National Catholic Reporter ®

September 20, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.4

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Vatican view on the sex abuse charter; no Catholic support for a war on Iraq; on more cardinals and papabili

“What is most worrisome is that the United States continues to consider military action as the most effective means to combat terrorism and an attack on Iraq as a priority. Beyond Arab and Muslim countries, isn’t there enough resentment in the world against the United States and the West?” 

Pasquale Borgomeo, SJ
Vatican Radio
In this week’s print edition of NCR, I report on the Vatican review of the American sex abuse norms adopted in Dallas in June. The bottom line seems to be that while the Vatican will affirm the intent of the U.S. bishops to protect children and young people, they are not going to approve the norms without revisions. Rome will invite the U.S. bishops into dialogue as to how the measures approved in Dallas can be made consistent with the universal law of the church.

     The Vatican is expected to make its reaction public in early October.

     The result has been widely expected and reported. In fact, I published a story the day of the Dallas vote, June 14, indicating that the norms would have trouble in Rome. Other media outlets have made the same point, including the New York Times last Saturday.

     Concerns are said to include confidentiality, the due process rights of accused priests, the broad definition of “sexual abuse,” the fact that the same penalty (permanent removal from ministry) applies to all offenses regardless of whether the punishment fits the crime, and the disregard of the statute of limitations in canon law (leading, in a few cases, to the removal of priests for a single offense some 20 or 30 years ago).

     In fairness, these are not just Vatican concerns. In my article, I quote from several critiques of the Dallas norms written by prominent American canon lawyers that make many of the same points. 

     I believe the overwhelming majority of the American bishops support in broad strokes the program they adopted in Dallas, meaning they are genuinely committed to making sure that any priest who poses a threat of sexual abuse is removed from ministry. I’m also aware, however, that many bishops have concerns about the Dallas norms at the level of detail. 

     Some believe a “one strike” policy isn’t always consistent with the gospel message of redemption. This was Pope John Paul’s point to the American cardinals in April: “We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person’s soul and can work extraordinary change.” This is especially so for bishops who have had to remove popular pastors whose offense lies decades in the past, whose backgrounds were known to the people they served, and whose communities did not want them to go.

     Some bishops also worry that the rush to remove abusers may neglect the rights of the accused, perhaps permanently altering the nature of their relationship with their priests. The same can be said for the question of their role vis-à-vis the civil authorities, and to what extent a bishop should function as an agent of law enforcement.

     Several U.S. bishops who voted for the norms in Dallas have told me they did so with reservations. A few have confessed that they actually hope the Vatican will ask for changes. Indeed, the politics here are rather topsy-turvy, with many of those bishops, clergy and pundits in the American church normally opposed to Vatican intervention quietly pulling for it in this case.

     Some readers are aware that I’m working on a new book about the Roman curia. When you talk to personnel in the curia, they will tell you that their relative isolation from local realities is both a curse and a blessing. It means they don’t always understand the complexities of a situation, and therefore can’t necessarily appreciate how a particular ruling or document is going to play out on the ground. It also means, however, that they are somewhat insulated from local political pressures, and so sometimes they can stand back and look at a difficult situation with a bit more calm.

     I know that for many Catholics, this curial pretense to serene, magisterial objectivity is irritating, especially when it seems to function as a rhetorical smokescreen for simple power plays. There is certainly ample evidence that this happens.

     Yet I believe there is a possibility that the Dallas norms could provide an illustration of how the system can work. Certainly few bishops would deny that their deliberations in Dallas were shaped, and not entirely in healthy ways, by the overwhelming public pressure for dramatic action. Now four months later, many American Catholics have nagging reservations about some aspects of the result. If the Vatican truly means what it seems poised to say, that it wants a dialogue with the U.S. church about how to revise the Dallas norms, Catholics could be offered a valuable lesson about how the church’s different layers of authority can apply their distinctive gifts to resolving problems.

     That of course is a big “if.” Much rides on the result.

* * *

     International Catholic opposition to a U.S. war against Iraq is becoming more and more vocal. Last week, I wrote about several Vatican officials who have raised doubts about the wisdom of a U.S. strike, including the pope’s “minister for foreign affairs,” Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran. 

     The latest to speak out is Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for the Rome archdiocese. Ruini, a powerful figure in this pontificate, gave his annual address this week to the permanent council of the Italian bishops’ conference, of which he is the president by papal appointment. (Italy is the only episcopal conference in the world where the pope taps the president, rather than allowing him to be elected by vote of the members).

     “That vast net of international solidarity that rapidly took shape after Sept. 11 now seems marked by growing tears, especially in its primary and traditional strong point, which is the close rapport between the United States of America and Western Europe,” Ruini said. “Differences with an economic origin, or on matters of international law, add up to a very dangerous divergence as to the way to guarantee security and combat terrorism.

     “In this regard, and with special attention to the attitude to be held on Iraq, without doubt the most rigorous vigilance is necessary in order to prevent the risk of new and greater tragedies, whose development would be quite difficult to control. But this does not mean that the path of a preventive war can be undertaken, which would have unacceptable human costs and extremely grave destabilizing effects on the entire Middle East region, and probably on all international relations. 

     “The weapon of dissuasion, exercised in the ambit of the United Nations with the strongest determination and with the sincere and engaged commitment of all countries capable of exercising a concrete influence, can represent, also in this difficult situation, an alternative able to guarantee security and peace. For its part, the Iraqi government obviously will have to give proof of realism and a willingness to find and respect agreements.”

     As with Tauran, Ruini’s anti-war comments mark a bit of a turn-around. He was among the European Catholic leaders sympathetic to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. On Oct. 24, at a press conference during the Synod of Bishops, Ruini answered questions about the morality of the American incursion in Afghanistan by referring to the “necessity of the fight against terrorism.” 

     Also worthy of note is a Sept. 3 broadcast by Jesuit Fr. Pasquale Borgomeo, the general director of Vatican Radio.

     “A year after Sept. 11, we feel like disappointed friends of the United States — but still friends. We believe in the cultural and moral potential of this great country more than in its technological and military might,” he said.

     “What is most worrisome is that the United States continues to consider military action as the most effective means to combat terrorism and an attack on Iraq as a priority,” Borgomeo said. Beyond Arab and Muslim countries, isn’t there enough resentment in the world against the United States and the West?” 

     “We in the West all considered ourselves Americans [after Sept. 11],” Borgomeo said. “Afterward, that resource of solidarity crumbled away.” 

     In Borgomeo’s case, this line does not represent a change of heart. In late September last year, during the pope’s trip to Kazakhstan, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls gave an interview to Reuters in which he indicated that the Holy See would understand if the Bush administration used force to curb terrorism. Borgomeo immediately went on the air to restate an appeal for peace the pope had launched the previous day, taking the unusual step of writing out his remarks and making them available to reporters. He also instructed Vatican Radio personnel to ignore Navarro’s comments and focus on the pope’s message. Obviously, Borgomeo and Navarro were on different pages.

     What is striking is that so far not one Vatican official, nor for that matter a lone Catholic prelate anywhere else in the world, has said anything supportive of a war in Iraq. That suggests a marked change from the post-Sept. 11 situation, and poses a real challenge to American diplomats.

* * *

     Last week I mused upon the prospect of a consistory next year to create new cardinals. In the meantime, another cardinal has died, one of the truly inspirational figures in the college: Francis Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân of Vietnam, who most recently had served as president of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice. As is well known, Van Thuân served 13 years in a communist prison in Vietnam, nine in solitary confinement. His book The Road of Hope: A Gospel from Prison recounts the experience.

     Before his battles with cancer restricted him to the Pius XI clinic, I met Van Thuân several times in and around Rome, and was always struck by his humility and his simplicity. NCR publisher Tom Fox, who speaks Vietnamese and knows the situation in Vietnam well, passed along this reaction.

     “Within minutes of his death, word flashed electronically around the world — Britain, the United States, France, Australia (where his family lived most recently), and, of course, Vietnam. The pride and expectation Vietnamese Catholics had in Thuân can be measured in a story — true or not — that Vietnamese Catholics enjoyed telling. It goes like this: When Pope John Paul II was in Assisi on his last trip, someone asked the pope whatever might happen to the church after his death. As the story goes, the pope looked over to Thuân, who was standing near by, answering with the remark: ‘Ask that man.’”

     Of course, Van Thuân’s death means he cannot be the man to carry the church forward after John Paul II. He was the only Asian on my “top twenty” list of papabili in my book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election. Today I would probably fill that slot with either Ivan Dias of Bombay, a seasoned church diplomat and a strong theological conservative, or Julius Riyadi Darmaatmadja, the Jesuit cardinal of Jakarta and one of the best-informed members of the college on Islam.

     With Van Thuân’s death, the number of cardinals eligible to elect the next pope falls to 116. If there is to be a consistory next year, the absence of Van Thuân makes it more likely that a couple of Asians will be among them. (The cardinals of both Hong Kong and Bangkok are also said to be in precarious health).

     One interesting question mark is whether Japanese Archbishop Stephen Hamao, who heads the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, will get the red hat. In keeping with the internationalization that Paul VI launched and John Paul II has vigorously pursued, the curia “needs” an Asian cardinal, and Hamao would be the obvious next in line. On the other hand, he recently signed a petition calling for a Third Vatican Council being circulated by a group of Catholic reformers, and is very much in step with the theological outlook of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, which raises eyebrows in some Vatican quarters. 

     If Hamao were to be tapped, he would make an interesting addition to the college indeed. 

* * *

     While popes cannot designate their successors, they can offer platforms from which favored prelates can make themselves known, can extend their network of influence, or can remedy perceived gaps in their preparation for higher office. Hence when a pope consistently appoints a certain person to high profile offices, that’s a sign of someone to watch.

     For those who pay attention to such things, it is noteworthy that John Paul named Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of São Paolo, Brazil, as a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Sept. 6, and a member of the Congregation for Bishops Sept. 14. Aside from the Secretariat of State, these are widely viewed as the two most powerful agencies within the Roman curia. At the CDF, Hummes will be at the table when important doctrinal questions are discussed; at bishops, he will be able to put in a good word for potential prelates, thus winning friends and influencing people.

     This is not the first sign of papal favor for Hummes, a Franciscan. He was asked last year to preach the Lenten retreat for the papal household, a task that once fell to Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow during the pontificate of Paul VI.

     Hummes is also on my “top twenty” list, and actually I usually put him among my top five when I’m asked that question on the road. He is bright, pastoral, moderate in outlook, terrific on social justice issues, but with enough caution and common sense that he doesn’t frighten or alienate people. Some Brazilian progressives are disappointed that Hummes has not followed more closely the line of his predecessor, fellow Franciscan Paulo Evaristo Arns, one of the great defenders of Latin American liberation theology. Others, however, say that one of Hummes’ most significant accomplishments is holding a divided archdiocese together.

     One weakness is the personality factor; he is not a great communicator, and is especially hesitant to talk about himself. A brief comparison makes the point. When I met Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Peru, the lone Opus Dei cardinal, at a Rome congress last year, I happened to ask him about his storied basketball career (he was a star player on a Peruvian team that won a Latin American championship). Cipriani lit up and couldn’t stop telling stories. When I interviewed Hummes, on the other hand, who is said to have been a mean soccer player, it took me ten minutes just to get him to tell me what position he played. He was convinced, and somewhat testily so, that this was “irrelevant.” Of course he’s right, but it’s human nature sometimes to be curious about irrelevancies, and a good leader knows how to turn that to his or her advantage.

     The pope also appointed six other people to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Sept. 6. Besides Hummes, three more are already cardinals: Polycarp Pengo of Tanzania, Crescenzio Sepe (an Italian who runs the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples), and Mario Pompedda (another Italian who heads the Apostolic Signatura). The other three are almost certainly cardinals-in-waiting. Two will probably be named in the next consistory: Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bordeaux, and Henryk Muszynski of Gniezno, Poland. The last is a cardinal for a future time: Salvatore Fisichella, the new rector of “the pope’s university,” the Lateran. (The man he replaced, Angelo Scola, is now the archbishop of Venice). Fisichella was a major consultant on John Paul’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (so much so that it’s jokingly known around Rome as Fisichella et Ratzinger). One, as they say, to watch.

* * *

     Finally, I spoke above of NCR publisher Tom Fox. Readers of “The Word from Rome” will want to know that Tom’s long-awaited new book on the church in Asia, called Pentecost in Asia: A New Way of Being Church, is out from Orbis Books. Tom is one of the few Westerners to have a real experiential feel for this subject. He covered the war in Vietnam, learned the language, and married a wonderful Vietnamese woman. He and his wife Hoa have traveled all over Asia, giving him the kind of insight that just can’t come from phone conversations and newspaper articles. It was Tom who brought the story of the new theological ideas bubbling in Asia to the rest of the world through his groundbreaking coverage of the 1998 Synod for Asia. 

     This is an unabashedly sympathetic look at the Catholic experiment in Asia, especially the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. It comes with praise from everybody who’s anybody in the Asian Catholic world, and although I have no right to number myself among such luminaries, I dare add my endorsement nevertheless. 

     If you like, you may order the book on-line from either Amazon or Barnes and Noble. 


     Barnes and Noble:

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

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