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March 17, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 28

John L. Allen Jr.


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John L. Allen Jr.

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A digest of links to media coverage of clergy abuse.

NCR's Latin America Series

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

Missionary activity since Ad Gentes; Oswald Gracias of Agra, India, and Nicholas Cheong Jin-Suk of Seoul; Interview with Jesuit Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach; Realignment in the Roman Curia; On relations with Muslim states; Responses from readers


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Thomas Friedman recently discovered that "the world is flat," referring to the leveling of opportunities across geographic borders as a result of globalization. If you want a companion metaphor for the impact of globalization on the Catholic Church, you might say that Catholicism is increasingly "upside down," meaning that a church once dominated by the global North, especially Europe, is more and more hearing the voice of the South, meaning Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Rome offered a sounding board for "upside down" Catholicism last week, during a conference at the Urban University sponsored by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The theme was the 40th anniversary of Ad Gentes, the document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on missionary activity.

The malaise of Catholicism in the North, especially in Europe, hung over the event. Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, still flush with the triumph of last August's World Youth Day, nevertheless conceded the difficulties.

"We've never had as much money as in the last 40 years, and we've never lost the substance of the faith as much as in the last 40 years," he said. "In the Cologne archdiocese, there are 2.8 million Catholics, but in the last 30 years we've lost 300,000. For every one baptism, there are three funerals."

"We're grateful for any help we can get from the outside," Meisner said.

Prelates from the developing world radiated confidence about a looming "southern moment" in global Catholicism

"There is a new self-consciousness about the church in the South, a confidence that it can stand on its own feet, reflect for itself, and influence the direction of the church's pastoral initiatives," said Archbishop Oswald Gracias of Agra, India, in a March 10 interview with NCR.

In March, Gracias was elected president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India, the body for bishops of the 119 Latin Rite dioceses and administrations in India. Excerpts from our interview follow.

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NCR: Since two-thirds of the Catholics in the world today live in the south, inevitably intellectual and pastoral energy, as well as leadership, will come more and more from the south. How will that change Catholicism?
Archbishop Oswald Gracias:
For one thing, [it will mean] greater inculturation. The faith must be expressed in the various cultures of the world, and it's so important that this be done maturely, responsibly, reflectively, on a theologically sound basis. …

I believe the West has got to learn to respond to the signs of the times. Change and adaptation is necessary, and maybe the churches of the South, especially in Asia, can offer an example. Today, we try to be open to the Spirit with self-confidence, believing that inculturation is not going to take the church to the ruins.

I would also say the South has something to teach about inter-religious dialogue. In Asia, we're compelled to do it. The West may not always have felt it was imperative, but for us it's a question of survival. It's not a strategy. …

The West has got to start learning from Asia about how to deal with a multi-cultural, multi-religious situation. … In Europe, people are now beginning to feel, all of a sudden, that Europe may not always be predominantly Christian. They have to start now learning how to cope. You can't be insular, and at the same time you can't compromise on principles. The key question is, how do we live together in a secular world for everyone's good?

You've talked about the need for simplicity in lifestyles and in facilities. Imposing edifices, you've said, can alienate us from the poor.
I have to say, though, that even for those of us in Asia, this is a problem. We've got to become simpler ourselves. In India, we have lots of big edifices, in the form of churches, office buildings, parish houses, and so on. Today it's a little embarrassing. When we construct our places today, we're very conscious of that. Also our dress habits, food habits, our manner of travel, all should be as simple as possible. In that sense, it's already simpler in India than here [in Europe], because our culture is that way.

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You mentioned a "theologically sound" inculturation. In recent years, however, Asian theology has been criticized for allegedly going too far, such as treating Christ as one savior among others.
That might reflect the thinking of some theologians, even if it's exaggerated. It comes from the effort to present Jesus Christ to the multi-cultural, pluralistic situation in which we find ourselves. There are so many elements that have to be considered. How do we understand the salvific will of God, that all may be saved? What is the unique mediation of Jesus Christ? The reality is that after 2,000 years of missionary work, Christianity is still just 2.6 percent of the population of Asia. What is the prognosis for Christianity in Asia? That's the background.

Do you think the idea that Christ is a savior alongside Krishna or Buddha is one that many Asia Catholics would endorse?
Absolutely not. No Catholic would hold that, and no serious theologian would hold that either. This is not something with which the average Indian Catholic is wrestling.

Has failure to appreciate the cultural background sometimes influenced Vatican reactions to Asian theologies, such as that of Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis?
… Writers such as Dupuis try to present Christ in light of the reality they see, then do the theological reflection. In doing that, sometimes they cross a line. Dupuis was a little bit avant garde, even though he was a great thinker, sincere, and loyal to the church. I knew him personally. We bishops discussed his case so many times.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a notification in January 2001 lauding Dupuis for raising new questions but identifying "ambiguities" in his work. Did you find that action helpful?
When I look back now, I can see that the effects have been positive. It gave an impulse to theologians to continue their work, but warned them that there are limits beyond which you cannot go. As a Catholic theologian, you can't reflect without any context.

Are the issues of sexual morality so divisive in the West -- such as homosexuality -- equally controversial in your part of the world?
Absolutely not. For example, when the Vatican's document on admitting homosexuals to seminaries came out, for us it was totally irrelevant. … In our society, this is not really an issue. We would take [the content of the document] for granted. For Hindus and Muslims, homosexuality is taboo, so most Asians feel this way. If you asked the average Catholic in India, 99.9 percent wouldn't even know a document on the subject had come out, because no one talked about it. …

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Cardinal-designate Nicholas Cheong Jin-Suk of Seoul, South Korea, is also the apostolic administrator of P'yong-yang in North Korea, and he spoke about the situation at the Ad Gentes conference.

According to the North Korean government, there are 13,000 Christians in the country, with only 800 Catholics. Unofficial estimates, however, put the Catholic population closer to 4,000. There is only one Catholic church in P'yong-yang, and it has no priest.

"In the North, persecution of the church has continued since 1948," Cheong said. "No priest has survived. No visible sign of the church really exists there."

Over the last 10 years the Seoul archdiocese has donated $11.6 million to the North, he said, "one of the largest efforts by any single NGO." Cheong said the Holy See has also been able to get aid to the North through special envoys.

He called for the church to prepare for an "eventual opening" in both North Korea and China.

"Divine providence can break down apparently impossible situations," he said.

Cheong also announced that the South Korean bishops have launched a "20/20" initiative, aimed at bringing the Catholic percentage of the South Korean population from 9.3 percent, or 4.5 million, to twenty percent by 2020.

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In his Blackie Ryan novels, Fr. Andrew Greeley paints his hero as an "unobtrusive and practically invisible little auxiliary bishop" who scoots around Chicago in a White Sox windbreaker, seeing everything, absorbing everything, and in the end always solving the puzzle.

Swap the Sox windbreaker for a full-length clerical cassock, make it Rome instead of Chicago, and change "auxiliary bishop" into "superior general," and you've got a pretty good handle on Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the diminutive Dutchman with a sly smile who has guided the Jesuits for a quarter-century.

Many observers credit Kolvenbach with healing the relationship between the Jesuits and the Vatican after the earthquake of 1981, when John Paul II refused their request to elect new leadership and instead imposed two Italians, Fr. Paolo Dezza and Fr. Giuseppe Pittau.

Two years later, in 1983, when John Paul allowed an election to proceed, Kolvenbach was tapped on the first ballot.

Kolvenbach recently announced that he will step down in 2008, and he sat down with me this week for a rare interview. Excerpts follow:

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NCR: How did you improve relations with the Holy See?
Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach:
Around 1980 there was a deep communication gap…. Differences regarding the follow-up of the Vatican Council, the evaluation of the consecrated life, the interpretation of the concept of authority in the Church, pastoral strategies… It was Fr. Dezza who improved the relationship. How did he do it? Well, by speaking Vaticanese. At times he explained that for someone visiting a foreign country it was only natural to express his ideas in the language of that country. …

People should credit Fr. Dezza and Fr. Pittau. I just followed their steps, assisted by a large experience of my own as a go-in-between man in the Near East.

You are in regular contact with the Vatican. What do you think is commonly misunderstood about it?
Once, after a long conversation with a senior official on a difficult and delicate issue, he made this observation: "Dear Father, now we have to translate our fraternal discussion into a formal decision; for obvious administrative reasons, the letter will read in a less understanding and friendly way…" Perhaps this anecdote is the best way to understand the inevitable tension between the pastoral approach, and the deep ecclesial concerns, that I've found in my regular contacts with the officials of the Holy See. … The Holy See has to speak to the whole world and for all times, above particular languages and cultures. That requires a very explicit and clear language which cannot take into account all the possible shades of concrete issues.

You worked closely with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prior to his election as Benedict XVI. What did that experience teach you about the man?
I think all those who received the grace -- truly, a grace -- to meet Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger always felt welcome. The problems I had to speak about with him were most of the time sad, with solutions that were painful for both of us. Still, I never left a meeting with feelings of bitterness or anger, because the cardinal made a clear distinction between the dogmatic error involved, and the effort of a theologian who felt challenged to provide an answer to the concerns of our days. … We are here far from the "panzer cardinal" that certain press accounts have described.

One early controversy of his papacy centered on Fr. Tom Reese from America magazine. What are the lessons of that episode for Jesuit-sponsored publications?
America magazine, under the competent and dynamic guidance of Fr. Tom Reese, believed that the best service to a mature Catholic public was to let the two sides of a controversial question to defend their views. … However, this orientation did not meet the approval of some pastorally concerned priests who were worried about a negative effect on the faith-growth of the Catholics. They expect that Jesuit publications will offer clear standings to meet the questions of the day, avoiding confusion and relativism. Unhappily, instead of changing his policy, Fr. Reese resigned. This episode takes us back to St. Ignatius when he speaks about sentire cum ecclesia (feeling with the church). …

Did the initial concerns about America come from the United States rather than the Vatican?
Yes, from clergy outside the Jesuits in the United States, including some in senior positions.

What do you expect from Benedict XVI on religious life?
On May 22, there will be a meeting with Benedict XVI for generals and vicar generals of religious communities, roughly 5,000 people. It's important, because November [2004] there was a World Congress on Consecrated Life, and it was not possible to have a papal audience. It was always unclear why. It's not that John Paul was sick, because he received other groups in those days. Clearly, there was some uneasiness. …

Some are asking the popes, 'Do you still believe in religious life?' But there's really no choice. Our charisms come from the Lord, not from the church. The Lord is asking for this.

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Last Saturday, the first significant realignment in the Roman Curia under Benedict XVI was announced, as the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, French Cardinal Paul Poupard, was also named President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, and Italian Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was assigned the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees.

In both cases, the appointments were announced per ora, "for now."

"We've been put on a bus, but we don't know where we'll get off," is how an official in one of the offices described the situation.

Poupard broke the news to the staff at the Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, meeting with them Saturday at noon, the same time it was announced publicly. (A month earlier, the staff learned that their former president, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, had been named nuncio in Egypt at 11:30 a.m., a half-hour before the rest of the world).

Martino met the staff at Migrants and Refugees on Monday. Cardinal Stephen Hamao, the former president who retired for reasons of age, had informally let it be known a week before that the change was coming.

Early reactions differed.

Some experts on inter-religious dialogue worry about an overly tight identification of culture and religion.

"Religion is certainly a part of culture, but neither can it be identified with culture," a Vatican official said March 15. "That's what religious nationalists try to do. Hindu fundamentalists say that you have to be Hindu to be really Indian. Some Buddhists in Thailand, and some Muslims in majority Islamic states, say similar things."

This official said it will be important how the move is explained.

Word in diplomatic circles in Rome is that following the transfer of Fitzgerald, and now the "unification" of inter-religious dialogue with culture, several ambassadors, especially from majority Muslim states, have expressed concern about a perceived diminishment of the Vatican's commitment to inter-faith relations. One diplomat from an Islamic state said Benedict XVI told him personally that the Council for Inter-religious Dialogue will continue, but that he wants to think carefully about who should be in charge.

On the other hand, some officials on migrant and refugee issues took a pragmatic stance, saying that if the new arrangement means Martino will bring the force of his personality to bear on their issues, it could turn out to be a blessing.

"Hamao is a very holy person, but he's not a strong leader," one official said. "He's not good with the press. If Martino sees a problem, he just goes. He's a much more effective advocate."

"If this is better for refugees, why not?" he said.

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Interviewing is a fine art, and one of the best on the Vatican beat is Gianni Cardinale, whose Q&A pieces with cardinals and other newsmakers in 30 Giorni are required reading.

In the January-February issue, Cardinale talks with Bishop Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli, a Capuchin and former Apostolic Vicar for the Arabian Peninsula, a territory that includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Yemen. He said there are currently 48 priests in the vicariate and about 3 million Catholics, with half in Saudi Arabia and half scattered across the remaining nations. Most are migrant laborers, with the largest groups being Filipinos and Indians. There are roughly one million Filipinos in Saudi Arabia alone.

Outside Saudi Arabia, Gremoldi said, there is a surprising degree of openness to the Catholic presence. There are 11 churches and parochial structures in the region, he said, the majority in the Emirates, but with four in Oman and one in Bahrain. A 12th church is going up in Qatar, which has never had a Catholic place of worship. There are also eight Catholic schools, seven in the Emirates and one in Bahrain, with more than 16,500 students, roughly 60 percent Muslim.

The improved climate is reflected in the fact, Gremoldi said, that the Holy See opened diplomatic relations with Yemen in 1998, Bahrain in 2000 and Qatar in 2002. In the Emirates, he said, the apostolic vicar is considered the pope's representative and takes part in diplomatic functions.

The situation in Saudi Arabia, however, Gremoldi described as "reminiscent of the catacombs." Neither priests nor celebration of the Mass is legally permitted except in embassies. Catholics may only pray at home, never in groups, even with friends or relatives. The religious police, called the mutawa, whom Gremoldi described as "very efficient," intervene whenever there is suspicion of a non-Islamic religious assembly. Gremoldi attributed this climate to Wahabi Islam, which sees the entire Arabian Peninsula as sacred territory and thus closed to any cult except Islam.

Even so, Gremoldi said he manages to make a pastoral visit every year to administer confirmations and the other sacraments, and to celebrate Mass for various groups. From time to time, he said, "visiting priests" manage to reach different Catholic communities.

Gremoldi downplayed long-standing complaints that the Saudis were able to build a $65 million mosque in Rome while Catholics are subjected to such tight restraints in Saudi Arabia.

"It's good the mosque is there," he told Cardinale. "For one thing, even though it was financed mostly by the Saudis, many Muslims from countries where we are permitted to have places of worship use it. In addition, authorization was requested by then-King Faisal, a sovereign …who was killed precisely for his openness."

Gremoldi rejected suggestions of a "clash of civilizations," which he called "useless and dangerous."

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In 1926, the Lutheran bishop Martin Dibelius prophesied that the 20th century would be the "century of the church," meaning that while other theological topics -- the Trinity, Christology, grace and redemption -- had dominated earlier periods, ecclesiology would be the preoccupation of his era.

Despite what calendars say, in this sense the 20th century is still very much alive for Benedict XVI.

On Wednesday, the pope launched a new series of catechetical reflections at his Wednesday audiences. It's the first truly his own, since he just completed a series of reflections on the Psalms inherited from John Paul II.

The new series is devoted to the relationship between Christ and the church.

In contrast to liberal German theologian Adolf von Harnack, who saw the call of Jesus as directed exclusively to individuals, Benedict insisted that Jesus aimed to gather a new "People of God."

Symbolic of this intention, the pope said, was Jesus' call of the Twelve, which signified that the twelve tribes of Israel were being reconstituted into a universal people, which is the church.

"For this reason, the fashionable slogan of a few years ago, 'Jesus Yes, Church No' is entirely incompatible with the intentions of Christ. This individualistically chosen Jesus is a Jesus of fantasy. We can't have Jesus without the reality that he created, and in which he communicates himself," the pope said, referring to the church.

Christ now lives, the pope said, in the succession of the apostles.

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A new book appeared this week, Lascatemi andare ("Let Me Go"), written principally by Renato Buzzonetti, the personal physician of Pope John Paul II. Buzzonetti confirms what we all knew, i.e., that John Paul may have been a great pope, but he was a lousy patient.

In 1992, for example, when the pope had a tumor removed from his colon, Buzzonetti said that John Paul kept silent about his pain for several months, and then refused expedited procedures, fixing dates for treatment himself. In 1994, John Paul took a serious fall in his bath, but insisted on going to Sicily the next day anyway; only an emergency x-ray convinced him to stay put.

Buzzonetti also relates an anecdote from 1981, after John Paul returned to the Vatican following the assassination attempt and complained of pain. Doctors tried to take an x-ray of his abdomen, but electromagnetic impulses from Vatican Radio interfered. The number two official in the Secretariat of State had to get on the phone to persuade Vatican Radio to shut down briefly, attributing it to non-existent "technical problems."

Officials at the radio apparently feared an earlier call from a papal aide had been an act of sabotage by the Red Brigades, an Italian terrorist movement in the 1970s and early 1980s.

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Last week, in writing about Benedict XVI's decision to drop the traditional papal title "Patriarch of the West," I referred to a 1969 essay in which then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger discussed the idea of creating new patriarchates in the Western church, such as in Africa or North America.

Chris Ruddy, author of The Local Church: Tillard and the Future of Catholic Ecclesiology, brought to my attention that Ratzinger was more dubious in 2000's God and the World:

Whether this is the form by which great continental units will have to be organized -- as I used to think -- does in fact seem more and more questionable to me. The roots of these patriarchates lay, after all, in their connection with their respective place of apostolic origin. The Second Vatican Council, on the contrary, has already defined the bishops' conferences as the form giving concrete shape to such supra-regional units. … Perhaps these offer possibilities better adapted to the current situation. There have to be supra-regional structures of cooperation, in any case, that remain more of a loose association and do not degenerate into great bureaucracies or lead to domination by officials. But there is no doubt that we need such supra-regional associations, which can then take over some of the work from Rome.
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Also last week, I translated a response Benedict XVI gave about women in the church during a meeting with Roman clergy. I summed it up as "no" to women's ordination, but "yes" to other ways to empower women.

Phyllis Zagano, an expert on women deacons, wrote to insist, correctly, that the pope had spoken of women priests, not women's ordination.

In 2002, the International Theological Commission, the main advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published a study on the diaconate. It concluded that deaconesses in the ancient church "cannot purely and simply be compared to the sacramental diaconate" today, since there is no clarity about the rite of institution that was used or what functions they exercised. Second, it asserted that "the unity of the sacrament of orders" is "strongly imprinted by ecclesiastical tradition, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium." The document said there is a need for "discernment about what the Lord has established for the church."

Zagano is right that Benedict's comments to the Roman clergy do not enter into this question.

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

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