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August 5, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 43

John L. Allen Jr.


Follow up news: Schönborn and evolution, Vatican-Israeli diplomacy; Diverse views of Benedict's first 100 days; Lessons in leadership from John Paul II


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Two weeks ago, I reported on reaction to a July 7 op/ed piece in The New York Times by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, in which the cardinal argued that evolution, understood as an unguided, random process, is incompatible with the Catholic faith.

No doubt as Schönborn intended, the article generated wide debate. To some scientists, who had been impressed with Pope John Paul II's 1996 statement that evolution is "more than a hypothesis," the Schönborn piece seemed a step back.

For example, Sir Martin Rees, an eminent British astronomer and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science, told me July 22: "I was dismayed by the content and tone of the article by Cardinal Schönborn. I very much hope that the Pontifical Academy can dissociate itself from such sentiments."

Other observers, however, were gratified by Schönborn's piece, given that evolution has often been used to justify atheism, immanentism and Deism -- all inimical to orthodox Christianity.

Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, a Catholic and author of Darwin's Black Box, one of the leading challenges to evolution on scientific grounds, told me: "It seems to me that the cardinal said pretty much everything that needed to be said."

John Allen greets Pope Benedict XVI July 7. Allen was in the press pool to cover the visit to the Holy See of Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who was received by Benedict in the papal library.
I quoted scientists and theologians who argued that in thinking about the church and evolution, it's important to distinguish between scientific language and philosophical/theological language. Properly speaking, when a scientist refers to evolution as "random," it means that empirically, evolution's outcome is unpredictable; for a philosopher, however, "random" may mean "without purpose or design."

The church, many of these experts said, can accept the former but certainly not the latter.

In that regard, some Catholic observers pointed to a 2004 document of the International Theological Commission, the main advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, titled "Communion and Stewardship." Paragraph 69 of the document treats the distinctions among different meanings of words such as "unguided" and "random."

Scientists debate, the paragraph said, whether life's development is best explained by explicit design or random mutation and natural selection. This is not an argument that theology can settle. Following Thomas Aquinas, however, the document says that divine providence is consistent with either hypothesis. God's causation can express itself through both necessity and contingency, so that even if the development of life seems random to empirical observation, it certainly doesn't to God.

I had hoped to speak to Schönborn about all this, but unfortunately he was in Poland as I wrote the piece. This week, however, I was able to reach him. My question was, what does he make of paragraph 69 of the ITC document? In the end, is his problem with evolutionary theory itself, or with its potential philosophical and theological abuse?

This is his response:

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"I agree completely with what was formulated in number 69 of 'Stewardship and Communion.' And I feel confirmed in my convictions by this document. In any case I think it is necessary to cite the whole paragraph 69, when it states: 'In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science.'

"For Catholic thinking," Schönborn told me, "it was clear from Pius XII's encyclical, Humani generis, that evolutionary theory can be valid to understand certain mechanisms, but it can never be seen or accepted as a holistic model to explain the existence of life."

Schönborn's point thus seems to be that in "absolute" form, meaning as a "holistic model" that would exclude design as a metaphysical matter, "evolutionism" turns into a philosophy that parts company with Christianity.

In that light, observers say, Schönborn's view does not seem to court a new Galileo affair, putting the church at odds with scientific discoveries. He's making a philosophical point, not a scientific one. In the end, he's warning that Christianity cannot accept a universe without God, and it's fairly difficult to argue with that.

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Last week I reported on a diplomatic flap between the Vatican and Israel, which involved accusations that John Paul II had been silent about anti-Israeli terrorism, and a stern rebuke from the Vatican that the late pope could not always condemn Palestinian terrorism without also condemning Israeli reprisals.

A further wrinkle to the story has emerged.

A July 28 declaration, plus an accompanying note listing instances when John Paul II had in fact spoken out about terrorism against Israel, was issued by the Press Office of the Holy See. For that reason, most observers assumed the material had been prepared by Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesperson.

Ricardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, for example, said that in the two documents, "We recognized certain tones already familiar from Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who usually is discourteous and tough with us."

On July 29, officials of the Anti-Defamation League wrote to Navarro-Valls to protest.

"We are especially troubled by your most recent assertion that 'Israeli reactions [are] not always compatible with the rules of international law,'" they wrote.

"This is a serious charge, and we cannot believe that Pope Benedict XVI would have made such a determination. Nor can we believe that such a determination would have factored into a decision as to whether or not Israel should be included in a list of countries afflicted by wanton terrorism.

"Like every sovereign nation, Israel has the right and obligation to protect and defend its citizens from the scourge of terrorism," the protest letter to Navarro said.

A senior Vatican source told NCR on July 30, however, that Navarro was not the author of the documents. In fact, according to this source, the first time Navarro saw them was on the papal plane bringing Benedict XVI back to Rome on July 28 from his vacation in Val d'Aosta, after they had already been released.

According to this source, the documents were prepared by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the official in the Secretariat of State responsible for relations with governments -- in effect, the pope's foreign minister. They were then released under the aegis of the Vatican Press Office.

If so, this would be the third high-profile incident since the election of Benedict XVI in which the Secretariat of State has generated controversy. The first came with a May 20 declaration stating that there is no canonical case against the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, related to charges of sexual abuse, despite the fact that it is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that has responsibility for these cases; the second with a draft version of Benedict's telegram of sympathy for the July 7 London bombings, which referred to the attacks as "anti-Christian."

On the subject of Israel, meanwhile, Benedict XVI devoted his Aug. 3 General Audience at Castel Gandolfo to Psalm 124, regarding the Lord's protection of his people. Benedict XVI, quoting both the psalm and St. Paul, expressed hope for "the peace of Jerusalem."

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This week I'm in the United States for a couple of speaking engagements. I was in New York Aug. 1 for a panel discussion sponsored by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at their motherhouse in Graymoor. I know the friars in Rome from their impressive ecumenical work at the Centro Pro Unione.

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The topic of the panel was the first 100 days of Benedict XVI's pontificate.

I was joined by William Burrows, a senior editor at Orbis Books, the publishing house of the Maryknoll community; Susan Farrell, a sociologist at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, who studies progressive women's movements in the Catholic church; and Dale Irwin, a Protestant, who is dean of the New York Theological Seminary and a noted writer on global Christianity.

I'll omit my own analysis, since I've offered it here both systematically and in bits and pieces. I was interested, however, in the diverse reactions offered by the other panelists.

Irwin said that he felt the Catholic church found itself after the death of John Paul II in a similar position to where the Protestant world will be after the death of Billy Graham -- i.e., wondering how to replace such a towering figure. The truth, Irwin said, is that you don't replace them. They're charismatic individuals, not offices.

Irwin said he believes that to date what we've seen out of Rome under Benedict XVI is largely the institutional mechanism grinding on, without the personal charisma of John Paul II.

In subsequent discussion, Irwin said that while he is gratified by the new pope's commitment to ecumenism, he is concerned that the preference for the Orthodox may mean that Western Protestants will be neglected.

At the same time, however, Irwin observed that many of his conservative evangelical friends are enthusiastic about Benedict XVI.

Irwin said that one actually gushed, "He's the first Protestant pope!"

This person, Irwin said, meant that Benedict shares the same strong critique of modernity held by most evangelical Protestants.

Conversation eventually turned to Benedict XVI's concern with a "dictatorship of relativism" in the West, and I suggested that at least on certain cultural issues such as homosexuality, the growth of Christianity in the southern hemisphere seems likely to give the conservative position on the "culture wars" a boost.

Based on his contacts with Christians in the developing world, Irwin said the liberal/conservative distinction isn't the lone, or perhaps even the main, factor in shaping African attitudes. Instead, he said, African Christians recall the long, and still not completely resolved, battles they fought to abolish their custom of polygamy because Western Christians insisted that only monogamous heterosexual marriage is moral. Now, he said, they resent Western attempts to shift the goalposts by saying that homosexuality is really okay. It comes across as another Western colonial imposition.

For her part, Farrell said that progressive Catholic women's movements were disappointed by the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy, and have not seen a great deal to like since.

Farrell said that while many commentators, myself included, have made much of Benedict XVI's reputation as a listener, the pope has not to date sat down with a wide cross-section of Catholic women to hear their concerns.

Despite their disappointment, progressive Catholic women are by and large determined to remain in the Catholic church, Farrell said.

Burrows said that his publishing company, Orbis Books, had a number of authors investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith while then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was in charge. Burrows said his experience was that Ratzinger generally listened well, and was often willing to find a reasonable solution.

Pope Benedict, Burrows said, "is not impressed with modernity." Along with John Paul II, he believes that Nazism and Soviet-style Communism are just as much expressions of the spirit of modernity as secular democracy. The pope believes that the church can sometimes become too assimilated to the culture, losing its edge, a lesson he traces to Germany in the Second World War.

"The church did not always have the discernment to name the devil when the devil was there," Burrows said, expressing the pope's conclusion.

Benedict XVI, Burrows said, worries that today much of university life, including the discipline of Catholic theology, reflects the values and assumptions of modernity. Burrows said he thinks the pope has a point. Too often, Burrows said, some contemporary theologians fudge the key point -- is Christ the savior of the world, or not?

Burrows said the key question really is, "Who decides?" Who judges when lines have been crossed, and by what process do they reach that judgment? In other words, Burrows said, he believes the pope has something important to say- the question is whether he'll be able to persuade people to listen.

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After New York, I moved on to Detroit, where I had been invited to take part in the F. Gerald Martin Pastoral Ministry Conference, sponsored by the Office for Pastoral Ministries for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Organizers asked me to speak on three subjects:

  • Dialogue in the Church
  • The Voice of the Global Church
  • Church Leadership at the Spirit's Prompting

The first was largely an abbreviated form of my Common Ground lecture of 2004 on the same subject; for the second, I cribbed a good deal of material from Philip Jenkins' 2002 book The Next Christendom, where he lays out both the magnitude and at least some of the implications of the North/South shift currently underway in global Christianity.

Thinking about the third topic, I experienced some trepidation. It seemed odd, if not slightly dangerous, to invite a reporter to talk about leadership, since by definition we are supposed to cover leaders, not act like leaders ourselves. The moment reporters start imagining themselves as leaders of some cause or crusade, whatever it is they're doing stops being journalism.

In the end, I declined to provide my own model of ecclesiastical leadership. Instead, I decided to offer some lessons on leadership from the leader I covered on a daily basis for six years, Pope John Paul II.

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Here's what I said to the group in Michigan:

Pastor Aeternus, the document from the First Vatican Council that defined both papal primacy and papal infallibility, was more circumspect than is commonly understood. Not everything a pope does, says, or thinks, is binding on the church. Catholics are not obligated to sport Serengeti sunglasses, for example, simply because they happen to be the preferred brand of Benedict XVI, or to drink Orange Fanta at dinner rather than their favorite Chianti because that has been Joseph Ratzinger's habit. In Catholic theology, it is common to distinguish among: (1) matters of faith and morals, which under certain circumstances involve infallibility; (2) the exercise of routine governance, which involves primacy; and (3) matters of prudential judgment, which place no obligation on the consciences of the faithful.

Much of a pope's leadership style falls into this third category. I recall that when Pius IX was beatified in 2001, I asked an official in the Congregation for Saints if the beatification should be read as an endorsement of Pius' approach to the so-called "Roman question," meaning the estrangement between the secular Italian Republic and the Vatican after the collapse of the Papal States in 1870.

"Of course not," this official said. "With the passage of time, we can see that the loss of the church's temporal possessions was in many ways a blessing for the church, something Pius, with the limits of his personality and circumstances, couldn't see. To beatify a pope doesn't mean ratifying every choice he made, but rather that he lived a holy life."

What follows, therefore, is not a kind of catechism. I will offer four lessons in leadership from John Paul II, leaving it to others to decide if there's anything applicable to their own ministries and vocations. Think of this as a sort of "Seven Minute Manager," papal style.

(1) Never Meet Your Opponents Head-on If There's a Way Around Them
This was a lesson that the young Karol Wojtyla absorbed from the "Primate of the Millennium," Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who resisted the Soviet domination of Poland for the most part not by direct confrontation, but by keeping an alternative vision of human existence alive. Whenever he could, Wyszynski didn't fight his opponents, he ignored them.

This was the heart of John Paul's approach. He could bring the hammer down if he thought the situation left him no choice -- we saw this early on, with Hans Küng in 1979, and it was not an isolated case. Yet the number of formal disciplinary acts during his papacy was, historically speaking, small. John Paul was never the great authoritarian of popular imagination -- in fact, the most serious criticism from the Catholic right is that he was an ambivalent governor whose heart was in the right place, but who did little administrative follow-up.

John Paul's determination, rightly or wrongly, was to set an example and trust others to follow him.

A classic example is World Youth Day, and the outreach to youth that characterized John Paul's pontificate. The pope believed that his generation in the church, and the one below it, had fought titanic ideological battles over issues such as power in the church, sexuality, and theological dissent, and were in some ways stuck in a repeating loop over those debates. He wanted to reach over their heads and take his case to a new generation, offering a formation without the same post-conciliar baggage.

The same point applies to the Roman Curia. John Paul knew there were curial officials uncomfortable with his apologies, his travels, his inter-religious outreach. He never bothered uprooting them. For better or for worse, he went his own way, persuaded that the power of example would ultimately prevail.

This approach, it has to be said, was a double-edged sword. It meant the pope never "institutionalized" his own agenda, never ensured that key personnel would carry forward his approach. I recall that after the pope's last encyclical was published, on the Eucharist, a friend in the Vatican sighed that one day that document could be placed on the Index. His fear was that the "Wojtyla" legacy might be buried with the pope.

At the same time, however, this approach meant that John Paul was rarely mired in internal ecclesiastical battles, that he was free to pursue a program ad extra that made him one of the most recognized and admired world leaders of any age. The 51 heads of state who attended his funeral, the largest such gathering ever outside the United Nations, is one proof of the point.

(2) You Can't Do Everything, So Be Prepared to Choose
No pope can resolve every question, so all have to delegate. Some, such as Pius XII and Paul VI, take the reins of internal governance more in their own hands; others delegate more, to be free to pursue other agendas.

John Paul II fell into the second category. His priorities were clear, and can be summed up in a single word: Evangelization. This was a pope on fire to spread the gospel; he said in 1979 that he felt it was time for the pope to act as the successor not just of Peter but also of Paul. His methods included travels, encyclicals, a continual dialogue with culture and religions, use of mass communications, and offering the world role models of holiness through his beatifications and canonizations.

The price was that he delegated a vast swath of internal ecclesiastical governance to others. From the very beginning, and not just in his later years, John Paul was strikingly distant from day-to-day decisions on matters such as liturgy, clerical discipline, theological direction, and even bishops' appointments. While the pope would review the cases, he relied to a great extent on his collaborators.

This, too, was not an unmixed blessing. Sometimes Catholics yearned for more aggressive engagement from the pope; many, for example, wanted a more personal and forceful response to the sexual abuse crises that rocked the United States and elsewhere. Yet John Paul’s determination, for good or ill, was to keep his eyes on what he saw as the prize.

I recall, for example, hearing Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, at the time head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, recount his experience of presenting a revised version of the Roman Martyrology to the pope. It was a work of several hundred pages that had been poured over by historians, theologians, liturgists and linguists for the better part of a decade.

The pope's response?

"Nice pictures," Medina quoted him as saying.

This was not apathy or inattention, but a decision to focus on what he believed to be the providential logic of his election, and to allow other things to remain in the hands of God.

(3) Don't Be Afraid To Blaze New Paths, If You Know Where You're Going
John Paul was known as the "pope of firsts." In that sense, despite the persistent media stereotype of a "conservative pope," he hardly fit the bill, at least according to Samuel Johnson's famous description of a conservative -- "a man who believes that nothing should be done for the first time."

Just a few well-known examples:

Being pope used to mean never having to say you're sorry, yet John Paul apologized more than 100 times, to the world of science, to women, to Muslims, to Jews, to the Orthodox, and so on.

I recall that before the pope's trip to Greece in 2001, I was interviewed by Greek national television and asked if John Paul would apologize for the Fourth Crusade. "Absolutely not," I confidently replied. "These are always delicate statements that require years of theological preparation." As fate would have it, the Greeks played this clip just before John Paul met Archbishop Christodoulos on the Acropolis in Athens, offering precisely the apology I had predicted would not come. The organizer of that trip later told me that Christodoulos had requested the apology in a pre-trip meeting, and this aide relayed the request to John Paul. The pope thought for a moment, said "it can be done," asked for a pen, and wrote out the paragraph that was inserted into his text.

Being pope used to mean the world came to you, yet John Paul took104 foreign trips to 129 nations. From a cost/efficiency point of view, some seemed almost absurd. We went to Azerbaijan in 2003, for example, despite the fact that there are all of 120 Catholics there. I did the math, and it would have been four times less expensive to fly all of them to Rome. Yet John Paul felt it was important to meet people where they lived, to confirm them in the faith.

Being pope used to mean caution in all things, yet he indulged in a kind of riotous excess in his beatifications and canonizations, 1,338 and 482 in all, more than all previous popes combined.

Being pope used to mean projecting an image of majesty and awe. Yet John Paul "humanized" the papacy, allowing photos of himself to be taken in his hospital bed in the Gemelli hospital after his assassination attempt. This is one of the reasons he never hid his illness and decline. He wanted to remind people that God works through human instruments, and the world's standards of beauty, efficiency and value are not God's.

All this makes an important point for a church so often hemmed in by centuries of protocol and tradition. One can be both faithful and innovative.

(4) Allow Your Reach to Exceed Your grasp
If John Paul is eventually remembered as "the Great," it will be for the grandness of his failures as well as his successes. This was a pope of epic ambition, who was unafraid to come up short.

In fact, John Paul suffered some spectacular failures. He wanted to awaken the Christian roots of Europe, yet could not succeed in persuading European leaders even to mention God in their new constitution. He failed to persuade post-Soviet Poland not to adopt a liberalized abortion law -- images of him on the 1993 trip to Poland, obviously angry, troubled Poles but did not dissuade them. He saw Asia as the new frontier of Christian evangelization, but made little headway. Most notably, he hoped to heal the millennium-old schism between Eastern and Western Christianity, and travel to Moscow. Intractable differences between Moscow and Rome meant this was not to be.

If one considers the range of areas in which John Paul prevailed, however, these failures emerge as the other side of the coin of his successes.

Antonio Rosmini in the 19th century described the classic careerist bishop: "No one will be put out, no one will be disturbed, no one will feel his dignity impaired; and because there will be no increase in worry or labor, his self-proclaimed prudence will be applauded by all."

This was not John Paul II. In the words of Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, he understood that a leader must "make no little plans, because they have no magic to stir men's blood."

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

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