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 The Word From Rome

November 12, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 12

John L. Allen Jr.


"A concern for 'shadows' runs through the document. They're trying to challenge a reductionism, an over-emphasis on certain things, but what they've produced is an equal and opposite imbalance."

A respondent to the first draft of the lineamenta for next year's Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist

Post election water-cooler talk; A conversation with Archbishop William Levada; The Year of the Eucharist; A Focolare conference; Dialogue with Islam


Since the American presidential election came to an end, I have repeatedly been asked about "Vatican reaction." Aside from the fact that the Vatican never issues statements about the results of national elections, I doubt that after the minor contretemps I stirred up by speculating about "red" and "blue" dicasteries that many Vatican officials want to wade back into that particular swamp.

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Nevertheless, lots of people in the Holy See followed the elections with interest, and the subject has come up in water-cooler conversation. So far, the dominant reactions I've heard seem to be satisfaction and relief.

First, satisfaction.

The big political story in Europe in late October was not the Bush/Kerry contest, but Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian politician and confidant of John Paul II who had been nominated by the incoming President of the European Union, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, as a member of the European Commission. During hearings in early October, Buttiglione was asked about his views on homosexuality, on the family and male/female dynamics, and on stem cell research. In each case, he struck what would conventionally be described as a conservative Catholic stance, though he was careful to distinguish his private moral views from his role as a public official.

On homosexuality, for example, Buttiglione said: "Many things perhaps considered immoral do not have to be prohibited ... I can think that homosexuality is a sin, but this does not influence politics as long as I don't say that homosexuality is a crime."

An uproar resulted, with liberal members of the European Parliament insisting that Buttiglione was unfit to serve as Commissioner of Justice. Eventually Barroso was forced to withdraw his entire slate of ministers when it became clear that Buttiglione could not be confirmed.

The episode jarred Catholic sentiment, since it appeared to mark the emergence of a litmus test for public office in Europe: orthodox Catholics need not apply. Vatican officials such as Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, spoke of a new anti-Christian Inquisition, while Italian Catholic writer Vittorio Messori quipped that there are now only three categories of people against whom one can discriminate in Europe with impunity: hunters, smokers and Catholics.

"It looks like a new Inquisition. It is a lay Inquisition, but it is so nasty," Martino told reporters. "You can freely insult and attack Catholics, and nobody will say anything."

Buttiglione, for his part, has not gone quietly into that good night.

He has made noise about creating a new Catholic political party, and in an Oct. 8 interview with the London Independent, he said his rejection by the EU means that "anybody who in his private beliefs thinks that homosexuality is objectionable should be a second-class citizen in Europe … including not only Catholics but most Christians and many other people.

"They said that I am unfit for the simple fact that I say I may think that homosexuality is morally objectionable. This configures a kind of new Inquisition, in which you can discriminate against somebody because of his religious or philosophical beliefs. On the left there are shibboleths and you cannot discuss, they want to have their position taken for granted," Buttiglione said. "They don't want to talk; they prefer to marginalize those who do not think like them. This is the new morbid totalitarianism."

In conversations with officials in the Holy See, the Buttiglione episode seems to have become the primary prism through which they see Bush's reelection. If it's true, as most of the exit polling and post-election analysis seems to indicate, that Bush's religious faith and traditional morality helped propel him to victory, many in the Holy See are gratified by that result. At least in America, they conclude, one can be an orthodox Christian and not thereby disqualified from public life. The hope is that it will be the American model that draws Europe in its wake, and not vice-versa.

This does not mean, of course, that everyone in the Vatican is rejoicing at Bush's success. In chapter seven of my recent book All the Pope's Men, I outline four differences between the Holy See and the Bush White House -- on preemptive war, on international law, on the United Nations and on America's role in the world. Those differences remain, and on the strength of them some in the Vatican would have preferred a Kerry administration. Nevertheless, most people I know in the Holy See take some measure of comfort from the fact that at least in the United States, Rocco Buttiglione would not have black-balled by virtue of his robust Roman Catholicism.

Now, for the relief.

Whatever the private views of Vatican officials about the Bush/Kerry contest, everyone here realized that a Kerry administration would have been messy for the Catholic church. Every time Kerry, a Roman Catholic, took a stance that seemed to veer from church teaching -- on abortion, on stem cell research, on homosexual unions, or any other matter -- a new clamor would have arisen for church officials to "do something." The recent canonical law suit filed by an American layman seeking to have Kerry declared a heretic (see The Word From Rome, Oct. 22 and Oct. 29) certainly would not have been the end of it. The American bishops, and to a lesser extent the Holy See, would have found themselves between the rock of maintaining good diplomatic relations with the leader of the world's lone superpower, and the hard place of public pressure for disciplinary action against a high-profile dissident Catholic.

At least, many in Rome concluded the morning after Kerry conceded, this is one headache they don't have to worry about.

* * *

Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco was in Rome last week for a meeting of the Post-Synodal Council from the 1997 Synod for America, a body devoted to follow-up and evaluation of the synod's work. I sat down with him for an interview at a café across the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where a young Levada worked in the early 1980s.

I asked how he found the pope.

"He was pretty strong," Levada said. "His speech was better than I'd heard him at other times. Obviously it's a challenge for him. The disease is taking its toll over time."

Levada told me that the pope read the first part of his speech, then someone from the Secretariat of State took over. John Paul read the closing lines. In informal conversation, Levada said, the pope appeared animated.

"He made comments on various people who were there. He was obviously alert, and enjoyed visiting with us," he said.

John Paul II's purpose in holding a synod "for America" was to promote intra-continental solidarity. I asked Levada if, six years after the synod, he sees evidence that the pope's hopes have been realized.

"I think there is a greater awareness, certainly for those who participated in the synod," Levada said. "We know the faces and names of our counterparts and colleagues throughout the Americas. … There is a small attitudinal shift in our country, which is also true south of the border. When I speak to them, I see the greater ease they have, the greater sympathy. They understand peculiar American ways better. There's a sense of having some common problems."

At the same time, Levada conceded that the fruits of this new solidarity are to date "not as tangible as many of us had hoped they would be."

"We're all so busy, have so many meetings, so many other things that demand our attention," he said.

Levada said that one area of potential cooperation could involve joint pastoral strategies to respond to the "sects," i.e., aggressive Pentecostal and evangelical movements making strong inroads into traditionally Catholic populations.

"It's the same thing we're faced with among immigrants who come into our country," Levada said.

How serious a problem is this?

"Listening to my colleagues, it comes up every time we meet," Levada said. "They are frustrated about what to do. They mention how much money these groups have to buy TV time, to promote their attack against the Catholic church."

I asked Levada if these anti-Catholic attacks are explicit.

"Very explicit," Levada said. "They say quite openly that you cannot truly have salvation in Jesus Christ in the Catholic church."

How should the church respond?

"It seems to me we should take a more aggressive stance, and help our brother bishops to take a more aggressive stance, by adopting some of the same means -- for example, in the media," he said.

"We need to be very explicit in rejecting their message. We have to say to the people that they [the "sects"] do not have a true understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. One of the tests is that they do not adopt the supreme law of love to which Jesus witnesses. I don't think they do that."

I noted that many Latin Americans are convinced that the growth of Protestantism in their region is being financed by U.S. money.

"That's true," Levada said, saying he referred to funding from Protestant donors and groups rather than any government-backed initiative.

"These are people acting out of their own sense of the missionary apostolate. They are not people touched by the vision of ecumenism. They are convinced that Catholics are going to Hell and need to be saved, so they reach out to them."

Does Levada have the impression that the spread of these movements has peaked?

"No," he said. "From what I hear, they're becoming even more aggressive, putting candidates up for mayor in some places. The growth is dramatic."

I noted that John Paul had talked to the bishops about threats to the family, a theme very much on Levada's radar screen, especially after San Francisco's mayor began issuing marriage licenses for gay couples.

"Yes, we have had some experience," Levada said. "To the great surprise and shock of everyone, including the gay community, the mayor started on this program. I wonder myself, given the election results, if the powers that be in Democratic Party will begin pointing fingers at him, asking if he cost them the election."

I asked what concerns about the family Levada hears from brother bishops in Latin America.

"For many of them, poverty and the economic issues are the primary challenge to the family," Levada said. "A bishop from Haiti told us that the recent hurricane destroyed all the school buildings in northwest Haiti. Not only does this mean the education process is on hold, but the school was the only place they got one good meal a day.

"It's tragic, and amounts to a huge strain on the family," Levada said.

* * *

A footnote on the term "sects."

A few weeks ago, my use of the word was challenged by a number of readers, including Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who argued that in 30 years the Catholic church will be in ecumenical dialogue with these groups, and it won't help to have called them "sects."

Levada, for one, is unapologetic.

"That's the common language in Latin America," he said. "These are not mainstream Protestant groups. I think that they are sects."

Does he share Neuhaus' optimism that within a generation there will be ecumenical dialogue?

"I doubt that," Levada said. "There would have to a great change in their theology."

* * *

I have long believed that an Achilles' heel of Vatican coverage around the world is its dependence upon the Italian papers. A rule of thumb is that whatever Corriere della Serra or Il Messaggero prints today about the Vatican, many newspapers, press agencies and Internet sites in other languages will circulate tomorrow -- for good, or, as frequently happens, for ill.

In fairness, Italian journalism is often more passionate and sophisticated than its Anglo-Saxon equivalent. Yet on a list of top concerns for Italian newspapers, factual accuracy would not rate terribly high. Once a prominent Italian journalist, after he had published a story later shown to be false, told me: In giornalismo ogni tanto si deve rischiare … "in journalism, every now and then you have to take a risk."

Italian papers are forever throwing out red herrings, and the rest of us all too often take the bait.

Recent case in point: a piece in Rome's daily Il Messaggero on Saturday, Nov. 6, reporting that Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls was about to become a member of the Board of Directors for the Geox Corporation, an up-and-coming Italian shoe manufacturer.

In itself, the story was hardly a bombshell. Shoes are certainly a moral product, and Navarro, being a layman, can sit on whatever board of directors he likes. Still, there was something odd about the idea of a senior Vatican official being involved this directly in a corporate enterprise, and so before reproducing the story I rang Navarro up.

His answer: "The president of Geox, who is my friend, asked me some weeks ago to be an independent member of the board. I declined. So I am not a member of any executive board, Geox or otherwise."

Navarro added that up until three years ago, he had been the president of the board of a non-profit foundation for terminally ill cancer patients called "Maruzza L. d'Ovidio," but he gave it up when the demands became too intense.

By the way, the original article gave no indication of an attempt to contact Navarro, or Geox, for confirmation. Navarro told me no one had tried to reach him.

Hence this word to the wise: the next time you read on an internet site about the latest Vatican rumor surfacing in one of the Italian papers, take a deep breath -- and gulp it down with a large grain of salt.

* * *

A footnote about Navarro-Valls. A group of admirers has created a Web site devoted to him, where one can find articles, interviews, photos, and a full biography in French, Spanish and English. It's located at www.navarro-valls.info

* * *

John Paul has declared the next 12 months a "Year of the Eucharist," set to culminate in next October's Synod of Bishops. As I reported earlier, the lineamenta, or first draft, of the synod's working paper is making the rounds.

In its opening pages, the lineamenta establishes the aim of the synod: to take a "pastoral inventory" of how the Eucharist is practiced, leading to a "renewed attitude of love" towards the sacrament that Vatican II called the "source and summit" of Christian life.

Early drafts of responses shared with NCR suggest that the lineamenta is playing to mixed reviews, especially among liturgists and specialists in sacramental theology.

"A concern for 'shadows' runs through the document," one expert said. "They're trying to challenge a reductionism, an over-emphasis on certain things, but what they've produced is an equal and opposite imbalance."

The concern with abuses comes across most clearly, several observers said, in the questions for reflection listed at the end of the lineamenta. Examples:

o "In an attempt to be personal and avant-garde, do priests manifest any attitudes in their celebration of the Mass which are explicitly or implicitly contrary to the liturgical norms established by the Catholic church?" (#5)

o "To what measure must attention be given to inculturation in the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist to avoid a misunderstood creativity which leads to peculiar and strange practices?" (#14)

"These questions have a 'when did you stop beating your wife' feel to them," one theologian said. "They presume the very abuses they ask us about."

Other criticisms that have surfaced:

o The emphasis on the Eucharist as a sacrifice risks obscuring the fact that it was also a real meal, taken by Jesus with his disciples. The Eucharist is thus both a vertical event, making present Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, and horizontal, uniting his community around a common table. Absolutizing either element means losing something essential.

o By insisting almost exclusively upon the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated elements, the document risks obscuring the presence of Christ in the Word of God proclaimed at Mass and in the assembly.

o The Eucharistic spirituality in the document is individualistic, with little attention to how the Eucharist is meant to transform the community and inspire work for social justice in the broader culture. One expert argued that John Paul II's recent apostolic letter, Mane Nobiscum Domine, announcing the Eucharistic year, was stronger on the social dimension. The pope wrote: It's from our reciprocal love and, in particular, from the concern we have for those in need that we will be recognized as true disciples of Christ (Jn 13:35; Mt 25:31-46). This is the criterion on the basis of which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations will be confirmed.

It's early in the game, and perhaps those most riled by the lineamenta were earliest to dash off responses. Hence the criticisms leveled here may not be representative of wider opinion. Certainly the document's implied call to liturgical discipline will cheer those who have long objected to a "do-it-yourself" spirit in too many parishes. As material continues to arrive, therefore, the conversation may yet take off in unpredictable directions.

The points described above, however, are already a clear indication that the bishops will have plenty to talk about when they gather a year from now.

* * *

This week, the Pontifical Council for the Health Care Pastoral is holding an international conference on palliative care. Some 656 persons are registered for the event, representing 74 countries. Seventeen ambassadors to the Holy See will take part, along with three Ministers of Health (From Portugal, Cyprus and Liechtenstein) and two episcopal conferences (Spain and Portugal).

The event was presented in a Nov. 9 Vatican press conference by Cardinal Card. Javier Lozano Barragán, president of the Vatican's dicastery for health.

In an attempt to illustrate the slippery slope that end-of-life debates can create, Lozano Barragán opened his remarks with an imaginary conversation among two friends:

      How are you, old friend? It's been a long time since we saw each other!
      It's true, we have to find a time to get together. What would you say to having dinner at that restaurant where we used to go?
      Sounds like a great idea! What about next Friday?
      Okay, sounds good; but let me check my schedule … Too bad, Friday isn't possible, because look, for next Friday we've planned my grandmother's death …!

Lozano Barragán's point was that the death of a loved one, however much it might be the natural consummation of a period of suffering, should never be just another item on somebody's calendar. Questions of human life and death merit seriousness, and reverence.

After a scientific review of the question, the conference examined the history of palliative care, its illumination through the death and resurrection of the Lord, the sacrament of extreme unction and the viaticum, faith and secularization in the last phase of life, proportionate and disproportionate care, and "therapeutic death."

* * *

On Saturday, Nov. 7, I was invited to address a conference for communicators at Castelgandolfo, the pope's summer residence, organized by the Focolare movement. This lay movement was founded in Italy by Chiara Lubich, and has the promotion of "unity" as its guiding idea.

(Footnote: The Focolare conference center at Castelgandolfo is actually the building where the popes used to hold summer audiences, until the crowds got too big. Paul VI gave it to the Focolare, who use it for international meetings).

Lubich spoke in a televised message projected on a giant screen, urging communicators to take the Blessed Virgin Mary as a model. Mary was poor, humble, and a good listener, Lubich said, all qualities communicators need in "mediating" the news.

Most of what I said came from my "Common Ground" lecture last June, which I have previously summarized here (The Word From Rome, July 2).

The conference was an outgrowth of a movement for communicators associated with Focolare that was launched in 2000, called "NetOne." The idea is to use the media to promote "dialogue and exchange between individuals and peoples."

William Esposo, a Filipino journalist, spoke on the Philippines' "People Power" peaceful revolution. Despite the success of that movement, he said, the Philippines is "far from social justice."

More than 60 percent of the Filipino population lives below the poverty line, often in desperation. In one episode that makes the point, two members of a Filipino family recently died from food poisoning after eating out of a dumpster behind a Manila restaurant -- an all too common phenomenon, Esposo said.

In that context, Esposo said, the country's media should lead the way in naming the forces that maintain unjust structures. Instead, he said, Filipino media tend to focus on scandal and cheap thrills -- a strategy, he suggested, which suits those in power just fine.

Patrizia Labate, an Italian journalist who works in poor and rural southern Italy, described her biography of a late mayor from the region, Italo Falcomatŕ, who she considered a model of dialogue with his citizens. In one typical gesture, when Falcomatŕ became ill, he chose not to go to northern Italy for treatment, as would be typical of the country's political and business elites, but to stay in the local hospital.

"Only in this way can citizens have confidence in their structures," Labate quoted Falcomatŕ as saying.

Though Labate did not explicitly develop the point, her presentation suggested that journalists might profitably spend more time looking for stories about positive models of public service.

* * *

Dialogue with Islam is among the mega-issues heading into the election of the next pope. Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, is generally reckoned among the doves on Islam, though he is no naďf. His expertise is beyond question; he's a member of the Missionaries of Africa, with a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian and a B.A. in Arabic from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

One point Fitzgerald grasps is that if dialogue with Islam is to work, it has to be about something. In that regard, many observers have long felt that a natural coalition emerged between the Holy See and Islamic states around issues of the family and "reproductive rights" at the U.N.-sponsored summits on population and women in Cairo and Beijing in the 1990s.

In his message to Muslims this year on the feast of Ramadan, Fitzgerald zeroes in on the family:

"On several occasions these last years representatives of the Holy See and of countries with a Muslim majority have defended together in international fora fundamental human values. It was often a matter of defending the rights of those who are the weakest, and notably the family as the natural environment in which children are nurtured and their rights are better preserved. …

"Faced with these evils that affect our children, dear friends, we should unite our efforts, reminding people of the dignity of every human being whose existence is willed by God Himself. … I hope therefore that our common endeavors in favor of children will continue and may in fact increase. In this way we shall give further proof of the benefit that can come from religion for the whole human community."

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

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