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 The Word From Rome

July 9, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 46

global perspective


"There's a lot of movement. There has been healing. People are returning to the church. They're contributing again, they're getting involved again. The depth of the problem is very great, and it will be a long process. The hurt will be with us for a long time. But there are signs of hope."

Archbishop Sean O'Malley,
describing the mood of Catholics in Boston

Who is in charge?; Financing development; The Portland archdiocese files for bankruptcy; More on a papal trip to Ireland; A talk with Archbishop O'Malley; More about life-sustaining medical treatment


With John Paul on vacation this week, some people may be under the impression not much is happening around the Vatican. In fact, however, considerable sausage is being ground.

To cite just three examples: The Council for Justice and Peace is sponsoring a major conference on globalization and development, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is processing sex abuse cases from the United States and elsewhere, and the Secretariat of State is reviewing the results (or lack thereof) from the first round of resumed negotiations between the Holy See and Israel.

All this illustrates that a great deal of Vatican business goes on with or without the pope.

Often these days people ask, "Who's in charge in the Vatican?" The premise is that John Paul's health renders him all but incapable of day-to-day management, so someone else must be doing it. Such speculation is logical, and to some extent on target. Yet I would suggest that this question of "who's in charge" is actually meaningless as stated.

John Paul's declining health marks a change in degree, not in kind, in how the Vatican operates. No one person, including the pope, pulls all the strings or calls all the shots. Hence the question has to be rephrased: "Who's in charge of what?"

Five observations explain why.

First, it's a matter of design that the vast majority of Vatican decisions never reach the pope, even a perfectly healthy one. The Holy See has a president/prime minister structure, where the pope is the head of state but his prime minister, in this case the Secretary of State, is in charge of day-to-day governance. Obviously, the pope has the canonical authority to intervene whenever he sees fit, and the Secretary of State will normally clear matters of importance with the papal household. The point, however, is that most Vatican decisions are made at lower levels.

Second, it has been this pope's style to work around rather than through established Vatican structures. He has pursued certain big-picture objectives -- trips, encyclicals, ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, global statesmanship -- and left the details in many areas of church life to his lieutenants. That means that each Vatican office, called a "dicastery," has enjoyed relative autonomy for 25 years.

Third, the Vatican is highly compartmentalized, so that each dicastery works in relative isolation, without much communication with the others. There is a strong emphasis on respecting the juridical "competence" of each office, so that cardinals and their lower-level aides are often hesitant to intervene outside their area of authority. Documents and policy decisions can be in the works in one dicastery for months, in some cases for years, before anyone else knows about them.

Fourth, there's also a historical logic for the independence of each dicastery. The reform of the Curia carried out by Pope Pius X in 1908 specified that the congregations would be supreme in their own area. The idea was to solve the problem of overlapping jurisdiction that had plagued the Vatican in the 19th century, when appellants who didn't like the answer they got from one tribunal or congregation simply sought out another, with the result being a riot of often conflicting rulings. By putting up high fences around the work of each dicastery, Pius hoped for greater consistency. In fact, while his reform did result in greater consistency on an issue-by-issue basis, it also created the possibility for greater inconsistency at the big-picture level, with different dicasteries pulling in different directions.

Fifth and finally, there is a political reason why officials today sometimes operate at cross-purposes. As a papacy nears its end, there are two camps within the Curia. There are those who realize their service will end with this pope, and are anxious to complete their unfinished business. This camp will seem increasingly hard-line. The other camp would like to continue under a future pontificate. Since it is impossible to anticipate what the next pope will be like, it is safer not to burn bridges. This camp will seem increasingly open to compromise.

Normally these tendencies towards independence are held in check by the Secretariat of State. By all accounts, however, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the current Secretary of State, is more interested in Italian politics and international relations than in the minutiae of ecclesiastical administration, meaning that he is often content to leave the dicasteries to their business.

What does all this mean?

First, the normal centrifugal tendencies in the Vatican have been exacerbated as John Paul ages. From now until the end of this papacy, it will be steadily more difficult to know what "the Vatican" thinks on any question outside the narrow range of already-settled doctrinal matters.

Second, officials with a strong vision today have a relatively free hand to pursue that vision. Witness Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez in the Congregation for Divine Worship from 1998 to 2002, who went a long way towards reorienting post-conciliar liturgical reform.

The bottom line will be an increasing amount of what looks from the outside like "incoherence." Disagreements will be papered over rather than resolved, and contrasts in approach -- say between Cardinal Walter Kasper's Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Ratzinger's CDF -- will be on display.

Whether that amounts to destructive chaos or healthy diversity is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

* * *

Speaking of that conference at the Council for Justice and Peace, one driving force behind it is the British government, and more specifically the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who has called for a new International Finance Facility aimed at doubling investment in developing countries.

The new facility would raise funding needed to meet the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations, a set of goals for development and poverty eradication to achieve by 2015. They include that every child is in education, infant mortality is reduced by two thirds and poverty is halved.

The new program would issue bonds to raise funds, which would be distributed as grants and concessional loans. The idea is to put an additional $50 billion over the next 10 to 15 years into development projects in the poorest countries.

More information can be found on the British Treasury's Web site Look for "international issues" under the Documents section.

The July 9 conference at Justice and Peace signals a more or less formal Vatican endorsement of Brown's proposal. The morning session will be hosted by the cardinal of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, and the afternoon session by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, a longtime champion of economic justice for the developing world.

* * *

When news broke this week that the Archdiocese of Portland in the United States was filing for bankruptcy under the weight of debts related to the sexual abuse crisis, several colleagues wanted to know if the step had required Vatican approval.

The answer, at least on a technical level, is a bit of a canonical conundrum. Canon law requires that bishops received clearance from the Holy See for any "alienation of property," meaning a transfer of ownership, of $1 million or more in value, or any new indebtedness that exceeds $1 million. It's not clear that bankruptcy falls under this provision, since the purpose is to protect rather than to alienate assets.

As I say, however, this is something of a technical debate for canonists to hash out, since on a practical level it's difficult to imagine a bishop would take such a dramatic step without some sort of "green light" from Rome.

On this level, it's long been clear that Vatican officials are leery about the idea of a diocese going into bankruptcy. The last time we had occasion to discuss this was in 2002, at the peak of the crisis in Boston, when bankruptcy seemed a live possibility there. It's worth reviewing what I wrote at the time:

Ostensibly, Law had come to Rome to explain bankruptcy to people in the Vatican with serious reservations. One concern is its possible impact on future giving, since going belly-up is hardly the sort of thing that inspires investor confidence. If contributions are already slumping in Boston and elsewhere, imagine the impact of a bankruptcy filing.

Perhaps even more worrying to Vatican officials is the prospect that a civil judge would, under American law, be assigned broad powers to review and oversee archdiocesan finances. For an institution that has fought pitched battles over the centuries to protect its assets in order to safeguard its independence, this is no small matter. A couple of Vatican officials privately invoked memories of the Nazi "gleichsaltung," a campaign to neutralize social institutions that might serve as centers of opposition by assimilating them to the state. Their point was not to compare an American judge to a Nazi thug, but merely to note that precedents are important. Law, and now his successor, thus face the challenge of persuading Vatican decision-makers that this step might actually be the best of all the bad options available.

That logic still holds, which means that something truly dramatic has happened in Portland. Though other dioceses have considered bankruptcy, this is the first time one has actually done it. Whether the action sets a precedent that will be followed by other dioceses will certainly be monitored closely in Rome. (The Tuscon diocese, for example, is said to be contemplating a similar filing.).

* * *

Speaking of the pope's vacation, he arrived on July 5 at Les Combes di Introd in the Alpine Val d'Aosta region of Italy for 12 days of rest and relaxation. It's the pope's 10th vacation in the Alps, and the first in two years.

John Paul is staying in a special chalet built for him next to a house of the Salesian religious community. The changed post-9/11 security situation in the world is reflected in the increased presence of police and Italian carabinieri, and the reduced accessibility of the papal residence to the people of the area.

When John Paul arrived on Monday afternoon, he was greeted by a delegation of 12 children from the local middle school, who gave him a bouquet of flowers and recited a poem. The schoolchildren included two Muslims -- a brother and sister from a family of immigrants from Morocco. It's an important bit of symbolism, given the rising tide of anti-immigrant resentment in Italy, especially in the north where the ultra-right Northern League political party has its electoral base.

During the 12 days of vacation, John Paul will be accompanied only by Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, his private secretary and closest advisor; his butler Angelo Gugel; and Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls. The only public event on his calendar is the Sunday Angelus address on July 11.

* * *

Speculation continues to grow in Ireland about a possible papal trip. I was asked by RTE, the major national radio system, to comment on the prospects during a primetime broadcast on July 5.

Around the Vatican, the word is that the pope wants to make the trip. It would come on the 25th anniversary of John Paul's first visit to Ireland, in 1979, but more importantly it would allow the pope to complete some unfinished business from that voyage. John Paul wanted to go to Northern Ireland on that occasion in order to make a statement about his commitment to ecumenism and to Catholic-Protestant understanding. He was persuaded that, given the climate at the time, his visit would have been inflammatory.

Today, however, given the relative success of the peace process, a papal trip might be seen as conciliatory and gracious rather than provocative. Given that new opening, it seems in John Paul's character to want to exploit it.

Moreover, the pope well knows that the Irish Catholic church needs a shot in the arm. Revelations concerning sexual and other forms of abuse by Catholic priests and nuns, expressed among other places in the recent movie "The Magdalene Sisters," caused long-simmering resentment over clerical arrogance to explode. Today the anger in Ireland towards bishops, clergy and anything that smacks of institutional religion is remarkable.

This in part explains why John Paul gave up one of his most able diplomats, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, to name him archbishop of Dublin. The hope was that Martin's intelligence, good pastoral sense, and media savvy would give the church a fighting chance.

A papal visit, if properly presented and executed, might help. The pope could apologize to the Irish for mistakes by the church, win credit for his ecumenical commitment, and once again dazzle the young. All that would give Martin a platform upon which to build.

Given this logic, a papal visit seems a live hypothesis. This week, Vatican officials were saying that if such a trip were to materialize, it would likely be either in September, or in the spring of 2005. Given the tendency not to confirm papal travel until the last moment, since it is impossible to anticipate six months in advance how the pope will be doing, we probably won't hear anything official for some time.

* * *

Last week, 44 metropolitan archbishops appointed during the last year were in Rome to receive the pallium, a band of wool with six black crosses representing their authority and connection to the pope.

One of those archbishops was Sean O'Malley, who stepped into the eye of the sexual abuse storm in the American Catholic church when he replaced Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston last July.

Things have not gotten any easier for O'Malley, who has been thrust into the middle of Massachusetts debates over gay marriage. The Boston archdiocese also announced May 25 plans to close 65 parishes, nearly one-fifth of the parishes in the archdiocese and perhaps the largest single closing of churches in American Catholic history.

On Friday, July 2, before his return to Boston on Saturday, O'Malley agreed to an interview with NCR.

I asked him if he feels the archdiocese is beginning to recover. O'Malley gave a basically optimistic response, as might be expected from the man in charge. Obviously this is his perspective, and one might get a different answer from a sex abuse victim or a reform activist.

"It's been a difficult year," O'Malley acknowledged.

"There's a lot of movement," he said. "There has been healing. People are returning to the church. They're contributing again, they're getting involved again."

"The depth of the problem is very great, and it will be a long process. The hurt will be with us for a long time," he said. "But there are signs of hope."

"All the pain and suffering of crisis, not just in Boston but across the United States, has focused Catholics on the essentials of the faith," O'Malley said. "Catholics who are serious Catholics are even more serious, more committed, because of what we have suffered."

I asked O'Malley if he felt his Capuchin background equipped him in any special way for the challenges in Boston.

"I'm sure that being a Capuchin colors the way all of us do ministry," he said. "We desire to be close to people, to be instruments of peace and reconciliation. It's a call to universal brotherhood. I'd hope that this contributes something to my ministry as a priest and bishop," he said.

He said his Capuchin instincts have influenced his outreach to victims.

"Almost every week I meet with victims and their families, to talk with them and to pray with them," he said. "Many victims were from very religious families, and so the hurt is very, very great. Many are reestablishing their relationship with the church."

I asked O'Malley about the recent appointment of Law as archpriest of St. Mary Major in Rome. It came just two days after news broke about the parish closings and triggered sharp criticism, with one editorial calling the move "bitter and callous."

"It couldn't have come at a worse time," O'Malley acknowledged.

"I don't know that people in Boston really understood it," he said. "It seemed to them like a reward. It came across as some sort of prestigious, powerful post," O'Malley said.

O'Malley said that a New York Times report May 28, suggesting that Law might receive as much as $12,000 a month in his new post, "was not helpful at all."

NCR later reported that, according to Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Law's monthly stipend will be $5,000.

O'Malley defended Law's appointment as "something given to a retired cardinal."

"It's not like being the prefect of a congregation or some important post in the Vatican," O'Malley said.

In fact, Law retains his membership in seven congregations and two councils in the Vatican, including the powerful Congregation for Bishops, positions he enjoyed well before his appointment to St. Mary Major.

O'Malley said he hopes to use the bicentennial of the Boston archdiocese in 2008 as an opportunity to "call people to spiritual renewal." To prepare for that, he said, he is currently working to set up a diocesan pastoral council.

Earlier in the week, O'Malley told Boston-area newspapers that he was frustrated with the slow pace of progress in Rome in processing the case files of priests charged with sexual abuse. He vowed to press Vatican officials to speed things up.

"I will be talking to them about the priests," O'Malley said. "The process has been very slow, and I'm very frustrated by that. The resources here are inadequate to be able to expedite the cases with the facility that we'd like to see."

O'Malley told NCR that after his Vatican meetings, he was encouraged by the openness he found to the idea of commissioning canon lawyers from the United States to help clear the logjam.

"They're overwhelmed," O'Malley said of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for processing the files.

Finally, O'Malley told NCR he was "amused" by ongoing speculation in Boston as to why he was not made a cardinal in the October 2003 consistory, in which Justin Rigali in Philadelphia received the coveted "red hat."

"I never thought I would be made an archbishop," he said. "I've told the Holy Father that I don't think Capuchins should be made bishops at all except in the missions. I'm really uncomfortable with all the hoopla."

O'Malley said that while people "can read all sorts of things" into why he was not elevated last fall, it's not unusual that archbishops in traditional cardinal's sees might have to wait before entering the College of Cardinals. He cited Cardinal James Hickey, who waited eight years after having been named archbishop of Washington in 1980, and the late Cardinal James Cushing, who was appointed archbishop of Boston in 1944 and did not become a cardinal until 1958.

Vatican sources told NCR at the time that part of the logic for not making O'Malley a cardinal more quickly was to allow him to focus on the local situation. O'Malley said that could be a factor.

"My plate is already pretty full," he said.

In the end, O'Malley said he believes Boston will pull through in part because of support from Catholics worldwide.

"Everywhere I go, people say they are praying for Boston," he said. "I believe them."

* * *

This past March the Pontifical Academy for Life sponsored a conference on "Life-Sustaining treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas," held at the Augustinianum in Rome.

Already that language is a bit out-dated, as participants in the congress insisted that calling a human being a "vegetable" is an affront to human dignity. The preferred term is "post-coma unresponsiveness."

As I noted in "The Word from Rome" at the time (see March 19), there was lively debate at the conference about whether the withdrawal of food and water from such patients could be justified. Australian Jesuit Fr. Norman Ford, a noted ethicist, was among those who contended that it could, suggesting that keeping such people alive beyond realistic hope of recovery could become a form of "indignity."

At the end of the conference, however, John Paul II delivered an address to participants in which he echoed the more hard-line position against withdrawal of food and water taken by Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Academy for Life.

In light of the pope's speech, Ford has rethought his position.

In a new paper, Ford begins by citing Fr. Maurizio Faggioni, a Franciscan bioethics expert and consultor to the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, who said the pope's position is "authoritative without being definitive."

Ford further observes that the pope said it is morally obligatory to provide food and water "to the extent in which and as long as it is seen to achieve its proper purpose." This, Ford argues, leaves some room for interpretation.

"Clearly there is scope for the responsible exercise of professional judgement by doctors and health carers to determine if patients are truly being nourished and their suffering alleviated. The pope's teaching applies in principle and does not rule out the ethical use of professional judgement by doctors should other medical contraindications arise," he wrote.

"In poor countries where food is scarce even for young babies and facilities are lacking to provide medically assisted nutrition and hydration, health professionals cannot be blamed for this tragic situation."

"Nor was his speech meant to modify the normal ethical practices of palliative care professionals for their patients as they approach imminent death," Ford wrote. "Dying patients are known to lose appetite and they should not be force-fed against their wishes. In these cases it suffices to keep dying patients comfortable, by using an intravenous drip as required and caring for their mouth hygiene, e.g., by the use of ice cubes."

Ford notes that the pope has called for positive action to ensure that the lives of such patients are not terminated by the withdrawal of food and water.

"Catholic healthcare facilities need to heed this teaching and to implement it," Ford wrote.

At the same time, however, Ford said special attention will need to be given to staff and any agents with an enduring power of attorney who find in conscience they are unable to follow papal directives.

* * *

I presume that by now most "Word from Rome" readers will have seen the letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the question of denying the Eucharist to Catholic politicians with a pro-choice stance on abortion. If not, it can be found here: The Kerry Affair: What Ratzinger Wanted from the American Bishops .

The text of the letter was published by my Italian colleague Sandro Magister in his on-line column.

In the letter, Ratzinger seems to support those bishops who have threatened to withhold communion from Catholic politicians who support "permissive abortion and euthanasia laws." It's all the more striking, then, that the American bishops in June left such measures to the discretion of individual bishops. Some will see this as "defiance" of Rome, others as legitimate pastoral application in the American context.

* * *

This news from the liturgical world:

A new Jesuit liturgical association, the International Jungmann Society for Jesuits and Liturgy, was founded last month. (Jesuit Fr. Josef Jungmann's history of the Roman Mass was a massively influential work that helped prepare the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.) The purpose of the organization is both to promote liturgical renewal within the Jesuits and to assist that renewal within the wider church.

Over 65 Jesuits and colleagues from 22 countries met at the Archdiocese of Bangkok's Baan Phu Waan Pastoral Training Centre from June 21-25 on the topic of liturgical inculturation. Major addresses were given by Indian Jesuit Michael Amaladoss and Filipino Benedictine Anscar Chupungco.

Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, an American who teaches at Rome's Gregorian University, was elected as the first president, and Br. Pierre Faure of Paris was elected vice-president/president-elect. The group plans to meet next in Latin America in 2006.

For further information, contact Jesuit Fr. John Baldovin at

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

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