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 The Word From Rome

May 23, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 39

global perspective


“Today our goal is to witness to the love of God, to promote the kingdom of God among human beings and within history.” The motive for carrying Christ with others is not to “win souls,” but to share something positive and attractive.

Dominican Father
 Claude Geffré
from the Institut Catholique, Paris

U.S. vs. Vatican: a clash of cultures; Document on seminary admission of homosexuals not likely; Fr. Claude Geffré on Christian challenges in the 21st century


Although the shooting in Iraq is over, the war of words between Rome and Washington continues, as the Vatican has again criticized American policy in remarkably strong terms. As things turn out, the “clash of cultures” most exacerbated by the Iraq war may not be between Christianity and Islam, but between the Holy See and the United States.

If so, it would mark not a new chapter in relations, but a return to the ambiguity that has long characterized attitudes in Rome to the superpower across the Atlantic. This reserve has been rekindled in recent months not only by the war, but also by the sex abuse crisis, both of which have suggested to Vatican observers that the ghost of John Calvin is alive and well in American culture.

The vehicle for the latest critique was the Jesuit-edited journal Civiltà Cattolica, whose pages are reviewed by the Vatican Secretariat of State before publication. In the lead editorial of its May 17 issue, the journal asserted that “the United States has put international law in crisis.”

The editorial said the U.S.-declared war on terrorism has generated strong anti-American sentiment in Europe. Especially repugnant, it said, has been the decision to hold 600 Taliban, including five teenagers between 13 and 16, and five men over 80, at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba without recognizing them as prisoners of war.

In another explosive charge, the editorial said the rebuilding of Iraq is “chancy” because “the western countries that should make it happen seem more interested in exploiting Iraqi oil than in the reconstruction of the country.” It is not the first time Civiltà Cattolica has suggested that oil interests are driving American policy.

The editorial bluntly said the war was unjustified.

Noting that Iraq’s army was weak, and that weapons of mass destruction have not been found, the editorial said these facts “have clearly shown that there were not sufficient reasons for moving against Iraq, because the country did not constitute a true threat for the United States and its allies.”

The editorial said the most urgent task now is to “reestablish international legality, wounded by the ‘unilateralism’ of the United States.” It called for the United Nations, not the United States, to direct the post-war work in Iraq.

“It’s a matter of relaunching the spirit of the United Nations charter, based on cooperation, rather than on competition among enemy states and on domination of an imperialistic sort by the hegemonic superpower.”

Many Americans have been surprised to hear this sort of language, which calls to mind the harsh anti-American broadsides of the European left, from the Holy See.

Indeed, key officials in the Bush administration were initially taken off guard by the depth of Vatican opposition to the war.  Condoleeza Rice was not being disingenuous when she told the Italian weekly Panorama that she “didn’t understand” the Vatican’s argument. That incomprehension was widely shared among American personnel both in Washington and in Rome.

The surprise reflects the fact that the political psychology of many Americans, including Bush administration officials, took shape in the Reagan years. During the Cold War there was a clear intersection of interests between the United States and the Holy See in support of anti-Soviet resistance in Eastern Europe, above all Solidarity in Poland. Some American Catholic thinkers, most eminently George Weigel and Richard John Neuhaus, saw this “holy alliance” as a harbinger of a broader global partnership between America and the Catholic Church, based on shared values (pro-life, pro-family) and on shared political objectives (human rights, economic freedom and democracy).

The project, on this theory, was delayed by eight years of Clinton liberalism, but the election of Bush put things back on track. And indeed, there was a “Catholic honeymoon” in the early days of the Bush administration, as the president’s elimination of public funding for abortion, his restrictive decision on stem cell research, and his two visits to the pope all played to positive Catholic reviews.

From this point of view, the rift over the Iraq war is a temporary disruption of a natural alliance, and the needle will eventually swing back into place. In fact, however, history suggests another hypothesis — that Cold War politics made temporary bedfellows out of the Vatican and the United States, and what is reemerging now is the caution and reluctance that have always characterized Vatican attitudes about America.

Papal reservations are well documented, from Pope Leo XIII’s Testem Benevolentiae, condemning the supposed heresy of “Americanism,” to Pius XII’s opposition to Italy’s entrance into NATO based on fears that the alliance was a Trojan horse for Protestant domination of Catholic Europe. Key Vatican officials, especially Europeans from traditional Catholic cultures, have long worried about aspects of American society — its exaggerated  individualism, its hyper-consumer spirit, its relegation of religion to the private sphere, its Calvinist ethos. A fortiori, they worry about a world in which America is in an unfettered position to impose this set of cultural values on everyone else.

The last 18 months have confirmed many Vatican officials in these convictions. Two episodes have been key: the sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic church, and the Iraq war.

On the crisis, many Vatican observers have been shocked at what they see as the punitive and unforgiving response to priestly misconduct in American culture. Certainly no one in the Holy See defends the sexual abuse of minors, and most realize that the Church left itself vulnerable because of its history of covering up wrongdoing. Still, the clamor for permanent removal from the priesthood of men with even one offense, potentially decades in the past, seems excessive to many in Rome. Even more puzzling was the decision of the American bishops in Dallas to craft policy based on this unforgiving standard. One Vatican cardinal recently asked a delegation of Americans visiting Rome, “How could your bishops adopt a policy so removed from the gospel?”

The war has similarly awakened traditional reservations. When Vatican officials hear Bush talk about the evil of terrorism, and the American mission to destroy that evil, they sometimes sense a worrying kind of dualism. The language can suggest a sense of election, combined with the perversity of America’s enemies, that appears to justify unrelenting conflict.

In the view of some in the Vatican, underlying both the harsh American response on sexual abuse, and its dualistic approach to foreign policy, is the legacy of Calvinism. The Calvinist concepts of the total depravity of the damned, the unconditional election of God’s favored, and the manifestation of election through earthly success, all seem to them to play a powerful role in shaping American cultural psychology.

After Cardinal Pio Laghi returned to Rome from his last-minute appeal to Bush just before the Iraq war began, he told John Paul II that he sensed “something Calvinistic” in the president’s iron determination to battle the forces of international terrorism.

Recently I was in the Vatican, and happened to strike up a conversation with an official eager to hear an American perspective on the war. He told me he sees a “clash of civilizations” between the United States and the Holy See, between a worldview that is essentially Calvinistic and one that is shaped by Catholicism.

“We have a concept of sin and evil too,” he said, “but we also believe in grace and redemption.”

Vatican officials, it should be noted, are not the only ones to detect a strong Calvinist influence in American culture. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago made a similar statement during the Synod of Bishops for the Americas in November 1997. George said that U.S. citizens “are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith.” American society, he said, “is the civil counterpart of a faith based on private interpretation of Scripture and private experience of God.” He contrasted this kind of society with one based on the Catholic Church's teaching of community and a vision of life greater than the individual.

One can of course debate this line of cultural analysis. Right or wrong, however, it is widely held in the Vatican, and has been strengthened by reflection on both the sex abuse crisis and the war.

This does not mean relations between the United States and the Vatican are in dire straits. The Vatican is realistic enough to understand that if it wishes to exert influence on world affairs it needs to work with the Americans, and the Bush team continues to desire the moral legitimacy it believes Vatican support can lend its policies. At a personal level, Bush’s emissaries to the Holy See, especially Ambassador James Nicholson and his staff, are liked and respected in the apostolic palace. None of this is likely to change.

What seems increasingly clear, however, is that this is not destined to be the “special relationship” enjoyed by American and Britain, allies linked by a common history, language, and worldview. This is a dialogue between two institutions with some common interests, but also divergent cultures that will from time to time flare up into sharp policy differences.

No one should be shocked, in other words, the next time Civiltà Cattolica takes America to task.

 * * *

Last Sunday was Pope John Paul II’s 83rd birthday, and while the Vatican officially does not mark the occasion (the anniversary of the pope’s election is the formal annual holiday), there were nevertheless all the elements of a party in St. Peter’s Square: well-wishers, singing, gifts, and lots of cake.

A crowd of some 50,000 filled the square, with a larger-than-normal contingent of Poles. The symphonic orchestra of the Polish national radio was on hand to belt out an enthusiastic version of “Happy Birthday.” The Polish government presented the pope with an authentic Guttenberg Bible, while many in the crowd had also brought along home-baked cakes in the hope they might reach the papal table.

John Paul even gave himself a bit of a present. He canonized four new saints, including Polish bishop Joseph Sebastian Pelczar, who was a predecessor on the faculty at the Jagellonian University in Krakow and who founded the community of Polish nuns, the Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, who take care of the papal household. (If you’ve ever seen a distinguished looking nun in black habit hovering in the background on a papal trip, that’s Sr. Tobiana, a member of this community).

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official and a figure especially close to the pope, read birthday greetings in Latin.

“Untiringly, you show us the face of Christ, the face of the merciful God,” Ratzinger said. “Untiringly you inspire us, modeling ourselves on Christ, to overcome the forces of hate, the prejudices that separate us, and to knock down the walls that would divide us.”

John Paul asked everyone to “continue to pray” that “God may help me to faithfully carry out the mission he’s entrusted to me.” Not that it seems necessary, but some took that line as yet another confirmation that the pope has no intention of resigning his office.

The next day, during an audience with Polish pilgrims, the pope made what seemed a reference to his own death.

“Yesterday I turned 83,” he said. “I’m aware that the moment is drawing ever more near in which I will have to present myself before God to render an account of my existence, from Wadowice to Krakow to Rome.”

That note, however, did not dampen the enthusiasm of the Poles over the prospect of yet another papal visit to Poland. President Aleksander Kwasnievski saluted John Paul with an “until we meet again in Poland,” and extended an invitation for the pope to make what would be his tenth voyage to his home country.

On Saturday, May 17, John Paul II received an honorary doctorate from Rome’s Sapienza University, which is celebrating its 700th anniversary this year. The university conferred the degree in law to honor the pope’s emphasis on international law and human rights. It was the 11th honorary degree John Paul has received over the course of his pontificate. To date, the lone American honor has come from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, which awarded the pope an honorary degree in humanities on Oct. 30, 1986.

 * * *

In early April I reported on a behind-closed-doors symposium for Vatican officials on sexual abuse (  I noted that several Vatican officials felt that discussion, which brought decision-makers together with eight leading scientific experts, had been important in shaping Vatican attitudes on two questions: homosexuality, and zero-tolerance policies for abuser priests.

The experts in that symposium told Vatican officials that homosexuality is a risk factor, but not a cause of sexual abuse, and that most homosexuals are not abusers. They also argued that zero tolerance policies fail to respect the complexity of individual cases, and also may increase the risk of repeat offenses by creating stress and “turning loose” an offender on the community.

Recent evidence confirms that the experts had an impact.

Sources tell NCR that a long-awaited Vatican document on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries, originally anticipated this spring, now may not appear at all. One American bishop said he suspects the text may be “dead in the water.” If it does see the light of day, sources say, it is unlikely to take the quasi-absolute line against the admission of homosexuals that had originally been anticipated.

“The symposium seemed to de-couple the question of homosexuality from the abuse crisis,” one source said.

The emerging focus, this source said, is less on the question of homosexual orientation than on concrete behavior. Is a candidate capable of making a mature commitment to celibacy? Is he capable of integrating his sexuality into his identity, or does it overwhelm everything else? At a practical level, can he stay out of gay bars, is he willing to avoid public protests on behalf of gay causes, and is he interested in pastoral work beyond AIDS ministry? Assuming the answers are yes, many Vatican officials seem increasingly convinced that a homosexual orientation, in itself, should not disqualify a man from the priesthood.

On zero tolerance, sources tell NCR that Vatican officials continue to have reservations about the “one strike and you’re out” stance envisioned in the American norms, which they see as potentially too harsh in cases of less serious offenses from many years ago. Quietly, several officials have suggested that the Vatican will wish to revisit this issue in late 2004, when the two-year review of the norms called for by the U.S. bishops is scheduled to occur.

Officials acknowledge, however, that whether public opinion in the United States will tolerate such a move remains an open question.

 * * *

The story of the French Dominicans in the 20th century is studded with theological luminaries. Early in the century, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange held court at the Angelicum in Rome, shaping generations of future church leaders (including an earnest young Pole named Karol Wojtyla). Later, Dominican thinkers such as Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar and H.M. Feret pointed the way to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Fr. Claude Geffré, now retired from the Institut Catholique in Paris, stands in that distinguished Dominican tradition. Some observers consider him among the most important contemporary Catholic theologians in Europe. Geffré, who specializes in religious pluralism and inter-religious dialogue, is in Rome this week for a series of seminars sponsored by SEDOS, an umbrella group of missionary communities.

Geffré sat down May 20 for an interview with NCR at Santa Sabina, the Dominican headquarters on Rome’s Aventine hill. (Geffré is a generous man, and here’s proof. Despite the fact that he’s a quintessential French intellectual, he refrained from smoking for more than an hour out of sympathy for my seasonal allergies).

In broad strokes, Geffré shares the vision of Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, whose book “Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism” was the object of a two-year investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which ended in a soft “notification” pointing to some possibly ambiguous formulae.

Dupuis holds that non-Christian religions play a positive role in God’s plan for salvation. The plurality of religions is not merely a fact of life, but a matter of principle — in other words, God wills religious diversity. Not only can non-Christians be saved, but salvation reaches them in and through their own religious traditions.

Like Dupuis, Geffré upholds traditional church teaching on the universality of the redemption won by Christ. Yet also like Dupuis, he says the universality of Christ and the universality of the church are two different things. Salvation comes from Christ, but it does not always come in and through institutional Christianity.

Geffré does, it should be noted, have his differences with Dupuis. He’s not persuaded, for example, by the way Dupuis appeals to the eternal Logos as a universal, cosmic complement to the historical particularity of Jesus of Nazareth. Nevertheless, this amounts to retouching a picture with which he basically agrees.

In fact, Geffré argues that a world without religious diversity would be in conflict with the “genius” of Christianity, which has always thrived on its own historical particularity.

This sort of talk alarms some Vatican officials, bishops and missionary leaders, who worry that a pluralist theology will sap the energy from efforts to convert people to the Catholic Church. Geffré does not shrink from the conclusion.

“Today our goal is to witness to the love of God, to promote the kingdom of God among human beings and within history,” Geffré said. The motive for carrying Christ with others is not to “win souls,” but to share something positive and attractive.

I pushed Geffré about what many see as a looming contest with Islam. Some Muslims regard Christianity as a spent force, lacking in nerve and energy, and believe that the future belongs to Islam. In the midst of such a challenge, I asked, does it make sense for Christianity to disarm unilaterally? After all, the vast majority of Muslims are not involved in debates over what “conversion” and “mission” should mean — they mean making more Muslims.

Geffré replied that this is a “real difficulty,” but argued that Islam, like Christianity, will eventually have to figure out how to reconcile its sense of universal mission with rights to freedom of conscience and of religion.

“It’s impossible for Islam to avoid a new step in reconciling the rights of God with the rights of human beings,” Geffré said. He pointed to the experience of young Muslims in Europe as a laboratory in which this transition may be taking shape.

At the same time, he said the encounter between Muslims and Christians in Europe may also be salutary in awakening a more lively sense of faith among Christians. In French schools, Geffré said, Christian children these days are sometimes taken aback by the explicit religious commitment of the Muslims. It’s even happened, Geffré said, that Christian children who were never baptized ask to receive the sacrament because they wanted to emulate the religious practice they see among their Muslim peers.

Geffré argued that there’s no reason to fear that Christianity is going to be swamped by Islam or any other force.

“I am convinced that Christianity is the best friend of humanity in the 21st century,” he said, arguing that Christianity is an indispensable guarantor of core values such as human rights and the human person as the subject of history.

Inevitably, we talked about Dominus Iesus, a September 2000 Vatican document that put the brakes on the theology of religious pluralism. Geffré said people “obsessed” with the fear that pluralism will lead to relativism wrote it, and it targeted certain theologians whose work sometimes lends credence to that fear. Geffré cited Americans Paul Knitter and Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight; English theologian John Hick; and Indian thinkers Jesuit Fr. Michael Amaladoss and Fr. Raimondo Panikkar.

What does he make of John Paul II — the pope on whose watch Dominus Iesus appeared, yet also the pope who visited the Rome synagogue, the Wailing Wall and the Grand Ommayyaid Mosque, the pope responsible for the Assisi prayer gatherings?

The best expression of the pope’s thinking on religious pluralism, Geffré said, appears in two documents. The first is the 1990 encyclical on the missions, Redemptoris Missio, and the second is the address the pope gave to the Roman curia on Dec. 22, 1986, in which he presented a theological defense of the Assisi prayer gathering. It was in that speech John Paul uttered the now-famous line, “We can indeed maintain that every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person.”

Geffré revealed that the main drafter of that address was Bishop Pietro Rossano, a longtime Vatican expert on inter-religious dialogue who died in 1991.

In the end, Geffré said, the Catholic Church’s growing embrace of non-Christian religions is a natural unfolding of Vatican II, which taught that “the Church is a sacrament of God’s presence,” and an instrument to promote “the growth of the kingdom among human beings and within history.”

 * * *

May and October are the busiest periods in Rome, as everyone wants to host a congress, assembly, roundtable or press conference in these two months. Every week this month has offered dozens of interesting events I would like to catch.

At the last minute, I was able to squeeze in a roundtable discussion at Santa Croce University Friday, May 16, on church history, based on the new book La Chiesa Nella Storia (“The Church in History”) by Bishop Andrea Maria Erba and Italian scholar Pier Luigi Guiducci.

Fr. Johannes Grohe, an Opus Dei priest who teaches church history at Santa Croce, spoke on the history of church councils. He offered several interesting nuggets, such as the fact that a regional council in Persia in 410 produced one of the earliest insertions of the famed filioque clause into the Creed, specifying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and from the Son.” This council, as Grohe points out, was an Eastern affair, and its adoption of the filioque came out of the rich theological reflection of early Persian Christianity. Hence the notion that the filioque is solely an imposition of the medieval Western Church upon the East, born of later controversies between Rome and Byzantium, is historically dubious.

Erba, the bishop of the Italian diocese of Velletri-Segni, spoke on the ecumenical importance of martyrdom.

Erba said that John Paul II has often likened the victims of the 20th century concentration camps to the persecuted Christians of the early centuries of church history. The pope was once asked, Erba said, if this means we have six million new saints, to which he did not hesitate to respond, “Yes.”

Also present was Bishop Cipriano Calderón, the secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, who asked a very interesting question. Noting that 2004 will mark the 500th anniversary of the Nov. 26, 1504, death of Queen Isabella of Spain, and that the Spanish bishops have requested that the process of her beatification move ahead, Calderón wanted panel members to comment on Isabella’s candidacy. (He noted that Erba would have to excuse himself since he sits on the Congregation for the Causes of Saints).

The cause of “Isabella the Catholic” is controversial. The Vatican suspended the process in 1991, citing the need for further “historical investigation” after some Jewish and Catholic scholars denounced the idea of honoring a monarch who expelled Jews and Muslims from Spain.

Calderón’s question was fielded by Guiducci, who seemed favorably inclined. He said Isabella’s personal life “was marked by a profound spirituality, symphony with the church and with the bishops of that historical period.” Guiducci said Isabella “constructed a sacramental community.”

Promoters of Isabella’s cause have a Web site in Spanish and English:

 * * *

Three other notes.

• On Thursday, May 22, John Paul II met with representatives of the World Jewish Congress, including president Edgar Bronfman and executive secretary Rabbi Israel Singer. (It was Singer who, at the Assisi interreligious summit in January 2002, said that “Only you, John Paul, could bring us together like this,” and wheeled to give the pope a smart salute). The group made three proposals: 1) that national Catholic bishops’ conferences repeat the pope’s affirmation that anti-Semitism is “a sin against God and humanity”; 2) that the Vatican archives be opened expeditiously; 3) that a pilot program in Argentina of cooperation between Jews and Catholics on charitable work be expanded worldwide. A spokesperson for the Congress told NCR afterwards that the pope had endorsed the request for bishops’ conferences to make statements, but a senior Vatican official told NCR that this misrepresents the pope’s reaction. While John Paul affirms the statement, the senior official said, he sees no need for conferences to repeat it. “When something forms part of core Catholic teaching, it is valid for the entire Catholic Church,” the official said.

• Also on Thursday, May 22, two eminent church historians, Giuseppe Alberigo and Alberto Melloni of the John XXIII Institute in Bologna, held a press conference about a June 1-3 colloquium in Bologna, “Revisiting John XXIII.” Alberigo said work is progressing towards the release of what will eventually be eight or nine volumes of the personal diary maintained by John XXIII from 1939 through his death in 1963. (This material is distinct from his spiritual diary published as “Journal of a Soul”). Even as pope, Alberigo said, John found the time to keep up the diary, leaving entries for 70 percent of the days of his five-year reign. Most enticingly, there are day-by-day entries for the conclave of 1958, when Angelo Roncalli was elected pope. On Oct. 28th, for example, Roncalli noted that in the morning, on the 9th and 10th ballots of the conclave, his name gained votes. He didn’t feel right about lunching with the other cardinals, so he ate in his room. On the 11th ballot that afternoon he was elected, “and it was like a dream,” he wrote. “Prior to death, it will be the most solemn reality in all my poor life.”

• Finally, on the evening of May 22, I attended a lecture by Archbishop Angelo Amato, a Salesian and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It marks the second time in recent weeks that a senior official of the CDF has made a public presentation and taken questions; under-secretary Fr. Augustine di Noia gave a public lecture May 8. Amato spoke on John Paul’s recent encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. He summarized the positive doctrine in the encyclical, as well as the “shadows” in belief and practice of which the pope warned. He did so with a sense of humor; explaining that group confession is reserved for exceptional circumstances, such as a lack of priests, he wryly noted that in Rome there’s no excuse: “Here we’ve got more confessors than faithful.” Amato said there is an intrinsic connection between the sacraments of Eucharist and confession. An interesting moment came when a man asked if that meant he absolutely had to make a confession before receiving the Eucharist. “I repeat, that’s what you should do,” Amato responded. “But now let me talk to you person-to-person. As a priest, I can’t substitute my conscience for yours. I can’t tell you to go or not to go. You have to make that choice in conscience, always bearing in mind that it must be a well-formed conscience.” Regardless of what one makes of his comments, it’s edifying to see officials of the congregation engaging in public conversation.


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