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 The Word From Rome

October 29, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 10

John L. Allen Jr.


Life is "no longer a gift of God but our product, something which can be fabricated or destroyed and replaced with something else."

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,
saying the power of the human person over life itself has increased in dramatic fashion.

Dialoguing with missionaries in San Antonio; More reader responses; Ratzinger on contemporary society; the new Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church


Over the weekend of Oct. 21-23, I took part in a symposium on "evangelizing secularity" sponsored by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in San Antonio, Texas. The idea was that if missionaries once set off for Africa, Asia and Latin America to bring the gospel to "heathen lands," today the "pagans" of post-modernity are more likely to be found in the shopping malls and soccer fields of the First World. Catholics are worried about passing on the faith to their own children, and perhaps therein lays a new vocation for missionary communities.

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My news story will appear in the Nov. 5 issue of NCR, which will be available online on Nov. 3.

Oblate Fr. Ron Rolheiser, a much sought-after Catholic writer and speaker, was the convener. Over lunch in Rome several months ago, Rolheiser asked me to come to the San Antonio gathering, without giving me any terribly clear idea of what my role would be. He said his instincts told him it would be good for me to be part of the mix. My curiosity piqued, I accepted.

When Rolheiser introduced me to the more than 200 missionaries, ministers and pastoral workers from the United States, Canada and elsewhere, he explained that I had "no responsibilities," and that I was simply going to float about the symposium collecting impressions. I did so, eavesdropping on each of the six "streams" of conversation (Dominican Sr. Donna Ciangio of the National Pastoral Life Center led a discussion on ministry within parishes; Precious Blood Fr. Robert Schreiter, ministry outside parish structures; Franciscian Fr. Richard Rohr, preaching and evangelization; Michael Downey of Los Angeles, theology and spirituality; Rohlheiser, vocations and renewal of religious life; and Basilian Fr. Tom Rosica, the organizer of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, a session on youth). I also had numerous conversations with participants on the side.

It was a terrific, energizing discussion.

On the last day of the symposium, a couple of people suggested that I share some reactions with the group. I did so, posing a series of questions based on what I had heard. I grouped them under three headings, reflecting frequently invoked buzzwords: secularity, dialogue, and communion.


To hear some people talk, I said, one might think "secularity" is a cultural force outside the church which we must seek out and engage. In reality, I argued, secularity was in this room -- it's the air in which we live and move and have our being. As one proof of the point, I said, I heard more references over the weekend to movies and TV shows than I did to Charles Borromeo or Luigi Sturzo. Based on this premise, some questions:

o Are we sufficiently critical of the manifold ways in which secularity shapes our own imaginations, instincts and prejudices?

o Is it possible that our biases on issues in the church, for example, sometimes have more to do with cultural forces such as pragmatism, capitalism and democracy than with anything distinctively Catholic? (This is not to say the church doesn't have something to learn from these forces, merely that one has to be discerning).

o Isn't part of the reason that the "secular world" so often turns a deaf ear to us precisely because in so many ways we look, talk and act exactly like it? For example, haven't we reproduced inside the church, in exacting detail, the same polarization, the same ideological hatreds, and the same interest group strategies drawn from the secular world? Don't we see that pattern, to take one current instance, in Catholic debate over the Bush/Kerry election?


Repeatedly over the weekend, participants referred to the need for dialogue -- with secularity, with the young, with different cultures. But dialogue, like charity, I said, begins at home. The Catholic church is complex and polyphonic, and I wonder if we are ready to embrace what a spirit of dialogue inside the church would entail.

o Are we prepared, for example, to step outside our prejudices to sympathetically consider the other? I noted that I heard during the weekend negative references to the Catholic TV network EWTN, and descriptions of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's top doctrinal official, as if he were Genghis Kahn. In Schreiter's session, he happened to mention that a new bishop in Austria comes from Opus Dei, and the gasps were audible, as if he had said the bishop was a member of the Nazi party or the Klu Klux Klan. Of course, this was a conversation among friends, and some of these comments were just blowing off steam. Still, what does this suggest about our capacity for dialogue? (The same question could be put to some conservative Catholics who scorn, for example, Voice of the Faithful, the staff of the U.S. bishops' conference, and any number of bishops they regard as "soft" on dissent).

o Can we desist from patterns of speech and thought that are destructive of dialogue? For example, can we stop pretending there's an animal out there called "the bishops" that has only one way of thinking and acting? In the United States, the Catholic bishops run from Tom Gumbleton to Fabian Bruskewitz and every point of the compass in between. There's little sense in sweeping jeremiads about "the bishops." Similarly, it's a myth that there's such a thing as "the Vatican" in the sense in which we normally invoke the term, as in, "the Vatican thinks " or "the Vatican is afraid that " For every official of the Holy See who fits the stereotype, there are others who don't. Can we set aside generalizations and treat people as individuals?


It's fashionable these days to evoke a "spirit of communion," but often that gets boiled down to "communion among the like-minded." The challenge of communion is to think through what being part of a global family of faith really means.

o American Catholics are six percent of the global Catholic population (65 million out of 1.1 billion). Can we accept that this means the Catholic way may not always be the American way? Do we appreciate that part of the price of sitting at the family table is putting up with some things we wish would be handled differently? Can we balance the prophetic with the communal?

o Over the weekend, several participants asked about the prospects for a pope who might do one thing or another. I'm happy to handicap that, but I wanted to ask a deeper question: What happens if that's not the result? Can we accept that our particular hopes and dreams, whatever they may be -- the particular ways in which we might reshape the church -- are a long-term project that may not come to fruition in our lifetimes, if ever? Can we do more than tolerate this reality, which after all is a rather weak virtue -- can we affirm it with joy and optimism, which are the only qualities that will make the church attractive to secularity?

o I also noted that the church will increasingly be hearing the voices of the developing world. Are we ready for that? I noted that the Anglican Communion is wrestling with precisely this question in its present debate over homosexuality and authority, since the African members of the communion tend to be more traditionalist on matters of sexual morality. Progressive-minded Catholics have long called on the church to listen to the voice of the global south; are they prepared, I asked, for what they might hear?


I ended by urging participants, many of whom are responsible for schools, religious orders, retreat centers and other Catholic institutions, to do what they can to carve out spaces for patient and sympathetic dialogue among Catholics of differing perspectives. Under the pressure of the broader culture, I noted, there is a growing tendency towards retreat into ideological ghettoes, but that doesn't mean we're obligated to mimic it in our internal life.

Afterwards, a nun with a thick Irish brogue came up and asked me, rather disapprovingly, if I am ever invited back to speak anyplace. "You step on so many toes," she said. On the other hand, after Rolheiser repeatedly noted that I was not getting paid for my remarks, another sister suggested taking up a collection on my behalf. I chose to take that as some consolation.

* * *

It's become a weekend ritual of mine to check Amy Welborn's blog "Open Book" after "The Word from Rome" is posted. Not only is "Open Book" interesting in its own right, but there's usually some discussion of my column. It's almost always critical, but often quite perceptive, and never more so than last week.

One poster wrote the following:

"Invariably his 'insights' into how the Vatican works seem to cut against doctrinally settled matters, or propose active dissent in the Vatican as merely the way things are done, in Italy, in Europe, in Rome. . . ."

The context was my discussion of attitudes in the Vatican towards the Bush/Kerry race, and the specific question of withholding communion from pro-choice Catholic politicians and/or voters. The reader's comment makes me wonder if I've been sufficiently clear on this point (obviously not, or else this person wouldn't have concluded that I "invariably" fudge).

So, to be clear: I am not suggesting that anyone in the Holy See dissents from the doctrinally settled matter of the grave and inherent immorality of abortion, or the other issues generally grouped under the "culture of life." I am certainly not seeking to promote such dissent, which I do not share, and in any event I would regard doing so as inappropriate to my role as an observer.

It remains the case, however, that the question of whether a politician, or a voter, who supports pro-choice legislation should be denied the Eucharist is not yet settled, either in the Holy See or among the American bishops. I understand why many Catholics support such measures, but I don't believe that observing the spectrum of views that exists on the question is tantamount to promoting dissent from Catholic doctrine.

On the other hand, if I'm to be fair, perhaps it's true that in my sloppier moments I sound as if the more lenient view embodies a kind of Continental sophistication, while those supporting the more rigorous position are somehow benighted. This is not, however, what I really think. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, for example, is associated with the more "conservative" position, and while I know that many liberals are frustrated with him, if they believe Chaput is dumb they're badly deluded. His recent op/ed piece in The New York Times on the role of the church in political debate is a case in point; whatever one makes of his conclusions, it is a carefully reasoned argument that deserves a hearing.

Another poster on "Open Book" writes the following:

"I would specifically adumbrate your point by pointing to Allen's equivocal (intentional or otherwise) use of the phrase 'tolerance for human weakness'. One might get the impression that Rome therefore does not care about principles, even infer that Rome might obscure principle as a concession to human weakness.

"Those impressions and inferences would be very American to make, but not Roman. A Roman approach would be very much to reaffirm the principles at stake, that they are not only true but also harmonious and cohere to a larger reality of metaphysical truth and beauty, etc. It's just that the Roman legal tradition gives the legislator ample discretion in meting out any punishment, whereas our tradition typically distrusts such discretion mightily."

Here I have nothing to add; the reader expresses the point better than I did, and I appreciate the contribution.

* * *

Anyone with personal experience of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is usually struck by the contrast between his public image as stern and authoritarian, and his personal demeanor, which is always gracious, humble and open. Those qualities were never more in evidence than Oct. 25, during a public dialogue with a lay Italian intellectual named Ernesto Galli della Loggia.

The event was held at Rome's Palazzo Colonna, and sponsored by the Centro per Orientamento Politico, an Italian think tank with a center-right flavor. The organization's founder, a distinguished Italian layman named Gaetano Rebecchini, who is also a councilor of the Vatican city-state, moderated the discussion, devoted to "History, Politics and Religion."

Both men spoke for 10 minutes through four rounds of discussion, with each responding to points the other had made.

Ratzinger began by identifying two dominant features of the contemporary situation. First, he noted, globalization and technological change are producing a cultural homogenization, which in turn generates a rebellion against uniformity. Second, the power of the human person over life itself has increased in dramatic fashion. Life is "no longer a gift of God but our product, something which can be fabricated or destroyed and replaced with something else."

Ratzinger called contemporary society "truly ill," and asserted that our moral capacity has not kept pace with our technological skill. In such a context, he argued, there is an urgent need for religious believers and secularists of good will to join forces in an attempt to revivify moral reasoning.

"I've come with this realization of needing to make common cause," Ratzinger said.

Galli della Loggia agreed, saying that European culture has made it fashionable to shun certainty and to regard any restraint on liberty as authoritarianism. He made the interesting observation that one of the reasons that "religion" is sometimes controversial in Europe is that for all practical purposes, only the Catholic church remains of the mainline Christian confessions as a culturally vital force. Hence when Europeans talk about "religion" or "Christianity" in the abstract, usually that's code language for the Catholic church.

Galli della Loggia did find one point upon which to challenge Ratzinger: he objected to what he called the church's tendency to blur "life" with "personhood," saying he agreed that an embryo is life but not that it is a person, and hence not all the same moral categories apply.

Ratzinger conceded the point, at least at the linguistic level.

"I think a use of the word 'life' that sometimes substitutes 'person' is mistaken," he said. "After all, a plant is life."

He noted that the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on bioethics, Donum Vitae, deliberately avoids using the term "person" to refer to embryonic life. In any event, he said, this "obscures the real problem," by which he presumably meant reflection on moral obligations to the human embryo, whatever one calls it.

Ratzinger then made the interesting claim that religious fundamentalism is a "reaction to the violence of rationalism."

"It reacts to a pretense of universality that in reality is not verifiable. It defends another vision of the reality of life against a cynicism and arrogance that tramples the sense of sacred and our great moral traditions," he said.

Galli della Loggia wondered aloud why the church so often seems afraid to acknowledge its Western origins, and suggested that it has a role to play in the defense of the West, which currently finds itself under "cultural assault." He was not specific, but the reference seemed directed in the first place to Islam.

Ironically, Galli della Loggia and Ratzinger were seated under an enormous mural of the Battle of Lepanto.

Ratzinger emphasized that Christianity was born at the intersection of Asia, Europe and Africa, and that its mission is universal. Hence it is not to be identified with any single culture, but rather prompts all cultures towards self-transcendence.

Speaking of Europe, however, Ratzinger said the European debate needs to revitalize two cultural forces. First is rationality, a belief in the power of reason, although when rationality becomes positivism it leads to "an amputation of the human spirit." To avoid that outcome, Europe also needs "the Christian spirit," in what Ratzinger called a "large sense."

In that context, Ratzinger argued, it's politically correct today to urge silence about Christianity and God in order not to offend Muslims and followers of other religions.

"But this isn't what offends them," Ratzinger said. "It's disrespect for God and religion that offends them. This disrespect is a kind of arrogance in diminished reason. This is what provokes fundamentalisms."

* * *

Given the way that election hysteria is dominating the American press, it was probably inevitable that many American news outlets would see the new Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, presented at a Vatican press conference Oct. 25 by Cardinal Renato Martino, through the prism of the Bush/Kerry race.

In fact, the document is more than six years in the making, and the timing of its release has more to do with the fact that the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace held two important meetings this week: a plenary assembly, meaning a meeting of its members; and a conference for more than 300 personnel from around the world who work on justice and peace issues for the Catholic church, including staff for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. These meetings have been on the calendar for at least a year, and have no connection to the American presidential race.

The Oct. 25 press conference actually made news for what was not said. When Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, representing the American Catholic newspaper The Wanderer, asked Martino if a Catholic voter could support a pro-choice candidate, Martino yielded to Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

"The Holy See never enters directly into elections," Navarro said. "This is the competence of the local hierarchy. It's not that we look on with silence, but that it's the competence of the local bishops, if they feel the need, to illuminate the consciences of those who must make individual choices."

As for the Compendium, it's organized into 12 chapters: God's plan of love for humanity; the church's mission and social doctrine; the human person and human rights; principles of the church's social doctrine; the family, the vital cell of society; human work; economic life; the political community; the international community; safeguarding the environment; the promotion of peace; and social doctrine and ecclesial action. The text includes almost 200 pages of indexes and citations.

Some astute observers have already noted small nuances.

For example, Giancarlo Zizola, long considered a dean of the Vatican press corps, observed at the press conference that the text quotes from the official Latin translation of a line from John XXIII about nuclear war rather than the Italian original. Pope John, Zizola said, had written in Pacem in Terris that in the atomic era, it was impossible to imagine that war could be an instrument of justice, but in Latin this was softened to "hardly possible."

Msgr. Giampaolo Crepaldi, Martino's deputy, replied that the Compendium relied on official translations, and that one should not make too much of this discrepancy.

Others noted that the language on preventive war did not amount to a clear condemnation. Why not?

Martino insisted that the Compendium, which states that "engaging in a preventive war without clear proof that an attack is imminent cannot fail to raise serious moral and juridical questions," makes clear that such strikes "aren't good."

"I think you get it," he said.

Many noted the strong language on abortion, calling it a "horrendous crime" and a "particularly serious moral disorder." At the same time, some were disappointed that the Compendium is silent on the question of communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians..

Martino said the volume will be presented around the world, including upcoming conferences in Mexico and in Africa.

"Everybody will know this Compendium," Martino said.

* * *

Last week I nominated the supposed "excommunication" of Senator John Kerry as the biggest Vatican non-story of the year. While it's true the Vatican has not excommunicated anyone, my language troubled the California layman who has launched a canonical lawsuit seeking to have Kerry declared a heretic, Marc Balestrieri, who believes that the response he received from a Dominican theologian in Washington, Fr. Basil Cole, is a story indeed.

Since I brought it up, it seemed only fair to invite Balestrieri to offer a comment. Herewith his brief reply:

"The latest documentation posted on www.defide.com objectively details the honest representation I made of myself to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prior to receiving any response from Fr. Cole. When read as a whole, the facts are clear."

"De Fide" is the name of an organization Balestrieri founded, incorporated as a tax-exempt entity under California law. It describes itself this way: "De Fide aims to stop the monumental scandal which has been ongoing for the past thirty-one years of baptized Catholic politicians claiming to be Christian while professing the life-threatening 'Right-to-Murder' heresy."

* * *

Speaking of the church and the Bush/Kerry race, my piece a few weeks ago on "red dicasteries" and "blue dicasteries" continues to make the rounds. It was picked up this week by Sandro Magister, an eminent Italian vaticanista, and was referenced in an Oct. 24 piece in The New York Times that appeared the next day in the International Herald-Tribune.

I'm aware that some in the Holy See were angered by the piece, since it could be read to suggest that dicasteries have adopted partisan political stances. That of course is not the case; my point was rather that, in private, Vatican officials are not of one mind on the election, which is perhaps not the biggest thunderbolt in journalistic history.

In any event, all the sturm-und-drang may have been justified by one sentence in that New York Timesstory, which is perhaps the most revolutionary sentence about the Holy See to appear in the mainstream secular press in a long time.

It read: "In interviews, Vatican officials and other experts noted that the Vatican was not monolithic, and that as a huge bureaucracy with competing interests, there was no unified view other than a deep interest in how the most powerful nation in the world exercised its power."

Appearing as it did on the front page, that sentence all by itself is a powerful corrective to what I call in All the Pope's Men the "myth of single-mindedness," i.e., that Vatican officials all think alike. The personnel of the Holy See are unified in their commitment to the doctrine of the church and their participation in the ministry of the Successor of Peter, but that leaves ample room for differing styles, visions, and policy choices. If nothing else comes out of this discussion, a new appreciation for the complexity of the Holy See would all by itself be a welcome development.

* * *

On Sept. 17, I carried an interview with Margaret Ogola, a Kenyan pediatrician who heads the Commission for Health and Family Life for the Kenyan bishops' conference. In that interview, Ogola asserted that the best anti-retroviral medicines in the world are made in India for a relatively low price, yet funding provided under President Bush's HIV/AIDS initiative requires that recipient nations purchase more expensive American-manufactured drugs.

A source in the American government wrote to clarify that the Bush initiative's goal is to use the lowest cost producers possible, from any country, in order to be able to buy the most ARV drugs. The only stipulation is that the program will not use drugs overseas which are not approved for domestic consumption.

"There is enough suspicion of the U.S. in developing countries, without giving occasion for the view that we use inferior drugs overseas that we would not let Americans use," one American official told me. "Our caution in demanding an approval process has proven merited, as some generics upon testing have proven not to be effective. The last thing HIV/AIDS suffers need is ineffective drug treatments."

I'm grateful for the clarification.

* * *

On a personal note, my grandfather, Raymond Frazier, died this week at 92. My wife and I had the opportunity to spend time with him in his western Kansas nursing home just three weeks ago, and we are returning as this column is posted for the funeral. I would invite readers to remember him and my grandmother, Laura Frazier, in their prayers.

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

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