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 The Word From Rome

April 23, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 35

global perspective


"There's a sense in which, if we didn't crackdown, somebody should crackdown on us for not doing our duty."

Cardinal Francis Arinze,
head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments speaking about Redemptionis sacramentum, a long-awaited document on liturgical abuses.

"It's a predictable document. It's obviously a further attempt at tightening the reins, but it's much less offensive or restrictive than had been rumored."

Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers,
professor of liturgy at Rome's Gregorian University

Kerry and communion; Liturgical abuse document released; The Vatican and terrorism; A talk by Passionist Fr. Donald Senior; 'New movements' congress in Stuttgart; North American College honors


Since John Kerry emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States, American Catholics have been locked in debate over whether a Catholic politician with a pro-choice voting record like Kerry’s should be admitted to communion.

The U.S. bishops are currently studying the question, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., met privately with Kerry last week for 45 minutes. Kerry, a Catholic whose first marriage was annulled, recently received communion during Sunday Mass at the Paulist Center in Boston, Mass.

Some Americans have been holding their breath to see if Rome would wade into the debate. On April 23, we got something of an answer.

Asked at a Vatican news conference whether a politician who supports abortion should be denied communion, Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian who heads the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, said unambiguously: “Yes.”

“Objectively, the answer is clear,” Arinze said. “The person is not fit. If he shouldn’t receive it, then it shouldn’t be given.”

Arinze said that if the priest is “surprised,” meaning that he was unaware of the politician’s record or his presence at Mass, he might be excused for being flustered and administering communion in a given situation. In general, however, the discipline of the church should be upheld, Arinze said.

At the same time, Arinze declined to take sides specifically on the Kerry debate.

“The norm of the church is clear,” he said. “The Catholic church exists in the United States. There are bishops there. Let them interpret it.”

Hence, the bottom line on the Vatican stance, as expressed by Arinze: This is a question for the U.S. bishops, but the answer is fairly clear.

* * *

Arinze’s appearance at the Vatican news conference was in conjunction with the publication of a long-awaited document on liturgical abuses. The document was rumored to bring a Roman hammer down on a number of practices that have become common in various parts of the world: inter-communion with Protestants, for example, or liturgical dance, or altar girls.

In the end, the hammer was something of a rubber mallet.

Titled Redemptionis sacramentum, the document’s tone is juridical and frequently critical of abuses “which obviously cannot be allowed and must cease.” At the same time, many liturgists around Rome breathed a sigh of relief April 23 because the document creates no new restrictions and/or bans, and even where it is obviously lukewarm about a given practice – altar girls, for example, or communion in the hand – the document tolerates it.

Redemptionis sacramentum, according to the experts, adds nothing to existing liturgical law.

“It’s a predictable document,” said Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, who teaches liturgy at Rome’s Gregorian University. “It’s obviously a further attempt at tightening the reins, but it’s much less offensive or restrictive than had been rumored.”

Arinze denied that the document amounts to a Roman crackdown.

“We didn’t crackdown on anybody,” he told NCR. “Look, it’s like soccer – you have to have some rules. If you could just score from anywhere, fighting and tossing bottles would be the result. This is much more serious, because it’s not just a game, it’s our faith.”

At the same time, Arinze did not deny the disciplinary thrust.

“There’s a sense in which, if we didn’t crackdown, somebody should crackdown on us for not doing our duty,” he said.

Other key points in the document include:

• A ban on the use of unapproved texts and rites
• The absolute necessity of an ordained priest for the celebration of the liturgy
• Use of appropriate vessels and vestments
• A ban on using non-Biblical texts for the readings and responsorial psalms
• A ban on lay people giving homilies
• An insistence on using lay ministers of the Eucharist only when there is an insufficient number of priests to distribute communion
• Laity may not hand one another consecrated hosts or the chalice
• The Mass may not be divided, with different parts celebrated at different times
• Priests always have the right to celebrate the Mass in Latin, but according to the post-Vatican II rite
• The obligation of Sunday Mass cannot be satisfied with ecumenical services
• Insistence that communion must not be given to non-Catholics and non-Christians in violation of church rules.

Despite the clear emphasis on distinguishing priests and lay persons, Arinze insisted that the spirit of the document was upholding a correct understanding of the nature of the Mass. It is not, he said, a matter of “prejudices against the laity.”

Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, told reporters that the document originated in complaints about abuses that had arrived at the Vatican over the years from various parts of the world.

“At the origin of this document, as with the encyclical, was an action of the people of God in relation with the Holy See, who requested clarifications and made protests. There is a sensibility and a love of God, and people often suffer from the way in which the Lord is sometimes treated.”

Pecklers told NCR there are some clarifications that liturgists will welcome. He cited the clarification that the Eucharistic bread should not be broken in the moment of consecration, for example, or that priests should not improvise the Eucharistic prayers.

* * *

When Phil Mickelson won the Master’s golf tournament in April, marking his first victory in a major event after more than 10 years of trying, it was a triumph of persistence. The chief difference between Mickelson and others who might have given up after a decade of frustration is that he kept coming.

It’s a lesson that U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson also seems to have learned.

On April 22, Nicholson once again pressed the Bush administration’s case for a new approach to terrorism, trying to move opinion within the Vatican, which to date has not warmed to the idea. Nicholson sponsored a one-day conference at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University on  “Revitalizing International Law to Meet the Challenge of Terrorism.”

The bottom line, according to Nicholson’s line-up of speakers: Terrorism represents a new threat, for which new tools are available, and both moral reflection and international law need to reflect these changes.

A number of mid-level Vatican officials were in attendance, though key policy maker such as Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the pope’s foreign minister, did not participate.

Legionaries of Christ Fr. Thomas Williams, an American who is dean of the theology faculty at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum, tried to place the anti-war bias of recent magisterial teaching in historical context. Much of the prejudice against war from modern popes, he said, took shape against the backdrop of the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Given the overwhelmingly destructive nature of the weapons that the Cuban missle crisis might have unleashed, it was eminently rational for John XXIII to write in Pacem in Terris that war is an “irrational means of vindicating violated rights.”

Things look different today, Williams argued, since in a post-Cold War world the use of military force no longer automatically risks a global nuclear conflagration.

“In contemporary reflection on just war theory,” Williams said, “the development of ever more precise weaponry must be added to the equation. Recent experience has shown that such advances have made possible more limited warfare and discriminate strikes on strategic military targets with fewer civilian casualties and less destruction of property. Such military development can in no way lessen our unflagging commitment to peace, but should nonetheless be included in objectively evaluating specific military action.”

Such developments, Williams said in response to a question from Nicholson, “necessarily call for a revision of the way just war theory is laid out.”

“Things don’t just get worse,” Williams said. “Sometimes they also get better.”

Joseph McMillan, a senior research fellow at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., argued that international law already contains concepts that could be applied to the terrorist threat.

Most prominently, McMillan said, international law in the 19th century defined pirates as “enemies of all mankind,” which implied a responsibility of all states to declare war on piracy. Further, McMillan suggested, if a state failed to effectively combat piracy on the territory under its jurisdiction, it risked forfeiting its sovereignty. The same approach might be extended to terrorists, who McMillan said are even more obviously common enemies of humanity.

I asked McMillan about the Holy See’s insistence that it ought to be up to the United Nations, not the White House, to decide when these conditions have been satisfied.

He replied that the United Nations charter should not be read in a way that would limit the rights of states to combat these threats. He quoted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson to the effect that the American Bill of Rights “is not a suicide pact.” The same point, he said, could be made about the U.N. charter.

David Rivkin, an American expert on terrorism and international law, agreed.

“Legitimacy in the United Nations is derived from powers ceded by sovereign states. So how could an agent of sovereign states, which is what the United Nations is, have greater legitimacy than the states themselves?”

“On the basis of classic political theory, popular legitimacy emphatically does not reside at the UN. This is a statement of fact,” Rivkin said.

McMillan said political reality is that despite the obvious need to address the causes of terrorism, there will be times when preferred options are not available, and states will act to defend themselves. If international law does not reflect that reality, he said, it risks losing credibility.

In the end, it was unclear how much of a dent the conference might make in the evolution of Vatican thinking. At least on the role of the United Nations, the differences between the Holy See and the White House seem unlikely to narrow in the short term. (It’s not just the Vatican. The two French speakers invited to be part of the panel at the Gregorian, including Ambassador to the Holy See Pierre Morel, seemed more optimistic about the U.N.’s capacity to take a lead role).

Given Nicholson’s determination, however, it’s also unlikely this is the last time the Holy See will find itself pressed on the point.

* * *

Rome’s Jewish synagogue celebrates the 100th anniversary of its foundation this spring, and the local Jewish community had been hoping that John Paul II would repeat his historic 1986 visit, the first time a pope had set foot in a synagogue since the era of St. Peter. John Paul on that occasion called the covenant with Judaism “irrevocable.”

On April 20, however, the Vatican announced that John Paul would not make the brief cross-town trip. Two possible explanations suggest themselves: 1) John Paul’s declining health makes such a visit inadvisable, or 2) Christian/Jewish relations are simply not the front-burner concern for the pope as they were in the 1980s … in the pre-9/11 era. Vatican officials, however, insisted that neither applies.

A senior Vatican official spoke to NCR April 21.

On the health issue, the senior official said that it’s ludicrous to believe the pope is so weak that he couldn’t handle a 10-minute car ride. In fact, he said, the Vatican is presently preparing three trips for John Paul in 2004: to Bern in Switzerland, to France, and to Loretto in Italy. In addition, this official said, it’s still not completely out of the question that John Paul may opt to attend a Eucharistic congress in Mexico in the Fall. Bottom line, according to this senior official: the pope is easily well enough to have gone to the synagogue.

As for a papal loss of interest, the senior official said it’s exactly the opposite. John Paul wanted his 1986 visit to remain singular, the official said. He didn’t want it to become yet another stop on his standard itinerary and hence lose its significance. He wants the texts and gestures of that day to be studied for the next generation, and hence doesn’t want to compromise their uniqueness.

This official said John Paul fully expects that synagogue visits will become standard practice for future popes.

In reality, another factor explains the pope’s absence. Speaking on background, Vatican officials told NCR that a papal visit to the synagogue would be read in terms of the politics of the Middle East. At present, the Holy See has serious differences with the Israeli government — on the construction of a security wall, on the policy of targeted killings, and on the legal and economic status of the Catholic church in Israel. In such a context, a papal visit to the synagogue seemed, in the eyes of many Vatican strategists, inadvisable.

* * *

The late Sulpician Fr. Raymond Brown was one of the greatest Catholic Biblical scholars of the 20th century. Through no ambition of his own, he was also a lightning rod for controversy. A moderate who placed his scholarship at the service of the church, Brown nevertheless became a symbol of the historical-critical approach to scripture, and Catholic traditionalists who associated this method with what they saw as the decline of the post-conciliar church attacked him viciously.

If Brown has a successor today — in terms of both scholarship and his spirit of ecclesial service — it may well be Passionist Fr. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Like Brown, Senior is a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and also like Brown, he is a friend of Rome’s Lay Centre, where he delivered the “Raymond Brown Lecture” on April 21.

Senior was in Rome for a session of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which is currently working on a new document on the Bible and morality. The topic of his lecture, however, was “The Gospels and the Call to Mission.”

Senior began with a sober assessment of the “pain and loss” in today’s world. Terrorism, along with ethnic and religious divisions, generates violence that seems to have no end. Economic insecurity raises collective anxieties.

The church is suffering as well.

“In the United States, at least,” Senior said, “the scandal of sexual misconduct on the part of priests and religious and the failure of some bishops and religious superiors to adequately respond to this crisis has scarred the church and raised profound and fundamental questions about its moral leadership.”

Against this backdrop, Senior suggested, Christians need to recover the “depth and beauty” of its mission.

“This is not a time for hesitation or retreat,” Senior said. “We need to keep the arena large.”

As an educator, Senior said he is conscious of the large numbers of young men and women who are seeking something vast, something transcendent, to which to commit themselves. A Chicagoan, Senior quoted the famous advice of architect Daniel Burnham to Chicago’s city planners a century ago: “Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

In this context, Senior suggested the recovery of the deep sense of mission implied in the New Testament, and especially the life of Christ. This is more than the mission ad gentes, meaning the conversion of non-Christian peoples, though this remains valid. “Mission” in the Biblical sense means nothing less than the salvation and reconciliation of humanity.

“Its spirit is not imperialistic or dominating,” Senior said. “Even as the gospel is proclaimed with confidence and with gratitude for its proven beauty, evangelization is done in a spirit of respect for others and their sacred traditions and the integrity of their cultures.”

Senior characterized Jesus’ sense of mission in terms of “reaching out and drawing in,” which constituted one fluid movement analogous to breathing. Even though Christ did not pursue a mission to the gentiles, since his direct concern was for the lost sheep of the House of Israel, his outreach shattered religious and cultural boundaries. Jesus was, in the words of Matthew 11:18, “a lover of tax collectors and those outside the law.” Hence it was natural for Paul and the other leaders of the early church to extend this saving mission to non-Jews.

Having reached out, Christ then gathered in — drawing people into a loving community, both a sign and an anticipation of communion with God. That, Senior suggested, is the “inner meaning” of the numerous meals that punctuate the New Testament — “meals with Levi and his friends, meals with Simon the Pharisee, meals with crowds on the hillsides, meals with disciples, the ideal meals described in his parables.” (Senior laughingly quoted another New Testament expert to the effect that “you can eat your way through the gospels.”)

“The enterprise to which we are called,” Senior said, “is far more fundamental than any of our concerns and far more crucial than we can imagine.”

* * *

Say “new movements” to most Catholics in the Anglo-Saxon world, and they’re likely to think “conservative.” This is in part because the movements are not especially well-established in English-speaking zones, so most Catholics know them only indirectly, either by reputation or from media images. Those groups with the highest public profile — Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ, or the Neocatechumenate — tend to seem “conservative” to outside observers.

(To be accurate, Opus Dei is a personal prelature, the Legionaries are a religious community, and the Neocatechumenate is a catechetical path, so none considers itself a “movement.” But in public parlance, all three are seen as part of the broader phenomena of new groups within the Catholic church in the 20th century).

The danger with this perception is that the movements will be ideologized, as if being sympathetic to the movements means siding with one faction or another in the church’s post-Vatican II cultural wars.

This is not how things seem from Rome, in part because some of the most active and visible movements here are not “conservative,” at least in the narrow, political sense. The Community of Sant’Egidio, for example, was born on the Catholic left amid the student protests of 1968, and the Focolare movement has always prioritized ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue as expressions of its guiding idea of the unity of the human family. Watching Sant’Egidio and Focolare work, it is impossible to regard the new movements as inhabiting a particular ideological niche.

Clear proof of the point will come May 8, when Sant’Egidio and Focolare will be among the main sponsors of a congress in Stuttgart, Germany, of Christian movements, communities and groups born in European countries before and after World War II.

More than 10,000 people are expected to take part, making it the largest gathering of church movements in history. These predominantly lay movements come out of the Evangelical, Lutheran, Orthodox and Catholic churches and the Anglican Communion. All are committed to dialogue, and to “generate an authentic life of the Gospel.” More than 200 movements will participate, some 50 Catholic groups among them.

In addition to the physical gathering in Stuttgart, the May 8 event will also be beamed live to 41 locations all over Europe, allowing thousands of other people to take part via satellite.

On Thursday, the Italian founders of Sant’Egidio, Andrea Riccardi, and of Focolare, Chiara Lubich, met with reporters in Rome to present the Stuttgart initiative. Three weeks earlier, a few of us in Rome had a briefing session with representatives of both movements to talk about the Stuttgart project. In keeping with the ecumenical thrust, we met at the Anglican Center in Rome and were welcomed by Bishop John Flack, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to the Holy See, as well as a long-time friend of the Focolare.

It would be logical to see the Stuttgart gathering against the backdrop of debate over a new European constitution, and the oft-voiced demand of Christian leaders, above all John Paul II, that this document contain an explicit reference to the Christian roots of Europe. Organizers, however, insist that Stuttgart is not a political rally in this sense, intended to lobby for a particular platform or set of issues.

“We are not a political party seeking to influence certain decisions,” said Paolo Ciani from Sant’Egidio. “Even on the constitution, there are diverse positions inside the movements that will participate.”

Carla Cotignoli, a spokesperson for Focolare, said the guiding idea of the Stuttgart gathering is to “give a gift of hope to Europe, without asking anything.”

“We want to manifest fraternity and an openness of 365 degrees to all, without new ghettoes,” Cotignoli said.

Another way to read the Stuttgart event would be as an attempt at a Christian “reconquest” of Europe in the context of growing religious diversity, especially fueled by Islamic immigration.  That interpretation too was rejected by organizers.

“We will speak about openness and welcome for the Muslim world,” Cotignoli said. “This is a first step, and we want to see what point we’re at as Christians.”

“This is not a violent affirmation of Christian identity,” Ciani said. “We are probably the part of Europe most open, most sensitive to other religious, especially to the Jewish tradition and to dialogue with the Muslim world.”

Information on the Stuttgart congress can be found at

* * *

Each year the North American College, the American seminary in Rome, honors one or more American Catholics for outstanding contributions to the church during a special black-tie “rector’s dinner.” The event is primarily a fundraiser for the college, but it is also an opportunity for Americans and English-speakers in Rome to gather. This year’s event took place on a gorgeous Roman evening on Thursday, April 22.

Honorees in 2004 were Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and Tom and Margaret Melady. Tom was ambassador to the Holy See under the first President George Bush; Margaret was president of American University of Rome.

To join in honoring Foley and the Meladys, the National Catholic Reporter bought a table. Shannon and I had the joy of inviting nine friends to join us: Msgr. Felix Machado of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Fr. Donald Bolen of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers of the Gregorian University; Amy Roth-Turnley of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See; Legionaries of Christ Fr. Thomas Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum; Hada Messiah of CNN; Marc Carroggio of the prelature of Opus Dei; Delia Gallagher, who writes for Zenit and Inside the Vatican and contributes to CNN; and Fr. Frans Thoolen of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees.

The crowd was dotted with ecclesiastical dignitaries. Cardinals present included Jean-Louis Tauran, Renato Martino, Gianbattista Re, Francesco Marchisano, Edmund Szoka, Achille Silvestrini, Francis Arinze and James Francis Stafford. The leadership team of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Bishops Wilton Gregory and William Skylstad and Msgr. William Fay, also turned out. (Gregory, Skylstad and Fay had been in an audience with John Paul that morning, and Gregory told me he was impressed with the sharpness of the pope’s questioning. Compared with last October, he said, John Paul seemed improved. Gregory also said he feels that “every day things are a little better” with the church in the United States.)

Archbishop Michael Miller, secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, delivered the evening’s opening prayer. Miller, a Basilian, previously served as president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston. The closing prayer came from Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of the military archdiocese.

In accepting his award, Foley addressed himself to the seminarians. He expressed the hope they find the joy that has been his since his ordination on May 19, 1962. Foley said he is “happy every day” that God gave him the gift of the priesthood.

The seminarians rounded off the evening with a rousing musical program featuring “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “O Danny Boy” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” then turned more somber for a concluding “Regina Coeli.”

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

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