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 The Word From Rome

August 13, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 51

global perspective


“In the course of history, Turkey has always represented a different continent.  Making the two continents identical would be a mistake. It would mean a loss of richness, the disappearance of the cultural to the benefit of economics.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
head of the Vatican’s doctrinal agency

John Paul goes to Lourdes, but not looking for a miracle; Mary and feminism; history of the Immaculate Conception; Ratzinger on Turkey's candidacy to join EU; what’s wrong with papal handicapping


I’ll once again be on the papal plane tomorrow, flying with John Paul II to Lourdes, France, for the 104th foreign journey of his pontificate. It’s a quick trip; we leave 9:00 a.m. on Saturday and return, if things hold to form, at 8:45 p.m. on Sunday.

Given John Paul’s physical frailty, reporting on papal trips these days is already largely reduced to an “ER”-style series of medical bulletins. (“The ailing pontiff today pronounced his speech in a clear, strong voice, but seemed to slump towards the end.” Strikingly absent, to take just one example of what gets left out of the picture, is any sense of what he actually said).

I suspect we’ll get an extra dose of such armchair diagnosis this weekend, because Lourdes is tailor-made for it. It’s a healing shrine famed for miraculous last-chance cures, with 66 church-approved miracles and more than 7,000 “inexplicable cures” to its credit. In 2002 alone, 378,702 pilgrims were immersed in baths fed by the shrine’s spring water, and thousands claim to have experienced some recovery. The fact that the pope is staying at the Residence Accueil Notre-Dame, a center with 904 beds for sick and disabled pilgrims, certainly doesn’t do anything to undercut the health-obsessed story line. Some observers will no doubt feel the trip is a bust if John Paul doesn’t come away dancing a jig.

Be that as it may, John Paul is not scheduled to take a dip in the waters, and the official purpose of his journey is not to request a cure.

It is, instead, to observe the 150th anniversary of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, officially proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Lourdes is an appropriate site, since it was here that the Virgin Mary is said to have revealed herself to a 14-year-old French peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous on March 25, 1858, saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

(As a quick aside, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception holds that Mary was preserved from original sin from the moment of her conception – not, as many people erroneously believe, that she conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse. That’s marked instead on the Feast of the Annunciation. The technical formula for the Immaculate Conception is expressed in the apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus of December 8, 1854. In it, Pius IX said that Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”)

  • Why would John Paul II go out of his way to spotlight the Immaculate Conception at Lourdes this weekend? I see four motives:John Paul has a deep personal Marian devotion. The motto of his pontificate is totus tuus, “all yours,” referring to his decision to offer his papacy to Mary. Recall that the pope believes the Virgin Mary, under her title as Our Lady of Fatima, intervened to save his life in the assassination attempt of May 13, 1981. He later traveled to Fatima to place the bullet removed from his body in the crown of the statue of the Virgin. In that light, the trip to Lourdes is another opportunity for the pope to pay tribute to the guiding hand that he believes has been instrumentally involved in every aspect of his papacy for 25 years. The pope will visit another famed Marian shrine in Loretto, Italy, on Sept. 5.
  • John Paul regards Mary as a model of the Christian life and in a sense as an archetype of the Church. Hence the Lourdes trip allows the pope to place Mary in the center of the Christian imagination, an exercise the pope doubtless sees as especially timely in light of the recent Vatican document on feminism, which praised Mary’s special dispositions of “listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting.”
  • The Marian shrines that dot Europe, from the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland to Montserrat in Catalonia to Lourdes in France, are a powerful reminder of the continent’s deep Christian roots. In a moment in which John Paul has expressed alarm about “historical amnesia,” symbolized by the EU’s refusal to recognize God or its Christian heritage in its new constitution, the visit is one way of reminding Europeans where they come from.
  • The Immaculate Conception is one of the few clear examples of the exercise of papal infallibility, i.e., a case in which a pope defined a dogma of the Church independent of an ecumenical council. Despite the fact that claims to infallibility sometimes make other Christians suspicious, John Paul has never been one to believe that dialogue should come at the expense of one’s own identity. Hence his reaffirmation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is also, in effect, a reaffirmation of the power of the papacy to proclaim it.

* * *

For my money, you’re unlikely to find a better book on Marian apparitions than Sandra Zimdars-Swartz’s Encountering Mary: From La Salette to Medjugorje (Princeton University Press, 1991; HarperCollins, 1992). Since I studied under Zimdars-Swartz at the University of Kansas I can’t pretend to strict neutrality, but it’s a marvelous resource.

I called Zimdars-Swartz August 9 to talk about what distinguishes Lourdes in the galaxy of Marian sites.

First, Zimdars-Swartz said, Lourdes was not shaped by 20th century political and cultural struggles in the same way as La Salette and Fatima, which became bastions of apocalyptic anti-Communism. In that sense, she said, Lourdes has always had a universal appeal.

(The fact that trains were quickly brought in also contributed to the popularity of the shrine, Zimdars-Swartz said. In that sense, Lourdes is the ideal pilgrimage destination – just enough off the beaten track to evoke a sense of adventure, but not so isolated that it excludes all but hard-core devotees).

Second, she noted that Lourdes is a shopper’s paradise. Trinkets and kitsch abound. The commercialization turns some people off, but she prefers to see it as an expression of the “tangible” element of Catholicism.

Especially in the context of the new Vatican document on feminism, I asked Zimdars-Swartz her assessment of Marian shrines in terms of the role of the women in the Catholic Church. Are they a liberating chance for women to gain a voice, or an implicit way of confirming traditional female stereotypes– passivity, obedience, and so on?

She jokingly invoked a bit of classic scholarly dodge: “It’s a complex phenomenon.”

On the one hand, Zimdars-Swartz said, the messages that emerge from the apparitions are rarely “liberating” in the secular feminist sense.

“Mary never shows up in a power suit with a briefcase to say, ‘Go out in the world and make your mark,’” she said.

Yet Marian shrines do tend to exalt female imagery and allow the divine to speak in a feminine voice.

“It’s an arena in which women can find religious expression,” she said, noting that in Lourdes female pilgrims outnumber males 2-to-1, and that images of the Madonna are ubiquitous. The same thing, she said, holds true in other contexts. In the United States today, for example, there is a series of sites where the Virgin Mary is claimed to be appearing, and the majority of the alleged visionaries are middle-aged women.

* * *

On the subject of the Immaculate Conception, it’s perhaps worth pausing to review some of its history. Among other bits of Catholic trivia, the Immaculate Conception is one of the few cases where Thomas Aquinas ended up on the losing side of a theological argument.

A feast of Mary’s conception, often called the “Conception of St. Anne” (after the name of Mary’s mother as given in the second-century apocryphal text the Protevangelium of James) appeared in the Eastern Church in the seventh and eighth centuries. The feast, however, was not necessarily connected to the idea of Mary’s sinlessness.

This feast entered the Western church through Anglo-Saxon  monasteries in the ninth and tenth centuries. A few fathers penned elegies for it, which might have languished in obscurity were it not for the vehement denunciation one such tract drew from St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He objected that a feast of Mary’s conception did not belong to the ancient tradition of the Church.

Afterwards, a string of theological heavyweights lined up against the idea of Mary’s “immaculate conception”: St. Peter Damian, Peter the Lombard, Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and Aquinas.

Aquinas offered two basic arguments.

First, he insisted in no fewer than ten places in the Summa Theologica that Mary cannot have been redeemed if she never sinned. To say that she never sinned was tantamount to saying she didn’t need Christ’s redemption, which, Aquinas insisted, can’t be said. Hence there had to be at least a nano-second after conception when Mary carried the burden of original sin.

Second, Aquinas followed Augustine and much of medieval Christian thought in believing that original sin was necessarily transmitted by sexual reproduction. Since no one ever taught that Mary’s birth was virginal, this means her parents conceived her in the normal human way. Her conception thus cannot have been “immaculate” in the sense of free from sin.

Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus offered a way forward. He argued that Mary was indeed sanctified after conception, as Aquinas had insisted, because like all human beings she needed redemption. Yet this sequence (conception followed by redemption) occurs in Mary’s case in the order of nature, rather than in time. In other words, from a temporal point of view, her conception and redemption took place simultaneously, hence “immaculately.”

Even though history assigned Aquinas the cool theological moniker (“the angelic doctor”) while Scotus gave his name to a slang term for morons (“dunce”), it was Scotus who would be vindicated on this point.

The Dominicans and the Franciscans slugged it out for a few centuries, but, as is usually the case, popular enthusiasm for Mary trumped the theological fine print. The Dominicans eventually found themselves isolated as the lone major religious community that had not adopted an observance of the Immaculate Conception. In 1476, Sixtus IV extended the feast to the entire Latin Church. From that point on, belief in and devotion to the Immaculate Conception became deeply rooted in Catholic spirituality. When Jesuit Fr. Jacques Marquette explored North America in 1674, for example, he named several of his discoveries for “Mary Immaculate.”

Thus the formula of 1854 has a long history; it is not as if, to debunk at least one popular stereotype, Pius IX got out of bed one morning, felt in a dogmatic mood, and tossed off a declaration about the Virgin.

That said, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception remains challenging in contemporary theological reflection in at least three ways.

One is the conceptual question of whether the formula of 1854 is really adequate to overcome the objection raised by Aquinas – i.e., does the idea that Mary was conceived without original sin vitiate the universality of Christ’s redemption?

“That soteriological question needs to be further explored,” said Marianist Fr. Bertrand Buby of the International Marian Research Institute in Dayton, Ohio. “It will be interesting to see if John Paul says anything about that in Lourdes.”

Second, the Immaculate Conception is a headache in ecumenical circles.  Orthodox often see it as a classic case of the Latin Church translating the lofty poetry of Eastern iconography and liturgy into the prose of juridical and scholarly formulae, thereby distorting their content. Protestants have multiple objections: that it makes Mary into a quasi-divinity; that it suggests Mary “earned” salvation through her own merits rather than Christ’s grace; that it has little scriptural basis; and that it reflects an exaggerated notion of papal authority.

One question currently making the rounds in ecumenical dialogue is the extent to which Christian denominations that have not been part of the Catholic Church for several hundred years can, as a condition of unity, be asked to acquiesce to doctrines they had no role in formulating.

In this context, Buby said it would be helpful if John Paul II in Lourdes were to couch his approach to the dogma in scriptural rather than dogmatic or juridical terms.

“The scriptural texts were worked over much more than we think in presentation of the doctrine back in 1854,” Buby told NCR Aug. 10. “It will be through the scriptures, and a good exegesis of them, that we’ll make progress.”

Third, Catholic critics sometimes suggest that the point of the 1854 proclamation was more to flex papal muscles against the scientific rationalism of the age than to answer any genuine need for a dogma. Yet the dogma is a fact and the Church is not going to repeal it, so the theological challenge thus becomes reading it in ways that speak to the situation of contemporary Catholics.

* * *   

Perhaps the dominant emphasis in theological reflection on Mary today is to accent her humanity; in this sense, there’s a search for the “historical Mary” that parallels the famous quest for this historical Jesus. One locus classicus of this approach would be Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s 2003 book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum).

For those who want to recover Mary as a first century Jewish woman, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is generally not seen as especially helpful. It seems to privilege Mary, lifting her out of the normal human condition, rather than placing her in continuity with the rest of us. Strikingly, the term “immaculate conception” does not appear in the index of Johnson’s book.

Mary Hines, chair of the Religious Studies Department at Emmanuel College in Boston, told me Aug. 9 she thinks there’s a way to approach the Immaculate Conception from within this “continuity” framework.

“I would start with a contemporary theology of grace,” she said. “All human beings are touched from conception by the grace of God, and our project is living that out. The Immaculate Conception says that Mary is like everyone else, in the sense that all human lives should be full of grace. She epitomizes the Christian life.”

Hines quoted another female Catholic theologian, Sally Cuneen: “The Immaculate Conception and the Assumption say hopeful things about human nature.”

“Without the Immaculate Conception, we might be tempted to think that grace and guilt are somehow equal,” Hines said.

* * *

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s doctrinal agency, has come out against Turkey’s candidacy to join the European Union.

In an interview with the French publication Le Figaro, Ratzinger said that Turkey has always been “in permanent contrast to Europe,” and that it should look instead to play a leadership role in a network of Islamic states.

“In the course of history, Turkey has always represented a different continent,” Ratzinger said, giving as an example the Ottoman Empire, which once invaded Europe as far as Vienna.

“Making the two continents identical would be a mistake,” he said. “It would mean a loss of richness, the disappearance of the cultural to the benefit of economics.”

Ratzinger comes from Germany, where Turks make up the most numerous component of a growing Islamic minority. He said Turkey “could try to set up a cultural continent with neighboring Arab countries and become the leading figure of a culture with its own identity.”

The comments echo those of then-Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, at the time the Vatican’s foreign minister, in a May 2003 interview with Corriere della Sera.

Tauran said that in the current European Union, “All the countries share the same patrimony of values that are dear to Europe.” Rather than adding Turkey, he suggested that it might be “more opportune” to consider membership for Ukraine and Moldavia, two countries with an Orthodox Christian heritage.

It should be noted, however, that neither Ratzinger nor Tauran expressed the Holy See’s official position. When diplomats put the question to senior Vatican officials in the Secretariat of State, they are always told that the Holy See is “not necessarily opposed” to Turkey joining the EU. The two caveats usually mentioned are: the need for guarantees of religious liberty, including the country’s Christian minority; and the need for Europe to formally acknowledge its Christian roots.

Within broader circles of Catholic opinion, the pro-Turkey argument usually is that Turkey, where secularism is enshrined by law and policed vigilantly by the military, is the last, best chance for the emergence of a moderate Islam. There are powerful national movements, sometimes numbering in the millions, of faithful Muslims interested in reconciling Islamic values with modernity. (One example would be Fethullah Gulen and the “Turkish Islam” movement). The West, according to this view, should be doing everything in its power to ensure that the Turkish experiment does not fail.

The other view holds that Europe is already fatally confused about what it represents, and adding a nation with a scant five percent of its land mass in Europe, which represents a different cultural, historical and religious tradition, would simply add to the fog. If Turkey joins, why not Israel, as has sometimes been suggested? Why not any of a number of African nations? The urgent European project, according to this line of reasoning, is not willy-nilly expansion, but the recovery of a sense of what Europe stands for – what do Europeans believe? What are the values for which, if necessary, they would be willing to lay down their lives?

At a practical policy level, the prospect of Turkish membership poses several challenges:

  • Turkey’s population is already 71 million and is disproportionately young. By 2025, it would surpass Germany as the largest single member-state in the EU. How could the union admit Turkey, under its current rules, without Turkey becoming the 800-pound gorilla in the room?

  • Can the totalitarian style of rule to which Turks are accustomed really be tweaked sufficiently to bring it into compliance with the “Copenhagen criteria” on human rights and religious freedom, without letting loose the contagion of Islamic fundamentalism?

  • Would adding Turkey to the EU exacerbate the immigration problem that many European nations already perceive? Under EU rules, a migrant who reaches Turkey would theoretically be entitled to move freely practically anywhere in Europe.

Obviously, these are complicated questions that require some political heavy lifting.  The EU is scheduled to decide in December if Turkey should become a formal candidate for membership, and certainly the Vatican will be watching. Comparing Ratzinger’s interview with what one hears from the Secretariat of State, however, it seems less clear what the Vatican will be saying.

* * *

 September’s Atlantic Monthly carries a terrific piece of analysis by Paul Elie, a senior editor with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, titled “In Search of a Pope.” It’s a review of English-language writing on papal elections, and the heart of Elie’s critique is that those of us in the trade are asking the wrong questions. Instead of accidentals such as age, nationality or the number of languages a cardinal speaks, the real issue, according to Elie, is spirituality: “How authentic the faith of that man of faith is – how high his hopes, how deep his thoughts.”

In Elie’s view, most literature on the next conclave, from Xavier Rynne’s to Peter Hebblethewaite’s to my own, betrays a steady “triumph of process over character.” In other words, we’re more concerned with politics and organizational management than with the things that truly matter, and that means we’re likely to misfire when it comes to handicapping the papal succession.

It’s a provocative argument, and one that offers an important challenge.

To begin, Elie is certainly right that many questions journalists ask are not likely to be important in the next papal election.  The secular press, for example, obsesses over whether the next pope will be “conservative” or “liberal,” by which they usually mean conservative or liberal on sexual morality – abortion, gay rights, and women’s issues (especially ordination). By those criteria, every member of the College of Cardinals is fairly “conservative” by conventional standards.

Those of us in the “trade press” also get distracted, albeit in other ways. For one thing, we tend to share a mechanic’s love for taking apart the ecclesiastical engine and putting it back together again, trying to figure out what makes it tick. Because matters of faith and spirit are more difficult to subject to this kind of analysis, they sometimes elude us.

For another, when we’re asked to explain the Church to the outside world, our temptation is to use the vocabulary natural to secular political discourse – interest groups, issues, and candidacies. As Wittgenstein would say, the risk is a “category mistake,” i.e., force-fitting the Church’s reality into someone else’s intellectual system, thereby distorting it.

Bottom line: Vatican analysis runs the perennial risk of neglecting what is most distinctive about the selection of a pope. After all, the cardinals are not electing a corporate CEO or a prime minister, but a spiritual leader, and they will certainly want to ponder his religious vision. In that sense, Elie’s challenge is a good one. Instead of just asking where a papabile stands on collegiality or who should be the next Secretary of State, we should also seek to understand how he prays, what Christ means to him, how he understands the relationship between embracing the Cross and living the Resurrection. We should, in short, seek to understand something of his faith, and how that informs his view of the world.

At the same time, my instincts tell me there is something a bit romanticized about Elie’s reading, and it needs to be identified so as not to replace one set of misleading questions with another.

The history of conclaves suggests that popes are elected for a variety of reasons, and lofty spiritual considerations are not always at the top of the list. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was elected as Pius XII in 1939, based on testimonies from participants, largely because the world stood on the brink of war, and the cardinal-electors felt the need for a steady diplomatic hand at the rudder. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini was elected as Paul VI in 1963 because the majority of cardinals wanted to continue the Second Vatican Council, and Montini was seen as a moderate reformer who would give the council leeway but not allow things to careen too far out of control. (Had they been looking exclusively for spiritual vision, they probably would have tapped Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna; even Paul recognized it, saying to Lercaro after his election, “So that is the way life goes, your eminence, you should really be sitting here now.”)

It’s not that Pacelli or Montini were not spiritual men – far from it. But other qualities and considerations, at least in part, seem to have driven their elections.

I have never considered it my role to decide a priori what cardinals should consider when electing a pope, and then apply that framework to the candidates.

Instead, I try to talk to as many cardinals as possible, on and off the record, and let that drive my reporting. I must say, I rarely hear them using Elie’s kind of language. In some cases, it may be because they take for granted that a man’s spirituality must be at the heart of things. In other cases, it may be that they’re not great spiritual visionaries themselves, but practical men thinking in practical terms. In any event, my experience is that when I ask a cardinal, “What are the criteria you will use to pick a candidate?” most don’t respond in terms of “how high his hopes, how deep his depths.” It’s more common to start with whether or not the next pope should be an Italian, or what kind of background he’s had as a diocesan bishop, or what approach he would take to the relationship with Islam.

The single most common refrain I hear from many cardinals today, in fact, is that if anything John Paul II has been too much a visionary, too much a man of big dreams and soaring imagination, and not enough a governor. Many believe that the internal management of the Church has suffered on John Paul’s watch, and they hope the next pope will be more attentive to the nuts and bolts of routine administration – clerical discipline, episcopal appointments, coordination across the offices of the Roman Curia. This observation, I stress, is born not of a review of the literature on papal elections or my own spiritual reflections, but interviews with roughly half of the men who will actually cast ballots.

This doesn’t mean that I’m in a position to predict the next pope. Anyone who claims that kind of insight is either lying or self-delusional. I do, however, have a sense of what will be on the minds of some cardinals when the time comes, and it is not always what Paul Elie thinks it should be.

Let me add, however, that this is just musing set off by a provocative piece of writing.

My new book All the Pope’s Men is out from Doubleday. Those interested may find it at: (Direct Link)


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

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