National Catholic Reporter ®

March 14, 2003
Vol. 2, No.29

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New from the papal pen: a book-length poem; War doesn’t fit the Vatican’s global vision

“In general, it is the common people and the innocents who bear the brunt of these extreme consequences, this agony and suffering. In the name of this terrible experience, we religious leaders of the Moluccan Islands … say to you that … civilized nations must resolve their internal and external crises through dialogue and not selecting the path of war or violence.”

Certain misconceptions carry a surprisingly strong resistance to contradictory evidence. On Monday, March 10, for example, the London Mirror carried the latest piece suggesting that John Paul II is no longer compos mentis, in this case citing as evidence a recent statement the pope made expressing a preference for sacred music over contemporary styles. 

     Obviously the charism of papal infallibility does not extend to musical taste, and it may be that the pope has a tin ear on such matters. It’s also easy enough to understand why brief televised images of the pope, which usually show him at his worst, invite speculation about his mental state. But John Paul II simply is not out to lunch, and this is not a matter of differing interpretations or opinions, but a question of fact. The latest confirmation came last week, with the release of a three-part book-length poem composed over the last six months, stimulated in part by the pope’s trip to Poland last August. 

     Mental defectives just do not spend their spare time penning poems thick with philosophical and spiritual allusions.

     I have no taste in poetry myself, and hence I cannot pass judgment on the aesthetic merits of John Paul’s Roman Triptych. Of obvious journalistic interest, however, are the pope’s meditations on the conclave, the event in which he was elected pope on Oct. 16, 1978, and in which his successor will eventually be chosen. The verses are styled as a meditation on Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel depicting the last judgment.

     The poem was penned in Polish and released also in Italian translation. Here’s an English version of the relevant lines:


It’s right here, at the feet of this stupendous multi-colored Sistine,
where the cardinals meet — a community responsible for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom.
It comes together right here.
And Michelangelo enfolds them, still, in his vision.
“In Him we live, move and have our being …”
Who is He?
Behold, the creative hand of the Omnipotent Old Man, stretched out to Adam …
In the beginning God created …
He that everyone sees …
The multi-colored Sistine then will proclaim the Word of the Lord:
You are Peter — called Simon, the son of Jonah.
“To you I will consign the keys of the Kingdom.”
The descendants, to whom is entrusted the care of the keys of the Kingdom,
reunite here, allowing themselves to be enfolded by the multi-colored Sistine,
by this vision that Michelangelo has left us —
It was thus in August and then in October, in that memorable year of two conclaves,
and it will be thus again, when the need presents itself
after my death.
When the time comes, it is essential that the vision of Michelangelo speak to them.
“Con-clave”: a shared concern for the legacy of the keys, of the keys of the Kingdom.
Behold, they see themselves between the Beginning and the End,
between the Day of Creation and the Day of Judgment.
It’s given to man to die only one time and then the Judgment!
A final transparency and light.
The transparency of events —
The transparency of consciences —
It is essential that, on the occasion of the conclave, Michelangelo teach the people —
Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius.
You who penetrate all — show us!
He will point the way …

     One footnote: It did not escape the attention of Vatican-watchers that John Paul referred to the next conclave coming “after my death.” If there remained anyone out there still entertaining the hypothesis of a papal resignation, this ought to suggest the improbability of such speculation.

* * *

     I am in New York as this column is written, having stopped in the area for a lecture at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City at the invitation of my friend and colleague, Jesuit Fr. Raymond Schroth. Readers of “The Word from Rome” may recognize Schroth’s name from the pages of the National Catholic Reporter, where he writes with elan on the media and current events.

     When I give this presentation, I normally play teacher at certain moments, asking if anyone in my audience can supply certain bits of trivia: how many voting age cardinals there are in the world, how many are Italian, how many were appointed by John Paul II, and so on. This is largely a rhetorical exercise, since normal people do not carry this kind of information around in their heads.

     I was dazzled in Jersey City, however, by the bravura performance of the National Review’s Michael Potemra, who had come to hear my talk and who had obviously done his homework. He ticked off the number of living and under-80 cardinals, the number of Italians, and the number of John Paul appointees without breaking a sweat. I then posed my ultimate College of Cardinals stumper, challenging Potemra to name the five members of the college under 80 who were not appointed by the current pope. He managed to correctly identify four of the five (Ratzinger, Lorscheider, Sin and Taofinu’u), stumbling only on the American: Cardinal William Baum. 

     Hence, kudos to Potemra. 

     After the presentation, I was treated to a lovely Italian dinner by St. Peter’s president, rector, and two members of its board of trustees, along with Schroth. It was great to see these five men, obviously dear friends, disagree ferociously over certain issues (whether or not The New York Times is “liberal,” for example), and yet do so within the context of mutual affection and a shared commitment to the Jesuit educational mission. Without ignoring the obvious problems these days of running a small urban liberal arts college, I had the sense that the young people of St. Peter’s are in good hands.

     While in New York, I paid a courtesy call on Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the new Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations. I know Migliore from Rome, where he had served as the deputy to Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister. In Italian migliore means “best,” and in this case the name fits. Most observers regard Migliore as among the most impressive members of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps.

     In the present crisis, one of the Vatican’s core interests is defending the United Nations system, insisting that any use of force must be authorized by the U.N. before it could be legitimate. This is an area of contrast between the Vatican and much conservative political sentiment in the United States 

     While some Americans are leery of surrendering power to the U.N., not trusting it to promote American values or national interests, the Vatican believes in a reformed U.N. with real decision-making authority. John Paul II, in his message for the 2003 World Day of Peace, put it this way: “Is this not the time for all to work together for a new constitutional organization of the human family, truly capable of ensuring peace and harmony between peoples, as well as their integral development?”

     In recent months, Vatican officials have offered three arguments in support of this view.

     First, a strong U.N. could promote the common good on the global level, ensuring that global economic structures do not simply enrich elites at the expense of the rest of the world. 

     Second, a reformed U.N. would help ensure that strong nations do not simply impose their will on the weak. Tauran recently said that political leaders should seek to uphold “the force of law” rather than “the law of force.”

     Third, Vatican officials believe that a U.N. committed to multilateral decision-making, in which small and medium-sized states have real possibilities to shape policy, would be less open to manipulation by powerful non-state actors such as corporations and NGOs (think Planned Parenthood, for example). The Vatican learned from the battles at the Cairo and Bejing conferences in the mid-1990s that sometimes its most serious opposition in the U.N. system comes not from states, but from representatives of civil society. Vatican officials argue that a U.N. in which states counted more and these special interests counted less would actually be more democratic.

     For these reasons, Migliore finds himself in a key position to help realize the Vatican’s global vision, and it will be very interesting to watch how he attempts to promote U.N. reform in coming months.

* * *

     I’ve observed before that part of the Vatican’s concern about a war in Iraq is the potential for reprisals against Christians inside the Islamic world. Recently Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, former head of the Fides news agency and one of the top experts in the Catholic Church on the situation facing Christians in Muslim nations, shared with me an essay he’s written on the topic.

     His point is that these fears are not merely theoretical.

     Cervellera recalls that in Pakistan, which is 95 percent Muslim but with a substantial Christian minority, sixteen Protestants were killed by an Islamic fundamentalist on Oct. 28, 2001, as a form of retaliation for the U.S. strikes in Afghanistan. The event took place in Bahawalpur, in the province of Multan, in the Church of St. Domenic (a Catholic church that was also used by the local Protestants). 

     The pastor, Fr. Rocco Patrasm, told Cervellera: “Whenever some Muslim country is struck by Western nations, we pay the price: murder, torture, suffering. It happened that way during the Gulf War ten years ago.” Patrasm is virtually certain, Cervellera writes, that the same thing will happen this time around. 

     A similar sense of gloom comes from Ambon, in the Moluccan Islands of Indonesia, where Christians and Muslims have issued a joint appeal to try to stop a war in Iraq. In recent years the Malukans have been a bloody theater of Christian/Muslim conflict, fomented in part by outlawed extremist groups once linked to the army of the former dictator Suharto. Over four years nearly 15,000 people have died, with tens of thousands more the victim of torture or forced expulsion from their homes. 

     Leaders on both sides practically begged world leaders to avoid a new round of conflict: “Social violence, bloody crimes, savage attitudes towards human beings have tormented our region for four years,” they wrote. “In general, it is the common people and the innocents who bear the brunt of these extreme consequences, this agony and suffering. In the name of this terrible experience, we religious leaders of the Malukan islands … say to you that … civilized nations must resolve their internal and external crises through dialogue and not selecting the path of war or violence.”

     There are indications that the threat of war against Iraq is radicalizing Islamic opinion in Indonesia. On Feb. 9, for example, the normally moderate “Justice Party” held a rally in front of the American embassy in Jakarta, shouting “Allah is great!” and “No to an American aggression against Muslim countries!”

     In the Philippines, which is only 4.7 percent Muslim but which has a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement, signs of Christian/Muslim tension are also clear. A radical Muslim group, Muslim Multisectoral Movement for Peace and Development, led by a commander named Abdullah Dalidig, has threatened reprisals against Western interests in the event of an American attack on Iraq. 

     Even more than violence in the Philippines, however, many Filipinos fear attacks on their friends and family in the Middle East, above all Saudi Arabia, where tens of thousands of Filipinos have emigrated in recent years in search of work. Some Arab-language media outlets have pointed to these Filipinos, in part because they’re largely Catholic, as possible “agents” for the West.

     It may be in part on the basis of such fears that Cardinal Jaime Sin issued a letter to be read in the parishes of his Manila archdiocese at the end of January entitled “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” In it, Sin argued against a military solution to the Iraq crisis, and called on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo not to support the American line. 

     Vatican diplomacy always unfolds on two levels. One features the pope as a spokesperson for the entire human family. John Paul II said in his 1995 address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See that the Vatican seeks to be “the voice of conscience that tirelessly recalls the exigencies of the common good.” 

     The other level, however, is the Vatican’s efforts to protect the institutional assets of the Catholic Church, including its members wherever they are vulnerable. Clearly the Vatican’s calculus of the present situation is that on both levels, a war in Iraq spells trouble.

* * *

     The background above may explain why the pope and his lieutenants have been speaking in such unusually dramatic language about the Iraq crisis.

     On Sunday, March 9, for example, John Paul introduced a decidedly Scriptural note into his appraisal of the decision facing the international community. “The choice between peace and war,” the pope said in his Angelus address, “is also a choice between good and evil that calls all Christians, especially in this Lenten period, to reject the temptations of Satan, as Jesus did in the desert.”

     Given the very public fashion in which President George Bush invokes his Christian faith, the pope’s admonition could not help but sound like a personal challenge. John Paul also announced that he has dedicated his Lenten spiritual exercises this week to the cause of peace in Iraq.

     In an interview with the Misna news agency, Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, warned that a strike in Iraq without explicit U.N. authorization could be a near-fatal blow to the body’s prestige.

     “If, notwithstanding the lack of sufficient votes or the veto, war were to come all the same, the U.N. would suffer such a humiliating defeat that I don’t know if it would be able to recover,” Martino said. “In fact, it would end the scope for which the United Nations was created: the maintenance of peace and development.”

* * *

     Since the Iraq crisis erupted, a number of observers have wondered aloud why the Western powers don’t simply assassinate Saddam Hussein, since achieving regime change through the killing of one man would certainly be less destructive than a war in which tens of thousands are certain to perish. Setting aside the logistical question of whether such an assassination could be pulled off, this talk of “taking out” Hussein has revived debate over whether it is ever morally licit to kill a head of state or other political leader.

     This is not the stuff of abstract scholarly discussion. Israel, for example, practices the targeted execution of political figures it regards as responsible for terrorist atrocities. Four Israeli helicopters opened fire last week in Gaza City on the car of Hamas leader Ibrahim al-Makadmah, regarded as the author of an attack on an Israeli settlement, leaving him dead.

     Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, an Australian who teaches at Rome’s Alphonsianum and who is by consensus one of the best minds in Catholic moral theology today, recently turned his attention to the question of whether such killing can ever be justified. He looked at the debate through the prism of Catholic moral reflection on tyrannicide.

     “The Catholic tradition itself, at least as explained by the majority of its spokespersons, did not declare tyrannicide to be in se or (according to later usage) intrinsically evil, but set certain conditions under which such an action could be morally acceptable,” Johnstone writes in his essay. 

     “One of the most important of these [conditions] was that the agent have proper ‘jurisdiction;’ a legal phrase which could be construed to mean that the person was acting, not as a mere private individual, moved by his own interests, but as an agent of the community, which sought to protect itself and the lives of its members from life-threatening oppression,” Johnstone writes. “The other conditions required were analogous to those of the ‘just war doctrine’ such as, for example, last resort, reasonable hope of success, avoidance of harm to the innocent and proportionality.”

     Johnstone notes that ancient authors such as Aristotle and Cicero defended tyrannicide (Cicero, for example, felt the execution of Julius Caesar was justified). Some early Christian writers also endorsed the practice, including the historian Sozomen, who accepted as true the story that the emperor Julian the Apostate had been executed by a Christian. 

     Sozomen commented that “. . .Greeks and all men unto this day have praised tyrannicides for exposing themselves to death in the cause of liberty. . . . Still less is he deserving of blame, who for the sake of God and of religion, performed so bold a deed.”

     The influential St. Augustine, however, inveighed against tyrannicide, insisting that even despots have their power from God. Not until the Middle Ages and the English writer John of Salisbury, a supporter of murdered Archbishop Thomas à Becket, was the argument in favor of tyrannicide resurrected. John was eager to see King Henry punished, writing: “To kill a tyrant is not only licit but equitable and just. He who takes up the sword is worthy of perishing by the sword.”

     John’s argument, however, was not picked up in the tradition, and in the early 15th century the Council of Constance explicitly condemned tyrannicide. The Jesuits Mariana and Suarez defended tyrannicide in the 16th century, but their arguments were viewed as part of a general Jesuit contempt for authority that helped lead to the suppression of the order. St. Alphonsus Liguori came out strongly against the practice, on the grounds that princes are “sacred” persons and killing them is harmful to good order.

     In terms of contemporary points of reference, Johnstone notes that Paul VI in 1967’s Populorum Progressio declared that a revolutionary uprising, except in the case of “long-standing tyranny” produces “an even worse situation,” that is, more harm than good. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its 1986 Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, goes further and acknowledges that armed resistance to tyranny is justified in principle. This document, however, does not invoke the argument from greater harm, but stresses the necessity for morally acceptable means.

     In framing his own judgment on the question, Johnstone cites Franklin Ford’s 1985 book Political Murder. From Tyrranicide to Terrorism, in which Ford argues that the history of political assassination shows that such killing almost never achieves the ends for which it was intended. 

     Hence Johnstone’s conclusion about the moral legitimacy of political assassination is negative:

     “Assassination and tyrannicide have not been and are unlikely to be in the future, effective means for the fostering and protection of life,” he writes. “Therefore, those who have committed themselves to a tradition aimed at fostering and protecting life cannot responsibly choose them.”

     Whatever conclusion is to be drawn, one wonders if this kind of complex moral reflection is cutting much ice these days in the Pentagon and the National Security Council.

* * *

     Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, with an estimated 143,900,000 Catholics out of a total population of 167,720,000. The country has eight cardinals, 54 archbishops, and 343 bishops, but only 16,598 priests (the United States, by way of contrast, counts 45,673 priests to serve a Catholic population of 65,270,444). At least one of those Brazilian cardinals, Claudio Hummes of Sao Paolo, is considered a leading contender to succeed John Paul II.

     Moreover, Brazil is important as a laboratory for the rest of the Catholic Church. It was one of the birthplaces of the Latin American liberation theology movement, and is today where many of the most interesting experiments with “inculturation,” or allowing the Church to be shaped by the local culture, are happening.

     For the last year, we have been getting a window into how this pontificate sees Brazil in the form of addresses by the pope to the Brazilian bishops as they make their ad limina visits to Rome. (Every bishop is required to come once in five years to report on the state of his diocese).

     I spent parts of the last few days reading through the various papal speeches to the Brazilian bishops, and it seems clear that the following represent his chief preoccupations for the Brazilian Church. 

Liturgical abuses

     “An erroneous application of the value of creativity and spontaneity to the liturgical celebrations, although these are typical features of popular expressions of the life of your people, must not alter the rites and texts, nor, above all, the sense of the mystery which we celebrate in the liturgy,” the pope said in a speech on Jan. 23, 2003, to a group from southern Brazil.

     It is necessary to exercise “an adequate and prudent vigilance of certain rites that approximate the august mystery of the Holy Trinity to the African pantheon of spirits and gods, because we run the risk of changing sacramental formulas,” the pope said.

Distinction between the Laity and the Ordained 

     “In the years following the Council, what took place was an arbitrary ‘confusion of roles especially regarding the priestly ministry and the role of the laity, indiscriminate shared recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer, homilies given by lay people …’ (Congregation for Divine Worship, Instruction Concerning Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery, June 1980),” the pope said in September 2002, speaking to bishops from two western regions.

     “These abuses have often originated in doctrinal errors, especially with regard to the common priesthood of Christians [and] of the vocation and mission and of the laity and the ordained ministry of priests.”

Hierarchical Authority in the Church

     “I would like to call your attention to the desire expressed in some sectors to transform into a Conference the National Council of the Laity that would be a parallel organism to the National Bishops’ Conference of Brazil,” the pope said in October 2002. “To claim to create an autonomous organism that would be representative of the laity without referring to the hierarchical communion with the bishops, constitutes an ecclesiological error with serious and obvious implications. I am sure you will not delay in guiding the laity away from such initiatives.”

     In language that echoed old battles over liberation theology, the pope referred to Brazil’s famous “base communities” in October.

     “To apply to the church a political model, where decisions are voted upon by a ‘base’ limited to the poor and the marginalized of society, excluding the presence of all sectors of the People of God, would alter the original redemptive message Christ proclaimed,” he said.

     The pope applied the same analysis to pastoral councils.

     “The bishop will listen to the faithful, clergy and laity to form an opinion, even if the latter cannot formulate the definitive judgment of the church, which belongs only to the bishop to discern and pronounce, not as a mere matter of conscience, but as the teacher of the faith. In this way one will avoid viewing the pastoral council in a restrictive way as the representative body or spokesman for the faithful of the diocese,” the pope said in Sept. 2002.

Balancing the Social and the Spiritual

     “While keeping in mind the complex social problems that exist in your regions, it is necessary not to reduce pastoral action to the temporal and earthly dimension. It is impossible to think, for example, of the challenges of the Church in Brazil as limited to certain important but contingent issues, related to local politics, land concentration, the environment and other factors,” the pope said on Oct. 19, 2002.


     “In this regard, the lack of an existential and ecclesial backbone for their faith and an indifference to the religious values and ethical principles are a powerful obstacle to evangelization,” the pope said on Sept. 14, 2002. “All this is further complicated by the presence of sects and of new groups of pseudo religions, which are even cropping up in traditionally Catholic areas. The phenomenon demands penetrating study ‘to discover the reasons why many Catholics leave the church’ (Ecclesia in America, n. 73).”

     John Paul returned to the theme Jan. 23.

     “Is not the phenomenon of the sects that are spreading intermittently from one area to another, with periods of relentless proselytism among the culturally and socially disadvantaged, a concrete sign of an unsatisfied hunger for the supernatural?” he asked.

Discipline based on Church Law

     “Pastoral action cannot be reduced to a kind of ‘pastoralism,’ understood in the sense of ignoring or attenuating the other fundamental dimensions of the Christian mystery, among which the juridical elements,” John Paul said Feb. 7. If pastoral work dilutes any juridical obligation whatsoever, it relativizes ecclesiastical obedience, depriving the canonical norms of their sense. True pastoral action can never be contrary to the true law.”

Ecclesiastical Bureaucracy

     “Remember that an excess of organisms and meetings that oblige bishops to spend long periods of time away from their churches, beyond being contrary to the “law of residence” in the Code of Canon Law, have negative consequences both for the accompaniment of his presbyterate and for other pastoral situations, as can be the case in the diffusion of sects,” the pope said Feb. 7.

     “For this reason, it’s explicitly suggested to avoid, in addition to excessive organisms and meeting, the bureaucratization of subsidiary groups and of the commissions that work in the period between the plenary meetings,” the pope said. “In this way, the organs will ‘exist for helping the bishops and not for substituting him.’” (Apostolos suos, n. 18).


     “Although it says in the Directory for Ecumenism that ‘diversity in the Church is a dimension of her catholicity,’ this must not lead to a certain indifferentism that equates all opinions in a false irenicism,” the pope said on Sept. 28, 2002.

Seminary Formation

     “No bishop can excuse himself from this responsibility, for which he must give an account before God,” the pope said Sept. 5, 2002.

     “It would be most unfortunate if, out of a misguided notion of tolerance, immature young men, or men with obvious emotional disorders, were ordained.” Such mistakes in choosing candidates for the priesthood, he said, “cause serious damage to the consciences of the faithful.”

     The discipline of priestly celibacy is an essential element of clerical life, the pope said. Seminarians should learn to understand “that celibacy is not an added-on, useless element of priestly life — a sort of superstructure — but a valuable means of participation in the dignity of Christ and the service of humanity.”

* * *

     One of the great people on the planet is Sr. Rita Larivee, associate publisher of the National Catholic Reporter and the person largely responsible for the look and feel of “The Word from Rome” on-line. 

     Sr. Rita has recently added a feature for which some readers have long been asking, a search engine for past installments of “The Word from Rome.” By clicking on “archives” and then on “search,” readers can now execute keyword searches for past columns in which I’ve spoken of the Dallas sex abuse norms, or of Cardinal Lubomyr Husar (my dark-horse candidate to be the next pope), or whatever else happens to be of interest. 

     Sr. Rita is currently hard at work on a new look for NCR’s entire web operation, and from what I’ve seen, it promises to be very impressive. Stay tuned. In the meantime, happy searching in “The Word from Rome.”

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

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