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 The Word From Rome

May 14, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 38

global perspective


"What this work has demonstrated is that indeed it is possible to provide treatment to people living with this disease, allowing them to live a normal life ... This is contrary to what the big pharmaceutical firms told us years ago, that it was impossible to treat millions of people at an affordable price."

Peter Coleman, minister of health of Liberia
commenting on a model program run by the Italian group Sant'Egidio that treats an AIDS patient with the complete antiretroviral therapy for about $800 a year

Mobilizing to fight AIDS in Africa; Bush to meet Pope John Paul; U.S. bishops' ad limina visits; Affordable medicine for the poor; Plenary assembly for interreligious dialogue


I defy anyone who gives the Community of Sant'Egidio half a chance not to be impressed.

Born in Italy amid the leftist student protests of 1968, Sant'Egidio aims to combine social commitment with fidelity to the full range of Catholic teaching. In that sense, many Catholic observers see it as a model for the lay role in the world envisioned by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

As part of its commitment to global justice, the community has long been interested in Africa. It was Sant'Egidio, for example, that engineered the Mozambique peace accords in 1992, ending a bloody civil war.

Thus it was that on May 13, the health ministers of 13 African nations concluded a two-day session at Sant'Egidio's Rome headquarters with an "Appeal for the Fight Against HIV/AIDS in Africa."

"HIV/AIDS affects the whole planet, but today 70 percent of its victims are born and die in Africa," that appeal read. "The therapy that allows people to live with the virus, and to live well, is available, but only to the rich world."

"The right to therapy is a new human right," it said.

"We ask for the costs of antiretroviral drugs and whatever else is necessary to diagnose and treat the disease to be decreased to costs compatible with the limited resources of our countries. We ask the most developed countries to mobilize human and economical resources truly capable of stopping this slaughter."

Aside from this appeal to conscience, the meeting put a spotlight on Sant'Egidio's DREAM program in Mozambique: "Drug Resource Enhancement Against AIDS and Malnutrition."

In 1996, the introduction of antiretroviral medications transformed HIV/AIDS from a certain killer into a manageable illness in the West. Sant'Egidio was determined to make the same transformation possible in Africa, and so in March 2002 it launched "DREAM." Through a combination of volunteers and donations, and relying on low-cost generic medications, some 95 percent of the over 4,000 patients under the program's care (1,700 taking the retroviral therapy) are still alive with a good quality of life after two years. Some 97 percent of children born from HIV-positive mothers do not have the disease.

Perhaps most impressive, DREAM has had 95 percent compliance from its patients with the prescribed regime of treatment. This is a rate as good or better than in Europe or the United States, and it belies that prejudice that it would be useless to give Africans complicated medical treatments because they couldn't or wouldn't follow instructions.

Sant'Egidio's experience using generic drugs is that they can treat an AIDS patient with the complete antiretroviral therapy for about $800 a year, far lower than most commercial medicines.

"What this work has demonstrated is that indeed it is possible to provide treatment to people living with this disease, allowing them to live a normal life," Peter Coleman, minister of health of Liberia, told me after the formal signing of the appeal on May 13.

"It is possible to transform this pandemic into any other chronic disease, like those in the developed world," Coleman said. "This is contrary to what the big pharmaceutical firms told us years ago, that it was impossible to treat millions of people at an affordable price. This model of treatment and prevention, as demonstrated scientifically by Sant'Egidio in Mozambique, is a model that should be replicated in most of Africa."

More information about the DREAM project can be found at

A footnote: Coleman went out of his way to thank the United States and the Bush administration for its commitment to new funding for HIV/AIDS, and said he hopes other nations will follow suit.

* * *

On May 18, 1938, Adolph Hitler arrived in Rome for a state visit with Mussolini. He also wanted to be received in the Vatican, but instead Pope Pius XI left the city for his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo and ordered the Vatican museums closed. The gesture was widely, and correctly, taken as an expression of disapproval.

Had U.S. President George W. Bush come to Rome in June and not met with Pope John Paul II, extreme (and silly) comparisons to Pius XI's famous snub would almost certainly have surfaced in the European press. Indeed, in the brief gap between the announcement of Bush's visit and the confirmation of a papal audience, some Italian commentators floated the hypothesis that the pope was so disgusted with the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, and American foreign policy in general, that he had turned a cold shoulder.

Instead, the pope will receive Bush on the morning of June 4. Bush will also meet with the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Bush will be in Europe to mark the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. Just ahead of the ceremonies in France, he will visit Rome, in part to thank Italy for its backing in Iraq. Conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is perhaps the most reliable ally of the United States in continental Europe. (In a recent event at Rome's John Cabot University, Berlusconi's Defense Minister, Antonio Martino, said that the prime minister once told him, "When it comes to international affairs, I'm always with the Americans, even before I know what that means.")

Originally, plans had called for Bush to leave Washington on June 4, arriving in Rome late that evening. John Paul, however, departs the next morning for a two-day trip to Bern, Switzerland. Hence the White House moved up Bush's departure in order to make an audience possible on June 4 -- one sign, they say, of the respect the president has for the pope. The request for the meeting, embassy sources say, came from the White House.

The announcement of the meeting raised a few eyebrows in the diplomatic world, since the Holy See normally discourages visits by presidents and prime ministers in the middle of reelection bids. It's too easy for the meeting to come off like a campaign stop. On the other hand, Vatican sources point out, it's only June. It would be taking things a bit far, they say, to disqualify the President of the United States from meeting the pope for six months. Moreover, neither political party in the United States has yet held its convention, so as a technical matter Bush hasn't even been nominated.

The most fundamental reason the pope wanted to see Bush, however, is that they have things to talk about. In recent days, Vatican officials have described the impact of the Iraqi prisoner abuse in strong terms.

"The torture? A more serious blow to the United States than Sept. 11. Except that the blow was not inflicted by terrorists but by Americans against themselves," said the pope's foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, in a May 12 interview with the Roman daily La Repubblica.

Lajolo said that "intelligent people in Arab countries understand that in a democracy such episodes are not hidden and are punished ... Still the vast mass of people -- under the influence of Arab media -- cannot but feel aversion and hate for the West growing inside themselves."

The Holy See will want to use the June 4 meeting to press Bush on a more robust role for the United Nations in Iraq, and elsewhere.

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict will also be on the agenda. Lajolo's predecessor, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, recently described this as "the mother of all crises in the Middle East." Religious liberty, international law and the ongoing war against terrorism are also likely to surface.

Inside Vatican walls, one sometimes hears a kind of exasperation with Bush. He seems a sincere Christian, they say, and someone whose stands on cultural and moral issues track well with church teaching. Yet for Vatican officials schooled in the fine art of patient, multilateral diplomacy, Bush's foreign policy seems at times almost incomprehensible. They want America to succeed, they say, but the rising tide of anti-Americanism generated by perceptions of U.S. arrogance and indifference to world opinion is counter-productive.

Whether that message comes across June 4, and what difference it might make, remains to be seen.

A footnote: Lest anyone think the June 4 visit is utterly non-partisan, we should note that many of the hotly contested "battleground" states in the November presidential elections have a disproportionately high number of Catholic voters. Hence a "photo-op" for the president with John Paul II undoubtedly carries political value. It would not be surprising, for example, if video clips and photo images of the June 4 meeting find their way into Bush campaign materials in places such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. No one in the Holy See is nave about this, but they consider it a risk that has to be run in order to have a shot at influencing American policies. The meeting should not, they insist, be taken as an indirect "endorsement" of Bush.

* * *

Speaking of presidential politics, two more American bishops have entered the flap over John Kerry and communion, saying that for now they would not deny the pro-choice Democratic presidential candidate the Eucharist.

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati made the comment in a May 7 interview with NCR in Rome, where he was taking part in his every-five-year ad limina visit to the pope. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said much the same thing during his own May 13 interview with NCR.

Reports of my interviews with the cardinal and archbishop appear in the May 21 issue of NCR. Complete texts of the Pilarczyk interview and the Mahony interview are in the Special Documents section at

Pilarczyk is a former president of the U.S. bishops' conference, and is regarded as a leading voice for the bishops' moderate wing. His stance on Kerry takes on special significance since Ohio is numbered among the hotly contested "battleground states" in the November presidential race.

Pilarczyk told NCR he intends to wait for a committee headed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington before making a final decision, but said in the meantime he would not support denying Kerry the Eucharist on the basis of his pro-choice views.

"We need to be very cautious about denying people the sacraments on the basis of what they say they believe, especially when those are political beliefs," Pilarczyk said.

"The last thing any church, or any representative or agent of the church wants to do, is to deny the sacraments to anybody unjustly," he said.

Mahony echoed the argument.

"I'm puzzled by people rattling sanctions at the moment. That has not been our tradition over the years," he said.

He said Kerry could receive communion in Los Angeles.

"Our priests know that," Mahony said, who had a brief private meeting with Kerry last week.

* * *

As I have noted before, relations between the Vatican and Israel have been at a low ebb since last August, when Israel broke off negotiations over unresolved issues from the 1993 "Fundamental Agreement" with the Vatican, including the tax status and legal personality of church institutions. In the meantime, another dispute arose over visas and residency permits for Christian clergy. All this compounds broader differences between Israel and the Holy See over the politics of the Middle East.

Now, however, there are signs of rapprochement.

On May 4, Israel's Ambassador to the Holy See, Oded Ben-Hur, met with Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's foreign minister, to formally propose the resumption of negotiations on implementation of the Fundamental Agreement.

In a May 11 interview, Ben-Hur told NCR that he has worked behind the scenes for several months with officials on both sides to sketch out the broad outlines of an agreement. Several weeks ago, Ben-Hur arranged a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief of staff and several officials from key ministries, and a representative of the Vatican.

From this collective behind-the-scenes work, Ben-Hur said, has emerged "a real breakthrough" in Israeli policy vis--vis Christians.

"It took new legislation, it took waivering of taxes, it took seeing the question of property in a different way by both sides," Ben-Hur said. "It took a lot of thinking on a political level that is different than before. This has now happened, and is in the process of being finalized."

The heart of the matter, Ben-Hur said, is willingness on both sides to compromise. He offered two examples.

First, the Vatican has accepted the principle of equality before the law when it comes to taxation, meaning that religious institutions will have to pay some taxes. At the same time, Israel has relaxed reporting requirements for foreign contributions in recognition of the unique financial character of religious groups.

Second, Ben-Hur said, both sides had long lists of properties that belong to the other, but to which they had some historical claim. Both sides have agreed to drop many of these claims, he said, accepting that it would be nearly impossible to restore the properties in any case.

Ben-Hur said the negotiations should resume in June or July, and he hopes that all the outstanding issues can be resolved before the end of 2004.

I spoke with a senior Vatican official May 12, who expressed caution.

"This is without doubt a positive step," he said. "But now we have to wait for facts. The proof will be in the results."

In another sign that the Israeli-Vatican "big chill" may be thawing, Ben-Hur will send four rectors of pontifical universities to an "academic fair" in Jerusalem June 1-4. Fr. Giuseppe Cavallotto of the Urbaniana, Jesuit Fr. Franco Imoda of the Gregorian, Opus Dei Fr. Mariano Fazio of Holy Cross, and Bishop Salvatore Fisichella of the Lateran will meet with their opposite numbers from Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and Bar-Ilan University. The idea is to identify ways in which the universities can collaborate.

"After about a year here, I realized that while most of the pontifical universities have courses on Biblical topics, what is missing is the link that would connect them to Israel today," Ben-Hur told me. "The new thought of Israel Zionism, political Israel, who we are, what is Judaism today? They are predominantly concentrated on Judaic studies of some 2,000 years ago, and I want to make this leap forward."

Beyond their meetings, the rectors will visit Yad Vashem, the Wailing Wall, some Christian holy sites, and perhaps will be received by high officials in the government. Aside from airfare, the costs of the trip are being covered entirely by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Ben-Hur said he is also in the process of creating a "Catholic Friends of Israel" association in Italy, and has been encouraged by the support he's received from a number of Catholic bishops.

* * *

On the subject of HIV/AIDS, a rather unusual coalition of Catholic pharmacists, academics, companies that manufacture generic drugs, and the Vatican announced in Rome on May 7 the formation of a new NGO designed to improve access to affordable medicine's for the world's poor.

The new body is called Cumvivium, meaning roughly, "living together in friendship." The objectives of Cumvivium are:

  • "Opposition to trade agreements and laws which can impede drugs from reaching the world's patients";
  • "Promotion of laws that increase utilization of affordable, high-quality medicine";
  • "Strengthening global pharmaceutical distribution networks to reach people in need."

Alain LeJeune is a Belgian and the NGO's president. He is founder of the European Generics Association, as well as a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Health

Part of what Cumvivium aims to do, he said, is generate a sense of urgency.

"There are 25 million people with AIDS," LeJeune said. "If we treat 3 million of them, 22 million remain. This is a very big problem, and all initiatives are welcome."

* * *

Forty years ago, on May 19, 1964, Pope Paul VI created a "Secretariat for Non-Christians" in the Roman Curia. It was a classic expression of the opening to the world associated with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). No longer was the Catholic church to be closed in on itself, but in patient, fraternal dialogue with all humanity.

To mark the 40th anniversary, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (successor to the office created by Paul VI) is hosting a May 14-19 Plenary Assembly of its members and consultors. Topic areas will be: 1) "Theological Reflection on Religious Pluralism -- Developments and Tendencies"; 2) "Bilateral Dialogue Experiences -- Developments and Prospects"; and 3) "Multi-religious Initiatives and the Challenges of Alternative Religiosity."

The assembly will be capped by a public event at Rome's Urban University on May 19, featuring a retrospective by Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, the man who was head of the Vatican's interreligious operation for half of those 40 years.

Other speakers include:

  • Hans Ucko, from the World Council of Churches
  • Ahmed Mechergui, a Muslim professor from Tunisia
  • Anuradha Senaviratne, a Buddhist professor from Sri Lanka
  • Kala Acharya, a Hindu and expert on Sanskrit religious literature

To talk about the anniversary, I sat down with English Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, Arinze's successor as head of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, on Friday, May 7.

The full text of our interview will be in the Special Document section at Fitzgerald interview. The following are excerpts.

How many bilateral relationships with other religions does the Holy See have?
"If you're talking about official relationships, we have a liaison committee with Muslims, with international Islamic organizations. We have a committee with Al-Azhar. We signed an agreement of intention with the religious affairs department of Turkey. We also made an agreement with the World Islamic Call Society of Libya. But with other religions, with Hindus or with Buddhists, we haven't any formal agreement. That's not to say, obviously, that we're not doing anything with them."

Why are these agreements all with Muslims?
"Islam is the most widespread religion in the world after Christianity. It has been a concern of Muslims to have a relationship with us."

When you dialogue with Hindus or Buddhists, how do you identify an 'opposite number'?
"There isn't an appropriate opposite number. There are Buddhist patriarchs in different places, in Thailand for example. There are Buddhist leaders of movements in Taiwan. There are abbots of monasteries, which have a big network in Japan. But there is this multiplicity of leaders, which makes it difficult."

How many of these unofficial relationships does the Holy See have?
"Not really very many. One of the things we try to do is to facilitate contacts between representatives of other religions and other parties in the Catholic church, not only with us. For instance, in December I was at a Hindu university in Mumbai. It has a department for the study of other religions and has already been in dialogue with various people here in Italy. It is keen to strengthen its relations with the Urbaniana, but also with the Teresianum, for the study of spirituality. We like to back those initiatives. Just the other day an institute of shariah asked to establish some connection with us. Well, we're not studying law here, but we can put them in contact with a faculty of canon law. Or maybe the Canon Law Society of America. Who knows?"

Is there a religious body with whom dialogue has proved impossible?
"I wouldn't say a 'body.' When Cardinal Arinze was called to this office, the Holy Father asked him to give particular attention to traditional religion. The dialogue with traditional religion, present not only in Africa but in other parts of the world, is quite difficult. They have no authorities. There's a local priest, or the head of the family who acts as a priest in his family. Therefore there's a difficult way of entry into the dialogue, and in fact it becomes more of an inner dialogue of gospel and culture. In December we went to see the Sikhs in Amritsar. We have been wanting to develop a greater dialogue with Sikhs. We have relations with some Sikhs in other parts of the world. Can we do something bilaterally on an international scale? This is something on which we're still reflecting."

What will the theological issues be in the plenary? For example, will you be considering the role of the Holy Spirit?
"I think the Holy Father has made a great progress in that, especially the role of the Holy Spirit outside the visible church. How do the different religions contribute to the salvation of people? They're not ways of salvation, but they have elements of salvation. Can we study them, can we identify them? Pneumatology, Christology, a reflection on the role of the church itself these would be the three fields that I would see. But we tend to confine our reflection to dogmatic theology, and in a sense it's not just dogmatics but moral theology as well. I think there is a great field open today for dialogue at the level of humanity and the ethical problems that are presented by life in the modern world. We can perhaps share these in dialogue with people of other religions."

* * *

I attended a conference May 12 on "The Role of the Catholic Church in the Process of the Change of Regime in Central Europe and of European Integration." It was sponsored by the Hungarian Embassy to the Holy See, the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Hungarian Institute and the Hungarian Academy in Rome.

French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the former foreign minister of the Vatican and the main architect of its opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, spoke on the role of the church in Europe.

One point of trivia gleaned from Tauran: It was a pope, specifically Nicholas V in 1453, to first use the term "Europe" to refer to what had formerly been known as "Christendom."

Perhaps the most interesting moment came when Tauran described the world situation the Holy See saw after World War II. On the one hand, it faced Soviet Communisim, officially atheistic and Marxist, and on the other, the United States, "a distant power where Catholics were a minority." In that moment, Tauran said, Europe provided an alternative in the form of the Christian humanism of men such as Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman.

It was almost as if to say that, from the point of view of the Holy See, the Soviet and American systems both had defects and a "third way" was needed.

Tauran summed up John Paul II's vision of Europe as follows:

  • Political structures in Europe should reach the dimensions given to it by geography and history;
  • Europe is more than a market or a bureaucracy, it is an ideal;
  • Liberty is central to Europe, but a liberty ordered to the human good rather than weakened by relativism, secularism, and exaggerated liberalism;
  • Respect for nations and peoples, recognizing their inter-dependence.

After reviewing the various ways popes have contributed to European development, he ended by noting that the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, predicted in 1941 that "there will not be a place for the pope in the new Europe."

Wryly, Tauran said: "I have the impression he was mistaken."

Among the other speakers, I was struck by a remark from Fr. Paulius Subaius, a university professor from Vilnius, Lithuania.

"The Lithuanian people try to imitate their well-to-do neighbors, and especially Brussels," Subaius said. "If Western European nations place an emphasis on Christian values, it could be a guideline for the new member states.

"But if the European constitution ignores Christian identity, it is difficult to expect that our public figures will take the church into adequate consideration. The West must take responsibility for the Christian future of the European community."

On his recent trips to Eastern Europe, John Paul has repeatedly urged the nations of the East to bring their Christian heritage into the European Union, thus reevangelizing the West. Subaius seemed to be suggesting, however, that things are likely to work the other way -- the underdeveloped East will take its cues, for good or bad, from the developed West.

Time will tell which is right.

* * *

Last week I wrote about the canonization of Gianna Beretta Molla, which will take place Sunday, May 16. She was an Italian wife and mother who accepted death in 1962, refusing to abort her unborn child in order to remove a tumor from her uterus. The child lived, but Molla died.

Readers interested in Molla's story will want to know that a 30-minute documentary on her life will air on Salt + Light Television in Canada on Sunday, May 16, 2004 as well as on the Canadian national television network "Telelatino" on May 16 at 1:00 P.M. It will also appear on the Eternal Word Television Network.

Salt + Light Television is a Catholic TV network launched by Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, organizer of World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.

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

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