National Catholic Reporter ®

March 7, 2003
Vol. 2, No.28

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Best of American Catholicism on display at LA conference

 “War is a proof that humanity has failed.  It brings about enormous loss of human life, great damage to the basic structures of human livelihood and the environment, displacement of large populations, and further political instability.”

Feb. 23-24 meeting of a joint committee between the Vatican and Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar institute
This week’s column is written from the States, where I am speaking at various places across the country about the Vatican and the election of the next pope. 

     On Feb. 28 I was in San Diego, then March 1-2 in Anaheim at the mammoth Religious Education Congress sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. For one of my sessions, I spoke in a large concert-style arena in the Anaheim Convention Center before a crowd of a few thousand; I felt like I should be on stage belting out “Smoke on the Water” rather than analyzing the dynamics of papal politics.

     Lest I conclude that all those people had come to hear me, however, a conference organizer helpfully pointed out just before I went on stage that most people probably wanted to get a good seat for the Native American liturgy to follow. I was, as it turned out, the warm-up act. 

     The congress is an incredible event, reflecting the energy, the diversity, and the sheer size of Los Angeles itself. A friend who works for the U.S. bishops observed that it’s remarkable that so many lay Catholics — somewhere around 22,000 — would give up a beautiful Southern California weekend to sit through what amounted to a series of lectures on ministry, trends in catechesis, and the issues facing John Paul’s successor. For three days, the Anaheim Convention Center literally buzzed with Catholicity. 

     For all the trauma of the past year, the overwhelmingly positive energy was a salutary reminder of the basic health, the optimism and commitment, of American Catholicism. 

     One star attraction was Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who must have turned some heads. How do I know? When I mentioned the 60-year-old’s name in my session as a possible papal contender, the arena burst into strong applause.

     I was also pleased to discover that American Catholics have not lost their sense of humor. I watched Fr. R. Tony Ricard, a sort of non-profane, Roman collar-wearing version of Chris Rock, keep a large crowd, composed mostly of young people, in stitches.

     Sample: The pope, Billy Graham and Oral Roberts all die the same day. They arrive in heaven, and St. Peter tells them their housing is not ready. Peter calls the devil to ask if he can put the three of them up for the night. The devil agrees, and off they go. Two hours later the devil calls St. Peter, demanding that he take the three men back immediately. “Why?” a bewildered Peter asks. “Because the pope is down here forgiving everyone,” Lucifer responds, “Billy Graham is trying to save everyone, and Oral Roberts has raised enough money to put in air conditioning.”

     Bishop Howard Hubbard told a group of catechists a story about a weekly television program sponsored by his Albany diocese called “The Table of the Lord.” He said that recently an African-American gospel choir appeared with him on the show and brought the house down. Hubbard said he called his sister after the event to see what she thought. She responded that the program was terrific, but seeing her son vainly trying to keep rhythm with the performance, an alternative title occurred to her: “White Men Can’t Clap.”

     But there was more than humor on offer in Los Angeles.

     Paul Ford, a professor of liturgy at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, kept a large crowd entertained while stepping them through a somewhat arcane presentation on the Holy Spirit. Ford argued that Western Catholicism has tended over the centuries to Christo-monism, breeding a kind of neglect of the Spirit. It’s a point that I heard Cardinal Walter Kasper make earlier in the week in a lecture at the Angelicum, when Kasper pointed out that the Orthodox have long complained about the suppression of the Spirit in Roman Catholic theological reflection. These Orthodox critics believe that emphasis on the pope as the vicar of Christ in the West has led Catholics to under-appreciate the creative, unpredictable role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.

     Ford actually sang his own translation of the Veni, Creator Spiritus in a rich stentorian voice, one of the weekend’s more impressive moments.

     Hubbard called the catechists to an approach to ministry premised on a proper ecclesial perspective, loyalty, humor, and acceptance of the cross, among other qualities. I found especially striking his invitation that they be reconcilers in a polarized church. Hubbard also asked the catechists to make three groups the special object of their concern: the poor, Catholics who are fallen away or unchurched, and all those hurt by the sexual abuse crisis.

     University of Toledo theologian Richard Gaillardetz offered a fascinating overview of developments in the theology of ministry. He suggested that the church may be moving towards a definitive rejection of the ancient Roman idea of the cursus honorum, in which one ministry is a stepping stone to something higher on the career ladder. In that sense, Gaillardetz said, it may make sense to rethink the “transitional diaconate,” in which priests-to-be are first ordained deacons. Symbolically, doing so treats being a deacon as a way-station along the path to the “higher office” of the priesthood. In fact, Gaillardetz suggested, the church may wish to consider finding bishops from among the ranks of permanent deacons or even laymen rather than bringing them forward exclusively from the priesthood, which encourages the view that the priesthood is a sort of preparation for the episcopacy.

     I heard Benedictine Fr. Laurence Freeman offer a lovely meditation on prayer. Freeman said that what matters in prayer is not so much our intentions as our attention. Choosing to give someone our attention, he said, is in effect an act of love.

     These reflections do no more than scratch the surface of the congress, whose sheer scale makes any attempt to “sum up” a futile exercise. It was a delight, however, to see so much of the best of American Catholicism on display. 

* * *

     For once, I came to the States and the big Vatican news of the week followed me here. I refer to the mission of Cardinal Pio Laghi, who met with President George Bush on March 5 in a last-ditch effort to avert war in Iraq. This was but the latest installment in the Vatican’s full-court diplomatic press. The day before, in fact, John Paul II quietly received Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a rare Bush ally in Europe, for an exchange of views about the international situation.

     In his conversation with Bush, Laghi accented the role of the United Nations, a constant theme of Vatican diplomacy. The Vatican sees the U.N. as the last, best hope for a meaningful international political organism capable of representing the common good within the economic order being constructed by globalization. Laghi also stressed that Iraq must comply with U.N. disarmament plans, the Vatican’s way of underlining that while it is anti-war, it is not pro-Saddam Hussein.

      After his session with Bush, Laghi defined the meeting as “very friendly” but also “very frank,” diplomatic code language for a meeting in which no one changed position.

      The Vatican is under no illusion that Laghi’s appeal, in itself, is likely to stay Bush’s hand. Privately, sources in the Secretariat of State say that while one can always hope for a miracle, war is likely a foregone conclusion. The Vatican’s diplomatic service, the oldest in the world, is anything but naïve, and it is not in the habit of throwing good diplomatic capital after bad. 

      What, then, are they after?

     Laghi, the 80-year-old former papal ambassador to the United States, was speaking, indirectly but unmistakably, to Cairo and Tehran, Khartoum and Peshwar, and Jakarta and Abouja. His presence in Washington spoke a message to the Islamic street: This is not our war.

     Making that point is seen by Vatican diplomats as especially urgent in light of fears over the fate of Christian minorities in Islamic nations. In several such places, Christians are facing increasing strain.

     In the eastern islands of Indonesia, for example, white-uniformed militiamen of Laskar Jihad are forcibly converting Christians to Islam. This campaign has cost the lives of 5,000 to 6,000 people. In Bangladesh, small radical groups supporting Osama bin Laden have bombed or burned down churches. 

     In Sudan, some estimate that as many as 2 million people, chiefly Christians, have been killed in a civil war fought by the radical Islamic regime in the north of the country against the non-Arab population in the south.

     Since the first intifadah in the 1980s, there has been a steady exodus of Arab Christians out of the Middle East, fleeing conflict, economic collapse, and a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism. Today more Christians born in Jerusalem live in Sydney, Australia, than in Jerusalem. More Christians from Beth Jallah reside in Belize in Central America than are left in Beth Jallah. 

     In Iraq, some 200,000 Christians have left since the first Gulf War. At the start of 1991, the Catholic population of Baghdad was more than 500,000. Today, Catholics number about 175,000. 

     “It’s like a biblical exodus,” one Vatican official said in mid-February. 

     This is the context in which last week the Vatican ended almost a month of speculation by formally asking the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See to arrange a meeting between Laghi and Bush. Rome had been filled with speculation about such a mission, especially after John Paul II dispatched French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray to Saddam Hussein in mid-February.

     Vatican officials, speaking to NCR on background, have said that debate within the Secretariat of State over whether or not to send Laghi, a personal friend of the Bush family, boiled down to two positions. Those opposed argued that doing so would feed American arrogance by bolstering the idea that war is Bush’s decision to make. This camp preferred to treat the United Nations as the proper interlocutor. 

     (Ironically, American diplomats had quietly discouraged the pope from sending an emissary to the White House on similar grounds, saying that the dispute is not between Hussein and Bush, but between Hussein and the U.N. Thus the Americans and the more anti-American wing in the Vatican found themselves on the same page).

     The majority view within the Vatican, however, was that a direct personal appeal to Bush was worth the risk, and not because they believe it is likely to change the president’s mind. 

     The Vatican’s aim, therefore, is less to change the U.S. position than to shape public opinion in the Islamic world.

     “I see the visit as significant in shaping the understanding of well-informed Muslims and policy-makers and of confirming the perception of many that it’s not an issue of Christianity versus Islam,” said Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on Islam and a former Vatican official.

     “At the popular level, many Muslims will probably continue to see an eventual war as a Christian attack on Islam and Islamic peoples,” Michel said. 

     Fear of a potential eruption in Christian/Islamic relations was at the heart of a Feb. 23-24 meeting of a joint committee between the Vatican and Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar institute, widely considered the Vatican of the Islamic world. The Vatican was represented by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.

     “War is a proof that humanity has failed,” its concluding statement read. “It brings about enormous loss of human life, great damage to the basic structures of human livelihood and the environment, displacement of large populations, and further political instability.”

     “In the present circumstances there is the added factor of increased tension between Muslims and Christians on account of the mistaken identification of some Western powers with Christianity, and of Iraq with Islam.”

     The statement suggested the Vatican’s diplomatic effort, which has included recent papal tête-à-têtes with Joschka Fischer, Tarik Aziz, Tony Blair, Jose Maria Aznar and Mohammad Reza Khatami of the Iranian parliament, has borne some fruit in shaping Islamic opinion.

     “The Muslim members of the committee welcomed the clear policy and strenuous efforts of His Holiness Pope John Paul II in favor of peace,” it said.

     In the Arab world, the most sizeable Christian community is in Egypt, which has 10 million to 12 million Copts. About 1.5 million  Christians reside in Lebanon, with the largest group being the Maronites, Eastern-rite Catholics loyal to Rome. There are perhaps one million Christians in Iraq, with large concentrations in the Kurdish zone. There are some 1.2 million Christians in Syria, including Aramaics, Armenians, Melkites and Orthodox. There are small but significant Christian communities in Iran, Jordan, Israel, and less significant in Turkey and Algeria. 

     The Vatican has long insisted that these communities have a “special mission” to keep the faith alive in the land of Christianity’s birth.

* * *

     Many readers in recent days have written to ask if John Paul II might go to Baghdad as part of his last-ditch appeal for peace. A few have asked that I carry letters to the pope proposing this idea, which of course is not my role as a journalist. Tom Fox, the publisher of NCR, recently published a column calling on John Paul to undertake such a journey.

     It’s not for me to say whether the pope should go, but I can explain some of the reasons that a trip to Baghdad under the present circumstances is unlikely.

     First, if the pope were to put himself on the line as a sort of human shield in this conflict, then he would face pressure to do so every time any group anywhere on earth finds itself under fire. If he’s willing to risk himself to save Iraqis, then why not the Congolese, why not the Colombians, why not the Sudanese, etc.? Rather quickly John Paul could find himself doing precious little else, with obvious consequences for his capacity to run the church.

     Second, the pope cannot allow himself to become a “get out of jail free” card for regimes that violate human rights and defy the will of the international community. If such regimes know that when things get rough, the pope will show up and prevent the bombs from falling, it could encourage them to persist in behavior of which John Paul deeply disapproves. 

     I have interviewed any number of Iraqi Christians, and privately they tell me that few Iraqis would shed any tears at Hussein’s downfall. The problem, they say, is who would replace Hussein, and what his ouster would cost in human blood and worsened Christian/Muslim relations. But they are under no illusions about the brutality of his government. The Vatican is well aware of this, and has no wish to be seen as an apologist for the Hussein government. Several weeks, even months, of the pope’s presence in Baghdad would almost certainly feed such an impression.

     As I have written before, anyone who covers John Paul II knows never to be too confident about what the pope will do. Yet in this case the odds seem long that the pope will fulfill the wishes of peace activists by placing himself in harm’s way.

* * *

     The Pontifical Academy for Life, which advises the Vatican on issues of the family, sexuality, and bioethics, held its plenary assembly in the Old Synod Hall Feb. 24-26. These are always interesting sessions, because the scholarly papers presented often foreshadow the content of future Vatican documents or interventions.

     William May, who teaches at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, spoke on various ethical issues surrounding biomedical research. He offered a fascinating example of how Catholic moral reflection on these issues, driven along by technological change and the need for quick analysis, is not always fully coherent.

     May offered the case in point of “proxy consent,” or the question of whether a third party may give consent for research on someone who cannot speak for him or herself. While proxy consent for therapeutic research, meaning the cure of the person concerned, is not terribly problematic, things get more complicated when the research is for someone else’s benefit. The magisterium is clear that proxy consent for non-therapeutic research on unborn life is never permitted. Donum Vitae, the 1987 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reads: “To use a human embryo or the fetus as an object or instrument of experimentation is a crime against their dignity as human beings.”

     Yet directive number 31 of the United States bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services authorizes proxy consent for non-therapuetic experiments on incompetent persons after birth. “In instances of non-therapeutic experimentation, the surrogate can give this consent only if the experiment entails no significant risk to the person’s well-being,” the document reads. A similar directive is found in the Australian bishops’ Code of Ethical Standards.

     How do we explain this discrepancy? 

     May said he considered the possibility that the authors of Donum Vitae simply concluded that it is technologically impossible to conduct research on unborn life that does not pose a significant risk. Yet he points out that the absolutist language in Donum Vitae does not seem open to revision even if this hurdle could be overcome. 

     There is no relevant moral difference between a child one day before birth and one day after that could ground a different standard for proxy consent. Hence, May suggests, the difference between Donum Vitae and the bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Service on this point is likely to be found in textual history and context, not logic. Donum Vitae was written in part to speak prophetically on behalf of unborn life, threatened not only by abortion but by non-therapeutic experiments in which embryos and fetuses are treated as guinea pigs. 

     While May does not make the point, it seems clear that in the rush to produce moral reflection on new biotechnological developments, the church has not had the time to make sure its various pronouncements are internally consistent. Circumstances demand that we say something, with the understanding that smoothing out the rough logical edges is a task for another time. Hence one challenge for future development is an ironing out, a systematization, of what the church intends to say in its defense of life.

     Professor Eugene Diamond, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago and director of the Linacre Institute, offered a fascinating overview of various forms of “the intrusion of political and economic issues into medical care.” 

     Diamond pointed out, for example, that medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine have recently revised conflict of interest standards to allow authors with financial interests in a company to nevertheless publish articles or editorials on that company’s products, as long as their interest is not “significant.” 

     The National Institute of Health and the Association of American Medical Colleges have likewise relaxed conflict of interest standards, largely because they were increasingly unable to find contributors who weren’t in some sense on the payroll of mammoth pharmaceutical and medical companies. 

     As Diamond points out, the end result is “reduced confidence in the reliability of published data.” Increasingly we have to worry that medical research is driven less by objective truth than the subjective good of those who stand to gain from the results of that research. Diamond asserted, for example, that a 1990 article in the New England Journal of Medicine that concluded RU-486 is “effective and safe” was written by six authors who were also employees of Roussel-Uclef, the manufacturer.

     Another form this growing commercialization takes is the sale of human tissue for use in experimentation, usually drawing on aborted fetal material. Diamond quotes gruesome “price lists” for various kinds of tissue placed in advertisements in medical journals. He also cites proposals to approve payment for donor organs, creating the possibility of a grotesque market in body parts. Families might be pressured to forgo life support or renounce treatment options for loved ones because of the potential windfall to be reaped from auctioning off their heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs.

     Currently such a trade is supposedly barred, but Diamond notes that market forces have already found their way in the back door. “Americans are purchasing organs from strangers in China, Peru and the Philippines and then returning to the U.S. for post transplantation care,” he said.

     Another way in which politics intrudes into research is the question of whether or not scientists should publish studies that could be misused, an especially acute question in the post-9/11 world. For example, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology has recently conducted studies on the 1918 influenza virus, suggesting a way to make it more resistant to the immune system. Should those results be made public in the interests of the free flow of scientific data, or is it foolhardy to make such information available to potential bio-terrorists?

     Finally, Diamond warns against so-called “advocate science,” or the ideological manipulation of science in favor of the interests of specific groups. He cited as examples the claim that homosexuality is genetically based (when, he says, research shows that identical twins are discordant in their sexuality, contradicting the idea of a genetic basis), and the refusal of some scientists to acknowledge a link between abortion and breast cancer. 

     I don’t know the literature well enough to draw conclusions on either point, but surely Diamond is correct that scientists do no one any favors when they skew their results to support pre-determined conclusions. 

* * *

     I’m looking forward to a projected papal trip to Mongolia, which may happen later this year. 

     There are only about 136 Catholics in the entire country of three million, 96 percent of whose population adheres to Tibetan Buddhist Lamaism. (It’s reminiscent of Azerbaijan, where the country features perhaps 120 Catholics. On that May 2002 trip, I calculated that it would have been about three times less expensive to fly all 120 Catholics to Rome than to bring the pope to Azerbaijan. Yet John Paul obviously saw a value on visiting these Catholics in situ, and bringing his greetings to the people of Azerbaijan and the region).

     The Catholic Church arrived in Mongolia for the first time in 1992. It’s one of the few spots left on earth that is genuinely mission territory, where a local form of Catholicism is being built from the ground up, and I find that a terribly energizing prospect. One can assume John Paul II does too, and that is in part the motive for the journey.

     I contacted Monsignor Wens Padilla, a Scheut missionary who is the apostolic administrator in Mongolia, to ask his impressions about the visit.

     “I take the papal trip to Mongolia as a magnificent opportunity to strengthen diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Mongolia, and to reiterate commitments of solidarity between the Catholic Church and the ‘infant Church’ in Mongolia,” Padilla said.

     “On two occasions, in 2000 and 2002, the President of Mongolia, Natsagiin Bagabandi, and the Mongolian Ambassador to the Vatican, Chuluuny Batjargal, respectively, in their individual visits to Rome, have invited the Holy Father to come to Mongolia. 

     “Moreover, last year, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s mission here, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and Archbishop Giovanni Morandini, Apostolic Nuncio for Korea and Mongolia, saw the growth and vibrant projects of the mission. Likewise, in my ad limina visits to Rome, I have felt the Holy Father’s enthusiasm and interest in this new thriving church in Mongolia. 

     “Cardinal Sepe and Archbishop Morandini initiated the move from the church’s side for the papal visit,” Padilla said.

     “For me personally, I see the visit of His Holiness as an encouragement for this newly established mission. I certainly believe that such a visit manifests concretely the Holy Father’s concern for the faithful, not only of countries with big Christian/Catholic membership, but also in smaller communities as we have here in Mongolia. 

     “I see the big Catholic Church going to the smallest church to affirm its rightful place of belonging. I am very sure that this visit will be very much appreciated by the small flock that we have. I hope that it will inspire our converted Mongolian brothers and sisters to live up more authentically their Christian faith. 

     “On the occasion of the visit, His Holiness will bless the first Catholic Church building ever to be constructed on Mongolian soil. This church will be a sign to foster stability and will boost the identity of the institutional church. In a place like Mongolia, where the Catholic populace is very scarce, such a structure assures confidence and belonging. Mongolians need some physical structure with which to identify themselves. In the Catholic Church, external signs and symbols are very important, and I hope that the church building and the liturgies that will be performed in it will bring about that end.

     “As to the authorities in Mongolia and the Mongolian people at large, a papal visit will certainly give the country credibility in its bid for democracy and in its membership in the community of democratic and peace loving nations. This year in June 2003, Mongolia is hosting an international conference on democracy. Such a pope’s visit will certainly boost the country’s efforts for democratic reforms.”

     Those are worthy aims, and one hopes the pope is able to make the trip.

* * *

     I reported last week on changes to the Catholic Church’s norms governing sexual abuse signed into law by John Paul II on Feb.7. Those changes were discussed at a recent behind-closed-doors seminar for canon lawyers in Washington, D.C., led by Msgr. Charles Scicluna of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

     Here are the reflections of one participant in the seminar. An especially important point comes near the end — this person’s impression that the Vatican is reluctant to impose additional penalties on priests with one offense many years ago, who have led exemplary lives since.

     “On the basis of the extensive presentations given to us, I would have to say that the changes getting attention in today’s news reports are minor,” this participant writes.

     “For example, the point about expedited dismissals really amounts to the addition of a third way in which disciplinary laicizations can come about. The existing methods have been by canonical trial on the local/regional level (this being the ordinary procedure) or by decree of the Holy Father. The additional means is by way of a collegium of officials from the CDF who, having received a request from a bishop (or religious superior), and having listened to the defense of the accused, issue a decree of dismissal from the clerical state. This method is intended for use in cases where the priest has already been convicted in a governmental criminal trial. 

     “I think it is worth noting that the accused priest has the opportunity to appeal the action of a local tribunal or of the CDF, but not when it is a decree of the pope. 

     Also, dismissal by a local tribunal or by decree of the CDF includes the removal of the obligations of the clerical state (celibacy,  etc.) but dismissal by papal decree does not include removal of those same obligations. The individual must petition for them to be removed. 

     “The other item, that judges do not have to be priests with doctorates in canon law, simply allows for some non-priest canonists with the lower degree of a license (both having extensive trial experience) to serve in a given case on a tribunal panel of three or five judges. Most likely the tribunals in the United States will be composed of judges, promotors of justice and advocates drawn from the pool of those who have participated in this ‘in service’ training and, since all in attendance were priests, lay judges in these cases probably will not come to be.

     “As for the training sessions, everyone seems to agree that we have never before experienced such an excellent series of workshops on canonical topics. Msgr. Scicluna, the Promotor of Justice (prosecutor) at the CDF, was born in Toronto and raised in Malta — his English is excellent, and his wit is dry. 

     “Regarding the CDF’s attitude toward the penal procedures flowing from the American ‘Essential Norms,’ the CDF appears to be eminently reasonable and at times quite critical of the high-handed behavior of some American ordinaries. 

     “On the basis of the presentations we received, it seems to me that cases against priests who committed one grave offense many years ago and since then have lived exemplary lives will not result in any further penalties. The CDF is, in fact, concerned about how to repair the reputations of those priests following unwarranted exposure of their past crimes/sins — how to put the toothpaste back in the tube! 

     “The phrase we kept hearing was ‘the principle of proportionality’ — that is, the penalty should not be out of proportion to the crime.”

     This participant notes that four American bishops were in attendance: Harry Flynn of St. Paul; Thomas Doran of Rockford; John Myers of Newark; and David Fellhauer of Victoria, Texas.

     Now that the canonical system for dealing with these cases is in place, it will be important to watch how that system functions. One can assume that victims and their advocates, as well as the press, will be paying careful attention.

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

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