The Word From Rome
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March 18, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 26

John L. Allen Jr.


"The church must constantly promote dialogue. Perhaps it is among the most important methods today for positive and constructive relations with society. … [This must be] a dialogue with courage -- open, frank, sensible and humble. A dialogue with the contemporary person, with the human race, science, the advances in biotechnology, with philosophy and the cultures, with politics and economics, with everything that has to do with social justice, with human rights, and with solidarity with the poor. A dialogue with the religions. A constant dialogue, systematic, with professionalism, constructive. A dialogue that knows how to listen, to debate, to discern and to assimilate whatever is good and true, just and consistent with human dignity, proposed by the interlocutor. A dialogue that at the same time knows how to proclaim the truth of which the church is the depository, and to which it must remain permanently faithful. However, it must always remain a dialogue, and never an imposition of the church's own convictions and methods. Propose, not impose. To serve, and not to dominate."

- Cardinal Claudio Hummes of São Paolo, Brazil,
speaking at the conference "The Call to Justice: The Legacy of Gaudium et Spes 40 Years Later."

Papabili at an 'agenda-setting moment'; Jesuit Fr. Michael Buckley on relations with non-Christian religions; Caritas in North Korea; Jack Miles on religion and foreign policy


Cardinals seen as papal candidates do not issue campaign brochures, or publish insta-books laying out their vision. Doing so would be in poor taste, not to mention presumptuous with respect to the role of the Holy Spirit in selecting the next pope. Anyway, most cardinals genuinely do not want the job, given that it's a bone-crushing responsibility one can never lay down.

Every now and then, however, a cardinal uses some public occasion to lay down a marker, as if to say: "Some people believe I could be pope. I think that's nonsense, but if you want to know what I stand for, here it is." One such moment, for example, came on Oct. 7, 1999, when Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, at the time archbishop of Milan and then considered a papal frontrunner, spoke during the Synod of Bishops for Europe. Martini called for a "collegial and authoritative consultation" among bishops on "the position of women in society and the church, the participation of the laity in some ministerial responsibilities, sexuality, the discipline of marriage, the practice of penance, the relationship with the sister Orthodox churches (and in a more generalized manner, the need to revive ecumenical hope), and the need to work out the relationship between democracy and values, between civil laws and moral law." It seemed almost like a platform statement.

We witnessed another such agenda-setting moment March 16 at a Vatican conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, titled "The Call to Justice: The Legacy of Gaudium et Spes 40 Years Later." (The reference is to the pastoral constitution on the church and the modern world issued by the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65).

The evening's main speaker was Cardinal Claudio Hummes of São Paolo, Brazil, widely considered a leading Latin American contender for the papacy. I've described Hummes as a member of the "Social Justice" current among the cardinals, meaning those men whose primary, though not exclusive, interest is applying the gospel to questions of economic justice and the "option for the poor."

In his plenary address, Hummes outlined a vision of the church that corresponds to this position.

Quoting extensively from Gaudium et Spes, Hummes noted that it expressed an optimistic reading of the world, and affirmed "the autonomy of earthly affairs." Hummes called that recognition "a great step of the Council, and one that synthesized it with modernity."

Hummes praised Gaudium et Spes for embracing the human rights tradition of modernity, including "liberty/autonomy, equality, fraternity, dignity and the inviolable authority of the intimacy of the moral conscience."

Hummes then turned to the call of Gaudium et Spes for the church to be "inserted in the world."

"Gaudium et Spes, inspired by all the reflection of the council, emphasizes that the church is at the service of the human person and all human beings … and does not seek to dominate humanity. In this, it follows the example of Christ, who presented himself as a servant," Hummes said.

That observation led Hummes to reflect on the church's engagement with other social forces.

"In this context, the church supports and favors every effort today to seek the full development of the personality of all human beings, and to promote their fundamental rights, their dignity and liberty," he said.

Yet Hummes emphasized that passion for social justice does not have to come at the expense of Christian identity. Concern for development, he said, must not neglect efforts "to help people to encounter the full truth about human beings and their vocation in this world," meaning "Jesus Christ, in whom this full truth is met."

Hummes returned repeatedly to the idea of the church as servant.

"A servant church must have as its priority solidarity with the poor," he said. "The faith must express itself in charity and in solidarity, which is the civil form of charity," Hummes said. "Today more than ever, the church faces this challenge. In fact, effective solidarity with the poor, both individual persons and entire nations, is indispensable for the construction of peace. Solidarity corrects injustices, reestablishes the fundamental rights of persons and of nations, overcomes poverty and even resists the revolt that injustice provokes, eliminating the violence that is born with revolt and constructing peace."

Hummes then asked a rhetorical question arising from these reflections.

"Does not today's terrorism," Hummes asked, "have as one of its ingredients a revolt against an imposed poverty, experienced as practically irreversible in the short and medium term?"

Hummes emphasized that in its social engagement, the church does not seek to impose solutions but to engage in dialogue.

"The church, inserted and active in human society and in history, does not exist in order to exercise political power or to govern the society," he said, but to "organize and promote the common good."

"The church must constantly promote dialogue," Hummes said. "Perhaps it is among the most important methods today for positive and constructive relations with society."

Hummes said this must be "a dialogue with courage -- open, frank, sensible and humble. A dialogue with the contemporary person, with the human race, science, the advances in biotechnology, with philosophy and the cultures, with politics and economics, with everything that has to do with social justice, with human rights, and with solidarity with the poor."

"A dialogue with the religions," Hummes added. "A constant dialogue, systematic, with professionalism, constructive. A dialogue that knows how to listen, to debate, to discern and to assimilate whatever is good and true, just and consistent with human dignity, proposed by the interlocutor. A dialogue that at the same time knows how to proclaim the truth of which the church is the depository, and to which it must remain permanently faithful. However, it must always remain a dialogue, and never an imposition of the church's own convictions and methods. Propose, not impose. To serve, and not to dominate.

"A church of dialogue in the contemporary world … a church, taking on the mission of Jesus, which is in the world not to judge humanity, but to love it and to save it."

Of course, Hummes was speaking in the first place about the vision of Gaudium et Spes, not his own. Yet it's difficult not to see in these words a revealing image of Hummes himself - and of the kind of pope he might aspire to be, should providence thrust him into the role.

* * *

On March 11, French Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, appeared at a Vatican news conference to present the second phase of an inter-disciplinary project called "Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest." Funded by the Templeton Foundation and coordinated by Poupard's office in conjunction with several Roman universities, the project's aim is to explore the relationship between science, philosophy and theology.

In his presentation, Poupard made the point that when Pope John Paul II asked Poupard in 1981 to review the Galileo case, which ended in a 1992 finding that the ecclesiastical judges who condemned Galileo were "incapable of dissociating faith from an age-old cosmology," his intuition was not merely that the church should purify its memory, but also that analogous cases could arise in our own time.

That led me to ask Poupard if he saw a new Galileo case brewing today.

"All of us realize that during history, there have been crises," Poupard said. "Christian cosmology seemed humiliated in the face of Galileo, and Christian biology suffered a similar humiliation with Darwin. There was an anthropological and psychological crisis with Freud."

"What will be tomorrow? I don't know, but every epoch provokes new crises," Poupard said. "We have to be attentive to what has happened in the past, especially the temptation for each discipline, science and theology, to go beyond its competence."

To underscore the proper distinction between science and theology, Poupard invoked Galileo: "The Bible doesn't teach us how the heavens go, but how to go to Heaven."

* * *

Jesuit Fr. Michael Buckley is a distinguished American Catholic theologian, and a former top theological advisor to the U.S. bishops' conference. Over the years, he has occasionally stirred controversy; his 1986 appointment to the job with the bishops' conference was challenged in light of a 1977 statement Buckley signed questioning the ban on women priests, though the bishops hired him nevertheless. Despite such hiccups, Buckley is respected and admired, even in the Vatican. Some years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger named him as the lone American theologian in a behind-closed-doors symposium on the Petrine ministry.

Buckley was in Rome this week for a pair of lectures, one at the Centro Pro Unione, and another at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University. Both revolved around the question of atheism. Cardinal James Francis Stafford, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary and a man known for the depth of his intellectual interests, attended the lecture at the Centro.

In that address, Buckley addressed the relationship between the rise of atheism in the 19th century and the scientific study of religion.

In essence, Buckley argued that by the 19th century, "religion" had come to mean something very different than it did in the medieval period for thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas. For Durkheim and Freud, "religion" was a cluster of beliefs, symbols, and rites, essentially a subset of the artifacts of human culture. Religion was a genus, of which the various "religions" -- Christianity, Hinduism, and so on -- were species.

From this point of view, "religions" are a little bit like Pepsi and Coke -- specifications of the generic category "soda." (The analogy is my own, not Buckley's). They become separate and mutually exclusive "brand names."

For Aquinas, on the other hand, the idea of "a religion" would have made no sense, Buckley said. Aquinas regarded religion not as a set of beliefs and practices, but as a moral virtue "by which one gives God what is due to God, and lives in appropriate relation to God." Symbols, hymns, rituals and doctrines are not "religion," they are the acts or objects of religion, with God as its ultimate end. This virtue of religion is universal, even if people and cultures have different ways of cultivating it.

Buckley argued that the scientific study of religion thus settled the issue in favor of atheism from its opening move. When one sees "religion" as instructive not about God but about human culture, he said, the question of God's existence is already asked and answered.

"God is either incomprehensibly absolute in his being and in his goodness and so adored in his self-communication, or God is not at all," Buckley said.

From a certain point of view, all this could seem a typical academic exercise -- fascinating, but void of practical consequence. In fact, however, Buckley ended with a provocative set of questions applying his analysis to the most hotly contested theological debate in Christianity today, which is what theological sense to make of other religions.

"Could religion -- even understood as this congeries of individual units specified by the sacred -- be a productive theological category?" he asked. "Cannot the Christ of Christianity … illumine rather than universally be set in competition with what is discovered in the scientific study of religion?"

Buckley noted that the Vatican II document Nostra aetate, on other religions, noted that over centuries the various cultures of humanity cultivated a deep religiosity. "Do Christian theologians -- precisely in their recognition both of the normative character of God's revelation in Christ, and also of the 'lives of these people with a profound religious sense' -- have nothing to learn about God from the centuries of that experience?" he asked.

"Such theological attention and inquiry could well be extended to the world religions of our own time," Buckley said. "Medieval theology could search the newly discovered books of Aristotle and Averroes and use neo-Platonic Dionysius to learn something of God. Is there nothing for us to learn about God from contemporary Islam? If in Hinduism, human beings have for millennia 'contemplated the divine mystery,' does this contemplation have nothing to say to our theology?"

Buckley said that Christ must be the "hermeneutic" for the evaluation of other religions.

"One of the deleterious effects of the study of religions," Buckley said, "has been to treat these communities and traditions of wisdom and prayer as if they were univocal species of the one genus 'religion,' mutually exclusive species among which one must make a choice, territories in competition with one another." Buckley said he wondered if in that respect, we have become victims of our language.

Then he came to his tentative, but still bold, conclusion.

"It is not at all evident that -- with appropriate modifications, but without any of the artificial harmonies that bespeak a soft relativism -- one could not fully participate both in a Catholic and in a Quaker community," Buckley said, "nor even confess oneself a Christian who has also assimilated much of the teachings of early Buddhism."

Buckley said this is not an "unreasonable hypothesis," noting there already are, for example, Jesuit Zen Buddhists. At the same time, he said, it's not a matter of "anything goes," and that what's needed is serious Christian reflection rather than a "sloppy relativism."

* * *

Since Buckley is known for his theological reflections upon papal primacy, I asked him in a separate interview what he makes of the impact of Pope John Paul II's age and illness upon Roman Catholicism.

"It will injure the church if the pope cannot fulfill his function," Buckley said. "The primacy of the pope is one of jurisdiction, of teaching and governing, and it's essential for the life of the church."

I asked Buckley about arguments that John Paul is today fulfilling that ministry in a different way, by offering an example of bearing suffering with dignity.

Buckley referred to such arguments as "ideology," saying John Paul can offer that witness "without being pope."

"People are erecting various hypotheses that have little to do with the historical placement of the Petrine primacy," he said. "The primacy is somewhat like the Supreme Court, in that its role is to give judgments when there is division, and so to minister to the unity of the church."

"The great danger," he said, "is that today rumors are going around that these judgments are being made by others."

Buckley said he believes for the good of the church perhaps the pope should have resigned, but that by now it may be "too late," in the sense that people might believe he had been forced out because of declining health, and some would claim the resignation was invalid. The next pontificate, he said, will have to take up "some way in which a pope can gracefully resign his office when he can't do it anymore."

Another reform Buckley said he hopes a future pontificate will consider is a change in the method of selecting bishops, returning to the practice of the first millennium that gave greater voice to the local clergy, the people, and the surrounding bishops. Such a reform, he said, would produce candidates with "more sense of themselves as bishops," as opposed to being delegates of Rome.

On the other hand, Buckley laughingly acknowledged that none of this may be in the cards.

"It's God's church," he said. "Anyone can have grand ideas that God might not accept."

* * *

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa came out swinging this week on the subject of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, comparing it to rotten food and branding it "a sack full of lies." Those comments came in an interview with Reuters, following similar statements by Bertone in Italian newspapers, and a panel discussion organized in Genoa by the archdiocese on the book.

The English papers gave the story a twist by suggesting Bertone was acting on a Vatican mandate, which meant that British TV and radio spent much of Tuesday reporting on a "Vatican offensive against The Da Vinci Code" that turns out not to exist. When the dust settled, it was clear that Bertone is speaking under his own steam, not at the Vatican's behest.

A senior Vatican official told me March 15 that the Vatican had "absolutely not" delegated Bertone to address the book. On the other hand, one can assume that the Holy See is not entirely displeased; Bertone's interview with Reuters, for example, took place in the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he once served as the number two official.

"We can't keep quiet about the truth when faced with all the lies and all the inventions in this book," Bertone said. "Some of the gross falsehoods include the treatment of the death and the resurrection of Christ, which is the central mystery of Christianity."

The central question I got from English TV and radio on Tuesday was whether, by attacking The Da Vinci Code, church officials risk giving it more publicity, leading more people to read it.

My response was, there's no sense trying to defuse a bomb that's already gone off. A book that has sold 18 million copies doesn't need the church's help to find an audience. Given that, officials such as Bertone obviously feel they have no choice but to respond.

"I have arrived too late. Millions of copies have been sold. I can't hope to slow down sales, but at least to prompt a critical response," he said.

Bertone called on Catholic bookstores not to sell The Da Vinci Code.

* * *

Caritas Internationalis, a Vatican-based confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development and social service organizations, is one of the very few Western organizations to have a stable presence in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, otherwise known as North Korea. Caritas has been active there for 10 years, initially running a flood relief effort that has blossomed into a four-fold social services program comprised of food aid, agricultural development, health care and assistance for vulnerable groups such as the elderly and the disabled.

Over 10 years, Caritas has delivered $27 million worth of aid to North Korea. Last year, the figure was $2.5 million.

Duncan MacLaren, the secretary general of Caritas, recently returned from a week-long visit to North Korea. I sat down with him in his Vatican office on March 15. MacLaren told me that compared to his last visit five years ago, he noticed something of an "opening."

First of all, MacLaren said, there has been a small improvement in living standards. "The people are slightly better dressed, which doesn't mean they're in Gucci suits, but at least they have some warm clothes on," he said. "I noticed more bikes on the road. Also, there's more private enterprise. The last time I was there I didn't see one market stall, but now you see them occasionally." MacLaren said that although outsiders are not allowed to visit, there is today a large market in Pyongyang, the capital, selling consumer items from motor-scooters to food.

MacLaren said he doesn't want to understate the magnitude of the economic problems facing North Korea. There are 6.5 million people in need of food assistance out of a total population of 23 million, and the evidence of chronic under-development is everywhere. In the provinces, he said, he saw primitive medical equipment "that belongs in a museum, not being used on people."

At the same time, he said, there is tremendous economic potential. MacLaren said he agreed with one Western analyst who said, "Give them two years of normal government, and the country would be like South Korea."

MacLaren said there is also a small but noticeable relaxation of political control.

"There was less invoking of the Great Leader's name while I was there," MacLaren said, referring to Kim Jong-Il, who since 1994 has held the reins of power in North Korea. "There are fewer people wearing the badges of the Great Leader," referring to the North Korean custom of Korean Worker's Party members wearing buttons proclaiming their loyalty to Jong-Il.

His worry, MacLaren said, is that "the international community is not taking advantage" of this relaxation. Instead of opening talks at lower levels and encouraging exchanges, he said, the North Koreans believe they're being "marginalized and isolated."

In that regard, MacLaren said, the Caritas program "shows another face of the international community," and "builds spaces of peace."

Finally, I asked MacLaren if the fact that Caritas is a Roman Catholic program creates difficulties in dealing with one of the earth's few remaining officially Communist states.

In general, he said, it "doesn't come up."

"We're there as a strictly humanitarian group, so we don't proselytize," he said. "Over 10 years, we've built up trust. Some groups have pulled out, and ended up calling the regime names. For us, it's more important to keep the windows open and help the vulnerable."

MacLaren said there is a Catholic Church in Pyongyang, the only one in the country, but it does not have a priest. On Sundays, there's a Liturgy of the Word. The government-run Korean Catholic Association told him there are an estimated 3,000 Catholics in the country. (Other estimates put the number much higher).

* * *

The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See recently sponsored a media event in Rome, in conjunction with the Community of Sant'Egidio, featuring Jack Miles, senior adviser to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning God: A Biography. Miles was in town to talk about the role of religion in foreign policy.

I wasn't able to attend Miles' Q&A, but thanks to the good offices of the embassy, I connected with him via phone.

While many commentators are energized by the democratic winds blowing in the Middle East, from the Iraqi elections to the new leadership of the Palestinian Authority to the anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, Miles said there's another scenario for the region.

"It's not yet certain, but it's possible that what will come to power in Iraq is a majority Shi'ite government," Miles said. "In recent days, we've also seen a startling demonstration of power from the Shi'ites and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it's conceivable that the Shi'ites will have a dominant role there. Linking arms with Iran, this would produce a Shi'ite axis from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas, including also Western Afghanistan.

"This is not at all what the United States intended when it went to war in Iraq," he said. "Whether it would be bad or good for religious freedom remains to be seen."

"What it does illustrate," Miles said, "is the danger of going to war without thinking hard about the consequences in a complex religious environment."

As for the Christians, Miles conceded that the "short-run future is not good," even within Muslim majority states that have a democratic government. At the same time, Miles said, he's more optimistic in the long run, because "democracy habitually has a tendency towards pluralism."

I asked Miles what role the Holy See could play in promoting pluralism in the Islamic world. His answer may be disappointing to Vatican diplomats, because it boils down to: Stay out of it.

"At the moment, the cause of democracy is tainted with the stain of Christian aggression," he said. "The interventions of the United States are construed in the Muslim world as missionary efforts on behalf of Christianity." Miles noted, for example, that the leader of the Iraqi insurgents, Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, habitually refers to his enemies as "Jews and Crusaders."

Thus, Miles' advice to the Vatican with regard to the future direction of Islamic nations is, in essence, to hold its tongue, "unless there's a specific Christian party that needs outside representation."

In this regard, it's worth noting that the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, this week endorsed a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, telling the TV agency "Rome Reports" that, "It's necessary that [Lebanon] regain full independence and be again, as it was in past centuries, a land of exemplary and friendly coexistence between components of different religious inspirations."

For a different view of the efficacy of Vatican diplomacy, consider these comments from Sheikh Talal Sidr, a former leader of Hamas who has become a peace activist and an advisor to the Palestinian Authority on inter-religious issues.

"The cooperation of the Vatican is a fundamental condition of any successful dialogue, or any final resolution for peace in the Holy Land," Sidr said March 17.

Sidr was attending a meeting organized by the City of Rome and the American Jewish Committee on "The Use and Abuse of Religion." I asked him, as well as Rabbi David Rosen of the AJC, if the Vatican's diplomatic concern for the Holy Land made any difference.

"The Vatican is in constant contact with all the parties in the region," Sidr said. "They know the situation. It's right and essential that there be participation of the Vatican in a global and just solution of the problems facing the Holy Land, and its suffering people, both Israelis and Palestinians."

Rosen also offered a positive appraisal of the Vatican's contribution.

"It's important that all institutions play their role, and that holds for Christian bodies as well," he said. "There is no more significant player in the Christian world than the Vatican, because it is the only Christian body that is also a state."

At the same time, Rosen struck a note of caution.

"No religious organization can spearhead a development," he said. "The major parties to the conflict are Israel, the Arab nations, and the Palestinians."

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

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