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July 14, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 44

John L. Allen Jr.


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A truly international gathering of Catholic ethicists; An African perspective; The pope in Spain; Changes at the Vatican Press Office


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I'm reluctant to use the term "unprecedented" to characterize events I cover, mostly because, upon inspection, such claims almost always turn out to be hype. Yet it's really the only way to describe an international gathering of more than 400 Catholic ethicists that took place in Padua, Italy, July 8-11, which lived up to its billing as the "first international cross-cultural conference for Catholic theological ethicists."

I've attended any number of theological congresses over the years styled as "international," which usually means a slew of Europeans and North Americans, and a smattering of people from other parts of the globe. What happened in Padua, on the other hand, really was something of a microcosm of the global church, with dozens of leading thinkers from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania mixing with their opposite numbers from the north.

The conference, titled "Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church," was the brainchild of Jesuit Fr. James Keenan from Boston College. Keenan spearheaded efforts to raise $450,000, in order to cover the airfare and lodging of some 140 theologians from Eastern Europe and the global south. A total of 420 people took part, from 63 countries. (The conference web site is here:

The result was the most culturally diverse gathering of Catholic theologians in recent memory, and maybe ever.

Held at the Collegio Antonianum in Padua, the conference was a sprawling event, with scores of sessions on specific ethical concerns, along with major panels on the challenges facing each of the continents. Over four days, a bewildering welter of discussions ensued. Most participants said that the chance to hear the experiences of theologians from around the world was among the most valuable aspects of the experience.

"So much of our conversation as theologians is about what comes from Rome, because that's what we have in common," said Lisa Sowle Cahill, a distinguished American feminist theologian at Boston College.

"The wonderful thing here is that we're sharing experiences from around the world, so it becomes local churches talking to local churches," Cahill said.

A sampling of voices from the global south:

  • Redemptorist Fr. Vimal Tirimanna of Sri Lanka discussed the joint efforts of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Muslims to oppose stringent anti-conversion laws recently floated in his country under the pressure of what he called "religious extremists." Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist nation that has fought a long-running Hindu rebellion in the south, leading to an upsurge in Buddhist nationalism; the government even has a "Minister of Buddhist Affairs." Rumors of proselytism by Christians in recent years have led to attacks on Christian churches by angry Buddhist mobs. Tirimanna said promoting dialogue across confessional lines is an urgent task in this culture.
  • Fr. Emmanuel Katongole of Uganda warned against "over-confidence" surrounding anti-retroviral drugs as a solution to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Katongole argued that the AIDS epidemic reveals that "something is sick and sickening in Africa's modern ways of living, playing and working," and that fascination with "miraculous medicines" could obscure what he called this "ugly truth," making it seem as if deep structural and cultural problems can be solved with a simple drug cocktail. For example, Katongole said, many Africans have no access to safe water with which to take the medicine, no watches to keep them on a schedule, no place to store the drugs, and no food so that they won't vomit up medicines on an empty stomach. Until such problems are addressed, he suggested, the provision of anti-retrovirals will not affect the underlying crisis.
  • Salesian Fr. Ronaldo Zacharias of Brazil explained that given the explosive social conditions in the mega-cities of his country, the rich are increasingly fleeing into the countryside, constructing their own "paradises." The resulting decline in civil society in major urban areas has opened the door to organized crime, which Zacharias said sometimes exercises greater real power in the cities than the elected authorities. He described the country's political class as largely a refuge of "robbers and thieves."
  • Elisee Rutagambwa, a Rwandan theologian writing his dissertation at Boston College, addressed the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which left one million people dead in just 100 days - the most rapid genocide in human history, a rate of killing three and one-half times faster than the Nazi extermination of the Jews during the Second World War. Rutagambwa said the Rwandan genocide was especially tragic because it was preventable. There were U.N. resolutions in force, as well as a UN peace-keeping team on the ground. The fact that people could have been saved, he said, is illustrated by the fact that an internationally-organized evacuation effort succeeded in extricating Westerners, "including their cats and dogs," while leaving Rwandans to fend for themselves. Rutagambwa also described the failure of post-genocide efforts at reconciliation, including the cruel irony that perpetrators of the crimes who are currently detained by the International Criminal Court for Rwanda have decent housing, eat three times a day, and receive Western-style health care, including anti-retroviral medications for those who are HIV-positive, while the victims have largely returned to the poverty and benign neglect that they suffered prior to the outbreak of violence.
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Faced with such a spread of perspectives, it's always hazardous to try to boil things down to a few generalizations or broad conclusions.

One observation that seems safe, however, is that in the eternal Catholic tension between a theological focus ad intra, meaning on the church's internal life, and ad extra, meaning engagement with the broader world, the needle at Padua clearly swung in the ad extra direction. Most speakers seemed concerned with bringing the tradition of Catholic moral reflection to bear on issues such as globalization and economic justice, HIV/AIDS, armed conflict and genocide, violence and discrimination against women, and assaults on human life in various forms.

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While Padua had its fair share of grumbling about the bishops and about Rome, theologians from Europe and North America seemed more likely to make this into an explicit focus of theological debate. Generally speaking, theologians from the south were less likely to go down that path, whatever their opinions on the issues may have been.

One moment captured the difference.

Tuesday afternoon, the conference had a panel on North America, which featured strong presentations from Jesuit Fr. David Hollenbach of Boston College and Jean Porter of Notre Dame. Both urged American Catholics to engage justice questions, and both argued the church is hampered from doing so by internal problems. Hollenbach criticized what he sees as a tendency to "absolutize" sexuality and reproduction over questions such as war and the death penalty, and chastised appeals from what he called a "small number" of bishops and theologians to "allegedly timeless prohibitions." Porter said that the church can't preach democracy and the rule of law to the secular world when "structures and practices of the Roman Catholic Church" are inconsistent with these ideals, including what she called an "authoritarian, top-down church government, culminating in the papacy itself."

The comments galvanized responses from other European and American theologians in the audience, who wanted to talk about a "climate of fear" in the church and what might be done about it.

When a female participant from Kenya took the floor, however, her question picked up on comments from Canadian theologian Kenneth Melchin, the third member of the panel, about usury. She wanted to know how that might relate to the African problem of "payday loans," meaning small loans given to people against their next paycheck, often at exorbitant rates of interest. She said it's a "micro" version of the unjust lending practices that created the international debt crisis.

The point is not that the Kenyan speaker agreed or disagreed with the case for church reform, but that her mind was somewhere else.

To be clear, this southern focus on ad extra concerns, at least as far as most in Padua were concerned, was not about an option for "orthopraxis" over "orthodoxy," as if doctrine is no longer important, or that doctrinal claims have to be judged by their capacity to bring about social change, as some strains of Latin American liberation theology used to insist. In fact, some Africans and Eastern Europeans in Padua expressed doctrinal views that, by the standards of northern theological debate, could seem quite "conservative," especially on sexual ethics. http://johnallen.ncrcafe.orgJoin the Conversation
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The dynamic did not seem to be about setting up some tension between doctrinal fidelity and social engagement. Rather, it was a question of what one emphasizes, where the accent falls. For many in the south, the burning pastoral realities of poverty, violence, and social exclusion seemed to command the lion's share of their imagination.

Since two-thirds of the 1.1 billion Roman Catholics in the world today live in the global south, the gathering in Padua may provide an intriguing hint about what the coming "southern moment" in Catholicism will look like - more focused on changing the world, and correspondingly less on changing the church.

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To unpack some of this, I sat down with Fr. John Mary Waliggo of Uganda, a widely influential African theologian and currently a member of his country's human rights commission. Waliggo is an enormously appealing figure, with a ready smile, an infectious laugh, and a salty tongue. In Padua, he led a group of Africans who decided to create a steering committee for a new society of African ethicists.

How can Africa influence the global church?
For one thing, missionary congregations today come to Africa and recruit, so they have many African members. If you really looked into it, you'd find the percentages are enormous. There are also many other Africans priests and sisters serving abroad in various places. Right now, the local church in Africa usually has no idea who these people are or what they're doing, it has no contact with them. I think a critical moment will come when these Africans begin to connect with one another, to form a network, to become aware of the voice they already have.

What will they use that voice to say to the rest of the church?
First, racism will be challenged.

Second, Africans can stimulate theological development. Theology in Europe and North America is not creative enough anymore, and so they get renewed when they read theology from India, from South Korea, from Africa. Our theology is a little bit more dynamic.

For example, we have much to say about inculturation, offering new models for theological reflection … Jesus as proto-ancestor, the idea of the dead living among us, the emphasis on active participation by all in the community. There's also African liberation theology, which includes African feminism. It's a theology that departs from injustices to Africans and by Africans. It keeps the government dancing, because they don't quite know what to do with it.

There's the theology of remembering. We Africans have our own Exodus story in the form of the slave trade, which is a story we must always remember. The past is part of us, it's a big instrument in forming our future. We also do a very historical sort of theology, such as what we should learn from the Rwandan genocide. If you forget this sort of thing, you are naïve.

Our theological style is very concerned with narrative, expressing teachings in story. Our people listen better when you give them a story. This means using local expressions and rituals, linking the gospel to their story. Everything is brought into the story, the animals, the plants, the whole environment. It's a way of doing theology that's almost dead in the West, but it's very Biblical.

As Africans move around the rest of the church, they will carry this way of thinking and teaching with them. If I'm called to Munich or somewhere else, I won't stop my way of doing things.

What else is a distinctive contribution of African Catholicism?
We have refused to leave our cultures and traditions behind. We believe that the old wine and the new wine must be mixed together. Jesus did not come to destroy, but to create. Christianity is in general something additional to what the people already believe, not its complete replacement.

What do you think when you see Catholics in the north discussing matters such as whether the correct response should be "and also with you" or "and also with your spirit?" Is it a priority for you?
Look, I was part of the fight to get rid of Idi Amin, when my country was bleeding. I went into exile for five years, but we finally got rid of him. I wrote four books on the political education of our people. I came back, and fought against [Milton] Obote, who was no better than Amin. I had to go into exile again, to Kenya, but we got rid of him too in 1986.

I then became the General Secretary for writing the new Ugandan Constitution. We went up to all the villages to consult the people, including women, people with disabilities, everybody. It took six years to do it, but in the end the constitution is full of Catholic social teaching.

I'm now a commissioner on the Human Rights Commission. I visit the jails, and if I say so, I can get somebody released within 48 hours. The idea is to be sure that people aren't just tossed in jail and never heard from again.

This isn't just me. The chair of the AIDS commission in Uganda, for example, is a Catholic bishop.

We believe that theology must be relevant. It has to contribute to the constitutions, laws, and policies of the country. We see our role as social change agents, as people who work and unite themselves with the poor who are struggling. We do theology for them, to help them to have life to the full.

What sort of question does interest you?
To me, the important questions are, 'How are your kids fed?' 'How do you get along with your Muslim neighbors?' I don't invent the questions, I find them in the community.

Is it true that Africans are more traditional on sexual morality?
Yes, it is true. There's a basic cultural value in our heritage in which sexuality is sacred and respected. We talk about it in very clear terms. Things such as homosexuality are not just seen as sins, but as perversions. They're seen as hideous, they make you an outcast from your clan and village. If a man impregnates his sister, or if he has sex with another man, this is a kind of social sin which people believe will bring misery on the entire village, so he'd better just go away. This is what the people believe, and [as a theologian] you can't isolate yourself from society.

The presence of Muslims is also very important. If you're a homosexual, they come to stone you. Those who practice traditional African religions would stone you too. The Catholics isolate you. If everyone agrees to that, who are we to reject it?

We've had too much armchair theology in the church. We want to be synthesizers and prophets of the people.

Do you think there will be a rupture in Catholicism on these issues, as in the Anglican Communion?
If it's pushed, it would be a big split. But the church generally tries to avoid sensitive issues which simply divide it, and I don't think it will come out "soft" on homosexuality.

What about abortion?
I identify with the victims of suffering, and no one is more speechless, more voiceless, more silent, than the unborn child. To me, it's like defending the blind. If I see someone attacking a blind person, I will beat him with a stick. This is my attitude to attacks on an unborn child too.

So by Western standards, your views are in some ways quite "liberal," in other ways "conservative."
I suppose you always fit 50 percent. But in the end, we remain accountable to our people. We don't want to be like our dictators, pursuing their own ideas and their own interests.

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Benedict XVI's July 8-9 trip to Valencia, Spain, offered a classic illustration of the dilemma facing popes when it comes to secular politics, an arena in which they are almost literally damned if they do, damned if they don't. If they take a stand, they risk being accused of interference in the secular sphere; if they don't, critics will complain about their silence.

The solution modern popes have embraced is to speak in generalities that usually leave little doubt as to their mind, but avoiding direct statements about particular politicians, governments, or debates. That's just what Benedict did during his brief, 26-hour trip to Valencia, Spain, for the close of the fifth Vatican-sponsored "World Meeting of Families."

Media interest was fueled by a showdown between Benedict and the Socialist Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose full-court press in favor of gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, divorce, and a wide variety of other issues has created church/state tensions not seen since the Spanish Civil War.

Benedict XVI did not mince words in articulating the church's traditional vision of the family and of human sexuality.

"Attempts are being made to organize the life of society on the basis of subjective and ephemeral desires alone, with no reference to objective, prior truths such as the dignity of each human being and his inalienable rights and duties, which every social group is called to serve," the pope said in a Sunday morning Mass attended by one and a half million people.

In a similar vein, Benedict exhorted the Spanish bishops to "dauntlessly proclaim that prescinding from God, acting as if he did not exist or relegating faith to the purely private sphere, undermines the truth about man and compromises the future of culture and society."

Such language induced some observers to see Benedict's trip largely as an anti-Zapatero protest. Crowd reaction fueled that impression, since whenever Zapatero made an appearance, he drew lusty "boos" and acerbic chants. (One example: Banners were hung in Valencia in the days leading up to Benedict's arrival saying "We're waiting for you." When Zapatero arrived at the archbishop's palace for his meeting with the pope, the crowd began to shout, "Zapatero, we're not waiting for you!")

Yet Benedict is also an instinctively gracious figure, who was never going to engage in the sort of verbal fisticuffs many expected.

The pope met not only with Zapatero but also with his top deputy, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, and both sides later described the encounter as friendly and productive. Indeed, Spanish sources told NCR that after his chat with Fernández de la Vega, the pope told her that he felt church/state relations in Spain are "in good hands."

Benedict also resisted the temptation to "go negative," ducking invitations to specifically excoriate Zapatero's policies. Asked by reporters on the papal plane about the gay marriage law, for example, Benedict said he didn't want to start off with negative things, but preferred to focus on the many healthy and happy families "which give us hope for the future," before going on to restate that marriage is based on an indissoluble bond between a man and a woman.

Beyond disagreements with Zapatero, the pope also realized there's business to be done in other areas.

Spanish sources told NCR that negotiations between Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera of Toledo, representing the Spanish bishops, and Fernández de la Vega seem to be making progress on two especially thorny issues: the question of teaching religion in public schools, and of public funding for church activities.

Benedict did not want to engage in rhetorical fireworks that might disrupt those talks, or shut down the possibility of future conversation on other matters.

The price of such a balancing act is that it leaves partisans on both sides unsatisfied. Those sympathetic to Zapatero resented what they saw as an overtly political tone to the trip, while the Prime Minister's most dogged Catholic critics wished the pope would have more publicly taken him to the woodshed.

Yet most Spaniards with whom I spoke seemed to feel Benedict had made his point.

"In my opinion, the pope was very direct, very clear," said Maria Mendez, 44, a mother of eight who told NCR she had traveled from Madrid in part "to support the pope."

"He didn't need to mention Zapatero by name," Mendez said.

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Such analysis risks the impression that Benedict's agenda in Valencia was basically political, when the pope sees himself far more as a pastor and a catechist than a politician. His primary message was not a call to barricades against the Socialists, but rather that the traditional Christian conception of the family is the best path to human flourishing.

"Lifting one's gaze to the living God, the garantor of our freedom and of truth, is a premise for arriving at a new humanity," he said in the Valencia cathedral.

In a "Festival of Families" Saturday night, he returned to the theme.

"We have gathered here from so many parts of the world as a community which with gratitude and joy bears witness that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God for love, and that complete human fulfillment only comes about when we make a sincere gift of ourselves to others," he said.

The heart of Benedict's argument was expressed in this paragraph from his Saturday text.

"Christian faith and ethics are not meant to stifle love, but to make it healthier, stronger and more truly free," he said. "Human love needs to be purified and to mature if it is to be fully human and the principle of a true and lasting joy."

At what one might call the "retail" pastoral level, Benedict was concerned with broadening the conception of the family beyond the nuclear unit of parents and children, giving attention especially to the role of grandparents.

In his remarks Saturday night, Pope Benedict included a special appeal for grandparents, urging that "in no way should they ever be excluded from the family circle."

Before the pope spoke, a series of families from different parts of the world offered brief "testimonies." Italian actor Lino Banfi, best known for his role as a grandfather in the popular series Un Medico in Famiglia, told Benedict that some people call the actor "Italy's grandfather."

Banfi said that he responds, "If I'm the grandfather of Italy, then our pope is the grandfather of the world!"

During Sunday's Mass, Benedict returned to the theme, insisting that families must be understood as including "not only parents and children, but also grandparents and ancestors."

"The family thus appears to us as a community of generations and the guarantee of a patrimony of traditions," the pope said.

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The Vatican announced Tuesday that the longtime Director of the Holy See Press Office, Spanish layman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, has been replaced by Jesuit Fr. Federcio Lombardi, the head of both Vatican Radio and Vatican Television.

Lombardi will hold onto those jobs while he steps into the Press Office.

An assessment of Navarro-Valls' legacy, including his contribution to the pontificate of John Paul II and to the media sophistication of the Vatican, will have to await a future column.

For the moment, it's worth noting that one of the most frequent complaints from cardinals and others in recent years about the Vatican's communications operation is that there are too many separate fiefdoms, often speaking independently of one another: Vatican Radio, Vatican Television, the Press Office, L'Osservatore Romano, and so on.

With Lombardi's appointment, most of these organs are now under a single leader.

One intriguing question is whether this marks the completion of the long-awaited "consolidation" of the communications operation, or if another shoe is waiting to drop, perhaps in a reform or reconsolidation of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, led by American Archbishop John Foley. Sources told NCR this week that it's not yet clear what, if anything, might happen on that front.

While Lombardi is well-known and well-regarded in Rome, there's little question he will be a more behind-the-scenes figure than Navarro-Valls, who was the public face of the Vatican for most of John Paul's papacy, commanding a higher media profile than most cardinals.

The appointment also means a return to having a priest in charge of the communications operation, rather than a lay person who comes out of professional journalism. All this suggests that the Press Office may not play the central role under Benedict XVI that it did under John Paul II.

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Of course, the question of the church and the media is broader than who runs the Vatican Press Office. There's much creative work out there, one example of which is a nascent Catholic television network in Canada, "Salt + Light TV."

Run by Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, who was the chief executive for World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, the network has just issued two new documentaries, both of which air in July: "Opus Dei: Decoding God's Work," and "The Saints: Gospel Artists."

In the interests of full disclosure, I was interviewed for the first production, and played a minor role in a Roman event which forms part of the second. That aside, the documentaries represent interesting attempts to produce church-related TV that has an evangelical dimension, but that's also competitive in the marketplace of secular communications.

Information is available at the network's web site:

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

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