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 The Word From Rome

July 3, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 45

John L. Allen Jr.


"As much as we try, we can’t get the story out that we are serious about outreach to victims. We’re plagued by old news, old perceptions."

Timothy Dolan
Archbishop of Milwaukee


The O’Malley appointment; A talk with Archbishop Dolan; Anglicans and homosexuality; Women in the church; Saving Christian Europe


(Editor's Note: The Word From Rome is being posted one day early because July 4 is a national holiday in the United States.)

I’ve always believed it’s more important to get the news right than to get it first. Even with the Internet, and NCR’s magnificent new Web operation, my capacity to compete with wire services and broadcast outlets to break stories from the Vatican is obviously limited. My stock in trade has to be analysis and explanation, not speed of delivery.

Every now and then, however, it’s nice to be first across the finish line with a story, especially a big one. So it went this week, as we were the first news outlet to report that the Vatican would name Bishop Sean O’Malley of Palm Beach to be the new archbishop of Boston. We broke the story roughly 25 hours before the official announcement, thus less than 24 hours after O’Malley himself learned of his appointment.

I called NCR’s editor Tom Roberts with the news as soon as I picked it up from an impeccable Vatican source, rousing Roberts from bed at roughly 3 a.m. Kansas City time Monday. He and I agreed that it made no sense to sit on the story, and that I would break the news live on CNN shortly after 5 a.m. on the East Coast. From there it was off to the races, as I spent much of the next 24 hours responding to phone calls from colleagues attempting to confirm our report.

A few had reservations about following our lead simply on the basis of unnamed sources, and I don’t blame them. I’ve watched dozens of times as stories I knew to be false, attributed to anonymous Vatican sources, bounced around the global information stream until finally the bubble burst. Earlier reports about both the timing and identity of the Boston replacement had proven to be wrong. In the end, the only way to evaluate anonymous sourcing is by the reputation of the news outlet. I was gratified that most agencies went with our story, which I take as recognition that we don’t just throw darts at a dartboard.

I will confess, however, that despite the fact that my information was rock solid, I didn’t get much sleep Monday night. What if O’Malley changes his mind? What if John Paul changes his? What if we collide with another planet? These are the thoughts that bedevil you during the long hours between scoop and confirmation.

How do I explain the O’Malley appointment?

Since Law resigned on Dec. 13, 2002, I said often that O’Malley would be the obvious successor if it weren’t for the fact he had just taken over in Palm Beach in October 2002. Granted, John O’Connor became the archbishop of New York after seven months in Scranton, and Francis George moved to Chicago after eleven months in Portland. But neither of those dioceses had suffered the meltdown of Palm Beach, whose last two bishops resigned under the weight of sex abuse scandals.

Obviously, the calculation was that Boston is so important – Archbishop Tim Dolan of Milwaukee told me June 30 that Boston is a “weather vane” for how things are going with the national crisis – the Vatican felt compelled to play what it considered the best card in its deck.

I see three reasons why O’Malley was that card.

First, he is a fix-it man on the sex abuse issue. He came to the diocese of Fall River in 1992 at the height of the scandal surrounding Fr. James Porter, against whom some 222 survivors of sex abuse eventually lodged accusations. Porter pled guilty to 41 felony counts on incidents stemming from five Massachusetts parishes from 1961 to 1967. O’Malley won high marks for his outreach to victims and for instituting tough policies for priests, lay employees and volunteers. He repeated the performance in Palm Beach. He struck the right notes at his July 1 press conference in Boston, stating clearly: “People’s lives are more important than money.”

Second, O’Malley is a known quantity in Boston because of his decade in Fall River. He is well liked and respected, which means that the early buzz on his appointment has been largely favorable. Former Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn, for example, called it a “Massachusetts miracle.” O’Malley will start with a large reservoir of good will, an asset that few other candidates for the Boston job could offer.

Third, O’Malley is the kind of man who inspires trust as a pastor and as a spiritual leader, and at bottom the crisis in Boston is spiritual. People feel betrayed by their church and its leaders, and will be looking to O’Malley to restore trust. A Capuchin Franciscan, O’Malley has a reputation as a humble man of deep prayer and sincerity. He is no doctrinal radical, certainly; on theological questions, he is closer to Bernard Law than to Law’s progressive critics. But what O’Malley will bring is a change of style and of tone, and perhaps that in itself will be enough for some of the dark clouds to lift.

WBUR, the public radio station in Boston, asked me to do live commentary before and after O’Malley’s press conference on Tuesday. As I watched O’Malley via satellite TV, I was struck by his brown Capuchin habit. I remembered the Capuchins who were my teachers at St. Joseph’s Elementary School in Hays, Kansas, and later at Thomas More Prep. I reflected on how much good they worked in my life and the lives of my peers, and I prayed that O’Malley will be able to bring the same gentle, healing Franciscan touch to Boston.

* * *

On June 29, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, metropolitan archbishops appointed in the past year receive the pallium from the pope. The pallium is a circular band of white woolen cloth, with pendants at front and back. It symbolizes the archbishop’s bond with the Holy See.

The lone American to receive the pallium this year was Archbishop Timothy Dolan from Milwaukee, who brought some 600 pilgrims from the archdiocese to share the experience. Old friends of Dolan, including Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis and Bishop James Harvey, a Milwaukee native who serves as the pope’s public secretary, concelebrated Masses for Dolan’s group.

Dolan, 53, sat down with me June 30 for an interview.

Actually, to be technical, he sat down only for part of the interview. For the first 15 minutes or so, we stood in the sacristy of the Church of St. Ignatius and spoke as Dolan took off his vestments after Mass. He was interrupted so often to shake hands and pose for pictures, however, that he offered to continue the interview in his mini-van on the way up to the North American College for dinner. I sat next to his mother and tried to keep things on track from the back seat.

Given those dynamics, the conversation was a bit scattered. Dolan speaks so fast and says so much, however, that we covered more ground in two 15-minute bursts than many press conferences do in two hours.

I asked how much of a distraction the sex abuse crisis has been in his first year.

“A lot, I’ll be honest with you,” Dolan replied. “I deal with it every day, whether it’s meeting victims, monitoring our policies, or dealing with priests who have to be removed. Its impact is huge.”

“It’s going to be a long time before we’re able to weigh the emotional, spiritual and psychological toll of all this,” Dolan said.

Dolan added that the story never seems to end.

“We thought heading into St. Louis [for the U.S. bishops’ June meeting] that things were looking up. Then we get the situation with Bishop [Thomas J.] O’Brien in Phoenix, and [Frank] Keating’s resignation, and we’re right back in the middle of it.”

I asked Dolan’s view about the future of the National Review Board, created by the bishops last year to guide and monitor compliance with their norms on sex abuse.

“We all know we’ve got to make this work,” Dolan said. “I thought they [members of the Review Board] came off very well in St. Louis, stressing that we’re working for you and with you.”

“Even some of the squabbles that have broken out, such as the John Jay survey, are because everyone wants things done properly and credibly,” Dolan said, referring to a national survey commissioned by the bishops from John Jay College on the extent of the sex abuse crisis. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles had argued that the survey would ask bishops to divulge information in violation of California law.

I asked about proposals to call a national Plenary Council.

“That’s one possible means,” Dolan said. “What we need is prudent, prayerful reflection. Whether a plenary council is the best way to do it, who knows?”

Bottom line: Has the church in the United States turned the corner?

“I think so,” Dolan said. “I’m hesitant to say that, because I know we have a long way to go, but I do believe we can be realistically and prudently confident about the future. As many problems as we have, we’re better off than a year ago.”


“The charter is working,” Dolan said. “I don’t think there would be a bishop in the United States who can’t say with utter clarity that there isn’t a single priest still in ministry in his diocese against whom there’s a substantial allegation of sexual abuse. That’s behind us,” Dolan said.

What’s the main challenge remaining?

“As much as we try, we can’t get the story out that we are serious about outreach to victims,” Dolan said. “We’re plagued by old news, old perceptions. There are some critics for whom there’s not much we can do to please them.”

“One problem is that people who are grateful for what the church has done, who have been hurt by the church but who also received healing from it, don’t necessarily want to be identified or go on TV. Whenever I’m contacted by a reporter to respond to some criticism, I think of all these faces flashing in front of me, but I can’t name them,” Dolan said.

When the dust finally settles, Dolan said, there will be two families of issues awaiting attention. They are church/state issues arising from an unprecedented level of civil involvement in church affairs brought on by sex abuse litigation, and the question of church communications at the national and diocesan levels.

Finally, we chatted for a few moments about O’Malley, whom Dolan knows from his own years at the papal embassy in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, at the same time O’Malley was in Latino ministry in the Washington archdiocese. Dolan had very flattering things to say.

I mentioned that had Dolan not been named to Milwaukee, a lot of people felt he would have been on the short list for Boston.

“Then we have two reasons to be glad about O’Malley,” Dolan said, laughing heartily.

* * *

The 70-million strong worldwide Anglican Communion is currently locked in a debate over homosexuality, with some observers predicting a rupture. Despite the atmosphere of crisis, two leading Anglican archbishops told NCR July 1 that the homosexuality debate will not produce the defections to Roman Catholicism once generated by the women’s ordination issue.

Three events have coalesced to create the current crisis:

  • The diocese of New Westminster in Canada issued a formal rite for the blessing of same sex unions;
  • The diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion;
  • Jeffrey John, who acknowledges a homosexual orientation but says he is celibate, has been elected bishop of the diocese of Reading in England. 

There has been an outcry from some bishops, especially though not exclusively from the Third World, who see these steps as contrary to Anglican teaching. That teaching was articulated in the 1998 Lambeth Conference, the general assembly of bishops of the Anglican Communion, in its resolution 1.10. In it, Anglicans agreed to: uphold faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union; teach that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage; reject homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture; not legitimize or bless same-sex unions, or the ordination of those involved in such unions.

The last time the Anglican world went through a similarly wrenching debate, over women priests, one result was significant movement into the Catholic church from the conservative Anglican opposition. In the United States, dozens of Episcopalian clergy were received into Catholicism, and the Vatican approved norms allowing entire parishes to switch affiliation, using a special Anglican-influenced rite for the Mass called the “Book of Divine Worship.” These parishes are informally called “Anglican Use” parishes. In England, according to The Roman Option by ex-Anglican priest William Oddie, seven Anglican bishops and some 700 priests and deacons eventually joined the Catholic church.

Two of the most outspoken Anglican critics of the recent gay-friendly moves have been Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies and Archbishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone of Latin America.  They were among 35 Anglican clergy, for example, who recently signed a letter asking John to abandon his appointment to Reading.

Both men spoke with me July 1 by telephone (Venables was in London, Gomez in the Bahamas).  Both agreed that defections to Rome seem unlikely this time around.

Gomez said much of the opposition within Anglicanism to liberalizing teaching on homosexuality, especially from the Third World, comes from the “low-church,” evangelical wing, and these people do not generally see Rome as an option.

“My people would be much more likely to move off into one of the charismatic churches if they get fed up,” he said.

Venables said that recent Vatican statements on Anglicanism have also made movement to Rome less likely.

“In the wake of Dominus Iesus and recent declarations on inter-communion, it is increasingly clear that the Roman Catholic church scarcely considers the Anglican Communion a valid part of the Christian church,” Venables said. “They have cast doubt on where we stand with respect to the Christian faith.”

Both said that they are in regular contact with all the Anglican bishops and most of the clergy leading the opposition to the recent moves, and they are unaware of anyone actively considering joining the Catholic church.

“We see ourselves as upholding the tradition of the Anglican Communion,” Gomez said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

The next act in this drama should come July 30-August 8, when the general convention of the Episcopalian church meets in Minneapolis. If, as expected, it confirms Robinson’s New Hampshire election, then Gomez warned that “a much graver state of affairs” would result.

Gomez predicted that eventually many Anglican provinces, including his own, will refuse to recognize the sacraments and ministers of the American Episcopalian church and others that adopt similar stands on homosexuality, and will refuse to take part in meetings where these churches are represented. It amounts to a situation of “impaired communion,” he said.

Observers of the Anglican scene in Rome say another area of potential impact on relations with the Catholic church is the question of what status Anglican/Catholic agreements have.

A 1993 document of the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission, Life in Christ, stated that marriage between a man and a woman is normative. While the three recent moves do not directly contradict that language, they arguably move away from it. Further, the May 2000 “Mississauga Statement,” worked out between Anglicans and Catholics, said that neither side should make decisions in faith and morals that will put further distance between the two. Certainly the three decisions under dispute, if allowed to stand, would create greater distance from the Catholic church.

Hence some Roman observers are asking, what’s the point of signing these agreements if Anglican dioceses, or provinces, just ignore them?

* * *

On Friday, June 27, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments held an unusual joint plenary session. The topic for the closed-door session was a forthcoming document on liturgical practice and abuses that will be the disciplinary follow-up to John Paul’s recent encyclical, Ecclesia De Eucharistia.

A 55-page draft was discussed at the meeting and in subsequent follow-up sessions. One topic of debate, even among some of the cardinals who took part, was how tough the rules ought to be on inter-communion with Protestants.

One aim at the moment is to reduce the size of the draft, which some participants consider overly long. If the final version is too complicated, these participants worry, it will not have the desired clarity.

Because the participants take their obligation of confidentiality seriously, it’s difficult to pry loose many details. One point that can be reported with confidence, however, is that as it stands, the document contains no reference to wider permission for celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass, the so-called “Tridentine rite.” Interest in whether the document would address the old Mass was generated by a May 13 news item published on the Web site of Inside the Vatican magazine, based on an interview with Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

Under the terms of John Paul’s 1988 indult Ecclesia Dei, it is up to diocesan bishops to decide who may celebrate the old Mass and under what circumstances. It appears that the forthcoming document is not likely to effect that discipline.

“There may be some who would want us to address it,” one source said, “but so far it’s just not there.”

* * *

It is an unfortunate fact of life that many women feel alienated from the Catholic church because of the overwhelming hold enjoyed by men on leadership positions. Activists and pundits often propose women priests as the response to this problem. Pope John Paul’s 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, however, declared the inadmissibility of women to holy orders a matter of binding tradition, so many Catholics committed to working inside the system have shifted their energy towards moving women into offices that do not require ordination.

It was in this context that one of the working groups at the 1999 European Synod proposed that a woman be named to head an agency of the Roman Curia.

The proposal did not survive in the 40 propositions presented to Pope John Paul  at the close of the synod, and neither was it in the pope’s apostolic letter, Ecclesia in Europa, released on Saturday, June 28. The pope wrote instead: “It is to be hoped, as the synod emphasized, that the full participation of women in the church’s life and mission will be fostered by making better use of their gifts and by entrusting them with ecclesial roles reserved by law to laypersons.”

Does this mean the idea of a woman heading a curial agency is off the table?  I asked Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte, who heads the synod and who presented Ecclesia in Europa at a June 28 Vatican press conference.

Schotte’s initial response was interesting, but inconclusive. He said the pope had addressed the women’s question in documents such as Mulieres Dignitatem and Christfideles Laici. Moreover, Schotte said, the “aggressive feminism” at the 1987 Synod on the Laity has “disappeared.” Today, he said, a “true Catholic feminism” is in the course of defining itself, one that will celebrate the gifts of women rather than insisting that women are equivalent to men or should possess everything that men have.

As the press conference ended, I pressed Schotte to explain if this meant it would be impossible for a woman to run a curial department (the technical word for which is a “dicastery”).

“Right now the dicasteries have jurisdiction, and so they participate in episcopal authority. We’re a hierarchical organization and power comes from ordination. So for now, there cannot be a woman,” Schotte said. “If the job is redefined, you could have a woman, but then it would not be the same dicastery as we think of now when people say there should be a woman.”

Afterwards I consulted a few canon lawyers. They tell me Schotte’s response is defensible, and it no doubt reflects the thinking behind paragraph 43 of Ecclesia in Europa. As stated, however, it needs two clarifications.

First, not every office of the Roman curia has what canonists call “the power of governance,” meaning the power to issue binding documents, judgments, decrees, and dispensations. All nine congregations and three tribunals have this authority, along with two pontifical councils (Laity and Interpretation of Legislative Texts). Many other organs of the curia, such as the Council for Migrants and Refugees or the Vatican Library, do not, and hence there’s no canonical problem with a layperson being in charge. The proof of the point is that a layperson already runs one such curial office: Spanish layman Joaquin Navarro-Valls is the director of the Press Office.

Second, it is true that canon law envisions only two offices with “power of governance” – judge on a canonical tribunal and religious superior – that are open to lay people. But a bishop may delegate this power of governance to lay aides for specific matters. For example, many American bishops have lay chancellors, some of whom are assigned certain powers – for example, to grant marriage permissions and dispensation from disparity of cult (to enable a Catholic to marry an unbaptized person). Some women act as chancellors in the United States. Diocesan financial officers may also be delegated authority to issue instructions to parishes on financial accounting.

Bottom line, according to one canon lawyer: “If the pope wants to appoint a lay person to head a congregation or other dicastery in which he or she would exercise power of governance, he certainly could. He is the supreme legislator, and there is no doctrine of the church that would prevent him from doing this.”

On the theory of learning to crawl before walking, perhaps the logical next step would be the appointment of a woman to head a curial agency that does not exercise power of governance: the Council for Health Care Workers, for example, or the Central Statistics Office. That alone could be powerful symbolism, a way of providing “cash value” to declarations such as that in Ecclesia in Europa.

* * *

Reflecting the somber tone of the European synod, the pope in Ecclesia in Europa expressed some deep doubts about the old continent. John Paul cites a “loss of hope” among European peoples, leading to a cynicism and nihilism that he does not hesitate to call a “silent apostasy.”

Indicators of this crisis within European Christianity are manifold. Attendance at religious services is at historical lows. In Germany, for example, where 51 percent of Catholics attended Mass once a week in 1950, today the number is 22 percent. In England, 89 percent of the population does not attend services regularly. The priest shortage is also grave. The number of secular and religious clergy in Europe dropped from 241,379 in 1976 to 217,275 in 1995.

 What’s the solution?

One view, popular in progressive circles, is that the Catholic church needs structural reform.  A command-and-control model of leadership, for example, cannot work in a culture allergic to authoritarianism. Certain strictures on sexuality, such as mandatory celibacy, seem increasingly difficult to defend. The exclusion of women from ordained ministry cannot help but appear as a form of bigotry to a culture that prizes tolerance and diversity.

To some extent, this view was heard at the 1999 European synod. Most famously, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, formerly of Milan, told the synod that the Catholic church needs “a collegial and authoritative consultation among all the bishops.” The Italian press seized upon this as a call for a new ecumenical council, a “Vatican III,” but Martini insisted this was not what he meant. He wanted more collegiality, meaning shared decision-making, in the daily life of the church.

Cardinal Diogini Tettamanzi, who would later become Martini’s successor in Milan, told the concluding press conference at the synod that Martini’s proposal “did not find an echo in the synodal assembly.”

It did not find an echo in Ecclesia in Europa either.

John Paul sees the current situation not as a crisis of structures but as a crisis of confidence, the solution to which is a new appreciation of Catholic identity and a new muscularity in proclaiming the gospel.

The pope ruled out, for example, any relaxation of celibacy.

“Celibacy is esteemed in the whole church as fitting for the priesthood, obligatory in the Latin church and deeply respected by the Eastern churches,” he wrote. “A revision of the present discipline would not help to resolve the crisis of vocations to the priesthood being felt in many parts of Europe.”

The pope reaffirmed that women may be admitted only to those church offices open to laity, and said nary a word about collegiality.

On the other hand, he was emphatic about the need for missionary zeal.

“Europe needs to make a qualitative leap in becoming conscious of its spiritual heritage,” John Paul wrote. “The impetus for this can only come from hearing anew the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the responsibility of all Christians to commit themselves to satisfying this hunger and thirst for life.”

Thus John Paul’s bottom line: It is nerve, not structures, that will save Christianity in Europe.

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

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