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 The Word From Rome

October 31, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 10

global perspective


"I'm not sure you'll ever get complete coherence on issues ... There are good arguments within the Catholic moral tradition that cut both ways, and what decides the matter may be the political situation, or what's happening in the culture, or how cautious or creative you are."

Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney

A model for the laity; Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney; English in the liturgy commission; Book releases; Condom criticism


Even in this very clerical town, lay people with vision can make a difference. American laywoman Donna Orsuto, who has built the Lay Centre and the Vincent Pallotti Institute into indispensable resources for laity in Rome, offers one example.

Nicoletta Gaida presents another.

Gaida, born in Tacoma, Washington, and fluent in four languages (including Italian), was once a rising theater star. At age 23, she won Italy’s best actress award for her performance in a musical called Cinecittà. The more she climbed the ladder, however, the more she realized that her spiritual understanding of the craft was not always shared by her audiences.

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Or as Gaida put it, “All they were looking at was my legs.”

That frustration led her to seek a way of blending art with her interests in spirituality and dialogue, which prompted the creation of a theater festival for Third World playwrights in 1991, and eventually the Centro Dionysia in 1998, dedicated to dialogue among peoples and across cultures.

Gaida, 41, is sort of a Horatio Alger of the non-profit sector. Having nothing but an idea, she convinced the region of Lazio and the city of Rome to give her a dilapidated property on the Via Aurelia Antica, overlooking the Vatican, called the Villa Piccolomini (named after Pope Pius II, Enea Silvio Piccolomini). Although the last Piccolomini had stipulated that the property should be used to support the arts, many a well-connected Italian realtor no doubt had dreams of converting it into condos or shopping outlets.

How did Gaida pull it off?

She takes her Roman Catholic faith seriously, and having read John Paul II’s 1994 letter Tertio Millenio Adveniente, calling for creative approaches to the Jubilee Year of 2000, she marched off to see the Vatican’s man for dialogue with the arts. It happened to be then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Francesco Marchisano, who to his credit knew a good idea when he heard one. Marchisano backed her request to the Roman authorities, and in 1998, after a few other twists and turns, the Villa Piccolomini became the HQ of the Centro Dionysia.

When she first walked on site, Gaida told me, she almost needed a machete because it was so overgrown. Today, the villa is one of Rome’s truly beautiful spots, a tribute both to her good taste and determination.

Since then, the center has sponsored important conferences on the Israeli/Palestinian problem, human rights in the Islamic world, the Balkans, and Christian/Jewish relations. In every case, the performing or visual arts were connected to the initiative. Gaida is currently planning an event on UNESCO’s declaration on “human duties and responsibilities,” a companion to the UN declaration on human rights.

Gaida may slow down just slightly in coming months, since her main project is her brand new baby boy, Milo Joseph. Yet those who know her dynamism expect that the show will go on, and Milo will become part of the act.

* * *

I cannot pretend to complete objectivity when it comes to Gaida, since we worship together at the 11 am Mass at the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier del Caravita. Despite the fact that Nicoletta is a friend, however, I suggest that if you’re looking for models of how Vatican II understood the lay role, she might well be “Exhibit A.”

Here’s a typical Gaida story.

In 1994, she was running a theater festival to promote playwrights from the Third World in a small Italian town called Veroli. It happed to be a time of upsurge in xenophobic sentiment in Italy, and a group of young neo-Nazis showed up to disrupt the festival. Gaida, however, got them talking, lending them cigarettes and inviting them to check out the shows. Gao Xingjian, a Chinese playwright who later won the Nobel Prize for literature, was putting on a one-man production. The young Nazis watched, and by the end some had tears in their eyes.

“I realized these guys weren’t really criminals, they were just misguided,” Gaida said.

Thus she launched a project she called “The Hood,” bringing 60 ghetto kids from New York, Los Angeles, Palermo and South Africa to Rome, where they worked on a hip-hop street theater project, with the idea of getting them interested in each other and their surroundings.

This is the kind of energy that percolates in the Centro Dionysia, and it’s why many people think it’s one of the most important new acts on the Roman stage.

You can find the center at

* * *

On Oct. 28, the Centro Dionysia sponsored a celebration of the 38th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, Vatican II’s document on non-Christian religions. It’s the third consecutive year they’ve marked the occasion, and as always Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, was scheduled to give the lead address. Unfortunately, for only the second time in six years he was too sick to come, and so his trusted aide, Fr. Oliver Lahl, read his remarks.

In Catholic/Jewish relations, a burning theological question is how to reconcile the eternality of God’s covenant with Israel with the Christian missionary imperative to make disciples of all nations. To put the problem bluntly, if Jews already are in covenant with God, why do they need Christ?

Kasper did not answer the question, but sought to put it in a new context:

“When the Church recognizes the eternality of the promises and the covenant, it does not in any way diminish its vocation to confess and preach Christ,” Kasper said. “It simply recognizes that the mystery of his salvation includes [that eternality] and encompasses it, in an embrace of healing mercy in which everyone has a place. Thus the Church affirms its respect for every religious experience, and not in the name of an abstract ideal owing to the fact that we live in a pluralistic society. It recognizes that in the many paths that people follow in search of happiness and good, there is a common aspiration, written in hearts and in consciences by the Creator of the world, which is the aspiration for peace.”

* * *

Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, had been described to me as one of the sharpest minds in English-speaking Catholicism, and this by Dominican confreres who don’t necessarily share his rather traditional views on some questions.

Fisher is an expert in bioethics, and director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne under the patronage of conservative Cardinal George Pell. Yet Fisher has also been socius, or assistant to the provincial, as well as master of students, in his own rather liberal Dominican province, a sign that he commands respect across ideological lines.

I sat down with Fisher Oct. 25, at Rome’s San Clemente church, to discuss John Paul II’s record on moral questions.

I noted that the pope has long hammered away at a “culture of death” – abortion, birth control, euthanasia, gay marriage, and so forth. Yet he has failed to persuade: 12 European nations permit civil registration for same-sex partnerships, and polls show that overwhelming majorities of Catholics reject the papal stance on issues such as divorce and birth control. If, as that famous Dominican Thomas Aquinas argued, truth is inherently attractive, and if what the pope is saying is true, why aren’t people buying it?

“One part of the answer is that no pope could hold back such a tide of social and cultural change,” Fisher said. “We don’t know how much worse things might have been without the pope’s constant effort.”

Fisher said that a decade ago many observers felt euthanasia would go the way of abortion, and be widely legalized. As of today, however, there are only two nations that have adopted such statutes. In the same way, he pointed to standards for stem cell research adopted in the United States and elsewhere, which “could have been much worse.”

More fundamentally, Fisher argued, despite the fact that our minds are made for truth, we are often “fragile, broken people,” for whom the truth may be threatening. “It might shake up our comfortable consumer lifestyle,” he said.

For example, Fisher argued, it is difficult for people in the West to accept that suffering in old age or an unwanted pregnancy are part of the human condition, instead of annoyances to which there should be a technological or medical “fix.”

“The truth is inconvenient. It is subversive,” Fisher said.

Fisher also suggested that the Western experience of democracy produces confusion, since Westerners tend to view church teachings as matters of law or policy, assuming that if there was sufficient will, the church could change them. Such a view, he argued, neglects the way the church is constrained by revelation.

This, Fisher said, reflects a larger problem concerning the church’s use of the vocabulary of human rights, which tends to make a fetish out of personal liberty. “It’s natural to use the language and concepts of an age to try to communicate ourselves,” he said. “But they will always fit only up to a point.” He made a comparison to the Chinese Rites controversy, suggesting that it too raised the question of how far the church can go in adopting the idiom of a culture without losing itself.

I pressed Fisher on the church’s capacity to keep up with scientific change. I noted as one example a clash between Vatican documents, which rule out non-therapeutic research on unborn life, and U.S. and Australian guidelines that permit it with parental consent. Won’t the next pope, I asked, have to bring order?

Fisher’s answer was interesting.

“I’m not sure you’ll ever get complete coherence on issues like that, and I’m not sure you’d want it,” he said. “There are good arguments within the Catholic moral tradition that cut both ways, and what decides the matter may be the political situation, or what’s happening in the culture, or how cautious or creative you are.”

Finally, we discussed the media. Fisher agreed that often the Catholic church does a poor job of expressing itself – in part because sometimes the wrong people are speaking, in part because sometimes their language is inaccessible.

In this regard, Fisher and his boss could be models for media savvy, as they may well be the only cardinal/auxiliary bishop duo in the world with columns in competing metro newspapers. Pell writes a popular weekly column in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph, and Fisher has just been asked to pen a similar feature for one of the paper’s rivals.

* * *

The evening of Oct. 28, Rome’s Gregorian University presented a book on China by Italian journalist Alceste Santini called China and the Vatican. On hand was French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a veteran of several sensitive missions to China on behalf of the pope. Etchegaray made two interesting observations.

First, he explained that the Vatican has stressed establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing because it regards it as the best way to heal the division between the government-sponsored Catholic community in China, and an “underground” group. Although it has become common to speak of the “official church” and the “underground church,” Etchegaray insisted there is only one church in China, divided artificially into two communities. He said this is a source of “great suffering” for the pope, and that the division would be healed if China and the Holy See could establish ties.

Second, he admitted that the canonization of 120 Chinese martyrs on Oct. 1, 2000, was a mistake – not the act itself, but the date. Oct. 1 is a festival of national liberation in China, and the pope’s decision to hold the canonization that day was taken as a provocation by the Communist government. In fact, Etchegaray said, the pope did not know the significance of Oct. 1 for the Chinese. This was a repetition of a point Etchegarary had made in 2000, when the Chinese first objected; he observed that Oct. 1 is the feast of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus, the patron saint of missions. The choice of day was neither “a provocation nor an act of revenge,” he said.

* * *

A debate erupted in Italy last week when a local court ordered a public school to take its crucifixes off the walls, after an Islamic firebrand, Adel Smith, complained that their exposition discriminated against his sons. Outraged church leaders sprang to battle.

“The crucifix expresses the soul of our continent, and should remain the sign of European identity,” said Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for the Rome archdiocese and president of the Italian bishops’ conference.

To some extent it’s a tempest in a teapot, because no one believes the sentence will stand – Italy is not like France, with a Republican tradition of church/state separation. This is a country, after all, where the bishop’s conference last year received over $1 billion in public money. In the end, the crucifixes will remain.

Nevertheless, some observers believe there is a serious issue lurking beneath the theatrics.

“The Catholic church is no longer alone in Italy,” said Renzo Guolo, who teaches sociology of religion at the University of Trieste, and is a specialist in Islamic fundamentalism. He writes editorials on this subject for the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, Avvenire, and has recently published a book entitled Xenophobes and Xenophiles: Italians and Islam.

“The real problem is how Italy navigates the transition from being mono-cultural to being a religiously diverse society, especially with respect to Islam,” Guolo told NCR Oct. 28. And because much of the Catholic world takes cues from Italy, how the relationship with Islam is managed here will have wide consequences.

In his book, Guolo observed that in recent years the leadership of the Italian Church has shifted from a welcoming stance towards Islamic immigration, to a more “prudent” and at times critical posture.

“There are divergent positions,” Guolo said. “Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, represented dialogue and openness, closer to the pope on this issue, whereas Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna and Bishop Alessandro Maggiolini of Como take a much harder line, demanding reciprocity in the Islam world for tolerance in the West.”

This second attitude, Guolo explained, tends to be directed not at Muslims as individuals, but their associations and institutions, such as the Saudi Arabia-funded Rome mosque.

Ruini, Guolo said, is somewhere in between, but has been moving steadily closer to the Biffi/Maggiolini stance. For Ruini, Guolo explained, this is part of a larger concern with the re-evangelization of Italian society.

Though Guolo did not develop the point, Vatican sources describe a similar divergence within the Holy See. The Martini position is associated with Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, while the Biffi/Maggiolini line has adherents in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Propaganda Fidei, and some elements in the Secretariat of State.

Guolo made the interesting point that the Ruini strategy, of aggressively defending the Catholic Church’s prerogatives, may backfire.

“Given the fact that Muslims will be increasingly present in Italy, there will be growing pressure to extend rights currently enjoyed by the church also to Muslims,” Guolo said. “By protecting its own interests, the church serves the interests of Islam.”

He offered the example of education, where the Italian Church has waged a long campaign to obtain state support for its schools. Ultimately social pressure will be intense to grant Islamic schools the same status, with the danger of creating cultural ghettoes.

“Would it be better for the church to accept a certain lay space in the public forum?” Guolo asked. “That’s a question that has to be faced.”

* * *

On Oct. 23, presidents of English-speaking bishops’ conferences met in the Congregation for Divine Worship with Cardinal Francis Arinze and his staff. The purpose was a discussion of matters connected to the translation of liturgical texts into English, a source of recurrent tension in recent years.

Some discussion was devoted to inculturation, and Arinze insisted that any blending of elements of local culture into Catholic liturgy must be carefully prepared. That echoed a point he made at the meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions Oct. 7-11 in San Antonio in the United States. (The text of Arinze’s San Antonio address may be found here:

Some 40 people participated in the Oct. 23 session, including bishops not just from the 11 English-speaking nations that are full members of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), a translation body set up after Vatican II, but from other conferences in which English is used, such as Ghana, Kenya and Cameroon.  One source said it was the first time such a group had ever been assembled.

By all accounts, Arinze won good marks for his flexibility and willingness to listen – traits that some found lacking in his predecessor, the strong-willed Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez. One participant attributed Arinze’s approach to his experience as head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. “If we can dialogue with Muslims and Buddhists, the cardinal told us, surely we can talk to each other,” this source said.

Critics argue, however, that it’s easy for Arinze to invite dialogue now, since the painful decisions have already been made. The May 2001 document Liturgiam Authenticam demanded a more “sacral” approach to translation, closer to the Latin originals, and new statues for ICEL make it clear that the commission answers to the Congregation.

Some conferences – including South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – expressed reservations at the Oct. 23 meeting about the new controls, but without fireworks. The discussion involved complex points of canon law, and Arinze signaled a desire to keep talking.

Fr. Bruce Harbert, executive director of ICEL, along with English Bishop Arthur Roche, ICEL’s chair, made a presentation. Roche spoke about ICEL structures and process, while Harbert gave some examples of translation, trying to argue that Liturgiam Authenticam doesn’t necessarily require a slavish transliteration of Latin or excessively complicated syntax.

Cardinal George Pell of Australia spoke on the Vox Clara Commission, an advisory body to the congregation on translation issues. Pell emphasized that Vox Clara is not connected to ICEL. Participants stressed the need for Vox Clara to complete its ratio translationis, or guidelines for translation, since it will guide ICEL’s work on the Roman Missal, the book of prayers for the Mass.

A point made by some bishops, especially from Africa, was that they use local liturgical languages in addition to English. Although Latin is supposed to be the basis of translations, many versions are made from English. It was suggested that ICEL could help with this process.

One source said he left the meeting with greater confidence that ICEL is making progress towards new texts. Still, it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take to have a translation of the Roman Missal. Pell said during an Oct. 21 news conference that he thought it was possible within two years. A Vatican source said Oct. 24 that Pell’s prediction sounded “rather optimistic.”

* * *

This has been a big week for book presentations.

In addition to Santini’s book on China, mentioned above, a volume of essays in honor of Portuguese Cardinal José Saraiva Martins’s 70th birthday was presented on Oct. 27. Entitled Veritas in Caritate, Saraiva Martins’ episcopal motto, the book collects essays from several Vatican heavyweights. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, writes on collegiality; Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, archbishop of Genoa and former secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, comments on the Catechism of the Catholic Church; Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, addresses the ecumenical significance of the veneration of saints; Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, outlines the theological fundamentals of dialogue; Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, treats priestly formation; and Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, writes on priestly life and spirituality.

On Oct. 29, a panel at the Urban University presented a book by Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.  It collects essays Sepe penned during 2000, while he was general secretary for the Jubilee Year. Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, and Mario Agnes, director of L’Osservatore Romano, stressed reawakening the spirit of the Jubilee, which Riccardi described as a manifestation of popular faith. Agnes said: “The great events of the church must not be archived,” he said. “They must be lived.”

Both books are published by the Urbaniana University Press.

Also on Oct. 29, a new edition of the first volume of Pope John XXIII’s Diary of a Soul was presented. The editor is Italian church historian Alberto Melloni, and on hand to comment were Riccardi, Etchegaray, and Bianchi. The book is published by the Istituto per le scienze religiose in Bologna; more information can be had by writing

* * *

From the “keeping an eye on the papabili” file: Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, a leading Latin American candidate, has given an interview to the BBC program “Hardtalk,” which has a half-hour, no-holds-barred format. The segment is scheduled to air on Friday, Oct. 31, on the BBC World Service; it will also be available on the BBC web site for those whose Internet hook-ups can handle it.

* * *

Two weeks ago I carried an item about Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo’s comments to the BBC on condoms and their alleged defects in blocking transmission of HIV. The item brought this response from Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, calling my report “irresponsible and dangerous.”

Allen reports on claims by Lopez Trujillo that the AIDS virus passes through condoms and therefore causes the spread of AIDS.   In support of this and without any comment, Allen cites an article on “safe sex” written by a Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau in the Lexicon-Ambiguous terms on family, life, and ethical concerns, a recent publication of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and containing articles by authors with close ties to the Vatican.

Allen cites Suaudeau as if he were a credible AIDS expert, calling him “a medical doctor who once worked in the [National Institutes of Health].”  A search of medical journals and studies shows that Suaudeau, trained as a surgeon in France before joining the priesthood, published on coronary research during his tenure at the Institutes, and turns up no contribution by him to scientific journals on sexually transmitted disease, HIV/AIDS, or any related topic.  His contributions on HIV and AIDS can be found in such places as the aforementioned Lexicon, the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, and journals from Catholic universities in Rome – hardly the peer-reviewed outlets one expects from Allen’s description of the man.

Allen attempts to justify his one-sided reporting, claiming that he does not know enough science to pass judgment on Suaudeau’s, and subsequently Trujillo’s, claims. A brief survey of other news could have helped educate Allen and NCR readers. Immediately after Trujillo’s statement was broadcast, public health experts spoke out condemning the claims.

The World Health Organization said, “These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people, and currently affects at least 42 million.”  WHO maintains that “consistent and correct” use of condoms reduces transmission by 90 percent.  Thoraya Obaid, executive director of UNFPA, the United National Population Fund, said, “[Trujillo’s] position is not scientifically accurate, and could contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

No reputable figure in the AIDS prevention community, the gay community, or the church reform community has ever claimed that condoms are 100 percent effective in preventing the spread of AIDS. But every reliable scientific and health related agency and professional has been clear that if one is going to be sexually active and is at risk of spreading HIV, condoms are an essential and very effective – even at less than 100 percent – measure to prevent the spread of the disease.

We might understand that Vatican officials pay no heed to facts about condom efficacy for AIDS prevention; in fact, responding to research clearly disputing Trujillo’s statements, the cardinal said merely, “They are wrong.”  We expect more from NCR. … No report, even one that is not designed to deal with the health issue of the AIDS crisis, should ever be written or published without making the facts on transmission and effective measures to reduce transmission perfectly clear.

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

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