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April 7, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 31

John L. Allen Jr.


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Mahony on immigration; Bishop Trautman on contemporary liturgical debates; Fr. Timothy Radcliffe on hope in the church; Young Catholics in Texas


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Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles has put the Catholic Church in the United States squarely on the front lines in a burgeoning national debate over immigration policy.

Mahony, whose advocacy on behalf of immigrants reaches back to his days in the early 1980s as the bishop of Stockton, California, has not only opposed the new "Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act," passed by the House of Representatives on December 16, but has announced that he would instruct his priests to disobey provisions that could require them to check an immigrant's documents before providing pastoral care.

The Senate is currently considering an alternative, "comprehensive" immigration reform measure that includes a guest worker program, which Mahony regards as a more humane alternative.

Mahony was back at it during his March 31-April 1 Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, a gathering of 40,000 catechists and religious educators from around the country. During the event, he announced that he was calling on Catholics to set aside this Wednesday as a day of prayer and fasting ahead of the Senate vote.

The large crowd Saturday morning roared its approval.

I sat down with Mahony just after he made the announcement. Our interview was largely dedicated to my upcoming book The Upside Down Church, but we also talked about the immigration debate. Excerpts are below.

To hear this interview as a podcast, click on the icon at left or download from this link: Mahony Interview.mp3. A high-speed line is recommended.
Portions of my interview with Mahony are available as an NCRpodcast. To hear the interview, click on the icon at right or download the file using the link provided. This is, in fact, the debut NCRpodcast, a new Web feature that you will be seeing more of in the near future. Every week in this column and the NCR newspaper, you read about newsmakers in the church. Now you'll be able to hear their voices.

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A recent piece titled 'Cardinal Errors' in National Review suggested that you are overstepping your bounds by opposing particular pieces of legislation and proposing others. How do you respond?
Basically, by saying that there is no such thing as a purely political piece of legislation. If it affects people, then it has ethical and moral dimensions. Nothing has more dramatic moral implications than immigration policy. It greatly affects people living in our midst, people whom we serve. So it is not just a political issue, or civic issue. It's very much who we are. Go back to Jesus. Go back to the 1700s … the Catholic Church in this country has always been consistently with the immigrants, always having these battles. We opposed 'Irish Need Not Apply,' and even when the Jews were being attacked in the cities, we've always been there with them. I think that's a wonderful tradition.

What gave me the impetus to come out and say, 'We're not going to do it,' is that this bill, Sensenbrenner Bill 4437, got passed just before Christmas. It was December 16th, and nobody was focused on it. Everybody was focused on the holidays and nobody was paying much attention. National Migration Day was the first weekend after Jan. 1 in the United States, so we had a big Migration Mass, and I brought this up. I said there's a sleeper out there, this bill. If you tease it out to its absurd finality, it means that giving many kinds of aid to immigrants makes you a felon.

Giving a sandwich to a hungry man could theoretically be a criminal act.
Absolutely. Let me just give a couple of examples that are so absurd, people just say, 'What?' The one I used was, because we have undocumented people who come to our churches, do we now in the Communion line ask to see documentation before we give them the Body and Blood of Christ? People got that as an absurd implication. The other side yells 'that's not what we mean.' Well, that's not what they intended, but if you tease it out to its extreme, that's what it amounts to, this kind of nonsense. That's what got people's attention, [asking], what's in this bill?

Congress has a lot of fault to carry, a lot of it. I talked yesterday to Senator Feinstein on the phone, and I think we've been able to turn her around very nicely. Even Boxer. They were very hesitant to look at a comprehensive bill. I said to Senator Feinstein, there are five elements of a comprehensive bill that are necessary. When we only do one or two of them, we suffer the consequences of not doing the others. For example, in 1986, we did this comprehensive amnesty thing, but you, Congress, didn't do the rest of it. All of a sudden you wake up and say, 'We've got 11 million undocumented people here. How did this happen?' Because you didn't give any leadership to deal with it. We can't make that mistake again. We've got to do the whole thing this time.

We've got to deal with the people who are here, we've got to deal with the people who are coming, we've got to deal with the fact that this is a magnet for jobs because no one here will do the jobs, we've got to deal with the kids in high school and college … all the pieces and parts have to be dealt with. Otherwise, we're going to end up 10 or 20 years from now saying, 'Oh my God, we've got all these illegals.'

I just felt it was necessary to get out there in front with it, but to do it in our spiritual gospel tradition of making room for the strangers, as Jesus said. It coincided nicely with Ash Wednesday, and with my own message about making room for Jesus and the specific plight of migrants. Then, the Senate decided we're going to deal with it.

Could a Catholic in good faith vote in favor of the Sensenbrenner bill?
I don't think so. I don't think they could vote in good faith.

So this is not a matter of prudential judgment on which you would recognize the legitimacy of other views. It's an absolute?
It's an absolute because it is so punitive. It punishes people for being here in ways that we've never, ever discussed in this country. We've never had this kind of thing, ever.

What would you do if a Catholic politician in your archdiocese supports it anyway?
It's my hope that this legislation will never come to a vote.

But if it did, and a Catholic politician voted for it?
I'm not going to do anything. I'm not going to toss them out or deny them Communion. I'm just going to say, 'You're really missing the point here.' In the negative comments I've received, almost all of them don't understand the issues at all. It's just this emotional response. My point is not that we want amnesty for everyone here, nor do we want to break laws. Basically, those things aren't going to solve the problem either. This is not only a theological and traditional argument, but [a punitive solution] just isn't going to work. I asked one person the other day who said what the governor should do is just deport all 11 million people. I said, the government couldn't evacuate New Orleans, let alone this. Give me a break. It's never going to happen. What I'm trying to do is to encourage Catholic legislators to understand the issues and to come up with a just, humane policy that works for the good of the people and the country.

[Editor's Note: The "Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act" passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 239 to 182, drawing support from a number of Catholics, including Californians Rep. Richard Pombo, who represents the Stockton area where Mahony was once bishop, and Rep. Edward Royce, whose district is in Orange County, where the Religious Education Congress was held. Both men are Republicans.]

What kind of responses have you received from your brother bishops?
Quite positive. At least, I haven't received any negative, but they probably wouldn't have written. But remember, we voted as bishops with Strangers in Our Midst to have this big effort. We developed the parish resource kits, they've been sent out across the country.

You have a sense that there's a genuine consensus in the conference behind the position you've taken?
The five goals that we've published in our resource kits are the things I'm talking about. This is what we agreed to do. I just was given the opportunity to inaugurate it in a way that got attention.

[Editor's Note: The five goals to which Mahony refers are: 1) Global Anti-Poverty Efforts, 2) Reunifying Families, 3) A Temporary Worker Program, 4) Broad-Based Legalization, and 5) Restoring Due Process.]

This is a divisive issue, and no doubt there are people in your archdiocese with different feelings. How do you deal with that?
One of the things I've done is to point out that our response to immigrants in our midst is truly one of our pro-life issues. I've tried to frame it as one of the pro-life issues, because it is. That helps people. This is a pro-life issue.

More than that, the negative letters I've gotten … I haven't read them all, but I ask my secretary to give me an assortment. Most simply don't understand the issues and what the church is trying to do. … It's pretty tough when you take Matthew 25, and one of the categories [for the Last Judgment] is how you care for strangers. Of course, the Old Testament is even stronger in terms of our response to aliens in our midst. …

But I also tell proponents of immigration reform that you can't do dumb things that are going to continue to cloud the issue. Carrying Mexican flags in a demonstration for immigration reform in the United States is stupid. It simply creates the wrong message, because that isn't the message. Take out the Mexican flags and give everybody an American flag. That's what this is about, making people citizens, for God's sake. So I try to encourage people to do things that are going to be effective. Do things that are going to help.

Your activism also, it seems to me, gives the lie to the myth that because of the sexual abuse crisis the Church has been muzzled in the public square.
Absolutely. What has happened in the last few years is that we as bishops have had opportunities to have a public voice and role, but have been very hesitant, and just kind of sat out a number of these things.

Are you thinking of the war?
No, I'm thinking of local things, for example, police abuse and over-reactions in certain communities. We've had a lot of that across the United States. I think bishops normally would have said something, saying police are over-reacting and categorizing people in ethnic groups, but in many cases they just remained silent. The gap, the chasm, between the wealthy and the middle class … the fact there's almost no middle class left. The minimum wage, affordable housing, we just kind of sat it out, because we were afraid to appear above the sandbags. We were hiding. … Had this come up two years ago, three years ago, I don't know what the reality would have been then. I just know that in our archdiocese, this issue is so important that even during these years I always spoke up.

But what this illustrates is that the way to get off the mat is to get off the mat.
That's right. To venture forth and say, [the sexual abuse crisis] is not the only thing affecting the life of the church. We have a mission, and we have to follow it without hesitation. I'm hopeful this will free us up to be church again in the community.

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Also at the Los Angeles congress, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Penn., gave a presentation on contemporary liturgical debates. Trautman, the chair of the bishops' liturgy committee, offered a ringing critique of the proposed new translation of the Sacramentary, or the book of prayers for use in the Mass, which will come up for a vote before the American bishops in June.

The draft is the result of the "liturgy wars" that have rocked the English-speaking world since the mid-1990s, with the new text reflecting the more traditional style of translation, closer to the Latin originals, demanded by Rome in the May 2001 document Liturgiam Authenticam.

Trautman is a critic of that document, so ironically the chair of the U.S. bishop's liturgy committee is now opposed to the text produced by the English-speaking bishops' own translation agency, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, which is seen as closer in outlook to the Roman approach. Trautman's comments in Los Angeles built on a recent lecture given at St. John's in Collegeville, Minn., March 26. The full text of that lecture can be found here:

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Trautman called the June vote on the new Sacramentary a "decisive and defining" moment, acknowledging candidly that the conference is "divided."

"Liturgical language must not just be faithful and accurate, but intelligible, proclaimable, dignified, and reflective of the contemporary mainstream of the English language as spoken in the United States," Trautman said.

The heart of Trautman's argument was that too often, in its search for a "sacred vocabulary," the new translations veer into vocabulary and constructions foreign to the "living language of the worshipping assembly," thus failing to promote the "full, conscious and active participation" that was the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Trautman offered several examples.

In the Nicene Creed, for example, the new Sacramentary replaces the now-familiar phrase "one in being with the Father" with the more technical term "consubstantial with the Father." Rather than "born of the Virgin Mary," the proposed translation says "incarnate of the Virgin Mary."

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Further, the First Eucharistic Prayer refers to a "precious chalice," not a "cup," an instance, Trautman argued, of "imposing an agenda" on what the Bible actually says.

Often, Trautman said, these new translations are closer to the Latin original, but he argued that they needlessly dislodge "accurate, orthodox formulations of the faith we have prayed for the last 35 years."

Defenders of the new translation, Trautman said, often concede that catechesis will be necessary to explain unfamiliar terms, but he voiced skepticism that such catechesis will work.

"We can't motivate priests to go out and explain these texts unless they're convinced the changes are really necessary," he said.

Further, Trautman said, his pastoral instincts suggest that relying on catechesis to compensate for awkward texts isn't realistic.

"People won't run to the priest after Mass and ask, what did that odd word mean?" Trautman said. "I was in a parish for five years, and if my experience is still valid, I don't think it will work that way."

Finally, Trautman appealed to the example of a translation of the Book of Rites carried out under authorization from the U.S. bishops in the early 1950s by Holy Cross Fr. Michael Mathis, who wrote that a good translation "adapts to the genius of the language," resulting in an approach that is neither "slavishly exact or loosely free, neither archaic nor foreign, but American."

"Will the wisdom of 1953 inform present-day bishops in their handling of present-day translations?" Trautman asked rhetorically. "We pray, and we plea."

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On a political note, observers of the conference note that approval of a new translation requires two-thirds of the voting bishops. Hence Trautman only needs to sway one-third of his brother bishops, and a consultation at their last meeting suggested a roughly 50-50 split on the new text.

On the other hand, observers say, some bishops are simply tired of the debate, and may vote to bring it to closure even if they're not fully happy with the result.

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In the spirit of fair play, I asked Fr. Bruce Harbert, executive director of ICEL, if he would like to offer a defense of the new translations. The following is Harbert's reply.

Previous liturgical translations followed a mistaken theory which saw language merely as a medium for communicating facts. Many elements rejected as "outmoded rhetoric" were in fact expressions of feeling.

When we call Jesus' mother "blessed," we are expressing our love for her. When we call God "almighty and everlasting" we voice our respect; when we ask God to do something "kindly" or "graciously" we gratefully acknowledge his mercy. Similarly, we speak of the apostles and the church with reverence as "holy," we say that we have sinned "greatly" to express horror at our sins, and we even speak lovingly of the Host as "spotless" and the Chalice as "precious."

Sometimes we convey emotion by three-fold patterns, as when we give "three cheers" for a person or team. Thus, in the liturgy, we echo the angels' song "Holy, Holy, Holy," we lament that we have sinned "through my fault, through my fault, through my grievous fault," we honor Christ as "the pure victim, the holy victim, the spotless victim."

Bishop Trautman, a fine Biblical scholar, says the New Testament uses "ordinary language, spoken in the market place, on the streets and at the supper table." True, but it also uses emotionally heightened language, as in Revelation or in John's Gospel at the Last Supper, where Jesus utters thoughts of the most exquisite intimacy. The liturgy must do the same: it must speak the language of Gethsemane as well as of the supermarket.

Much criticism has been voiced of the proposed response "And with your spirit" to the priest's greeting. "'And also with you' is enough," people say. But some Americans, instead of saying "Come here," will say, "Get your butt over here," to express impatience. When we speak of "your spirit" we are using a similar device, but in this case to express respect for the priest as a temple of the Holy Spirit.

We hear much about "active participation" in the liturgy as desired by Vatican II. I wonder whether that is the best possible translation of the Council's words. I can participate in an event without getting really involved, and I can get involved as a spectator at a game of football without participating. I think "active involvement" expresses better what the Council wanted: not merely "joining in," but being drawn in, heart and mind. For that to happen, the liturgy must express feelings as well as facts.

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On Saturday morning in Los Angeles, Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, master general of the worldwide Dominican order from 1992 to 2001, delivered a keynote lecture on "The Church as Sign of Hope and Freedom."

On the subject of the church and homosexuality, Radcliffe called for the church to "stand with" gay people.

"We must accompany them as they discern what this means, letting our images be stretched open," he said. "This means watching 'Brokeback Mountain,' reading gay novels, living with our gay friends and listening with them as they listen to the Lord."

Even when we feel that gay people are moving in the wrong direction, he said, we must "walk with them."

Radcliffe, an Englishman, later addressed what he called the "ideological divisions in the church in the United States," saying they struck him as deeper "than anywhere else in the world."

"We are not a sign of God's freedom until we can dare to belong to each other across every theological boundary," Radcliffe said, drawing sustained applause from the crowd in the Anaheim arena.

Radcliffe called for compassion for various constituencies, including sexually abusing priests, whom he described as "the lepers of the modern church, the unclean whom we fear to touch."

Radcliffe then contrasted the spirit of the gospels with a political approach he called "expediency," meaning a willingness to treat people as means rather than ends -- the supreme instance, he said, being the attitude of "better one man should die than a risk of unrest" which led to Jesus' death on the Cross.

Radcliffe described the Allied firebombing of Dresden during the Second World War, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the detention centers at Guantanamo Bay, and the practice of "special renditions," in effect meaning torture, now in use as part of the War on Terror, as examples of the logic of "expediency."

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On April 3, I lectured at the University of Texas Catholic Center in Austin, which is a ministry of the Paulist Fathers. The next day, I sat down with a group of 10 students active at the center, ranging in age from 18 to 33, representing a wide cross-section of majors, ethnicities, and backgrounds. We shared that quintessential collegiate experience -- Domino's Pizza -- and talked about issues in the church.

What became clear is that these young people are deeply "intentional" Catholics, meaning that in this day and age, their faith is not something they picked up in the air, but the result of a personal process of thought and decision. They didn't start out as believers and only later discover that some aspects of church teaching are counter-cultural; they know the broader culture is hostile to some of what the church stands for, and have made a conscious decision to embrace it anyway.

All expressed deep admiration for Pope John Paul II.

"He had a tough childhood, and he lived through war-torn Europe," said Paolo Puccini, 18, a Mechanical Engineering major. "Most people probably would have had a total loss of faith. But he found hope, and love. He saw the goodness in the world and in other people."

Amelia Perry, 20, an Asian Studies and history major, put it simply: "He could do no wrong."

Pushing these young Catholics to dig deeper, to look at the church "warts and all," I learned that their frustrations are rarely the ones that journalists and sociologists usually assume they should have -- teachings on birth control and homosexuality, for example, or power in the church.

Instead, their major complaint seemed to be with pedagogy and communications.

Religious education and preaching, they said, rarely offers the meaty content that a Catholic needs. Further, they said, even when the church does provide solid content, it rarely does so in an accessible, engaging way.

In other words, these 20-somethings share something of the desire of the Vatican II generation for a more "modern" church -- but, unlike Baby Boomers, by "modern" they mean technological sophistication and savvy about engaging the cultural debate, not doctrinal change or structural reform.

"The church has to modernize, not in the sense of changing its mind, but in strategies to communicate its ideas," said Puccini.

Riccardo Gutiérrez, 20, a microbiology major, said that if he were pope for a day, his top priority would be "information."

"The reasons for the teaching are there, but you have to sit down and talk with priests, or find it in books," he said. "On homosexuality, for example, it's not just that the church doesn't agree with it -- there's a deep explanation, but people don't know what it is."

Perry was more blunt. When asked what her papal agenda would be, she shot back, "Fire all the PR people for the church!" Laughing, she said that had come out a bit harsher than she meant it, but added, "It's time for new blood."

Several expressed frustration, for example, with the limited use made by the Vatican and the U.S. bishops of the Internet.

Maria Fredericks, 19, an honors major, said she had occasionally visited the Vatican Web site, but that it is "difficult to use" and largely offers lengthy texts.

"I want bullet points," she said. "I want easy-to-digest pieces. I want this to be presented in ways that will actually reach people."

When I suggested that putting a couple of them to work for an afternoon would likely produce a much snappier Internet operation for the church, heads nodded aggressively.

Fredericks, who said she's writing her thesis on communications strategy for the church, was especially emphatic.

"When it comes to birth control, for example, lots of people believe the church contributes to over-population in places such as India, China and Africa," Fredericks said. "They don't know how the church empowers women, or about the reality of demographics. We have to be smarter about getting that out."

None of this means these young Catholics are incapable of substantive criticism.

Puccini, for example, said he had been disappointed that John Paul II did not do more to demand "accountability" for the sexual abuse crisis. He also said the church should do a better job of projecting compassion for homosexuals, even while maintaining its present doctrine.

Brandon Kraft, 21, said he embraces the church's teaching on the priesthood, but would like to see women in other sorts of leadership positions at senior levels, such as chancellors of dioceses and diocesan advisory councils.

"The church tends to be a boy's club on top and a women's club on bottom," Kraft said. "We need to even it out a little bit."

Claudia Torres, 33, majoring in materials science and engineering, said she felt sometimes there was too much razzle-dazzle around John Paul II.

"I remember when he came to my home, in Mexico," she said. "Everyone was so excited to see him, but no one remembered what he said."

Yet these comments were offered in a spirit of constructive critique, not anger, and most said they're turned off by attempts to see the church in ideological terms as a struggle between left and right.

"Things are not going to stay as extremist as they are," Perry said. "By the time we're in our 50s or 60s, it won't be the same."

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

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