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May 19, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 37

John L. Allen Jr.


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Benedict's concerns for Poland trip: The European Union; The Deep Legacy of John Paul II; A German Pope Visits Auschwitz; German-Polish Reconciliation; 'What a lay person is'; Weurl's appointment


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BREAKING NEWS: Capping a decade-long on-again, off-again investigation of accusations of sexual abuse, the Vatican has asked Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, to observe a series of restrictions on his ministry. In effect, Vatican sources told NCR this week, the action amounts to a finding that at least some of the accusations against the charismatic 86-year-old Mexican priest are well-founded.

Full NCR coverage can be found on Maciel's ministry restricted.

The Vatican's statement on the Maciel case is available here: Vatican Press Office communiqué.

The Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement issued a statement in response tothe communiqué of the Vatican. Here is that statement.

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Editor's Note: May 25-28, John Allen will be covering Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Poland and filing daily reports of the trip, which will appear on

Next week, Pope Benedict XVI will make his first trip outside Italy that is truly his own, in the sense of not being already on the books when he took over. (World Youth Day in Cologne had been scheduled for two and a half years prior to his election in April 2005).

It is no accident that Benedict's first choice of destination is to the homeland of his predecessor, John Paul II. It is yet another way of saying that carrying forward the legacy of John Paul is at the heart of Benedict's pontificate. Benedict will be visiting the sites most associated with the memory of Karol Wojtyla: Krakow, where Wojtyla served as cardinal-archbishop; Wadowice, where he grew up; Czestochowa and the Shrine of the Virgin of Jasna Gora, where he spent long hours in prayer; and Auschwitz, the fulcrum of his determination to forge a new path in Christian/Jewish relations.

That said, the Poland trip is not just a wistful trip down memory lane, a kind of final tipping of the hat to Benedict's boss and good friend for more than 20 years. There is serious business for the pope in Poland, matters that cut to the core of his chief concerns. Although media coverage will likely accent the sentimental, it would be a mistake to read these three days exclusively as a sort of rolling post-mortem tribute.

On the basis of conversations with Vatican officials over the last several days, here's how the big-ticket concerns stack up from their point of view.

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(1) The European Union
In some ways, virtually every political question in Poland these days revolves around the question of Europe.

At one level, things can break down along pro- and anti-EU lines. This reality was highlighted recently when Andrzej Lepper of the populist "Self-Defense" party, often sharply critical of the EU, became the country's deputy prime minister with responsibility for agriculture and rural development, precisely the constituencies with the deepest reservations about EU membership.

The conservative Law and Justice party which won last October's elections had been governing through a minority coalition, and for a time it seemed it would broker a deal with the more centrist and EU-oriented Civic Platform. Instead, in early May it achieved a majority by including Lepper's Self-Defense party and the League of Polish Families under Roman Giertych, who has been made deputy prime minister with responsibility for education. The move considerably strengthened the position of two prominent Euro-skeptics. (As a footnote, Giertych is an Opus Dei supernumerary).

On the whole, however, few doubt that Poland will eventually take its place in the new Europe. More deeply, therefore, the real question seems to be: On what terms should Poland do so?

One Vatican official phrased the crucial question this way: "What does it mean for Poland as a Christian country to be a member of the European Union? What is its distinctive contribution?"

The last several years have produced a growing disillusionment within the Holy See about the direction of the EU. The failure to include a mention of God in the European constitution, the way Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was blackballed as the European Minister of Justice because of his Catholic stands on abortion and homosexuality, and the recent ascendance of center-left governments that are often hostile to the church on a wide range of issues (in most acerbic form, the Zapatero government in Spain) have collectively produced a sense that John Paul's project of reawakening the Christian roots of the continent have, to date, not produced much fruit at the level of public policy.

Another reminder came this week, when Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome, blasted the European Parliament for a recent resolution that asked member states to revise their national legislation to ensure that homosexual unions are treated equally with respect to traditional families.

On the other hand, there is also a widespread conviction at the senior levels of the church that Catholicism cannot simply "write off" Europe, placing its trust in the numeric expansion of the church in the global South, or in the more religion-friendly culture of the United States. Europe has always been the cradle of Christian culture, and many believe it is simply too important to fail. In a sense, that was an important part of the logic for the election of Benedict XVI -- a pope who has reflected deeply about Europe and its discontents, and who proclaimed 24 hours before his election that the confrontation with a "dictatorship of relativism" is the central challenge facing the church today.

If there is hope for Europe, many senior churchmen believe, it is unlikely to come in the near term from the West, where the inroads of secularization are too deep. Instead, they pray, it may come from a Christianizing impulse from the East, where the cryogenic preservation imposed on the church under the Soviets stifled, but ironically also insulated, the faith. No European culture has the potential to deliver a stronger injection of Christian energy than traditionally ultra-Catholic Poland.

This theme will be explicit and constant in the speeches of Benedict XVI during the four-day trip. Like a leitmotif, he is expected to appeal repeatedly to the Poles to remain faithful to the traditions they have been given.

"This will run like a scarlet thread through the speeches," one Vatican official said. "The Holy Father will praise Poland's culture and traditions, and urge the Poles to be faithful to them in the changing circumstances of the country."

In that light, the pope will invite the Poles to think of their future in terms of something more than secular democracy and free trade, but as also in terms of values such as human dignity and the just society that can offer a template for a more spiritually rooted European culture.

The political challenge the pope faces is that his natural constituency, so to speak, is in the rural zones of the country where the practice of the faith and the maintenance of Catholic tradition is strongest. One Vatican official said that in northeastern Poland, Mass attendance rates reach as high as 60-70 percent. Yet these are also the places where unemployment rates reach as high as 20 percent, and anti-EU sentiment runs deep. Rather than thinking about how Poland can contribute to shaping Europe's culture, therefore, many of these Poles are more interested in how Poland can opt out of it. In the cities, meanwhile, where intellectuals and political figures are vitally interested in Poland's European future, the influence of the church is comparatively weaker.

Hence the political discussion is sometimes fractured between a conservative movement concerned about Catholic values, but sometimes tending towards radical populism; and a center-left movement that cares deeply about Europe, but not so much about the church.

How to elicit the best from all parties, allowing Poland to emerge as a constructive yet faithful partner in the European project, is the deep question.

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(2) The Deep Legacy of John Paul II
Another aspiration of Benedict XVI on this trip, closely related to the above, will be to celebrate the life and legacy of John Paul II.

George Weigel, the papal biographer who runs an institute every summer in Krakow, put it this way: "He's obviously going to thank Poland for the gift it gave the church in the person of John Paul II. By going to the places that were so important to John Paul II's Christian formation -- Kalwaria, Czestochowa -- he's suggesting, or so it seems to me, that these are not just places of local or historical interest, but places which bear a message of importance for the whole church."

Even the choreography will invoke memories of John Paul. For example, when Benedict spends the night at the archbishop's residence in Krakow, he is expected to come to the window and exchange words with the crowd, exactly as Wojtyla used to do on his visits.

One Vatican official stressed, however, that Benedict wants to do more than pay tribute. He wants to lay down a gauntlet. His aim will be to urge the Poles to move from celebrating the John Paul legacy primarily in a sentimental and ceremonial way, to embracing the deep values associated with the Polish pope.

In other words, Benedict will try to argue that keeping the memory of John Paul alive is not simply a matter of putting up statues or renaming streets. It's about building the kind of society to which his teaching pointed, which includes quite specific positions on a host of issues such as abortion, marriage, biotechnology, social justice and war and peace.

In some ways, therefore, the appeal regarding Europe and the invocation of John Paul's legacy merge into the same conversation.

"There will be constant reference to John Paul" in Benedict's speeches, a Vatican source said. "The message will be that Poland should remain faithful to the gospel of Christ, which has always been its tradition, especially recently in John Paul II."

This source pointed to John Paul's speeches from his 1991 trips to Poland, his first after the collapse of Soviet Communism, as an especially important touchstone. He called for preserving the cultural and religious heritage that constituted the essence of Poland's national character, and thus should be central to a fully sovereign Poland again finding its historic roots.

That Poland has a "European vocation" was implicit in what John Paul said in Wloclawek: "The world needs a redeemed Europe."

"Do not let us, in our efforts to shape a new economy, a new economic order, take shortcuts and omit moral signposts," he said in Bialystok.

"Before I leave," John Paul said in Krakow, I ask you to accept this entire spiritual heritage that is called Poland with faith, hope, and love. . ."

One can expect reminders from Benedict of these invocations.

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(3) A German Pope Visits Auschwitz
On one level, Benedict's May 28 visit to Auschwitz is another tribute to John Paul, who grew up in the shadow of the Nazis' most infamous death camp. His 1979 visit to Auschwitz included a moment of prayer before the camp's "death wall," where thousands of inmates were lined up and shot, after which John Paul called attention to a Hebrew commemoration plaque.

"That very people that received from God the commandment, 'Thou Shalt Not Kill,' itself experienced in a special measure what is meant by killing," he said. "It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference."

Yet there is obviously also special resonance to an Auschwitz by Benedict XVI, a German pope, and especially one who served in the Germany army during the Second World War.

Because the question of Joseph Ratzinger's wartime experience is likely to be rehashed, it's worth once again setting the record straight.

He was a brief and involuntary member of the Hitler Youth. In 1941, when membership was made compulsory, Ratzinger was registered, though after he left the seminary a few months later he did not go to any meetings. Back in his local high school, Ratzinger said that an understanding mathematics teacher let him keep his tuition reduction despite the fact that he did not have a Hitler Youth certificate.

Ratzinger's military service began in 1943, when he and his entire seminary class (which had been temporarily disbanded) were drafted into the anti-aircraft corps. They were assigned to protect a plant for the Bavarian Motor Works, where he later recalled seeing slave laborers from the Dachau concentration camp. He was them transferred to Innsbruck, Austria, and finally to a point southwest of Munich near Lake Ammer. On September 20, 1944, Ratzinger was drafted into the regular army, assigned to a camp where the borders of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary meet. Ratzinger said his unit was under the command of former members of the Austrian Legion, calling them "fanatical ideologues who tyrannized us without respite."

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In a 1993 interview with Time, Ratzinger said his unit was put to work putting up tank traps. During this assignment, he said, he saw Hungarian Jews being shipped to their deaths.

As the bottom fell out of the German war effort in late 1944, Ratzinger and his fellow conscriptees were given civilian clothes and put on a train for home. He was drafted for military service again, assigned to a local barracks. In late April, Ratzinger deserted. When the Americans arrived in the spring of 1945, they chose the Ratzinger house as a headquarters. Joseph was identified as a solider and sent off to a prisoner of war camp. He was released on June 19, 1945, and hitchhiked a ride home with a dairy trucker.

The Ratzinger family was staunchly anti-Nazi, and Joseph Ratzinger's involvement with the war was peripheral and unwilling. Nevertheless, it permitted him a first-hand glimpse of some of the horrors the war involved.

As for the pope's attitude towards Judaism, during his August 2005 visit to the Cologne synagogue he called the Shoah, the preferred Hebrew term for the genocide of Jews by the Nazis, "an unspeakable and previously unimaginable crime."

"Today, sadly, we are witnessing the rise of new signs of anti-Semitism and various forms of a general hostility toward foreigners," he said.

"Both Jews and Christians recognize in Abraham their father in faith," he said, "and they look to the teachings of Moses and the prophets. Jewish spirituality, like its Christian counterpart, draws nourishment from the psalms. … In considering the Jewish roots of Christianity, my venerable predecessor, quoting a statement by the German Bishops, affirmed that 'whoever meets Jesus Christ meets Judaism.'"

Acknowledging great progress in Catholic/Jewish relations, Benedict said there's still work to do -- including developing the confidence to be critical of one another.

"We must come to know one another much more and much better," the pope said. "Consequently I would encourage sincere and trustful dialogue between Jews and Christians. … This dialogue, if it is to be sincere, must not gloss over or underestimate the existing differences: in those areas in which, due to our profound convictions in faith, we diverge, and indeed precisely in those areas, we need to show respect for one another."

Few would deny that Poland has made enormous strides in confronting its troubled past with respect to anti-Semitism; today, for example, there is talk about building a museum of Jewish history. Yet many believe there is also work left to be done. Controversy was aroused recently, for example, when the populist Catholic radio station "Radio Maria," one of the most popular broadcasters in the country, aired an interview with a Polish professor in which he cautioned against what he called a Jewish tendency to make an "industry" of the Holocaust. In that context, Benedict's words on the subject will be closely followed.

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(4) German-Polish Reconciliation
Polish resentment over the German occupation in 1939 still festers in many quarters. Recently the Polish Defense Minister, Radek Sikorski, compared a German-Russian oil pipeline which Poland opposes to the infamous Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, which in effect countenanced the Nazi invasion of Poland. The comment once again seemed to open old wounds.

As one sign of the lingering sensitivity, Benedict is expected to speak a few lines in Polish, and the rest of the time he will rely upon Italian. In deference to memories of the occupation, he is not expected to speak publicly in German.

Yet one of the more dramatic stories of reconciliation following World War II also involves the Poles and the Germans. In 1965, the Polish bishops sent a now-famous letter to their German counterparts, in what can only be seen as a remarkable gesture from a people with every reason to feel bitter.

"We forgive and ask for forgiveness," was the heart of the letter's message. (The request for forgiveness referred primarily to the expulsion of Germans from Poland after the war). Strongly supported by then-Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, the letter angered both Polish Nationalists and the Communists, who saw West Germany as an ideological foe.

The letter marked a turning point in the relationship not just between the two groups of bishops, but between Poles and Germans generally. In 2005, events marking the 40th anniversary of the letter were held in both nations.

Benedict is expected to make reference to the letter and its aftermath during the trip. The obvious symbolism of a German pope doing so on Polish soil will be lost on no one, and is seen as especially important in light of the still-lingering hurts that Sikorski's comment illustrates.

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During Benedict's May 27 stop in Wadowice, an American Jew named Gary Krupp will present Benedict XVI with plans for a towering bronze and stone statue intended to memorialize John Paul's historic outreach to Judaism.

Krupp told NCR that he views the statue as "a gift from the worldwide Jewish community in commemoration for all Pope John Paul II has done in worldwide religious reconciliation."

Krupp is a medical supplies professional who was named a Knight of St. Gregory by John Paul II in 2000 for his support of a hospital in southern Italy founded by the famed Capuchin mystic and stigmatic, Padre Pio, called the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza. Krupp's "Pave the Way" Foundation has long been among the leading forces promoting Jewish-Christian understanding; Krupp, for example, organized a January 2005 encounter between John Paul and roughly 100 rabbis, who thanked the pope for his pioneering work in relations between Christians and Jews.

The statue, intended to eventually stand more than 10 feet tall, shows John Paul II at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during his 2000 visit, placing a note in the wall apologizing for Christian anti-Semitism. The likeness of the pope will be cast in bronze, while the wall will be built from stone from the actual Western Wall in Jerusalem. The statue is to be designed by prominent Israeli sculptor Sam Philipe, who also designed the last gift presented to John Paul II by Israel's two chief rabbis.

Krupp has worked with Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, John Paul's former private secretary, and the late pope's longtime Jewish friend Jerzy Kluger on the plans for the statue.

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I sat down on Monday with David Schindler, academic dean at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, D.C. where he also serves as Edouard Cardinal Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology. Since 1982, Schindler has been editor-in-chief of the North American edition of Communio, a federation of journals founded in 1972 by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, Henri de Lubac, and other European theologians.

Schindler, in town for a conference at the Lateran University and for meetings with the institute, has built his reputation as one of the most astute critics of liberal culture -- secular democracy, free markets, science as the paradigm for human knowledge, and so on -- and what he sees as its ambiguous relationship with a properly Catholic worldview.

In our conversation, Schindler argued that Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray, the American theologian who was a driving force behind the decree Dignitatis Humanae of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which recognized a strong distinction between church and state, in some ways muddled the waters.

In effect, Schindler said, Murray wanted to argue that the principle of human dignity means the state must remain neutral before competing value systems, allowing each person to choose, without acknowledging that basing all this upon human dignity is already a claim about values.

"The question is, did the church make its peace with the juridical state?" he said, meaning a state conceived basically in terms of free choice, regulated only by the rule of law. "That's left unresolved in Dignitatis Humanae, but I don't think Benedict XVI accepts it."

In other words, Schindler said, the pope believes that some values are so primordial that they can't legitimately be the object of free choice, and the state can't be neutral on them -- for example, the right to life.

"There aren't two ends to the human being," Schindler said, "as if there are two orders of existence. Politics has to be subordinated to the single ultimate end of human life."

I asked Schindler what he sees in terms of the lay role in the church in the 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he said he hopes laity become more attentive to the "cultural dimension" of the faith.

"I think the question of what a lay person is, is far from resolved," Schindler said. "People think it to be obvious, but I'm not sure it is at all."

By that, Schindler seemed to have in mind the question of whether laity are adequately aware of the ways in which modern liberal culture may shape them in ways not always compatible with their Christian vocation.

"The tendency is to get involved with the world as it is, accepting most things, but drawing the line at abortion or something like that," Schindler said. "We think of the structures of liberal culture as given, and then we try to give them a religious intentionality."

That, he said, is not enough.

"Liberal institutions make ideological claims," he said. Even Catholics well educated in the faith, he said, often aren't aware of how "their categories are liberal categories."

Offering a small example, Schindler pointed to technology, often a fetish of liberalism. He said he's taken the Internet out of his home.

"It encourages us to communicate without seriousness, because of the immediacy," he said. "Everything has a surface quality."

In essence, what Schindler seemed to be calling for is a more "counter-cultural" laity, not just with respect to a handful of life issues, but capable of a much deeper criticism of 21st century secularity.

Schindler acknowledged that some people might see this as "imposing" a religious or theological framework on secular realities.

"But the inner meaning of every reality is love," he said, "and love has a logic. It's not a matter of importing a foreign logic from outside, but rather reaching in to the depths of things."

I asked Schindler for an example of a liberal institution that he thinks is in need of deeper Christian critique. His immediate response: "the academy."

"When we talk about a 'Catholic university,' we tend to assume that 'Catholic' is the adjective and 'university' is the noun, so it's what we have in common with everybody else," he said.

Schindler said that in the most fundamental sense, that's not true.

"The origin of the university is the Incarnate Word," he said. "The various disciplines and everything else that goes on should have some intrinsic relationship to that."

One litmus test, he said, for such an attitude would be to ask a Catholic university, "What does the faith have to do with the physics department?"

"There's already a theology implied in physics," Schindler said. "We can't lose a sense of urgency for the necessity of the most profound formation of the intelligence in dealing with these problems."

If you ask most people at a Catholic university where the place for contemplation is, most, he said, will point you to the chapel.

"The problem is that it's not operative anywhere else," he said.

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The big Catholic news in the United States this week was the widely expected appointment of Pittsburgh's Bishop Donald Wuerl as the new archbishop of Washington. Wuerl has been tipped for virtually every major opening in an American archdiocese for at least the last five years, so the announcement caught almost no one off guard.

During the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist last fall, I had the chance for an extended interview with Wuerl, which offers some insight into the new cardinal-to-be's thought. Readers may find it here: Wuerl Interview

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

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