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 The Word From Rome

October 1, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 6

global perspective


"It's worse than reported."

Fr. Paul Zulehner, director of Vienna's Institute of Pastoral Theology,
commenting on the declining church membership in Austria

Condom debate frustrates; Irish church fails to develop child protection policies; Austrians leaving the church; Benedictines to move into Mater Ecclesiae convent


Most Catholics I know involved in HIV/AIDS relief are frustrated with the endless public controversy over condoms. Whether they're rock-solid behind the church's traditional ban, or think some flexibility is in order, they're virtually unanimous in believing that the condom debate has too often overshadowed the good work done by the Catholic church through its network of clinics, hospices, hospitals and AIDS education centers, above all in Africa.

Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, President of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Health, is fond of saying that 27 percent of all AIDS relief in the world is run by the Catholic church. Complaints that the church has turned a blind eye to AIDS can't be sustained against this commitment, whether it's Sant'Egidio's DREAM project in Mozambique that gets antiretroviral drugs to the poorest of the poor, or the Nyumbani orphanage in Kenya that provides a loving home for 94 HIV-positive children.

Yet the condom issue shows no signs of going away, and this week brought fresh evidence of the tension it's creating within Roman Catholicism.

One came from Barragan himself, in an interview with Rome-based reporter Stacy Meichtry, who is preparing a story on the church and AIDS for an upcoming issue of NCR.

Barragan's weariness with the topic was evident.

"I think by now we've said everything that's to be said regarding our position on condoms," he told Meichtry. "What we need to look at are comprehensive practices like those in Uganda which reduced AIDS infections through faithfulness and abstinence."

Yet Barragan opened the door slightly for a reevaluation of the blanket ban. While affirming that he opposes the distribution of condoms, because he believes it institutionalizes promiscuity, he said he finds condoms acceptable in social contexts where abstinence is not an option.

"If an infected husband wants to have sex with his wife who isn't infected, then she must defend herself by whatever means necessary," Barragan said. This position, he said, is consistent with the tenets of traditional Catholic moral theology, which teaches that acts of self-defense can extend to killing in order to not be killed.

"If a wife can defend herself from having sex by whatever means necessary, why not with a condom?" he said.

Barragan says this belief informs his decisions as head of the Council for Pastoral Health, but adds that his views are personal and do not speak for Pope John Paul II. "The Holy Father has never spoken explicitly on the subject," Barragan said.

The second indication of intra-Catholic ferment came from CAFOD, the leading Roman Catholic development agency. In a new position paper published in the Tablet, the agency, which comes under the aegis of the bishops of England and Wales, said anti-AIDS campaigns in the third world should be realistic and employ a range of methods.

"For many in Africa and Asia, sex is often the only commodity people have to exchange for food, school fees, exam results, employment or survival itself in situations of violence," said the paper by Ann Smith, HIV corporate strategist at CAFOD.

"There are immense social and cultural pressures on poor men and women to conform to accepted stereotypes: there are economic pressures that result from the break-up of families as migrant workers spend months on end far from their spouse and family support, plunged into unbearably harsh working and living conditions by exploitative local or multi-national employers."

In such conditions, the paper suggested, condoms may be the least bad option, especially for social groups such as prostitutes with the highest risk of infection.

"Any strategy that enables a person to move from a higher-risk activity towards the lower end of the continuum, CAFOD believes, is a valid risk reduction strategy," the paper said.

Yet while some voices in the Catholic world are raising questions, others are reaffirming the traditional position.

One such voice belongs to Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, long an unapologetic critic of the use of condoms to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In an interview with the BBC last year, Lopez Trujillo caused a furor when he claimed condoms are ineffective because the HIV virus is small enough to "easily pass through" latex. He also asserted that condoms encourage promiscuity, which he considers among the root causes of the pandemic.

In a paper entitled "Family Values versus Safe Sex," dated Dec. 1, 2003, but released to the press this week, Lopez Trujillo returns to the argument.

"Permeability and electric tests indicate that latex may allow passage of particles bigger than the HIV," he writes. "Likewise, holes and weak spots in condoms may be detected by tests, as can be seen in a 1998 article on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website. The FDA allows four leaking condoms in every batch of 1,000: hence, there could be hundreds of thousands or even millions of leaking condoms circulating all over the world, either sold or distributed for free, and most probably contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS and STD's."

Lopez Trujillo even suggests that condoms should carry warnings of their potential dangers, like cigarettes.

"The public has to be informed of the risks they expose themselves to, perhaps by requiring condoms to carry warning labels on their packaging and on the shelves and apparatus where they are displayed, stating that they do not guarantee total protection against HIV/AIDS and STD's, and that they are not safe," he writes.

Lopez Trujillo pulls no punches.

"Isn't it those promoting the condom without properly informing the public of its failure rates (both in its perfect use and in its typical use, and the cumulative risks), [who] have led to, lead to, and will continue to lead to the death of many?" he asks.

Comparing the statements from Barragan, CAFOD, and Lopez Trujillo, it is certainly not a case of total incoherence. All agree that the most effective risk reduction strategy is abstinence, all agree that condoms by themselves are not the solution.

Yet on the delicate question of whether, and to what extent, condoms may play a role in a more comprehensive response to the crisis, the best one can say is that there are discordant voices in the Catholic world.

* * *

In a development that will seem all too familiar to Americans who followed the sex abuse scandal in the States, a national commission set up in Ireland "to develop a comprehensive and integrated child protection policy" has ended in disagreement over whether bishops or lay professionals should decide how allegations of abuse are handled, and whether dioceses and religious communities can be compelled to follow a single set of national standards.

The church's position is that each bishop and superior holds ultimate responsibility in individual dioceses and religious orders, while lay members of the Working Group on Child Protection wanted lay child care professionals following a uniform policy to make the decisions.

To be clear, it's not that the bishops don't want lay assistance. Indeed, Dublin's Archbishop Diarmiud Martin recently reaffirmed his commitment to lay expertise. "I have no problem about having professional people coming in," he told the Irish Times Sept. 22. The discussion is instead over who has the final say on decisions such as whether to report a given accusation to the civil authorities.

The dispute parallels what happened in the United States in 2002, when the American bishops, acting after consultation with the Holy See, clarified that the lay review boards created under their Dallas "charter" on sex abuse play only a consultative role. Moreover, because the charter is not canonically binding (unlike a companion set of "norms"), bishops are in theory free to pick and choose which parts to apply. A handful, such as Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, has exercised that right. Religious orders have also developed their own policies, most notably a somewhat softer approach to the "one-strike" policy of automatic removal from ministry for even one act of sexual abuse.

This debate over where the buck stops, and whether dioceses and orders can be compelled to fall in line, is a classic case of how the corporate management theory that seems second nature to most Anglo-Saxons - emphasizing uniformity, accountability and checks and balances with respect to power - runs afoul of the traditional Catholic concern for the authority of bishops, as well as the stubbornly, and perhaps surprisingly, decentralized nature of Roman Catholicism.

Beyond the theological conviction that episcopal authority comes from Christ and is part of the divine constitution of the church, the concern for the power of bishops has deep historical roots. In the sixth to the ninth centuries, for example, when bishops were subservient to kings and nobles, the moral standards of the clergy sunk and the management of church affairs was shoddy. Similarly in the late Middle Ages, "absentee bishops" with little to do would collect a diocese's revenues but live, often in luxury, someplace else. This neglect allowed anomalies to flourish, including outlandish requests for indulgences, which helped trigger the Protestant Reformation.

Hence Rome has repeatedly stressed that a bishop is supreme in his diocese, making it almost impossible to compel a bishop to follow rules set by anyone other than the pope.

A second factor complicating the push for uniform national standards is strong resistance from religious orders, such as Franciscans and Jesuits, to being subsumed under diocesan authority. Canon 586 of the church's Code of Canon Law guarantees each order "a true autonomy of life, especially of governance." Religious orders have long seen such decentralization as a guarantee of their identity.

The Catholic church brings this context to its encounter with pressures for democratic reform from places where the sexual abuse crisis has been the most intense, such as the United States, Austria, and Ireland.

The Irish contretemps suggests that this "clash of cultures" is far from resolved.

* * *

I know many Spanish Catholics who voted for the Socialist candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in last March's elections, driven by opposition to conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Though Zapatero is a leftist, many Spanish Catholics felt his emphasis on peaceful resolution of conflict, and his strong social concern, were closer to the Catholic spirit than Aznar's more bellicose style. A Spanish Opus Dei member told me that even Opus Dei voters probably went 60-40 for Zapatero.

The first few months of Zapatero's reign, however, may be giving some of his Catholic supporters pause.

Since coming into office, the new government has already passed legislation liberalizing divorce. The Socialists have called for an end to religious instruction in schools and further easing of restrictions on abortion. They want a national debate on euthanasia and changes in the civil code to allow homosexuals to marry and adopt children.

This week, news broke that the party is drawing up proposals to reduce state funding of the church by one half and to ban the display of Christian symbols, e.g. the crucifix, from public places such as schools, prisons and military headquarters.

The use of public money for private schools, many of them run by the Catholic church, is also at the core of a row between the church and the city of Barcelona. The Catalan city's new socialist government, allied with Zapatero, has cut funding for many of the concertadas (subsidized private schools).

All of this is perhaps not terribly surprising, given that the Spanish left still carries bitter memories of the "national Catholicism" associated with the Franco years. It is perhaps a further indication, however, that in secular political systems as currently structured, the Catholic church isn't fully at home on either the left or the right.

* * *

A veteran Austrian sociologist and observer of the Catholic scene has called the current wave of defections from the church, with more than 10,000 from the Vienna archdiocese alone since July, a kind of Austrian "Chernobyl."

Fr. Paul Zulehner, director of Vienna's Institute of Pastoral Theology, spoke to NCR Sept. 28.

The hemorrhage coincides with a sex abuse scandal centered in the eastern diocese of Sankt Pölten, where over the summer some 40,000 pornographic images, including some depicting children, were discovered on computers at the local seminary. On Sept. 30, local media reported that the diocese's bishop, Kurt Krenn, had bowed to insistent demands and resigned. Vatican sources confirmed the resignation Oct. 1, but said that no official announcement was likely before Tuesday, Oct. 5.

Under Austrian law, Catholics who wish to be withdrawn from the state-administered "church tax," which amounts to one percent of income (roughly $350 per capita), must go to the offices of the local government to fill out a form. The number of people on the tax rolls provides a rough indicator of church membership.

Applications to withdraw from parishes in the Archdiocese of Vienna rose by 36 percent in July and by another 40 percent in August, according to church figures. As of Aug. 31, 10,709 people had left the church over those two months.

"It's worse than reported," Zulehner told NCR, saying that the number of defections was even higher in Krenn's diocese. In one small town, he said, the losses were up by 300 percent.

Zulehner said that the new bishop of Sankt Pölten must be a true "pontifex," i.e., a bridge-builder.

"He must come from the open middle of the church, someone who can heal the divisions among the polarized groups in this little diocese," he said. "Fortunately, we have a lot them."

Zulehner cautioned, however, that it would be a mistake to read the current spike in defections as entirely caused by the scandal in Sankt Pölten.

"There were already 20,000 to 30,000 people leaving annually even in the last years of Cardinal Franz König, when there weren't any big problems," he said. "This is a broader phenomenon of modernization and secularization."

Given that, Zulehner said, he does not expect that the current crop of defections will necessarily return to the church, even if the problems in Sankt Pölten are resolved.

Finally, Zulehner said, the losses in membership threaten to further complicate what was already a difficult financial situation for the Austrian church. The Vienna archdiocese, he said, already faced the need to slash its budget by 30 percent in coming years. The loss of 10,000 people in two months, representing $3.5 million in potential tax collections, is therefore an added blow.

* * *

The turmoil surrounding Krenn, which forms the latest chapter in a story that in some ways began in 1995 with sex abuse charges against the then-archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Gröer, threatens to overshadow what otherwise ought to be a celebration of Austrian Catholicism with Sunday's beatification of Emperor Karl.

The last Hapsburg monarch, whose complete name was Karl Franz Josef Ludwig Herbert George Otto Maria, died on April 1, 1922. He had a reputation as an exceptionally pious Catholic. When he proposed to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, for example, he took her to a Marian shrine at Mariazell, in Austria, and popped the question before the Blessed Sacrament, placing their marriage under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Backers of Karl's beatification regard him as a man of peace in an age of war, while critics say he was obsessed with prolonging the monarchy, clinging to his throne past the point of diminishing returns.

On June 18, 1914, with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Karl became the heir to the Austrian throne. In the early stages of World War I, he served as a commander known for personal decency. He forbade his troops, for example, to plunder, to engage in wanton destruction, or to use mustard gas. He also banned dueling.

When Franz Josef died, Karl became emperor. He immediately attempted to open secret peace talks, which did not come to fruition. Later Pope Benedict XV proposed a peace plan, and Karl alone among leaders of the belligerent powers accepted it. Karl also backed U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's 14-point peace plan, but by that stage he was no longer recognized as a head of state.

When the war ended, however, Karl refused to abdicate, saying his crown was a sacred trust. Austria's socialist government sent him into exile in Switzerland. In a later attempt to regain his crown, he was arrested by his own regent, Admiral Horthy of Hungary, and shipped off to the island of Madeira. Penniless, Karl caught pneumonia and influenza, and died at the age of 34.

Also to be beatified Oct. 3 is Sr. Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th century German nun known as the "mystic of the Münsterland." She has recently gained new notoriety, because Mel Gibson drew upon visions of the suffering and death of Jesus associated with Emmerich for his movie "The Passion of the Christ."

Critics have charged that those visions are anti-Semitic. Earlier this summer, the Anti-Defamation League expressed "great distress" over Emmerich's beatification. "At a time when Jews are concerned and disillusioned by Mel Gibson's film, 'The Passion of the Christ' and the renewed interest in Sr. Emmerich's book, we believe that the beatification of Anne Catherine Emmerich could cause harm to Christian-Jewish relations," said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. "The disturbing conclusion that could be drawn from this beatification is that her anti-Semitic views, even if only attributed to her, are being discounted."

Vatican officials, however, say that the visions associated with Emmerich cannot be considered her own work, because the writing was done by a German poet named Clemens Bretano, who functioned as a sort of secretary/interpreter. Officially speaking the literature that goes under her name cannot be addebitato, meaning "attributed," to Emmerich, and thus it was not part of the basis for her beatification.

Moreover, officials insist, a beatification or canonization never implies an endorsement of someone's theological or political views. It is a judgment about their personal sanctity, one that has been "ratified," so to speak, by the documentation of a miracle.

In Emmerich's case, her "heroic virtue" is said to have been manifest in her acceptance of a difficult situation in her Augustinian convent, followed by several years of private convalescence before she died in 1824. During that time she is said to have borne the stigmata, or the five wounds of Christ.

Finally, Vatican officials insist that the Mel Gibson movie had nothing to do with Emmerich's cause, which began in 1928. "It's simply an unhappy coincidence," one official told me.

* * *

Ten years ago, John Paul II had the idea of founding a monastic community within the walls of the Vatican. His idea was that a small, international community of contemplative religious women would pray for the pope, the Roman Curia and the universal church from the geographical heart of Catholicism.

So it was that the Mater Ecclesiae convent opened on May 13, 1994.

The convent is entrusted to a different community every five years. First up were the Poor Clares, then a group of Carmelites. On Oct. 7, eight Benedictine sisters will move in.

Sources in religious life say Mater Ecclesiae has been a classic case of what happens when people who admire the monastic life, but don't really understand it, try to set up a monastery. The original group of sisters was selected more or less randomly by the Secretariat of State from different parts of the world, all with different experiences of common life and liturgical practice, which almost always guarantees some internal tension. As for the eight Carmelites, some were chosen from the "discalced" branch of the order and some from the "ancient observance," again a prescription for awkwardness.

This time, however, the Benedictine sisters of the Abbey of Rosano, near Florence, were approached about playing the lead role. Their abbess, named Maria Stefania, laid down certain conditions. First, she said, she would supervise the selection of the sisters. Second, they would spend two months together at Rosano before moving into Mater Ecclesiae, learning the Italian language as well as learning something about one another. Next, she insisted that the sisters be able to get out of the monastery for at least a couple of hours each day in the Vatican gardens, and that they have access to a library.

Two Americans from the Abbey of St. Walburga in Virginia Dale, Colo., will be in the new group. Sr. Ancilla will be the sub-prioress, or second in charge, while Sr. Maria-Gabriel will presumably work in the kitchen, since she was the head cook at St. Walburga.

The Mater Ecclesiae convent occupies some 1,000 square yards of land, sheltered by the Vatican hill.

* * *

Speaking of the Benedictines, back in early September the respected Italian vaticanista Sandro Magister reported that they were about to lose the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, which has been home to a Benedictine community for some 1,300 years. Magister said the upstart Monastic Family Fraternity of Jesus, which takes a rather traditionalist approach to monastic life, would be taking over. He noted that among the admirers of the new community are Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Christoph Schönborn.

In fact, however, it does not appear that the Benedictines are going anywhere. A papal motu proprio shortly to be published will confirm the Benedictines' presence at San Paolo, though it will insist on the appointment of a cardinal-archpriest to govern the facility, as is already the practice at Rome's other major patriarchal basilicas of St. Peter's, St. John Lateran, and Santa Maria Maggiore.

The revived Benedictine community will have a special focus on ecumenism and spirituality, and will attempt to forge links with the state university, Roma Tre, located near the basilica.

The outcome culminates more than a year of work by a special commission set up in the Secretariat of State to resolve the status of St. Paul Outside the Walls, in effect left hanging since the seizure of the Papal States by the Italian government in 1870. When the Lateran Pacts were signed in 1929, the basilica was given back to the Catholic church, but to the Vatican rather than the Benedictines. This left the exact rights and responsibilities of the Benedictine community at the basilica unclear, and in typically unrushed Roman fashion, the matter has never really been ironed out. The new motu proprio will apparently make clear that the Benedictines own nothing at St. Paul's, but they do have responsibility for its spiritual care (along with some physical upkeep).

Given the relative lull at St. Paul's in recent years, rumors have long swirled that someone would be brought in to dislodge the Benedictines. (Inevitably, at one point Opus Dei was said to be interested). Sources say the revamped Benedictine community at St. Paul's will have a new prior with a new, more energetic mandate.

* * *

I received the sad news this week of the death of a long-time veteran of the Roman scene, Msgr. Burt Mouton. He died in Lafayette, La., on Sept. 23, with his sister, Sr. Sister Lyn Mouton, RSCJ, at his side.

After a long career in the Vatican diplomatic service and in the Roman Curia, Mouton spent the last years of his life as a canon at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and was a regular at Roman conferences, cultural events and embassy receptions.

Mouton became ill with cancer and returned to Lafayette this spring. Bishop Michael Jarrell presided over the funeral services Sept. 27.

I had tried a couple of times to reach Mouton this spring, in part to check in on his new boss, Cardinal Bernard Law, now the archpriest at Santa Maria Maggiore. Those calls went unanswered, and I now realize it's because Mouton was home struggling with his illness. I will long remember the delightful conversations we shared over dinners and drinks at various Roman locales, and his charmingly frank perspective on ecclesiastical matters. Mounton was a character, and he will be missed.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

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