National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly

?Sign Up Here For Weekly E-mail

 1 Archives  | 

 The Word From Rome

August 22, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 49

global perspective


"Certainly we have lots of things that fill up, or seem to fill up, our earthly lives. . . .We seek to satisfy ourselves with consumer goods. . .  And when we realize that our earthly paradise doesn’t make us happy, when the reality of death imposes itself as an ineluctable limit to our every illusion, then we become desperate."

Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi,
Archbishop of Milan


The pope’s too liberal; down on American culture; champion of  ‘dynamic orthodoxy’; Disowning ‘primacy of conscience’; hubbub in Holland; hot, hot, hot; some brief notes


Is John Paul II too liberal?

The question cuts against most conventional wisdom. If the man who said “no” to women’s ordination, gay marriage, and decentralization of power isn’t a conservative, many people would insist, then there’s no such animal.

But what if one has in mind not the sense in which Ted Kennedy is “liberal,” but in which virtually all Westerners are “liberals,” i.e., the classic notion of liberalism as belief in democracy, human rights, and free markets? If that’s the standard, then John Paul, though not uncritically, stacks up as a basically “liberal” pope.

Witness his proud claim that Christianity actually shaped the core tenets of liberalism in his August 17 Angelus address: “The Christian faith gave form [to Europe], and some of its fundamental values in turn inspired ‘the democratic ideal and the human rights’ of European modernity,” the Pope said.

Not everyone in the Catholic world approves. Although the movement has largely flown under media radar, John Paul faces a growing conservative opposition to this embrace of liberalism, understood in the classic sense.

“I wish the Pope were right,” said Catholic thinker Robert Kraynak of Colgate University, “but I don’t think it’s working out the way he expected. Human rights are not being used to serve the whole truth about God and man, despite the Pope’s continuous reminders.”

Who are these critics? In addition to Kraynak, they include influential Anglo-Saxon Catholic intellectuals such as Alasdair MacIntyre, David Schindler, and Tracey Rowland, whose works are fast becoming required reading in conservative Catholic circles, even if they represent, for now, a minority view. Most Anglo-Saxon Catholics, as creatures of Western culture, tend to take its compatibility with their religious beliefs for granted.

MacIntyre is a Scottish-born philosopher. Schindler, an American, is the editor of Communio, an international theological journal that serves as a platform for this school of thought. Rowland is dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

Members of the hierarchy such as American Cardinal Francis Stafford, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Archbishop Angelo Scola of Venice, Italy, and Archbishop Marc Ouellet of Quebec, Canada, can also be loosely identified with this circle of opinion.

Make no mistake — these are not “dissenters.” All are strong admirers of John Paul II. (In fact, many teach at “John Paul II” institutes in various parts of the world). All would pass the most stringent tests of orthodoxy. Yet all worry that the Pope, and the bulk of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, have gone too far in assimilating the values and vocabulary of modernity.

The key figure is MacIntyre, one of the fascinating personalities in 20th century intellectual history. Born the son of a doctor in Glasgow in 1929, MacIntyre studied at the University of London and other British universities, then began teaching. In 1947, he joined the Communist Party, and though he soon left, he continued to flirt with Trotsky-style socialism. In 1969, he moved to the United States where he taught at a succession of universities.

In 1981, MacIntyre published After Virtue, in which he posed his famous choice between Niezstche and Aristotle. Either ethics is the assertion of personal preference, as Nieztsche would have it, or it corresponds to something objectively real, as Aristotle believed.

In 1983, MacIntyre converted to the Catholic Church.

Through these twists and turns, the unifying constant in MacIntyre’s thought has been hostility to the bourgeois values of liberalism. MacIntyre tends to drive secular liberals crazy, since his point of departure is the same alienation from capitalism they feel, yet he arrives in a very different place: Thomism.

MacIntyre argues that when Thomists and secularists refer to human rights, for example, they sound like they’re saying the same thing, but this linguistic resemblance conceals radically different worldviews. Secularists emphasize rights because, having rejected the idea of an objective moral order, they exalt unfettered freedom. What freedom is for gets second shrift.

Kraynak, in his 2001 book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, lists five reasons why Christianity should be resistant to the ideology of human rights:

  • Duties to God and neighbor come before one’s own rights.

  • Pronouncements of a hierarchically structured church grounded in divine revelation take precedence over individual conscience.

  • Original sin implies distrust of weak and fallible human beings.

  • The common good must come before individuals.

  • Charity and sacrificial love are higher goods than the potentially selfish assertion of rights.

Some of these thinkers believe the concept of human rights can be “redeemed” by giving it a Christian content, which is John Paul’s project. Others, such as Kraynak and MacIntyre, believe it would be better to abandon the language of “rights” altogether.

John Paul is himself, of course, no unalloyed booster of liberalism. He coined the phrase “a culture of death” to describe its bioethics, and he has repeatedly criticized its rapacious capitalism. Most Communio-style thinkers are less concerned with the Pope than with the penetration of the liberal worldview into the Church’s bureaucratic structures, especially bishops’ conferences.

Lurking behind such debates is a broader analysis of the relationship between liberalism and Christianity. While “Whig Thomists” such as George Weigel and Michael Novak see a basic consistency, reflecting their drive to reconcile Catholicism with American patriotism, thinkers associated with the Communio school are more dubious. They tend to believe that liberalism is actually toxic for authentic Christian living.

The movement is so loosely organized it does not even have a name. Rowland has proposed “postmodern Augustinian Thomism,” though it’s hard to imagine that on a bumpersticker. Yet its skepticism about the compatibility between faith and culture has profound implications.

On social justice issues, it tends to push the Church into sharper confrontation with economic, political, and military policies based on the classic liberal worldview. Many observers were startled last spring, for example, when Stafford, known as a conservative, came out against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Anyone familiar with the doubts he harbors about the values of contemporary America, however, should not have been surprised. In that sense, the anti-liberal instinct favors social causes dear to the left, such as pacifism and advocacy for the poor.

At the same time, it tends to side with the right in internal church debates. By accenting what makes Catholicism distinct, it favors traditionalism in liturgy, art and architecture, and theology. It is skeptical about the characteristic structures of liberalism, such as bureaucracy and reliance on so-called “experts.” When the Vatican in April convened a symposium of non-Catholic scientific experts on sexual abuse, for example, the event played to generally good reviews as a sign that Rome was listening. Catholics steeped in MacIntyre’s thought, on the other hand, were dubious, wondering if “experts” who don’t share the Church’s moral and metaphysical assumptions would end up doing more harm than good.

The fear is, as Swiss theologian Hans Urs van Balthasar once warned, “a mere mechanical adoption of alien chains of thought with which one can adorn and garland the Christian understanding externally.”

This counter-cultural movement’s future is yet to be determined, but if nothing else, it illustrates the limits of “conservative” and “liberal” labels in sorting out the currents in the Catholic Church. The perils of liberalism, like so much else, are in the eye of the beholder.

* * *

I reached Kraynak by telephone at Colgate to discuss this negative judgment about Western, especially American, culture.

“I share that to a large degree,” Kraynak said. “The whole Enlightenment underlay is the problem.”

Kraynak argued, in fact, that the sexual abuse scandals in the American Church have their roots here.

“I trace the scandals to the corrosive effect of American culture on the Church,” Kraynak said. “It started with the sexual revolution, plus the unwillingness of the hierarchy to assert its authority in the proper way. They more or less concluded that we share with liberalism a concern for social justice, so sexual ethics aren’t so important.”

I asked if such a sweeping indictment of modern culture doesn’t risk a sort of self-imposed ghetto.

“In the extreme case it might come to that,” Kraynak candidly replied. “If Catholics have to live in a world in which our view of the family, of human sexuality, of raising one’s kids, is considered contemptible by the larger culture, it could come to that in a generation.”

“My parents’ generation lived more like ghetto Catholics than we do. They had an inferiority complex, but spiritually and morally it had many benefits. They were able to live a life that was separate from mass culture, but still part of America. And along with feelings of inferiority, they could take pride in their distinctiveness as ethnic Catholics.”

Kraynak acknowledged that it would be impossible to return to the self-enclosed Catholic world of 1950s-era America, but he said the search for an analogous “safe haven” will intensify if present cultural trends continue.

I asked Kraynak which figures in the American hierarchy he felt were most sympathetic to his concerns. He named Cardinals Francis George and Avery Dulles, along with Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska.

“They are keenly aware of the tensions between Catholicism and American culture, but they are in a minority, as far as I can tell.”

Obviously many Catholics would have reservations about the way Kraynak sizes things up, but he represents an important current of opinion, raising serious questions about the spiritual and moral dangers of consumer culture. This is a familiar discourse from the left; what is intriguing about this movement is that its energy and center of gravity is on the right, seeking to combine doctrinal orthodoxy with a strong counter-cultural impulse.

* * *

In the early 1990s, liberal Catholics placed great hope for the next papal election in Cardinals Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, Basil Hume of Westminster and Carlo Maria Martini of Milan. All were seen as theologically moderate-to-progressive, and all were pastoral men who supported more collegial governance in the Church.

Whether these hopes would have been realized is a matter for speculation, because Bernardin and Hume are dead and Martini is retired.

In their places are cardinals whose energy lies elsewhere. Bernardin’s successor in Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, is absorbed by the relationship between church and culture, and how it affects evangelization. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who followed Hume in England, is best known for his dialogue with Anglicanism and broader English society.

Perhaps nowhere, however, is the sea change more evident than in Milan. If Martini was the “loyal opposition,” Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, archbishop of Milan, is the quintessential John Paul II bishop — conservative on doctrine, progressive on social justice, champion of a self-confident Christianity unafraid to buck the cultural tide. Whereas the Bernardin-Hume-Martini axis pursued internal church reform, John Paul II bishops such as Tettamanzi see the main problem not as a crisis of structures but as a crisis of nerve. “Dynamic orthodoxy” is their motto, and sometimes it translates into a pugnacious approach to modernity that makes people who prize tolerance and dialogue nervous.

Tettamanzi’s August 15 sermon for the Feast of the Assumption, which made headlines in Italy, offered a classic expression of this point of view. He offered a pull-no-punches assessment of a “diffuse and grave error” in the West: “Immanentism,” or “the belief that a destiny beyond the earth for human life does not exist, that the lone prospect is a leap into darkness and a fall into the abyss of nothingness.”

“Certainly we have lots of things that fill up, or seem to fill up, our earthly lives,” Tettamanzi said. “We seek to satisfy ourselves with consumer goods, we pursue economic well-being as the lone guarantee of true quality of life, we worry in a sometimes spasmodic way about our physical health, as if we could somehow reach eternity that way.”

“We try to build a paradise on earth, because we no longer believe in paradise in Heaven,” Tettamanzi said. “And when we realize that our earthly paradise doesn’t make us happy, when the reality of death imposes itself as an ineluctable limit to our every illusion, then we become desperate.”

In this cultural context, Tettamanzi said, Christians have to have the courage to swim against the tide. “We believers risk being mocked and rejected by the contemporary world, especially on the European continent,” Tettamanzi candidly warned.

His comments generated wide comment in the Italian press. Philosopher Dario Antiseri called it an “exaggerated and pessimistic talk” that ignored a “great reciprocal respect” between believers and non-believers. He pointed out that during the student radicalism of the 1970s, Italian youth affiliated with the Comunione e Liberazione movement were assaulted on college campuses, something that certainly doesn’t happen today.

Historian Gabriele De Rosa said that Tettamanzi’s sermon “risks aggravating the mentality of being a victim.”

Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio movement, said that Tettamanzi’s comments were not intended as a “lament” but a “stimulus.” Tettamanzi is trying, Riccardi said, to energize believers in an era in which the church’s traditional enemies — communism and liberal anti-clericalism — are gone. Riccardi ironically quoted Cicero: “What will become of Rome without Carthage?”

Perhaps the most provocative reflection was a front-page essay in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, by Vatican writer Luigi Accattoli.

“The external observer leans toward imagining that it would be more profitable for the destiny of the Christian community, or at least for the fate of its relationship with European society, to maintain the policy of dialogue set out by Vatican II. A fight that endured centuries is not overcome in 40 years.”

Referring to the debate over the new European constitution, Accattoli wrote, “Perhaps it would be better for the leaders of the Church to look less at constitutional documents, and more into the hearts of the men and women of our time, who seem once again receptive to a religious invitation. There, at least, one can’t say that the believer is mocked and rejected.”

It will be worth paying careful attention in September when Tettamanzi issues his first pastoral letter as archbishop of Milan.

* * *

Last week I wrote about retired Bishop Ronald Philippe Bär of Holland, quoting reports in the Dutch press that he had been placed by the Vatican under a lifetime ban “from writing or speaking on any subject whatsoever.”

Dutch sources have clarified that the order came in the form of a letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. Moreover, it was not as sweeping as previously reported. The letter prohibits Bär from appearing on radio and TV, not from other public engagements.

I had also quoted Dutch sources to the effect that Bär’s recent involvement with the royal family might have been one motive for the action against him. While Re’s letter did not offer an explanation, other sources suggest it might have been triggered by a symposium on euthanasia two years ago. On that occasion, Bär commented that in a non-Catholic country such as Holland the government has a duty to regulate behavior to avoid lawlessness. In that sense, he said, he thought the “legalization” of euthanasia was defensible.

Another trigger may have been a May documentary on a liberal Dutch TV network looking back to John Paul II’s 1985 visit to the Netherlands, one of the rockiest of his pontificate. In the documentary, Cardinal Adrian Simonis lamented the protests that greeted the Pope, while Bär limited himself to saying that John Paul knew the situation in Holland before he came.

In any event, the clear intent of Re’s intervention is to lower Bär’s profile. That may not be easy, since one journalistic colleague in Holland told me that he remains “the only popular Catholic bishop in the Netherlands.”

By the way, in Dutch circles the Re letter has given rise to a pun. “Re” is Italian and is pronounced ray, so some observers are referring to the letter as a “Re ban,” like the sunglasses.

If you don’t think that’s hilarious, you don’t get Dutch humor.

* * *

Archbishop George Pell of Sydney, Australia is one of those figures people either love or hate. It’s tough to be indifferent — he’s a bulldog for doctrinal orthodoxy, unyielding in a fight, yet gracious and endowed with a good sense of humor. He doesn’t shrink from using terms such as “heresy” and “neo-pagan” that more diplomatic churchmen avoid.

A reader recently brought to my attention a lecture Pell gave on May 30, 2003, on the Second Vatican Council. It’s a valuable window onto the worldview Pell will carry into the College of Cardinals if, as expected, he is named to that honor in the next consistory.

In it, Pell makes the rather startling argument that references in Catholic moral theory to the “primacy of conscience” should be publicly disowned.

“Christians have no entitlement to define sins out of existence, to deny or ignore fundamental teachings of faith, by claiming that their consciences are free or that they believe in the primacy of conscience. There is no substitute for personal sincerity, and we honor striving for the truth. But our consciences can be mistaken, sometimes mistaken through our own fault. …

“It is somewhat misleading also to claim that our conscience is free. Free for what? We do not boast that we are free to tell lies, although usually lies do not put people in jail.

Neither do we boast that we are free to read our watch in any way we like, to get the time wrong intentionally. So too with conscience. Conscience is at the service of truth; it stands under God’s word. Conscience has no primacy. Truth has primacy. The Word of

God has primacy. … I believe that the mischievous doctrine of the primacy of conscience has been used to … justify many un-Catholic teachings, ranging from denying the divinity of Christ to legitimizing abortion and euthanasia.

“The so-called primacy of conscience offers no useful way forward in our current dilemmas,” Pell concluded.

* * *

Here in Europe, people find it difficult to talk about anything other than the relentless heat. Temperatures have hovered around 100 degrees each day since July. As one small sign of the times, I finally broke down and installed air conditioning in NCR’s Rome office.

Of course, my personal discomfort is insignificant compared to the very real suffering the heat is causing across the continent. In France alone, estimates are that as many as 5,000 people may have died from stroke or dehydration since August 7. Most at risk are elderly people, who are more sensitive to heat and tend to be isolated and without support.

In Italy, things are almost as bad. During the first 15 days of August, 476 Italians died in Turin due to the heat, 1,050 people in Rome, and 613 in Genoa. The death toll is so much above normal in Genoa that Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone has authorized funeral Masses on Sundays, something normally forbidden under liturgical rules. (A total of 33 funerals were held Sunday, August 17).

In such a situation, the church has at least two roles to play: offering prayer, and standing with those who suffer.

Pope John Paul II has done the former, urging people to pray for rain on Sunday, August 10, expressing concern both about the heat wave and the bushfires devouring large sections of forests on the continent.

“Vast fires have developed in these days in several nations in Europe, with particular intensity in Portugal, sparking deaths and enormous danger to the environment,” the Pope told a crowd of pilgrims and tourists in the courtyard of his summer residence in the hills outside of Rome.

“I invite all to join in my prayers for the victims of this calamity, and I exhort all to raise to the Lord fervent entreaties so that he may grant the relief of rain to the thirsty earth.”

As for the second, Bertone pointed out that in Genoa the archdiocese and the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the “new movements” in the Catholic Church, are involved in a joint project that sends volunteers into the homes of 2,000 elderly people, most of whom live alone. The idea is to keep track of their welfare and to help where needed.

“It doesn’t exhaust the demand, but it’s a good commitment,” Bertone said.

Sant’Egidio has published a guide for home-bound elderly to live a dignified life on their own. They’ve also organized a consciousness-raising campaign entitled “I need you in the summer too,” calling on people to be sensitive to the elderly in their buildings and neighborhoods. In the summer, shops close and public services are reduced, leaving the elderly vulnerable.

Sant’Egidio has thus called for “a civic sensibility that expresses itself in concern for those near us.” If ever such a spirit were needed, it’s right here, right now.

 * *

A few other quick notes.

    • Americans who lost power in the blackout last week might draw some comfort from the fact that the lights went out around the Vatican as well for a brief period on Sunday, August 17. The cupola and façade of St. Peter’s Basilica went completely dark in the early evening. The Bernini columns, however, remained fully illuminated. The Vatican did not make any statement about what caused the outage, but since there were no blackouts in surrounding neighborhoods, the Italian police said the problem had to be a technical one inside the Vatican. The Italian state energy company Acea provides power to the Vatican, but it has its own switching station to control distribution of the current.

    • On May 16, I reported on a proposal to create a new ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Israel for the tiny Hebrew-speaking Catholic community. The idea had been bogged down for years, in part because of rivalry among its proponents. One is the Work of St. James, the existing fraternity for Hebrew-speaking Catholics, under Benedictine Fr. Jean-Baptiste Gourion of the Monastery of the Resurrection in Abu Ghosh. Their dream is reconstructing the Christian church of the Acts of the Apostles, whose members lived as observant Jews. The other is Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger, who argues that the Catholic Church needs a voice within Israeli civil society. Both Gourion and Jaeger are converts from Judaism. On August 14, the Holy See resolved the debate by appointing Gourion an auxiliary bishop in Jerusalem with special responsibility for Hebrew-speaking Catholics. The solution stops short of creating a separate jurisdiction, but gives the Hebrew-speaking community a bishop, and “puts a face” on the Catholic Church in Israeli civil society. Benedictine sources say that Gourion has requested permission to continue living in his monastery at Abu Gosh, which the Secretariat of State has granted, and to continue serving as abbot, which is still under consideration.

    • Mongolia’s tiny about 136-strong Catholic community suffered a major disappointment this year when an anticipated papal trip in late August failed to materialize. On August 2, however, they received a kind of compensation when Monsignor Wens Padilla, a Scheut missionary who is the apostolic administrator in Mongolia, was named by the Holy See as a bishop. His consecration will be August 29 in the new cathedral in Ulan Bator; Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, will be the main celebrant. Catholicism only reached Mongolia, 96 percent of whose population adheres to Tibetan Buddhist Lamaism, in 1992, making this nation one of the few spots left on earth that is genuinely mission territory. Padilla has been here since the beginning, and his elevation to the episcopacy is a milestone for this fledgling church. In addition, it helps set the stage for an eventual papal visit. After all, Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, when asked in June about the proposed trip to Mongolia, responded, “There’s not even a bishop there!” One can’t say that anymore.

* * *

I mentioned that last week’s “Word from Rome” was the 100th. I was touched by how many readers took the time to drop a note of congratulations. Though I didn’t have the time to answer everyone personally, please know that I am deeply grateful.

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