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June 16, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 40

John L. Allen Jr.


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The expansion of Catholicism in the South; Ambassadors discuss Vatican diplomacy; Benedict XVI intends to visit Israel in 2007; More on Jewish relations; U.S. court OKs legal action against the Holy See


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When I give talks in Europe or North America, I usually get some version of the following question: "What are the church's plans for dealing with the priest shortage, or the decline in vocations to the religious life, or dwindling Mass attendance rates, or the problem of transmitting the faith to the next generation?"

The premise is usually that the church is in a crisis, one serious enough to provoke a re-examination of current doctrines or disciplines.

While there's perfectly legitimate debate to be had on each of these questions, the underlying assumption of decline reveals a particularly Western focus. The reality is that worldwide, these are boom times for Catholicism, not bust.

The numbers are indisputable.

In 1900, at the dawn of the 20th century, there were 459 million Catholics in the world, of whom 392 million were found in Europe and North America, and just 67 million scattered across the rest of the planet, principally in Latin America.

In 2000, there were 1.1 billion Catholics in the world, with 380 million in Europe and North America, and almost 800 million in the global South. Roughly half of the Catholics in the world today live in Latin America alone. Given demographic and religious trends, this population realignment in global Christianity will continue. By 2025, only one Catholic in five in the world will be a non-Hispanic Caucasian.

Population growth explains some, but not all, of this expansion. The last half-century has also witnessed a striking wave of adult conversions to Christianity, especially in Africa.

Between 1970 and 1985, to take just one index, some 4,300 people a day were leaving Christian churches in Europe and North America. Over the same period, there were 16,500 conversions to Christianity a day in Africa, yielding an annual growth of some 6 million new African Christians. In Roman Catholicism, more than half of all adult baptisms in the world, generally considered the most reliable indication of conversions, are in Africa alone.

Moreover, the new growth in Africa and Asia, and to some extent in Latin America, is not merely replicating pre-existing European patterns of faith and practice. Instead, it's creating myriad new forms of Christianity as the faith mingles with indigenous customs and concepts. Experts have described this as the most important cultural transformation in Christianity since the period of Hellenization launched by St. Paul.

In other words, the central challenge for world Catholicism at the moment is not decline, but growth, and making sense of the new interactions between faith and culture this growth is generating.

"Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" has passed into the cultural idiom as a synonym for blithe indifference to an underlying crisis. I would suggest that much conversation in Western Catholicism these days is more akin to arguing over which buggy whips are best, while ignoring the emergence of the car; that is, a completely new world is taking shape, one destined to render many of this era's debates obsolete.

What I have called the "upside down church" of the future, one driven increasingly by the experience and priorities of the South, is likely to take scant interest in matters that have set the Catholic agenda in the West for more than a century, such as the balance of power between Rome and the bishops, or debates over various questions of doctrine. Instead, it will be the "cash value" of Catholicism in the confrontation with poverty, disease, corruption, war and cultural conflict that will increasingly be on the minds of most Catholics on the planet.

So why is the West still arguing over buggy whips?

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First, religion, like politics, tends to be local. Most Europeans and some North Americans are indeed experiencing decline, and there's a natural tendency to assume this is the universal story.

Second, since Westerners are not responsible for expansion in the developing world, we tend not to notice it. Iraq's baby steps towards democracy have been huge news in the West, largely because it's happening as a result of massive American and British intervention; Mali's emergence as a stable democracy in Western Africa, meanwhile, has not attracted the same attention, in part because the Africans did it almost entirely on their own.

Third, as Lamin Sanneh, a native of Ghana who now teaches at the Yale Divinity School, notes in his 2003 book Whose Religion is Christianity?, the 20th century explosion in Christianity occurred at a time when "conversion" had become a bad word. Thus it has largely flown below the radar.

"Political correctness created a PR vacuum," Sanneh wrote.

Fourth, there is sometimes a smug Western assumption that the dynamism of the church in the developing world is ephemeral, and that as Africa, Asia and Latin America develop economically they will experience the same secularism as the global North. It's an untested assumption, and one that many Christians in the South bitterly resent.

Fifth, the expansion of Catholicism in the developing world is sometimes exploited for ideological purposes by European and North American conservatives as a blanket riposte to any criticism of the church. If we're growing like gangbusters, the suggestion runs, what could be wrong?

Yet if the expansion of Catholicism in the South contradicts leftist predictions of demise, the corollary does not follow, i.e., that it is an endorsement of conservative Catholicism in its Western form. In fact, experts such as Sanneh say the growth of Christianity in the developing world has precious little to do with Western ideological debates, and is far more connected with the way Christianity interacts with indigenous cultures and their concerns.

This is perhaps the bottom line on today's bear market in world Catholicism -- it deserves to be taken seriously on its own terms, not made into a club to fight Western battles.

On June 19, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice will convene a summit in Cairo of Catholic bishops and other leading figures from Africa, the Middle East, and Europe to discuss human rights and democracy in Christianity and Islam. The idea is to explore the potential Christian contribution to fostering peace and stability in the developing world, and to confront radical currents within Islam.

Taking place under the aegis of Scola's Oasis International Studies and Research Centre, the gathering will probably attract scant attention in the Western press. Yet this is the sort of conversation that will increasingly dominate the "upside down church" now taking shape.

Those interested in thinking beyond buggy whips would do well to take notice.

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Tuesday night, Georgetown University hosted its annual event for alumni and friends at Rome's Minerva Hotel. I was asked to moderate a panel discussion on Vatican diplomacy featuring Ambassadors Francis Rooney, who represents the United States to the Holy See, and Francis Campbell, representing the United Kingdom.

Both are Catholics who do not come out of conventional diplomatic circles. Campbell is a policy wonk who worked for Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street, while Rooney is a successful businessman with construction firms in Oklahoma and Florida.

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Rooney said there is a great "symmetry" between the interests of the Holy See and the American government in promoting "human dignity and essential freedoms in the world," which he described as "under attack" in places such as Venezuela, China, Bosnia and Russia. He specifically mentioned the struggle for religious freedom in various parts of the world.

Rooney said the Americans appreciate Benedict XVI's strong language against terrorism, which he said parallels the Bush administration's own "war on terror."

"We fight at a lower level, the Holy Father fights at a higher level," Rooney said.

In Latin America, Rooney praised the work of the Catholic Church in defending civil institutions against what he called the "caudillo style of leadership" in countries such as Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia.

Rooney also praised collaboration between the church and Western governments on issues such as human trafficking, the struggle against corruption, and HIV/AIDS. Rooney said he would like to see more of the AIDS fund created by the Bush administration go to church groups rather than the United Nations.

"There would probably be more transparency, less corruption, and more people would get the drugs," he said.

Campbell reviewed what he called the "colourful" history of the British embassy to the Holy See, pointing out that the first resident British ambassador took up the post in 1479. After the English Reformation, however, it largely lay dormant until it was reactivated at the time of the First World War. Campbell described that decision as part of a British effort to support the peace initiatives of Pope Benedict XV.

After World War II, Campbell said, the basic British logic for relations with the Holy See had to do with the fight against Communism in Central and Eastern Europe. A subsidiary aim, he said, was to enlist Vatican support for an end to Protestant/Catholic sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

With the collapse of Communism in 1989, followed by the Good Friday Peace Accords and the peace process in Northern Ireland, Campbell said a new logic for the British relationship with the Holy See had to be sought.

That logic, he said, pivots largely on two points. First, the Vatican is a privileged listening post. Second, he said, it is one of the "world's largest global opinion-makers."

As an example, Campbell cited Pope John Paul II's support for an initiative aimed at global poverty relief by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, which he said generated ripple effects in British public diplomacy all over the world.

Moreover, Campbell argued, 12 percent of the British population has a direct connection to the Catholic church, which means that Vatican statements and actions have important domestic consequences.

Campbell cited climate change, international development, conflict prevention, human rights, and ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue as areas of shared interest between the British government and the Holy See.

I asked both men to comment on one area of great "asymmetry," to use Rooney's term, between their governments and the Vatican -- the war in Iraq.

Rooney said that when he presented his credentials to Benedict XVI last November, he expected to talk about the war. In fact, however, he said the pope joked that "Iraq is old news."

Despite differences over the war, he said, today the United States and the Vatican share a common interest.

"We're partners to build a pluralistic country respecting civil freedom," he said.

Rooney acknowledged that early on, the Vatican expressed reservations about the new Iraqi constitution and its explicit recognition of the Koran as a source of law.

Campbell largely echoed Rooney's analysis.

"What's coming across is that they have moved on from 2003," he said. "They're interested in stabilization, and in Iraq's future. They want the new government to be stable and secure, not to reapportion blame from the past."

Responding to a question about immigration, Campbell said that Britain's experience since it decided in 2004 to open its borders to other EU nations has had a big impact on the Catholic church, especially the arrival of some 270,000 Poles. He said the Catholic church has a capacity to balance strong national identity with universality that offers a "very good recipe" for immigration policy.

Both Rooney and Campbell said they would like to see their governments work more with the Vatican to promote justice and development in Africa.

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A long-time veteran of Jewish-Catholic relations told NCR this week that the Vatican has confirmed Benedict XVI's intention to visit Israel in 2007, though no date has yet been established for the trip.

According to this source, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo relayed the pope's intention in conversations with Israeli officials.

Lajolo, this source said, expressed two "desires" with regard to the prospective visit. The first is that long-running negotiations between Israel and the Vatican over the tax and juridical status of church institutions in Israel will be resolved before it happens. The second is that no violence will occur during the pope's trip, to avoid it being "instrumentalized" to serve the political ends of any party to the Middle East conflict.

According to this source, however, Lajolo said these were "desires" rather than conditions that must be satisfied before the trip can take place.

Though no itinerary has been discussed, when Benedict XVI met with Israeli President Moshe Katsav last November, he expressed interest in seeing Meggido, a site in northern Israel where archeologists recently unearthed what is believed to be the oldest Christian church yet discovered. Those remains date to the end of the third century.

The veteran of Jewish-Catholic relations said it is also difficult to imagine that Benedict would travel to Israel and not visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

If it materializes, Benedict's trip to Israel would be his third major encounter with Jews, following his visit to the synagogue in Cologne last August and his recent trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The source said he sees a logic to these choices. The Cologne synagogue, he said, is a symbol of Kristallnacht, the outbreak of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany that signalled the first stirrings of the Holocaust; Auschwitz-Birkenau represents the deepest horrors of the Holocaust; and Israel symbolizes the rebirth of the Jewish people in their own state.

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This source said that Benedict's recent visit to Auschwitz has added new ambivalence to what was already a complex relationship between Christians and Jews. Many Jews, he said, were disappointed that there was not more emphasis on the specifically Jewish dimension of the Holocaust.

As one small but telling example, the source pointed to booklets distributed prior to the pope's arrival, which provided background in Polish on the death camps. He said that a word in the booklet had been covered with white-out and something new written in red ink. The point concerned the number of Poles who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau; originally, he said, the booklet said 150,000, but this had been covered over and 75,000 written in its place. Someone, he said, had made an adjustment at the last moment, but the earlier version reflected what this observer saw as a deliberate attempt to downplay the overwhelmingly Jewish character of the victims who perished at the camp.

This observer also said some Jews were angered by the pope's positive mention of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who died in Auschwitz when he volunteered to take the place of a condemned man. Yet some of Kolbe's writings also contain approving references to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-Semitic tract, which many Jews see as part of the cultural background of the Holocaust.

In that context, this source said, Benedict's comments during a visit to Israel, should it occur, would be especially scrutinized in the Jewish world.

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On Wednesday, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls released a statement which is also likely to cause some consternation in Israel and among sectors of Jewish opinion. In the wake of Israeli bombings in Gaza and elsewhere that have resulted in civilian casualties, Navarro said:

"The Holy See is following with great apprehension and sorrow the episodes of growing, blind violence which are causing blood to flow in these days in the Holy Land. The Holy Father is close, especially in prayer, to the innocent victims, to their families and to the populations of this land, hostages to those who delude themselves that the ever more dramatic problems of the region can be solved with force or in unilateral fashion."

"The Holy See invites the international community to rapidly activate the necessary means for obligatory humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, and associates itself with calls upon the responsible parties of both peoples that the required respect for human life will be demonstrated, especially unarmed civilians and children, and that the path of negotiation will be taken up anew with courage, the only path that can lead to the just and lasting peace to which everyone aspires."

While the statement is implicitly critical of violence on all sides, diplomatic sources said Wednesday that the denunciation of "unilateral" solutions refers, in part, to Israel's attempt to set the borders of a Palestinian state. The statement would thus represent the first major policy clash between the Vatican and the new Israeli government under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who vowed during Israeli elections to establish permanent borders for a Palestinian state by 2010.

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News reports last week suggested that a U.S. district court in Oregon had opened the door to legal action against the Holy See in a case related to the sexual abuse of minors. If that ruling were to hold up, it would mark an important blow to the immunity the Holy See generally enjoys as a sovereign entity under international law.

In fact, legal experts stress this was merely a preliminary decision, and that we're a long way away from any American court actually agreeing to hear a lawsuit seeking damages against the Vatican.

Nonetheless, the Oregon ruling raises anew what some Vatican officials have long regarded as a nightmare scenario -- the specter of American courts assessing massive financial penalties against the Holy See.

Such concern was behind a request made by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the most powerful Vatican official after the pope himself, to the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in a Feb. 8, 2005, meeting. Sodano asked Rice for an intervention by the State Department in a sex abuse lawsuit in Kentucky, where the Holy See had been named as a defendant.

What Sodano wanted was for the State Department to assert the Holy See's immunity from liability as a sovereign state, something the State Department has done before when the Holy See has been sued. In the end, the Kentucky court upheld the Holy See's sovereign status, as American courts invariably have up to this point.

Sources told NCR this week that in subsequent meetings with American officials, Sodano has repeatedly expressed consternation over lawsuits against the Holy See in American courts.

Until the 20th century, foreign states enjoyed more or less blanket immunity from legal action under American law. As states came to engage in a variety of commercial activities, however, and as the presence of foreign agents in the United States increased, a theory of "restrictive immunity" began to emerge, which held that states should not enjoy immunity when engaged in non-sovereign activity, meaning the kind of activity that private firms or individuals could also perform.

In 1976, Congress adopted the "Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act," which codified this restrictive principle. It reflected a distinction between de jure imperii, referring to governmental activities for which immunity remains intact, and de jure gestionis, meaning commercial or private activity for which states can be sued like anybody else.

For example, American courts will now hear cases against foreign governments under two "commercial activity" exceptions, such as a case in which a state-operated enterprise has defaulted on a contract, or wrongfully deprived someone of their property. There's also a "tort exception," to cover a case in which an agent of a foreign state causes harm to someone in a private capacity, such as running into their car. The mere fact of being a foreign agent, the theory runs, should not get that person off the hook for paying for the damages.

In the wake of the sexual abuse scandals in the United States, attorneys have tried repeatedly to invoke these exceptions to name the Holy See as a defendant. Some have argued that the Vatican is engaged in "commercial activity" in the United States, since some portion of American collections end up in Rome; others have argued that clerics are "agents" of the Vatican, and hence the Vatican is liable for their misconduct under the tort exception.

The Oregon case concerns an Irish priest named Fr. Andrew Ronan of the Friar Servants of Mary, who died in 1992. The lawsuit alleges that Ronan engaged in sexual abuse in the 1950s while serving in an Irish priory, and was then transferred to St. Philip's High School in Chicago, run by the Friar Servants, where he again abused youths in 1963-64. In 1965, Ronan was moved again to St. Albert's Church in Portland, Oregon, where the suit alleges that he abused the plaintiff, identified only as "John Doe."

The lawsuit names the Portland archdiocese, its archbishop, the archbishop of Chicago, and the Order of the Friar Servants of Mary, along with the Holy See, as defendants.

In effect, the lawsuit argues that Ronan was an "agent or employee" of the Holy See, and hence that the Holy See is responsible for damages arising from the sexual abuse he is alleged to have committed. Judge Michael Mosman of the Oregon court held that while the commercial activity exceptions did not apply in this case, there could be a basis for proceeding under the tort exception. The court did not make any finding as to facts, and left open the question as to the next step.

Berkeley-based attorney Jeffrey Lena, who has represented the Holy See in most such cases, has filed a notice of appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In various press interviews, Lena also said that other barriers to jurisdiction, such as First Amendment issues, have not even been reached, as well as purely legal questions such as the statute of limitations.

Most legal experts say it's a long shot that the court will eventually take jurisdiction, among other things because it's a stretch to argue that every Catholic priest, brother and sister in the world is an "agent" of the Vatican. (That would suggest a corps of more than 1.2 million Vatican "agents" in every nook and cranny of the planet). Normally an "agent" or "employee" is defined as someone whose day-to-day activities are directed by the employer, who is supervised by the employer, and whose paycheck is signed by the employer. It would be difficult, experts say, to show that such was the case with Ronan.

Further, it would have to be shown that the "sovereign," meaning the Holy See, caused the abuse in Oregon to take place, or that it knew of the abuse and failed to stop it. One would have to prove that someone in the Vatican tracked Ronan's affairs, and hence in theory should have known what he was up to.

Aside from the Oregon and Kentucky cases, there's one other lawsuit currently making its way through American courts that seeks to establish jurisdiction over an agency of the Holy See -- the Institute for the Works of Religion, popularly known as the "Vatican Bank." Alperin v. Vatican Bank deals with the Vatican's alleged role in recycling loot stolen by the pro-Nazi Ustasha regime in Croatia during World War II (the Franciscan Order is also named as a defendant).

To date, the wall of sovereign immunity in American courts has held up where the Vatican is concerned. As with floods and hurricanes, however, the problem with lawsuits is that it only takes one.

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

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