official said.

     That number may yet rise, however, as judicial tribunals in the United States begin to hear these cases and to render their decisions.

* * *

     Two notes touching upon the work of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which under Cardinal Walter Kasper seems increasingly dynamic.

     First, Kasper’s office, which for historical reasons has responsibility for Catholic relations with Jews, marked an important breakthrough this week. For the first time, the Catholic Church held an official dialogue with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the most authoritative exponent of Judaism in Israel. Up to this point, most of the Catholic/Jewish dialogue has been with American Jewry, so this was an important step towards broadening the conversation. Some Israeli Jews have quietly suggested that the Americans do not always see things as they do. The Catholic side was represented by, among others, Dominican Fr. Georges Cottier, theologian of the papal household.

     Second, Kasper has announced several times in recent weeks his intention to sponsor a symposium in May on the Petrine primacy involving theologians from all the Orthodox churches. Most recently, he made reference to the event during a lecture at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (popularly known as the Angelicum) to launch a new chair in ecumenical studies. Kasper said that his office has collected a wide variety of responses to the pope’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, inviting the other Christian churches and ecclesial communities into a dialogue about the primacy, and has circulated that collection among Orthodox churches. “There is not yet a consensus, but there is a new atmosphere, a new interest, and a new openness,” Kasper said.

* * *

     This week the Vatican’s Academy for Life has been holding its annual plenary assembly, with the theme of “The ethics of biomedical research: For a Christian vision.” In conjunction with the event, I requested an interview with Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, the Colombian who heads the Pontifical Council for the Family.

     Here’s the text of our exchange.

     The news that a sect, and separately, an Italian doctor (Dr. Sergio Antinori), have claimed to have cloned human beings, has recently aroused outrage worldwide. As a consequence, 75 countries, among them France and Germany, have proposed the immediate prohibition of reproductive cloning, although other countries, especially the United States, have insisted that cloning for purposes of investigation should simultaneously be prohibited. According to Your Eminence, what type of cloning for purposes of investigation could be legitimate?

     López Trujillo: Antinori does not enjoy great prestige in Italy, and the Raelians’ desire to be protagonists is well known. However, although this news lacks foundation, the gravity of the question — that is, the possibility that cloning could take place in the future — greatly justifies the concern of the authorities and public opinion. If it were achieved, human cloning would be a threat to the future of humanity and a grave violation of human dignity. There are many with great authority and competence all over the world who underscore the risk that opening the door to cloning would involve. It is a true danger that humanity should be aware of. Therefore, the intention to prohibit cloning of human beings in all its forms and all over the world is normal, including cloning for purposes of investigation. Those who understand the risks of cloning (even if it is done for investigation) do not come only from the United States. The gravity and the danger are such that it would be right for everyone to consider it as a crime against humanity.

     It is said that stem cell research could bring about the cure for Parkinson’s disease.

     López Trujillo: Stem cell research has created high hopes in public opinion that experts usually nuance. A recent article by a professor of biochemistry at the University of Navarre in Spain, Natalía López Moratalla, appeared in the magazine Palabra in December of last year. It reminds us that the clinical use and therapeutic possibilities of the use of embryonic stem cells is still under debate. Such future use has significant risks, which should not be underestimated. Experts are well aware of the risks of an indiscriminate proliferation of these embryonic stems cells in the organism, and statistics from experiments done so far show the tendency of these cells to degenerate into serious tumors. All these have caused the initial expectations regarding the therapeutic applications of these researches to be corrected by the scientists, who are not overly optimistic about an immediate application of these techniques. Many of them seem skeptical about the real therapeutic value of the use of embryonic stem cells.

     Relations between the United States government with the Holy See were difficult during the time of President Bill Clinton. How are these relations today with the government of President George Bush?

     López Trujillo: In many questions dealing with the family and life, President Bush has repeatedly shown himself to be in harmony with the publicly well known positions of the Holy See, such as, for example, regarding the question of abortion and the inclusion of abortion in birth control campaigns. In an initial statement, the president, referring to federal funds for stem cell research, was favorable to funding projects related to the promising adult stem cells, but he was clearly against subsidizing research that would include the destruction of embryos to obtain embryonic stem cells. Even though in that statement funding was not excluded for research with stem cells from embryos that were already destroyed (leaving a certain confusion, which would allow manipulation of the embryo itself), it is still a step forward. Things seem to be changing with respect to the preceding period. For example, there are initiatives in favor of banning the so-called “partial-birth abortion,” which, as we know, were vetoed in the past by President Clinton. According to certain sources, a solid group composed of Republicans and Democrats is trying to oppose the present state of affairs and to penalize the procedure. There are well-grounded hopes that President Bush would not oppose these efforts, and that this barbaric, inhumane practice against the most innocent human life could be eradicated in the United States.

     Especially in Europe, there is a flood of pressure in favor of legalizing de facto unions, especially of homosexuals (in some countries “marriage” of these persons has been approved), and there are even voices raised in favor of allowing them to adopt children. What is happening?

     López Trujillo: Pressure on politicians and legislators has been stronger in this sense, for some time, and not only in Europe. Legalization of these de facto unions is detrimental to the family, reduced to a type of “union” equal to other different realities. This is an offense by comparison and harms society, because it attacks the distributive justice that the authorities have the duty to guard. The family is the vital fabric in which the whole society is sustained. Everything which harms the family also harms, sooner or later, society. 

     In spite of the profound reasons for concern (think of the recent legalization of homosexual “marriage” in Holland and Belgium), I am happy because of the sensibility manifested by many in this situation. I refer to the healthy, sound common sense reaction in the face of the recent outrages. I think, for example, of the defense of human dignity seen in the recent book, Our Posthuman Future, of the well-known author Francis Fukuyama (author of the famous work, The End of History and the Last Man, in which he announces the triumph of liberal capitalism), recently named member of the Council of Bioethics; or the initiatives of President Bush, which I referred to earlier, in relation to the family and life.

     These are simply a few examples of a generalized recovery of sensibility with respect to human dignity, close to what the church teaches regarding natural law. It is a recovery that is especially needed in our time. As Fukuyma writes, persons of the new world (referring to Aldous Huxley’s famous book) could be healthy and happy, but are no longer human beings, they do not fight, have aspirations, or love, … they do not have a family… Their world became “unnatural” in the most profound sense that could be imagined, because it is precisely human nature that is altered.

* * *

     When a draft of the first 16 articles of the proposed European Constitutional Treaty was released in early February, John Paul II expressed deep disappointment that it did not mention the contributions and role of Christian churches. Despite the current focus on Iraq, the pope brought the point up with Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair last week. 

     “The Holy See expressed the wish for an explicit recognition of the churches and community of believers, as well as for a commitment by the European Union to maintain a structured dialogue with the churches,” a statement after the meeting said.

     I arranged a Feb. 25 interview with Monsignor Pietro Parolin, Tauran’s deputy in the Secretariat of State, to discuss the debate over the constitution. Parolin is the man who replaced Celestino Migliore, who recently became the Holy See’s permanent observer at the United Nations in New York, as Tauran’s number two.

     “There are those who, despite referring themselves to values born from the Christian roots of Europe, think that an explicit reference should not appear,” Parolin told me. “This position obviously appears a bit strange to us, to think that the most effective method of knowing someone or something is simply to ignore them.”

     “Another reason [for the controversy] can be found in the concept of the lay state. Probably from a certain interpretation of the concept comes a tendency to diminish or eliminate completely any public relevance of religion, relegating it solely to the sphere of the private,” Parolin said.

     For some, I asked, this debate may seem a bit abstract. Given all the burning issues in the world, who cares if European politicians do or do not make an explicit reference to religion in their new constitution?

“There would be serious consequences,” Parolin insisted. “Around 80 percent of European citizens present and future, by which I mean the actual 15 member countries of the European Union and the ten that have been invited to join departing from the first months of 2004, recognize themselves with the Christian confessions. This is an undeniable fact. Not to take note of the requests of the churches and the religious confessions that represent such a large part of the citizens of Europe, present and future, seems to me in contrast with the principle of pluralism, an authentic pluralism, and thus also with a healthy democracy.”

     Beyond a specific reference to religion in the new constitution, the Vatican has also proposed: (1) a structured dialogue between religious bodies and the European authorities; (2) the explicit recognition of existing national laws on religion; (3) the full autonomy of religious bodies.

     On dialogue, the Vatican wants an institutional forum that “does not depend solely upon good will, improvisation, or benevolent attention.” Such a forum “does not mean a privilege, a power to decide in certain instances of the European Union that deal clearly with religion,” Parolin said.

     On national statutes, Parolin said it’s a matter of subsidiarity.

     “This is a principle already recognized in the Treaty of Amsterdam [signed in October 1997], declaration number 11 in the annex to the treaty, and hence in a certain sense is by now an accomplished fact within the European Union,” he said.

     On autonomy, Parolin said religious freedom has both an individual and a corporate dimension.

     “This is not merely a question of a personal right to religious freedom, but also institutional … that is, not merely the possibility of every single person to express his own faith, but also of the churches as such to organize themselves and to pursue their aims in respect of their fundamental rights.

     Parolin was not certain, however, that the experience of the United States on church/state issues offers much help to the Europeans.

     “I believe that the situation is very different,” he said. “I read recently that in the United States this regime of separation between church and state was born in collaboration between the state and the religious confessions, with a contribution from the religious confessions in the various sectors, in the various ambits of social life for building the society. In Europe, [the concept of church/state separation] was born above all in conflict.”

     While acknowledging that “there is still work to do,” Parolin said he hopes progress can be made “through the amendments that have been presented and in the subsequent articles.”

* * *

     In the past few days I had the pleasure of being invited to speak in three terrific venues in Rome: the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Promoters for the Union of Superiors General and International Union of Superiors General; the Pontifical Beda College; and the sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes of the Marymount International School. 

     While the religious men and women of the JPIC group and the students and faculty at the Beda were both wonderful audiences, I feel compelled to note that many of the most penetrating, and demanding, questions I fielded came from the middle school students at Marymount. One young woman wanted a straight answer as to why a female couldn’t be pope; another young woman asked bluntly, “What happens if the church gets a bad pope?” I tried to stump my audience by asking trivia questions such as “Who was the second pope?” but I underestimated them: a young man’s hand shot up immediately with the correct response, “Linus.”

     Two impressions from Marymount. One, the faculty are obviously doing a terrific job. The students were perfectly behaved without being inert, they were sharp and articulate, and obviously well informed. Two, these kids are not going to be satisfied with a church that doesn’t know how to explain itself, to offer its teaching with a logic that cuts some ice. Those who hold public office in the Catholic Church, beware.

* * *

     Though I will be out of town, on March 6 at noon there will be quite a show in the Vatican press office. A professional actor will be reading a few new poems written by John Paul II, part of a new book of poetry from the pope entitled Roman Triptych. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope’s top doctrinal advisor, will present a lecture.

     While the event is restricted to those of us accredited to the press office, it will be broadcast live on the Italian Catholic network Telepace.

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

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