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June 30, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 42

John L. Allen Jr.


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Bertone's appointment puts the spotlight on Salesians; Salesians in the United States; Rosmini's sainthood cause advances; Preparations for African Synod; Benedict practices 'communion ecclesiology'; Lopez Trujillo steps up battle against stem cells


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Roman Catholicism stubbornly resists what Shakespeare once called "the weak list of a country's fashion," but even so, the church too has its fads. One bit of ecclesiastical vogue these days might well be called "Salesian chic."

That reality was given a "slammer," as they say in the newspaper trade, last week by the appointment of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, a Salesian, as the Vatican's Secretary of State.

The nomination was greeted as a revolution because Bertone is not a diplomat, yet one only has to reach back a couple of decades, to French Cardinal Jean Villot (1969 to 1979), for a precedent. To find the last Secretary of State who was a member of a religious order, on the other hand, one has to go all the way back to 1836 and Cardinal Luigi Lambruschini, a Barnabite. (Cardinal Anton Francesco Orioli, a Conventual Franciscan, held the post in 1848, but only ad interim).

Bertone thus becomes just the second religious to serve as Secretary of State, the Vatican's "Prime Minister," since the all-important office was created in 1644.

It's hardly an accident that the job went to a Salesian. In an era in which many of the great orders of the church have been rocked by internal ideological divisions, the Salesians are seen as robustly reliable -- not theological innovators, but down-to-earth pastors and educators, and generally with a good sense of humor.

"We're not complicated people," Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, another Salesian in a high place, told NCR June 25. "Our spirit is family, especially with the young and the poor."

That profile has made them a "go-to" source for important leadership positions.

Depending on how one counts, the Salesians, with 16,682 priests and brothers worldwide, are either the second or third largest men's order in the church. (If you lump the various branches of the Franciscans together there are more than 30,000, but canonically that total is divided into three distinct orders).

At the moment, the Salesians have more bishops than any other order in the church -- a total of 116, while their nearest competitor, the Order of Friars Minor, have 104, and the Jesuits 74. There are also seven Salesian cardinals, the second-highest total after the Jesuits, with 10.

Bertone is emblematic of the trend. His last Vatican job was as deputy to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal agency. When Bertone moved to Genoa in 2003, Ratzinger turned to another Salesian, Archbishop Angelo Amato, to fill Bertone's slot.

The only Nobel Prize winner in the Catholic episcopacy is a Salesian -- Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of East Timor, who won the Peace Prize in 1996 along with José Ramos-Horta for their work for reconciliation.

In the Vatican, 15 Salesians hold policy-level positions, including three in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and 24 serve as consultors or members of Vatican academies and commissions. Since 1937, the Salesians have been entrusted with the Vatican's publishing operation, including administration of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. http://johnallen.ncrcafe.orgJoin the Conversation
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When John Paul II in 2004 broke with centuries of taboo and named a woman to one of the superiori positions in the Vatican, he turned to a Salesian nun, Sr. Enrica Rosanna, as under-secretary in the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. When popes want to push the envelope, they generally reassure traditionalists by entrusting the assignment to someone with unimpeachable credentials -- and the fact that Rosanna is a Salesian did the trick.

That's the Salesian way.

"Don Bosco was a man of the church, and stressed to us to remain aligned with the church," said Fr. James Heuser, superior of the Eastern province of the Salesians in the United States.

Even when Don Bosco was barred for a time from hearing confessions by the archbishop of Turin, Heuser said, he insisted upon loyalty.

"It's in our spirit," he said.

None of this is to suggest the Salesians haven't produced firebrands. The former President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, started off as a Salesian pastor in a Haitian slum, where he became an ardent disciple of liberation theology; and the leftist Italian theologian Giulio Girardi, who wrote books arguing that Marxism is another name for Christianity, was also a Salesian priest.

Both men, however, were tossed out of the Salesians when they refused the directives of ecclesiastical authority.

To top it all off, in 2004 the Italian state television network, RAI, broadcast a two-part mini-drama based on the life of the Salesians' founder, the legendary 19th century Italian priest Don Bosco. Flavio Insinna, a leading Italian actor, played the title role, and the program drew impressive ratings.

Bertone's appointment thus puts the spotlight on an order destined to play an increasingly important role under Benedict XVI, and it's worth getting some sense of what their ascendancy may mean.

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The great orders have usually been born in response to some crisis -- the Franciscans, for example, to urbanization and the need to evangelize the cities; the Jesuits to the Reformation, and the need for a Catholic counter-offensive.

For the Salesians, it was the Industrial Revolution, especially the zones of despair, turmoil and revolution on the outskirts of the great industrial cities.

St. John Bosco (1815-1888), known affectionately as "Don Bosco," was shocked by the plight of the poor in Turin, especially the young -- the peddlers, shoe polishers, stable-boys, factory workers, vendors, and errand boys who formed the lowest cogs in the wheels of the new industrial machine.

Bosco became a tireless catechist among the young, hearing confessions, saying Masses, and organizing "oratories" where his boys could play, study and worship. He was also something of a labor organizer, negotiating contracts for young apprentices insisting that employers use them only in their acknowledged trade, that corporal punishment be abandoned, that proper wages be paid, rest periods be honored, and that decent sanitary conditions be maintained.

Thus the Salesian pastoral model was forged: solid, orthodox Catholic piety; an "in-the-trenches" commitment to the young, the poor, and to education; and a smiling closeness to the people, as opposed to the rather foreboding and aloof profile of the typical Italian monsignore. (In this sense, Bertone's penchant for hanging out with young people in Genoa's discos, and offering color commentary for soccer matches, is considered classic Salesian behavior).

"Don Bosco wanted us to be religious with our sleeves rolled up, not afraid of hard work," Heuser said, "whether it's in the confessional, in the classroom, or on the soccer field."

Contrary to the peasant wisdom of "spare the rod, spoil the child," Bosco believed positive encouragement was a superior technique. He routinely spread around small presents, and led the young on outings to favorite spots around Turin. He called this approach the "preventive method," defining it this way: "As far as possible avoid punishing … try to gain love before inspiring fear."

Bosco's work with disadvantaged youth, coupled with his broader commitment to a socially engaged Catholicism and his positive, world-friendly spirit, won him a wide international following. He was to some extent the Mother Teresa of his day. Shortly before Victor Hugo's death in 1883, even the legendary anti-clerical French writer asked to meet Bosco during a visit to Paris.

At the time of Don Bosco's death in 1888 there were 250 Salesian houses in the world, serving 130,000 children. Pius XI beatified Don Bosco in 1929, and canonized him in 1934.

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The lone Salesian bishop in the United States is Spanish-born Emilio Simeon Alluč, auxiliary of Boston, who spoke to NCR June 28 about the Bertone appointment and the Salesians' role in the church.

I asked Alluč if it's a point of pride for Salesians that one of their own now holds the Vatican's top job.

"By all means," he said. "We are all elated by this appointment, which confirms the trust that we Salesians have with the Holy Father. With past popes too, we've always enjoyed special confidence and trust."

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Listening to Alluč, it's no mystery why popes like what they see.

"Don Bosco emphasized the sacramental life of the church, devotion to Mary, and loyalty to the Holy Father," he said. "That's the basis for our educational and pastoral approach. It sounds simple, but all our evangelizing effort leads to that."

"All our bishops and cardinals carry this [model] into their respective dioceses," he said. "We work hard to develop the faith and to be in union with the Holy Father."

Alluč said that Don Bosco's commitment to the young always had a missionary dimension.

"From the very beginning, Don Bosco's idea was evangelizing, to teach the young and adults in order to evangelize," Alluč said. He pointed out that Bosco sent out his first missionaries to Argentina in 1875, with the aim of spreading the faith among indigenous groups in Patagonia, and that in short order the Salesians had missions spread all over the world.

Some have criticized the Bertone appointment because of his lack of a missionary background, but Alluč suggested that the missionary dimension of the Salesian experience could compensate for that.

"We're all over the world … and this puts us in touch with the realities of the world," he said.

Pointing to prominent Salesians such as Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong and Rodriguez Maradiaga, Alluč said, "We all have the same approach of reaching everyone, especially reaching the poor, but without becoming political."

Alluč said the element of community in Salesian life is also helpful for members of the order who wind up as bishops.

"We stress community bonding, that we are tied to each other," he said. "So when you become a bishop, the local church becomes your community."

That's part of what Don Bosco meant, he said, by fostering a "family spirit."

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Despite their prominence internationally, the Salesians are relatively little known in the States. They have two provinces here, with a total of 285 priests, brothers and men in formation.

The Salesians arrived in 1897 in San Francisco, and in 1898 opened up shop in New York. Unsurprisingly, in both cases they followed waves of Italian immigration, delivering pastoral care for the Italians who were often shunned by the Irish-American clergy of the day.

Today, the Salesians operate nine high schools in the States, including Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., whose high-powered football team is the first high school squad in American history to be honored with its own postal stamp. The Salesians are co-sponsoring a new Cristo Rey school in Washington, D.C., slated to open in the fall of 2007. They're also in 27 parishes.

I asked Alluč why the Salesians have not had the same growth in the States as in other countries.

For one thing, he said, the Salesian concern for poor youth has led them to open vocational and technical institutes around the world, but in the United States the cost of running these institutions, as well as the demanding nature of the legal requirements for doing so, have caused the Salesians to pull back.

Heuser, the Eastern provincial superior, added a historical factor.

"The charism of Don Bosco finds its most fertile soil in areas of greater poverty," he said.

"In our foundation and development here, we tended to stay with immigrant populations, such as Italians, Poles and Hispanics," Heuser said. He suggested that the Salesians in some ways never made the transition to "mainstream" ministry.

The Salesians, like many other communities, face declining vocations. Heuser said there are roughly four deaths a year in his province and two novices, a model that is obviously not sustainable forever.

The "strategy" for overcoming the shortage, he said, is to "sharpen our witness to the charism of Don Bosco," meaning "the primacy of God in our lives, deepening our experience of communion, and being present to the young."

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Several years ago, I was on a panel in Montreal with Jesuit Fr. Bill Cain, head writer of ABC-TV's short-lived series "Nothing Sacred." Cain described the negative reaction the show had received in some Catholic circles, but expressed confidence that someday its value would be recognized.

"Today they silence you, and in 200 years they beatify you," Cain joked. "That seems to be the way it goes in the church."

"Cain's Law" is hardly universal, but it is spot-on for the early 19th century Italian philosopher and theologian Fr. Antonio Rosmini, whose works were censured during and after his life, but who today stands on the brink of sainthood.

On Monday, 155 years after Rosmini's death, Benedict XVI signed a "decree of heroic virtue," clearing the first hurdle towards Rosmini's beatification. In fact, Benedict approved 19 decrees on Monday, moving forward the causes of 162 candidates.

In his famous 1848 work The Five Wounds of the Church, Rosmini identified the most grave challenges facing the church of his day as he saw them:

  • The division of the people from the clergy in worship (due to ignorance and the use of Latin),
  • The defective education of the clergy,
  • The disunion of bishops (due to territorialism, nationalism and wealth),
  • The nomination of bishops by the secular power (rather than by election), and
  • The enslavement of the church by riches (due to the long shadow of feudalism).

These positions may seem unremarkable today, but at the time they generated enormous controversy, and left Rosmini under a cloud. In 1887, 22 years after Rosmini's death, the Holy Office issued a decree Post obitum in which 40 "propositions" lifted from Rosmini's work were condemned. For example, Rosmini was accused of favoring "ontologism," a sort of philosophical form of pantheism. While the "propositions" largely had to do with the mystery of God and creation, the politics of the 19th century hovered in the background, especially Rosmini's openness to Italian unification over against defenders of the temporal power of the papacy.

For more than a century, Rosmini's supporters, including the Institute of Charity which he founded, pushed for a reevaluation.

In 1984, John Paul II approved the opening of a beatification cause for Rosmini, and in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, John Paul referred to Rosmini as an example of the "fruitful relationship between philosophy and the word of God in the courageous research pursued by more recent thinkers." (Also included on that list was John Henry Newman, another churchman who stood under a cloud for a period of time.)

All this led to a nota of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith dated July 1, 2001, which declared that the motives that led to the 1887 condemnation "can now be considered superseded," concluding that the aberrant material in the 40 propositions "does not belong to the authentic position of Rosmini." In effect, the nota amounted to an official rehabilitation.

With Monday's action by Benedict XVI, Rosmini is now an authenticated miracle away from beatification, and two from officially being declared a saint.

One lesson the Rosmini saga may suggest is caution about hurling accusations against today's disputed writers and activists, of whatever stripe. While "Cain's Law" doesn't apply in every case, nevertheless history indicates that often time has to pass before the church can reach final judgment.

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On Tuesday, the Vatican released the lineamenta, or "grand lines," for the Second Synod of Bishops for Africa. The first Synod for Africa met in 1994, and resulted in the document Ecclesia in Africa. No date has been established for the next synod, although responses to the lineamenta were requested by the end of October 2008, making it unlikely the synod will be held before 2009.

The theme will be, "The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace."

In church terms, it's a very ad extra choice, meaning that it's primarily concerned with the church's engagement with the outside world rather than internal questions of doctrine, discipline, or liturgical practice. That's in keeping with the pastoral priorities of most African bishops, who find issues such as poverty, war, and public corruption far more pressing than the ad intra issues that loom large in Western debates.

The lineamenta says that the church in Africa has made "a preferential choice for the poor."

Dialogue with African Traditional Religions and with Islam is also flagged as a challenge. In keeping with the blunt spirit under Benedict XVI, the lineamenta acknowledges that Islam is an "important yet difficult" dialogue partner, and insists upon "reciprocity" as a cornerstone of the relationship -- meaning that majority Islamic states must respect the religious freedom of minorities.

The document suggests that it is time for a serious mobilization of the laity in Africa, leading lay Christians to look beyond their individual, tribal or ethnic interests, towards a "a large-scale, resolute" commitment to the broader public good. As part of that effort, the lineamenta encourages the church to foster a deeper ethic of "work done well," taking one's daily work as the pathway both to individual sanctity and to broader social transformation.

The lineamenta closes by asking bishops' conferences, religious orders, and other forces in the African church to respond to 32 questions in order to help shape the instrumentum laboris, or "working paper," of the synod.

One criticism that will likely be heard is that with its ad extra focus, the lineamenta neglects some important questions within the church. To take just a few examples:

  • The problem of priestly formation, ensuring that new priests have fully integrated the spiritual and disciplinary requirements of the office;
  • Inculturation of the faith in the various African contexts, especially in liturgy;
  • The challenge of aggressive Pentecostal and evangelical sects, which are making inroads in many African countries, sometimes at the expense of the Catholic church;
  • Debates over condoms in the context of HIV/AIDS, especially the question of the moral legitimacy of condoms in the context of a married couple trying to prevent transmission of the disease.

No doubt these issues, and others like them, will surface in the synod process. Nevertheless, the choice of the lineamenta to focus on broader social and political matters tends to reflect a conviction on the part of many African church leaders that getting hung up on internal debates is a bit like fiddling while Rome burns.

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On June 29, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Benedict XVI imposed the pallium, the symbol of a metropolitan archbishop's office, on 27 archbishops appointed during the last year.

The pallium, which also symbolizes the link between the metropolitan and the See of Peter, is a circular band about two inches wide, with two pendants hanging down front and back. It's ornamented with six dark crosses of silk, and is worn over liturgical vestments. The pallium is given to metropolitan archbishops appointed during the last year, and can be worn only within their ecclesiastical province.

Like last year, Benedict XVI led the ceremony inside St. Peter's Basilica, rather than in the square as was customary under John Paul II. From Benedict's point of view, the basilica, especially the central altar directly above the tomb of St. Peter, better captures the meaning of the event.

It's customary for the Patriarch of Constantinople to send a delegation to the Vatican for the event, just as the pope sends a delegation to the Phanar for the Feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30. (This year, Benedict will go himself.) The Orthodox delegation was led by Metropolitan John Zizioulas, who is to some extent an Orthodox analog of Joseph Ratzinger -- one of the most accomplished theologians of his generation, who has been called into church governance.

As Benedict XVI processed into the basilica, he made a special point of spotting Zizioulas and smiling at him. Later, the two men exchanged the Sign of Peace. At the end of the Mass, Benedict and Zizioulas went down the stairs under the main altar together and prayed before what are believed to be the bones of St. Peter. The two prelates stood shoulder-to-shoulder, with no distinction in "rank."

Zizioulas pioneered the concept of "communion ecclesiology," the idea that the church is constituted by the celebration of the Eucharist around the bishop, which has had great influence also in Roman Catholicism in the period after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In his own theological work, Joseph Ratzinger has written that the "ecclesiology of communion" is a useful point of departure, though he's warned that it must not exalt the local church at the expense of the universal. For his part, Zizioulas has argued that Orthodoxy can accept the universal primacy of the pope, if it is "fundamentally qualified," meaning that it respects the autonomy of local churches and acts through a synodal structure.

In his homily, Benedict ended with a strong ecumenical appeal.

"We share the ardent desire expressed in the past by Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI: to drink together from the same chalice, and to eat together the bread that is the Lord himself," the pope said. "We newly implore, on this occasion, that this gift will be conceded to us soon."

In an audience for the Orthodox delegation, Benedict recalled that Peter is recalled in Byzantine hagiography as the protocoryphaeus, literally the "first in the choir," which Benedict defined as "the task of maintaining the harmony of the voices, for the glory of God and the service of his people."

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In an interview this week with the Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez-Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said that those who take part in embryonic stem cell research are subject to excommunication.

"Destroying human embryos is equivalent to an abortion... it's the same thing," Lopez Trujillo said.

Lopez Trujillo was likely referring to canons 1364-1399 of the Code of Canon Law, where a few particularly serious offenses are listed as grounds for automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication, including:

  • Apostasy, heresy or schism
  • Sacrilege with the Eucharistic species
  • Use of physical force against the pope
  • Absolution of an accomplice in a sexual sin
  • Consecration of a bishop without mandate from the pope
  • Direct violation of the seal of the confessional
  • Procuring an abortion

While the church's condemnation of embryonic stem cell research is clear, there will be canonical debate about whether it is "the same thing" as abortion in the sense that it too constitutes grounds for latae sententiae excommunication. In canonical tradition, penalties are to be construed narrowly, so that expanding the range of a latae sententiae penalty is deliberately difficult to do.

In the Famiglia Cristiana interview, Lopez Trujillo also said that excommunication "applies to all women, doctors and researchers who eliminate embryos."

The question of whether women who have abortions are automatically excommunicated has also been the subject of debate. Canon 1324 states that punishment due to a grave offense can be tempered if the person acted without "full imputability." For a crime to be "imputed" to someone means they knew that what they did was wrong, and acted with "deliberation of mind and consent of will." Some canonists argue that given the emotional duress women face in contemplating an abortion, it's not always clear their choices satisfy that condition.

In any event, the Lopez Trujillo interview marks another escalation in the Catholic church's struggle against what John Paul II termed the "culture of death." That struggle will be in the forefront of Benedict XVI's upcoming July 8-9 trip to Spain, where the Socialist government under Prime Minister Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has moved to streamline the process for divorce, and to legalize both abortion and gay marriage.

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