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July 21, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 46

John L. Allen Jr.

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Church leaders on the Middle East Crisis: Wenski, Lajolo, Sodano, the pope, and others; Embryonic stem cell research in Europe; Some odds and ends


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This week saw some extraordinary engagement from the Catholic church on the crisis in Lebanon. The Holy See joined a 15-nation summit in Rome and the spokesman for the U.S. bishops on international policy, Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, was outspoken on the crisis in an exclusive interview with NCR.

One thing that has become clear is a deep, and growing, division of opinion between the church and the Bush administration (in addition to the Israelis) over the wisdom of an immediate cease-fire.

The White House believes that simply freezing things in place now would allow Hezbollah time to regroup, all but ensuring that any truce would be temporary, and that the all-too-familiar cycle of terrorist attacks followed by Israeli responses would continue. Opposition from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blocked a call for a cease-fire in Rome; she argued the situation cannot return to the status quo ante.

Catholic leaders, on the other hand, have argued that no lasting peace can emerge from violence, and therefore the first order of business must be to prevent further bloodshed. Calls for an immediate cease-fire have come from the Vatican’s top diplomat, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, and from Wenski in the name of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Policy.

Wenski elaborated on his position in the NCR interview, insisting that "the more people who are killed, the more the fighting escalates, the more infrastructure is destroyed, the more difficult it becomes for all sides to find common ground to negotiate."

"That’s why the cease-fire is so important," Wenski said. "It would allow us to take a deep breath, to let reason direct policy rather than reactions of anger to hurts old or new."

Analysts say the current stand-off between the United States and the church bears striking parallels to the diplomatic impasse over the U.S.-led Iraq war in 2003.

My news story on the response from church leaders is on

The full text of the Wenski interview is in the Special Documents section of

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The Vatican took part as an observer in the International Conference for Lebanon held in Rome on Wednesday, sending a three-member delegation led by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Secretary for Relations with States. Two officials from the Secretariat of State accompanied him, Monsignors Franco Coppola and Alberto Ortega Martin.

Both Coppola and Ortega Martin are veterans of the tortured politics of the Middle East.

Coppola was the chief advisor to Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, former president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, during a February 2003 mission to Baghdad in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to avert the U.S.-led invasion. When then- Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi visited John Paul II in 2004, Coppola was again part of the Vatican’s team. Ortega Martin, meanwhile, served in the Holy See’s embassy in Lebanon, in Harissa, which is the See of the Maronite Christian Patriarch.

On Thursday, the Vatican Press Office released the text of a Vatican Radio interview with Lajolo about the Rome Summit.

What’s your evaluation of the conference?
It was certainly positive that it was convened so quickly by an initiative of the Italian government, and that it concentrated its attention on the most urgent themes of the moment.

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Its conclusions were, however, seen as rather disappointing. What’s your opinion?
Certainly, public expectations were rather high, but for those involved in the work who know its difficulties, one can perhaps says that the results are admirable. I’d like to point out above all four positive aspects:

  1. The fact that countries from different parts of the world, from Canada to Russia, came together in awareness of the gravity of what’s happening in Lebanon, reaffirming the necessity that it recover as quickly as possible its full sovereignty, and committed themselves to giving it help;
  2. The request that an international force be formed, under a mandate of the United Nations, that can support the regular Lebanese forces in matters of security;
  3. The commitment for immediate humanitarian aid to the people of Lebanon, and the assurance of support for reconstruction, with the convocation of a Donors’ Conference. Various participating countries have already set aside substantial assistance, but it’s still insufficient to cover the enormous needs of the country;
  4. The commitment among participants, after the official closure of the conference, to remain in continual contact regarding ongoing developments that the intervention of the international community in Lebanon will have.

What created the impression of disappointment?
Above all, the fact that an immediate end to hostilities was not requested. Unanimity among participants was not reached because some countries believed the appeal would not have the desired effect, and that it’s more realistic to express a commitment to obtaining as quickly as possible an end to hostilities, a commitment that can in fact be maintained.

It’s also problematic that [the summit] limited itself solely to inviting Israel to exercise the maximum moderation: such an invitation carries by its very nature a certain ambiguity, but concern for the innocent civilian population is a precise and uncompromising duty.

What was the evaluation of the Lebanese government?
On the one hand, [Lebanese] Prime Minister [Fouad] Siniora had the opportunity to outline the dramatic character of the situation facing the country, and he presented his plan for the immediate and definitive resolution of the conflict with Israel; on the other, he was able to note, and ultimately to encourage, the positive efforts the international community is making for bringing relief to the Lebanese people, for putting an end to the hostilities, and for reinforcing the control of his government over his country.

Yesterday afternoon Prime Minister Siniora, accompanied by [Lebanese] Foreign Minister [Fawzi] Salloukh, asked for a meeting with Cardinal Sodano and with me. He expressed great appreciation for the commitment with which the Holy Father personally, and the Holy See, are following the conflict that has gripped Lebanon, and beseeched us to continue to support his country in the international arena. He recalled the words of Pope John Paul II, who defined Lebanon not merely as a country but as a "message," for all peoples, of balanced coexistence among different religions and confessions in the same state. This, certainly, is the historical vocation of Lebanon, which it must be able to realize. The Holy See will continue to use all the means at its disposition so that the country returns to being that "garden" of the Middle East that it was before.

In your capacity as an observer, were you able to influence the work of the Summit?
The observers did not have the right to speak, and I was not asked to do so. I believe, however, that even the silent presence of the Holy See as an observer at the table of the Heads of Delegations had meaning, which was clearly perceptible.

After the Summit, what’s the position of the Holy See?
The Holy See remains in favor of an immediate suspension of hostilities. The problems on the table are multiple and extremely complex. Precisely for this reason, they cannot be confronted all at once: while keeping in mind the broader context and the global solution to be reached, it’s necessary to resolve the problems one by one, beginning with those that can be solved right away. The position of those who believe that conditions first have to be created so that a truce is not violated again reflects only a superficial realism, because those conditions can only be, and must be, created with means other than the killing of innocent persons. The pope is close to those populations which are victims of strife and of a conflict to which they are strangers. Benedict XVI prays, and all the church with him, that the day of peace will be today and not tomorrow. He prays to God and supplicates the responsible political leaders. The pope weeps with every mother who mourns her children, with every person who weeps for their loved ones. An immediate end to hostilities is possible, and therefore obligatory.

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Apparently unfazed by criticism that his comments "deploring" the Israeli incursion into Lebanon amounted to a form of moral equivalence between terrorism and legitimate self-defense, Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano continued to speak out this week.

In an interview with the Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana, Sodano said that an international force for Lebanon, an idea embraced by Wednesday’s Rome summit, "could be opportune," but only on the condition that it have "the necessary instruments to intervene."

"The recent history of some of these U.N. forces is not encouraging," Sodano said. "It’s enough to think of the lethargy of these forces in some painful situations in the Balkans, in Africa, or in Haiti or East Timor. Still today there’s a U.N. force, Unifil, between Lebanon and Israel, but it was not able to stop the current conflict."

"What is needed," Sodano said, "is the will to peace on the part of governments and the governed. For this reason the church, and in particular the Holy See, will never tire of inviting the parties to dialogue, in order to find paths of understanding and reconciliation."

Sodano said it’s a duty for Christians "to stop the inhumanity of war, as a true degeneration of humanity."

The cardinal acknowledged that "the right to a legitimate self-defense cannot be denied to states." At the same time, however, Sodano said the "ius in bello," meaning the law of rightful conduct of a war, "must be remembered … above all for not drawing innocent civilians" into the conflict.

"Humanitarian law is a conquest of our civilization, and it may never be violated," he said.

Responding to criticism that his earlier comments were unfair to Israel, Sodano said that the line of the Vatican "in all the conflicts of the past century, and in those at the beginning of this one, has always been that of favoring the arguments for peace. It’s a line that sometimes can displease one or another of the belligerent parties, but it is born from the desire to be faithful to the mission in the world that Christ entrusted to the church."

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Reaction to Sodano’s initial take on the conflict continued to roll in this week.

Catholic writer Joseph Bottum, in The Weekly Standard, said Sodano’s denunciation of Israel reflected a cynical political calculus he finds all too common in Vatican statements on the Middle East: "Supporting Israel risked the murder of Christians in Islamic countries; supporting the Arabs risked a stern note from the Israeli ambassador," he wrote.

Meanwhile, Italian Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University and a close advisor to Benedict XVI, published an opinion piece in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most prestigious daily newspaper, on July 22 that read a bit like a "correction" of Sodano’s line, in the form of an interpretation of Benedict’s comments on the conflict to date.

"Between the act of self-defense to which every government is obliged in order to protect its citizens, and the attack of terrorist groups of various stripes with the common denominator of refusing to recognize Israel, the voice of the pope was in favor of the Jewish people," Fisichella wrote.

"From this point of view, there’s no sede vacante, and for anyone with eyes to see or ears to hear, the voice of Benedict XVI has been, from the very beginning, clear and unequivocal," Fisichella wrote.

"The Jewish people necessarily must live together with the Palestinians and the Lebanese, in the maturity of the democratic process that the nations have acquired, but it must be equally clear that situations of collaboration with any terrorist group cannot be permitted," he said.

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Faced with violence such as that in Lebanon, in which religious differences play a significant role, one temptation for believers is to retreat into a kind of vague humanitarian language, soft-pedaling any confessional approach for fear of making things worse. Some believers worry that striking spiritual notes while the world burns flirts with naiveté; as Woody Allen once put it, if there really is a God, the best that can be said of him is that he’s an under-achiever.

Benedict XVI understands all this. Yet at bottom, he does not buy the premise that a time of crisis should imply a gag order on the gospel. On the contrary, he believes, only its message is capable of offering the world a different path.

His comments during his homily on Sunday, July 23, the day he set aside for prayer and penance for Lebanon, are eloquent testimony of the point.

The pope said:

… Today in a multi-cultural and multi-religious world, many are tempted to say: "It’s better for peace in the world among the religions and the cultures not to speak too much of the specificity of Christianity, that is, of Jesus, of the church, of the sacraments. Let’s be content with those things which can be more or less universal …" But it’s not true. Precisely in this moment -- in a moment of great abuse of the name of God -- we need the God who triumphs on the Cross, who wins not with violence but with his love. Precisely in this moment we need the face of Christ, to know the true face of God and thereby to carry reconciliation and light to this world. Thus together with love, with the message of love, with all that we can do for the suffering of this world, we must also carry the witness of this God, of the victory of God precisely through the non-violence of his Cross.

Let’s return to where we began. What we can do is to render the witness of love, the witness of faith; above all we can raise a cry to God: we can pray! We are sure that our Father hears the cry of his children. In the Mass, preparing ourselves for Holy Communion, to receive the Body of Christ that unites us, we pray with the church: "Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and give us peace in our day." Let this be the prayer of the church in this moment: "Deliver us from every evil and give us peace." Not tomorrow or the day after: Lord, peace today! Amen.

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As a sidebar to the humanitarian mobilization for Lebanon, the German-based Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, released a statement on July 25 saying the number of families affected by the ongoing military clashes to be more than 100,000. The charity said many of these families are taking refuge in Catholic convents and other church buildings.

Melkite Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour of Akka, Haifa, Nazareth and all of Galilee issued a separate statement saying that Arab Christians in northern Israel have been especially hard-hit by the current round of violence. Many do not have bomb shelters, he said, cannot take refuge in Haifa or other large Israeli cities as easily as Jews, and are denied certain kinds of compensation by the Israeli government.

"I never imagined that a day will come that I have to make an appeal, a kind of SOS for us Christians in Galilee. We wish to wipe away the tears of the children and parents in these difficult times," Chacour said.

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The crisis in Lebanon, driven in significant measure by jihadist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, is also a reminder of the importance of dialogue between the West and the Islamic world.

Recent days, however, have brought fresh reminders of the challenges that dialogue poses.

In Turkey, the Apostolic Vicar for Anatolia, Capuchin Bishop Luigi Padovese, has complained about a drumbeat of anti-Christian commentary in the Turkish press, some focused on Benedict XVI’s projected late November visit to Istanbul for a meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew.

Padovese referred to newspaper reports calling on the Holy Father not to pray while visiting the Hagia Sophia, one of Christendom’s greatest achievements -- a vast cathedral that was turned into a mosque before becoming a museum.

"The newspaper reports were saying that the pope should remember Hagia Sophia is now a museum, not a place of worship," Padovese said. "They say they will be very critical of him if he starts praying there."

In Australia, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney in recent weeks has openly expressed concern with what he sees as tendencies towards violence and extremism in the Quran, the sacred scripture of Islam. One place he voiced those concerns was in this space: June 6, 2006

In response, the president of the Islamic Information and Services Network in Australia, Abu Hamza, has called Pell a "clown" and alleged that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, was full of murder and seemed to condone rape.

"This ignorant man does not know Christianity, let alone Islam," Hamza said in a sermon.

From Rome, Pell replied: "I am not sure how much Mr. Hamza’s comments improve the situation, but there are no teachings of Jesus, unlike Mohammed, which advocate violence against followers of other religions."

All this is a reminder of how complex, and potentially explosive, things can become when dialogue between Christians and Muslims moves beyond the "tea and cookies" stage and gets down to brass tacks.

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Embryonic stem cell research is shaping up as a critical "wedge issue" in American politics this November, and it’s no less volatile in Europe, where the European Parliament recently approved a measure theoretically liberalizing such research, but with enough unanswered questions to make its impact as yet unclear.

Foreign ministers from E.U. nations approved a motion in Brussels this week that finances embryonic stem cell research for the period 2007-2013, over strong opposition from staunchly Catholic nations such as Poland and Malta.

The official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, editorialized on July 26 that the move is "a macabre product of a badly understood sense of progress."

The bill, however, has two strings attached: first, the funding cannot be used for research to clone human beings; second, embryos cannot be created for the purpose of being destroyed for research.

According to its promoters, the result means that only already-existing "surplus" embryos generated as part of artificial fertility procedures, which would otherwise be destroyed, can be used for EU-funded research.

The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, however, suggested that the distinction is largely cosmetic, arguing that it still involves the E.U. in an "illicit commerce" in embryos. The official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, L’Avvenire said the result is "poisoned by hypocrisy," and suggested that it will open the door to wider trade in embryos.

The Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community issued a statement asserting that "the instrumentalization of embryos for the ends of research, which is to say their destruction, is not acceptable," and said the issue is a question of "the defense of human dignity."

The outcome in the E.U. was hardly unanimous; while Italy, Luxembourg and Slovenia dropped their objections once a restriction to existing stem cell lines was added, Poland, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and Austria refused to sign the agreement, insisting that no such research will be carried out within their borders regardless of the availability of E.U. funds.

"My government, my parliament, my public opinion and my own conscience oblige me to reject the proposal," said Polish Foreign Minister Michal Sewerynski.

The E.U. also struggled with the question of a "cut-off date," meaning a period of time after which embryonic stem cells can be declared no longer viable for implantation and hence available for research. In the end, ministers seemed inclined to create a panel of scientists and experts to consider the issue, but no decision was taken.

Italy’s center-left government initially opposed the measure but eventually signed on, citing its restrictive nature. Even so, critics called upon Catholic members of the center-left coalition to rebel, hoping that prominent Catholics such as Paola Binetti, a senator and Opus Dei member, would press the government to fall back in line with Poland and the other European nations backing an absolute ban.

With the most recent continent-wide polls showing 59 percent support for embryonic stem cell research, positions seem to be hardening on both sides. Influential Catholic leaders in Poland, Italy and elsewhere are privately voicing the hope that Benedict XVI will rally his troops on the issue with a public, and pointed, intervention in the European debate.

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On the margins of Benedict XVI’s Angelus address on Sunday, outgoing director of the Vatican Press Office Joaquin Navarro-Valls gave a live interview to the main Italian television news broadcast Tg1, speaking about the pope’s new Secretary of State, Salesian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa.

Bertone takes over on Sept. 15, replacing Sodano.

"I see in the new secretary of state three new characteristics," Navarro-Valls said.

"First, he’s an academic," Navarro-Valles said, referring to Bertone’s background as a professor and administrator at both the Salesian University in Rome and also the Lateran University.

"Second, he’s a person who knows how to make decisions, and third, he has a great sense of humor."

All three characteristics, Navarro-Valls said, "don’t seem to me insignificant for a new secretary of state."

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The archbishop of Bucaramanga in Colombia, Juan Vicente Córdoba, told reporters this week that the Colombian bishops have asked Pope Benedict XVI to visit the country. The visit would be in conjunction with the pope’s projected May 2007 trip to Brazil for a meeting of CELAM, the umbrella organization of Latin American bishops’ conferences.

The purpose of the visit, according to Córdoba, would be to promote peace and reconciliation in Colombia, where internal conflict has claimed more than 35,000 lives since 1990. Large sections of the country are under the control of guerilla movements or para-military organizations, in some cases linked to narcotics traffickers.

If the trip materializes, it would mark Joseph Ratzinger’s fourth visit to Colombia. His first came in 1972, as a young theologian, to lead seminars for clergy and laity on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He visited again in 1982 and 1988 as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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According to press reports in Chile, a well-known priest of the Don Orione Fathers has been found guilty by a criminal court of the sexual abuse of two minors aged 13 and 17, who, according to court documents, suffered from severe mental disabilities.

News reports indicate that the finding against Fr. Jorge Enrique Galaz Espinoza will be formally published Aug. 11. Prosecutors have asked for a prison sentence of 15-20 years.

The case comes on the heels of the June 29 sentencing of another Chilean priest, Fr. Antonio Larraín Pérez-Cotapos, to 300 days in a military prison for the sexual abuse of a nine-year-old female student at the Colegio María Auxiliadora school.

Galaz Espinoza, 43, is the former director of a Chilean charitable organization called Hogar Pequeño Cottolengo. He has maintained his innocence, telling the court, "I am not guilty of any of the acts imputed to me."

His lawyers suggested the accusations against Galaz Espinoza may have come from a small group of disgruntled employees unhappy with the positions he assigned them. The Don Orione Fathers in Chile have supported Galaz Espinoza.

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