All Things Catholic
?Signup for weekly e-mail alerts |  1 Archives  | *Send this page to a friend | 3Printer friendly version

Sept. 15, 2006
Vol. 6, No. 3

John L. Allen Jr.

NCR Senior 

Check Out
This Week's Issue 

 Login/ Register
All Things Catholic

John L. Allen Jr.

From Where I Stand

Joan Chittister

The Peace Pulpit

Thomas Gumbleton

 MORE. . . 
 Celebration Magazine
 Directory / Contact Us
 Electronic Edition
 Global Perspective
 Rome Bureau
 Special Documents
 Washington Bureau
 Writer's Desk Archive
A digest of links to media coverage of clergy abuse.

NCR's Latin America Series

The churches in Asia gather
Papal Coverage: Read NCR's 25 days of non-stop coverage of the death of John Paul II and the elction of Benedict XVI. This includes Sr. Joan Chittister's essays, An American Catholic in Rome
Online Gift Shop
Online Book Store
Catholic Colleges
& Universities
Click here for NCR Newspaper Display Ads
The above are advertising features of

Benedict's jihad remark; Benedict in Bavaria; Follow-ups: Brothers in leadership posts and more on evolution; New hires at Catholic University ; Roman Catholic, Orthodox dialogue resumes; Lecture at John Carroll University; Personal notes


Dear Reader of All Things Catholic,

We need your help. We are pleased to make available -- at no charge -- All Things Catholic. But we cannot do all we need to do without your financial assistance.

Please take a moment to consider contributing to the Friends of NCR campaign. National Catholic Reporter is a nonprofit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible in the United States.

Contributions may be sent to:
National Catholic Reporter
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO   64111

Make checks out to: NCR

If you wish, you may print a form for submitting your donation. You may also use this form for credit card donations.

Print a Contribution Form


Donate Now Online

Editor's Note: NCR is moving its e-mail lists to a new user-authenticated system. To continue to receive e-mail alerts for this column, you must re-subscribe before Oct. 12. Follow this link: Sign-up Page. The new system will help you and us control spam.

UPATED: John Allen updated this story with a report posted to Monday morning. Here's the link: Pope apologizes: 'Medieval text does not express my personal thought'.
A disucssion table opened on on this topic. Take a look: Papal apologies

I was forced to miss this week's trip by Benedict XVI to Bavaria due to lectures I had agreed months ago to give in Irvine , California , and Cleveland. Among other things, this means I had to pass up the world's best sausage and beer, and as I told both groups to which I spoke, they will never need additional evidence of the full measure of my devotion to their cause.

(It turns out that local Bavarian authorities banned the sale of beer during events on the papal itinerary, but the word from colleagues on the trip is that this did not prove an insurmountable obstacle).

Even at a distance, it's possible to offer some general observations about the Sept. 9-14 homecoming of Benedict XVI.

I have written before that Benedict XVI is not a PC pope. By that, I don't mean that he sets out to give offense; on the contrary, he's one of the most gracious figures ever to step on the world stage. Instead, he simply does not allow his thinking to be channeled by the taboos and fashions of ordinary public discourse.

For example, any PR consultant would have told the pope that if he wanted to make a point about the relationship between faith and reason, he shouldn't open up with a comparison between Islam and Christianity that would be widely understood as a criticism of Islam, suggesting that it's irrational and prone to violence. Yet that is precisely what Benedict did in his address to 1,500 students and faculty at the University of Regensburg on Wednesday, citing a 14th century dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a learned Persian.

News headlines immediately focused upon the pope's use of the term jihad and its implied swipe at Muslim-influenced terrorism, shaping up as something of a replay of the Danish cartoon controversy.

Cartoon of the Week
 ... in search of a caption

Promoting conversation through imagery and symbols.
Yet he brought up the dialogue between Paleologus and the Persian to make a different point. Under the influence of its Greek heritage, he said, Christianity represents a decisive choice in favor of the rationality of God. While Muslims may stress God's majesty and absolute transcendence, Christians believe it would contradict God's nature to act irrationally. He argued that the Gospel of John spoke the last word on the biblical concept of God: In the beginning was the logos, usually translated as word, but it is also the Greek term for reason.

The lecture, titled "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections," ran to almost 4,000 words (more than a half-hour of speaking time), and its main concern was with what Benedict sees as an artificial truncation of human reason in the West. Since the Reformation, he argued, Western thinkers have come to regard theology and metaphysics as unscientific.

That is problematic, Benedict said, on two counts.

First, it leaves reason mute before the great questions of life and death, questions about why we are here and how we should act.

"This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity," the pope said, "as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate."

Second, its logically self-defeating for science itself, which depends upon the assumption of order and reason in the universe, but cant explain why things should work that way in the first place.

"The question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought to philosophy and theology," the pope said. "For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding." http://johnallen.ncrcafe.orgDiscuss this topic
Two tables have opened on the NCRcafe discussing Benedict's apology and his approach to Islam. This is your invitation to join these conversations: Benedict's apology and Benedict's jihad remark
Ultimately, Benedict argued, a form of reason which rejects religious and philosophical thinking cannot promote dialogue with other cultures.

"In the Western world, it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid," he said. "Yet the world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures."

Whatever the merits of Benedict's argument, it is a subtle and carefully modulated analysis of Western intellectual history head and shoulders above the standard fare most leaders offer on the stump. Of course, that's not what the world is talking about right now, raising the question of whether Benedict could do with a dash more sensitivity to how wires in today's hair-trigger world are tripped.

The Vatican on Thursday issued a statement insisting that Benedict had no intention of giving offense, and that part of his argument at Regensburg was precisely in favor of respect of the religious convictions of humanity.

back to top
* * *

Aside from the fracas over Islam, Benedict has actually once again shown himself to be a figure singularly uninterested in grabbing headlines. In face of a rebellious Catholic community in Germany, Benedict might have used the occasion to issue a stern call to order, but he did nothing of the sort. Neither did he engage in much public breast-beating over general European declines in faith and practice. Nor did Benedict follow the model of John Paul II by going personal, using the details of his own biography to underscore points or openly letting his emotions flow.

Instead, in his public messages Benedict focused largely on the pastoral basics. Consider these words, addressed to German parents:

Please, go with your children to church and take part in the Sunday Eucharistic celebration! … Sunday becomes more beautiful, the whole week becomes more beautiful, when you go to Sunday Mass together. And please, pray together at home too: at meals and before going to bed. Prayer does not only bring us nearer to God but also nearer to one another.

As we have seen during his other public voyages, this is Benedict the pastor at work. For the most part, he avoids theological speculation or hard-hitting political commentary, striving instead to speak to the immediate spiritual needs of ordinary people.

E-mail Alerts
       To receive an e-mail notice when All Things Catholic is posted every week, sign up here.
      Click on the link at the top right of this page to send the column to a friend or colleague.
I wrote in Poland that when Benedict travels he has an intended audience in mind, and it certainly isn't the press corps. The Italian daily Corriere della Sera tried to profile it statistically on Tuesday, using the results of a recent poll on religious practice in Italy . (In general terms, the findings have parallels pretty much everywhere in the West).

The survey found that more than 90 percent of Italians describe themselves as Catholic, while just 25 percent go to Mass on a weekly basis. Twenty percent never go at all, and the remainder are clumped somewhere in the middle.

These in-betweeners still think of themselves as Catholic, still recognize the church as a moral and spiritual point of reference, but to varying degrees have drifted away from regular practice of the faith. They have a Catholic background, according to the poll, but are moving in the direction of progressive secularization.

That broad middle people not instinctively hostile to the church, but not wild about it either represents, according to Corriere, Benedict's potential market. His strategy seems to be to speak in positive tones about the Christian message, avoiding giving headline writers occasions to fashion banners along the lines of, "Pope condemns x". He's also offering a back to basics message, focusing on scripture, the church fathers, the devotional life and the sacraments, proposing that they offer the best way to satisfy post-modernity's need for meaning.

His gambit seems to be that by not feeding "the beast" -- to use the language of Washington about giving the media juicy sound-bites -- he can do an end-run around the normal filters of the secular press, allowing the natural categories of the Christian faith to fashion the discussion. The question, of course, is whether anyone outside the 25 percent of Catholics who are basically already with the pope, and who probably constitute the bulk of the crowds who have turned out in Bavaria to see him, will actually hear it.

On that front, only time will tell.

back to top
* * *

One other point from the Regensburg lecture.

Benedict documented three stages in what he called the attempt at "dehellenization" of Christianity, meaning the effort to strip it of its Greco-Roman heritage and return it to a state of "pure faith," which could be re-expressed in different cultural forms in other parts of the world. The stages are the Reformation, the liberal theology of the 19th and 20th century, and the current push for "cultural pluralism."

The pope referred to the argument for "dehellenization" as "not only false," but "coarse and lacking in precision."

"True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures," he said. "Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself."

This is a point with potential importance for the issue of "inculturation," or calls for Christianity to be shaped by the local cultures in which it finds itself. The debate is usually most intense in the developing world, where some theologians suggest that Christianity's European modes of expressions should be set aside to allow a genuinely African, or Asian, or Latin American form of the faith to emerge.

In the past, Benedict has argued that the term "inculturation" is imprecise, because it suggests that a pure faith comes into contact with a historically conditioned culture. The better term, he has suggested, is "inter-culturation," because Christianity itself is a culture. Some aspects of its Greco-Roman and European inheritance, Benedict has said, cannot simply be cast aside.

The choice in favor of reason would, judging from the Regensburg address, be one example of what the pope has in mind.

What all this suggests is that Benedict will judge calls for liturgical adaptation, for example, or "African theology" with caution.

back to top
* * *

Last week I carried an item about Br. Mark Schenk, a lay friar recently elected by the Capuchins to serve on their General Council in Rome. I noted this was believed to be a first for the order. http://johnallen.ncrcafe.orgJoin the Conversation
Have you ever read something in John Allen's column that you wanted to comment on? Do you wonder how other people react to column items?
NCR is introducing new participatory Web technology that will allow a community of people to read and respond to Allen's column and read others' comments as well. It is contained in a new Web site, we call Please accept this invitation to explore it. To add your comments, you must register. Because of the new technology, on the new site, Allen's column is divided into discrete sections -- so make sure you look at each part.
In the next few weeks, the traditional format that you see on this page will be replaced with the new site.
In the early hours after the column went up, many religious wrote to indicate that their communities have had lay members serving in similar leadership roles for some time. (Ironically, in some cases the people they wrote to tell me about are actually personal friends).

My point was not that the Capuchin election was a first, but merely that the Capuchins responded with self-restraint after the disappointment of not being able to elect a brother as a provincial, and that this illustrates something about how to "push the envelope" faithfully in the church.

The Capuchins are not the only ones to have had this experience. I heard from one religious who said that in 2002 a province in his community also elected a brother as provincial. The province has the method of consultative votes, with appointment by the superior general. Under the terms of canon law, the superior requested the recognition, or confirmation, of the appointment from the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life, popularly known as the "Congregation for Religious." It was refused.

As with the Capuchin case, the issue was jurisdiction over clergy. It was the same question that surrounded the appointment of Salesian Sr. Enrica Rosanna as under-secretary of the Congregation for Religious (to use the common designation).

All of this suggests that it's still a matter for ecclesiological reflection.

back to top
* * *

Two weeks ago I analyzed Benedict XVI's thinking on the Theory of Evolution, trying to make the point that it cannot be reduced to a simple "yes" or "no," and that his concerns are primarily philosophical rather than scientific. As far as the strictly scientific questions go, his thinking was expressed from his 1990 commentaries on Genesis titled In the Beginning: "It is the affair of the natural sciences to explain how the tree of life in particular continues to grow, and how new branches shoot out from it. This is not a matter for faith."

Obviously not everyone in the leadership ranks of global Christianity agrees, as illustrated in a story this week out of Kenya, where Protestant evangelical Bishop Boniface Adoyo has demanded that an exhibit of bones and skulls in Nairobi's National Museum of Kenya be removed.

"It's creating a big weapon against Christians that's killing our faith," Adoyo said. "When children go to museums they'll start believing we evolved from these apes."

Scientists consider the museum's collection to be unrivalled. Its fossils include those of the 4 million-year-old specimen, Australopithecus anamensis, and the 1.5 million-year-old remains of the Nariokotome boy, the most complete skeleton of an ancient human ever found. Many of these fossils were discovered by paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey in areas around Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana.

Strictly from a PR point of view, anti-evolutionary broadsides such as Adoyo's are part of what makes it difficult for many commentators not to overreact when more nuanced critiques are offered by figures such as Benedict or Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, who started the current round of Catholic debate with a critical essay in The New York Times last August.

back to top
* * *

Msgr. Kevin Irwin of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America is an impressive theologian in his own right; his 2005 book Models of the Eucharist (Paulist Press) was widely hailed for the way he plumbed the church's liturgical texts to illustrate key insights about the sacrament the church regards as the "source and summit" of its life.

Irwin is also proving to be a capable administrator. Under his leadership, Catholic University recently announced three new hires in his school of scholars with international reputations: Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, formerly of Rome's Alphonsian Academy; Fr. Paul McPartlan of the University of London, a leading expert in ecumenism and a member of the International Theological Commission, the main advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Fr. John Paul Heil of the Kenrick-Glennon Seminary's School of Theology in St. Louis, who writes on New Testament studies.

All three are considered broadly centrist in their theological views, and are prized across borders of geography, discipline and perspective for the quality of their scholarship. Johnstone will be missed in Rome, where he was widely regarded by the press as a go-to source on moral questions, but he will be a valuable addition to Catholic conversation in the United States.

back to top
* * *

On Monday, the International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church resumes its activity with a Sept. 18-25 session in Belgrade, Serbia.

Many experts aren't holding their breath expecting great breakthroughs, but optimism nevertheless abounds in ecumenical circles, for whom the mere resumption of the talks after a six-year hiatus represents a victory.

In a message to Catholic clergy and laity in Russia, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Moscow struck a hopeful note.

"This good news has inspired hope for development of Catholic-Orthodox relations. By God's mercy, we resume discussing problems to be settled on our way towards unity," he said last week.

Kondrusiewicz said that the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches "in their defense of moral values in face of the challenges of secularism, moral relativism and ever more threatening liberalism, should confirm their desire of unity in practice."

He was not, however, unreservedly sanguine.

"With all the complexity of the problems, it is naïve to believe that the resuming talks would be easy and able to settle all the problems of our relationships. It should be remembered, however, that ecumenical dialogue is an expression of the will of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit and we all are called to be instruments in His hands."

Kondrusiewicz asked everyone to pray for the dialogue.

back to top
* * *

Yesterday I spoke at Cleveland's John Carroll University on current affairs in the global church. In part, I tried to sum up what the first 18 months of Benedict's papacy have taught us about his spirit and outlook. The following was my introduction, which synthesizes one lesson I think we've learned over that time.

back to top
* * *

Though I realize this may seem a quirky way to begin -- even, dare I say it, "unorthodox" -- I'm going to open this "insider's view of the Vatican" by invoking two men who were anything but Vatican insiders: George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton. While Chesterton was a zealous convert to Catholicism, he swam the Tiber only in a metaphorical sense; so far as we know, he never set foot in any office of the Roman Curia. Shaw was a socialist and free-thinker who saw God merely as an élan vital within the natural world. He had little use for institutional Christianity, and precious little for the Vatican. Yet the friendship between Chesterton and Shaw nevertheless offers a fruitful means of putting ourselves "inside the Vatican" in the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

More on that in a moment.

First, back to Chesterton and Shaw. These were, of course, two of the most epigrammatic writers in the history of English letters, each with a razor-sharp wit and a devastating sense of humor. Perhaps only Oscar Wilde consistently produced more memorable one-liners.

Examples of the wit and wisdom of Gilbert Keith Chesterton include:

  • "The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right."
  • "It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged." (This comment, you in Cleveland will be happy to know, came in a 1921 interview with The Cleveland Press).
  • Lamenting the decline of historical science in England, Chesterton once sighed, "The past is not what it was."
  • And, finally, the inscrutable observation, "Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."

If anything, Shaw's catalog of quotable quotes is even more sparkling. A few well-known examples include:

  • "If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion."
  • "A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul."
  • Speaking of a woman whose company he detested, Shaw said: "She had lost the art of conversation, but not, alas, the power of speech."
  • And, finally, the inscription on Shaw's tombstone: "I knew if I stayed around long enough, something like this would happen."

Their penchant for pith was not the only thing Chesterton and Shaw shared. Both were also unrepentant egomaniacs. Chesterton generated certitudes at roughly the same rate that the rest of us exhale, while Shaw once told a newspaper reporter, "I am the most impressive man in London. And you may quote that on my authority."

In other ways, Chesterton and Shaw could not have been more dissimilar. Aside from their philosophical disagreements, Chesterton was a big bear of a man who loved the dinner table; he once compared the Catholic church to "a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar," and it was obviously meant as a compliment. Shaw, on the other hand, was a strict vegetarian who spent most of his life rake-thin. The story goes that Chesterton once said to Shaw, "To look at you, people would think there's a famine in England," to which Shaw responded, "To look at you, they'd think you caused it!"

Yet these two men cherished one another, the orthodox gourmand and the abstemious socialist. Shaw loaned Chesterton money and urged him to try playwriting, which wound up earning Chesterton more income than most of his other literary works. Chesterton in turn deeply admired the humanity and the moral seriousness of Shaw; when his friend died, Chesterton wrote, "In a sweeter and more solid civilization, he would have been a great saint."

How was Chesterton able to keep friendships green with figures who had such diverse worldviews? In part, because Chesterton embodied a spirit of self-confidence that animated Catholic intellectual life in the early 20th century. There was a sense of having survived the worst blows secularity had to offer: the French Revolution, Darwin, historical-critical study of the Bible, and the collapse of the Papal States. All were supposed to have doomed Catholicism, yet here orthodoxy stood, generating giants such as Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Paul Claudel, and a host of others. Chesterton and his generation did not fear "contamination" with alien ideas; on the contrary, they were convinced the false promises of secularity had far more to fear from the Christian gospel. To be sure, Chesterton despised heresy with the best of them, but his delight came not in burning heretics, but in refuting them.

It's striking that in his day, Chesterton's friendships with radicals and atheists never generated controversy. (He was also close friends with H.G. Wells; he, Shaw and Wells actually once made a short farcical film together). Today we live in a different age, in which Catholic identity concerns and ideological polarization have made it far more problematic for the lion to lay down with the lamb. Imagine the reaction today if it emerged, for example, that George Weigel borrows money from John Kerry, or that Mother Angelica admires the writings of Joan Chittister.

Imagine, for that matter, what people might think if Pope Benedict XVI were friends with Hans Küng.

And therein lies the rub, because of course Pope Benedict XVI is friends with Hans Küng, who for three decades has been the enfant terrible of Catholic theology. The two men's warm reunion one year ago makes the point. My thesis is this: After 18 months of Benedict's papacy, one defining characteristic is what we might call his "Chestertonian assurance," a tranquility in the face of diverse currents of thought, as well as the respect that one deeply cultured soul naturally feels for another.

By the way, I am not comparing Benedict and Chesterton on a personal level. Chesterton was irascible and curmudgeonly; Benedict, on the other hand, is unfailingly gracious, polite, and kind. As a personality type, he's closer to Emily Post. Yet Benedict breathes the same air of Christian enlightenment as Chesterton. His approach to modernity is neither the craven assimilation that Jacques Maritain described as "kneeling before the world," nor the defensiveness of a "Taliban Catholicism" that knows only how to excoriate and condemn.

Facing disagreement and differing cultural visions, Benedict is not afraid -- and because he's not afraid, he's not defensive, and he's not in a hurry.

Such a spirit is largely alien to our fractured and hair-trigger era, and so Benedict has been something of a paradox- this avatar of Catholic traditionalism espousing a positive message, willing to engage in reasoned reflection with people who don't think like him. For 18 months, people have been speculating about when the "real pope" will emerge from beneath this serene, gracious façade. Ladies and gentleman, I suggest to you tonight that the façade is the real pope.

back to top
* * *

Finally, a couple of personal notes.

I mentioned some time ago that a valued friend and colleague in the Vatican press corps, Orazio Petrosillo, had suffered a serious heart attack. Now misfortune has struck another member of the tribe, the longtime Rome correspondent of The Irish Times, Paddy Agnew. He's suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and is being cared for in Rome's Gemelli Hospital.

Anyone who knows Agnew realizes you'll never meet a nicer man, and one hopes his recovery will be swift and complete.

Finally, word reached me this week that my high school English teacher and newspaper advisor, David Wessling, died late Wednesday. He was a giant of a man, both physically and intellectually. To a great extent, it was Wessling who taught me to write, to love words and to approach language with reverence. Unfortunately, my powers of expression are still inadequate to capture everything he meant to me and to the others he touched, so suffice it to say the world is a less eloquent place without him.

For Petrosillo, Agnew and Wessling, and their families, I ask your prayers.

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

Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2006 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280