The Word From Rome
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April 1, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 28

John L. Allen Jr.


Besides the silence of the Holy Father, there’s also the silence of this enormous mystery of the Passion of Christ. … Jesus’ life ended with an inarticulate cry. That had to be held in tension with the Holy Father’s own inability to articulate his thought in words.

Cardinal James Francis Stafford


Stafford on pope’s health; feeding tubes; comparison with Schiavo case; the ‘Gang of Four’; the new feminism; Jesuit Fr. John O’Donnell, dead at 60


Cardinal James Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary, a highly confidential Vatican court dealing with matters of conscience, is known as one of the more intellectually and spiritually profound figures on the Roman scene. I sat down with him on Thursday, March 31, to discuss what he makes of the health crisis surrounding Pope John Paul II, and its intersection with the Terry Schiavo case in the United States.
At press time, the condition of Pope John Paul II reportedly had worsened as the result of an infection.  Updates on the story will be posted online at

Stafford presided over the Good Friday liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica in place of John Paul. I asked to what extent the pope’s suffering influenced his approach to that event.

“The liturgy itself is stark,” Stafford said. “Besides the silence of the Holy Father, there’s also the silence of this enormous mystery of the Passion of Christ. … Jesus’ life ended with an inarticulate cry. That had to be held in tension with the Holy Father’s own inability to articulate his thought in words.”

Stafford said he tried to put himself imaginatively into the pope’s mind and prayer.

“I thought about the concerns of the Holy Father over the last year, how he would have approached this,” Stafford said. “He’s been concerned about the abuse of power by secular states, the challenges in central Africa, in southern Sudan, the problem of AIDS in Africa, the inability of states to intervene in these problems in a way that would bring about dramatic change. He’s worried about the abuse of power in the form of torture, that states are using torture as an instrument of power. He’s concerned with the destruction of civilian populations. All of that came to focus in my mind.”

I noted that some people are beginning to raise out loud a question that has been circulating in subterranean fashion for some time: Is it a good idea for the pope to be exposed in his present state? Is there, as one leading Italian commentator argued in a recent issue of the Italian daily La Stampa, a risk that his suffering is becoming a media circus? Taken to an extreme, does it risk obscuring the central point that it is the suffering of Christ, not the pope, which brings redemption?

“It’s a risk,” Stafford said, conceding that he too has wrestled with these questions.

“I saw him delivering the blessing on Easter Sunday, and I was truly shaken by his struggle to speak, his inability to deliver even a few words,” he said. “One wonders whether it is prudent for the church’s leader to be exposed in such a weakened condition.”

Stafford stressed, however, that he believes it’s the pope himself making the decision to “go public,” not his handlers.

So why does he do it?

At one level, Stafford said, the pope simply has a strong desire to be present to people. Stafford told a charming story about World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, on the Sunday morning of the final Mass, when a strong rainstorm moved through the area. When the pope and Stafford got into the popemobile for the trip to the Mass site, the pope asked that the windows be rolled down. Stafford pointed out that it was pouring rain, but the pope insisted.

“I need to see the people, and they need to see me,” Stafford remembered him saying.

When they arrived at the Mass, Stafford said, they were soaked to the bone, but John Paul had come through for the people lined up to catch a glimpse of him.

At a deeper level, Stafford said the pope sees his visibility in the midst of weakness as another way of delivering the Christian message.

“No organization, no business group, no state, would want to have its head in such an exposed situation,” Stafford said. “But that’s the very point. The church is not primarily an administrative structure.  … We’re seeing one Christian, who’s the pope, living out among the People of God the mystery of his baptism. Our whole life is preparing us for death, anticipated by the death of Christ, and the emergence of glory from that darkness.”

“This man is courageous in allowing us to see that this is the end, and this is how I’m taking it,” he said. “He wants to show us his hope and his love.”

Still, Stafford acknowledged that it was not easy to bring himself to see the pope’s exposure, which can be painful to watch, in this light.

“It took me a long time to see that,” Stafford said. “I had to pray about it, talk to friends about it.”

I asked Stafford about the coincidence that the pope’s health struggles are playing out at the same moment as the Terry Schiavo drama in the United States. As it turns out, we were speaking just hours before she died.

“The Holy Father is a pointer to the dignity of life in every circumstance, even when we can’t communicate adequately our thoughts, our love, our friendship for others, except in gestures of frustration,” Stafford said, contrasting that with the Schiavo case, which he called “an abuse of power over human life.”

Stafford did not mince words in condemning the decision to allow Schiavo to die.

“This is an enormous misuse of power pointing the way towards totalitarian abuses,” he said. “It’s very ominous about the type of society the future holds for our country.”

I asked Stafford about the possibility that the pope might one day arrive at a Terry Schiavo-like situation. Interestingly, Stafford said he saw a difference between the two cases in terms of the pope’s own medical care.

“It’s not possible to say what nutritional means would be morally required to take if the pope were to reach that point. I don’t know the situation well enough to make a judgment, but I think it’s a very different case from Schiavo,” he said.

What about the problem of church governance that would be created with a still living but totally incapacitated pope?

“One’s anxiety is always aroused when confronted with the death of a loved one, and the weaknesses that occur as that death approaches,” he said. “The indefiniteness, our inability to plan and to control the future produces a high level of anxiety. It’s the ultimate sign of our own contingency.”

In fact, Stafford said, in such situations our worst fears generally aren’t realized, and so it may well be with the pope.

In addition, Stafford said, it’s not as if the church hasn’t faced such situations before.

“We’ve lived with this possibility for 2,000 years,” he said. “We anticipated that under Pius XII, with the possibility of his being taken prisoner. We saw it in the time of Pius VI, when Napoleon hauled him away in 1798.”

Stafford conceded that the law of the church has no explicit norms for what would happen in such a set of circumstances, but said John Paul may well have already made arrangements.

“Has the pope made provisions for this? I don’t know,” he said, adding: “I’m willing to live with that human uneasiness.”

Finally, I asked Stafford about the extent to which the pope is still engaged in the business of running the church. Are the decisions being made in his name these days, I asked, really his own?

Stafford said he could speak about the business of the Congregation for Bishops, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, both Vatican departments of which he is a member.

“I have every confidence that the Holy Father is signing off on every appointment, is being briefed on the background of every one of the recommendations from the Congregation for Bishops,” he said. “The decisions that he’s made are ones that he clearly has put his signature on.”

“I have enough confidence in the integrity of Cardinals Re and Ratzinger to know that they would not move ahead unless they had the clear authorization of the pope,” he said. “These men are making the judgment that he is able to make these decisions. They see this judgment as a mature, free judgment on the part of the pope that is fully considered.”

* * *

On Wednesday, the Vatican announced that John Paul II is being nourished through a nasal tube, in order to ensure that he gets sufficient calories to facilitate his recovery.  That announcement created much alarm in the American media, mostly because the phrase “feeding tube” these days causes most Americans to think of the Schiavo case. I spent a good bit of time on CNN Wednesday trying to explain the difference between the nasal tube being used on John Paul II and the feeding tube at the center of the Schiavo debate.

Obviously, I am not a doctor, but even for a layperson three critical differences between the pope’s case and Schiavo’s are clear.

First, the tube being used with John Paul II is not implanted surgically, and he does not have to wear it constantly. It is run down the nose and into the intestine when needed, then removed.

Second, John Paul II remains fully conscious, and hence is making decisions for himself about the course of his treatment. Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls told me on Wednesday that the doctors had explained to the pope what they wanted to do on Tuesday morning, and he agreed.

Third, in Schiavo’s case the tube is a matter of life or death. With the pope, on the other hand, the tube is a tool intended to speed his recovery. He is able to consume some food without it, just not enough to ensure that he doesn’t become underweight. Hence this is more akin to a kind of therapy, rather than a life-saving intervention.

All of that means that the pope’s tube is a much less serious matter than Schiavo’s. On the other hand, if the pope is not able to get back to a point where he can consume sufficient calories on his own, it may well be that he has to have a tube surgically inserted directly into the abdomen, just like Schiavo. Hence it remains possible that his condition may still mutate into something more worrisome.

* * *

From a media point of view, another striking dissimilarity between the Schiavo case and the situation facing John Paul II is the amount of information we have to go on. With respect to Schiavo, even the smallest details of her condition were a matter of public record. The various protagonists to the story, along with medical personnel, have been continuously available to the press, providing moment-by-moment updates and setting the scene in her hospital room. We know what drugs were administered and in what dosage, what preparations were made for an autopsy, even what kind of music was played in Schiavo’s room and what kind of stuffed cat Schiavo had under her arm (a tabby).

Some recoil from this kind of intimate detail, seeing it as over-exposure. Even some of my jaded colleagues in the news business have been a bit shocked at the eagerness of the family members, both the husband and the parents, to play this debate out non-stop on television. Obviously, both parties feel that something fundamental is at stake, and hence their willingness to go on camera around the clock is more understandable. Even so, some observers cannot help but find the spectacle less than edifying.

The dissimilarity to John Paul’s case could not be more striking. Granted, the pope health story has probably occupied a roughly similar amount of air time and column inches to Schiavo in the last month, but with infinitely less real information at its base. Since John Paul II came home on March 13, the Vatican did not issue another bulletin about his health until March 30. Their position is, in essence, once he’s out of the hospital, the story is over – the obvious fact that it isn’t notwithstanding.

Further, not a single member of the medical team treating John Paul II has made himself available to the press for anything other than the most fleeting comment, such as the flash from Dr. Renato Proietti of the Gemelli last Monday that another hospitalization for John Paul II was not currently anticipated.

What we are left with, therefore, are stories citing anonymous Vatican officials and medical sources, often making contradictory claims – the pope is either speaking clearly in private or he’s not, he’s either reacting badly to the medicine used to treat his Parkinson’s or he’s not, he may have vomited and had headaches, and so on. Earlier this week, a rumor apparently spawned in London, of all places, claimed the pope had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. All of this falls into the category of speculation, some of it more informed, some of it less.

Beyond such material, we have the pope’s six public appearances since March 13, a total of a little under 20 minutes of exposure. Probably never has so much amateur diagnosis been based on such little actual information – fleeting images at a distance, providing glimpses of only his face and upper body, and upon that basis journalists are expected to provide instantaneous analysis of “how he’s doing.”

One can argue that all of this is more dignified than the Schiavo case, where every hiccup and grimace is reported in real-time on the Internet and cable television. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster recently called for a “dignified reticence” in reporting details of the pope’s condition, and one takes his point. Even a pope, after all, is entitled to a private life.

On the other hand, surely this is not an all-or-nothing affair. One could imagine the physicians treating the pope appearing at the Vatican press office for a twice-weekly update, for example, to discuss the course of his recovery, the precautions being applied, the reasons why he may appear at one event but skip another, and so on. The question-and-answer session would be monitored by Vatican personnel to ensure that it doesn’t become invasive.

Arranging something like this would be more than a concession to idle curiosity. The Vatican has spent the better part of 27 years encouraging the 1.1 billion Catholics around the world to feel a close personal connection with John Paul II, to see him as a father in the faith and a universal pastor. For the most part, it’s worked. Roman Catholics generally feel as if this pope is part of their family, an elder with whom they’ve grown up, and hence they have a strong, and legitimate, interest in his condition. This is to say nothing of the fact that the pope is a critically important global leader, another point the Vatican has labored to drive home, and hence even non-Catholics have reasons to be concerned about his welfare that go beyond the prurient.

To take one recent example, the Monday after Easter is known in Italian as Pasquetta, “little Easter,” and it’s a national holiday here. Traditionally the pope appears at his window to lead the Regina Coeli prayer that day, marking the end of Holy Week. This time it was unclear whether John Paul would appear, with no official announcement one way or the other. Thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square, and at noon, Vatican TV cameras panned to the pope’s window. Yet the curtains never opened and John Paul never appeared. No explanation, before or after, was given.

One cannot help but wonder whether this non-communication invites needless speculation and panic. A basic explanation when the pope does not make traditional appointments, along with regular updates as long as he continues to recover, would seem defensible expectations for a world long encouraged by the Vatican to regard John Paul II as an important force in its life.

* * *

Despite popular impressions that the business of the papacy comes grinding to a halt when the pope is sick, the normal pace of activity during the pope’s recent illness has suffered barely a hiccup. According to official Vatican bulletins, during March John Paul II:

  • Appointed 29 bishops;

  • Issued 10 messages for various groups and occasions, totaling 5,891 words;

  • Issued two telegrams;

  • Participated in one ad limina visit, with the bishops of Tanzania;

  • Prepared the text of four Sunday Angelus messages;

  • Written his annual Holy Thursday letter to Priests, of 2,095 words;

  • Appointed five officers for an upcoming Synod of Bishops;

  • Appointed four new officers to the government of the Vatican city-state;

  • Appointed a new member of the Prefecture of Economic Affairs;

  • Appointed six members of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Even with a pope in the flush of health, it would strain credibility to believe that he was personally responsible for all this activity. Given John Paul’s current fatigue and weakness, however, it is all the more impossible to maintain that the pope himself is personally engaged in the details of all these appointments and texts.

From the testimony of everyone who has seen him during this period, it’s clear that Pope John Paul II retains full lucidity and is capable of saying “yes” or “no” to proposals placed before him, and can still add some characteristic personal touches. At the same time, however, everyone concedes that, increasingly, the bulk of the work is being performed by others.

So, the $64,000 question: Who are these others? Who’s really running the show?

By general agreement, while all papal acts are equal, some are more equal than others. The church could survive for a year, for example, without another encyclical, or another beatification, or another papal trip. It would be difficult, however, to imagine a year without the appointment of a bishop, which would in effect leave hundreds of dioceses leaderless. It would also be difficult to go a year without some direction from the pope on matters of topical interest, where there is a danger of rifts or confusion about where the church stands.

Hence those officials responsible for assisting the pope with the selection of bishops, and with preparing his statements on matters of current concern, stand to gain the most in authority from an extended papal convalescence.

Under the current dispensation, this means that Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State (along with his key subordinate, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the substitute), loom as the key power-brokers within John Paul II’s Vatican team. Rounding out the picture is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which holds the responsibility for resolving doctrinal disputes.

In the period of John Paul’s convalescence at the Gemelli Hospital, Sodano, Re and Ratzinger, along with Sandri, were the only Vatican officials to have regular access to the pope beyond his private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz. That continues now that John Paul is back at the Vatican, where doctors fear the possibility of re-infection and hence are tightly restricting access to the pope.

As in any system where ultimate authority is vested in the top man, access means power. These days, other heads of Vatican offices increasingly find themselves leaving materials for the pope with Dziwisz, and getting it back from the Secretariat of State, with papal decisions indicated. Who advised the pope in reaching those decisions is not spelled out, but usually it’s easy enough to deduce: Dziwisz, Sodano, Re or Ratzinger, or some combination of the four.

This “Gang of Four,” it should be said, is not in total unison. As is historically almost always the case, there is tension between the pope’s private secretary and the Secretary of State in terms of who can speak authoritatively for the pope’s mind. In addition, Dziwisz is seen as tenaciously loyal to the personal vision of John Paul, while Sodano tends to reflect more the institutional ethos of the Roman Curia. Further, Sodano and Re are notoriously uncomfortable with one another; it was at least in part that incompatibility, in fact, that led to Re’s transfer after 11 years in the substitute’s job to the Congregation for Bishops in 2000.

Nevertheless, there is little indication that this “Gang of Four” is involved in a power struggle, or is acting contrary to John Paul’s vision. For the most part, they seem to be loyally trying to ensure that even while the pope himself is disengaged from day to day business, the church still runs according to his general design.

The question, however, is what happens if time passes with the pope in his present condition, or even more incapacitated. Inevitably, new questions will arise to which the pope has not already given clear answers, and the “slippage” between carrying out the pope’s pre-existing design, and inventing new responses in his name, will increase.

At what point the Catholic world will begin raising hard questions about the legitimacy of those responses is not clear, but if the pope’s recovery continues to be slow and unsteady, it is a question the “Gang of Four” will almost certainly have to confront.

* * *

Few tropes of popular conversation irritate devotees of John Paul II more than the notion that the pope is “anti-woman,” a perception based largely on his strong positions on abortion and contraception, along with his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis reaffirming the ban on the ordination of women as priests. In fact, defenders of the pope argue, he has laid the basis for a “new feminism,” fully supporting the civil and social emancipation of women while simultaneously valuing their traditional roles as wives and mothers.

A classic presentation of this “new feminism” came March 7, when Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor who is the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and a member of various Vatican diplomatic teams, spoke at the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women.

“A stark reminder that women's journey still has far to go is the fact that three-quarters of the world’s poverty population today is composed of women and children,” Glendon told the UN body.

She linked this reality to the Catholic Church’s long-standing concern for the defense of the family.

“There is a strong correlation between family breakdown and the feminization of poverty,” Glendon said. “The costs of rapid increases in divorce and single-parenthood have fallen heavily on women, and most heavily of all on those women who have made personal sacrifices to care for children and other family members.”

Glendon urged greater concern for the education of women, especially girls.

“Until conditions are established for every girl to develop her full human potential, not only will women's progress be impeded, but humanity will be deprived of one of its greatest untapped resources of intelligence and creativity,” she said.

Noting that women are also disproportionately represented among the elderly, Glendon argued that without a “Culture of Life,” this too bodes ill for women in poverty.

“In a world that has become dangerously careless about protecting human life at its frail beginnings and endings, older women are likely to be at particular risk,” she said.

Finally, Glendon urged international bodies to support women who choose to raise children and nurture families.

“In the first place,” she said, “policy makers must attend more closely to women’s own accounts of what is important to them, rather than to special interest groups that purport to speak for women but often do not have women’s interests at heart. Secondly, care-giving, paid or unpaid, must receive the respect it deserves as one of the most important forms of human work. And thirdly, paid labor must be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their security and advancement at the expense of the roles in which many millions of them find their deepest fulfillment.”

Glendon invoked the pope in calling for a “vast moral mobilization of public opinion” in favor of women and children, according to the program outlined above. Debate will no doubt continue as to whether such a program truly represents the best interests of the world’s women, but at a minimum it illustrates the difficulty of trying to label complex figures such as John Paul II, and those such as Glendon in tune with him, as simply “pro” or “anti” anything.

* * *

A bit of sad news out of Rome this week comes with the death of Jesuit Fr. John O’Donnell, who was 60. O’Donnell, who was the dean of the Theology Faculty at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University, passed away Wednesday, March 30, at 7:45 am.

O’Donnell entered the Jesuits on July 30, 1962, and had occupied his current job at the Gregorian since 2003. The funeral was celebrated on March 31 at the Bellarmine College.

Though I didn’t know O’Donnell personally, we had many friends in common, who always spoke highly of him. He will be missed.

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

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