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 The Word From Rome

April 30, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 36

global perspective


"Because the under-secretary is a major official and the appointment of a lay person, a woman in this case, has no recent precedent and may have an impact that we cannot foresee."

American canonist Fr. Ladislas Orsy,
on the appoint of Sr. Enrica Rosanna as under-secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life

Sr. Enrica Rosanna, a woman takes charge in the Holy See; Cardinal Theodore McCarrick on pro-choice politicians; Catholic thought and world politics


Sr. Enrica Rosanna is nobody’s idea of a revolutionary.

A 65-year-old Italian nun in full habit, she talks about piety and devotion without a trace of self-consciousness. She’s a classic Salesian, cutting no corners on either the practice of religious life or the doctrine of the church. Despite a lively sense of humor, she has little patience for laziness or self-pity. She’s met few problems that couldn’t be resolved with elbow grease.

Yet Rosanna’s April 24 appointment as under-secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life nevertheless marks two potential revolutions in the rarified world of the Holy See.

The first is sociological. An under-secretary ranks among the top three officials, or “superiors,” in most Vatican offices. A woman has not held a post of such prestige since 1976, when Australian lay woman Rosemary Goldie was eased out as under-secretary after the experimental Consilium on Laity was upgraded to the status of a Pontifical Council.

Rosanna’s appointment is even more important because it’s in one of the all —powerful congregations.

In the Vatican pecking order, the so-called “new curia,” meaning the councils and academies that sprung up after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), are sometimes seen as lacking ecclesiastical clout.This view holds that it’s in the Secretariat of State and in the congregations that real governance happens – binding decisions are made that draw upon the pope’s own authority.

That a woman is a superior in one of these citadels of ecclesiastical power is, therefore, remarkable. Add the fact that a staff of 30, including 15 priests, now finds itself with a female boss, and the implications become truly interesting.

The move also should be seen in tandem with other recent “firsts” for women, including the March 6 appointment of American Sr. Sara Butler, M.S.B.T., and German lay woman Barbara Hallensleben to the International Theological Commission, and the March 9 nomination of Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon as president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. 

This is symbolism, yes, but it opens doors through which other women may be able to walk. The “women’s problem” in the Catholic church has always been as much sociological as doctrinal, and these appointments put a dent in the Vatican’s male-dominant culture.

Beyond sociology, there’s a potential revolution in canon law.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the general understanding among canonists was that bishops receive their power to consecrate priests and other bishops through the sacrament of holy orders, but their power to govern from the pope. Vatican II, on the other hand, taught that bishops receive all their powers, including the power of governance (also called “jurisdiction”), from holy orders. This triggered debate over the extent to which those powers can be delegated to non-ordained persons. Two schools of thought emerged: one holding that laity could “participate” in the exercise of delegated powers, another that lay people may only “cooperate” and hence cannot exercise jurisdiction themselves. That view prevailed in the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law, and is expressed in canon 129.

The logic, according to canonists who uphold this view, is that lay people are called to sanctify the world, while jurisdiction in the church is the province of the clergy. Hence laity are generally barred from such positions as judicial vicar or a voting member of a Roman congregation.

If Rosanna were to exercise jurisdiction, it would thus amount to a belated victory for the “participation” school. Vatican sources told NCR April 26 that Rosanna’s predecessor as under-secretary, Claretian Fr. Jesús Torres, was the primary signatory on official documents such as indults, releasing religious from solemn vows, a seemingly clear exercise of the power of governance.

In theory, if a lay woman can exercise jurisdiction at the under-secretary’s level, there’s no reason she couldn’t do so as secretary or even as prefect. Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium has recently proposed exactly this. “Two of my vicars are women,” Danneels said in September 2003. “I do not see, therefore, why a woman could not direct a congregation of the Roman Curia.”

Rosanna told NCR April 25, however, that her tasks have not yet been defined.

“All the newspapers have written that the job is part of the power of governance, but who knows exactly what I’ll have to decide? No one has yet explained to me exactly what I have to do. We’ll have to see,” she said.

Noted American canonist Fr. Ladislas Orsy told NCR April 26 that an under-secretary is often not involved in jurisdiction, so Rosanna’s appointment does not necessarily mean a reversal of policy.

“Psychologically and socially, however, the move is significant and for the better,” Orsy said, “because the under-secretary is a major official and the appointment of a lay person, a woman in this case, has no recent precedent and may have an impact that we cannot foresee.”

* * *

A bit of historical context.

A handful of lay Catholics have occupied under-secretary positions in pontifical councils. The current under-secretary of the Council for Laity, for example, is a Uruguayan layman named Guzmán Carriquiry. The director of the Vatican’s press office, a post considered the equivalent of an under-secretary, is Spanish layman Joaquín Navarro-Valls.

The last, and only, woman at this level was Australian Rosemary Goldie, who served as an under-secretary in the Council for the Laity after it was created in experimental form under Pope Paul VI in 1967. When that office was erected as a pontifical council in 1976, however, Goldie was removed and given a teaching job at the Lateran University. At the time, many observers connected Goldie’s exile with the 1976 Vatican document Inter Insignores, which rejected admitting women to the Catholic priesthood.

Goldie wrote in her 1998 memoirs From a Roman Window that on Feb. 16, 1977, she had an audience with Paul VI in which she expressed concern about the absence of women in senior curial positions. Paul VI, Goldie wrote, “listened and demonstrated that he understood my concern.”

In the intervening 27 years, however, no woman has been appointed to a superior-level post.

As recently as last June, a senior Vatican official told NCR that he did not believe women could hold “management” positions in the Roman Curia.

“Right now the dicasteries have jurisdiction, and so they participate in episcopal authority. We’re a hierarchical organization and power comes from ordination. So for now, there cannot be a woman,” said Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte, at the time head of the Synod of Bishops. “If the job is redefined, you could have a woman, but then it would not be the same dicastery as we think of now when people say there should be a woman.”

In this light, the April 24 appointment takes on special significance.

Footnote: I wanted Goldie to have the chance to comment on Rosanna’s appointment. She’s now in a retirement home in Sydney, however, and communicated through channels that she didn’t feel up to giving an interview.

* * *

The buzz among religious around Rome on the Rosanna appointment is largely positive. In progressive circles, there is trepidation that Rosanna is a Salesian (a community sometimes seen as on the conservative side; think Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa). A few conservatives, on the other hand, wonder about her background in sociology rather than theology, worrying about whether she lacks a solid doctrinal foundation.

Yet people who have worked with Rosanna say she’s smart, open, good-hearted, and a hard worker. Most seem optimistic.

The only serious question mark I’ve picked up is whether Rosanna will be able to pull the same weight as her predecessor, Claretian Fr. Jesús Torres. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has a reputation for being somewhat rigid, but Torres was an exception. Time and again leaders of religious communities have told me stories of going into his office with problems, and coming out with creative, pastorally sensible solutions.

Will Rosanna be able to play the same role as a woman in a man’s world? Time will tell.

In the meantime, the Union of Superiors General, the main umbrella group for men’s religious communities, plans to invite Torres to its May general assembly to thank him for his service.

* * *

I sat down April 26 for an interview with Rosanna at the Claretianum, where she had been teaching a course on the sociology of religious life. The full text of our interview can be found here: Rosanna Interview. The following are excerpts.

Rosanna said she has been surprised at the wide public interest in her appointment.

“I may be slightly less amazed than everyone else, because I’m accustomed to work [in this environment],” she said. “At the same time, I do agree there’s a distinctively feminine way of seeing things. … It’s to some extent about a gift for sympathy. There’s a relational capacity, a sensitivity to details, an inter-personal emphasis.

Is Rosanna worried about becoming the first female superior in the Vatican with authority over priests?

“Whether or not this creates problems for anyone depends a great deal on personalities,” she said. “I have to say that in my experience working with the Salesians, sometimes as a superior myself and sometimes not, I’ve had very good experiences, and some difficulties. It depends upon character, upon many things. I suppose it’s possible someone might think, ‘This woman has swindled me out of my post,’ even though I didn’t do anything to have this job.”

Rosanna said she doesn’t want to become a fix-it person for female communities.

“I hope that the superiors don’t torment me too much!” she said. “I hope that all the women’s congregations who know me don’t suddenly imagine that I’ve become the magic solution for all their problems.”

Rosanna said she believes firmly that religious life has a future.

“St. Catherine of Sienna said if you were what you should be, you would set Italy on fire,” she said. “Maybe we allow ourselves to be a little too conditioned, we don’t make that leap of quality to which John Paul II aspires, to which our superiors aspire. We too are perhaps a little secularized. I believe the church, religious life, has to walk a path of authentic daily holiness. Maybe sometimes we’re a little too focused on our work, on what we do, rather than who we are.”

* * *

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who is leading a U.S. bishops’ committee to study the possibility of sanctions against pro-choice politicians, has denied that this is part of a strategy on the part of the bishops to support the reelection of President George W. Bush.

“Absolutely not,” McCarrick said in an exclusive April 28 interview with NCR in Rome.

McCarrick said that while he appreciates Bush’s stands on human life, Catholic education, and HIV/AIDS relief, he has reservations about the president’s policies in Iraq and the Middle East.

“I hope that [Catholics] really study the issues,” McCarrick said. “Look at the questions of life that are primary, but look at everything.”

The full text of the NCR interview with McCarrick may be found here: McCarrick Interview.

McCarrick, in Rome for his ad limina visit to the pope, said he spoke with Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who said at a Vatican news conference last week (See Breaking News, April 23) that a pro-abortion politician should be denied communion. The comment was widely taken as support for a stance against pro-choice Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

“When he reported to me what had happened, this was not something that he reported as an official statement … whatever he might personally believe,” McCarrick said. “The cardinal’s position was that this is the teaching of the church, and the bishops of the United States should figure out what they ought to do.”

McCarrick said that without commenting on Kerry, he agrees with the principle that a politician who holds a position opposed to church teaching should not come forward for communion.

McCarrick said he is aware this frustrates some Catholics, who complain that sanctions are not being contemplated for Catholic politicians who differ with the church on issues such as war and peace, or concern for the poor.

“All these other human rights mean nothing unless you’re alive,” he said. “If a person is put to death before they have a chance to live, then none of those other rights come into play.”

McCarrick said these other issues, while important, “are not black-and-white in the way that abortion is.”

That does not mean, McCarrick insisted, that the bishops are backing Bush.

“As you look at the foreign policy of the United States, I have some concerns,” he said.

“I have concerns about Iraq, about the beginning of the war, about how we don’t seem to have a real exit strategy. In the Middle East, the Palestinian situation, we’ve moved away from the roadmap, which is of grave concern to all us with regard to peace in the Holy Land.”

McCarrick also agreed with the Vatican’s insistence that the United Nations should play the lead role in authorizing future conflicts.

“It seems to me that the United Nations is the only instrumentality that can bring the nations together at this time,” he said.

* * *

John Paul II seems as indomitable as ever. This Sunday, he will ordain 26 priests in St. Peter’s Basilica. On May 16, he will preside at the canonization of six saints. June 5-6 he will be in Bern, Switzerland, for a national Catholic youth gathering. On June 10 he will lead the observance of Corpus Christi, with the traditional Eucharistic procession from the basilica of St. John Lateran to that of St. Mary Major. On June 29, he will celebrate the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, together with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.

In such a moment, it can seem almost silly to be talking about the papal succession. Yet as one cardinal said to me recently: “We can’t help thinking about it. This is one choice we dare not get wrong.”

Inevitably, therefore, any time a cardinal steps onto the public stage, people evaluate him with one eye towards the papal succession. That’s setting the bar pretty high, but in the consensus of most observers, Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, 71, cleared it with room to spare at last week’s press conference on the new Vatican document on liturgical abuses.

It was not an easy assignment, since the document, Redemptionis Sacramentum, demands that people follow the rules — never a popular message. Indeed, the Holy See was sufficiently preoccupied that it sent Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, to back up Arinze.

Arinze, however, never needed the help.

He came across as knowledgeable, tough, and unapologetic for the document’s “by the book” message. At the same time, he was relaxed and funny. At one stage, he read a rather stern line in his prepared statement about how liturgical abuses are not to be taken lightly. He then looked up, smiled, and said: “If somebody uses Coca-Cola rather than wine, for example, that’s no longer the Mass.” It was as if to say: “Trust me, I know the difference between trivia and real abuses.”

Arinze was especially good at employing familiar analogies to explain Redemptionis Sacramentum. He appealed to soccer, for example, arguing that if the referee does not enforce the rules, the game can’t be played. It was a metaphor sure to get the attention of soccer-mad Italians.

In making these observations, Arinze shifted easily from Italian to English and back again. One can disagree with any or all of his points, but he made them with inarguable elan.

Afterwards, one Vatican monsignor known for his caution pulled me aside and whispered: “I don’t get a vote, but I think he would be an excellent pope.”

One wonders how many men who do get a vote had the same impression.

* * *

On April 28, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson lectured at John Cabot University in Rome on the subject of “The United States and the Holy See: A Partnership for Human Dignity.” Nicholson gave what amounts to his stump speech on the U.S./Vatican relationship, arguing for a “great convergence” between the foreign policy goals of the United States and those of the Holy See.

He identified a series of issues of concern to his embassy, some of which are already marked by strong U.S./Vatican cooperation, such as the struggle against human trafficking, and others where he hopes for greater engagement from the Holy See, such as the promotion of genetically modified foods.

One news item came in discussing HIV/AIDS in Africa. Nicholson said he believes American pharmaceutical companies, sometimes criticized for not doing enough to make their drugs available on a low-cost basis, “don’t get enough credit.”

“Even the Vatican sometimes gets it wrong,” Nicholson said. Though he did not spell it out, the reference seemed in part to a late January news conference with Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, head of the Vatican charity Cor Unum.

 “There needs to be public pressure put on the pharmaceutical companies to lower the prices so the victims of AIDS can receive treatment,” Cordes said at the time. He appeared alongside American Jesuit Fr. Angelo D’Agostino, who works in Kenya and blasted the “genocidal action of the drug cartels.”

In response, Nicholson revealed that he had arranged a meeting two weeks ago between two senior executives of American pharmaceutical companies and three Vatican officials who head agencies that deal with HIV-AIDS. The executives, who Nicholson said “flew all night to be here,” told the prelates that their companies would give their patents on anti-retroviral medications to anyone in Africa as long as quality control could be assured. They “eschewed profit,” according to Nicholson.

“This is a great example of corporate compassion and care about human dignity,” he said.

* * *

On Thursday, April 29, the philosophy department at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome sponsored a conference on “Catholic Thought and World Politics in the 21st Century.” The event featured a number of prominent organizers, participants and sponsors: George Weigel, Mary Ann Glendon, Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia, Opus Dei Fr. Robert Gahl, Archbishop Celestine Migliore, and others. Not all were physically present in Rome.

Antonio Maria Baggio, an Italian layman and professor of social ethics at the Gregorian, opened with a challenge to Bush’s policy in Iraq.

“With its unilateral attitude, the United States has inflicted a deep wound on the efforts of the community of peoples, above all through the United Nations, an organization certainly imperfect and reformable, but which remains the lone instrument for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and for participation in global decisions.”

Baggio said there were two reasons the Bush administration chose this “unilateral” path.

First, he said, few other nations came to the aid of the United States, and not just militarily but politically and culturally. European weakness, he said, corresponds to the “unilateral attitude” of the United States.

Second, Baggio argued, the United States acted as it did “because a perspective very distant from fraternity prevailed” in the Bush administration. Baggio cited Richard Perle, speaking before a congressional committee on Feb. 27, 2001, responding to a question about whether poverty causes terrorism: “That’s a liberal prejudice that, if accepted, could lead the war against terrorism down the cul de sac of a huge development project for the Third World.”

Baggio urged a “strategy of fraternity,” which in practice would mean a more comprehensive effort to combat under-development and more thorough cooperation with international organizations, especially the United Nations.

Weigel argued for a recovery of Catholic international relations theory, which he called a form of “moral realism.”

Best known for his biography of John Paul II Witness to Hope, Weigel said that the emergence of the papacy as “a global moral witness with real effect” is among the latest developments in this tradition.

“While John Paul II was taking moral arguments directly to the people of individual states and to the people of the world, going around or beyond their governments or the relevant international organizations, the diplomacy of the Holy See has continued to function through the normal grooves of bilateral relations and multilateral institutions.

“Is there a tension here?” Weigel asked himself. “I think so.”

Weigel said this tension was on display during the debate over the Iraq war, when the political calculations of Vatican diplomats were reported as if they were moral judgments of the pope or of the church.

Weigel took a dim view of the capacity of the United Nations to be the guarantor of legitimate use of force.

“Three of its permanent members — China, France and Russia — formulate their foreign policies on explicitly Realpolitik grounds that have little or nothing to do with moral reasoning about world politics as the Catholic church understands it,” he said. “Can an amoralist calculus yield a morally determinative result? If so, it remains to be shown how.”

Weigel suggested that a kind of “functional pacifism” has crept into the Holy See’s thinking on war and peace, which retains the vocabulary of the just war tradition but in practice always comes down in opposition.

In light of all this, Weigel called for a “new and wiser” conversation about the intersection between moral truths and politics-of-nations, drawing upon the Catholic church’s own “classic themes and analytic methods.”

* * *

Italy has been traumatized by the abduction of four Italians in Iraq on April 12, one of whom has already been killed, and the remaining three are facing the threat of execution unless Italy withdraws its troops from the country.

On April 28, the families of the hostages organized a small peace march from Castel Sant’Angelo towards St. Peter’s Square. John Paul II sent Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, his foreign minister, to speak to the crowd.

Lajolo said that the pope celebrated Mass that morning for the liberation of the hostages, and for all who suffer in Iraq.

“John Paul II thanks those who are working to re-stabilize in Iraq a climate of reconciliation and dialogue in view of recovering the full sovereignty of the country, in conditions of security for all,” Lajolo said.

* * *

Bishop Renato Boccardo, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and the chief organizer of papal travel, spoke at Santa Croce University April 28 on “The Communicative Dimension of Papal Trips.”

Widely regarded as one of the most affable and competent figures in the Holy See, Boccardo spoke about why John Paul has made travel such a central element of his pontificate. One element of the pope’s pastoral strategy, he said, has been to stress that the Catholic church is a global family of faith.

Boccardo said that John Paul wants all nations to know they have a place in the pope’s heart. This is more than good diplomacy, he said, or a pastoral strategy. It comes from deep within his spirituality. Boccardo said that when the pope flies, he sits in the front row of the plane, by the window, and usually passes his time in prayer. Every now and then he will look up, however, and gaze out the window. Sometimes, Boccardo said, he will gently raise his right hand and trace the sign of the cross, bestowing a silent blessing on the people and the lands that lie below.

* * *

Two weeks ago I made reference to Jesuit Fr. Norman Tanner’s book Was the Church Too Democratic? Councils, Collegiality and the Church’s Future, published by Dharmaram Publications in 2003. Some readers have experienced difficulty in finding the book. Dharmaram Publications is in Bangalore, India, and the book can be obtained in two ways: 1) At, then "Way Books," where it is priced at 8 British pounds; or 2) directly from the director of Dharmaram Publications, whose e-mail is, and where it is priced U.S.$7 plus postage.

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

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