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March 10, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 27

John L. Allen Jr.


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John L. Allen Jr.

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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

World Youth Day preview; Pope sets aside a title; Could Western Christianity create new patriarchates? ; Benedict continues to buck convention; The Italian commission on John Paul's shooting; Benedict XVI speaks on women


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World Youth Day is the Olympic Games of the Catholic church, the largest event held on a regular basis anywhere in the Catholic world, and posing much the same logistical challenge. Like the Olympics, it's an event that transcends its genre - the Olympics are not just about sports, but have vast commercial, cultural and political significance, and much the same is true of World Youth Day.

As a result, the burden of organizing a World Youth Day is enormous, all the more so given the high expectations previous editions have generated. Whoever is tapped as "CEO" will see his or her life monopolized for at least two years prior to the event, and probably at least a year afterwards.

For Australia's edition in 2008, the burden falls upon Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, who turns 46 on March 11. In Fisher's case, the imposition arguably weighs even more heavily, because Fisher is an Oxford-educated academic who loves teaching, and who is deeply involved in bioethical debates in Australia and abroad. That activity will have to be put aside while he wrestles with details such as how to fly the pope from Rome to Sydney without stopping for refueling, and how to sell the world that Sydney's winter weather is really no more daunting than most summer days in London.

Fisher was in Rome this week for meetings with the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Vatican office in charge of World Youth Day, and he sat down with NCR March 6 for an interview. The following are excerpts; the full text is available here, Fisher Interview, in the Special Documents section of

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Are you confident the pope will be there?
We're as confident as any previous host has been. In 2008, Benedict XVI will be 81. He looks pretty strong at the moment. I spoke to the pope last week, during an audience for members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and he said he is looking forward to coming to Australia.

Some have suggested that World Youth Day may be a jolt to the secular character of Australian society.
Yes, it will be a jolt. I would say that Australian secularism is often premised on an underlying Christian heritage of which people are not conscious. There's also a secularism which is more dogmatic and intolerant, that puts up with religion as long as it stays at home, like a pussycat that sits in one's lap and doesn't cause any trouble. The young people who will be at World Youth Day will confront secularism, not with the aggression of the rioting we've seen against the Danish cartoons, but in a way that will convert hearts and get people to be more open to new possibilities. They'll see young people happy, not heading to the pubs and getting into brawls after football, but helping each other and loving God.

For a long time, Catholicism in this country lived on the capital of an Irish tribal Catholicism, which defended itself against the rest of the culture and other ethnic groups. That passed, for all sorts of reasons. The risk now is that one's Catholic faith is something for baptisms, funerals and marriages, but with very little day-to-day impact. I hope the public demonstrations of faith that World Youth Day will occasion, and the conversion to Christ that will happen for a lot of young people, will mean that for them and those they touch, the act of checking 'Catholic' on the census takes on a different significance than just a kind of surname.

What are you expecting in terms of attendance?
We're working on projections of 150,000 from overseas and 150,000 locals in terms of registered attendance during the week. By the final Mass, we expect that to be more like 500,000. In other words, we're planning on roughly half the final attendance in Cologne.

I've heard senior World Youth Day officials in the past worry that the event has become almost too big, with everyone hustling after a piece of the action, and little opportunity for 'quality control.' Is there a sense in which smaller is better?
No doubt there's an argument for that. Catechesis, for example, works better pedagogically when it's on a human scale, more like a classroom or lecture hall rather than a football stadium. With the final Mass, one issue in past World Youth Days was whether it's realistic to administer communion to everyone. We shouldn't face that. Also, it's tough to feel connected with the pope when he's a half-mile away, a little dot on the horizon, and basically you're watching the Mass on TV.

The Pontifical Council for the Laity supports [a smaller scale], in part because if the event seems more manageable, then it will be less likely to intimidate smaller dioceses and countries, especially in the developing world, from volunteering to host a World Youth Day.

How will Sydney's World Youth Day be different from past editions?
We can pick and choose among with was best about Toronto, Rome, Cologne and so on. We will plagiarize unashamedly! For example, there's a general consensus that the Stations of the Cross in downtown Toronto on Friday night were very effective, and we're planning to do something like that. It allows the ordinary population to join in, straight after work on Friday.

Is there any truth to the rumor that Mel Gibson has been asked to stage the Stations of the Cross on the model of his movie 'The Passion of the Christ'?
We've investigated it. As things stand at the moment, however, he won't be involved.

What was the attraction?
At that time, the film was still very fresh, and it was a great hit with young people. It was a form of catechesis and evangelization that worked extremely well with a young audience. Mel is himself Australian, and we thought that given his capacity to blend his faith and his art, it would make sense to invite him to be part of the event.

Have Gibson's ambiguous statements about the post-Vatican II Catholic Church given you reservations?
It does effect how hard we're pushing for it. We'd have to go into any arrangement with a clear understanding about what would be said and what would not be said. If this were used as an opportunity to attack the pope or the Second Vatican Council, it would obviously not be good.

I sometimes had the impression that John Paul II's 'youth policy' amounted to an end-run around the previous generation and its post-1968 ideological battles. The pope seemed to want to form a new generation with different points of departure, and was willing to become the chief catechist and youth minister of Roman Catholicism if that's what it took.
That's very likely. But even if the focus is on the next generation, because every pastoral strategy tried with the previous one hasn't worked, I still believe World Youth Day affects the parents as well. In other words, I don't think World Youth Day means just giving up on the parents' generation, even if there is recognition of special challenges there.

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Without any fanfare, Benedict XVI last week set aside a traditional title of the Roman Pontiff for roughly 1,500 years, "Patriarch of the West."

While initial speculation construed the move as a gesture of ecumenical sensitivity to the Orthodox, most experts say the real logic was almost certainly the exact reverse - a rejection of attempts to impose Eastern concepts upon the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church.

News of the deletion broke only when intrepid readers of the Vatican's Annuario Pontificio, the massive yearly compendium of prelates, dioceses, and curial officials, noted that the title was missing in the 2006 edition.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, an expert on Eastern Christianity at Rome's Oriental Institute, said it's "simply unthinkable" that anyone in the Vatican would eliminate a papal title without the direct approval of the pope.

"This goes right up to the top of the ladder," Taft said.

To date, no official explanation has been given, a fact that Taft said he found "strange."

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"It's like getting up and finding out the lights don't work," Taft said. "It leaves us stumbling around in the dark."

Yet like other experts, Taft said the decision did not fall from the clear blue sky. Recent debate on the nature of the papacy has highlighted the question of whether the universal primacy of the pope can accurately be understood on the model of the patriarchs, a concept that comes out of Eastern Christianity.

The most-cited example of this reflection is the 1990 book of Franciscan Fr. Adriano Garuti, Il Papa Patriarca d'Occidente?: Studio storico dottrinale (Collectio Antoniana, 1990). Garuti, who served in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1975 to 2003, and hence is a longtime collaborator of Benedict XVI, argued that the title of "Patriarch" is of Eastern origin, influenced by the perspective of Byzantine Emperors. The Roman Pontiffs, Garuti wrote, would never accept the reduction of their universal primacy to a mere "patriarchate," as did later medieval Byzantine thinkers who regarded the pope as the "first of equals" in a Pentarchy, meaning the patriarchs of the five ancient sees of the church: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome.

Taft said this discussion is almost certainly the background to Benedict's decision.

"My best guess is that this amounts to a refusal on the part of the Vatican of an attempt to put the Petrine primacy into a framework that's not perceived as proper to it," Taft said.

"Calling the pope 'Patriarch of the West' could be seen as an attempt to Orientalize Western ecclesiology," Taft said.

Other experts, however, believe that the substance of the title "Patriarch of the West," if not the exact verbal formula, captures something essential about the pope's traditional role as the head of Latin Christianity.

Msgr. Michael Magee, an American who recently defended a dissertation on the institution of patriarchs at Rome's Gregorian University, argues that what people have usually meant by calling the pope "Patriarch of the West" -- that is, his role in overseeing the Latin church, with its own distinct liturgy and discipline -- is indeed distinct from his role as supreme pastor of the universal church.

To take just one example, the pope directly appoints the archbishops of Paris, New York and Vienna, but "confirms" the election by local synods of a Maronite bishop in Lebanon or in the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. In this sense, papal primacy in the Western church operates in a different way than in the East, and has been that way for most of church history.

Some theologians would go so far as to argue that no pope has the right to renounce the substance of what the title "Patriarch of the West" was meant to represent, his distinct role as leader of Latin Christianity.

Ironically, Magee, a priest of the Philadelphia archdiocese who is currently serving in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, learned of the decision to drop the title "Patriarch of the West" just three minutes before his dissertation defense began on Feb. 20.

"At first, I thought it was a joke," Magee laughed.

Ecumenical observers also warn that renouncing the title may alarm the Orthodox about a lack of sensitivity for the legitimate autonomy of Eastern traditions. On that score, there are already early indications of negative reaction.

"It remains a mystery how the omission of the 'Patriarch of the West' title can improve relations between the Holy See and the Orthodox Church," Orthodox Bishop Ilarion of Vienna, an official of the Russian Orthodox Church, told the Interfax news service March 3.

"On the contrary, this omission could be viewed as a further claim to the church's worldwide jurisdiction, which is reflected in the pontiff's other titles," Ilarion said.

Taft, however, cautioned against making too much of the move.

"There's nothing new here," Taft said. "We're not making something out of the papacy that we haven't made before. To say the pope is not a patriarch implies no disrespect to patriarchs."

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Just as Garuti's objection to the term "patriarch" concerns a possible weakening of papal authority, some theologians who favor greater collegiality have long urged that Western Christianity create new patriarchates as a way of assigning greater autonomy and authority to local churches.

Under such a scheme, there could be a Patriarch of Africa, and a Patriarch of Asia, even a Patriarch of North America. The pope would be seen as the supreme guarantor of faith and discipline, rather than the CEO of local churches. To take one potential application, a Patriarchate of Africa could have its own inculturated liturgy, rather than requesting permission to tinker with the "Roman rite."

A few analysts have suggested that dropping the title "Patriarch of the West" might be the first move in this direction. The pope could eventually become something like the "Patriarch of the Latins," making room for other patriarchs within the historical Western tradition.

Whether any of that is in the cards very much remains to be seen.

But lest it appear merely wild speculation, it should be noted that then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger floated this very idea in a 1969 essay titled "Primacy and Episcopacy," which appeared in the book Das neue Volk Gottes. The following translation comes from Fr. Joseph Komonchak of the Catholic University of America:

"The image of a centralized state which the Catholic church presented right up to the council does not flow only from the Petrine office, but from its strict amalgamation with the patriarchal function which grew ever stronger in the course of history and which fell to the bishop of Rome for the whole of Latin Christendom. The uniform canon law, the uniform liturgy, the uniform appointment of bishops by the Roman center: all these are things which are not necessarily part of the primacy but result from the close union of the two offices. For that reason, the task to consider for the future will be to distinguish again and more clearly between the proper function of the successor of Peter and the patriarchal office and, where necessary, to create new patriarchates and to detach them from the Latin church. To embrace unity with the pope would then no longer mean being incorporated into a uniform administration, but only being inserted into a unity of faith and communion, in which the pope is acknowledged to have the power to give binding interpretations of the revelation given in Christ, whose authority is accepted whenever it is given in definitive form."

Ratzinger concluded: "In the not too distant future one could consider whether the churches of Asia and Africa, like those of the East, should not present their own forms as autonomous 'patriarchates' or 'great churches' or whatever such ecclesiae in the Ecclesia might be called in the future."

In later writings Ratzinger did not repeat the idea, but it was there at one stage in his ecclesiological reflection.

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The decision to drop "Patriarch of the West" is also the latest in a series of signs that Benedict XVI, who has impressed the world with his graciousness and positive tone, is nevertheless by no means "politically correct."

At the moment, for example, conventional Vatican logic shuns doing anything to irritate the Chinese, since opening formal relations with Beijing is among the Vatican's top diplomatic priorities. Yet Benedict XVI recently made the outspoken bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, a cardinal anyway, feeling that Chinese Catholics deserve a cardinal and that Zen is the right man for the job.

Conventional wisdom also holds that this is the wrong time to say anything provocative about Islam, since the world is trying to avoid a "clash of civilizations." Yet Benedict has transferred the Vatican's top official for inter-religious relations, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, known as a "dove" on Islam, and has green-lighted tough comments about religious liberty in Islamic nations by senior officials. Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University and a papal confidante, recently said it's time to "drop the diplomatic silence" about anti-Christian persecution, and called on the U.N. and other bodies to "remind the societies and governments of countries with a Muslim majority of their responsibilities."

Similarly, the consensus of the moment holds that since ecumenical progress with the East, especially the Russian Orthodox, is among the pope's top priorities, he should do nothing to upset that applecart.

Once again, however, he dropped the title "Patriarch of the West" anyway, apparently believing that an important ecclesiological principle is at stake.

The pope's determination to call his own shots goes all the way back to his first significant personnel move -- the appointment of Archbishop William Levada as his successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Conventional Vatican wisdom said you can't have an American running la Suprema, the "supreme" congregation. Feeling he had the right man, the pope did it anyway.

In the same way, conventional Catholic geopolitical logic held that in a small consistory, Benedict couldn't name two new American cardinals, since the Americans were already over-represented. Lo and behold, on Febr. 22 two Americans -- Levada and Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston -- were on the list.

All this by way of saying that when it comes to anticipating Benedict's moves, weighing ecclesial tradition and the personal qualities of candidates will usually be far more valuable than the calculus of realpolitik.

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Last week, I was asked by CNN to do a couple of interviews on the report by a commission of the Italian Parliament which asserted "beyond any reasonable doubt" that the Soviet Union was behind the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II.

When time allows, TV producers generally like to do a "pre-interview," going over possible questions and answers in order to prepare the host who's actually going to conduct the interview. Generally, these pre-interviews cover far more ground than the on-air appearance. I like doing them, in part because I see it as a bit of continuing education for colleagues in the secular press on the subject of religion, a field that's often terra incognita.

My pre-interview for the bit on the commission's report was a classic example.

After discussing the mechanics of the commission report, the producer asked me about John Paul's 2005 book Memory and Identity, in which the pope said of the assassination attempt that "someone else planned it, someone else commissioned it." She asked if John Paul had in mind the Soviets or some other intelligence service.

"Not necessarily," I replied. "He may not have been referring to any human agents at all."

There was a moment of silence, then the producer said simply, "Fascinating."

I explained that neither John Paul nor senior Vatican officials had ever pressed very hard to unearth the chain of causation behind Mehmet Ali Agca's actions in 1981. In part, this is because Ali Agca has given varying accounts; in part, it's because incontrovertible proof is a rare commodity in this sort of affair.

Deeper than that, however, I suspect John Paul felt he already knew the answer. The pope saw the events of his life through the lens of faith, against a broader cosmic backdrop, so he believed the ultimate author of the assassination attempt was the force of evil let loose in the world. By the same logic, he believed it was the hand of Our Lady of Fatima that saved his life on her Feast Day, May 13.

My producer friend's reaction was not derision or critique, but surprise. It had simply not occurred to her that a pope might interpret an attack against himself in terms of supernatural causation.

Without belaboring the point, this illustrates a broad problem with much media coverage of religion. It's not that coverage is intentionally unfair, which the great majority of the time it's not. The problem is rather that some basic assumptions religious believers make about the world just don't come naturally to many reporters and producers.

In covering religion, journalists would do well to remember that the supernatural remains a powerful explanatory concept for legions of believers -- popes included.

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On the subject of that Italian report, while it asserts that the role of Soviet military intelligence (not the KGB) is "beyond any reasonable doubt," the evidence may strike some observers as less than completely persuasive.

The "smoking gun" is photographic evidence that Sergei Antonov, a Bulgarian man acquitted of involvement in the assassination attempt, was in St. Peter's Square when the pontiff was shot by Mehmet Ali Agca on May 13, 1981. Antonov, long rumored to have been Agca's "handler," has denied having been in the square that day.

Antonov's lawyer says the man in the photo is actually an American tourist of Hungarian origin.

Even if we assume that Antonov really was in the square, however, several assumptions are necessary to reach a conclusion of Soviet involvement:

  • That Antonov really was Agca's handler;
  • That Antonov acted on behalf of the Bulgarian secret service;
  • That the Bulgarians were acting on orders from the Soviets.

It's tough to assert, therefore, that the report places the Soviet role beyond "reasonable doubt." It seems more likely that the attempt against John Paul II will go down in history like the 1963 slaying of President John Kennedy, an object of endless debate and a magnet for conspiracy theories.

The report comes from a commission of the Italian parliament, not the parliament itself, and has no judicial consequences. Guzzanti has said it's "not possible" to open another inquest against Antonov, and that his commission merely wanted to "set the record straight."

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Whenever I lecture on the Vatican or the papacy, there's a standard set of questions that almost always come up, one of which focuses on women in the church under Benedict XVI. Sometimes this is a disguised way of asking about women's ordination, but more often it's a genuine bit of curiosity about whether we can expect Benedict XVI to do anything to promote the empowerment of women in the life of the church.

Until last week, I was left to speculate. Now, however, we have the pope's own words in response to the same question.

On the morning of March 2, Benedict XVI met with a group of clergy from the Diocese of Rome, listening to 15 of them formulate questions, and then offering impromptu answers. Fr. Marco Valentini touched precisely on this point, asking why the church doesn't recognize that the insights and experiences of women can balance those of men in decision-making positions.

The following is my translation of the full text of Benedict's answer, given in Italian.

"I'll now respond to the assistant pastor of St. Jerome's - I can see he's also very young - who spoke to us about how much women do in the church, also on behalf of the priests. I can only underline how the special prayer for priests in the first Canon, the Roman Canon, always makes a great impression on me: Nobis quoque peccatoribus. In this realistic humility of us priests, precisely as sinners, we pray that the Lord will help us to be his servants. In this prayer for priests, and only in it, seven women appear who surround the priest. They demonstrate how women believers help us in our path. Everyone has certainly had this experience. In this way, the church owes an enormous debt of gratitude to women.

You quite rightly underlined that, at the charismatic level, women do a great deal, and I would dare to say, a great deal for the governance of the church, beginning with the sisters of the great fathers of the church, such as St. Ambrose, to the great women of the Middle Ages - St. Hildegard, St. Catherine of Siena, then St. Teresa d'Avila - up to Mother Teresa. I would say that this charismatic sector certainly is distinct from the ministerial sector in the strict sense of the term, but it's a true and profound participation in the governance of the church. How could we imagine the governance of the church without this contribution, which sometimes becomes very visible, as when St. Hildegard criticized the bishops, or when St. Brigit and St. Catherine admonished the popes and obtained their return to Rome? It's always a determining factor, and the church can't live without it.

You rightly say: 'We want to see women more visibly, in a ministerial way, in the governance of the church.' I would say this is exactly the question. The priestly ministry from the Lord is, as we know, reserved to men. This priestly ministry is governance in the deep sense that, definitively, it is the Sacrament that governs the church. This is the decisive point. It is not the individual man who does something, but the priest faithful to his mission who governs, in the sense that it is the Sacrament - that is, through the Sacrament - that Christ himself governs, both through the Eucharist and the other sacraments, but it is always Christ who presides. However, it's proper to ask if in this ministerial service - the fact notwithstanding that here sacrament and charisma form the one track upon which the church is realized - it's not possible to offer more space, more positions of responsibility to women.

Bottom line: no change on women's ordination, but openness on other ways to move women into positions of authority that don't require sacramental ordination.

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

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