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 The Word From Rome

November 5, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 11

John L. Allen Jr.


"Inter-religious dialogue belongs properly to an intellectual institution engaged in the pursuit of truth, because it's part of that search for truth. Catholic identity is ensured not just because we have Mass and teach St. Thomas, but by introducing students to a knowledge of other faiths, by promoting research by professors and rewarding it appropriately, and so on. Authentic inter-religious dialogue reinforces our identity by strengthening our self-awareness."

Archbishop Michael Miller,
secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education

Rome's Lay Centre; Discussing relations with non-Christian religions; Debating sacramental theology and ecumenical sensitivity; Vox Clara Commission to meet in Rome; John Paul receives Iraq's Ayad Allawi


Rome is a city with some 3,000 years of history, and in that context a quarter-century can seem the mere blink of an eye. Yet there are some 25th anniversaries remarkable enough that even -- perhaps especially -- against such an august backdrop, they deserve to be marked.

Such is the case with the Lay Centre, a residential and formation program for laity studying at pontifical universities in Rome, founded in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It's animated by an American laywoman named Donna Orsuto, an expert in spiritual theology who teaches at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University.

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The Lay Centre not only provides a toehold for laity in what has long been a clerical company town, but through its extensive lecture programs and course offerings (many in tandem with the Vincent Pallotti Institute), it carves out a precious space for dialogue among Catholics and with members of other faiths. Among other things, the high regard in which Orsuto is held in the Holy See means that the Lay Centre is often able to give Vatican officials a platform to discuss their work with the public.

The Lay Centre is located on the grounds of the Irish College, near the Basilica of San Giovanni Laterano.

What kind of impact does Orsuto have?

One answer was offered at the residence of Ambassador Tony Hall, U.S. emissary to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program, on Oct. 28. Hundreds of people showed up to fete Orsuto and the Centre. They came from Roman universities, from the Holy See, from religious orders, and from all walks of life. Guests included Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and Archbishop Michael Miller, secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education. James Nicholson, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, delivered a detailed and passionate tribute. The VIP-studded turnout spoke volumes about the impression Orsuto and the Lay Centre have made.

First a word about the Lay Centre, then Orsuto.

In addition to formation activities for residents, the Lay Centre offers a wide range of lectures, pilgrimages, and other events towards forming the laity in the church. Roman Catholic in foundation and spirit, the Lay Centre is dedicated to fostering both ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Residents are mostly Catholic, but over the years several adherents of other Christian traditions, as well as Muslims and followers of other religions, have lived at the Centre.

Those who know the Lay Centre are almost always struck by its combination of deep Catholic fidelity, along with a sincere openness to other faiths and to modern, secular culture.

As for Orsuto, it would be reductionist to describe her accomplishment in terms of succeeding in a man's world, though there is that element to it. Orsuto herself, however, has never traded on being a woman; she carries no chip on her shoulder, seeks no special treatment, and keeps moving forward. She possesses a keen mind and a profound theological formation, yet she has the capacity to make her learning accessible and relevant. She loves the church and wishes always to serve it, recognizing that fostering patient, constructive discussion, rooted in constant prayer, is one precious form that service can take.

As I move around the Catholic world, I often am dismayed by a disjunction between two elements of Catholic psychology that ideally ought to be a package deal; an ability to recognize complexity and shades of gray, along with a deep fidelity to the truths the church has marked out. Orsuto, in my experience, is a model of how remarkable a life one can lead when these two qualities are kept in proper alignment.

More information on the Lay Centre and Orsuto can be found at: www.laycenter.org

* * *

Speaking of the Lay Centre, it hosted an interesting evening Oct. 27, motivated by the looming 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the document of the Second Vatican Council on non-Christian religions. Orsuto invited Archbishop Michael Miller, secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, to reflect on the reception of Nostra Aetate in Catholic education.

The session was moderated by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. Three other participants added their experiences: Professor Joseph Sievers, director of the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies in Rome; Dr. Sandra Keating, a professor at Providence College in the United States; and Betül Avci, a Muslim from Turkey and a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. Avci is a former resident at the Lay Centre, and Sievers and Keating are both longtime friends.

Noting the manifold ways that both Paul VI and John Paul II have reached out to non-Christian religions, Miller called Nostra Aetate a "watershed, a key point of reference in the church's life … that by no means has been consigned to any sidebin or sidebar."

At the same time, Miller argued that this commitment has not, at least not yet, been incorporated in a systematic way in the church's educational policies. Miller led his audience through an exhaustive review of post-conciliar documents on education, noting that aside from cursory references to formation "in a spirit of dialogue," there has not been, in his words, "a lot of forward movement." In the basic blueprint documents -- Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the 1,200 Catholic universities in the world, and Sapienza Cristiana for ecclesiastical faculties -- there is barely a mention of other religions, and no detailed comments on curriculum, faculty or facilities for inter-religious study. The same thing, he said, is true of post-conciliar documents from his own congregation.

Yet this does not mean, Miller said, that nothing has happened. In fact, evidence on the ground, as opposed to official documents, suggests that there has been a deep reception of Nostra Aetate's contents.

The Lateran, Angelicum and Gregorian universities, Miller noted, all offer inter-religious courses. Rome has the Cardinal Bea Center for the study of Judaism, and the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) for Islam. In the United States, home to 20 percent of the world's Catholic universities, virtually every institution offers a variety of opportunities for inter-religious study and dialogue. In 2001, the International Federation of Catholic Universities declared that inter-religious dialogue should be a priority for research and exchange. Similarly, there is a rich flowering of inter-religious awareness at Catholic secondary and elementary schools, Miller said, especially at those schools where a significant percentage of the student population is non-Catholic.

Yet much of this has happened spontaneously, without much encouragement or direction from official channels. In part, Miller said, this may be because in an era of concern about Catholic identity, some people worry that dialogue with other religions might weaken that identity.

Nothing, he said, could be further from the truth.

"Inter-religious dialogue belongs properly to an intellectual institution engaged in the pursuit of truth, because it's part of that search for truth," Miller said. "Catholic identity is ensured not just because we have Mass and teach St. Thomas, but by introducing students to a knowledge of other faiths, by promoting research by professors and rewarding it appropriately, and so on."

"Authentic inter-religious dialogue," Miller said, "reinforces our identity by strengthening our self-awareness."

* * *

Keating offered a provocative presentation. In essence, she argued that while most Catholic universities have integrated other religions into their course offerings, very little of that attention is specifically theological -- so that students absorb content about other religions, but receive little guidance about what sense to make of those religions from a Catholic perspective.

"This is a really important, critical part of evangelization," Keating said. "If we fail to do this, we will have some serious problems."

Keating said there are very practical reasons that Catholic theology departments resist dealing with other religions.

"In most cases, the time given to theology is so greatly reduced, professors are reluctant to sacrifice study of important Christian doctrines in favor of talking about other religions," she said. "In many cases, Catholic students arrive not well prepared in their own faith."

Further, she said, unless a given theology instructor has a special interest in Nostra Aetate, he or she may not feel competent to venture into this complex area.

An additional factor, Keating said, is a general bias in the academy against a theological approach to the study of other religions.

"In the modern period, scholars of religion have argued that the only legitimate way is to present religious apart from a theological approach or the truth question," she said. "Most courses in higher education in the United States are done this way." She noted this is called the "history of religions" approach.

The result, Keating said, is that students are largely left alone to figure out how what they learn about Hinduism, or Jainism, or Islam fits into their Catholic faith. She offered the example of a colleague who decided to make reference to the Koran in a survey course on the New Testament, noting the various places where the Koran mentions Jesus and Mary. Many students, she said, came away thinking that Muslims believed essentially the same things that Catholics do -- or that differences, if they do exist, don't matter, in effect a form of relativism.

"Young people see [relativism] as an obvious implication of tolerance," Keating said. "They have a hard time holding together opposition in truth claims." Helping them think this through, she argued, "is crucial to their capacity to be witnesses for Christ and the church in the future."

At a minimum, Keating recommended that theology departments should hire one member who is conversant with other religions.

* * *

I'm forever trying to persuade people of the fallacy of believing that the Vatican has only one way of seeing most issues. Even I would concede, however, that public airing of those differences is less common in the Holy See than in most other organizations. In that light, the most recent issue of Divinitas, a theological journal published by the Vatican press, is especially noteworthy.

This special issue is devoted to an Oct. 26, 2001, decision of three Vatican offices (the Council for Christian Unity, the Congregation for Eastern Churches, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) approving inter-communion between the Assyrian Church of the East and its parallel Eastern rite Catholic church, the Chaldean Catholic Church. In so doing, the Vatican accepted the validity of a Eucharistic prayer used by the Assyrians, called the "Anaphora of Addai and Mari," even though it does not contain an "institution narrative" citing the words of Christ at the Last Supper: "Take this, all of you, and eat it," etc.

Though this may seem a classic case of insider's baseball, the decision has two levels of wide significance. First, according to liturgical experts, it suggests a break with traditional sacramental theology that concentrates on verbal formula, towards an approach rooted more in intention and overall meaning -- a step, in other words, towards a more "modern" understanding of the essence of the sacraments. Second, by recognizing the validity of a Eucharistic prayer even though it doesn't conform to the precise norms of the Catholic church, the Vatican seemed to signal a new level of ecumenical sensitivity.

The special issue of Divinitas offers six articles more or less supporting the decision, and four questioning it.

The fact that a Vatican-published journal would run material challenging a joint decision of three dicasteries would, by itself, be remarkable. The language in a couple of the articles, however, goes beyond the polite obfuscation in which such challenges are generally posed. German scholar David Berger, for instance, suggests that the church has no power to do what it did in this case, i.e., approve a Eucharistic prayer lacking the words of Christ.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact that another strongly critical piece was written by a veteran Vatican monsignore, Fr. Brunero Gherardini, who was the postulator for the beatification of Pope Pius IX. Gherardini is the editor-in-chief of Divinitas. Further, the journal comes with an imprimatur from Cardinal Francesco Marchisano, arch-priest of St. Peter's Basilica and the pope's vicar general for Vatican City.

All this suggests that the decision of 2001 has some powerful critics inside Vatican corridors.

Berger is unequivocal: "In none of the other sacraments does such clarity prevail as here: Christ himself, according to the unanimous witness of scripture and tradition, personally and immediately decreed the matter and form of the Eucharist and Baptism. The church thus has no authority to change something in the essential rites of these sacraments which is based on a divine ordinance."

Berger, by the way, publishes in a German periodical called Una Voce Korrespondenz, put out by the German branch of a pro-Latin Mass group called "Una Voce."

Gherardini, professor of ecclesiology and ecumenism for 37 years at the Lateran University and secretary of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, lists five arguments against the anaphora:

  1. "Whoever presumes to celebrate the Eucharist by silencing or modifying the words used by Christ in the moment of institution performs not an act of devotion to Christ, but rather its contrary.
  2. "That Christ could have consecrated in different ways than the one which is witnessed to by the sources of the New Testament, is not in discussion; but still less can it be discussed, or placed in the shadow of doubt, the lone way in which he himself [consecrated].
  3. "This same, lone way is expressed in the words of Institution; 'This is My Body,' 'This is My Blood,' the one form of the Eucharistic sacrament; if one prescinds from that, or substitutes or substantially modifies it, the sacrament does not exist.
  4. "This is deduced also from the command with which Christ provides for the actualization of what he did and how he did it.
  5. "It follows that the celebrant consecrates the bread and wine solely with the words used by Christ, and in no other way; and, further, that solely one who within the sacred rite pronounces precisely those words in fact consecrates."
It's by no means clear that the Divinitas issue signals a death knell for the 2001 decision. As Gherardini himself notes in another context, he once published a piece in favor of declaring Mary "co-redemptrix" in Divinitas, and to date that view has not prevailed. Moreover, a member of his own editorial committee, Carmelite Fr. Bonifacio Honings, wrote in favor of the decision in the same issue. (Honings, an emeritus professor at the Lateran and Urban universities, wrote that "when the assembly of the Assyrian Church of the East and of the Chaldean Church celebrate the Eucharist, both are convinced, not only of projecting themselves and rooting themselves immediately in the uninterrupted tradition of the Fathers, but also of obeying the command of the Lord: 'Do this in memory of me.'")

Still, the Divinitas issue suggests that reservations about the anaphora are alive and well within the Holy See, backed by influential sectors of Catholic opinion. One Roman source told me that his fear is not so much that the 2001 decision will be rolled back, but that it will become a dead letter in terms of guiding future cases.

In other words, it's a situation well worth watching.

* * *

The Knights of Columbus, with some 1.7 million members, are one of the largest lay Catholic organizations in the world. Given that it's the laity who must carry the church's social doctrine intro boardrooms and legislatures, the Knights are in a position to play an important role in awakening lay consciousness.

I sat down to talk about this with Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, on Thursday, Oct. 28, on the sidelines of a world congress organized by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Anderson is not just a CEO of a major non-profit organization, but he is also a genuine thinker and academic. He has served as vice president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, in Washington, where he taught from 1988 to 1998 and which the Knights sponsors. He has taught as a visiting professor at the Institute's facilities at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome since 1983. He is also a veteran politico; from 1983 to 1987, Anderson served in various positions in the Executive Office of President Ronald Reagan, including special assistant to the president and acting director of the Office of Public Liaison.

Anderson said he was struck at the Justice and Peace conference by how many political leaders around the world come from Christian backgrounds but don't necessarily reflect that in their policy choices.

"The fact is, in many places there has not been an adequate job of forming the conscience of decision-makers in society," Anderson said.

Anderson said he hopes the new Compendium will promote "the formation of a Catholic conscience, which will try to see things in a theological way, rather than from the perspective of a philosophical or ideological or partisan dialectic."

That's a challenge, he said, that "we haven't adequately met yet."

So what's to do?

"I'm not sure there's an easy answer," Anderson said.

Ever the scholar, he pointed to the approach laid out by John Paul II in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

"In his encyclicals, there is an attempt to enter into a dialogue that can affect conscience while respecting conscience," Anderson said. "It's a kind of rhetoric that reaches out in a way that was not always able to be done in a tradition that was more scholastically oriented."

One concrete way forward, Anderson said, is to work towards a shift in Catholic consciousness, "from a European/U.S. focus, to one that really understands that the vast majority of Catholics are poor, the vast majority of people in world are poor, one that calls for a change in thinking and a greater understanding of solidarity."

The Knights, Anderson said, have an infrastructure to launch such an effort.

"We have members in the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and in Mexico, as well as throughout the United States and Canada," he said. "We need to focus more as an organization on the international aspects of our activity."

As one specific instance of such activity, Anderson mentioned a $2 million "Pacem in Terris" fund created by the Knights to fund Christian communities in the Holy Land. He said he spent 45 minutes with a bishop from the Sudan at the Justice and Peace conference, talking in part about ways the American Catholic community might get involved.

"It's important for them to feel as if somebody's listening, even if the concrete support could be greater," Anderson said.

* * *

Next week, Nov. 9-11, the Vox Clara Commission will be meeting in Rome. That's an advisory body to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, created to help the Vatican with the explosive problem of English-language liturgical translations. Its chair is Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, widely seen as on the conservative side of the "liturgy wars."

One topic likely to arise is the status of the new English translation of the Roman Missal, the main collection of prayers for the Mass. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a joint venture of English-speaking bishops' conferences, is pressing ahead on the project, though rosy projections of having a text ready for use in parishes by 2005 now seem a bit premature.

I contacted Fr. Bruce Harbert, head of the ICEL staff, for a status report.

"We're pressing ahead, and the Proper of Seasons should be finished, give or take a few stray texts, by the end of this year," Harbert said. "Then the 'back end' of the Missal should take us another year, and there is reasonable hope that it will be done by the end of 2005.

"But all I mean by that is that the secretariat will have completed the initial part of its work: commissioning a base translation, sending that out to revisors, collating their comments and producing a new version taking those comments into account. At that point, the work is ready to go to the commission [meaning the bishops who govern ICEL] or, if they choose, to a committee or committees appointed by them.

"Then what? That rather depends on the discussions that are going on now within conferences about the sort of text they want, and the processes both of translation and introduction.

"My instinct is that we are more or less on target stylistically, and the reaction of bishops round the world is cautiously positive."

After that, Harbert said, it is up to the bishops as to how to proceed.

* * *

On Thursday, Nov. 4, John Paul II received Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, head of the interim Iraqi government. Allawi also met with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's Secretary of State, along with Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's foreign minister, and other officials of the Secretariat of State.

Though the Vatican was a critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, it has long called for support of the new Iraqi government. On June 20, after Allawi's government was formed, the pope said: "The Catholic Church throughout the world offers you support and encouragement in the task of building a new Iraq."

The meeting was arranged not by the U.S. government, but by the Patriarchate of Baghdad, one sign of the importance the Christian community in Iraq attaches to the new government. Twice since the war broke out, Christian churches in Iraq have been bombed, and Christian migration out of Iraq has accelerated. The Holy See has long feared the erection of a Shi'ite theocracy in Iraq that would be hostile to the country's Christians. One of the few virtues of the regime of Saddam Hussein was that he maintained a rough tolerance among religions -- a peace of the sword, to be sure, but peace nevertheless.

According to a statement from Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the question of religious liberty figured prominently in Allawi's talks with John Paul.

"The necessity of assuring full religious liberty was underlined, as well as the contribution that the Christian community can offer to the moral and material reconstruction of the country," Navarro said. "The Prime Minister deplored the attacks suffered by some Christian churches, assuring, on the part of the government, the will to proceed to their restoration."

One senior Western diplomat was optimistic about the Allawi visit.

"I think it is an important sign that a new Iraq will respect religious freedom, and an acknowledgement of the importance of Iraq's Christian community for Iraq's present and future," he said.

* * *

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* * *

Finally, a brief word of gratitude to so many of you who wrote to offer condolences on the death of my grandfather, Raymond Frazier. Though I'm not able to respond personally to all the messages, please know that your prayers and good wishes for my family are deeply appreciated.

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

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