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 The Word From Rome

April 25, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 35

global perspective


“With the support of the international community, may the Iraqi people become the protagonists of the collective rebuilding of their country.”

John Paul II 
Robust pope rouses Holy Week crowds; Dreaming of ecumenical peace coalition; Good Friday talk with Tommy Thompson; maladies of Vatican journalism


At no other point during the year is the pope before the public eye as much as during Holy Week. From Holy Thursday through Pasquetta (the Monday after Easter Sunday), there’s a minimum of one public appearance a day. Most liturgies stretch over at least a couple of hours. 

How John Paul II holds up has thus become the most-watched annual bellwether of his physical condition. 

This year, the verdict was largely positive. The pope kept all his appointments, celebrated all his Masses and delivered all his public addresses, including the annual Easter Sunday Urbi et Orbi greetings in 62 languages. 

He did so with verve. When building to rhetorical high points, such as any mention of Iraq or the need for peace, the pope’s voice became clear, strong, and booming. He was unusually comprehensible, even to people who didn’t have a text. At the end of the Urbi et Orbi remarks, the pope broke into song for the final greeting in Latin. (“The last language is the first!” he cheerfully quipped). The bit of bravado brought cheers from the crowd of 60,000 that had braved a rainy day in St. Peter’s Square.

One factor explaining the pope’s robust condition is his new rolling hydraulic chair. The device allows the pope to be wheeled into place in the sanctuary, and then raised up to the altar so he does not have to stand while celebrating the Eucharist. John Paul has aggravated arthritis in the right knee, so standing is wearying. Now he stands only for the reading of the gospel. For the same reason, the pope no longer walks the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. This year he held the cross in a seated position during the 14th station.

In typically discreet Vatican fashion, no one is referring to the chair with wheels as a “wheelchair.” Instead it is a “wheeled throne.”

Some have speculated that the improvement in the pope is due to a change in his medical regimen.  French physician Luc Montagnier, credited with having co-discovered the HIV virus, fueled this speculation last summer by saying he had given the pope pills based on papaya extract. Given the pope’s improvement, sales of the pills have skyrocketed in France, despite denials that John Paul is using them.

According to Joaquín Navarro-Walls, the Vatican spokesperson, Montagnier’s pills had been handed over to Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, the pope’s physician, who examined them and concluded that they amounted to an anti-oxidant, which the pope was already receiving. (Anti-oxidants are a standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease). 

Navarro said there has been no change in the pope’s medical routine. 

The bottom line seems to be that while the pope is elderly (he will be 83 on May 18) and limited physically, he shows no sign of imminent decline, and every indication is that he remains sharp intellectually and psychologically. Certainly John Paul’s aides are showing no signs of winding down; they have scheduled trips for the pope to Spain in May and Croatia in June, with outings to Mongolia, Bosnia, Slovakia, and the European Parliament also in the works later this year. 

Montagnier, by the way, is now proposing his papaya pills as a treatment for the SARS virus.

* * *

John Paul II rarely missed an opportunity during Holy Week to signal his concern for the Iraq war and its aftermath.

On Holy Thursday, the pope directed that the collection go to war relief efforts. Each year, the pope chooses a destination for these funds that betokens his concern for a particular place; in the past, recipients have included victims of earthquakes in Latin America and of civil war in Africa. On Good Friday, four Iraqis were asked to carry the cross for the 12th and 13th Stations of the Cross during the annual Via Crucis procession at Rome’s Coliseum.

The highpoint came during the pope’s Easter message, delivered to a worldwide television audience in 53 countries. Normally papal addresses during a liturgy are a solemn affair, but when in the fifth paragraph John Paul cried out “Peace in Iraq!” the crowd spontaneously burst into applause. From that point forward, every reference to peace brought cheers. In the end the pope was interrupted by applause campaign-style 15 times.

“With the support of the international community, may the Iraqi people become the protagonists of the collective rebuilding of their country,” John Paul said. The carefully crafted sentence seemed designed to push the United States on two points: the role of the United Nations, and the need for the coalition to swiftly relinquish power to the Iraqis.

“Let there be an end to the chain of hatred and terrorism, which threatens the orderly development of the human family,” John Paul said. “May God grant that we be free from the peril of a tragic clash between cultures and religions.”

On April 22, Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, who served as the Vatican’s foreign minister for 10 years under John Paul II, gave an interview to La Repubblica in which he reflected on the pope’s peace initiative over the past few months.

“In the entire Christian world, there was a spontaneous consensus around the pope never before seen,” Silvestrini said. “I don’t recall any epoch in which the pope had such attention from Christians of the various confessions, from patriarchs and bishops. It was as if all had said: ‘You are our spiritual guide in this reflection on peace.’”

Silvestrini said the pan-Christian support for the pope elicited a dream.

“I’m thinking about an ecumenical convocation in which the exponents of the Christian churches together with the pope could carry out a grand reflection on the responsibility of Christians with respect to war,” he said.

A new ecumenical consensus in favor of peace, Silvestrini argued, could be the “good” to come from the “evil” of the Iraq conflict.

“The sensation is spreading that we are arriving at a maturation in the history of humanity,” Silvestrini said. “Just as at a certain point slavery was abolished, and torture and the death penalty were condemned, we are now dissolving the notion that war can ever be justified. Apart from defense against aggression, but certainly not a preventive war.”

Silvestrini’s reading may be rooted in the sentiments of “old Europe,” and one suspects his “spreading sensation” is not quite universal. Some American Christians would certainly question whether the pope’s anti-war position generated an ecumenical consensus, or whether the Iraq conflict proves that war cannot be justified. Some might argue that the revelations of torture chambers, political prisons and mass graves in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq illustrate precisely the opposite lesson: that sometimes force is necessary to confront an evil regime.

Nevertheless, the Silvestrini interview makes clear that John Paul II and his Vatican lieutenants have not altered their diagnosis that the conflict in Iraq was unjustified, and that Christians must take the lead in banishing war as an instrument of foreign policy.

* * *

For my money, one of the most interesting figures on the ecclesiastical scene in Rome is not a Vatican official, a priest, or even a practicing Catholic. He is instead a professor of political science at the University of Perugia and an editorial writer for Italy’s most respected daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, named Ernesto Galli della Loggia.

Despite the fact that, by his own admission, Galli della Loggia stopped believing in God a long time ago, he is nevertheless much-courted by the Catholic establishment here. Recently he took part in a round table with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Opus Dei-sponsored Santa Croce University. He has appeared on similar panels with Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of the diocese of Rome and president of the Italian bishops’ conference, who is known to be a fan.  (Galli della Loggia’s wife, Lucetta Scaraffia, is a contributor to the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, L’Avvenire).

When Galli della Loggia enters a room packed with birettas and scarlet silk, he is often the lone lay VIP. How does he do it? 

Broadly speaking, Galli della Loggia  belongs to the political right, and hence is a sympathetic figure to many churchmen in a country where the left and the Church are traditional foes. In some ways, his status as a non-believer is useful, since any Church-friendly analysis he offers cannot be written off as the predictable line of the clerical caste. It also doesn’t hurt that his ideas appear on the front page of the one newspaper (other than L’Osservatore Romano) that you can be sure virtually every Vatican official reads on a daily basis. 

I visited Galli della Loggia in his Rome apartment on April 18 to talk about the war, the Catholic Church, and the United States.

He said he was surprised not by the Holy See’s position on the war, but by the tone of its opposition, and especially by what he saw as its uncritical commentary about Iraq. Galli della Loggia noted that in John Paul’s United Nations speeches on peace, the pope had always placed his message in the context of human rights. Yet the pope has not used human rights language much during the Iraq crisis. Galli della Loggia suggested this may be because references to human rights would invite awkward questions about the brutal character of the Saddam Hussein government.

How does Galli della Loggia explain the Vatican tilt against the American position?

First, there are historic reservations some have always felt about the United States. Despite the fact that Pius XII was known as the “chaplain of NATO,” many Europeans in the Vatican have long harbored doubts about an Atlantic alliance dominated by the Americans. Such a system, they felt, would signal the victory of Protestant America over Catholic Europe. 

Second, Galli della Loggia says that despite Bush’s sincere religious belief, and despite an alignment of interests between Washington and the Vatican on issues such as abortion and cloning, the cluster of Protestant “radicals” such as John Ashcroft in the Bush administration is troubling to some in the Holy See.

Finally, there is the desire of the Vatican, and especially John Paul II, to deliver a message of solidarity to the Islamic world, in order to avoid a long-feared “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam. 

On this third score, Galli della Loggia sees a subtle realpolitik calculation by the Vatican. 

“They probably think that no matter what the pope says, American Catholics will be okay and the American administration will still see the Vatican as a great global institution. In that sense, there’s nothing to lose by coming out against the Americans, and everything to gain by siding with Islam,” he said.

Galli della Loggia then made the interesting observation that it was the most Catholic countries of Europe – Spain, Italy and Poland – whose governments backed the U.S. on the war, while it was France and Germany, the birthplaces of Revolution and Reformation respectively, that sided with the pope. 

How to explain this paradox?

Basically, Galli della Loggia  said, it’s a sign of the political weakness of the Catholic Church in Europe. It does not have the throw-weight to determine policy, even in nations where ostensibly friendly governments are in power.

We also discussed the future of Europe, currently locked in debate over its “constitutional document.” Galli della Loggia doesn’t understand the Vatican’s push for an explicit reference to the religious roots of Europe. 

“If the Catholic Church wants to be a global institution, it doesn’t make sense to identify itself with its European roots,” he argued. 

On the current breach between the United States and Europe, Galli della Loggia believes it is destined to remain. Europe has ceased to believe in war as an instrument of politics, Galli della Loggia said, because it is incapable of judging its own military past in positive terms. The United States, on the other hand, sees itself playing a global role in the promotion of democracy and human rights, and believes its use of force in support of these ideals is just. 

As for the Vatican, Galli della Loggia says that the Iraq crisis exposed a fundamental weakness in its foreign policy – hesitation to confront corrupt regimes in the developing world.

“The Vatican wants to be a global voice of conscience, supporting developing nations,” Galli della Loggia said.  “Often they express this support by spouting the same economic formula they always recycle, blaming rich nations for poverty. …But the principal obstacle to social and economic development is not the West, but dictatorial and corrupt regimes that strangle their own people. Catholic missionaries and even the Vatican polemicize against the West, hiding local responsibility. They’re afraid of being tossed into the ‘Western’ mix if they make problems for these governments.”

“Ironically, the only governments the Church criticizes are in the West, where it knows it won’t have to pay any price because those governments respect human rights,” Galli della Loggia said.

One can of course differ with Galli della Loggia’s assessments. But he is a fascinating conversationalist, one who has the Vatican’s ear, and it pays to listen.

* * *

By any standard, Tommy Thompson, the Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George Bush, is a very Catholic guy. He’s a regular Mass-goer and a friend of Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. (The two of them sometimes slip out for beers together). While in Rome during Holy Week, he attended virtually all of the papal liturgies. Thompson has an aunt who just died at age 93 after 73 years as a Dominican nun. He also has a Jesuit cousin, Fr. Robert Welch, who teaches political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Yet despite his Catholic pedigree, Thompson is not willing to take all his political cues from the clergy.

This became clear in an hour-long session with three Catholic news agencies, including NCR, that Thompson was gracious enough to grant on the morning of April 18 (Good Friday). 

The breaking news out of that interview was Thompson’s request for Vatican collaboration on American post-war rebuilding projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as elsewhere in the developing world. (That story can be found at

I also asked Thompson, however, some philosophical questions about the recent Vatican document On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. It insisted that Catholic politicians must be “coherent,” meaning that their policy choices must be aligned with church teaching on morality. The document specifically names the defense of the human embryo as one such issue. Thompson, who is anti-abortion, is nevertheless a supporter of research involving embryonic stem cells. How, I wanted to know, does he square these positions?

Thompson said he was aware of the document but had not read it. He defended the compromise policy he helped engineer, under which stem cells may be extracted for research purposes from embryos frozen before Aug. 9, 2001. 

“Our position does not encourage other destructions, and it does not encourage people to have babies solely for building a supply of stem cells,” Thompson said. “I feel morally correct. I think it’s in line with church teaching that instead of throwing valuable resources away we make use of them … I would love to talk to the pope about it.”

While Vatican officials said at the time they were pleased that Bush did not adopt a more liberal policy, they nevertheless denounced the precedent that embryos may be used for research purposes.

In general, Thompson said, he cannot base political choices exclusively on positions taken by the Catholic Church.

“I have to minister to the needs of all Americans, not just Catholics,” he said. “I have to minister to the needs of citizens, the majority of whom are not believers in the Catholic Church. I can’t do my job, carrying out the policies of this administration and previous administrations, by solely relying on Catholic teachings.”

He also commented on the clash between Bush and the pope over the war.

“If I had my druthers, I would rather have had the pope on my side,” Thompson said. “But we have much better information than the pope about what’s going on inside Iraq and what would happen in the rest of the Middle East.”

“The pope is concerned about innocent children and citizens, and so are we,” Thompson said. “We can show with empirical evidence and data that we have saved men, women and children from torture, from rapes and murders, in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.

I’ve written a story based on the interview that will be available in next week’s print edition of NCR.

Thompson came off as an affable political professional genuinely concerned about issues such as HIV/AIDS and early infant health care. He also seemed a committed Catholic, but one unwilling to take direction at the policy level from church authorities, whose good intentions he feels are not always matched by convincing information or argument. 

Catholics in the Bush administration have been walking that fine line a lot lately.

* * *

Coverage of the Vatican around the world suffers from a peculiar malady, which is dependence upon the Italian papers. Since most journalists who follow the Vatican don’t do so full-time, they often end up cribbing material from the local press. This is natural, but it can also be dangerous. Italian journalism is distinguished by strong personalities and sparkling writing, but not always by scrupulous concern for facts. 

Italian journalists sometimes publish speculation or hunches on the grounds that doing so will “flush out” the truth. Often these stories seem to be driven by a political agenda, written by journalists aligned with one or another political faction. All this is basically considered in-bounds.

Fair enough; I suppose every culture gets the journalism it’s willing to tolerate, and God knows English-language journalism has its own foibles. It becomes a global problem, however, when reporters working in other languages lift news items from the Italian papers without confirmation, either because they don’t know better or because they’re impatient for a scoop. These “news bulletins,” often based on nothing but thin air, make their way around the world thanks to the Internet, causing all manner of frenzy. Even after the facts are settled, misimpressions endure because most readers don’t bother to follow the bouncing ball until it finally lands on the truth. 

Last week offered a classic example.

On Easter Sunday, the Roman daily Il Messaggero reported that three of the four bishops ordained illicitly by traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988 were to be “reconciled” with the Vatican on May 24. The setting was to be a Latin Mass at Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, to be celebrated by Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos. Such a breakthrough would signal a healing of the only formal rupture in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), led by Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X, which rejects the council’s liturgical reforms as well as its treatment of ecumenism, inter-faith dialogue, and religious liberty.

The story is not true.

That inconvenience, however, did not stop rumors from spreading.  The April 21 London Times basically rewrote the Il Messaggero story. Once the Times story broke, it was off to the races. One Catholic news agency sent out a “breaking news” alert stating: “Today’s top story, about the rumors of a reconciliation between the Holy See and the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, might be classified as ‘speculative.’ We're not prepared to say that the published reports are accurate. But we certainly can say that the rumor mill is buzzing.”

In the meantime, denials began to pour in. 

“The only thing true is the scheduled Mass on May 24. Beside this, there is nothing true in this new hoax,” Fellay told me the morning of April 22. “I guess it is a rumor circulating in the curia, a pious wish, or a test to maybe try to divide us.”

Tissier released a statement April 21. 

“This is a rumor thrown by Rome in an attempt to divide us,” Tissier wrote. “We four bishops are all together and not divided. We do not seek ‘reconciliation’ with Rome unless Rome converts back to Catholic Tradition, back to the traditional Catholic Profession of Faith.”

All this left some readers fulminating. On Monday, as things were still unclear, a reader from Australia sent me the following message: “Should this news item turn out to be false it would be exceptionally reckless and irresponsible of Il Messaggero.  Surely if the article is shown to be a fabrication Il Messaggero would lose all credibility?”

It’s a question only an Anglo-Saxon would ask.

Let me note for the record that the Vatican writer for Il Messaggero, Orazio Petrosillo, is a valued colleague and friend who has some of the best connections in the business. No one who is serious about following Vatican affairs can neglect his work. In this case, however, something went awry. 

To be honest, anyone following the on-again, off-again talks between the Vatican and the Pius X movement should have known the reported détente was improbable. 

On March 30 Fellay granted an interview, the full text of which can be found on the Pius X web site. “In Rome, they should understand that there is a crisis in the Church and that it comes from the Council. But they won’t hear of it. … It is important to grasp this point in order to understand the impossibility of agreement, so long as they stand their ground,” Fellay said, hardly sounding like a man on the verge of reconciliation.

I’d like to believe people will learn from this, and will await confirmation of the latest rumor before reacting to it. Given the attention span these days, however, I suspect this will all be forgotten the next time a “breaking news” story sprouts in e-mail boxes worldwide.

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

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