National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly

?Sign Up Here For Weekly E-mail

 1 Archives  | 

 The Word From Rome

October 8, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 7

global perspective


"This is a very complicated moment in religious life. Our numbers are going down, and there's a strong sense that many things that have been important to us in the past may not be important in the future."

Marianist Fr. José María Arnaiz, general secretary of the Union of Superiors General,
who is preparing for upcoming World Congress on Consecrated Life.

If the Vatican could vote on Nov. 2; Sex abuse looms large in U.S. bishops' ad limina visits; Preview of the World Congress on Consecrated Life; Austrian update


While the Vatican does not endorse political candidates, and regards pastoral guidance on elections as something for local bishops, that doesn't stop lots of Americans from wanting to know what the Vatican thinks about the Bush-Kerry race.

Over the last several months, I've discussed the elections informally with at least two dozen Vatican officials, ranging from cardinals to junior clergy. Based on these conversations, plus comparing notes with colleagues, I believe that if a secret ballot were to be held in the Holy See, Kerry would beat Bush about 60-40.

How would the Vatican vote break out?

Just as in American political parlance we speak of "red states" and "blue states," meaning states that tend to vote Republican or Democrat, one can tongue-in-cheek say that the Vatican has "red dicasteries" and "blue dicasteries," meaning offices that tend to be more sympathetic to Bush or to Kerry.

Red dicasteries, meaning departments more friendly to Bush, include:

  • Council for the Family
  • Academy for Life
  • Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  • Vicariate of Rome (not technically a dicastery of the Holy See, but its head, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, is an important Vatican figure)

Blue dicasteries include:

  • Council for Justice and Peace
  • Secretariat of State (the second section, dealing with international diplomacy)
  • Council for Migrants and Itinerant Peoples
  • Council for Inter-religious Dialogue

I'm obviously describing general tendencies, and individuals within each dicastery may hold different views.

Basically speaking, those dicasteries that deal with international politics tend to be more hostile to Bush. The Vatican opposed the Iraq war, it supports a stronger role for the United Nations, it backs the International Criminal Court, and it worries about inflaming Islamic sentiment in the Middle East -- all positions of contrast with the Bush White House. The red dicasteries, on the other hand, tend to prioritize "culture of life" issues such as abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research, where there is a much stronger symphony with Bush.

Moreover, the Vatican's senior personnel often come from the Accademia, the Holy See's school for diplomats, whose students are drawn from the same cultured European backgrounds as the staffers of foreign ministries in secular European states. Hence the same prejudices about Bush one finds in elite circles in France and Germany are also, to some extent, present in the Holy See.

Finally, personalities come into play. The pope's vicar for Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, is more pro-American than many Vatican prelates. In part, this is a result of genuine conviction about the importance of the Atlantic alliance; in part, it's also a desire not to alienate the church from the government of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, a staunch Bush ally. Given that the Italian state collects more than a billion euros in tax revenues for the Italian bishops' conference each year, one can understand Ruini's sensitivity.

Two precisions are in order.

First, the estimate of 60-40 support for Kerry is based on the assumption that all personnel of the Holy See would vote. If the focus is just on the cardinals and other senior officials, the balance would probably shift in favor of Bush. Second, that 60-40 split in favor of Kerry represents a change from the 2000 election, when I suspect a similar straw poll in the Vatican would have found at least a 60-40 vote in favor of Bush over Al Gore. In that sense, it's not an endorsement of John Kerry, who frankly is even less known in Rome than to many Americans, so much as opposition to Bush, above all his foreign policy.

Bottom line: Even if the Vatican wanted to say something about the American election, it would have a hard time speaking in one voice.

Despite the Catholic church's image as rigidly hierarchical and ultra-centralized, reality is quite different. Catholicism has clear and definitive answers to a relatively short list of questions, expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; outside that territory, things are more fluid. The pope and Vatican officials can provide the elements for a moral judgment on political questions, but ultimately, as far as the Vatican is concerned, making that judgment is a do-it-yourself affair.

* * *

The International Theological Commission, a body of 30 Catholic theologians from around the world that advises the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, can function as a kind of "early warning system" for gathering theological storms. In 1976, the commission produced a document on liberation theology, "Human Development and Christian Salvation," ahead of Rome's crackdown on liberation theology in the 1980s. In 1997, the commission issued "Christianity and the Religions," and the next few years witnessed a series of disciplinary actions against theologians working in the area of religious pluralism. That campaign culminated with Dominus Iesus in September 2001.

Hence it's worth paying attention when the commission tackles a subject, because one can be sure it's on the Vatican's radar screen.

This week, a new group of members assembled to start their five-year terms, and they settled on three topics for reflection.

o Infant baptism and Christian hope: The theologians who just completed their terms left behind the topic of "limbo," the traditional term for a resting place for souls excluded from the fullness of the beatific vision but otherwise not condemned to punishment, e.g., unbaptized babies. As one new ITC member put it to me this week, however, "This kind of group didn't come together just to talk about limbo." The commission therefore decided to put the subject of infant baptism into the broader context of eschatology and Christian hope -- "the universal salvific design of God, the unicity of the mediation of Christ and the sacramentality of the church in the order of salvation," to quote the official Vatican news release.

o Natural Law: Building on the pope's encyclicals Veritatis splendor (1993) and Fides et ratio (1998), the commission will take up the subject of "natural law," what Catholic philosophy regards as a law implanted in creation by the Creator that can be discovered by human reason. One motive for the study is to attack what the CDF has long seen as a "positivistic" tendency in reactions to its pronouncements on moral issues, such as gay marriage or stem cell research. Often it's assumed that the Catholic church expects people to follow its teachings because it says so ("positivism,") when in the Vatican's view, the church proposes a teaching because it's true. The hope is that by recovering a natural law framework, the church can shift the terms of debate from its own authority to the inherent persuasiveness of its teaching.

o Theology and the Academy: Catholic theology has long struggled to balance responsibilities to its various constituencies -- the hierarchy, the broader Catholic public, and other academic disciplines. Some see this as an invigorating challenge, while others worry that by adopting the standards of the secular academy, Catholic theology risks losing its identity. (To take a famous example of this view, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once said he wondered if Christian theology had made a mistake by relocating from the monastery to the university). The ITC will ponder the question, "To whom is theology accountable?"

* * *

American bishops from the New York area are in Rome this week for their ad limina visit to the pope and officials of the Roman Curia. I sat down with Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany at the North American College Oct. 6.

Hubbard told me that so far, the sexual abuse crisis has loomed large in conversations with Vatican officials.

"We were mainly the ones raising the issue," Hubbard said. "We wanted to be sure that they understand the challenges we face with the media, the legal system, public relations, and the mood of our people."

From the Vatican side, he said, two concerns have surfaced: priestly morale, and questions of procedure for priests charged with abuse.

"They encouraged us to take special opportunities to affirm and support our priests, to bond with them in these difficult days," Hubbard said.

Hubbard said the Vatican is concerned that a priest's due process rights be honored, and that when a priest is removed from ministry the diocese help him make the transition. This was a major recommendation from a panel of sex abuse experts convened at the Vatican in April 2003, who argued that abandoning a priest after removal from ministry may place him at greater risk of re-offense, by exacerbating his economic and psychological stress.

In many cases, Hubbard said, removed priests are old enough to be eligible for retirement benefits. In other cases, he said, dioceses have invoked the old category of "disabled by canonical impediment" to keep a priest on the payroll. Hubbard added that no diocese is giving these men non-ministerial assignments, which, he said, would both violate the U.S. bishops' charter and potentially expose the diocese to additional legal liability.

Hubbard himself has faced accusations of sexual abuse in Albany, though by most accounts he has been cleared. In February, a man claimed that 30 years ago Hubbard abused his brother, who later committed suicide. A second man claimed Hubbard paid him for sex in the 1970s. Hubbard asked a former federal prosecutor to investigate after the local prosecutor declined, and the investigation found "nothing to substantiate" wrongdoing. The retired prosecutor, Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney in Manhattan until 2002, said a lie detector test affirmed the 65-year-old Hubbard's statement that he has never violated his vow of celibacy.

Under sex abuse norms approved by the Vatican, cases of accused priests must be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where a determination is made as to whether to immediately remove the priest from ministry, restore him to ministry, or proceed to canonical trial. Hubbard said that of the three-four cases in Albany in which the priest did not contest the charge, those cases have come back from Rome and been resolved. Another case in which the priest maintains his innocence has been approved for trial, but that process has not yet begun.

"This is really uncharted territory for most of us, and for the congregations too," he said.

One obstacle to trial, Hubbard said, is that in a mid-sized diocese such as Albany, it would be impossible to assemble a panel of judges that did not know the priest involved.

"For even the appearance of fairness, we have to have people from other dioceses," he said.

The U.S. bishops' conference has created a pool of judges and canonists for this purpose, trained by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's expert, Maltese Msgr. Charles Scicluna. Hubbard said Albany has applied for assistance from this pool.

Hubbard is a member of the U.S. bishop's Ad-Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. He said the committee had intended for a review of the charter to be presented to the full body of bishops in November, but the conference's Administrative Committee recently decided to delay that review pending wider consultation. Hence a worksheet has been prepared for distribution to presbyteral councils, diocesan pastoral councils and diocesan review boards, with responses requested by Jan. 15. The bishops will then take up revising the charter at their June 2005 meeting.

* * *

One question that leaves hanging is the Essential Norms, which are the canonical rules under which cases against accused priests are handled. Those norms were approved by the Vatican in 2003 for two years, so the recognitio, or approval, expires in March 2005.

Later this month, there will be an inter-dicasterial meeting in the Vatican with representatives of the five departments involved in the review of the American norms: the Congregation for Bishops, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Congregation for Clergy, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and the Council for Legislative Texts. The idea is to compare notes from two years of experience with the norms, and try to identify ways in which they can be improved. The Vatican session will take place ahead of the November meeting of the U.S. bishops, presumably so that reactions from the Holy See can be communicated to the Americans.

A Vatican official told me Oct. 7 that it's still fluid who exactly will attend the inter-dicasterial meeting. Among other things, one of the officials involved in review of the norms two years ago, then-Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, is now the cardinal of Genoa. His successor at the CDF, Archbishop Angelo Amato, does not have Bertone's canonical background.

A senior Vatican official told NCR Oct. 8 that he believes there are many improvements to be made in the American norms, especially on the question of proportion between crime and punishment. Since what constitutes sexual abuse covers a wide range of ground, he said, it doesn't seem fair that the same penalty -- permanent removal from ministry -- be handed out for every offense. Moreover, he said, it may be time to revisit the question of waiving the statue of limitations, or prescription (see below). Finally, this official said, he's worried that the climate of trust between a bishop and his priests has been damaged, and it's important to rebuild that, beginning with the guarantee of an adequate defense when a priest is accused.

All this suggests there may be some interesting conversations looming between the Holy See and the American bishops.

* * *

As a footnote, an important canonical deadline is looming for sex abuse cases. Over the summer, the Holy See imposed a deadline of the end of November for filing old cases, i.e., those cases for which the statute of limitations in canon law (known as "prescription") has already run out. For sexual abuse of a minor, the period of prescription in canon law is 10 years from the victim's 18th birthday.

After the end of November, old cases will no longer be received by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which means that a canonical trial cannot be held. Hence a bishop would only be able to handle these situations using his administrative authority.

Many smaller American dioceses that lack trained canonists, especially in the penal sections of the Code of Canon Law, are scrambling to meet the November deadline. In some cases, American canonists in Rome are being enlisted to help dioceses complete the rather extensive paperwork required to file a case. The logic of imposing the deadline was, according to canonical experts, to expedite the filing of cases, as well as to preserve the general principle of prescription.

Some canonists, such as Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Orsy, have long questioned the very idea of a dispensation from prescription. In a 2003 article in the Boston College Law Review, Orsy argues that setting aside a statute of limitations in civil law makes sense, because it is merely a bar to action. Canon law, based on Roman law, sees prescription as extinguishing rights and obligations (for example, prescription can create ownership), and hence it is hard to see how those rights and obligations can be recreated by court order.

Such a waiver, Orsy wrote, "would be equivalent to retroactive legislation: it would recreate an extinguished crime and destroy an acquired innocence."

Such concerns may have been in the mix in the Holy See's desire to move to the endgame.

* * *

On other matters, Hubbard said Vatican officials are concerned about what they perceive as "rising levels of anti-Americanism in the international community, primarily due to the war in Iraq, but not exclusively."

Hubbard said Vatican officials made the point that this anti-Americanism is unfortunate, in part because both the U.S. church and the American government are among the world's most generous donors of aid whenever a crisis occurs, whether it's famine, natural disaster, or war.

Hubbard said this concern about anti-Americanism came up in the Secretariat of State and in the Congregation for Clergy.

Finally, Hubbard said no one from the Vatican has brought up the vexed issue of communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians.

"I had no sense they were trying to steer us one way or the other," Hubbard said. "They were not even going near it."

As he did during his last ad limina visit, Hubbard said he plans to publish a diary of his experiences in his diocesan paper, the Evangelist. It can be found on the Web at

* * *

The World Congress on Consecrated Life, Nov. 23-27, promises to be a memorable event. More than 800 consecrated women and men from almost 130 nations, representing more than 400 congregations, will try to develop a vision for religious life in the third millennium.

The gathering is co-sponsored by the Union of Superiors General, the main umbrella group for men's religious orders in the Catholic church, and the International Union of General Superiors, the companion body for women. It is not a Vatican event, though the leadership of the Congregation for Religious will take part.

Of the 800 delegates, almost 500 will be women, the rest men. Around 300 will come from Europe, 230 from North and South American, then over 100 each from Africa and Asia. By way of comparison, the last time the church's religious orders held such a congress, in 1993, of the more than 400 delegates in attendance, only 25 were women, and only four or five were African.

A working paper sets out eight challenges facing religious life: "1) Globalization with its ambiguities and mythology; 2) human mobility with its migratory phenomena and accelerated processes; 3) the unjust and destabilizing neo-liberal economic system; 4) a culture of death and the struggle to promote life in the face of challenges from biotechnology and eugenics; 5) pluralism and growing differentiation; 6) postmodern attitudes and mentality; 7) the thirst for love and the distortions of love; and 8) hunger for the sacred and secularistic materialism."

I spoke with Marianist Fr. José María Arnaiz, general secretary of the USG, Oct. 6 about the upcoming congress.

"This is a very complicated moment in religious life," Arnaiz said. "Our numbers are going down, and there's a strong sense that many things that have been important to us in the past may not be important in the future."

Noting the growth in religious communities in Africa and Asia, Arnaiz said that one aim of the congress will be to seek "new light and inspiration" from these two parts of the world. He said that Latin America gave a tremendous impulse to religious life in the 1970s and 1980s with liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor, and now it seems to be the turn of Africa and Asia to point a way forward.

"We are waiting for the voice, the witness, and the newness of these continents," he said.

One distinctive area of concern arising from Africa and Asia, Arnaiz said, is already clear: the concern for pluralism, especially in terms of inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.

I suggested to Arnaiz that it was striking that the working paper did not accent themes that have traditionally been at the heart of religious life: liturgy, common prayer, spiritual devotions, ascetical practices and acts of charity. Isn't there a risk, I asked, that in the pursuit of relevance, the timelessness of consecrated life might be obscured?

"We need to walk in both directions, not forgetting the specifics of religious life, but also underlining what we have in common with all Christians," he said. "Historically there has been a tendency to distinguish religious from others, as if we were the best ones, the holiest. That's not part of our mentality now."

But, I pressed, doesn't it tend to be those religious communities that are the most "specific," i.e., traditional, that are growing?

Arnaiz said this will be an important topic of conversation at the congress, and that delegates want to be open to the signs of the times. His own conviction, however, is that looking backwards won't do the trick.

"The traditional dimensions [of religious life] are important, but they will not be enough to respond to the challenge of the present situation," he said.

Arnaiz said he recently spoke to the superior of a new "traditional" congregation, one in which a sister has to ask permission before using the Internet. He said his formation was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so he knows what things were like in religious communities before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

"If we want to go back to that, we will have another crisis," he said. "I don't know the answer, but I don't want to give an answer that won't help."

Arnaiz said a working group has been given the task of following the discussions in the congress and then formulating a five-six page vision statement.

* * *

Last week I wrote about debates surrounding a national commission on child abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland, and said in passing that religious orders in the United States had taken a "somewhat softer" approach to the "one-strike" policy established by the U.S. bishops, meaning that a priest is removed from ministry for even one act of sexual abuse.

Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, editor of the prestigious America magazine, points out that my language creates a misleading impression. As Reese puts it:

"The religious are removing priests from ministry under the one-strike policy. What they are not doing is throwing the priest out, as seems to be the preferred solution under Dallas (unless the priests are old or infirm). Religious priests cannot have faculties except through bishops, [and] bishops will not give abusive priests faculties."

Fair enough; I don't want to give the impression that American religious orders are defying the bishops' policy, or not taking sexual abuse seriously.

The point I wanted to make is that religious orders have long resisted being assimilated under the bishops' authority, in part because they wanted to defend the "true autonomy of life, especially of governance" guaranteed to them under the Code of Canon Law. The decentralized, autonomous nature of the relationship between bishops and religious communities is one of the reasons that it can be difficult to get the Catholic church to adopt "uniform" national standards, on sexual abuse or anything else.

* * *

The long-awaited other shoe has finally dropped in Austria, as John Paul II accepted the resignation of Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten. It was Krenn's seminary in which some 40,000 pornographic images were discovered over the summer, including sexually compromising pictures of seminarians and staff. Krenn's nonchalant response, coupled with his turbulent past, set off a firestorm.

On Oct. 7, John Paul named the bishop of Feldkirch, Klaus Küng, as Krenn's successor. Küng, a member of Opus Dei, had served as the pope's apostolic investigator in Sankt Pölten, where he got generally high marks for decisive action, most notably closing the seminary.

Like many Opus Dei priests, Küng's training is actually in a secular discipline. He studied medicine at Innsbruck and Vienna in the early 1960s.

Most Austrians seem cautiously optimistic about Küng, noting that he is much more gracious and diplomatic than Krenn, and seemingly a man of real pastoral concern. One question mark concerns Krenn's future; he is 68, and some Austrians worry that freed of his diocesan responsibilities he might become even more outspoken about church affairs, risking further division. Canon 402 states that a bishop whose resignation has been accepted is entitled to a residence in the diocese "unless, because of special circumstances in certain cases, the Apostolic See provides otherwise." To date, Krenn has said he intends to stay put, so many observers are waiting to see if the Vatican provides otherwise.

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

Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2004 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280