National Catholic Reporter ®

May 24, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 39

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On the road with the pope; more give-and-take
at a news conference; the history of theology

It’s a ghoulish feature of the Vatican beat, that so many journalists hang around John Paul in order to be in the right place when the end comes. Yet I suppose this is all part of the pope’s bully pulpit. He knows journalists will follow him wherever he goes, waiting for him to stumble, but in the meantime we’ll have to justify our presence by finding something to report. So he drags us to corners of the world many news organizations would otherwise never visit, forcing us to tell their stories. He is, in effect, a one-man agent of globalization.



I write this week from the road, as part of the press corps following John Paul II’s 96th pastoral visit outside Italy, this one to the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan and the former Soviet satellite state of Bulgaria. 

     I’ve followed the pope around several times, but this is my first time on the papal plane, so I made sure to grab all the freebees that Alitalia, the Italian national airline, showers on VIP guests. The haul included perfume, toilette kits, and (anti-smoking zealots in the States will be horrified to learn) cigarettes. It’s nice stuff, though frankly I would have preferred they slice a few hundred dollars off the airfare and trust me to supply my own comb and toothbrush.

     To be fair, I should report that I accidentally left my bag of loot on the plane — unmarked, with no name or identifying marks — and an Alitalia official actually tracked me down the next day to give it back. Kudos for an unusually high commitment to keeping journalists happy!

     For Vatican specialists, the voyage is an intriguing one. The ordinary pastoral motive for a papal trip clearly takes second place this time, since there are barely 100 Catholics in Azerbaijan and perhaps 80,000 in overwhelmingly Orthodox Bulgaria. In Azerbaijan, the pope for the first time visited a majority Shi’ite nation, though it is his 24th foray onto Muslim territory. With Iran looming across the border, and with the embers still burning from a conflict over the Nagorno-Karabach region that saw Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis at each other’s throats for the better part of a decade, the pope wanted to reject wars waged in the name of religion. 

     In Bulgaria, meanwhile, John Paul will fling himself once more into the breach with the Orthodox, hoping to promote East/West Christian unity, despite recent signals that the Orthodox, at least in Russia, aren’t interested.

     There are also intriguing bits of color. For example, Azerbaijan marks the first time the pope has ever stayed in a hotel. It’s customary for John Paul to stay in the papal embassy in the country he’s visiting, or a religious house such as a monastery. 

     Since Azerbaijan has none of the above, he is instead lodging on the sixth floor of the three-star, 15-room Irshad Hotel, which just happens to be owned by the head of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organizations, Rafik Aliev. The Azerbaijani government has given the hotel extra-territorial diplomatic status for the 24 hours of the pope’s stay. 

     There was also the bizarre episode at the papal Mass in Baku where a 40-year-old Azerbaijani refugee from Armenia, Kazim Azizov, “rushed” the papal altar, ending up just 15 feet away from John Paul before he was wrestled away by security personnel. I put “rushed” in quotes because the man was on two crutches, and hence wasn’t really capable of “rushing” anyone, yet there he was on the platform with the papal altar before anyone was the wiser. 

     It turns out he merely wanted his picture with the pope, and at the end of Mass, he was brought back out by Vatican personnel to get his wish, a gesture of compassion that went over well with the largely Muslim crowd. The mystery remains, however, how the man got so close to the pope. Describing the security as “lax” seems putting it too mildly.

     None of this, I must say, cuts a great deal of ice with my colleagues in the secular press. For the major wire agencies, newspapers and TV networks of the world, the trip flirts with being a non-event, lacking a sufficiently dramatic storyline. (Right now, certain colleagues are trying to track down the three Bulgarians who were charged, and later acquitted for lack of evidence, by Italian courts with complicity in the 1981 assassination attempt on the pope. If they turn up, things could get more interesting).

     In the absence of any guarantee of a hot story, why is the press here?

     It is the dirty little secret of papal travel: the world’s press follows the pope around largely in case he dies outside Rome. No one wants to be at home if “the story” breaks in Baku, or in Sofia, or somewhere along the way.

     As we waited to board on May 22, I chatted with a colleague who writes for one of the world’s major papers, who told me she had gone to the mat with Vatican personnel to get on the papal plane. They suggested that a charter flight organized for the rest of the press corps would work just as well, a possibility she strenuously rejected. 

     Her reason? 

     “What happens if the plane has to be re-routed to a hospital?” she asked. “I can’t afford to be anywhere else.”

     This way of thinking can translate into an almost obsessive focus on the pope’s physical condition. As John Paul boarded the plane on May 22, for example, reporters craned their necks to scrutinize the special lift that brought him onto the plane, allowing him to avoid climbing stairs. (It was the first time the device, quickly dubbed the “pope-lift,” was used for health reasons.)

     It’s a ghoulish feature of the Vatican beat, that so many journalists hang around John Paul in order to be in the right place when the end comes. Yet I suppose this is all part of the pope’s bully pulpit. He knows journalists will follow him wherever he goes, waiting for him to stumble, but in the meantime we’ll have to justify our presence by finding something to report. So he drags us to corners of the world many news organizations would otherwise never visit, forcing us to tell their stories. He is, in effect, a one-man agent of globalization.

     A quick anecdote from aboard the plane. Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls comes back to the journalists’ compartment on each leg of the trip to answer a few questions. As the first cluster broke up on the way to Baku, someone asked what the pope was doing at the moment, and Navarro said he was reading a book. A colleague from Reuters joked that he was probably reading my new book on the conclave, at which point Navarro laughed and said: “Yeah, I think so.”

     He was kidding … I think.

* * *

     There’s often more give and take at Vatican press conferences than 700-word news stories afterwards can capture, and a recent session dedicated to Misericordia Dei, a new papal document about confession, was no exception. 

     Given that three of the highest profile prelates of the Roman curia, Joseph Ratzinger (doctrine), Jorge Medina Estevez (liturgy), and Julian Herranz (legislative texts) were in attendance, there was a high level of interest. 

     One moment that deserves to be recorded came when Farley Clinton, the Rome correspondent for the Wanderer, a far-right U.S. publication, challenged Ratzinger. 

     Clinton noted that Medina had called the decline in individual confession a “doctrinal problem.” If that is so, Clinton asked, why has Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith not acted more forcefully to cut off its roots? Clinton pointed to the “modernist crisis” of the early 20th century, whose key figure was the French priest Alfred Loisy, and the reformist theological currents that fed Vatican II, especially the writings on the sacraments of Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner. Why, Clinton wanted to know, has there been no condemnation of Rahner?

     The question was asked in English. Ratzinger smiled, then answered in Italian.

     “As for dear Fr. Rahner, you know that the congregation has procedures that are very rigorous, but also very just, in my opinion,” he said. 

     Then his bottom line: “Please leave to the congregation its study and its practice.”

     It could, I suppose, seem an authoritarian response, the rough equivalent of “none of your business.” In context, however, it came off as an invitation to charity. Ratzinger seemed to be saying: “Why don’t you leave the condemnations to us?” 

     A historical footnote. Ratzinger knew Rahner, who died in 1984, well. Both men were well-known German theologians who served as periti, or theological experts, at Vatican II. They collaborated on a draft of the document on revelation that came to known as the “Rahner/Ratzinger draft.” 

     Despite their friendship, Ratzinger has long harbored reservations about Rahner. Here is what Ratzinger wrote in his 1997 memoirs, Milestones: “Rahner for the most part allowed himself to be ‘sworn in’ according to the progressive slogans, and allowed himself as well to be pushed into adventuresome political positions difficult to reconcile with his own transcendental philosophy.”

     Rahner likewise felt misgivings about the drift of Ratzinger’s career. In 1979, when Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich, he refused to allow progressive theologian Johann Baptist Metz to teach at the University of Munich. Rahner published an open letter to Ratzinger, in which he wrote: “Twenty-five years ago the Holy Office in Rome forbade me to write anything further on the subject of concelebration. That was a senseless, unscientific manipulation by church bureaucrats. I judge your action against Metz to be of the same category.”

     I have often felt that the love/hate relationship between Ratzinger and Rahner, encapsulating as it does so many of the great tensions of 20th century Catholicism, would make a great piece of drama. Playwrights out there, take note.

* * *

     Knowledge of history is probably the most effective inoculation against the distortions of ideology, and this certainly holds true in the church. I have sometimes felt the Common Ground initiative would do better to avoid polarized debates on liturgy, women, or collegiality, and instead foster common study of the Bogomils, or Jansenism, or the development of Byzantine Christianity. I suspect all sides would return to contemporary debates better informed, more flexible, more prepared to see shades of gray.

     It is thus with satisfaction that I report the launch of a new specialization at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm, the Benedictine institute of theology in Rome, devoted precisely to the “History of Theology.” Under the aegis of the “Mabillon Institute,” named after a 17th century Benedictine who founded the science of dating manuscripts, the idea is to promote “a more integrated global perspective … on the diverse influences that have contributed to the historical development of theology and theologies in the different Christian traditions.”

     I went up the Aventine hill in mid-May to talk about the new program with Fr. Mark Sheridan, an American Benedictine who grew up in Washington, D.C., and who is the dean of theology at S.Anselmo.

     “The development of historical consciousness is a relatively recent phenomenon,” Sheridan said. “We’re learning a great deal about how theological concepts developed, where they came from, and that affects how one looks at them. Theologians need to be aware of this development.”

     As an example, Sheridan told the story of a recent doctoral defense in which the candidate made repeated references to an ancient church father’s concept of “salvation history.” Sheridan gently asked if the candidate knew where the phrase “salvation history” came from, and when the candidate conceded he did not, Sheridan pointed out that the term was introduced by German Lutheran theologian and scripture scholar Johann Christian Konrad von Hofmann in 1841. To speak of a writer’s concept of salvation history from the Patristic era, therefore, is to some extent to engage in an anachronism. It may be a defensible exercise, so long as the theologian realizes what’s going on.

     “If we know where concepts come from, we’re in a much better position to use them. It’s a kind of self-knowledge,” Sheridan said.

     There are four core courses in the new program, which divide the 2,000 years of church history into four periods: the patristic, the medieval, the era of humanism and reform, and modernity. 

     I asked Sheridan the inevitable question of whether, given the politicized environment in which Catholic theology operates these days, there was a “hidden agenda” in the Mabillon Institute to promote either a “conservative” or “liberal” view.

     He smiled, having expected something along these lines.

     “In terms of the usual political ways of thinking, the goal is not to take sides,” he said. “It’s to understand.”

     One hopes the Mabillon Institute will draw students from all camps in today’s church, who, after two years with patient and careful scholars such as Sheridan, may be in a better position to talk with, rather than at, one another.

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

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