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 The Word From Rome

May 9, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 37

global perspective


“In the classical understanding, the definition of a doctrine did not set up blocks, but it created a space in which something could happen.”

Dominican Father Augustine Di Noia
Under-secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
New Movements changing Spain; the vocation of the theologian; “Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest”; the Rector’s Dinner at the North American College


I sometimes hear people opine that things are “on hold” in the Catholic Church, that nothing much is happening. I frankly wonder what planet such folk live on. This week, so much is going on in and around the Vatican that one could write a small book trying to keep track of it all.

I’ll strive to be more economical here.

            For one thing, John Paul II’s 36-hour trip to Madrid unfolded over the weekend of May 3-4. Despite its brevity, the trip generated fairly wide media interest, in part because it amounted to a shakedown cruise for more papal travel later this year, in part because it brought the anti-war pope to the backyard of the pro-war Prime Minister José María Aznar. It was also an opportunity to take the temperature of Spanish Catholicism, where some fascinating historical currents and new experiments are swirling. Readers can find my full report from Madrid here:

 * * *

            A colleague in Madrid, Robert Duncan of the Dow Jones Newswires, arranged dinner Saturday night with a couple of experts on the Spanish ecclesiastical scene. They were Luis Gordon Beguer, a layman who serves as the spokesperson for Opus Dei in Madrid, and Fr. Jose Carlos de la Hoz, an Opus Dei priest and church historian.  

Given that both Gordon and de la Hoz are from Opus, it will come as no surprise that they spoke positively about the new movements. As I listened, I realized that given the rapid growth and wide diffusion of the movements here, where they may be stronger than anywhere else in the world, Spain is something of a laboratory for a redefinition of parish and diocesan structures.

One staggering statistic from de la Hoz: Of Spanish Catholics who attend Mass at least once a month (roughly 18 percent of Spain’s 37 million Catholics, or around 6.6 million people), more than 40 percent come from the movements. In other words, almost half of the practicing Catholics in Spain, some 3 million, belong to a movement.

As this number continues to rise, I wondered, what will the impact be on parish life? Extrapolating from what Gordon and Munoz said, it seems one scenario is that the parish will not disappear, but it will play a very different role. Instead of being the center of Catholic life, the crucible in which one’s spirituality is forged, it will function as a meeting place for the movements. The parish would become a sort of ecclesiastical piazza, in which adherents of the Neocatechumenate, Opus Dei, Regnum Cristi, Catholic Action, Communion and Liberation, etc., meet to share experiences, to work on joint projects, and at least sometimes to worship together, before moving back down their different avenues.

Under this scenario, the pastor becomes a facilitator rather than a shepherd in the traditional sense, someone whose task is to bring the movements into conversation and collaboration. The parish becomes the guarantor of communion, but the focus of Christian living will be inside the movements.

A related question is what happens to bishops. When the primary identity of Catholics is defined in geographic terms, i.e., as a member of such-and-such as parish, the diocesan bishop is the key authority. But once Catholics understand themselves in terms of a charism or spirituality, one that crosses geographic boundaries, they become analogous to members of a religious order in the sense that they take their cues more from leadership of the group rather than bishops.

Already one sees this process at work in Spain, where Kiko Arguello and Carmen Hernandez, co-founders of the Neocatechumenate, are higher-profile and more powerful figures than most Spanish bishops. Though Pope John Paul II has encouraged the movements, to what extent the institutional Church is prepared for the long-term implications of a shift from geography to charism as the locus of Catholic identity is an open question.

Spain seems the place where this will be worked out first, and hence it bears watching.

* * *

            Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia, under-secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave an important lecture on “the ecclesial vocation of the theologian” at Rome’s Lay Centre on Thursday, May 8. Di Noia, an American, is a distinguished intellectual (he holds a Ph.D. from Yale) and the former chief of staff for the doctrinal committee of the U.S. bishops conference, so his views would be of interest in any case. As a key Vatican policy-maker, however, what he had to say is obviously of special interest.

            At the same time, it should be noted that Di Noia was careful to present his reflections as a “personal vision” representing merely “what I think at this point in my life.”

            The CDF issued a formal document on “the ecclesial vocation of the theologian” in 1990, and Di Noia’s lecture covered some of the same ground.

            Di Noia argued that the post-Vatican II, post-Humanae Vitae idea of a “dissenting theologian,” meaning a theologian who sees himself or herself as a kind of “loyal opposition” with respect to church authorities, is unprecedented in the history of Christianity. The theologians who were his teachers, he said, might have disagreed with one or another pronouncement of the magisterium, but the idea of systematic and public dissent was “unimaginable.”

            Di Noia argued that a “kind of mythology” has grown up since Humanae Vitae that reads back the idea of theological dissent into previous eras.

            “One sometimes hears absurd discussions of Aquinas as a dissenting theologian himself, suggesting that if Aquinas could be thought to be heterodox by the theologians of the University of Paris, then somehow I could still be vindicated,” Di Noia said. “This is a deeply distorted reading of the history of reactions to the introduction of Aristotle in 13th century Paris.”

            Di Noia said that the classic understanding of theology took revelation – all of it – as its starting point, and sought to discover its underlying intelligibility. The system was premised on a great confidence in the capacity of the human mind to grasp the truth in divine action. Today, he said, theologians tend to emphasize rationality rather than intelligibility, subtracting items from revelation that don’t seem reasonable to them. By that standard, Di Noia said by way of example, some deny the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity.

            In this context, Di Noia cautioned against a particular reading of the idea of a “hierarchy of truths,” found in Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism. This idea is not meant to establish an “A list” and “B list” of doctrines, the second of which can be freely contested or disbelieved, Di Noia said. It was intended to show how the whole doctrinal system hangs together, illustrating how secondary doctrines depend upon core ideas such as the Trinity.

            Di Noia called for an effort to revitalize the classical understanding, while at the same time recognizing that “we can’t blink our eyes and pretend that modernity never occurred.”

            Among the factors that dissolved the classical understanding, Di Noia said, are nominalism, positive theology, specialization, a transformed relationship with the sources of theology under the impact of historical-critical method, the collapse of the Catholic theological synthesis, disagreement over the interpretation of Vatican II, and the phenomenon of dissenting theologians.

            One intriguing moment came when Di Noia suggested that the emphasis on whether or not a doctrine is “infallible” that followed the First Vatican Council has in some ways placed the accent on the authority of a teaching rather than its truth. He said that when the New York Times called him upon the release of the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae to ask if it was infallible, he responded that this was “the least interesting question to ask.”

            “The better question is, is it true?” he said.

            In the end, he said, the role of Church authorities is to establish the rules of the game. “In the classical understanding, the definition of a doctrine did not set up blocks, but it created a space in which something could happen,” Di Noia said.

            “It seems to me this is a more helpful way to think about the magisterium, even when it has to be critical of the work of a given theologian,” he said.

* * *

            The Council of European Bishops’ Conferences held a meeting this week at Rome’s Villa Aurelia on “Priests and Catechesis in Europe.” Its theme was how to revitalize the role of the priest as catechist.

            Though no one explicitly said so, one prompt for the conversation seemed to come from the movements, whose lay leaders are often the primary catechists of their members.

            “The catechism of adults, which for a long time had been connected to the figure and mission of the priest, has been entrusted more and more to laity,” said Bishop Cesare Nosiglia, an auxiliary of the Rome archdiocese and a delegate for catechesis of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences. “One can easily see this in the movements and ecclesial groups, where the priest leads worship but is excluded, or almost excluded, from the real catechetical moment.”

            I spoke with Fr. Juan Ignacio Rodrìguez Trillo, who heads the catechism office for the Spanish bishops, about the tensions created by this trend.

            “It’s very difficult,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

            Rodrìguez said that the movements represent vitality, and should be encouraged. At the same time, it’s often difficult to fit them into an overall pastoral plan, and this can threaten communio – Catholicism is not a do-it-yourself enterprise.

            Rodrìguez said progress is being made, pointing to the international World Youth Day festivals as one practical example. The movements in Spain have typically organized their own youth for these gatherings and gone their own way. Beginning with the 2000 World Youth Day in Rome, however, the Spanish bishops asked the movements to coordinate this activity through the conference, so there’s uniformity in preparation and follow-up. Rodrìguez said this effort had limited success in Rome, but was improved for last summer’s World Youth Day in Toronto, and he expects it will function even better for the 2005 gathering in Cologne.

* * *

            Last week I carried an exclusive interview with Neville Lamdan, the outgoing Israeli ambassador to the Vatican. It generated a fair amount of reaction, especially from readers who don’t share aspects of his diagnosis of the politics of the Middle East.

            For example, Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger, whom Lamdan singled out for special criticism concerning his role in the standoff over the Church of the Nativity, called me immediately to voice strong protest. He and I will be sitting down over lunch soon so I can get his side of the story, which should add an important voice to the conversation Lamdan’s interview started.

            A friend who is an expert on inter-religious relations wrote to point out that on at least one matter my report was factually wrong. I had quoted Lamdan as saying that two recent joint statements between the Vatican and Cairo’s Al-Azhar Institute had condemned “occupation,” which Lamdan described as a kind of code word for criticism of Israel. This was in the context of Lamdan’s broader point that the dialogue between the Vatican and Islam risks becoming “politicized” to the detriment of Israeli interests.

In fact, my friend pointed out, the most recent statement issued in February 2003 was a carefully calibrated reflection on terrorism that never mentioned occupation.

            Here’s the relevant passage on the Israeli/Palestinian problem:

“Peace, which is inseparable from justice, requires the fulfillment of all international obligations.  This principle applies generally and is therefore applicable to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The other statement Lamdan had in mind was from Sept. 13, 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. It too speaks in general terms about justice:

“Such acts of violence are not the way to bring peace to the world. As religious leaders we wish to emphasize that the true basis for peace is justice and mutual respect.”

            Neither statement used the word “occupation.”

            Looking back over my notes from the Lamdan interview, I may have misunderstood his point. He may have meant to suggest that the language about justice in the two statements was a “code word” for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. If so, the factual error would be mine. (Obviously his interpretation would remain open to challenge).

            In any event, it should be understood that from the Vatican’s point of view, the intent of the February 2003 statement was not to take a swipe at Israel. Here’s how my friend put it:

            “The Israelis certainly believe that the Palestinians are not fulfilling their undertakings and are not observing international law, and the Palestinians believe the same thing of the Israelis.  If everyone did what they were supposed to under the law and what they have agreed to do in various accords, the conflict could be resolved. As the joint statement goes on to say, that would contribute to the resolution of other problems in the Middle East in which the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian issue is being used as a cover.”

* * *

            The relationship between religion and science has often been tense, and John Paul II has done much to heal the breach. Most spectacularly, in 1981 the pope convened a commission to re-examine the famous Galileo affair. That commission worked under French Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and delivered its final report on Oct. 31, 1992.

            Poupard’s conclusion was blunt. The judges in the Galileo case, he said, had been “incapable of disassociating faith from an age-old cosmology.”  John Paul responded that the tragic error must be recognized and repented.

            The deliberations led by Poupard took place at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, located in a charming building within the Vatican gardens called the Casina Pio IV, in which a young Mozart once played for the pope. Poupard was back in that building this week, again talking about religion and science. The occasion was the launch of a joint project among the Council for Culture and three pontifical universities called, quirkily enough, “Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest,” or STOQ.

            The idea behind STOQ is to promote philosophical and theological reflection on science and faith within the Catholic world, by inserting this discussion within the “science and religion” series sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. This marks the first time Templeton will fund a project sponsored by the Vatican. Over three years, the foundation will provide $600,000.

            The universities are the Gregorian, the Lateran, and Regina Apostolorum. The Gregorian will offer a new specialization in science and philosophy, while the Lateran will cover “anthropology in the third millennium,” and Regina Apostolorum will offer a new master’s in science and faith focused on bioethics. Initially, organizers expect some 300-400 students.

            Poupard argued that science and religion need one another.

            “Science can purify religion from error and superstition,” he said. “Religion, for its part, can purify science from the idolatry of scientific knowledge and from false absolutes.”

            Fr. Gianfranco Basti, the scientific director of the project, offered an overview of its Web site. One of its most charming features is an appeal for dialogue with “Internet surfers.” It invites cyber-visitors to send comments on the STOQ project and provides an e-mail address.

            Two Americans are on the oversight committee: Cardinal Avery Dulles and Professor John Russell from the Berkeley Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.

* * *

            Recently I reported that Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy as well as head of the Vatican’s Ecclesia Dei Commission, will celebrate a traditional Latin Mass in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on May 24. It will not, as erroneously reported in the Italian press, mark the return of followers of the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre to full communion, but it certainly represents an overture to those attached to the old Mass.

            I asked Bishop Bernard Fellay, Lefebvre’s successor as head of the Society of St. Pius X, if he and others from the society would be in attendance.

            “We do not intend to be present on May 24 at the solemn High Mass,” he said. “It could be misinterpreted and put the cardinal in an awkward situation. Rome knows about our position, and also that we look positively at the event.”

* * *

            John Paul II has appointed Irish Archbishop Diarmud Martin, currently the Holy See’s observer to the United Nations in Geneva, as coadjutor bishop in Dublin. This means that when 77-year-old Cardinal Desmond Connell eventually steps down, Martin will become the new archbishop of Dublin.

            Martin will thus likely enter the College of Cardinals. To use the scheme in my book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election, this means that the Reform Party, moderates concerned with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), will receive an important new point of reference. Martin, who had previously served as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, knows the curial scene well, yet observers see him as a pastoral and collegial figure.

            Martin is also an attentive reader. I ran into him some months ago at a Sant’Egidio event in Palermo. We had never met before, and he knew me for all of three seconds when he informed me that Conclave suffered from factual errors, which he proceeded to tick off from memory. One wonders how much information like this he carries around in his mind at any given time.

            If you’re reading, archbishop, your corrections have been made.

* * *

            The big Vatican story in the Italian press this week is a dispute with the Capuchin Franciscans who run the sanctuary of San Giovanni Rotondo, the home of Padre Pio, whom John Paul II canonized last year on June 16.

On Sunday, May 4, the leader of the Capuchin community, Fr. Gianmaria Cocomazzi, revealed that the Vatican had named a “delegate” to govern the sanctuary, Archbishop Domenico Umberto D'Ambrosio. Cocomazzi said that the move signaled a return to the “persecution” that Padre Pio himself had suffered during his lifetime. (Depending on how you count, Padre Pio was investigated somewhere between 12 and 25 times).

Locals, long accustomed to fighting church authorities on behalf of Padre Pio, sprung into action. Some held signs reading “We defend our Padre Pio,” while others booed when the bishop showed up to read out the decree.

On May 5, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued a public statement vowing that the Capuchins “will continue to run the shrine,” meaning in terms of spiritual care. The statement also observed that the archbishop “has the right and duty to watch over pastoral activity” within his jurisdiction.

            San Giovanni Rotondo attracts eight million pilgrims annually, generating more than $500 million for the town; the shrine has a budget of $100 million, with 3,000 employees. Rumors have long swirled of financial irregularities, though some Capuchins believe the Vatican wants to tap their “cash cow” to support other ecclesiastical entities.

            Just before a press blackout descended on San Giovanni Rotondo, I reached a spokesperson for the Capuchins. “The Capuchins have administered this site since 1540, so this is a historic event,” he said.

* * *

            One of the more colorful annual events in Rome is the swearing in of new Swiss Guards, which happens on May 6, the anniversary of the sack of Rome in 1527 when 147 guards died defending Pope Clement VII against Spanish and French mercenaries, the lanzichenecchi. This year 32 new guards were enrolled.

            Some Catholics find the Swiss Guard a symbol of Vatican nostalgia for its regal past. Others find the idea of a papal army disturbing. But if you can bracket off those reactions and take the event on its own terms, it really is quite charming.

In an elaborate ceremony, the guards grasp the flag of the corps and raise their hands, extending the thumb and two fingers to symbolize the Trinity, and swear to defend the reigning pope and his successors to the death if necessary.

Guards are required to be Roman Catholics, male, between 19 and 30 in age, bachelors, taller than 5’9”, and of outstanding reputation. They only make about $1,000 a month, paid in Swiss Francs, although room and board are covered. The most difficult part of the job is the demanding schedule. During peak times of the year, guards might work 12-hour days, or more, for weeks. This includes weekends, especially Sundays.

One point of special interest this year was the entrance of the first person of color into the corps. Indian-born Dhani Bachmann, 23, was adopted as an infant by Swiss parents.

After each new guard takes the oath, the guards’ brass band gives an impromptu concert of oom-pah-pah numbers. A couple had the crowd in the Cortile di San Damaso, inside the pope’s Apostolic Palace, swaying and clapping. One imagines John Paul enjoyed it from upstairs.

* * *

            Another annual Roman tradition is the Rector’s Dinner at the North American College, the American seminary in Rome. This black-tie gala is a fundraiser for the NAC, so various institutions, embassies, and individuals buy up spaces at tables for an evening of drinks, dinner, and entertainment by the seminarians.

            The crowd Thursday night was studded with VIPs, including officials of the Roman Curia, figures from Italian political life, and various diplomatic personnel, including the American ambassador to the Holy See.

            I happened to be a guest of the Embassy of Taiwan to the Vatican. Taiwan has an obvious interesting in keeping its relationship with the United States green, so they come every year. Other regulars include the Knights of Columbus. (A standard table, by the way – not one with the cardinal or the U.S. ambassador – cost $1500 and had 10 spaces, so the tab ran $150 a person).

            Each year the Rector’s Award is presented at the dinner, often given simultaneously to a prelate and a layman.  This year’s honorees were: Cardinal James Francis Stafford, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and former archbishop of Denver; and Greg and Linda Jewell of St. Petersburg, Florida, major contributors to the NAC. Jewell made his money by owning and operating a string of funeral homes and cremation companies. He is a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus as well as member of the Knights of Malta and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

            Stafford gave a typically erudite reflection on the roots of his priestly vocation. Among other things, he said he has long been a devotee of England’s martyred St. Thomas Becket, and for that reason he said he has read many times T.S. Eliot’s poem Murder in the Cathedral. Stafford also thanked the many Italians at the dinner for welcoming generations of American seminarians to Rome.

            Jewell delivered a touching speech about his love for the NAC, arguing at one point that amid all the pain and turmoil in the American Catholic Church over the past year, the NAC represents a “city of hope.”

            The real highlight of the night, however, was the floor show put on by a white-shirted group of NACers (as the seminarians are called), who belted out such classic tunes as “Sentimental Journey,” Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and “A Whole New World.”

            Among the ecclesiastical heavyweights present were Italian Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda, head of the Apostolic Signatura; American Cardinal William Baum, former head of the Apostolic Penitentiary and now retired; Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship; Spanish Archbishop Julian Herranz, head of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts; American Archbishop John Foley, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications; and Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University.

 * * *

            Several readers have written to point out that they are receiving duplicate e-mails when the new “Word from Rome” is posted. Our technical experts say they are aware of the problem and working on it, so please be patient just a bit longer.

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