National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly

?Sign Up Here For Weekly E-mail

 1 Archives  | 

 The Word From Rome

August 8, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 47

global perspective



Considerations Regarding Proposals to give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons” seems designed, at least in part, to prepare the church for resistance in situations in which the legalization of homosexual relationships has already taken place.

The Vatican’s use of secrecy; The social analysis in the Vatican’s gay marriage document; Rigali’s appointment;  Red hats and genetically modified organisms


By now, anyone pondering the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church would have to agree that for too long the church was unwilling to openly acknowledge the problem, seeking to deal with it in the shadows rather than the light of day.

One theory to explain this secretiveness is that it sprang from a clerical mentality that sought to protect the church’s “good name.” From this point of view, some church officials were in denial, naively hoping that concealing the problem would make it disappear.

A darker theory construes the silence as not merely naïve, but criminal. This view posits a “cover-up” ordered from on high, with the Vatican being the most commonly hypothesized culprit. The charge tends to be most tenaciously asserted by victims’ advocates and civil lawyers.

The recent discovery of a 1962 Vatican document subjecting some sex abuse cases to secrecy, under threat of excommunication, has given this theory new life. (More on that document below).

Without defending the secrecy that long enveloped the church’s handling of the sex abuse problem, it is perhaps worth spending a few moments trying to understand it. If one can’t at least grasp the values church officials were trying to defend, then dialogue becomes virtually impossible.

As a procedural matter, canon lawyers insist there is a legitimate role for confidentiality. Secrecy is designed to allow witnesses and other parties to speak freely, the accused party to protect his good name until guilt is established, and victims to come forward without exposing themselves to unwanted publicity. Hence absolute transparency would not necessarily serve the interests of justice.

There are three other values that have traditionally supported secrecy in the church.

First is a certain view of law. Law, from a Roman point of view, is the expression of a human ideal, a descriptor of a perfect state of affairs. This reflects what writer Christopher Dawson has described as the “erotic” spirit of cultures shaped by Roman Catholicism, based on a passionate quest for spiritual perfection.

This view carries with it a realism that most people, most of the time, will fall short of the law’s ideal. It is important to uphold that ideal, however, to point people beyond themselves. Too much focus on violations could lead people to question the wisdom, or the feasibility, of the law. Hence the public forum is for discussion of the ideal; the private forum, behind closed doors, is where individual failures are addressed.

Second, there is a respect for authority. If the working assumption of democracies is that power corrupts, within the ecclesiastical system it’s precisely the opposite – power ennobles, because it flows from Holy Orders and draws on the grace of the sacrament.

Secrecy thus carves out a space in which church authorities can use discretion, finding a solution that best fits a particular set of circumstances, without fear that it will become swept up in broader public debates. The assumption is that church officials normally act with the best interests of the broader community in mind.

The third value underlying secrecy is objectivity. It drives some people crazy that the Vatican will not hand over its case files even to interested parties, such as theologians under investigation. The logic, however, is to protect the independence of the one giving judgment.

If case files were public, pressure could be brought to bear to try to sway judgments. The classic example, which still looms large in the Vatican’s collective unconscious, is the 1967 publication by the National Catholic Reporter and Le Monde of the majority report from Paul VI’s birth control commission, which had supported a change in church teaching. Pope Paul decided against this proposal, and the publication of the report subjected him to withering criticism for “ignoring” his own advisers. The culture of the Holy See resists exposing its decisions to the pressures of public relations or interest group politics, neither of which are viewed as reliable means for arriving at truth.

Again, none of this is to justify sweeping problems under the rug. Recent experience has shown that these three values underlying secrecy must be balanced against other legitimate concerns, such as collaboration and accountability. But the debate will be more constructive if critics appreciate the values secrecy was originally intended to serve, and work with church officials to find ways to uphold those values consistent with greater openness.

* * *

For those convinced of the cover-up theory, the hunt has long been on for a “smoking gun.”

Last December, for example, there was a brief flurry surrounding a May 25, 1999, document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, defrocking an American priest named Robert Burns. In the letter, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez wrote that Burns “ought to live away from the places where his previous condition is known,” unless his presence “will cause no scandal.” Some took this as evidence that the Vatican had ordered a cover-up of Burns’ abuse. The story fizzled, however, when it became clear that the Vatican had taken action against Burns, and the concern with where he lived afterwards was for the healing of the communities where his abuse had taken place.

Now another Vatican document is in the spotlight. It’s a 39-page set of canonical procedures from 1962 for dealing with cases of solicitation, meaning accusations that a priest propositioned someone sexually from the confessional. Concluding paragraphs extended the scope of the procedures to cover homosexual conduct by priests. The document, titled Crimen Sollicitationis, was issued in confidence, to be stored in each diocese’s secret archives.

In paragraph 11, Crimen Sollicitationis ordered that these cases be covered by the “secret of the Holy Office,” today known as “pontifical secrecy,” which is the highest grade of secrecy in the church. Violations were to be punished with excommunication. Boston attorney Carmen L. Durso sent a copy of the document on July 28 to U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, arguing that it may prove the church has been obstructing justice.

“This document may provide the link in the thinking of all of those who hid the truth for so many years,” Durso said, as quoted by the July 29 Worcester Telegram and Gazette. “The constant admonitions that information regarding accusations against priests are to be deemed ‘a secret of the Holy Office’ may explain, but most certainly do not justify, their actions,” Durso told the federal attorney.

In fact, however, canon lawyers say Crimen Sollicitationis is not a “smoking gun.”

First, the document was so obscure that few bishops ever heard of it, which means it’s unlikely their behavior was significantly influenced by it.

Second, one has to distinguish between canonical and civil procedures. Crimen Sollicitationis mandated secrecy for canonical investigations and trials, but did not address whether or not a bishop, or other church officials, should report the priest’s action to the police if it involved a minor. Though most bishops in the 1960s undoubtedly sought to handle such cases quietly, there’s nothing in Crimen Sollicitationis that would have tied a bishop’s hands had he wanted to involve the civil authorities.

Third, the argument that Crimen Sollicitationis was not designed to “cover up” sex abuse, canonists say, is clear in paragraph 15, which obligates anyone with knowledge of a priest abusing the confessional for that purpose to come forward, under pain of excommunication for failing to do so. This penalty is stipulated, the document says, “lest [the offense] remain occult and unpunished and always with inestimable detriment to souls.”

* * *

On July 31, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document on gay marriage titled, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons.”

Early commentary on the document dwelt on its strong language denouncing homosexuality, and on its challenge to Catholic politicians to resist the legalization of same-sex unions.

In truth, however, all that was old hat. The church’s position on homosexuality has long been known, as has its opposition to any redefinition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Insistence that Catholic politicians must vote “coherently” with their faith was at the heart of the “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Jan. 16, 2003.

If there is something new in the July 31document, it is not in the teaching or political stance of the church, but its analysis of the social situation. Whereas previous documents had called the church to arms to fight the legalization of homosexual relationships, “Considerations” seems designed, at least in part, to prepare the church for resistance in situations in which that legalization has already taken place.

It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out that at least in the developed world, the church is losing the argument.

Twelve European nations today, for example, have laws under which gay couples enjoy at least some of the civil benefits of marriage. They are: France, Germany, Switzerland, Britain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Croatia. (In Spain, there is no federal legislation, but autonomous regions are free to craft their own policies. Catalonia, for instance, recognizes same-sex unions, but not adoption rights.)

In light of this, the July 31 Vatican document appeals to all Catholics, by no means just politicians, to refuse to cooperate with these measures.

“In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty,” it states.

“One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.”

What might that mean?

In theory, any Catholic whose work intersects with marriage issues — adoption counselors, civil registrars of marriage, even inheritance and retirement specialists could find themselves facing a choice between the civil law and the demands of their church.

Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, a moral theologian at Rome’s prestigious Alphonsian Academy, said that Catholic adoption agents would clearly face a conflict of formal cooperation if the law were to give adoption rights to gay parents. The new Vatican document comes down hard on adoption, stating that such measures “would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.”

Similarly, Catholic marriage counselors would be in a difficult position if a same-sex couple were to seek their services.

A bit more complicated, Johnstone said, would be the case of a Catholic who works as a civil registrar of marriages.

“You could argue that both ways,” Johnstone said. “You could argue that this person is uniting his will with that of the same-sex couple and hence is cooperating with the marriage. Or you could take the view that he is simply willing the civil effects of that act and not the ‘marriage’ itself.”

Still more complex, Johnstone said, would be a case in which a same-sex couple wishes to enroll their child in a Catholic school.

“It’s hard to construe accepting that child as formal cooperation,” Johnstone said. “But there could be a problem under the heading of scandal.”

In this case, Johnstone said, he meant not the popular sense of “scandal,” meaning shocking people, but the technical sense of inducing someone to commit sin against the faith or morals of the church. In that sense, he said, someone might be able to argue that by accepting the children of homosexual unions, the church was in effect legitimizing those unions and hence inducing people to accept them.

In short, Catholics who work with married couples and their children may find themselves in much the same situation as Catholic health care professionals, who have long had to negotiate matters of conscience on issues such as abortion, birth control, and artificial reproduction.

* * *

On July 15, the Holy See announced the appointment of Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis as the new archbishop of Philadelphia, succeeding Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. If naming Bishop Sean O’Malley to Boston struck observers as daring and bold, the Rigali appointment seemed more like business as usual. Italian writer Sandro Magister opined that Rigali has a reputation as one of the most career-minded prelates around.

Church insiders had known about the move for some time. In fact, word around the Vatican was that the Philadelphia announcement was held up until after the U.S. bishops’ June meeting in St. Louis so that the transition would not be a distraction.

Vatican-watchers had been expecting something for Rigali since Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re took over at the Congregation for Bishops in September 2000. Re and Rigali are, as they say in the lingo of the Holy See, della stessa parrocchia – “from the same parish.” That’s a colloquial way of saying they belong to the same network of friendship and mutual support. Both served in the Roman Curia under the patronage of the late Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who was the right-hand man of Pope Paul VI, and are numbered among “Benelli’s widows,” a group that also includes the former nuncio to the United States, Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan. 

Hence when Rigali’s friend Re received the all-important assignment at Bishops, it was only a matter of time before something tumbled.

Since Rigali’s move to Philadelphia assures him of membership in the College of Cardinals, it also closes another circuit in the Vatican system. Rigali had been the only former secretary of the Congregation for Bishops not yet a cardinal. The job is considered virtually a guarantor of a red hat. (Re and Argentinean Jorge Mejia are cardinals who once held the secretary’s job).

* * *

Speaking of cardinals, several reporters in recent weeks have contacted me to ask when we can expect a new batch.

As I’ve written before, I expect a consistory, the event in which new cardinals are created, in February 2004. (The traditional date would be Feb. 22, Feast of the Chair of St. Peter). All the cardinals have been asked to gather in Rome in October for the 25th anniversary of the pope’s election on Oct. 16, and most will stay for the beatification of Mother Teresa on Oct. 19, but it’s unlikely John Paul will use this occasion to name new members.

As of this writing there are 166 cardinals, of whom 109 are under 80 and therefore eligible to vote for the next pope. Between now and February 2004, eight more turn 80: Silvestrini, Shan Kui-hsi, Taofinu’u, Clancy, Korec, Lourdusamy, Piovanelli, and Deskur. Two more, Tomko and dos Santos, turn 80 the following month. Given that 120 has been the traditional ceiling on participation in a conclave, that means John Paul would have 21 slots to fill. The pope also usually names a few beyond the 120 limit, on the theory that by the time a conclave actually happens a sufficient number will have died or aged that the total would fall back under 120. One could reasonably expect perhaps as many as 30 new cardinals next February, though probably not the bumper crop of 44 of February 2001.

Will O’Malley and Rigali be among them? Both men will eventually become cardinals, but whether they may have to wait is an open question. The United States is already arguably over-represented, with 13 cardinals, the second largest national block in the college. Brazil, with a Catholic population more than twice as large as the United States, has only 7 cardinals. If John Paul has to choose, expect the red hat to go more quickly to O’Malley. He will want to give O’Malley every show of support in facing the monumental challenges in Boston.

* * *

John Paul II named Italian Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino on Aug. 2 as the new secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the office that handles liturgical issues. He replaces Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino, a Benedictine, who held the job since April 1999.

While Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez was prefect of the Congregation for Worship, many observers felt Tamburrino provided something of a contrast to Medina’s staunchly traditionalist stance. Tamburrino, who had been abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Montevergine, was seen as a bit more sympathetic to the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Sorrentino brings no background in liturgy to his new post. He was ordained in 1972 for the Italian diocese of Nola, and obtained a degree in political science from the Gregorian University in Rome. For nine years, he worked in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

Sorrentino served since 2001 as the pope’s delegate to run the sanctuary of the Madonna of Pompei, also known as the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Most Holy Rosary. I met Sorrentino when he gave a talk on the rosary at a Focolare conference last April.

In his presentation, Sorrentino came off as warmly disposed to the devotional piety of the rosary, but also in touch with historical scholarship and willing to take a “warts and all” look at the tradition. For example, he noted that the invocation of the rosary when facing threats or dangers has sometimes given it an association with military events, such as the victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571.

“That connection, to tell the truth, in today’s context of interreligious dialogue is rather embarrassing, so much so that the pope made only a very veiled reference to it” in his recent apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Sorrentino said. He noted that successive popes have redefined this “martial” aspect of the rosary in terms of spiritual battle, so that in effect the rosary has become a privileged prayer for peace. John Paul II invoked it in that sense when he asked Catholics to pray the rosary seeking peace in the build-up to the Iraq war.

In the same address, Sorrentino expressed the hope that the rosary can become a bridge of ecumenical cooperation, stressing that Marian prayer always leads devotees to contemplate the face of Jesus.

Sorrentino is also the postulator for the sainthood cause of Giuseppe Toniolo (1845-1918), a lay Catholic economist and social theorist involved in the search for a “third way” between Capitalism and Socialism.  Toniolo anticipated many of the reforms of his era: mandatory days of rest, defense of the rights of women and child laborers, limitation of the length of work days, and the defense of small enterprises against vast monopolies. Toniolo was seen as an “apostle” of the social vision of Pope Leo XIII as expressed in the encyclical Rerum Novarum. Sorrentino’s interest in Toniolo certainly does not mark him as a radical, but it places him in the tradition of Pope Leo’s cautious opening to modernity and to reform.

* * *

Another man in line to become a cardinal, Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has announced that his office will convene a group of experts in the fall to discuss genetically modified organisms. “We need to hear not only the scientists, but also producers and consumers,” Martino said.

The news will no doubt please U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson, who has made winning the Vatican over to GMOs one of the front-burner priorities of his mandate. At a conference on hunger last spring in Rome, Nicholson spoke movingly about his own experience of growing up hungry on an Iowa farm, and of the moral imperative to use scientific discoveries to help feed starving people.

Proponents of biotech crops contend the technology will fight hunger by improving quality and quantity of crops and protecting against pests. Opponents say the modified crops cause health and environmental problems, and make local farmers dependent upon multi-national biotech companies.

Famed French anti-globalization activist Jose Bove said Monday any Vatican endorsement of biotech crops would be “scandalous.”

“I believe that St. Francis, if he were living today, would have something to say about this stance of the Roman shepherds,” he told La Stampa. Bove was released from jail last week after serving about a month for destroying genetically modified corn and rice crops.

Martino will certainly face pressure to take a critical look at GMOs from elements within the Catholic church, especially in the Third World.

On May 6, for example, 14 Brazilian bishops put out a “declaration on transgenic crops,” in which they condemned the cultivation and consumption of GMOs. The bishops cited three risks: 1) health consequences, including increased allergies, resistance to antibiotics, and an increase in toxic substances; 2) environmental consequences, including erosion of bio-diversity; and 3) damage to the sovereignty of Brazil, “as a result of the loss of control of seeds and living things through patents that become the exclusive property of multinational groups interested only in commercial ends.”

In 2002, the Catholic Bishops of South Africa issued a statement asserting that, “It is morally irresponsible to produce and market genetically modified food.” In February 2003, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines asked President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to postpone use of a genetically modified form of corn, citing possible health risks.

The bishops’ stance is backed by religious communities, especially missionary orders. Hence it will be interesting to watch how Martino, who has said publicly that he has no personal objection to GMOs, navigates those shoals.

* * *

Finally, in this period of terrible blows to the public image of the Catholic priesthood, Italy has had a reminder of the heroism of which priests are still capable.

Fr. Stefano Gorzegno, 44, had taken about 50 children aged 12 to 16 on a trip to Termoli, on the Adriatic coast, from his southern Italian parish in Boiano. A group of swimmers became trapped by a strong undercurrent, and Gorzegno, still wearing his clerical clothes, dived in to save them. He pulled all seven children from the sea, but collapsed with his lungs full of water. “He saved all of them, but just barely,” a police officer said.

Gorzegno’s last words were said to be, “Are the boys all right?”

The Italian parliament stood to applaud his bravery, and L’Osservatore Romano ran a front-page tribute titled, “He was a true priest.”

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

Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2003 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280