National Catholic Reporter ®

March 1, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 27

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When being a footnote gets dangerous; following
papal hopefuls; and a bet that there’s beer in heaven

I once forecast in a review of Weigel’s Witness to Hope that in the long sweep of history, John XXIII, not John Paul II, will be recalled as the most consequential pope of the 20th century. Weigel wrote to bet me “a beer in heaven” that it will not be so.


An old bit of Roman wisdom holds that when your books and articles start showing up in the footnotes of consultors for the Holy Office, watch out. By that standard, feminist theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University might want to be just a little extra careful these days.

     (The “Holy Office” is the old name for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s doctrinal watchdog agency. In Rome everyone still calls it the Holy Office).

     I say this in the wake of a conference last week held at Regina Apsotolorum, the Legionaries of Christ university in Rome, co-sponsored by the Legionaries and the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, whose best-known personality is papal biographer George Weigel. The theme was assessing the pontificate of John Paul II.

     Fr. Angelo Amato of the Salesian University, an important consultor for the Holy Office, was a featured speaker. Amato was one of the primary authors of the September 2000 document Dominus Iesus, which set off a storm of controversy by asserting that non-Catholics are in a “gravely deficient position.”

     At the conference, Amato offered a survey of “The Challenges for Theology in the New Millennium.” In a section on Trinitarian theology, he referred to “pressing feminist inquiries” that seek “if not substitution, at least concrete equalization of language and contents in theological discourse.”

     In this context Amato cited Johnson’s 1992 book She Who Is, which argued for incorporating women’s experience into concepts of divinity through a Trinitarian approach, appealing especially to the Holy Spirit. (Johnson’s more recent, equally acclaimed book is Friends of God and Prophets).

     Amato departed from his prepared text to add that he met Johnson at a conference on Indian theology just before She Who Is came out, and that the book offered “a Trinitarian reformulation of the feminine.”

     It was not clear to me or my colleagues if Amato’s comments should be taken as critical, so I asked him about it after the talk. He said he meant nothing hostile, simply that feminist readings such as Johnson’s “raise important questions.”

     Still, forewarned is forearmed.

Other notes from Amato’s talk:

     He said that John Paul II’s lasting contribution to Catholic theology is “Trinitarian Christocentrism,” that is, placing Christ at the center of theological discourse within a Trinitarian perspective. In this connection, Amato said that Dominus Iesus simply re-expressed what the pope had written in his 1990 encyclical on evangelization, Redemptoris Missio.

     It may intrigue some readers to know that Amato devoted 10 of the 31 pages of his talk to whether there should be a new, fifth Marian dogma, assigning her the titles of “Mediatrix” and “Coredemptrix.” This is a hot question at places such as the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where the great American champion of the “final dogma,” Professor Mark Miraville, promotes the cause.

     Amato’s conclusion was negative. Such titles, he wrote, are confusing theologically and unnecessarily provocative ecumenically.

* * *

     The aim at Regina Apostolorum, as I said, was assessing the pontificate of John Paul II. Not surprisingly, the strongest remarks came from Weigel, an unabashed fan of the present pope.

     Weigel’s second sentence set the tone: “Some would argue that we are living in the most consequential pontificate since the Reformation; others would call it the most important pontificate in the second millennium of Christian history.”

     Thus the choice, as Weigel set it up, is between John Paul as the greatest pope of the last 500 years, or the last 1,000. Where, one wonders, is the view that he is not even the greatest pope of the last 50?

     I once forecast in a review of Weigel’s Witness to Hope that in the long sweep of history, John XXIII, not John Paul II, will be recalled as the most consequential pope of the 20th century. Weigel wrote to bet me “a beer in heaven” that it will not be so.

     There is thus at least one point on which Weigel and I are in total agreement: There will be beer in heaven.

* * *

     Another interesting presentation at Regina Apostolorum was delivered by Dominican Fr. Michael Sherwin, a Berkeley, Calif., native now teaching at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

     Speaking on moral theology, Sherwin offered a provocative analogy to explain the emergence of a dry, rules-based approach to Catholic morality in the 16th and 17th centuries. The manuals of moral theology produced in that time, he said, were like a bandage to stop the bleeding from the various assaults on the church of rationalism, nihilism, and voluntarism.

     The “Baroque bandage,” as Sherwin put it, served its purpose, but the fundamental wound never healed.

     Today, he said, Catholic theology needs to offer not just rules and prohibitions, but a vision of human fulfillment that gives rules their meaning. Sherwin recommends grounding that vision in nature and natural law. He believes an analysis of who the human person is will lead us to what the person ought to be.

     Sherwin also reflected on the spiritual disposition of theologians, including their attitude towards church authority. I think it’s worth quoting him at length:

     “The theologian must first and foremost trust that the insights he acquires are from the Holy Spirit. As a consequence, he need never fear the interest or interventions of the Magisterium concerning his own work. Although the Magisterium is staffed by people with very human failings, it is also the chosen instrument of the Holy Spirit. Thus, if the Spirit allows me to have some insight into the moral implications of the faith, he will eventually also let the Magisterium accept this insight. The church’s first reaction, however, may be negative. The church may ask the moralist to state his views more clearly. She may even ask him to stop publishing on a given topic or to stop publishing altogether. The joy of the theologian through all of this is his faith in the Holy Spirit. The theologian is invited to make his own the words of Yves Congar: “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Then, like Congar and many others whose insights bore fruit at the Second Vatican Council, the vicissitudes of Magisterial scrutiny and — dare I say, Roman intrigue — will only lead him to trust the Lord and his church ever more deeply and enable him in illo tempore to sing the glories of God’s providential care.”

     “Anyone who has read Congar’s private diaries knows how difficult this attitude is to maintain, especially in the face of patent ecclesiastical injustice. Congar complained, for example, that Pius XII had “developed almost to the point of obsession a paternalistic regime consisting in this: that he and he alone should say to the world what it has to think and what it must do.”

     Yet precisely because we live in another time of conflict between the magisterium and theologians, Sherwin’s counsel may be especially relevant.

* * *

     During the week of Feb. 25, several Vatican offices had meetings, congresses, or plenary sessions going on. I chose to follow the 8th General Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Life, the scholarly advisory body to the Pontifical Council for Life. That office, headed by Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, has a reputation as the most pugnacious in the Vatican, taking lead in the struggle against what John Paul calls the “culture of death.”

     For my money, Mexican Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragán gave one of the most important talks during his homily at a Feb. 26 morning Mass (held in the chapel of the Holy Spirit in the Casa Santa Marta, the $30 million Vatican hotel where the cardinals will stay during the next papal conclave).

     The people who move in the circles of the Council for Life are strong on cultural issues such as abortion and divorce, but tend to be less engaged on social questions such as ecology and income inequality. Indeed, they often ally themselves with forces on the political right who hold different views on social justice matters.

     Barragán challenged that tendency.

     “Twenty percent of the world’s population controls 86 percent of its wealth,” he said. “That puts us in front of a tremendous challenge. What does a right to life mean for 80 percent of the world’s inhabitants, some four billion people, who have access to only 14 percent of its resources?

     “Wealth is a gift destined for all humanity,” Barragán said. “Private property takes second place to the relationship between wealth and need.”

     Barragán challenged certain readings of Christianity that posited a “manifest destiny” of certain cultures to privilege, which he called the “logic of empire.”

     “We must avoid a purely individualistic understanding of the universal right to life,” Barragán said. “We must promote global solidarity, and create a world order based on the idea of life as a gift.”

     A great challenge indeed.

* * *

     The new patriarch of Venice, and hence an automatic entrant in the papal sweepstakes, is Angelo Scola, former rector of the Lateran University in Rome. His promotion makes the Lateran seem an important jumping-off point for ecclesiastical careers, especially since the new rector is himself a powerful figure, Rome auxiliary Bishop Rino Fisichella.

     Fisichella was one of the primary contributors to John Paul’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (so much so that insiders jokingly refer to it as Fisichella et Ratzinger).

     On Wednesday, Feb. 27, journalists had a chance to sit down with Fisichella before he delivered an address to a conference sponsored by the Rome-based Centro di Orientamento Politico, a think tank with a conservative flavor.

     (In the front row at the conference was Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and a front-runner to be the next pope. With him were Gianfranco Fini, head of the National Alliance party that descends from the old Italian fascists, and Rocco Buttiglione, Italy’s most ultra-Catholic politician and part of the current conservative governing coalition. The line-up was confirmation anew that, despite some progressive positions on social questions, at the end of the day, the Vatican breathes the air of the political right.)

     Fisichella talked about the need to defend our Christianity identity against a multiculturalism that would water it down for the sake of “tolerance.” It was a reprise in some ways of key ideas from Fides et Ratio.

     “If we lose our identity, we will no longer have anything to say to the world and hence we will become useless,” Fisichella concluded.

     I suggested to Fisichella that his new job makes him a leader of intellectual life in the church, and asked him to name what he sees as the main challenges. He said the relationship between the gospel and the cultures is the “oceanic problem” of the day. Within that, he identified the defense of life and the need to align our conduct with our principles as pressing tasks.

     If the answers were a tad predictable, Fisichella nevertheless came across as a confident thinker in command of the issues important to him. I suspect he will be a strong leader at the Lateran, pushing the university and the scholarship it influences towards a robust, unapologetic assertion of traditional Christian principles.

* * *

     Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has been re-confirmed as the prefect of that office despite having turned 75 on Dec. 23. The confirmation was given in the canonical form of donec aliter provideatur, meaning that it is not a standard five-year term, but literally “until something else is provided for.”

     Sources say that it may be only a matter of months before a successor is named. Various names continue to be floated for the job, including Bishop Piero Marini, currently the papal master of ceremonies, and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the Holy Office. Both are Italians. Marini is part of the post-Vatican II liturgical reform school of thought, while Bertone would be closer to Medina’s more traditionalist outlook.

     A recent report in an English newspaper tipped Marini, with Msgr. Arthur Roach, general secretary of the English conference, suggested as his secretary. The report was taken inside the Vatican as a bit of a slap at Italian Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino, the current secretary, since his job is not vacant.

     One thing to remember: Medina told the presidents of English-speaking bishops conferences on Oct. 6, 2001, that he had advised the pope that either the next prefect or the next secretary should be a native English-speaker, given how controversial the liturgical questions in the English-speaking world have been.

     Meanwhile, Medina continues to involve himself in Chilean politics from Rome. He suggested recently that the pope would not receive President Ricardo Lagos, defined by Medina as the “socialist Lagos,” because he had approved use of the morning-after pill and because he supports legalizing divorce in Chile, which is still officially forbidden.

     In response, Lagos said: “If Cardinal Medina continues like this, it will end up that we recall the Chilean ambassador from the Holy See.”

     Despite the threat, it may be Medina who has the last laugh. When Lagos visited Rome Feb. 27, he was received by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi but not by the pope. Officially, the Vatican said the pope had a prior engagement with Alexander Kwasniewski, the president of Poland. But most Chileans sensed there was more to the story.

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

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