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 The Word From Rome

September 26, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 5



One is no longer a Catholic by birth. That is good. I think that a moral choice is more perfect when it is made by a free man. And I prepare myself for a smaller Church because I know very well that a decision made freely is always more demanding than being one of the herd.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels
speaking about secularization

Reporting from North America; Liturgy document tussle; Eucharistic discipline in northern Europe; Cardinal Godfried Danneels


This week’s “Word” comes not from Rome but from the United States and Canada, where I completed a brief speaking tour before heading off to rural Western Kansas for a few days with my family. The experience proved the adage, “You can take the correspondent out of Rome, but you can’t take Rome out of the correspondent.” In the age of e-mail, cell phones and laptops, none of us are ever really off the job, and in fact the news caught up with me even in Hill City, Kansas, population roughly 3,000. I did a series of “beepers,” meaning telephone interviews, on the pope’s health from my grandpa’s bedside at Dawson’s Place in Hill City, probably the first live media hits from that particular location in quite some time.

The highlights of the speaking tour came on Sept. 17 in Cleveland at John Carroll University, with a couple of appearances arranged by the Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens Center, run by one of the most dynamic and creative personalities in American Catholicism, a laywoman and impresario named Doris Donnelly. In the Toronto area Sept. 18-19, I delivered the Somerville Lecture, hosted by St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo and the Catholic Register.

The more I move around on the lecture circuit, the more confident I become that despite the trauma of the sexual abuse scandal, the polarization of the church, and any number of other challenges, the Catholic community in North America also has tremendous resources. They include an educated laity that cares deeply about the future of the church, and institutions (such as Catholic universities and Catholic media) engaged in creative ways with social and ecclesiastical issues. Seeing these resources at work is a reassuring experience, especially for reporters who in the last 18 months have been overwhelmed with bad-news stories about the Catholic church.

* * *

You know that a Vatican story has penetrated popular consciousness when, over breakfast at the lone restaurant open in the mornings in Hill City, the local pastor ambles over to ask, “So what’s this I hear about the Vatican banning altar girls?”

The reference was to a series of wire service reports that circulated early in the week, precipitated by a story in the Italian Catholic monthly Jesus magazine concerning a forthcoming Vatican document on liturgical abuses. We have known since John Paul II issued his encyclical on the Eucharist in April that such a document was in the works, and I have periodically offered updates in this column. It is a joint project of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship, with two English speakers, American Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia of the CDF and Fr. Anthony Ward of the CDW, leading the six-member drafting team.

The story in Jesus was based on a version of this document distributed to consultors and cardinal-members of the two congregations on June 5. Since that time, the two congregations met in an unusual plenary assembly and decided that the draft needed more work, so at this stage it’s not clear what final form it will take. The document is not projected for release until later this fall at the earliest, and perhaps 2004. Its content will, for the most part, amount to a repetition of existing church law.

Automatically, this background calls for reporting the document’s contents, since we don’t actually know its final form. Caution, however, is a quality in short supply in today’s news cycles, and quickly stories began bouncing around the world that the Vatican was banning altar girls.

Not so.

First, the document’s contents are still being determined. Second, even the draft that was the basis of the Jesus report did not contain a ban on altar girls. It stated that their use should be justified by a “valid pastoral motive,” and that priests should never feel compelled to use them. One can of course debate the need for such language, but a “ban” this is not.

How did the story get started? Someone over-interpreted the language in the Jesus article, and because it appeared in Italian and used the rather alien vocabulary of church law, few reporters were in a position to verify the early reports. Hence they replicated themselves on the Internet until, maybe 24 hours later, reality finally caught up.

In the now-superannuated June 5 draft, the document contained 200 paragraphs and 37 main “abuses.” It stipulated that it is the right of every Catholic to denounce liturgical abuses, first of all to their bishop, but also to the Holy See. The document insists that people who complain about abuses must be treated with respect, stressing that all have the right to defend their good name.

While the early draft of the document does move in the direction of a more restrained and orderly liturgy, its language appears to be phrased in terms of recommendations rather than edicts, which means that it may change very little at the level of practice.

One chief concern is to drive home the distinction between ordained priests and deacons on the one hand, and lay pastoral workers on the other. The document insists that laity perform only those roles in the liturgy that church law opens to them, and refrain from every other role, including that of preaching. The concern here seems to be not to blur the unique role of the ordained celebrant.

The document also calls for reverence and sobriety in liturgical celebrations, frowning upon the use of clapping and dancing, and says there should be no demands placed on liturgists to adopt such extraneous practices.

The document speaks in favor of restoring communion rails where they have been removed, a feature of church design associated with pre-Vatican II architecture, and recommends against use of the phrase “Eucharistic hospitality” to designate joint communion services with Protestants. Non-Catholic ministers should not stand alongside Catholic priests during concelebrated Masses, or offer “blessings” in such a context.

The document rules out “self-service” in the distribution of communion, and urges decorum in the distribution of communion under both species.

The document calls upon bishops to renew their national liturgical commissions as well as to seek out new experts “solid in the Catholic faith and truly prepared in theological and cultural matters.” This is a reference to a widespread perception in Rome that many professional Catholic liturgists, especially in Europe and North America, tend to be overly progressive in their approach. Liturgical experimentation, even by bishops’ conferences, is forbidden without the approval of the Congregation for Worship.

Even details such as liturgical dress and a ban on headwear not envisioned by the liturgy itself are treated.

Sources in Rome say the general drift of discussion as the June 29 plenary assembly was that the document should be shorter, less detailed, and perhaps could omit some points already covered in existing law.

Bottom line: right now we don’t know what the Vatican is going to say. Based on this June 5 draft, it appears the document will strengthen the hand of those Catholics who prefer a by-the-book approach to liturgy, but will steer clear of draconian new rules that would turn existing practice on its head.

Altar girls, in other words, are here to stay.

* * *

Everything in the forthcoming document concerning altar girls, by the way, is already contained in church law. The Congregation for Divine Worship wrote to the presidents of bishops’ conferences in March 1994 on altar girls, pointing out that the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts had in 1992 ruled that canon 230§2 allowed for girls as well as boys to assist at the altar. The pontifical council held, however, that the Latin term possunt in the code meant that while girls can assist, no priest can be forced to call them to this service against his will.

The Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain Bishops for specific local reasons on the basis of the provisions of canon 230§2. At the same time, however, the Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue,” the letter read.

“If in some diocese, on the basis of canon 230§2, the bishop permits that, for particular reasons, women may also serve at the altar, this decision must be clearly explained to the faithful, in the light of the above-mentioned norm,” the letter continued. “It shall also be made clear that the norm is already being widely applied, by the fact that women frequently serve as lectors in the Liturgy and can also be called upon to distribute Holy Communion as Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist and to carry out other functions, according to the provisions of the same Canon 230§3.”

“It must also be clearly understood that the liturgical services mentioned above are carried out by lay people ex temporanea deputatione, according to the judgment of the Bishop, without lay people, be they men or women, having any right to exercise them.”

Critics sometimes point out that no document of Vatican II refers to the use of altar girls, which is perfectly true. Whether the practice is consistent with the general thrust of the council is, of course, another matter.

The basic reason for the Vatican’s ambivalence about altar girls is clearly related to the priesthood. Officials like to see boys in this role, since it may awaken interest in a priestly vocation. They worry about girls serving, for exactly the same reason.

* * *

The other big Vatican story this week has been the pope’s health, in light of the cancellation of his Sept. 24 audience due to what the Vatican called “intestinal problems.” In the past few days I’ve done any number of broadcast bits on this subject, tied in also to the pope’s obvious frailty during the Sept. 11-14 Slovakia trip.

I dealt with this subject in last week’s column, so I’ll be brief here. Bottom line: the pope is visibly weaker and more limited than he was in Croatia and Bosnia in June, but there is no indication that he is at death’s door. In fact, independent of a bolt from the blue -- a sudden fall, a cold that triggers unforeseen complications -- I suspect John Paul could continue for years to come. We all undoubtedly have examples in our own lives of frail elderly relatives who, with good care and strong determination, lived in that condition for a very long time.

None of that, of course, reassures nervous editors and network producers, who understand the one great truth: someday, the pope will die, and nobody wants to be caught unprepared. For that reason, John Paul’s 25th anniversary on Oct. 16 will attract strong media interest, in part because news organizations want to “work the bugs” out of their conclave plans. They have been doing so for the better part of a decade now, of course, and may continue to do so for years to come.

So if you’re looking for a preview of coming attractions, watch the way American TV covers the anniversary and the Mother Teresa beatification in mid-October. It’s likely to be a week of “all pope, all the time.”

* * *

A few weeks ago (Word From Rome, Aug. 15) I reported on the case of German Fr. Gotthold Hasenhuettl, a priest and theologian who officiated at a May 29 inter-communion service in Germany in the context of a joint national celebration between Catholics and Protestants, the first one in 500 years. Hasenhuettl distributed communion to both Catholics and Protestants. On July 1, Hasenhuettl received a letter from Bishop Rienhard Marx of Trier, the home diocese of Saarland University where Hasenhuettl is a professor of theology. Marx announced he would suspend Hasenhuettl from both his teaching position and the priesthood on July 16 if he did not sign a statement renouncing his actions.

In an exclusive interview with NCR, Hasenhuettl comments on his case. Some of his arguments will illustrate why the Vatican harbors special concern for the issue of Eucharistic discipline in northern Europe.

What is the status of your case?
Without having spoken to me, Bishop Marx of Trier issued an ultimatum. On July 7, 2003, I was asked to sign a statement that I repented of having invited Protestants to the Lord’s Eucharist. I also had to promise never to do this again. I refused to sign this statement for reasons of conscience and ethical responsibility.
On July 17, 2003, I was suspended from saying Mass by Marx, who additionally announced that he would revoke my nihil obstat (official permission to teach theology). As I appealed to the Holy See on July 18, 2003, the suspension is postponed, so I am allowed to go on lecturing until the Holy See issues its ruling.

Why did you opt to violate canonical discipline in this way?
I am firmly convinced that I did not violate canonical law.

Although it is true co-celebration and inter-communion are forbidden, Pope John Paul II states in his encyclical “Ecclesia de Eucharistia” that communion may be administered to Protestants under certain circumstances. Without any doubt, the First Ecumenical Church Congress in Berlin after nearly 500 years must be considered such a “certain circumstance.” I did not invite the Protestant Church to take part in the Eucharist, but only the individuals who attended this Ecumenical service combined with a Catholic Mass. I only acted contrary to some German bishops’ requests, but not contrary to canonical law.

What do you say to the Vatican argument that Eucharistic sharing has to follow unity in faith and ministry?
This argument is frequently used, but is basically wrong.

Even the title of the encyclical states that “the Church lives on the Eucharist” and not vice versa, and that “the Eucharist creates community” (no. 40). It is Jesus Christ himself by whom unity in faith is constituted. He did not exclude anyone, not even Judas. So it is that we can pray, “Take, eat, all of you” and “Drink, all of you, of this.”

If these words are the truth I, as a priest, must not exclude anyone who is longing for a life in communion with the Lord. Only when gathering around the Lord’s table is the community of faith constituted. And this is the base on which common ecclesiastical structures can develop.

I cannot deny any Protestant person’s belief in Christ. And consequently it is mutual invitation to the Eucharist with which unity in faith begins. Anyway, to start with Professor Karl Rahner, the European Ecumenical Institutes and many German Bishops maintain there is no essential difference between Protestants and Catholics — and rightly so. The validity of Protestant ordination is not the issue as I, as an ordained priest, presided over a Catholic Mass.

Why does this seem to be a special issue in Germany?
It is because German bishops are misusing the Eucharist in order to delimit the Catholic Church from the other denominations. A claim of power, that is the whole point! Absolute and blind obedience that disregards ethical responsibility is being requested. Protestants are given a snub and are considered second-class Christians. Only when accepting the hierarchical claim to power are they admitted to the community, but as “lost sheep.” It is this hierarchical claim to sole representation that ought to be abandoned. There is no other way but dialogue between the denominations on an equal level in order to change things in favor of a future for the Church of Jesus Christ.

* * *

Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, 70, is widely considered a leading papabile, or contender to be the next pope, because of his theological erudition and his open, affirmative attitude.  Recently he gave an interview in connection with the 75th anniversary of the University of Tilburg on Sept. 5, 2003, which made news around the world because of his comments on women in the Church.

Recently a colleague sent me the full text of that interview, which took place in English. Here is the relevant section on women:

Women are more religious than men in all European countries. Do you have an explanation for this fact?
That is a highly intriguing matter. But I only have hypotheses about it, no explanation. I think that women are more sensitive, more perceptive to non-material matters such as religion, art or love. In that sense, they have a thinner skin. They are more connected with or embedded in the cosmos, in nature and life, perhaps also because the woman carries the child. It has also captivated me that most revelations in the Bible are made to women, and that the Pythia of Delphi were also women. But who am I to talk about this subject? I’m not an expert in the psychology of women.

Although the women are more religious, the Church is a man’s world. The Church may be a man in composition, but in itself she is a woman. The Church is never called our father, but our mother. Today the actual power structure in the Church is male, but it shouldn’t have to be that way. It is just that government in the Church has long been closely linked with the priesthood. But I think that priest structure and power structure in principle don’t need to be one and the same. Both my vicars are women, and I see no reason why a woman should not head a Roman congregation.

I don’t see that happening, a woman in charge in Rome.
Maybe not in Rome, but Rome is not the whole Church. We, the periphery, are also part of the Catholic church. Rome has always been conservative, but so is Brussels or The Hague.

It’s worth noting that Danneels’ reply here contradicts comments made by fellow Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte in response to my question about women in the curia at a June 28 Vatican press conference.

“Right now the dicasteries have jurisdiction, and so they participate in episcopal authority. We’re a hierarchical organization and power comes from ordination. So for now, there cannot be a woman,” Schotte said. “If the job is redefined, you could have a woman, but then it would not be the same dicastery as we think of now when people say there should be a woman.”

This clash between Danneels and Schotte illustrates a point I am constantly striving to make, which is that the College of Cardinals is a body of intelligent, strong-willed men who often have strongly differing visions and ideas about the future of the church. Hence the potential for surprise in the election of the next pope is far greater than many people realize.

A Dutch colleague of mine sought out Danneels for a follow-up interview regarding his comments on women. This is what Danneels told him:

“I only repeated what I am saying already for 20 years,” Danneels said. “Women must get a more important place in the administration of the Catholic church. I am surprised that what I said got such a media response now. Most probably because this book was launched at a press conference of the university and attended by a clever journalist. But be sure: I am not willing to commit a putsch against the Curia.”

Danneels also had some interesting comments about secularization in that Tilburg interview.

You say that secularization is in essence a good thing, but it reduces the number of Catholics dramatically.
Secularization forces one to make a very conscious choice about one’s beliefs. One is no longer a Catholic by birth. That is good. I think that a moral choice is more perfect when it is made by a free man. And I prepare myself for a smaller Church because I know very well that a decision made freely is always more demanding than being one of the herd.

* * *

While my wife and I were in the Toronto area, we were the houseguests of the Basilian Fathers and, more specifically, Fr. Thomas Rosica, who was the brains behind World Youth Day in 2002 and is now the CEO of the start-up Salt and Light Television Network. It’s an attempt to build a Catholic TV network in Canada that’s hopeful and inclusive, while also thoroughly grounded in the tradition and magisterium of the Catholic Church.

That’s a tall order, but if anyone is capable of pulling it off, it’s Rosica.

Catholics are 43.5 percent of the Canadian population, some 12.8 million people, and thus represent a potentially vast audience for specialized programming. The trick, of course, is putting something on the air that Catholics actually want to see. Rosica has just the right sensibility, since he managed to figure out how to draw legions of excited young people to a religious festival in the heart of ultra-secularized Toronto. Initially, the network will draw upon programming from Vatican TV, the Italian Catholic cable channels SAT 2000 and Telepace, plus Paoline Communications, St. Anthony Messenger, and the National Catholic Broadcasting Council. Eventual plans call for at least 15 percent of all content to be Canadian-produced.

Right now some of the logistical bugs are still being worked out of the system. For example, Rosica told me that some cable systems with a sense of humor had placed Salt and Light in their line-ups smack dab in the middle of porn channels, so that bewildered viewers trying to tune in often got something of a shock. He’s working with those systems to find a more suitable digital neighborhood.

I met Rosica’s team, who strike me as intelligent and dedicated Catholic professionals. One wishes them every success.

Readers of “The Word from Rome” in Canada may want to ask their local cable or satellite provider about the availability of “Salt and Light,” or help to spread the word in parishes and other Catholic venues. More information can be found at

* * *

While moving around North America this week, I stopped in Chicago at the invitation of the Jewish Federation for some frank conversation about Vatican politics, currents in American Jewish opinion, and the state of Catholic/Jewish relations. It was a terrific day, which drove home for me anew how complex both of our communities — Catholic and Jewish — really are.

One project brought to my attention in Chicago struck me as especially impressive.

The Jewish Federation and the Chicago archdiocese are collaborating on what they call the Fassouta Computer Literacy Project, the aim of which is to teach vocational skills to the residents of a village in Israel’s Galilee region. What makes the project noteworthy is that the residents of Fassouta are Arab Christians not Jews.

The idea is to address the most burning issue for Christians in the Holy Land, which is the dramatic out-migration in recent years. Today more Christians born in Jerusalem live in Sydney, Australia, than in the city of their birth. More Christians from Beth Jallah now reside in Belize in Central America than are left in Beth Jallah itself.  In Bethlehem, the city of Christ’s birth, the Christian population was reduced from a 60 percent majority in 1990 to a 20 percent minority in 2001, meaning some 23,000 persons.  In Iraq, the situation is similar. Some 200,000 Christians have left since the first Gulf War. At the start of 1991, the Catholic population of Baghdad was more than 500,000. Today, Catholics number about 175,000. “It's like a biblical exodus,” one Vatican official told NCR in mid-February 2003.

“If a vital Christian community is to be maintained in Israel, so that the Christian presence there is more than a caretaker of shrines, Christians will need real opportunities in the form of education and jobs,” said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in a July 21 news release.

The project creates a computer literacy training center in Fassouta, a village of 3,000 Melkite Catholics. Local administrators say that over three years, some $100,000 will be needed to purchase and install computers and software, establish an infrastructure and train residents. The archdiocese and the Jewish Federation have each pledged to raise $50,000 from private donors to cover those costs.

I suppose it’s fairly obvious why Catholics would be attracted to the project. But what’s the interest of the Jewish Federation?

In part, it’s a matter of showing good manners in the on-going dialogue with the Chicago archdiocese. In part, it’s about the same thing all non-profits launch service projects for – good PR.

Yet Rabbi Yehiel Poupko told me Sept. 23 there’s something else at stake.

“We know what it’s like to be a persecuted minority,” Poupko said. “Now that we’re a majority, we want to do the right thing.”

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

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