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 The Word From Rome

April 4, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 32

global perspective


“It’s not enough to reason about poverty, we have to understand its profundity. . . The real weapons of mass destruction have been in action for years in the form of poverty and social injustice.”

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga

So far, no Islamic-Christian clashes; a proposal for ‘United States of Latin America’; a word on ‘Easter faith’


Prior to the outbreak of war in Iraq, one great fear was that the conflict would trigger a “clash of cultures” between Christianity and Islam. Many observers, above all the Vatican, feared backlash against Christians in the Islamic world.

Two weeks into the war, that backlash has not materialized. Based on NCR reporting March 29-April 2, there has not been a single case recorded to date of harassment or violence against Christians related to the war. In fact, sources in several traditional hotspots say Christian/Muslim relations are better than ever.

Before the war, observers on all sides sounded alarms. 

In a Dec. 23 interview with Rome’s La Repubblica, top Vatican diplomat Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran warned that “a type of anti-Christian, anti-Western crusade could be incited because some ignorant masses mix everything together.”

When Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz appeared at a news conference in Rome’s foreign press club in February, he spoke in similar terms. “If the Christian countries of Europe participate in a war of aggression, it will be interpreted as a crusade against Islam, and it will poison the relationship between the Arab and Christian worlds,” he said.

These were not just idle warnings. In Pakistan, after the American strikes in Afghanistan following 9/11, some 25 Christians were killed and dozens more injured in a string of church bombings by Islamic extremists.

To find out if this clash of cultures was actually happening, I contacted Christian and Muslim leaders in places where relations between the two faiths were already strained: Pakistan, Nigeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Palestine. I have been in regular conversation with Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman of the Latin Rite Catholic Church in Baghdad. I’ve also consulted with people who track anti-Christian persecution from both Rome and Washington. 

So far, there simply is no anti-Christian backlash.

In many places, observers say that Muslim/Christian ties have never been so strong, as followers of both religions make common cause against what they see as an American, rather than a Christian, war. All sources concur that a principal factor has been the strong anti-war line of John Paul II, which has received extensive coverage in the Arab press and praise from Islamic leaders. 

There are other factors. Pre-existing Muslim-Christian dialogues have helped keep the peace. Other Christian leaders, including the local Catholic hierarchy in most places, have also spoken against the war. Several of the nations in the frontline of opposition, such as France and Germany, are historically Christian, undercutting the notion of a Christian crusade. Moreover, many Muslims are not sympathetic to Saddam Hussein.

Yet most observers believe John Paul’s role has been decisive. Muslim leader Mohammad Sammak, who lives in Beirut, told me that the pope’s statements on the war are being translated into Arabic there and are proclaimed from the mosques during Friday prayers. 

“Our relations with Christians have never been so cordial,” Sammak said.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, told me March 31 that during a recent trip to Egypt he appeared on television with Sheik Zafzaf, deputy rector of the prestigious Islamic University Al-Azhar, who publicly thanked the pope for his efforts for peace.

I had lunch with Fr. Justo Lacunza Balda, president of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, on Wednesday, April 2, who told me that he believes the war will forge deeper Christian/Muslim ties. Leaders of both traditions see themselves as allies in support of an international order based on peace and multilateralism (i.e., opposition to American domination). The pope, he said, has so far managed to wrest control of religious language away from both Islamic extremists and Christian supporters of the war. 

I’ve reported before, based on conversations with senior Vatican diplomats, that the Holy See realized early on that its interventions would probably not stop the war. They kept up the pressure, however, because President George Bush was not their only interlocutor. They were also speaking to the Islamic street, trying to minimize the harm a war might cause.

In that sense, early evidence suggests the Vatican’s strategy is working. How long that holds up is another matter, and Vatican diplomats once again are realistic.

“This war was said to last either six days, or six weeks, or six months,” Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican’s permanent observer at the United Nations, told NCR. “It’s already more than six days, and six weeks doesn’t seem enough,” Migliore said.

“As the war goes on, it won’t fail to show its devastating impact.”

* * *

Tensions within the anti-war consensus in the Catholic Church are ever more apparent.

One of the more curious modes of protest to date occurred on Friday, March 28, when 26-year-old Austrian Andreas Siebenhoer took off from the Villa Pamphili park in a contraption with a parachute and a small blower to keep it aloft. He sailed across the skies of Rome for 15 minutes, landing at the edge of St. Peter’s Square. 

Siebenhoer wanted to deliver a petition to John Paul II with more than 2,000 signatures supporting his position on the war.

He’s part of a group of eight young Austrians and Germans who have been making flights for peace across Europe, accompanied by a 73-year-old Franciscan named Fr. Pascal Shou. In the case of the drop-in at the Vatican, however, Siebenhoer acted on his own.

Siebenhoer was taken into custody, then released when it was obvious he was harmless. The real question seemed how somebody could fly into St. Peter’s without any counter-measures. Italian police suggested that Siebenhoer went airborne during a helicopter shift change.

Siebenhoer’s group, by the way, had spent the previous night at Sant’Anselmo, the Benedictine monastery on the Aventine hill. I had the pleasure of breaking the news to the abbot primate, Fr. Nokter Wolf, at a conference the next morning. Wolf, let it be recorded, had been out of town and was unaware of the group’s presence.

(Wolf is known for his sense of humor. At the Saturday conference, he quipped that the Benedictines are more like a disorder than an order).

Privately, some Catholic observers pointed to the overflight episode as illustrating the potential excesses of the peace movement, and the need for the church to keep its distance.

On a similar note, the secretary general of the Italian bishops’ conference, Monsignor Giuseppe Betori, has suggested that Catholic churches should not display the rainbow-colored peace flag that has become the symbol of the anti-war movement in Italy. 

“The crucifix,” he said, “is already a fine symbol of peace.”

Betori stressed avoiding “the ideological appropriation of peace.” It seemed a way of distancing the church from efforts by the Italian left to use the war to beat up on the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Betori’s advice was welcomed by some Italian pastors and eschewed by others. Fr. Francesco Bossi in Lodi, for example, insisted that the church must take a stand.

“For 2,000 years we’ve been repeating ‘I leave you peace, my peace I give you,’” he said, referring to a saying of Jesus repeated in the Mass. “Yet it doesn’t seem to me we’ve done much in particular.”

John Paul has not weighed in on the flag issue, though we perhaps got a glimpse of his attitude at the end of the general audience on Wednesday, April 2. As is his custom, the pope was greeted by a number of people and groups at the end of the audience, among them some Italian students preparing for careers in the hotel business. They brought the pope a huge cake, which he received with a smile. It was decorated in the rainbow colors of the peace flag, with a big dove made of white glaze in the middle.

* * *

Americans often ask how the Vatican sees the United States, especially in the wake of the sex abuse crisis and now the war. 

One such view was on offer last Thursday, March 27, from Cardinal Francis Stafford, an American himself and head of the Pontifical Council for Laity. The occasion was the presentation of a book by Guzmán Carriquiry, Stafford’s under-secretary, entitled A Wager for Latin America. In it, Carriquiry argues for the creation of a “United States of Latin America” as a counter-weight to the United States of (North) America. 

Reflecting on the book, Stafford noted that in 1884, at the conclusion of their third plenary council in Baltimore, the U.S. bishops declared: “We retain that the heroes of our country were instruments of God when they created this dwelling place of liberty.”

Is the United States really, Stafford asked, a “dwelling place of liberty?” 

Catholic opinion, Stafford noted, is divided. Optimists such as George Weigel, Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus assert congruity between the founding ideals of the United States and the Catholic vision of society and the human person. Less sanguine observers, such as David Schindler and the theologians associated with Communio, have their doubts. Stafford said that both he and Carriquiry incline to the second view.

Stafford contrasted a famous Latin American image, Our Lady of Guadalupe, with a famous North American image, the Statue of Liberty. These two icons, he argued, embody different conceptions of human liberty.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Stafford said, is based on a real person’s experience, that of the Indian peasant Juan Diego, who responded freely to the love of God expressed by Mary. Hence the image reflects the Catholic understanding that true liberty means “taking delight in what is right,” freely choosing to orient oneself to God’s truth in a spirit of thanksgiving.

The Statue of Liberty, created by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, depicts an abstraction derived from the European Enlightenment, Stafford said. It exalts the absolute autonomy of the individual. Stafford observed that the woman of the statue is holding a book, but said it is not a book of the natural law founded on eternal truths, but a book of procedural law based on American liberalism.

In short, Stafford believes that mainstream American culture fosters an understanding of freedom that places autonomy before truth. In that sense, Stafford seemed to suggest, to be Catholic in the United States is to be counter-cultural.

* * *

Sharing the platform with Stafford was Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who despite his youth (60) is widely considered a leading papabile, or candidate to be the next pope. Even though he delivered a by now familiar “stump speech” about Latin America as the continent of hope, Rodriguez was nevertheless impressive.

Rodriguez noted that CELAM, the association of bishops’ conferences in Latin America, is preparing for a long-awaited general assembly. (The last took place in Santo Domingo in 1992. The new assembly is expected in 2005, which will be the 50th anniversary of the foundation of CELAM). He said Carriquiry’s book would make an excellent instrumentum laboris, or working paper.

Rodriguez called for a “new culture of solidarity” that would link the entire American continent. He proposed more equitable trading relationships, including an end to protectionism and subsidies that disadvantage developing nations.

“It’s not enough to reason about poverty, we have to understand its profundity,” Rodriguez said. “The real weapons of mass destruction have been in action for years in the form of poverty and social injustice.”

The night before, Rodriguez spoke at the Argentinean embassy to the Holy See. He was critical of the Iraq war.

“We begin a century that should be one of hope with this theory of preventive war, which is a return to the jungle,” he said. 

* * *

A fascinating March 27-29 conference on China took place at Rome’s Urbaniana University, which is sponsored by the Vatican’s missionary agency, Propaganda Fidei. Ostensibly the topic was China from 1840 to 1911, but the discussion had obvious relevance for the relationship between China and the Catholic Church today. 

Several papers chronicled the suffering of the Chinese in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with two Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, and the Boxer Rebellion. All were either instigated by, or reactions against, the domination of China by European (and later, American) powers. 

In the popular Chinese mind, Christian missionaries were tightly identified with the colonialists. Despite heroes such as Matteo Rici, too often missionaries conformed to the stereotype. 

For example, Italian scholar Gianni La Bella presented a fascinating paper in which he quoted from a deathbed report by Italian missionary Fr. Barnaba da Cologna in 1911. Among other things, Fr. Barnaba complained that many missionaries, especially the French and Germans, beat Chinese Christians with canes. The people do not rebel because they are afraid, but they “hate the necessity of being Christian,” Fr. Barnaba wrote. Some missionaries carried guns, he said, still others were involved in financial shenanigans. 

Such memories, however partial and exaggerated, help explain the reaction of the Chinese government in 2000 when John Paul II canonized 120 martyrs, many of them missionaries killed in the Boxer Rebellion. The government claimed the pope was exalting imperialists, and the impasse slowed progress towards diplomatic relations. 

The Vatican currently recognizes Taiwan as “China,” though Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano famously said in 1999 that the Vatican would move its embassy from Taipei to Beijing “not tomorrow, but tonight” if the mainland would agree.

Why don’t the Chinese take up the offer? I recently talked about it over lunch with Raymond Tai, Taiwan’s ambassador to the Holy See.

China has imposed two conditions: first, the Vatican must break its relations with Taiwan; second, it must agree to government oversight of the internal life of the Catholic Church.

For obvious reasons, Tai sees the first condition as unfair, noting that the Chinese did not demand that the United States break relations with Taiwan before opening diplomatic ties.

For the Vatican, however, the second condition is most problematic. While the Vatican would probably be willing to make concessions on issues such as the appointment of bishops, Tai said, it cannot simply turn over the running of the church to the Patriotic Association. Meanwhile China cannot grant religious freedom to the Catholic Church, Tai believes, without facing pressure to do the same for Tibetan Buddhists, the Falun Gong, and other religious movements. Thus for the moment things are blocked.

In a paper delivered in the Netherlands in 2002, Tai quoted from a conversation he had with John Paul II, in which he proposed joint efforts to promote freedom in mainland China. “Our common desire! Our common desire!” the pope responded. “It is our common desire.”

* * *

Great entertainers could make a telephone book seem funny, or moving, by force of their charisma. Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft is such a figure, and in late March he made two hours of discussion about an obscure Assyrian liturgical agreement seem riveting.

A sample. At one point my colleague Robert Blair Kaiser asked Taft if his paper could be used to support a “radical” conclusion, i.e., that Catholic communities can pick their own ministers without respect to the ordained priesthood. 

Taft’s reply?

“You’re not going to find any radical theology in here. My orthodoxy’s so high it’ll give you a nosebleed,” he thundered. “It’s traditional theology, but from someone who knows the whole tradition, not just the day before yesterday’s popular tradition.”

Taft’s subject was an October 26, 2001, agreement on the Eucharist between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. I interviewed Taft when the ruling first appeared:

The agreement provides for inter-communion between the Assyrian Church of the East and its parallel Eastern rite Catholic church, the Chaldean Catholic Church. In so doing, the Vatican accepted the Eucharistic prayer used by the Assyrians, called the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, even though it does not contain an “institution narrative.” These are the words of Christ at the Last Supper: “Take this, all of you, and eat it,” etc.

Taft calls the agreement “the most remarkable Catholic magisterial document since Vatican II.” He believes that by treating consecration as something accomplished by the entire liturgical prayer, and not by an isolated set of “magic words,” the Vatican has repudiated a quasi-mechanistic understanding that “seriously warped popular Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.”

A striking part of Taft’s presentation was his description of what he calls “ecumenical scholarship” — a “way of studying Christian tradition in order to reconcile and unite, rather than to confute and dominate.” Taft unfolded this vision at Rome’s Centre Pro Unione, the very spot where ecumenical observers at Vatican II met.

* * *

One of the wonderful things about Rome is that many of the finest minds in the Catholic Church are at your fingertips. In the same week that Taft lectured, for example, another great Jesuit scholar, Australian theologian Fr. Gerry O’Collins, spoke after the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at Santa Susanna on the resurrection.

O’Collins rebutted attempts to “explain away” the resurrection, either by treating it as symbolic language in which the apostles were really talking about their own faith, or as a form of psychological projection similar to what bereaved people experience when they “see” or “hear” loved ones again.

“Easter faith allows us to walk in new ways and sing new songs,” O’Collins said. “Easter is the wonderful morning after the terrible night of the crucifixion.”

Few people, I suspect, offer a better model of “Easter living” than O’Collins, whose good humor and generosity suggest someone who has indeed glimpsed the life that lies beyond death. 

* * *

An unusual ecumenical delegation will be in Rome April 5-9. Catholic Archbishop William Levada, Episcopalian Bishop W. Swing, and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony, all of San Francisco, are traveling together across Europe. They are meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury, the pope, and the Patriarch of Constantinople, and visiting various pilgrimage sites.

In a press release, they identify their aims as follows:

(1) To pray together at the spiritual home of each of the three religious traditions and express the hope each leader holds for the day when all will share full Christian unity;

(2) To witness to the close bond of friendship that has developed over the past decades between the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Anglican bishops in San Francisco;

(3) To build on the growing sense of unity whereby social issues have been addressed in common and prayer services have been held that included all constituencies;

(4) To demonstrate an earnest desire to become more knowledgeable and appreciative of each other’s faith traditions;

(5) To underscore the promise of hope in an often fractured and divided world that there are religious communities reaching out to one another;

(6) To offer our prayers for lasting peace in the face of war, terrorism and violence.

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

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