National Catholic Reporter ®

October 22, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.9

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Vatican reply not a rejection of zero tolerance; John Paul’s mystical streak; insight into Castrillon; dinner with Neuhaus; hoping for Husar
Hence there is no conceptual objection within the Vatican to the idea of “zero tolerance.” It is a question of zero tolerance for what, and after what process.
Note:  This week's column is a few days early.

For the United States, the big Vatican news last week was Rome’s response to the sexual abuse norms adopted by the American bishops last June in Dallas. The breaking story interrupted my cross-country book tour. I was supposed to be in San Diego on Saturday, Oct. 19, but I ended up staying in New York City, commenting on the Vatican reaction for CNN, the Lehrer News Hour, National Public Radio, the BBC, etc.

     In essence, the Vatican affirmed the aim of the American bishops to weed sexual abusers out of active ministry, but refused to sign off on their means. They called for a mixed commission of four American bishops and four Vatican officials to work out conflicts between the norms and the Code of Canon Law, the universal law of the church. 

     It is important to note that this was not a rejection of “zero tolerance,” despite what you may have heard in some media accounts. Rome’s response is more nuanced, if no less serious.

     In one sense I found the media interest a bit puzzling, since the news was hardly a surprise. As I said several times, the handwriting had been on the wall since before the wall went up. As early as June 14, the day of the Dallas vote, I posted a story on the NCR Web site reporting that the Vatican had serious reservations about elements of the norms. (I listed those elements, and they are essentially the same matters at issue now). Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, was asked by Tim Russert to respond to that story on “Meet the Press” the next day. In mid-September, we carried a story based on conversations with Vatican sources reporting that the American bishops would not receive the recognitio, or formal legal recognition, for the Dallas norms.

     The Vatican’s objections can be summarized in three points.

     First is the definition of sexual abuse (technically found not in the norms, but the Dallas charter). Borrowed from the Canadian bishops, it is a sweeping standard that refers to “physical and non-physical interactions.” Theoretically even an off-color joke, or showing an R-rated movie, could qualify. Even where an incident involves physical contact, however, there is a significant moral difference between a grope or stolen kiss, and sexual violence leading to penetration. Should the same penalty, permanent removal from ministry, apply to all these cases?

     Second is the question of “due process,” actually a category of concerns related to protections provided in canon law to ensure that an accused priest has the right to self-defense. For example, canon law says that before a permanent penalty can be imposed, a priest must have a full ecclesiastical trial. Virtually none of the priests removed from ministry under the terms of the Dallas norms had such a trial. Canon law also says that if a priest appeals a punishment, that punishment must be suspended while the appeal is being heard. Again, this has not been observed for priests removed from ministry after Dallas. Canon law also has a statute of limitations for sex abuse offenses, 10 years from the date of the victim’s 18th birthday. Dallas has no statute of limitations. Confidentiality is also an issue under this heading.

     Generally speaking, criminal justice systems strive to balance two values. The first is swift and sure justice when a law is broken. The second is due process, so that the wrong person is not punished, and that the punishment fits the crime. From the Vatican’s point of view, Dallas protected that first value, but at the expense of the second, and this intervention is about restoring balance. It should be said that this is not just a Vatican perspective, but is shared by some priests, canon lawyers, and other Catholics in the American church.

     Third, the Vatican is concerned about the role and powers of lay review boards to be created in each diocese to help the bishop adjudicate complaints. To the extent these boards are advisory, there is no problem. If a bishop turns over his decision-making authority to the board, however, the Vatican objects. Some will see this as a matter of maintaining clerical power. From the Vatican’s point of view, it is about preserving the theology of the episcopal office. A bishop is supposed to be a paterfamilias, a brother and father to his priests, and just as a good father would not surrender authority over his children to an outside agency, a bishop should not be handing over his authority to anyone else. 

     Hence there is no conceptual objection within the Vatican to the idea of “zero tolerance.” It is a question of zero tolerance for what, and after what process

     The response generated rather predictable reactions. Victims’ groups denounced it was a retreat from the Dallas get-tough approach. Priests’ groups embraced it as a antidote to lynch mob justice. Liberal activist groups denounced another Roman crackdown, conservatives welcomed the “clarification.” In both cases one could hear axes being ground.

     How will it play in the broader court of Catholic public opinion?

     Of course, much depends on what this mixed commission decides. Gregory said he hopes it will complete its work before the Nov. 11-14 meeting of the American bishops in Washington, D.C. 

     If the result is presented as a Vatican move to protect clerical power and privilege, valuing accused abusers above victims, it obviously will not go down well. On the other hand, if the message is that the Vatican buys zero tolerance but wants to be sure that the right guy is punished, I suspect most Catholics will accept that. The truth is that “average” Catholics generally like and admire their priests, and hence would support policies to ensure that they’re not railroaded or given punishments that do not correspond to their crimes.

     In the meantime, last week’s Vatican response means we are living with two kinds of uncertainty. (I explored these points in an op/ed piece in the Boston Globe the day the Vatican response was released, Oct. 18).

     The first is what bishops will now do. Will they implement Dallas as written, will they await the results of the mixed commission, or will they pick and choose which elements to enforce? Vatican officials were quoted saying that American bishops should not implement the most controversial points, while Gregory told a Rome news conference that they would continue full steam ahead. The most likely result is that we are headed back to the very problem Dallas was intended to solve, which is the lack of a coherent national policy.

     Second is the question of what happens to priests who appeal their removals to Rome. We know that several dozen of the some 300 priests removed after Dallas have appealed. If one takes a strict view of the Vatican decision, almost all of those appeals should be upheld. Virtually no removed priest, for example, got a full ecclesiastical trial. On the other hand, Rome may put the appeals in a desk drawer awaiting further developments. The wild card factor is the April 30, 2001, Vatican document Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, “Defense of the Most Holy Sacraments.” It stipulated that sex abuse cases must be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which can decide to take the case or remand it to the local level. The norms under which the congregation will handle these cases have never been published. It’s possible the Vatican may adjudicate the appeals under those norms, and we have no idea what that might mean.

     Two final points.

     First, the Vatican response ensures that the Nov. 11-14 bishops’ meeting will be yet another media circus. Bear in mind, however, that whatever the commission decides, and whatever the bishops do with it, the result will have to come back to Rome for another round of analysis. The response released last week was the product of some rather intense political battling behind the scenes, and that process will repeat itself in the second round. The American bishops have also scheduled a review of the norms in two years, and there will be more debates at that point, and likely some changes. Hence this drama likely will have several more acts before the final scene arrives.

     Second, a tactical observation. It was probably a miscalculation to announce the composition of this mixed commission – four clerics from the Vatican, four bishops from the United States – without any reference to participation by lay people, especially victims. It contributes to the impression that the Vatican intervention is about the preservation of clerical power. It also feeds the fear that recent commitments from the U.S. bishops about empowering the laity were insincere. Granted, the matters to be discussed are technical points of canon law that require special expertise. Granted, too, the clerical members of this commission will undoubtedly be deeply pastoral men with a real commitment to the common good. Still, at the level of symbolism and public relations, the idea of eight men in Roman collars closing a door and making a deal is not helpful. 

     Memo to Bishop Gregory and to the Vatican: It is not too late. Invite some laity to join you.

* * *

     Before the sex abuse story broke, the other Catholic news last week was the pope’s addition of five new “mysteries of light” to the rosary. Granted, this will hardly revolutionize Catholic belief or practice. Yet the last time a pope codified prayers for the rosary was Pius V in 1569, so it’s certainly worth a quick note.

     Judging from the questions National Public Radio asked me for their segment on the rosary changes, I suspect many people wonder why the pope made this move now. At one level, it’s a logical development from the 2001 beatification of a Maltese priest, Fr. George Preca, who developed these mysteries in 1957. The Maltese are big on the rosary. They attribute the entry in Grand Harbor on Aug. 15, 1941, the feast of Mary’s Assumption into heaven, of a ship full of provisions that saved them from starvation to fervid recitation of the rosary.

     It’s no doubt an attractive idea for John Paul, a mystic who believes in the power of prayer, never more so than in the post-9/11 world menaced anew by the prospect of war.

     Some Catholics will sniff at John Paul’s rosary aggiornamento, considering it irrelevant, if not backward and anti-ecumenical. But it’s worth recalling that the pope’s mystical streak, his willingness to believe that God uses unlikely instruments to work wonders, allows him to do remarkable things that a more conventional politician or diplomat would never consider.

     Monsignor Renato Boccardo, for example, the chief organizer of papal travels, once told me the story of how John Paul came to apologize to the Greek Orthodox on his May 2001 trip to Athens. Boccardo was on a preparatory trip to Greece, trying to smooth over ruffled Orthodox feathers, who really didn’t want the pope to come but didn’t feel they could refuse the aged pope’s request to walk in the footsteps of St. Paul. At the end of a long negotiating session, Boccardo asked if Archbishop Christodoulos, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, had anything final to add. “Yes,” came the reply. “The pope has apologized to Jews, to Muslims, to witches, to heretics, to everyone,” Christodoulos said. “Why not to us?” 

     Boccardo sighed, and said simply that he would relay the request.

     Upon his return to Rome, Boccardo arrived in the apostolic palace for a private briefing with the pope. He relayed Christodoulos’ request for an apology, knowing it was wildly improbable. Even under John Paul, it takes a lot of theological sausage-grinding before the Catholic Church apologizes for something. The pope, however, looked at Boccardo and said simply, si puo fare – meaning in Italian, “it can be done.” He then took a pen, scribbled the words of apology, and asked Boccardo to add them to his speech to Christodoulos. The results are well known. Athens newspapers the next morning carried headlines such as “ten centuries of ice broken” and “a new day dawns.” 

     The head of the United Nations, or the President of the United States, would never have done such an impulsive thing. But a mystic pope – a devotee of John of the Cross, a man who believes that an obscure Maltese priest had a special pipeline to Mary – can leave himself open to unusual possibilities.

     It’s unfortunate that in North American and Northern Europe, we see John Paul’s pontificate almost exclusively through the optic of sexual issues such as abortion, birth control, women’s ordination and so forth. These are legitimate concerns, and it’s fair to say this has been a conservative, even rigid, papacy on this front. Yet there is much more to John Paul’s story.

     Hence while the “mysteries of light” may not be my cup of tea, I also appreciate the role this sort of thing plays in the pope’s spirituality and ministry.

* * *

     For the record, I was stumped by NPR host John Ydstie during the taping of my segment on the new mysteries. Ydstie asked me why the prayer was called the “rosary,” and I had to admit I didn’t know. (I pleaded afterwards that he not air my ignorance since it would embarrass my grandmother, and he took pity on me). 

     After a brief bit of research, here’s the scoop. 

     The collection of prayers known as the rosary was originally called “Our Lady’s Psalter,” a psalter being a prayer book containing psalms from the Hebrew scriptures. In the later Middle Ages, it came to be called a rosarium, meaning a rose garden. The word became “rosary” in English. The idea is that the prayer represents a spiritual bouquet of roses offered to the Virgin Mary. The faithful began to think of the praying of many “Hail Marys” while counting them on beads as an offering of a garland, or crown of roses, to Mary. The rosary is called rosenkranz in German, which means rose garland and corona, in Italian, meaning crown.

* * *

     The Congregation for Clergy put out a new document last Friday entitled “The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish.” Widely available on the Internet, the document is a largely familiar reassertion of differences between an ordained pastor and the roles lay Catholics may play in parish life.

     For those looking for insight into Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, a Colombian and a strong contender to be the next pope, I suggest that paragraph 17 is especially interesting. (Castrillon is the prefect of the Congregation for Clergy). The paragraph asserts in strong terms the priority of the universal church over the local, as if it were received magisterial tradition. 

     Astute readers will recall that the relationship between the universal and local churches has been the point at issue in a public debate between Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Broadly speaking, Ratzinger has argued for the priority of the universal church, both ontologically and administratively, while Kasper has questioned the meaningfulness of the concept of “priority.” In general, Kasper advocates a less top-down, more collegial relationship.

     It is telling that Castrillon cast his vote for Ratzinger’s side of the argument. It is a further indication that Castrillon falls into what I call the “border patrol” faction of the College of Cardinals – theological conservatives concerned that Catholicism will surrender its identity by watering down its most distinctive doctrines.

* * *

     Two final notes as I continue my barnstorming tour of the United States.

     My wife and I had dinner with Fr. John Richard Neuhaus, editor of First Things and the doyen of the conservative Catholic intelligentsia in the United States.  Aside from some occasional swipes at my “mugwampism,” or propensity to see wisdom in both sides of a given issue, Neuhaus was quite gracious. We disagreed on several points, especially as to what extent homosexuality is a causal factor in the American sex abuse scandals, but found common ground as well, especially on the dangers of the “anything goes” moral relativism that took hold in our post-sexual revolution culture. 

     Neuhaus did make one point that caused me to reflect after dinner was over. He asked me if I liked Ratzinger any better having lived in Rome. I insisted that I actually liked and respected Ratzinger when I wrote my 2001 biography, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith (Continuum). Neuhaus smiled and said something like “come on,” suggesting that my words of appreciation in the early parts of that were disingenuous, since I went on to knock the cardinal around for 300 pages.

     I’m prepared to grant that some of the analysis in Cardinal Ratzinger was probably unfair, in the sense that it did not do full credit to the complexity of the issues Ratzinger has faced over more than 20 years in power. That was the result not of malice, but of the simple fact that I wasn’t as well informed then, I didn’t understand the universal church as well as I do after more than two years on the daily Vatican beat. There are simply some things you learn in Rome that are difficult to see from Kansas City. (I hope, by the way, whatever I write ten years from now is more informed than what I’m turning out today, because otherwise one would have to wonder what I did with the decade). 

     But I must insist that my admiration for Ratzinger, then and now, is sincere. I repeat what I said in the book: if I had access to Ratzinger as a spiritual director, I would not hesitate to open my soul to him, because I am convinced of his integrity as a priest, as a Christian, and as a man.

     I like to believe that ideological disagreement does not have to mean personal antagonism. If my book created the impression that I adopted this stance merely as a rhetorical device, as Neuhaus believes it did, I deeply regret it. 

     Lastly, as some readers of “The Word from Rome” know, I am a big fan of Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. In Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election, I put him on my list of top twenty papabili, or candidates to be the next pope. I did so not so much because I think he’s a realistic front-runner, though anything’s possible, but because I think he’s a marvelous figure who deserves to be known to a wider audience.

     As I sat in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. preparing to fly to Chicago, this e-mail arrived from reader Woody Jones in Houston, Texas:

     “In case you did not catch this one, Husar had some interesting remarks at a meeting on ecumenical matters, ‘The Witness of Hope,’ in Warsaw on 12 October, the most notable paragraph of which I have taken off the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Web site.

     “Husar said: ‘I assume we lack the courage to say the following truth loudly. We have to distinguish between the Pope and the Curia. They all are very good people, many of whom I know personally. However, bureaucracy has a tendency to ascribe too much importance to itself.’”

     “It seems that this is one more indication of the truth of your analysis that among the cardinals out in the archdioceses, there is a simmering discontent with curial interference. Of course, Husar comes at this from his own perspective, which is different from that of any of the three parties you mention in your book, and also reflects a lot of history (not all of it flattering to Rome). Nonetheless, it is another datum. I personally would love to see Husar as the next Pope – for one thing there might be more of an ability to rethink areas where the Latin church seems to be stuck right now – but I guess that would be one Slav too many for the others.”

     Jones may be right that Husar is a Slav too far to be the next pope. But if Pope John Paul II can be a mystic, so can we. Just maybe the Holy Spirit has a surprise in store.

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

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