National Catholic Reporter ®

June 28, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 44

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And now, a good word for clerical culture;
more papal handicapping; ordination of women scheduled

"If we test what we say against the reality of people’s lives, then maybe our homilies will be more modest." 

 Fr. Timothy Radcliffe
former Dominican Master 
In the wake of the sex abuse scandals in the United States, it is fashionable to calumniate “clerical culture,” as if the only thing the Catholic priesthood ever produced is pedophiles and the bishops who cover up for them. I think if I have to hear someone accuse priests as a class of “stunted psycho-sexual development” once more, I’ll run screaming into the night.

     This is not to say that some priests haven’t committed horrible acts of abuse, or that other priests don’t have their own problems. God knows living in Rome I see plenty of clericalism, the irritating superiority complex that infects some of the ordained. (I recently heard a priest who works in the Roman curia, for example, explain that nuns in his residence “cook, clean, and deal with the help — you know, the stuff nuns are good at.”)

     Yet like most Catholics, I know too many humble, mature priests to believe that there is anything inherent to “clerical culture” that produces either sexual predators or jerks. If anything, the miracle is that so many priests come out not merely normal, but far above average in intelligence, idealism, and work ethic.

     This reality was brought home for me last week at an international Jesuit conference on liturgy, where former Dominican Master General Fr. Timothy Radcliffe spoke on “The Sacramentality of the Word.” Radcliffe, an Englishman whose travels as head of the Dominicans introduced him to the Catholic world, is a celebrated author and speaker. 

     The Dominicans are the “Order of Preachers,” and Radcliffe did not shrink from asserting that most homilies delivered in Catholic churches on Sundays range from uninspiring to dreadful. He suggested that priests would preach more effectively if they were more honest.

     A snippet of Radcliffe’s argument:

     “If we test what we say against the reality of people’s lives, then maybe our homilies will be more modest. The temptation of preachers is to make great and vague claims that must make our hearers smile to themselves. I dread the ecclesiastical indicative, ‘Married couples, living in complete unity and perfect love, express the love of Christ.’ Really? Try asking some of my friends! Our words will be more powerful if we say less. An old Eskimo woman was asked why the songs of her tribe were so short. She replied, ‘Because we know so much.’ We talk too much because we listen too little. As Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, ‘In a time of famine typified by too many words with too much noise in them, we could use fewer words with more silence in them.’”

     Notice the erudition packed into that paragraph, and how lightly it is worn. 

     One of my favorite moments at the conference came when Radcliffe presented Dutch Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the General of the Jesuits. Radcliffe and Kolvenbach obviously treasure one another, and anyone with even a passing knowledge of the historical enmity between the Dominicans and the Jesuits will grasp what a remarkable turn of events that is. (Radcliffe pointed out that St. Teresa of Avila once predicted that if ever the Dominicans and the Jesuits would stop fighting, the Kingdom of God would arrive.)

     There is an old tradition that when the general of the Jesuits dies, the master general of the Dominicans preaches the homily at his funeral, and vice-versa. It is one way in which the two communities have worked at healing their wounds.

     Radcliffe said that when he took office, his predecessor, Fr. Damian Byrne, told him the first thing he should do is talk to Kolvenbach, who would navigate him through the shoals of ecclesiastical Rome. In turn, Radcliffe said, he told his successor to do the same thing. 

     “And he will tell his successor likewise,” Radcliffe said, “for while masters general come and go, Fr. Kolvenbach endures.”

     Despite his nondescript appearance (he always sports a simple black cassock), Kolvenbach is among the savviest figures in modern Catholicism. He has a profound sense of the universal church. Before taking over as general of the Jesuits, Kolvenbach was the rector at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, and he personally follows the Armenian rather than the Latin rite. Kolvenbach’s tranquility, good humor, and sound judgment have allowed the Jesuits to regroup after the turbulence of Fr. Pedro Arrupe’s controversial generalship. 

     He returned Radcliffe’s affection.

     “Don’t believe what he says about me,” Kolvenbach joked, “but read his books!”

     My point? Both Radcliffe and Kolvenbach are products of “clerical culture.” Yet both come across as generous, compassionate, intelligent, and dedicated servants of the gospel. Both are a tonic amid the anti-clerical tone these days.

* * *

     Speaking of remarkable people, scientist Norman Borlaug recently dropped by NCR’s Rome office. He was in town for the June 10-13 World Food Summit, sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the U.S. embassy to the Holy See had asked me to set up a session for Borlaug with some journalist friends.

     His claim to fame is that he triggered the “Green Revolution” in the 1950s and 1960s by developing wheat varieties that have strong disease resistance, broad adaptation to growing conditions in a variety of climates, and high yield potential. Plots of land that could feed hundreds could suddenly feed thousands. Under the impact of Borlaug’s discoveries, wheat output in the world in the past 35 years has gone from 300 to 650 million metric tons a year. By some estimates, he has personally saved more lives than anyone in human history.

     Borlaug is today 88. Like the idiot I too often am, I had scheduled our interview for midday, in NCR’s non-air conditioned office, during a furious Roman hot spell. The situation would have been enough to fell a hale and hearty undergrad, let alone a jetlagged senior citizen. 

     The robust Borlaug, however, took it in stride. For more than an hour he fielded our questions, responding with a remarkable command of detail.

     Fundamentally, Borlaug explained, the failure to curb world hunger is the result of huge gaps in distribution systems. In the hardest-hit areas of the world, above all in Africa, there are no airports, no rail systems, no roads over which food can be delivered. Private enterprise won’t erect such networks, since there is no market to exploit. Agencies such as the World Bank and IMF, who ought to act in the public interest by bankrolling this infrastructure, regard the time lag between funding and results as unacceptably long. Unless they can see the fruits of a proposal in five years, Borlaug said, they take a pass. 

     It will take decades, and large-scale funding from the West, to build an effective delivery system, but Borlaug believes hunger can’t be solved without it. (24,000 people die each day from malnutrition, according to United Nations statistics, and 800 million people are undernourished.).

     Being journalists, and therefore skeptics, my colleagues and I assumed Borlaug had been brought to Rome by the U.S. government in order to defend genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the biggest point of controversy at the World Food Summit. These are new, laboratory-developed crops that American agribusiness is anxious to promote, and Greenpeace-style eco-activists are equally anxious to resist. The opposition is usually on grounds of health and safety (fear of so-called “Frankenstein Foods”), or the evils of capitalism (fear that Third World farmers will become dependent upon biotech companies for fertilizer and seed). Borlaug, as the father of the Green Revolution, has obvious credibility on the issue.

     The embassy to the Holy See got involved because there is some alarm that the Vatican might denounce GMOs, given its reservations about genetic tampering in other areas. Simply put, if the pope were to slam GMOs, it would be bad for business. To try to head off this prospect, the embassy organized a session between Borlaug and Vatican experts the day after our interview.

     On one level, Borlaug delivered the anticipated pitch. When asked why the Third World was suspicious of GMOs, his response was crisp.

     “It’s easy to put words into the mouths of suppressed peoples,” he said. “If the benefits were explained to those simple people, I’m not convinced their answer would be in the negative.”

     Yet Borlaug is no shill for lassiez-faire capitalism. He proposed government intervention to save farmers from becoming hooked on high-priced fertilizers peddled by biotech conglomerates.

     “There should be good public research funds to compete with the private sector,” he said. “Patents can be awarded to the public sector, to be given for the good of all.”

     You will pardon the pun, but Borlaug had us eating out of his hand. In part, this was due to his beguiling humility. At one point he offhandedly said the Nobel Peace Prize “came to agriculture” in 1970. I interrupted to observe that, more specifically, the prize came to him. He brushed off the point, saying it recognized research for which many people were responsible.

     “Yeah, well, your name is on the trophy,” I insisted. 

     Later, we asked Borlaug to explain two pins in his lapel. One was the insignia of the University of Minnesota, where he had been a champion wrestler. 

     The other? It was a symbol of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, which Borlaug received in 1977. It put him in the company of national legends such as Thurgood Marshall, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, and Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. 

     The thing is, the medal wasn’t even on Borlaug’s bio. Had it been me, I remarked, I would have worn the citation around on a T-shirt.

* * *

     A popular theory, though one I don’t hold myself, is that John Paul II’s successor should be Italian. The pope is the Bishop of Rome, so the logic runs, and it is good for a bishop to come from the local church he is ordained to serve. Moreover, some believe that a weakness of the Wojtyla pontificate has been micro-management by the Roman Curia, while an Italian pope who knows the Vatican would take personal charge of its business. Finally, some believe an Italian pope would be more flexible than a hard-nosed Pole.

     I don’t buy it. For one thing, there are too many examples of Italian popes who were inflexible, or incapable of controlling their own apparatchiks. Moreover, electing an Italian because the pope is the bishop of Rome strikes me as an anachronism. We should seek the best candidate, regardless of what passport they hold.

     Nevertheless, I recognize that the Italian hypothesis has to be taken seriously. For the better part of two decades, the leading Italian candidate has been Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan. The Jesuit Biblical scholar has turned 75, however, and is itching to move on to retirement in Jerusalem. 

     The question of who follows Martini in Milan thus shapes up as an important bellwether.

     Martini’s successor could be a relative unknown outside of Italy, someone such as Renato Corti, the bishop of Novara. But if Milan goes to either of two candidates currently drawing interest, it would be important indeed. They are Cardinals Diogini Tettamanzi of Genoa and Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.

     Corriere della Serra, Italy’s leading daily, reported June 11 that Tettamanzi, 68, is the front-runner. Tettamanzi has a roly-poly bearing reminiscent of John XXIII, and is well known to his Italian colleagues, having served in the powerful position of secretary of the Italian bishops conference (where he distinguished himself, they say, by not making mortal enemies). A moral theologian, he is rumored to have worked on John Paul’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. In recent months, Tettamanzi has burnished his credentials with traditionalists by writing letters in support of indulgences and church teaching on the Devil. At the same time, he helped his standing with the social progressives during the G-8 Summit in Genoa in July 2001. He embraced the anti-globalization protest, delivering a rousing address in which he insisted that “a single African child sick with AIDS counts more than the entire universe.” Tettamanzi is perhaps the only papabile to have corporate sponsorship; in 2000, Microsoft published his volume on bioethics on-line and in CD form.

     Re, 67, served for 11 years as sostituto, the official in the Secretariat of State responsible for the day-to-day management of Church affairs. The job has been a springboard; Giovanni Battista Montini was the sostituto under Pius XII before becoming Paul VI. Re has not shrunk from the role of curial enforcer. When an Italian priest took part in a pro-gay rally in Rome in July 2000, Re demanded disciplinary action. He also refused permission for Bishop M.P.M. Muskens of Holland to hold a diocesan synod, fearing that the liberal prelate might let things get out of hand. 

     Yet Re is generally considered a moderate, and has given signals of support for collegiality. When Scotland’s late Cardinal Thomas Winning needed support in 2001 for an appeal against the Congregation for Worship and its attempts to take control away from bishops’ conferences on liturgy, he got a sympathetic ear from Re. He is a legendary hard worker, often returning calls from his office late on Sunday nights, and has an encyclopedic grasp of the inner workings of the Vatican. Re is personable and approachable in a way few curial figures are. 

     If either Tettamanzi or Re goes to Milan, it would be a signal that powerful forces like him. If you’re looking for an Italian horse to back, therefore, keep your eyes pealed.

* * *

     This weekend I’ll be in Passau, Germany, to observe the ordination of several Catholic women as priests. The event has been in the offing for some time, and organizers claim to have a couple of authentic Roman Catholic bishops lined up to perform the ceremony. They have refused to name them before the fact, however, ostensibly to protect them from harassment. NCR will post my coverage on its web site.

     I can tell you in advance, however, what the official reaction will be (if the Vatican bothers to make a statement). As women are not “proper matter” for ordination, the ritual will have no effect and the women will not be considered priests, even if Cardinal Ratzinger himself does the honors.

* * *

     My new book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election (Doubleday) went on sale June 18. If you want to find it on-line, you can go to

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

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