The Word From Rome
?Signup for weekly e-mail alerts |  1 Archives  | *Send this page to a friend | 3Printer friendly version

March 3, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 26

John L. Allen Jr.


Check Out
This Week's Issue 

  Login / Register
The Word From Rome

John L. Allen Jr.

From Where I Stand

Joan Chittister

The Peace Pulpit

Thomas Gumbleton

Washington Notebook

Joe Feuerherd

 MORE . . . 
  Celebration Magazine
  Directory / Contact Us
  Electronic Edition
  Global Perspective
  NCR in the News
  Pentecost in Asia
  Rome Bureau
  Special Documents
  Washington Bureau
  Writer's Desk Archive
A digest of links to media coverage of clergy abuse.

NCR's Latin America Series

The churches in Asia gather
Papal Coverage: Read NCR's 25 days of non-stop coverage of the death of John Paul II and the elction of Benedict XVI. This includes Sr. Joan Chittister's essays, An American Catholic in Rome

Cardinal Marc Ouellet on Benedict XVI; Wish list for the Canadian Religious Conference; Quebec priests criticize exclusion of gays; Milwaukee's Archbishop Timothy Dolan


Dear Reader of The Word From Rome,

We need your help. We are pleased to make available -- at no charge -- The Word From Rome. But we cannot do all we need to do without your financial assistance.

Please take a moment to consider contributing to the Friends of NCR campaign. National Catholic Reporter is a nonprofit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible in the United States.

Contributions may be sent to:
National Catholic Reporter
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO   64111

Make checks out to: NCR

If you wish, you may print a form for submitting your donation. You may also use this form for credit card donations.

Print a Contribution Form


Donate Now Online

This week I've been on the road in both the United States and Canada for a series of speaking engagements.

After stops in Duluth, Davenport and Richmond, I arrived in Milwaukee, where I was the guest of possibly the most gregarious prelate anywhere in Christendom, Archbishop Timothy Dolan. I spoke as part of Dolan's Pallium Lecture series, established in the run-up to Dolan's trip to Rome in 2003 to receive his own pallium, a woolen stole that is the symbol of the archbishop's office, from John Paul II.

I then pushed on to Montreal, where I gave a joint lecture on Benedict XVI with Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, a job which makes him the "Primate of Canada."

I'll catch up with Roman news next week, but for now, some impressions from North America.

back to top
* * *

In the run-up to the 2005 conclave, some people (myself included) saw Ouellet as a candidate for the papacy. Just 61, he may well have another bite at the apple before his career is over.

Ouellet is multi-lingual and multi-cultural; he lived and taught in Bogotá, Colombia, wrote his dissertation in German on Hans Urs von Balthasar, and speaks Italian and English in addition to French, German and Spanish. A Sulpician priest, he's a former secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He drew high marks during his tenure in the Curia and is well regarded in Rome. He is associated with the Communio school, and is a devotee of von Balthasar, whom he knew personally. He's strong on Catholic identity, including passions for Eucharistic adoration and Gregorian chant. He has also been critical of the 1960s "Quiet Revolution" in Quebec, which he believes promoted a kind of cultural relativism. People who have worked with Ouellet describe him as friendly, humble, and flexible.

Ouellet's association with Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, goes way back. Among other connections, the two men were involved in sponsoring a Roman house for the formation of future priests called the Casa Balthasar, founded in 1989. Ouellet also told the audience that he joined a group of Montreal priests at roughly the same time, in 1989 and 1990, that had an annual tradition of a trip to Rome. The visit included a meeting in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"Many came with big prejudices," he said. "They changed, almost visibly, after just a few minutes."

In his lecture, Ouellet said he entered the April conclave "not knowing what to expect in terms of its length or outcome." In the back of his mind, however, was the thought that "if it was to be Ratzinger, it must be quick and clear-cut. Otherwise," he said, "the reception would be disastrous."

The initial reaction to the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he said, "confirmed my prognostication."

Yet, Ouellet argued, the balance of the pope's first year has been positive, suggesting early fears about how people would react were largely unfounded.

"My assessment undervalued Benedict's capacity to adapt to his new ministry, and the media's capacity to revise its assumptions," he said. "Everything has gone better than expected."

The main factor, Ouellet contended, has been the performance of Benedict XVI himself.

"What strikes me is not so much his theological achievement, which is impressive," he said, "but his faith, his intelligence, and his courage to be a witness to the truth."

As one example, Ouellet acknowledged that he was worried that the pope's first encyclical might deal with moral issues, reinforcing perceptions of Ratzinger as authoritarian and controlling.

"The contemporary world does not receive norms well," he conceded.

Instead, he said, the pope's positive language on love in Deus Caritas Est went over unexpectedly well, testifying to his capacity to grasp the kind of language that will reach secular modernity.

E-mail Alerts
       To receive an e-mail notice when The Word From Rome is posted every week, sign up here.
      Click on the link at the top right of this page to send the column to a friend or colleague.
Ouellet was unabashed in accenting what he sees as the providence of Ratzinger's election. Speaking of its significance for Germany, for example, he said, "It meant the redemption of the country. It was the end of the sad era of World War II, looking to a new horizon of hope and spiritual renewal."

Pointing to the pope's Sept. 24 meeting with rebel Swiss theologian Hans Küng as an unexpectedly positive feature of Benedict's early months, Ouellet said that it created the possibility of "a new dialogue, possibly paving the way for a serious, sincere reconciliation."

Ouellet argued that Benedict is "open to modernity," but at the same time deeply rooted in figures such as Augustine and Bonaventure. The pope, Ouellet said, is deeply influenced by Catholic luminaries such as John Henry Newman, Henri De Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, blending a deep sense of historical development with an underlying set of metaphysical convictions.

Ouellet said he once heard Ratzinger, when he was the archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1981, preach and was struck by the fact that he "never hid behind sophisticated language and political correctness," but was instead willing to tackle difficult questions head-on. In that sense, Ouellet said, Ratzinger had a strong sense of the need for theology to speak to concrete pastoral problems.

Ratzinger was one of the co-founders in 1972 of the international theological journal Communio, inspired by von Balthasar and widely seen as a more conservative alternative to the progressive journal Concilium. Ouellet, who has served on the North American editorial board of Communio, said that at one meeting at Rome's Gregorian University Ratzinger chided the editorial team for the "low relevance" of the journal, complaining that they were too preoccupied with theological speculation rather than "issues relevant to contemporary faith and culture."

One area where this concern shines through, Ouellet argued, is Benedict's approach to Biblical scholarship. Ouellet praised Ratzinger's famous appearance at a conference on Scripture in New York in 1988, where Ratzinger challenged scripture scholars to frame their work within the teaching tradition of the church.

"He put his finger on the wound, and allowed people to recover from an excessively rational interpretation of scripture," Ouellet said.

Ouellet said that Ratzinger asked him to organize a 1989 symposium on Biblical scholarship, which was repeated in 2002.

"This dialogue is still going on at the highest levels," Ouellet said. "It's a great work of Ratzinger as a man of dialogue, a learned man open to all contributions to truth," he said.

When Ouellet arrived at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 2001, a theological dispute between Ratzinger and Cardinal Walter Kasper, a fellow German and head of the ecumenical office, was at its zenith. The subject was the relationship between the local and universal church, with Ratzinger defending the priority of the universal church and Kasper arguing that the two are co-equal.

"I found myself squeezed between two theologians for whom I have the highest admiration and great respect," Ouellet said.

Not long afterwards, Ouellet said, he chaired a plenary assembly of the council where Ratzinger and Kasper hashed out the significance of Vatican II's famous formula that the church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic church.

"It was a moment of authentic dialogue within the Roman Curia itself, which led to better collaboration between the council and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There had been significant tensions before," he said.

As a consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ouellet also had the chance to watch Ratzinger work there.

"I was impressed by his prudence in drawing a conclusion when he felt that a question was not mature enough," Ouellet said. He said the congregation had a "strong structure of collaboration," so that by the time a decision reached the pope, it had gone through 30 theologians and a panel of bishops and cardinals. In that sense, he said, Benedict XVI is accustomed to working in collaborative fashion.

Ouellet also revealed that it was Ratzinger's decision to remove any disciplinary elements from John Paul's 2003 encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, and consign them to a separate document from the Congregation for Divine Worship, Redemptionis Sacramentum.

"This allowed for a better reception" of the encyclical, Ouellet said.

While conceding that Benedict is a "more discrete and reserved" figure than John Paul II, Ouellet said the new pope has "a straightforward way of relating to people" that comes across as sincere.

"He avoids the temptation of self-glorification," Ouellet said.

"He is not just a cold intellectual, and never was such a person," Ouellet said. "He is a humble man of the church, which is now clearly exposed to the people."

"I thank God every day for the gift of Pope Benedict XVI," he said.

back to top
* * *

Since the 1960s, the French-speaking church in Quebec has acquired a reputation as among the most left-leaning in the world, and two events this week offered vivid reminders of the point.

The Canadian Religious Conference, an umbrella group for 213 religious orders comprising 22,471 priests, brothers and sisters, recently prepared a document addressed to the Canadian bishops in view of their 2006 ad limina visits, the trip to Rome all bishops are required to make every five years to see the pope and to meet with various Vatican officials.

Titled "Message to Our Bishops," the report reflects a survey of religious congregations in Canada, and features a series of recommendations, phrased as "wishes," which the Canadian religious want their bishops to raise with Rome.

Among those wishes:

  • "That a significant dialogue among the hierarchy, religious and the laity may be better developed; and that rites and symbols can be more meaningful for the world of today. That ecclesiastical language may be more accessible to Christians, so that the evangelical message can reach them."
  • "That the church may develop a pastoral approach of closeness with the marginalized, the distant, those 'starting over,' and homosexual persons."
  • "That the ordained ministers who arrive from other cultures may know the pastoral orientations specific to the Canadian church and its culture before exerting their ministry (modes of leadership, speech, working with women, etc: inculturation)."
  • "That in the area of ethics and moral teaching, our church opens itself to current developments and perspectives in the social sciences, anthropology, sociology, medicine, etc.; and that in this field, the hierarchy does not forget that also the laity (men, women, couples, families etc.) constitute the People of God, with their competence and their conscience. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in 1966: "Conscience is the supreme and last tribunal of the human person … and it's what we must obey."
  • "For the reception of the marginalized and the divorced and remarried in liturgical celebrations, and the complete participation of members of other churches in the celebration."
  • "That our church may intervene with the Roman authorities so that the practice of collective absolution is recognized and restored everywhere on her territory, at least at the peak periods of the liturgical year: Advent and Lent."
  • "That dialogue may be encouraged and promoted in our church, on the great issues of faith, religious practice, and the means of social action, as well as controversial questions such as the ordination of married men, of women, and marriage between people of the same sex."
back to top
* * *

At roughly the same time, a group of 19 Quebec priests issued a public letter attacking the Canadian bishops for their opposition to a law recognizing gay marriage, and the Vatican for its recent document on the admission of homosexuals to Catholic seminaries.

The letter was published in the Feb. 26 issue of La Presse, the leading French-language Montreal newspaper.

"Not a paragraph, not a phrase in your memo takes into account the historical discrimination suffered by homosexual persons, and the tragedy of the exclusion deeply felt by many of them from both society and the church," the priests said of the Canadian bishops' position paper on gay marriage.

With regard to the Vatican document, the priests quoted from an essay by the former Master General of the Dominicans, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe.

"I do not have any doubt that God calls homosexuals to the sacrament of Holy Orders," Radcliffe wrote in a November issue of The Tablet. "We can suppose that God will continue to call homosexuals as much as heterosexuals to the priesthood, because the church needs the qualities of both."

The 19 priests challenge assertions that homosexuality is contrary to natural law, asserting that "the human person never finishes searching for his or her true nature."

"There is nothing "given" about the human condition, only the bias of a specific culture -- something that does not cease to evolve in time," they write.

Further, the priests say, church teaching has proven erroneous in the past, once maintaining that slavery was consistent with natural law.

The priests said they went public in order to tell Catholics who disagree with the church's stance on homosexuality that they are not excommunicated, and to request a dialogue with church authorities on the subject.

Canadian sources told NCR that the 19 priests are generally known in Quebec as liberal critics of church leaders on many issues.

"We do not want to go back to the 19th century. Ultra-montanism had its time," the priests write, referring to the movement for strong papal authority that led to the 1870 proclamation of the dogma of papal infallibility.

"Responsible dissent is possible in the church," they say.

Several of the priests belong to a group called the André Naud Forum, named for a Canadian priest and theologian who was a doctrinal advisor at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and who died in 2002. Naud's work explored the limits of the church's teaching authority, in books such as 1987's Uncertain Magisterium, 1996's Aggiornamento and Its Eclipse, and 2002's Towards an Ethics of Episcopal Thought.

In his Thursday lecture, Ouellet seemed to have this background in mind when he referred to a Dec. 22, 2005, address by Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia, warning against reading of Vatican II in terms of a "hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture."

"Here in Quebec, we should meditate deeply on this solemn statement, and re-read our own conciliar interpretation in its light," he said. "It's not rare to hear people, even priests and religious, speak of the council [in ways that] that fall under this interpretation. Areas such as liturgy, marriage and the priesthood fall too much under a progressive interpretation that does not correspond to the spirit of Vatican II."

* * *

All this will no doubt be on the agenda when the bishops of Quebec meet next week. At the moment, much speculation surrounds the question of whether there will be any disciplinary action against the 19 priests.

One Canadian bishop told NCR in a background conversation that his first instinct was to "suspend them all," but in the end practical considerations prevailed -- especially the question of how to fill their spots quickly, since most are currently assigned to parishes in various Quebec dioceses.

This bishop said in the end he doubted any formal action would be taken, since some Quebec bishops may well sympathize with the 19 priests, and hence it could be difficult to reach consensus about a punitive response. Instead, he said, there will probably be some informal back-and-forth with the priests about the responsibilities of speaking in the name of the church.

back to top
* * *

In Milwaukee, meanwhile, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, 56, is widely regarded as a rising star in the American hierarchy. Locals describe him as passionate, deeply pastoral, unimpeachable on doctrinal questions, and an able administrator. He's also said to have a winning rapport with seminarians, stemming in part from his days as the rector of the North American College in Rome.

On a Myers-Briggs test, Dolan's scores for "extrovert" would undoubtedly be wildly off the chart. A back-slapping, joke-cracking populist, Dolan has a remarkable capacity to work a room. In part for that reason, he's popular with both the Milwaukee press and with average lay Catholics.

When Dolan was installed as archbishop of Milwaukee in August 2002, there was much speculation that he was sent from Rome to turn the archdiocese on its ear after the relatively liberal leadership of former Archbishop Rembert Weakland. In fact, most local observers say there has been little ideological tumult, even though the tone and direction set by Dolan are clearly different. The most noticeable difference is in mood. After the sadness of the scandals surrounding Weakland at the end of his term, Dolan, they say, has brought a new burst of positive energy.

None of this, of course, means that Dolan has magically transformed every problem facing the archdiocese. One looming decision, for example, involves the fate of St. Francis Seminary, the oldest continually operating seminary on the same site in the United States. On one level, the problem is financial; the mammoth stone seminary, erected in an era of plentiful vocations, costs almost $2 million to operate annually. Given financial pressures, it's not clear the archdiocese can sustain the expense. Given Dolan's passion for seminary formation, any decision to downsize or send priestly candidates elsewhere would be painful.

There's also a political dimension to the situation, since under Weakland St. Francis mixed seminarians, candidates for the diaconate, and aspiring lay ministers in the same academic program. (The seminary is actually called a "center for ministerial formation"). It's an approach that has never gone down well with some Catholics worried about fuzziness on priestly identity. If a restructuring plan separates the seminarians from lay students, some will therefore see it as part of a "restorationist" agenda.

Despite the challenges, however, most Catholics in Milwaukee give Dolan high marks.

Given his rather unique skills set, local faithful can't help but wonder if Dolan's days are numbered in what amounts to a mid-sized ecclesiastical market. Over my three days in Milwaukee, I chatted with perhaps a couple dozen local Catholics, and almost all began with this question: "How much longer before you think they'll move Dolan somewhere else?"

Sometimes a question like that can disguise a secret wish for a bishop to vanish (what the Italians call promuovere per rimuovere, "removing by promoting"). But in Dolan's case, it seems more like simple recognition that someone with his talents will almost inevitably be given a look for a bigger assignment.

I told Dolan this was the buzz, to which he responded that for him it's a can't-win proposition. If he says that he's planning on ending up in the archbishop's crypt in Milwaukee's St. John's Cathedral, which he insists he really means, people will think he's blowing hot air; if he admits that a transfer is possible, he looks like a careerist.

Many observers are saying that it would be no great surprise if Dolan were to end up one day in New York, where Cardinal Edward Egan will be 74 on April 2, and hence within a year of retirement age. Dolan has the sort of big, exuberant personality it takes to play on the world's largest media stage; some believe he could be another Cardinal John O'Connor in terms of both profile and impact.

Time, as always, will tell.

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

Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2006 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280