The Word From Rome
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March 4, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 24

John L. Allen Jr.


The Vatican and a lawsuit; The meaning of John Paul's suffering; Talking with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor; Vatican-Israeli negotiations proceed; John Paul's Memory and Identity

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NCR broke a story this week about a request from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's Secretary of State, to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in their Feb. 8 meeting, asking the State Department to intervene in a lawsuit in Kentucky seeking to hold the Vatican responsible for clerical sexual abuse in the United States. Though most legal experts describe the lawsuit as a long shot -- both because of the Holy See's status as a sovereign state and on First Amendment grounds, in addition to the fact that the Holy See is not directly involved in the supervision of clergy -- the Sodano request nevertheless reflects concern that the Vatican could be exposed to the sort of crippling payments that American dioceses have been forced to make.

The NCR story can be found here: Vatican asks Condoleezza Rice to help stop a sex abuse lawsuit.

* * *

Snow in New York can be a beautiful sight, unless you're seeing it through the window of a plane on the tarmac at JFK. That was my experience last Thursday, Feb. 24, after news broke that John Paul II had been taken back to the Gemelli Hospital in Rome. I was supposed to be giving a talk that night at the Westchester County parish of Ken Woodward, veteran religion writer for Newsweek, which had to be cancelled at the last minute so my wife and I could return to Rome. For three and a half agonizing hours it was touch and go as to whether we'd take off, but eventually we got in the air. I broke all land speed records upon touchdown at Fiumicino Airport; our plane landed at 11:35 am Friday, and I was ready for the 12:15 briefing by Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

The news that day, and subsequently, has been encouraging. After a tracheotomy to relieve respiratory difficulties (a procedure described by Navarro-Valls as "elective" rather than "emergency"), John Paul II is apparently breathing more comfortably, and recovering some of his vocal capacity. On Tuesday, March 1, the pope had a working meeting at Gemelli with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, after which Ratzinger said the pope was engaged in the session and had spoken briefly in both Italian and German.

A senior Vatican official told NCR March 2 that the pope's progress was steady, and that there's every expectation that he will be able to resume his normal activity after the hospitalization. As proof of the point, he said, the working assumption is that John Paul will travel to Cologne this August for World Youth Day, though a final decision won't be made until shortly before the event.

On Thursday, March 3, Navarro-Valls told reporters that the pope's health is in "progressive, continual improvement," that he is nourished regularly, that he is spending several hours every day in a chair, and that he also spends time in the small chapel next to his hospital room. The pope is receiving aides from the Vatican, Navarro-Valls said, and "follows the activity of the Holy See and the life of the church daily." He is also continuing exercises to improve his breathing and speech, Navarro-Valls said.

Navarro-Valls said that the details of this Sunday's Angelus address will be decided Saturday, but most probably it will be like last week, meaning that Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the substitute, will stand in for the pope. Navarro-Valls refused to be drawn into speculating about when the pope might leave the Gemelli, saying only that "I will tell you when the doctors tell me." When asked if the pope would come home before Easter, he said only, "It's possible."

Earlier in the week, I asked Navarro-Valls if reporters could have access to some of the physicians treating the pope. He responded that this was up to the doctors, but they probably do not want to give interviews. Instead, Navarro-Valls gave me the following statement: "From the very beginning (that is, from the first recovery of the Holy Father in the Gemelli hospital until now) all the clinical information that I have been releasing to the press was written by the group of physicians attending the Holy Father and was supervised by the personal physician of the Holy Father, Dr. Renato Buzzonetti."

By this stage, the question is no longer whether the pope will recover, but how, meaning what his capacities will be upon his exit from the Gemelli. How much will he be able to speak? How much has his system been taxed by these episodes, increasing the possibility of another relapse? To what extent will fatigue and ill health limit his "time on task," and his capacity to engage in the substantive issues facing him? Right now answers to those questions are entirely speculative, and anyone who pronounces on them is blowing smoke.

The pope's next major series of public engagements is not until Holy Week, which begins March 20, so for the next few days we are unlikely to get anything more than fleeting glimpses of his condition.

* * *

Inside the Vatican, there are naturally different views about what to make of recent events.

Vatican personnel are unanimous in the conviction that John Paul II has been a historically important pope, and that his determination to fulfill the mission God has given him is a powerful spiritual witness. At the same time, some have long harbored doubts about what they see as the (potentially inadvertent) personalization of the papacy under John Paul -- his pop-star status, his travels, his grand events in St. Peter's Square, the very personal nature of some of his canonizations and beatifications, the way his personal spiritual tastes (such as the Divine Mercy devotion associated with Polish St. Faustina Kowalska) have been elevated as normative, and the way the pope pronounces on so many matters, risking confusion between personal commentary and magisterial teaching.

An associated concern is that the "cult of celebrity" around John Paul II projects a distorted image to the outside world, as if the church's positions, whether on gay marriage or the universality of salvation through Christ, boil down to personal opinions of the pope rather than the teaching of scripture and tradition, transmitted and upheld by the whole church.

People who share these concerns, including some inside the Vatican, find themselves wondering if part of the providential logic for the pope's physical struggles may be to remind the world that the Catholic Church is more than one man, and that the pope -- any pope -- is principally important for what he represents, not what he does or says.

No one in the Vatican, and few Catholics anywhere, are eager to say this out loud, because it can seem like taking pleasure in the pope's suffering. To be clear, I have heard no one in the Vatican who is glad that John Paul is experiencing difficulty. Everyone I know prays fervently for his full recovery.

At the same time, it's a natural Catholic instinct to ask why the God of history would allow the Holy Father to experience these trials in such a protracted, public way. Certainly his witness to the redemptive value of suffering, and to the dignity of human life, may be an important part of the answer. But also in the mix, according to some tentative views expressed more in whispers than in booming voices, may be a reminder that ultimately Jesus Christ, not the pope, is the head of the church, and that the church's capacity to teach, preach and govern does not -- and cannot -- depend upon any one person.

No doubt the first to affirm that point would be John Paul himself.

* * *

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster and Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool, the president and vice-president of the English bishops' conference, were in Rome this week for long-scheduled meetings with Vatican officials. They went out to the Gemelli on March 1 to express the support of the Catholics of England and Wales to John Paul II. They did not see the pope, who was celebrating Mass at the time, but they left a message for him. Afterwards they met with reporters at the English College.

Inevitably, the question of papal resignation came up.

"It's up to the pope and nobody else," Murphy-O'Connor said. "Possibly, it's a mistake. … There's a sense in Catholic spirituality that you leave things to the will of God."

"As far as the cardinals are concerned," he said, "there's no question of suggesting resignation."

"The pope believes himself to be called to this ministry, in health and sickness. It's a sacrifice for the people of God. He will continue until he's called by God," Murphy-O'Connor said.

I asked the cardinal if he was troubled by the prospect that as the pope declines, decisions in the Vatican are increasingly being made by subordinates rather than the pope himself.

"I don't think I'm troubled at all," he said. "The cardinals [of the Curia] are able to speak to the pope, they know his mind, and the directions that come from Rome reflect that."

In any event, Murphy-O'Connor said, it's not as if he waits for a nod from Rome on every decision.

"Rome is not on the phone every day telling us what to do," he said. "Bishops have the responsibility to be apostles, and we don't expect Rome to be issuing instructions on everything." Murphy-O'Connor said he is satisfied that whatever directives he does get "reflect the mind and agreement of the Holy Father."

At the same time, Murphy-O'Connor conceded that there may be a tendency to keep some questions away from the pope because of his health.

"No one wants to over-work the pope at this point," he said. "Bishops may feel unwilling, or unable, to burden the pope."

Murphy-O'Connor was asked if he found media interest in the pope's health excessive.

He said he would favor a "dignified reticence" about some details, arguing that everyone is entitled to some privacy. At the same time, he said, he finds the media attention a positive indication of the pope's role "as a unique moral voice in the global village."

Richard Owens of The Times of London asked if the cardinals might discuss setting up a commission to study papal resignation or term limits at the next conclave.

"Who knows what the cardinals will be talking about when there's a conclave?" Murphy-O'Connor said. He added with a smile, "Well, I can think of one thing we'll be talking about," referring to the choice of the next pope. In the end, he said, "I imagine it will be discussed," but said he wouldn't want to predict the outcome. The pope's role is unique, he said, and it's not clear that limits on age or time served would be appropriate.

Kelly added that the church has survived periods when popes were in exile or sidelined due to age or health. He said that the pope is a symbol of Peter's response to Christ's question, "Who do you say that I am," and argued that, "There can't be two voices." The implication is that there shouldn't be another pope while the current one is still alive.

I asked Murphy-O'Connor if he found the lack of a provision in canon law to cover the incapacitation of a pope alarming.

"We believe in the providence of God," he said, "that it won't come to this, that the pope will come to his natural end."

* * *

Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda, the prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura, and hence one of the Catholic church's most keen experts on canon law, was interviewed on March 3 by CNN about some of the legal implications of John Paul's illness.

How long can the pope govern the church?
"The pope … can continue as long as he can communicate his will in some external fashion. It's obviously difficult for him to express himself in speech, with his voice, but it's sufficient that he can make his will known in some fashion. This can be done with speech, but if that's not possible, it can be done in writing or through other means. As long as he can make his will known, he can govern the church."

Is the work of the church slowing down?
"Of course, on a day to day basis the pope has his collaborators, as he has always had, who are close to him in a special way, in the Roman Curia. This is an organism born and that exists in order to assist the pope with the universal government of the church. Notwithstanding this assistance, naturally illness can slow down the work of the Supreme Pontiff. Obviously, and this is an observation based on logic, an ill person can't do the work of a completely healthy person. From this point of view, there will be a certain slowdown in the pope's work."

Are there tasks the pope can't delegate?
"Yes … there are powers attached to his person, and the office of the universal pastor. For example, the nomination of bishops. The curia can prepare everything that's necessary so that the pope can appoint someone in a given diocese, but in the end it's exclusively the pope who chooses. There are other examples of papal powers that can't be delegated. A dispensation from the bond of matrimony can't be delegated to others. Likewise, a dispensation from holy orders is a power reserved to the pope that can't be delegated. All these things can only be carried out with his will, according to his decision."

Has John Paul II written a letter of resignation in case of incapacitation?
"I can't say if a letter of the sort exists or not. It's said that it does, some people say so. There's precedent, in that the pope's predecessor, Pope Paul VI, did it."

Legally, what value would such a letter have?
"To be valid, it must not have been withdrawn. That is, there must not be any subsequent act of revocation. It's also necessary that the letter was not written under any sort of constriction or pressure. It must be a manifestation of the pope's will in view of something that could happen in a given moment. Whether such a letter actually exists or not, in conscience I can't say. I truly don't know."

Is there any provision for what would happen if the pope slips into a coma?
"In the sense of a formal institution for making decisions in those circumstances, no, it does not exist. In the case of the death of the pope, there is a set of ceremonies, including someone, the cardinal camerlengo, who goes to formally ascertain the death of the pope. There's a norm for this. In a case like the one you're describing, there would be someone who would take the responsibility to establish the conditions of the Holy Father, but there's no norm for this. There's only the norm for ascertaining the death of the pope, which is presented in that apostolic constitution I mentioned that regulates the election of the pope."

Are the cardinals talking about this situation?
"No, although in individual conversations some may pose the question, but there's no ordinary meeting of the cardinals to deal with these problems. Obviously, we want the pope to be able to resume his duties and continue governing the church. Everything depends on the providence of God. We can't put ourselves in the situation of previewing or projecting what the future will hold. We leave that to providence."

Will the next conclave discuss issues such as a retirement age for the pope?
"I don't believe something like that would be possible. The point is, any limitation of the pope's power is something only the pope himself can do. Only he can establish limits or decide upon them in a given moment, and there is no other authority that can do this. There can be indications presented to the pope, but they can't go beyond the stage of indications. The decision is solely up to the pope. This pope has said that he wants to remain on his cross, in his office, until the Lord calls him. Some have talked about resignation, but no one can impose it upon him. It's absolutely unthinkable that the cardinals would say to the pope, 'You have to resign at one point or another.' It would be invalid in any event. No conditions can be placed upon the pope."

* * *

According to the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, long-delayed negotiations between Israel and the Vatican over implementation of their 1993 Fundamental Agreement should be wrapped up within the next few months.

That agreement involved mutual recognition, along with a pledge that the financial and legal status of Catholic bodies in Israel would be resolved by subsequent talks. Disagreements over complicated matters of taxation and access to courts have drug on for more than ten years, creating a major irritant not only between Israel and the Holy See, but in the broader Jewish-Catholic relationship.

Future meetings to finalize the agreement are set for March 31 and April 20-21.

Israeli Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur told NCR March 2 that the resolution of those problems should create a "launching point" for a new stage in Israeli-Vatican relations, with hopes on the Israeli side that the Vatican can promote pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as well as use its influence with Arab governments to press for dismantling the "infrastructure of terrorism."

Ben-Hur said the negotiations moved into high gear following a recent personal intervention from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who directed the ministries of the interior, tourism, finance and foreign affairs to conclude outstanding disputes "as soon as possible."

In the interview with NCR, Ben-Hur stepped through how certain sticking points may be resolved.

  • Taxation of cars: The Catholic community has long insisted that cars used for pastoral purposes should be tax-exempt. At one stage, the Israelis had proposed that the church pay taxes that would later be reimbursed by the government. Now, Ben-Hur said, that position has been withdrawn, and a commission will fix the exact number of cars that will be tax-exempt.
  • Access to the court system: Vatican negotiators have long insisted that Catholic bodies should have the right to take property disputes to the Israeli courts, rather than relying on government ministers. Ben-Hur said the two sides have now agreed that the church will have the right to have property disputes adjudicated in the courts, except in certain agreed-upon exemptions that would clearly involve the courts in religious questions.
  • Property taxes: Municipal governments in Israel have long demanded that monasteries and other church institutions pay back property taxes, a total, according to some estimates, that could reach into the millions of dollars. Ben-Hur said that both sides have agreed to reach an understanding that will be "to the full satisfaction of the church," which most observers take to mean that the outstanding tax bills will be waived.
  • Adoption into Israeli law: Ben-Hur said the particulars of this deal will be "inserted into the Israeli system and become part of Israeli law," as Vatican negotiators have requested, as opposed to remaining an informal understanding.
  • Ben-Hur took obvious pride in what he regards as the outlines of a completed agreement.

    "I've been regarded as overly optimistic, even that I promised too much sometimes," he said. "But if you consider our situation in Israel, despite all of the difficulties we face, the fact that we are on the verge of concluding this matter after having reignited talks just seven or eight months ago, I think is very promising."

    Ben-Hur also said that the Sharon government has recently increased allocations to support the Christian communities in Israel, including the construction and maintenance of churches, schools and hospitals.

    "We see them as part and parcel of Israeli society," Ben-Hur said. "They are peaceful, productive, good citizens."

    Ben-Hur said that the resolution should clear the way for a new stage in Vatican-Israeli relations, one he hopes will see the Vatican aggressively promoting Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land, both for spiritual motives and as a source of economic development in the region, including for the nascent Palestinian economy.

    "This could create a major change in the whole psychology of the Middle East crisis, helping to forge an atmosphere which is positive, peaceful, and normal," he said.

    Further, Ben-Hur said, he hopes that the Vatican can use some of the capital it's built up with Islamic organizations and Arab governments through various forms of Christian-Muslim dialogue in order to press "the necessity of dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism."

    "Those who give haven to these organizations can be influenced," Ben-Hur said.

    "The church's voice is heard, in the United Nations, in inter-religious organizations, and elsewhere."

    Editor's Note: In the March 4 issue of NCR begins a two-part series on Christians in the Middle East. The first installment is available online: Christianity's Empty Cradle?. Part two will appear in the March 11 issue.

    * * *

    John Paul's new book, Memory and Identity, was released in mid-February in Rome. The substance of the book dates from a series of 1993 conversations with two Polish philosophers, Józef Tischner and Kryysztof Michalski, at the pope's summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, though his responses are said to have been deepened and extended.

    The book should be available in English by the end of March.

    Headlines after the launch focused on the pope's comments on abortion, describing it as the killing of a class of citizens legitimated by law, in that sense analogous to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Understandably, the context of the pope's reflections got lost in the initial coverage, since Memory and Identity is actually a lengthy reflection on the relationship between culture, nationality and truth.

    The pope makes the historical argument that the individualistic turn in Western thought associated with Renes Descartes indirectly prepared the ground for the flowering of 20th century totalitarianism, by prioritizing the subject over being, thereby making God a product of human thought rather than the ultimate ground of being itself. If the human subject can decide freely what's good and bad, without reference to God, the pope argues, then anything goes, including the annihilation of whole classes of people.

    John Paul is far from entirely negative about modernity. A whole chapter of Memory and Identity is devoted to the fruits of the Enlightenment, such as the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity -- even if, as the pope argues, many Enlightenment thinkers forgot that those ideals are historically grounded in Christianity. Nevertheless, John Paul believes modernity and post-modernity have gone badly wrong by severing the idea of liberty from truth.

    Journalistically, the book's epilogue may be its most interesting element, where John Paul II and his closest personal aide, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, reflect together on the assassination attempt of May 13, 1981.

    Throughout, John Paul confirms his conviction that his life was spared that day by a higher power.

    "Agca knew how to shoot, and he shot to strike," the pope said. "Only, it was as if someone guided and turned aside that bullet …"

    Speaking of the way the pope narrowly missed death, Dziwisz said, "A few more minutes, a small roadblock in the street, and it would have been too late. In all this the hand of God is visible. Everything suggests it." Dzwisz also revealed that he administered the sacrament of the anointing of the sick to the pope at the Gemelli Hospital.

    The pope explains that he went to Fatima the next year, to thank the Virgin for saving his life.

    Both the pope and Dziwisz discuss how he recovered quickly from the attack, in part thanks to his robust physique.

    "As one can see, I have a rather strong constitution," the pope said.

    The experience of the assassination attempt, John Paul said, strengthened his conviction that his pontificate is part of a vast cosmic scheme.

    "I live in the constant awareness that in what I say and do in fulfillment of my vocation and mission, of my ministry, something is happening that's not exclusively my initiative," he said. "I know that it's not only I who act in what I do as the Successor of Peter."

    Among other things, that rock-solid conviction in Divine Providence helps explain why this pope is radically unlikely to resign.

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

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