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November 4, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 10

John L. Allen Jr.


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The Word From Rome

John L. Allen Jr.

From Where I Stand

Joan Chittister

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Thomas Gumbleton

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Joe Feuerherd

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A digest of links to media coverage of clergy abuse.

NCR's Latin America Series

The churches in Asia gather
Papal Coverage: Read NCR's 25 days of non-stop coverage of the death of John Paul II and the elction of Benedict XVI. This includes Sr. Joan Chittister's essays, An American Catholic in Rome

Keeler on Jewish-Catholic relations; Update: homosexuals in seminaries; Vatican reacts to violence in Israel/Palestine; Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest; Levada's radio interview; Sr. Teresilla, minister to prisoners, dies


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Cardinal William Henry Keeler of Baltimore, 74, is the American prelate most identified with the outreach and dialogue with Judaism that followed the Second Vatican Council, and especially its document Nostra Aetate, issued on Oct. 28, 1965. Keeler was a peritus, or theological expert, at Vatican II, and ever since has had a keen interest in inter-faith relations. Today Keeler is moderator for Jewish-Catholic Relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Keeler, along with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, was in Rome for an Oct. 27 ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. He sat down with NCR for an Oct. 29 interview at the North American College. The following are excerpts. A longer version appears in the Nov. 11 print issue of NCR.

Where does your passion for Jewish-Catholic relations come from?
It started when I was a seminarian here, at the North American College in the mid-1950s. I went on a seven-church walk that ended at the Ardeatine caves, where a massacre of Jews by the Nazis took place in 1944. I learned what the Nazis had done to ordinary people in Rome, including, by the way, the father of Archbishop Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo [former nuncio of the Holy See in Israel]. I got interested then. … Later, some friends and I visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. … We stood outside the house and prayed, 'never again.'

At Vatican II, I came with my bishop. It seems like just yesterday when Cardinal [Augustin] Bea stood up to say that John XXIII had asked the council to be sure that never again would Christian scripture or history be twisted to be hurtful to the Jewish people, or to support anti-Semitism. That's when work on the document began, and Cardinal Bea was the primary architect of it.

In your view, what have been the most important fruits of Nostra Aetate?
I think they're particularly important now. Today, we're looking not just to be engaged in dialogue, though that's happening in the United States, including between Jews and Muslims, but also to find ways to cooperate to advance the interests of justice and peace, especially in the Middle East. We're better able to do it now. For one thing, Jews and Christians alike, because of the experiences of the last 40 years, are better able to understand that Islam preaches peace. John Paul II himself said so in Jerusalem, that peace is at the heart of the common message of the three religions of Abraham.

What about changes in intra-Christian attitudes?
Within the Catholic church, I think change happens so gradually that people don't even realize when it's taken place. Yet there's no denying that there has been a profound change. I think the reaction to the movie 'The Passion of the Christ' is a wonderful example. There was no reaction anyplace that was anti-Semitic, no outbreaks of violence or harassment, as is said to have followed the staging of passion plays in the Middle Ages. It just didn't happen. To me, that means our people have accepted the message.

Yet we can't pretend all is well. Just this week, the President of Iran called for Israel to be wiped off the map. What was your reaction when you heard that?
I thought, this is another politician trying to get an easy solution to a very complicated problem. I also thought, this guy obviously doesn't know what Islam teaches about the relationship to the Jewish people. The Quran esteems Moses as a lawgiver, and there are many passages that draw upon Hebrew scripture, just as our Old Testament is essentially Hebrew scripture. Realizing all that, one knows that the President of Iran was way off-base. I've been encouraged by the international condemnation of his remarks. It's good that people see he was speaking out of turn.

What did you think of Benedict XVI's visit to the Cologne synagogue?
His talk was a very positive one, building on Nostra Aetate and what John Paul II had done. I think, looking especially at the reaction in the German press, it was an extremely positive event. I gave the text to our Jewish friends in the States, and they were all pleased to see he had done this in the land of the Shoah. I thought he made some points even more strongly that his predecessors had made them.

In that address, Benedict XVI called for 'a deeper theological evaluation of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.' Inevitably, that means touching the most sensitive question of all: conversion. What do you say when someone asks you if the church still believes that Jews would be better off as Christians?
I take the example of John Paul II, and a story told about him as a young priest which he later confirmed. In Poland, a two or three-year-old child was brought to him for baptism. He asked where the parents were, and a moment of silence followed. Finally, he persuaded these people to admit that the parents were Jewish. Wojtyla declined to baptize the child. In my view, that's the big difference between the situation now and 150 years ago, when Pius IX did not hesitate to claim a Jewish child for the church. There are many similar stories in which baptism of Jewish children has been refused by priests and bishops. …

We're dealing with a mystery. The Jews are in a covenant with God, one which is still valid, and one which Cardinal Walter Kasper has called "salvific." We don't know exactly what that means, but we do know that our attitudes towards the Jews have changed profoundly. We speak to them now as beloved elder brothers and sisters in the faith. Obviously, if an individual Jew should be persuaded that the Catholic-Christian faith is where God is calling him or her, our teaching on religious liberty means that choice must be respected, and we will receive that person with great joy.

You use the verb "persuaded," which begs the question: should we be attempting to persuade Jews?
The church has no organization directed to the conversion of the Jews at this time. I think that's the most I can say on that question.

You had a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 27. What did you talk about?
I came to renew a request I made in his first encounter with the cardinals after his election last April. At that time he said to me, 'Cardinal Keeler, you have the first diocese in the United States.' I responded, 'Yes, Holy Father, and the first cathedral as well. We are restoring it now. Next year, the bishops have agreed to come to Baltimore for the dedication, and it would be wonderful if you could come to preside.'… In our audience I renewed the request. … We have to work the whole business out, but at least the question is on the table. I got a letter from the Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in May, saying the matter is under consideration.

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A senior Vatican official told NCR this week that the release date of the long-expected document from the Congregation for Catholic Education on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries is likely to be late November, perhaps the last week of November.

A news report late this week suggesting the document would come out on Friday turned out to be a false alarm, but it does indicate the sense of heightened expectations surrounding its eventual publication.

Over recent weeks, a spate of leaks have surfaced about the document, some suggesting a rigid stance against the admission of homosexuals, others pointing to a set of criteria that could leave room for more flexible judgment calls in individual cases. To some extent, these seemingly conflicting reports may boil down to what parts of the document one chooses to emphasize -- and, perhaps, what particular “spin” a given source wishes to apply.

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Since church texts often require careful reading before they can be properly understood, most observers urge caution until the full text is available.

The official, who is familiar with the content of the document, told NCR its central message is that “homosexuals are not welcome in the priesthood.” The official said it also sets out guidelines, however, such as the capacity for celibacy, avoidance of the “gay lifestyle,” and the absence of an “overwhelming, permanent” orientation, which could make application less absolute than some of the document’s hard-line language may suggest.

This official said that the key to understanding the document is grasping its genre.

“This is not a matter of sacramental theology,” he said. “It’s not saying that homosexuals are intrinsically unworthy of being priests. It’s a matter of prudential judgment, that this is not a good idea.”

“Someone familiar with the content of the Catechism of the Church shouldn’t be surprised with this document,” the Vatican official said.

The document will probably be accompanied by a brief commentary, the official said, as the Vatican has sometimes done in the past when important documents are published. Sources say there will likely not be a Vatican press conference in conjunction with the document’s release.

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The Vatican's top diplomatic priority has long been the Holy Land, and its engagement has been in the news again this week.

On Friday, Oct. 28, the Vatican Press Office released a statement about the recent terrorist attack in Israel, reprisals from the Israelis against Palestinian targets, and comments from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regarding the destruction of the State of Israel.

"The grave facts of recent days in the Holy Land greatly worry the Holy See," the statement said, "which, uniting itself with the entire international community, expresses its own firm condemnation for the acts of violence -- the terrorist attack of Hadera and successive reprisals from wherever they come -- as well as for certain declarations, particularly grave and unacceptable, in which the State of Israel's right to exist is denied."

"The Holy See reaffirms in this occasion the right of both the Israelis and the Palestinians to live in peace and security, each in its own sovereign state."

On Nov. 2, the Vatican's Permanent Observer to the United Nations, Italian Archbishop Celestino Migliore, spoke on the subject of Palestinian refugees in the Near East.

"We are obliged this year to draw attention to the growing difficulties faced by Palestinian Christians who, although they belong to a faith born in that very land, are sometimes viewed with suspicion by their neighbors. … Religious extremism of any kind, implicated in attacks, abuse and harassment of Christians in the area around Bethlehem recently, is not to be tolerated," Migliore said.

His reference was to reports of a new wave of anti-Christian outbreaks in Bethlehem, including attacks on Christian-owned businesses and harassment of Christians by local Palestinian security forces. While sources differ as to the extent and seriousness of the harassment, it seems likely to accelerate the out-migration of Christians from the area. Prior to 1948, Bethlehem was more than 90 percent Christian, while today Christians account for just 21,000 out of 60,000 residents. Similar patterns hold in other traditionally Christian areas under Palestinian control.

Migliore criticized Israel's proposed "security fence" as a means of containing terrorism.

"Of ongoing concern is the security wall which cuts access to some Palestinians' lands and water sources, as well as to employment, commerce, education, medical care and freedom of worship," he said. "My delegation freely acknowledges the right of all peoples to live in peace and security; on the other hand, we believe that the Holy Land is in greater need of bridges than of walls."

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The Holy See's new nuncio to Kuwait and several other Gulf States, Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hachem, a Lebanese Maronite Christian, recently gave an interview to Monday Morning, a Beirut-based newspaper. El-Hachem's comments illustrate the views of one of the Vatican's most important representatives in the Muslim world.

"The Holy See is convinced that the solution chosen by President George W. Bush and his allies is not a good one," El-Hachem said, referring to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"His holiness the pope, the Maronite patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the Maronite archbishops and bishops and all the dignitaries of the Catholic church have spoken out against the war, since it can only deepen the gulf between the parties and increase fanaticism," El-Hachem said.

Asked about a link between religion and terrorism, El-Hachem gave this response.

"I consider that terror is the result of repression, of suffering, of injustice directed against a person, a group or a particular people, who lose all that they possess and no longer have anything to regret or to lose," he said.

"This reminds me of the distressing incident at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, when young Palestinians massacred Israeli athletes. I recall the shocked outcry throughout the world and the strong condemnation by the international community. At that time I was in the Vatican. Pope Paul VI appeared at his window and addressed the faithful: 'We too reprove and denounce the massacre in Munich, but we ask the following question: Why have young Palestinians committed this act? We reply: because the Palestinian people (it was the first time anyone had spoken of the Palestinian 'people') have been the victims of the most dangerous of injustices in the history of humanity, an innocent and peaceable people turned out of their land, who have lost their roots and identity amid the indifference of the entire world… What impelled these young men to commit this act was to attract the attention of the world to their cause.'"

"This papal intervention greatly changed opinion on this drama," El-Hachem said. "Terrorist acts flow from distress and from despair of ever recovering one's rights. And such is the despair, in some cases, that an individual may be driven to suicide as a means of protest and of drawing attention to his plight."

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For the past couple of years, the Pontifical Council for Culture, in combination with Lateran University and the Templeton Foundation, has been promoting a rather quixotically titled project: "Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest."

The idea, as explained by French Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the council, is to illustrate the deep harmony between science and religion, based on principles outlined by Pope John Paul II in such documents as Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor.

Next week, the STOQ project is sponsoring an international conference in Rome, at the Lateran University, under the title, "Infinity in Science, Philosophy and Theology." The line-up of speakers features an intriguing mix of clerics and scientists, who will explore to what extent concepts of infinity in Christianity theology, mathematics and astrophysics may share points of reference.

Further information on the conference may be found here:

At a Nov. 3 Vatican news conference to present the conference, both Poupard and Msgr. Gianfranco Basti, the director of the STOQ project, took pains to emphasize that for a dialogue between faith and science to be fruitful, each must respect the limits of its own competence. Poupard, for example, warned that science decoupled from ultimate values can become destructive, pointing to atomic bombs and human cloning; religion divorced from reason, Poupard warned, runs the risk of ending in "fundamentalism."

Illustrating the point, Basti made a sharp distinction between "evolution," as a scientific theory to explain a set of facts about the origin and development of organic life, and "evolutionism," meaning an ideological system that sees pure chance as the only force in the universe.

Basti cited Pope John Paul II's famous 1996 affirmation that evolution is "more than a hypothesis."

I asked him about Cardinal Christoph Schönborn's July 7 opinion piece in The New York Times, in which Schönborn described the 1996 statement from John Paul as "rather vague and unimportant." That description, I said, naturally generated doubts among many readers about how authoritative the pope's statement had been.

"It's authoritative, obviously, because it came from the pope," Basti replied.

"Perhaps it's an expression that's not very clear from a definitional point of view, because it's hard to know exactly what 'more than a hypothesis' means," he said. "But it's absolutely suggestive. A hypothesis has to be either true or false. To say something is 'more than a hypothesis' means that it has an ever greater claim to truth, and there are ever increasing empirical proofs."

Later in the discussion, Professor Gennaro Auletta of the Gregorian University, who directs the STOQ project at that institution, made the point that it's important to distinguish the theory of evolution, meaning that complex organisms evolved from simpler ones, from natural selection, which is the mechanism that Darwin believed drives evolution.

In fact, Auletta said, there are examples of evolutionary changes that can't be explained by natural selection. He pointed to the fact that Europeans have an enzyme for the digestion of milk that Asians lack, which he attributed to historical differences in European and Asian methods of agriculture and diets -- an example, he said, of culture rather than natural selection directing the evolutionary process.

"None of this means that God is not involved," Auletta said.

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Archbishop William Levada, the American who succeeded Benedict XVI as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sat down for a brief interview this week with Charles Collins of Vatican Radio.

A transcript and an audio file can be found here:

Reaction has focused on Levada's supposition that Benedict XVI appointed him to the CDF in part because the congregation handles juridical oversight of sex abuse cases, an issue Levada knows from the inside as an American bishop.

Levada strongly defends the American sexual abuse norms.

"I would say that this program has been an extraordinarily successful response," he said.

On the recent Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, Levada says that while the final propositions reflect points someone made in the synod, the breadth of conversation is not adequately captured.

"Cardinal [Telesphore Placidus] Toppo, for example, one of the presidents of the synod from India, talked about the love of the Eucharist brought to his very low caste tribe and how the idea that Christ would come to abide with them, to be with them, to give himself to them, what that did for their own self-worth and how that transformed their culture," Levada said. "It was really a beautiful intervention. Well, there is nothing of that in the propositions."

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This week the church celebrated the Feast of All Saints, and among other things it's a reminder that the custom of singling some people out as saints, while recognizing that the vast majority will never be beatified or canonized, is a tricky business. Answering the question, "Why this person and not someone else?" usually involves an intersection between supernatural realities such as holiness and the miraculous, and very earthly forces such as historical moment and an organized lobby.

Such will be the case again on Sunday, when a rare lay woman, a beloved Italian wife and mother of a large family, known affectionately as "Mamma Rosa," will be beatified -- offering a new icon in the church's defense of the family against measures such as gay marriage, de facto unions, and other proposals it regards as morally unacceptable.

In that sense, the Nov. 6 beatification is analogous to the 1994 beatification and 2004 canonization of Gianna Beretta Molla, a young Italian mother who in 1962 accepted death rather than abort her child. Molla has become a hero and patron of the pro-life cause.

The new beata is Eurosia Fabris, who was born in 1866 and died in 1932. Though "Mamma Rosa" entered the Franciscan's Third Order after the death of her husband in 1930, she is not remembered as a religious, but rather as a stay-at-home mom.

Fabris was born in a poor rural village into a farm family. She acquired the equivalent of a second-grade education, enough to read catechisms and spiritual works by authors such as St. Alfonso di Liguori. Fabris then went to work on the farm, along with helping her mother in a small seamstress business. She was a pious member of the local parish, teaching catechism to younger children.

Fabris attracted numerous suitors, but never showed interest. When she was 19, the young wife in a neighboring family died, leaving behind three young children. One died shortly afterward, but the other two were healthy toddlers of 20 and 24 months. For six months, Fabris took care of the children every day, and eventually she accepted the widower's proposal of marriage. Her choice was defined by the local pastor as an "act of charity," in part because of trying circumstances in the new home. The couple had nine more children, three of whom were eventually ordained as Catholic priests.

Fabris' process for sainthood was launched in 1975, with John Paul II recognizing her "heroic virtue" in 2003 and certifying a miracle due to her intervention in 2004.

Fabris will become a patron of the pro-family cause, a clear priority of this pontificate.

Wednesday morning Nov. 2, Benedict XVI received during his General Audience the participants in the first meeting of the National Association of Large Families in Italy, currently meeting at Castel Fusano, just outside Rome.

"In today's social context," the pope said, "nuclear families with many children constitute a testimony of faith, of courage and of optimism, because without children there is no future! I express the wish that adequate social and legislative steps will be promoted to care for and promote larger families, which constitute a richness and a source of hope for the entire country."

Afterwards, the pope greeted a family from Trieste with 12 children, and one from Naples with eight.

Two footnotes.

Fabris' grandson, Fr. Gianluigi Pasquale, is today the President of the Laurentianum Theological Institute in Venice, meaning that her memory is very much alive among the Italian clergy.

The miracolata, meaning the recipient of the miracle attributed to Fabris, will be on hand Sunday for the ceremony. Annita Casonato, now 83, was 22 when she says she was healed instantly and completely from a dangerous swelling of lymph nodes in the tracheobronchial zone. Casonato spent 45 days in a hospital, at which point her case was judged irreversible. She prayed to Fabris, and after a week, she says, the swelling was gone.

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Speaking of beloved Italian Catholic women, Rome suffered a loss in late October with the death of Sr. Teresilla, a well-known figure locally for her ministry in prisons, bringing comfort to inmates from all social classes and all walks of life.

She became famous for the role she played in transmitting a "secret diary" from a former member of the Red Brigades, containing insight into the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, to the Italian president at the time, Francesco Cossiga. Shortly thereafter, the former Red Brigade member received an amnesty after 11 years in prison and began working in a church-run social service center in Calabria.

Her death as the result of an automobile accident on Oct. 24 was a deep shock to many Italian Catholics.

Sr. Teresilla, whose birth name was Chiara Barillà and who belonged to a community known as the Serve di Maria Riparatrice, was taking part in an annual candlelight Marian procession at the time she died. The procession begins on a Saturday evening and continues until Sunday dawn, ending at the Sanctuary of Divino Amore on the outskirts of the city. The route winds through a number of narrow, dimly lit streets, and just at the end of this year's procession, a car came around a corner and struck Sr. Teresilla. She died on the spot at the age of 61.

Sr. Teresilla was remembered as a driven but deeply compassionate woman who smiled upon presidents and prisoners alike.

"Hers was a form of pure volunteerism, not linked to any organization," said Fr. Sandro Spriano, chaplain of Rome's sprawling Rebibbia prison. "She did everything possible for the reinsertion of detainees in society, finding work for them in businesses and social agencies. She followed them even after they left prison, but anonymously, because she didn't like to be in the limelight."

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This week, my new book on Opus Dei was published in the United States. (It came out in the United Kingdom on Oct. 6). Readers interested in finding the book online may do so here:

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

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