National Catholic Reporter ®

May 17, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 38

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One papabile’s take on the sex-abuse scandal;
The pope’s health; and a reader’s critique

"... If a pope were to come from Latin America, it would be a great stimulus to the new evangelization and to mission. Just think what John Paul II meant for the end of the division between East and West. A Latin American pope could be a great stimulus to the end of divisions between North and South, by which I mean poverty. "

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras


A leading candidate to be the next pope, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, was in Rome May 16 to receive an honorary doctorate from the Pontifical Salesian University (he is a member of the Salesian community). Rodriguez, 59, appeared at a noontime press conference, where his brief and anodyne statement that John Paul II would have the courage to resign if it becomes necessary made predictably exaggerated headlines. (All the more so since the pope’s 82nd birthday is May 18, which will unleash another torrent of speculation about his health. See below on that subject).

     Far more interesting were Rodriguez’s comments on the sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. church. It was, so far as I’m aware, the first time a cardinal from another country has spoken at such length on the subject. I think it’s worth reproducing his comments basically intact, so here they are:

     “I have my doubts about the motivation behind some of these scandals,” said Rodriguez, who has lived and studied in the United States. “Obviously, someone who has the sickness of pedophilia should not be in the priesthood. But why bring up these things now from 40 or 30 years ago? (The U.S.) is a society that has such compartmentalized information, such closed information. Often when you watch TV news, so many of the themes are local, there’s very little international coverage. Why in this moment of terrible conflict in the Middle East do these scandals surface, creating a polarization in the media that is almost obsessive? 

     “I have said in other places, and I’m not afraid to say it, that obsession is a mental illness that causes us to get blocked on one theme and to keep moving around it forever. Why is it that they bring these skeletons out of the closet? We know well that every time money mixes with justice it becomes unjust. When I was in the United States in the 1970s, there was a fashion when one slipped on a sidewalk to sue the owner of the house for millions. This became a kind of industry. I remember that people used to put on a neck brace and go find a lawyer. Eventually this was prevented by putting up signs saying, ‘Sidewalk is wet.’ So why now is there such interest in taking up these cases from the past? Because there is money in play. 

     “But we know that money doesn’t heal any wound. Only psychological and spiritual accompaniment can help. If it were up to me, I would give the money neither to the lawyers nor even to the victims, but to a fund to help accompany people in a spiritual and psychological way, to help to heal them. This would be a real healing. That’s the reality. 

     “Pedophilia is a sickness, and those with this sickness must leave the priesthood. But we must not move from this to remedies that are non-Christian. I think the world should reflect. We must ask, where is Jesus in all this? For me it would be a tragedy to reduce the role of a pastor to that of a cop. We are totally different, and I’d be prepared to go to jail rather than harm one of my priests. I say this with great clarity. …

     Rodriguez added that he feels the church will exit from the crisis “more humble and more strong,” with “a new pastoral approach” that is “closer to the people, which always does us good.”

     “We must not forget that we are pastors, not agents of the FBI or CIA,” he said. “Our attitude must be that people can change, that this can happen every day of our life, and that to the very end our goal is to save people. I don’t know the situation of 40 years ago, but we can imagine what was the basic level of sexual education in the seminaries when they could not talk about this because it was perceived as something wrong. Today there is a different type of education, and we can speak about it with much greater clarity. Many of the psychological implications were not known at that time. At times they even thought the seminary was a kind of tube where you enter on one side and exit ordained. This kind of thinking no longer exists. 

     “Some of these priests, and I say it with much respect, did not have the opportunity of psychological consultation, and therefore they can also be victims. As far as judging is concerned, that is very difficult. We can judge the exterior facts, but not the interior life of the person. We must always have a pastoral, Christian attitude.”

     The cardinal’s reflections on one other subject are worth recording. I asked Rodriguez if he thought a Latin American pope would be a sign of hope for the church. His answer:

     “I think so. If a pope were to come from Latin America, it would be a great stimulus to the new evangelization and to mission. Just think what John Paul II meant for the end of the division between East and West. A Latin American pope could be a great stimulus to the end of divisions between North and South, by which I mean poverty.”

* * *

     John Paul II visited the Italian island resort of Ischia on Sunday, May 5, and although his physical deterioration was evident, speculation that he is “out of it” mentally should have been laid to rest.

     I didn’t make the trip, since I wanted to see the final Rome soccer match of the season (which they won 1-0 over Turin, finishing in second place in the national championship). But I watched the visit on Telepace, an Italian Catholic TV channel, and for the first time in recent months saw the pope go off script and crack jokes, giving clear evidence that his mind continues to be lucid, despite a body that is increasingly letting him down.

     John Paul arrived in the glass-enclosed popemobile, seated rather than standing and waving as has always been his custom, and then struggled to mount nine steps to his presider’s chair for the Mass. He managed to read his entire homily and celebrate the Mass standing, indicating improvement over Holy Week, yet he often grimaced and took deep breaths that were amplified by the public address system. The pope also skipped the normal pastoral visit to a local parish, evidently because it would have been too fatiguing.

     At that afternoon’s youth rally, however, the pope was in good form. At one stage the youth of Ischia gave the pope a check for $4,500 for children in Bethlehem, leading John Paul to quip: “Someone could think the young people of Ischia are all rich,” referring to the island’s reputation as a tourist paradise. “But I know we’re dealing with another economy here, the economy of love.”

     Later, the pope was offered a giant birthday cake in anticipation of his 82nd birthday on May 18. “I’m going to leave the cake with you,” he joked, “so you can participate honestly in my birthday on May 18 … and for this cake, you’re going to need a truly young appetite!”

     Finally, he ad-libbed a few lines about World Youth Day in Toronto, which comes at the end of July, and left his young listeners with two words: “courage” and “hope.”

     No one could watch the performance and believe that John Paul lacks the mental capacity to understand what people are saying to him, to respond, or to grasp the essentials about decisions he is asked to make. 

     In a way, this makes the responsibility the pope bears all the more acute. He is not incapable of governing, thus if he is not doing so adequately in certain areas, it is by choice rather than physical necessity.

* * *

     An attentive and fair-minded reader has taken me to task for a piece I published in the April 26, 2002, print edition of NCR under the headline “Congregation blasts liturgical translation.” It was a news story about a set of observations from the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Vatican’s chief liturgical authority, rejecting an English translation of the book of prayers for Mass prepared by the International Commission for English in the Liturgy.

     Supporters of ICEL, as it is known, believe it produces creative translations that reflect the idiom of today’s English-speaker. Opponents feel it sometimes exceeds the brief of a translator, which is to faithfully render a text into a target language, for the sake of pleasing modern ears -— for example, by using so-called “inclusive language,” such as “person” rather than “man.”

     My reader detected a bias in both the tone and substance of my April 26 story. 

     To begin with, he objected to the term “blasting” to characterize the Vatican’s observations. Such language, he suggested, was sensational. What purpose did this loaded word serve?

     It’s a fair question, though I note that journalists sometimes must rely on shorthand formulae to alert readers to the significance of a development. Did Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, “lament” an Israeli incursion, or did he “castigate” it? The difference shapes public perceptions, and one has to measure words carefully. Perhaps in this case I stacked the deck.

     My reader next pointed out that the first paragraphs of my story quote the Vatican observations to the effect that ICEL texts reflect an ethos of “consumerist societies.” Put that way, the quotes create an inaccurate impression. In fact, the Vatican’s language about consumerism concerns only original texts composed by ICEL, not translations from the Latin. Original texts represent a small fraction of the complete book of prayers. Hence, my reader argued, I made an objection to one limited element seem like an indictment of the whole project.

     This criticism is, I’m embarrassed to say, right on the money. 

     In fairness, it should be noted that the Vatican did voice global criticisms, both of the translation and of ICEL itself. For example, an accompanying letter from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, prefect of the congregation, stated that there exists “an evidently insurmountable divergence as regards fundamental principles of liturgical translation” between his office and the commission. 

     Morever, the congregation’s complaint about an ethos of personal gratification was not limited just to original prayers. The observations state that in general word choice too, the ICEL translation “often lapses into sentimentality and emotionality in place of the noble simplicity of the Latin. A focus on transcendent realities too often shifts to a focus on the interior dispositions and desires of those who pray.”

     Still, the fact remains that I took words and ideas out of context, and for that I am sorry.

     Finally, my reader pointed out that since NCR obviously had the text of both Medina’s letter and the observations, why did we not make them available on our web site, rather than asking readers to trust us about what they said? It’s a reasonable question, and I’m glad to announce that both texts are now available on the NCR site under “documents.” Readers may click here to be taken directly to them:

     Medina Letter


     At the big picture level, I believe my story was basically correct: the Congregation for Divine Worship has rejected the ICEL translation of prayers for Mass, harboring reservations about both the text and the body that produced it. Nevertheless, I apologize for the errors. 

* * *

     Speaking of the Congregation for Worship, it has created a new body called the Vox Clara Committee to offer advice on translations of liturgical texts into English. The chair, appointed by Medina, is Archbishop George Pell of Sydney, Australia. For a recent story I faxed Pell three questions about the committee. Unfortunately Pell’s responses arrived too late to be of use, but I record them here.

     (1) How do you understand the relationship between Vox Clara and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy?

     Vox Clara is a committee of advice to the Congregation for Divine Worship, which hopes to be able to use the translations of ICEL reworked according to the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam. Vox Clara is encouraging ICEL to move definitively in this direction.

     At the most recent meeting of the Consultation on Common Texts, ICEL was not present in keeping with the directives in Liturgiam Authenticam. Do you anticipate that Vox Clara might become a conversation partner in ecumenical liturgical work?

     There are no plans for Vox Clara to become a conversation partner in ecumenical liturgical work.

     Your press release indicates that Vox Clara has begun to review translations of selected elements of the Order of the Mass. Where do these translations come from? Are they already existent, or have they been commissioned by Vox Clara? What do you anticipate doing with them at your November meeting?

     The small section of translations under review from the Roman Missal will be based on the ICEL text together with the comments of experts used by the Congregation for Divine Worship. In November Vox Clara will examine these for suitability.

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

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