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October 7, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 6

John L. Allen Jr.


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The synod so far; How to report on a synod; A view from Moscow; Document on homosexuals in seminaries will not create an absolute ban; Catholic left and right square off


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NCR is posting daily news coverage of the 21st Synod of Bishops, which runs from Oct. 2 to Oct. 23 and is dedicated to the theme of the Eucharist. The latest report and links to all the coverage can be found here: Celibacy, priest shortage continue to dominate discussions.

In light of that material, I won't dedicate much space here to a "current events" roundup of this week's action.

For specialists in liturgy and sacramental theology, the synod has offered a cornucopia of points of interest. For the broader public, however, probably the single most striking conversation so far has focused on the reality of priest shortages worldwide, and the related question of priestly celibacy.

It should be noted that to date, no one on the synod floor has directly called for a relaxation in the celibacy requirement. The only participant so far who has even mentioned the idea of ordination for the viri probati, or "tested married men," has been the relator, Cardinal Angelo Scola, who himself seemed opposed to the idea.

On the other hand, several synod fathers have come out in favor of maintaining the celibacy rule, including bishops from the East, who have said that married priests in the Orthodox churches tend to create as many problems as they solve.

Some bishops believe the answer to priest shortages lies not in structural reforms, but basic "elbow grease" on the part of bishops, priests and laity to generate new vocations.

As one bishop put it during open discussion Wednesday night, "We need to stop complaining and start working."

Yet several bishops have argued in favor of wider reflection and consultation on the issue, in a way that suggests some desire for a reconsideration of the traditional discipline.

Just this morning, such calls were hard from bishops from New Zealand and England. Bishop Dennis George Brown of Hamilton, New Zealand, for example, talked about the difficulties of providing priests to isolated Catholic communities on islands strung across a million square miles of ocean, and insisted that although small, those communities have the same right to the Eucharist as large urban parishes.

In any event, the striking thing is not so much the absence of quick consensus, since this is a complicated issue that requires careful thought, but the very fact of the discussion. Pope Benedict XVI wanted this synod to be an open forum for talking about real issues, and evidence to date suggests that by and large it's shaping up that way.

It may be worth recalling that historically, the first week and a half is often the most interesting period during a Synod of Bishops.

In the early days of the synod, when participants can talk about anything they like, they have the chance to start conversations, to break taboos and to send signals to the wider church, the impact of which may far outlive the synod itself. Hence the real question is whether participants rise to the occasion to take advantage of the "turn at bat" the synod represents, and the experience of the first week suggests that's happening.

Read more NCR coverage of the synod on the Eucharist
  • Report #17: Final draft rebuffs Latin Mass; priest shortage, divorce squarely on church’s pastoral agenda Posted Oct. 20, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #16: Gregory: Little change expected but synod had honest talk of pastoral realities Posted Oct. 19, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #15: Draft propositions do not recommend changes in church discipline Posted Oct. 18, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #14: Women’s voices heard through interventions of 12 synod auditors Posted Oct. 17, 12:15 p.m.
  • Report #13: Statement on married priests likely in final list of proposals Posted Oct. 17, 12:00 p.m.
  • Report #12: Outreach to Latin Mass Catholics proposed for final message Posted Oct. 15, 9:32 a.m.
  • Report #11: Problems acknowledged, synod bishops seek middle ground solutions. Posted Oct. 13, 1:15 p.m.
  • Report #10: Despite frank talk, few breakthroughs expected from synod. Posted Oct. 12, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #9: Key synod themes seem clear, but consensus may be elusive. Posted Oct. 11, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #8: Inculturation of liturgy sparks debate at this and past synods of bishops. Posted Oct. 10., 11:30 a.m.
  • Report #7: Bishops of Global South link Eucharist and justice, local cultures. Posted Oct. 8., 9:52 a.m.
  • Report #6: Discussion of celibacy and marriage clergy continue to hold center stage. Posted Oct. 6, 10:21 a.m.
  • Report #5: Environment, social justice emerge as eucharistic themes. Posted Oct. 6, 10:30 a.m.
  • Report #4: Divorced, remarried Catholics topics of frank synod discussions.Posted Oct. 5, 3:00 p.m.
  • Report #3: Priest shortage continues to roil synod of bishops. Posted Oct. 4, 2:01 p.m.
  • Report #2: Movements appeal for changes to make Eucharist more accessible. Posted Oct. 4, 2:00 p.m.
  • Report #1: Priest shortage takes center stage on synod's first day. Posted Oct. 3, 3:04 p.m.
  • The Word From Rome: Preview of the synod on the Eucharist. Posted Sept. 30, 8:05 a.m.
  • Read The Word From Rome columns
  • Latin Mass a non-issue; Interview with Bishop Skylstad; Scola's 17 questions to guide the synod. Posted Oct. 14, 10:46 a.m.
  • The synod so far; How to report on a synod; A view from Moscow; Document on homosexuals in seminaries will not create an absolute ban; Catholic left and right square off. Posted Oct. 7, 11:55 a.m.
  • Preview of the synod on the Eucharist. Posted Sept. 30, 8:05 a.m.
  • These discussions thus have the potential to unleash energy and reflection across the church, which may continue long after the roughly 350 participants at the synod have gone home.

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    * * *

    Perhaps the most important rule change in the synod decreed by Pope Benedict XVI is the provision for one hour of open debate on the floor each evening between 6 p.m. and 7 pm. For an institution never particularly comfortable with unscripted events, one especially vexing question is how much of this "open exchange" to reveal to the public.

    On the one hand, synod officials recognize that the wider Catholic world has a legitimate interest in following the business being conducted in its name. The church, after all, is not just a bishops' club. At the same time, officials also worry that these "open discussions" will become artificial and stilted if everything participants say winds up in the next day's paper.

    On Monday, the policy in the Vatican press office was to have no policy -- the people giving briefings to the press in different languages could do whatever they wanted, and thus the Italian group learned that Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham had questioned the theological basis of celibacy, bringing a brief response from Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice. That story loomed large in write-ups from day one.

    On Tuesday, the briefer for the English language press, Legionary of Christ Fr. John Bartunek, a doctoral candidate at the Legionaries' Regina Apostolorum campus in Rome, told reporters that he would only provide the topics on which people spoke in the open discussion, not the content of what they said. Veteran Reuters bureau chief Phil Pullella pressed for where this decision had come from, and after some confusion and failed attempts at clarification, it became clear that this was a decision made by synod officials in response to concerns expressed the day before.

    On Wednesday, Bartunek announced yet another new policy. Archbishop Nikola Eterovi?, the secretary-general of the synod, apparently announced the evening before that instead of giving names without content, the briefers would provide content without names. That is, they would provide a summary of what each person said during the open discussion, but without the names of who said it.

    In fact, all of these gymnastics probably matter more at the level of symbolism than any real impact on information control, since with 350 people listening every evening, it's inevitable that who said what will become public knowledge fairly quickly. Yesterday, for example, synod sources identified to me the speaker who urged Wednesday night that the real presence of Christ be emphasized above and beyond his other "presences" in believers, in the community, in scripture, and so on, as Cardinal George Pell of Australia.

    It's hardly the biggest thunderbolt in the world. When reporters were told that this speaker had insisted "we're not pantheists" in commenting on the dangers of too loose a sense of the presence of Christ in the world, those who know Pell's penchant for blunt talk exchanged knowing glances.

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    * * *

    One lens to apply to the synod of bishops is how its themes break down by geography.

    To date, Western Europeans, especially the French and German bishops, have offered the weightiest theological reflections, focusing on questions such as the real presence of Christ, transubstantiation, and the sacrificial character of the Mass. Bishops from the developing world have been more likely to discuss the priest shortage, inculturation, and the link between the Eucharist and challenges such as social justice and ecology.

    Bishops from the nations of the former Soviet sphere, on the other hand, have so far focused mainly on two key ideas: 1) keeping alive the memory of the sacrifices made by believers in those regions to remain true to the faith; 2) the need for careful, reverent adherence to liturgical norms. The latter point has been so consistent that one synod father referred to an "Eastern front" on the issue. In part, this may reflect the cultural reality that Orthodoxy puts a high premium on precise celebration of liturgical rites, and Catholics in majority Orthodox nations are no doubt influenced by that expectation.

    To understand this dynamic, I sat down Thursday afternoon with Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow. The following are excerpts from our interview.

    For Russian Catholics, what are the most important issues in this synod?
    Kondrusiewicz: "For me personally, I would say accuracy in celebrating the Mass and the liturgy. I'm very sensitive to this expression of our faith. My seminarians know this about me very well; I believe very much in lex orandi, lex credendi, 'the law of worship is the law of faith.' The Mass is not the property of the priest. It was established by Christ, and its essentials come from above. The church can change some things, as it did after the Second Vatican Council, but it does so in the form of norms, and we have to preserve them. It's not some kind of show for the priest to arrange according to his own whims.

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    "In Russia, for 70 years we had very few opportunities to celebrate the Eucharist. Officially there were only two churches open, in Moscow and Leningrad. There was little understanding of the Mass and of the Eucharist. Step by step, this has changed, and has changed a lot. We started adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in Moscow seven years ago, and at the time many people wondered, 'What is this?' Now they ask for it. In every parish in my archdiocese, there is adoration at least once a week. This gives the people an understanding of what the Eucharist means. Now we are also restoring the practice of Eucharistic processions, something else we didn't have for 70 years. Since about 1998 or 1999, we have had an annual Corpus Domini procession. Children carry flowers and so on. Russian journalists call me in the spring and ask when it's going to take place, since there is nothing comparable in the Orthodox church."

    Why is the theme of adherence to liturgical norms so prominent in the interventions from Eastern European bishops?
    "Maybe we're just more traditional, I don't know. Generally, we feel that failure to preserve the norms and to be accurate in the liturgical rites is one of many reasons that causes the faith of the people to decline. If there is no piety, if there is no accuracy, if the priest is doing I don't know what … if the priest doesn't seem to take the Mass seriously, why should the people? I recall a story about a stranger who went to Mass in Lithuania, a secular person, who came away saying, 'The choir was very good, the congregation was polite, but that actor in front I didn't like." The point is, even this secular person could see that the priest was not serious. I'm afraid of a decline in the sense of the sacred. You know, in Russian each priest is called 'holy father,' because his hands touch the sacred elements. The Orthodox have a very strong sense of this too. If the priest is not pious, not accurate, if he doesn't perform each part of the Mass with care, people notice."

    "This point also concerns the physical design of our churches. When I enter a church, I want to know immediately where the Holy Sacrament is located, the tabernacle. It's not always easy to find in modern churches. It's the same with confession … the confessionals should be prominent in churches, and we must make use of them. I go into some churches [in the West], and I find that the hours of confession are from 4 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. This isn't serious. I grew up in the Soviet Union, and our pastors confessed for hours and hours, even when it was difficult to do so. I recall one story from Byelorussia, abut a parish where the people had lined up for more than an hour for confession when they realized the priest was not coming. One lady in the congregation said, 'When we confess, the priest is acting as Christ. There's Christ on that crucifix, behind the altar. Let's put him in the confessional and confess to him." They took down the crucifix, put it inside the confessional, and went to confession. It's a moving story, and it shows how hungry people are. People need this."

    As a pastor, are you concerned with the issue of inter-communion for Orthodox Christians?
    "Generally speaking, the Russian Orthodox recognize all seven sacraments of the Catholic church, and we recognize theirs. When an Orthodox liturgy is not available, we can give communion to the Orthodox, and likewise Catholics can receive the Orthodox Eucharist when a Catholic Mass is not available.

    "My pastoral problem is different. There are lay groups in Russia, largely made up of Orthodox people, who come to Catholic Masses, for example on Christmas and Easter. They like to participate and receive communion. It's not that Orthodox liturgies aren't available, but that they want to celebrate with us. What should I do? Usually, they don't declare that they're Orthodox, so if they come forward I give them communion. But it would be helpful to have some clarification. What's our position? What should we do? My approach is that I never turn people away, but it would be good to have some common policy."

    When Benedict XVI was elected, many people hoped for a breakthrough in relations with the Russian Orthodox. Do you see one?
    "I suppose the best answer is, 'We'll see.' One senses that there are some little changes, some signs of hope, but always you have to be patient. … So far, Benedict XVI has been received very well in Russia. He's seen as very strong in his positions as a theologian. I know that in the West some people say he's very conservative, but for most Russian Orthodox they say that's a good thing; it unites us."

    Is the reopening of the international theological dialogue with the Orthodox a positive sign?
    "Yes, it's positive. I also believe the visit of Benedict XVI to Bari was a positive step, where he reached out to the Orthodox and talked about convoking some kind of common synod, a sobor. These things were widely followed in Russia, including within the Moscow Patriarchate."

    There's been a lot of talk so far about the priest shortage, which some link with a reconsideration of mandatory celibacy for priests in the Western church. You've had the chance to see how a married priesthood works in the Orthodox churches. What do you think?
    "I was at the Synod of Bishops on the priesthood in 1990, and it was much the same discussion. Some bishops were saying that if we had married priests we would have more candidates and so on. One of the Byzantine rite bishops replied, 'It's not a solution.' That's my experience too. I don't like to speak for the Western world, but at least in our society, we don't see [relaxing celibacy] as a solution. Nobody is raising it.

    "If there were married priests, then the priest has a family, children, a wife. His kids are in school, and his wife has a career. What happens when a bishop wants to send him to another parish? It's a problem. A priest is supposed to dedicate himself totally to his flock, but obviously a man with a wife and children has to be dedicated also to his family. It's very difficult to balance."

    Laughing, Kondrusiewicz added: "I hope your readers in America don't kill me, but I would stay with the traditional position!"

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    * * *

    A widely discussed forthcoming Vatican document on homosexuals in seminaries will not create an absolute ban, a senior Vatican official told NCR Oct. 7, but it will insist upon a "prudential judgment" that gay candidates should not be admitted in three cases:

    • If candidates have not demonstrated a capacity to live celibate lives for at least three years;
    • If they are part of a "gay culture," for example, attending gay pride rallies (a point, the official said, which applies both to professors at seminaries as well as students);
    • If their homosexual orientation is sufficiently "strong, permanent and univocal" as to make an all-male environment a risk.

    In any case, the Vatican official said, whether or not these criteria exclude a particular candidate is a judgment that must be made in the context of individual spiritual direction, rather than by applying a rigid litmus test.

    This language is in contrast with earlier news reports that had suggested a much more sweeping ban on gays in the seminary.

    The senior Vatican official spoke with NCR on background, after an Oct. 7 report in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera listed the first two, but not the third, of the conditions noted above for exclusion of gay candidates.

    The Vatican official said that given the ambiguity of the concept of "homosexuality," meaning the difficulty of providing a precise definition of the term, an "absolute policy" is impossible.

    The official said the document is expected to appear in early November.

    The pope gave his final approval, this official said, in a Sept. 15 audience at Castel Gandolfo with Archbishop William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Archbishop Angelo Amato, the secretary of that office; and Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

    The document will likely be approved in forma specifica, the official said, which means that although it is a document of the Congregation for Catholic Education, the pope has nevertheless imparted his personal authority to it.

    "The pope wants to sound an alarm bell," the official said, "in part because of perceptions that some American seminaries are predominantly gay."

    The Vatican official emphasized that the document is not concerned with "sacramental theology," and hence does not express a theological judgment that homosexuals are unworthy of the priesthood. In fact, this official said, Vatican officials are aware that there are a number of gay priests who live celibately and do fine work.

    The document, he said, has nothing to do with priests who are already ordained.

    Instead, the official said, the document reflects a "prudential judgment" that in the three cases noted above, admission of a homosexual candidate to a seminary constitutes an unwise risk.

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    * * *

    Last week, I was in the United States finishing some speaking engagements, and then in London for the U.K. launch of my book on Opus Dei. My last appointment in the States was in Miami, where I was on a panel to talk about the new pontificate of Benedict XVI at annual convention of the Religion Newswriters Association. The association brings together religion reporters for major American secular papers and broadcast outlets in the United States.

    The other members of the panel were Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio.

    Gramick, who heads the National Coalition of American Nuns, was the object of a Vatican investigation for her pastoral work with gay and lesbian Catholics. Fessio, the publisher of Ignatius Press, was the founder of the Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco and is now the provost at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida. Because Gramick and Fessio are heroes to the Catholic left and right, respectively, conference organizers no doubt expected a wide range of views, and the panel delivered.

    Gramick concentrated her remarks largely on the forthcoming Vatican document on the admission of homosexuals to Catholic seminaries, arguing that it will cause great pain both to gay priests already serving, and to young gay men discerning a vocation. Further, she suggested, it will demoralize gay and lesbian Catholics who already feel to some extent marginalized by the church.

    At the same time, Gramick recounted a story of a chance encounter with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger during an airplane flight from Munich to Rome several years ago, as the investigation of her work was underway. She described Ratzinger as a kind and gracious man, and said the two parted with promises to pray for one another. She expressed hope that his papacy would reflect a "pastoral" rather than "hard-line" approach.

    Fessio, who studied under Ratzinger while he was still an up-and-coming German theologian in the late 1970s at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, focused more on his personal acquaintance with the new pope.

    As is well known, Ratzinger has always made an effort to stay in touch with his former students. Each year, his former doctoral students organize a meeting with their professor called a Schulerkreis, where they meet for two or three days to discuss some particular topic. Usually these meetings are held in a monastery, Fessio said, and the discussions are informal and free-flowing, sometimes stretching over dinner and into a few glasses of beer or wine.

    Fessio said he had assumed the Schulerkreis meetings would be discontinued after Ratzinger's election as Benedict XVI, but instead the alums were invited to Castel Gandolfo for a couple of days this summer to discuss the role of Islam in secular societies.

    In one interesting aside, Fessio noted that in his homily at his April 24 installation Mass, Benedict said that his program as pope would not be to do his own will, but to listen together with the whole church to the will of God. Fessio said he approached the pope and said that many people regarded the rather traditional views on liturgy expressed in Ratzinger's book The Spirit of the Liturgy not as the pope's own ideas, but as the teaching of the church. The point was to urge the pope to implement those ideas, which include wider use of Latin and celebrating the Mass in the ad orientem posture, facing East, with the priest's back to the congregation. Fessio said Benedict XVI heard him, but did not respond.

    The anecdote illustrates an interesting point, which is that if the Catholic left fears the new pope will translate his ideas expressed as a cardinal into policy, many on the Catholic right seem to fear that he won't.

    Questions from the journalists covered all points of the compass, but perhaps the most topical had to do with what we expected the consequences of the document on homosexuals in the seminaries might be. Gramick feared that it would cause a number of gay priests to leave, while Fessio thought it might encourage more faithful heterosexual candidates to enter. I observed that these are not the only two possibilities; in fact, the document might not have much impact at all in the long term, like two previous documents from the Holy See setting out the same policy.

    As Fessio pointed out, none of us has a crystal ball, and we'll have to see.

    One final note: while it was clear that Gramick and Fessio have very different theological convictions, both were gracious to one another, and the discussion never degenerated into polemics. Coming on the heels of the Sept. 24 meeting between Hans Küng and Benedict XVI, it seemed, albeit unintentionally, another instance of how Catholics of very differing views can speak to one another without surrendering on their own identities.

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

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