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 The Word From Rome

November 14, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 12

global perspective


The root cause of today's epidemic of depression (one estimate says 12 percent of the world's population is depressed) is post-modernity, and especially its embrace of "weak thinking," meaning relativism and skepticism.

Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán,
head of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care at an international conference on depression he was running.

Conferences on genetically modified foods and St. Thérèse of Lisieux and depression; Cardinals Francis Arinze and Godfried Danneels on Sacrosanctum concilium


If ever one needed proof of the universal scope of the Vatican’s concerns, this week’s symposium on “Genetically Modified Organisms: Threat or Hope?” surely provided it. Some may find it quirky that a religious body should fret about crop yields and food safety, but as Vatican II said, “nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo” in the church.

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Boosters of GMOs see them as a way to reduce world hunger. Critics oppose them on three grounds: potential for growing dependence upon commercial seeds and chemicals among poor farmers; possible environmental harm; and threats to human health.

Debate has been intense, with some Catholic voices among the critics. Several Filipino bishops, including Dinualdo Gutierrez of Marbel, have been outspoken. (Though another Filipino bishop, Jesus Varela the bishop emeritus of Sorsogon, recently testified in favor of GMOs at a government conference). Last May, 14 Brazilian bishops condemned the cultivation and consumption of GMOs. In 2002, the Catholic Bishops of South Africa said, “It is morally irresponsible to produce and market genetically modified food.” In the United States, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference has called for “a moratorium on the commercial introduction of genetically engineered crops until a principled food policy is developed through public debate.”

The Holy See, on the other hand, has seemed more favorable. Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said in October 2002 that animal and vegetable biotechnologies “can be justified for the good of man.” In a 2001 document, the Pontifical Academy for the Sciences concluded: “Rapid growth in world population requires the development of new technologies to feed people adequately … The genetic modification of food plants can help meet this challenge.”

At the Vatican conference, while all points of view were represented, some participants charged the deck was stacked in favor of the pro-GMO view. If so, it may reflect the inclination of Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Council for Justice and Peace.

“Transgenic food could be used to feed Africa and to fight the global scourge” of hunger, Martino told La Stampa in August, adding that he ate plenty of biotech foods during the 16 years he lived in New York as the Vatican's U.N. ambassador and suffered no ill effects.

Jesuit Fr. Roland Lesseps, an American biologist who is senior scientist at an agricultural training center in Zambia, urged Martino and the others to be dubious of GMOs on moral grounds.

“Nature is not just useful to us as humans, but is valued and loved in itself, for itself, by God in Christ,” a paper he co-authored said. “The right to use other creatures does not give us the right to abuse them.”

In the end, however, Vatican sources said the Holy See’s position is likely to be a “yellow light.” It will not issue a blank-check endorsement, but neither will it oppose GMOs. The message will probably be, “proceed with caution.”

* * *

A wrinkle that certainly will not have escaped the attention of political professionals is the potential of GMOs as a “wedge issue” to divide two traditionally left-leaning constituencies: African-Americans concerned with the poor and environmental activists.

This tension came to the surface in May, when the Congress for Racial Equality, a U.S. civil rights group, issued a statement attacking Greenpeace for its opposition to biotechnology.

“Well-fed eco-fanatics shriek ‘Frankenfoods’ and ‘genetic pollution,’” the statement read. “They threaten sanctions on nations that dare to grow genetically modified crops, to feed their people or replace crops that have been wiped out by insects and blights. They plan to spend $175 million battling biotech foods over the next five years. Not one dime of this will go to the starving poor.”

“Greenpeace policies bring misery, disease and death to millions of people in developing countries, particularly in Africa,” the statement said.

It was perhaps with this in mind that the anti-GMO voices at the Vatican conference insisted that genetically modified crops are a false hope. The only way to alleviate hunger, they insisted, is to address its underlying causes: poverty, unequal land distribution, lack of access to markets, and the effects of a consumer lifestyle in the West.

Doreen Stabinsky of Greenpeace said that in 2001, Argentina harvested enough wheat to feed China and India, yet its own people went hungry. The problem, she said, was not production but distribution and ability to pay. (Ironically, Argentina is the world’s second largest producer of GMO crops, mostly for export to feed livestock in the developed world).

Supporters, however, struck a different note.

“We need this technology,” said Thandiwe Myeni, a small-scale South African farmer and chairwoman of the Mbuso Farmers’ Association. “We don't want always to be fed food aid. ... We want access to this technology so that one day we can also become commercial farmers.”

* * *

The $64,000 question being asked during coffee breaks over the two-day symposium was how to explain the Holy See’ favorable tilt towards the pro-GMO view. Reflecting their experience with governments and research centers, some critics quietly wondered if massive biotech companies such as Monsanto had somehow “influenced” the Holy See. In fact, the answer is probably not that complicated. Martino, Sgreccia and other Vatican officials simply appear convinced by scientific data suggesting that the risk posed by GMOs is minimal, and the potential for alleviating hunger is real.

Beyond this, however, three other factors seem involved.

First, there has been a strong and effective lobbying effort from James Nicholson, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. Nicholson grew up on a farm in Iowa where he experienced food shortages, and is passionate about the potential of GMOs to feed starving people. In addition, Nicholson serves the Bush administration, which is sympathetic to the desire of American agricultural companies to expand their overseas markets. According to the Washington Post, the biotech industry invests $33 million in lobbying and $7.7 million in campaign contributions each year to promote its interests, GMO products among them.

Last year, Nicholson was the keynote speaker at a Rome conference on hunger. He has also pursued the cause behind closed doors. Some time ago, for example, he met with an official of the Jesuit order to discuss the anti-GMO advocacy of certain Jesuits in Africa.

Second, the Holy See does not want a repeat of the Galileo case. It does not want to find itself rejecting a scientific advance on the basis of prejudice or fear. If the Vatican can see its way clear to embracing, however cautiously, a new technology that seems to offer promise, many officials would find that attractive. They are helped in this regard by traditional Catholic theology, which posits a radical discontinuity between humanity and other living organisms, so that while genetic engineering on human beings is deeply problematic, the same technologies applied to plants and animals raise fewer ethical qualms.

 Third, a Vatican position in favor of relieving poverty and hunger would be especially desirable in a moment in which the Holy See is under new fire for its teaching on contraception, blamed by critics for exacerbating HIV/AIDS and poverty in the Third World. Whatever the merits of that criticism, Vatican officials are conscious of the public relations value in making clear that there is deep concern in the Holy See for the suffering of the developing world. A pro-GMO stand based on the urgency of relieving hunger could have that effect.

* * *

A top Vatican official praised Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, for the “great work that you do” Nov. 11 at Regina Apostolorum, the university operated by the Legionaries in Rome.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and hence the second most powerful figure in the Catholic church after the pope, made the comment while greeting the 83-year-old Maciel at a ceremony marking the opening of the academic year at Regina Apostolorum.

“Dear father, I’ve seen the great work that you do,” Sodano said to Maciel while embracing him. “You’re always young, always strong,” Sodano said.

In 1997, Maciel was the object of allegations of sexual abuse by nine former members of the Legionaries of Christ. The accusers brought a canonical complaint against Maciel, which was received by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith but never adjudicated.

In his remarks, Maciel thanked Sodano for the support he has shown the Legionaries. In 2000, Sodano came to Regina Apostolorum to inaugurate its new facility.

“Three years later, you accepted our invitation with fraternal charity to return, and I’m very grateful,” Maciel said. “You have always encouraged this university in its birth and growth.”

Maciel said that Pope John Paul II was a “guide” and a “light” for the university, which seeks to practice scholarship “in the light of the gospel and the magisterium of the church.”

Sodano embraced Maciel a second time at the conclusion of his welcome.

Founded in 1993, Regina Apostolorum today has 3,300 students divided into faculties of philosophy, theology and bioethics.

* * *

Roman Catholic theology of sainthood holds that everything begins with a cult. When it works properly, it is the most democratic process in the church. The people of a given time or place decide that someone has lived a life of special sanctity, and the hierarchy comes in only after the fact, authenticating this popular choice.

Few cases illustrate this democratic ethos better than St. Thérèse of Lisieux, popularly known as the “little flower of Jesus.”

An all-star, two-day conference at Rome’s Gregorian University Nov. 10-11 examined the story of Thérèse, who entered a cloistered Carmelite convent in 1888 at age 15 and died in 1897 at 25, leaving behind a remarkable memoir, Story of a Soul. She never went on a mission, never founded a religious order and never performed public works, yet devotion to Thérèse spread rapidly and spontaneously. She was canonized in 1925, only 27 years and 8 months after her death, making it at the time the most rapid path to sainthood in the modern era (her record was narrowly surpassed by St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, in 2002).

Among the ecclesiastical dignitaries on hand at the Thérèse conference were Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Brussels, Belgium, and Cardinal Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary (a branch of the Vatican judicial system). Also present was Auxiliary Bishop of New York Patrick Ahern. Doris Donnelly, an American laywoman who runs the Cardinal Suenens Center at Cleveland’s John Carroll University, was the principal organizer.

Canadian Oblate Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, a popular author and speaker, argued that three things account for Thérèse’s popularity.

First, he said, she is the “Anne Frank of the spiritual life,” a young woman who captured in one small book the “feel” of a transforming experience. In Frank’s case, that experience was the Second World War, while with Thérèse it was the spiritual adventure of a soul seeking God.

Second, Rolheiser said, Thérèse was a “woman of extraordinary complexity.” He expressed this idea in terms of several paradoxes, such as that Thérèse was both a little girl and a wise old woman tempered by tragedy -- “both Tinkerbell and Mother Teresa,” as Rohlheiser put it.

Finally, Rolheiser said, the secret of Thérèse’s appeal is that she “touches that previously touched place,” the space where human beings carry a dim memory of being shaped and formed in God’s perfect love.

Sacred Heart Sr. Mary Frohlich of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago spoke about the concept of heart as a “root metaphor” in Thérèse’s thought.

Thérèse’s meditation on the sacred heart, Frohlich pointed out, was not focused on Jesus’ suffering and death as was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but on a woman’s restless search for her lost beloved. At one point Thérèse envisioned she and Jesus, her “divine spouse,” resting with one another, “their hearts beating as one.”

Danneels argued that Thérèse’s approach to scripture anticipated later reforms.

Thérèse, Danneels said, approached scripture not as a proof-text but as a source of challenge. While many Catholics of her era viewed the Bible with fear and suspicion, Thérèse was comfortable letting scripture speak to her.

Stafford, meanwhile, argued that Thérèse can help the church recover its “Augustinian-Thomistic theological system,” through a post-modern narrative style.

“The explosive problematic following the Second Vatican Council was the naïve optimism of the council with regard to the culture, as expressed in section 53 of Gaudium et Spes,” Stafford said. “A much more sophisticated critique is necessary.”

* * *

Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, head of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, this week is running an international conference on depression, a mental illness which he described as the “number one killer” of our time. The gathering brings distinguished psychiatrists and medical professionals together with leaders in the church to outline a Catholic response to the problem.

This gesture of cooperation with the discipline of psychiatry comes at an interesting time, since another Vatican department, the Congregation for Catholic Education, is currently studying the use of psychiatric instruments in seminary formation with an eye towards issuing a document on the subject. Behind that initiative lie concerns inside and outside the Vatican that modern psychiatry sometimes rests on assumptions hostile to orthodox religious faith. To take an extreme case, belief in angels and demons is taken by some mental health professionals as prima facie evidence of disturbance.

I asked Lozano Barragán about this on Nov. 12, and he gave an essentially positive response about the application of psychiatry.

“Sometimes the use of psychiatry may be exaggerated,” he said. “But science, true science, is never contrary to religious truth. Thus psychiatry should be very welcome in the church.”

Lozano Barragán said that obviously if a given psychiatrist sets himself or herself up in opposition to religious practice, there could be conflicts. It must never come to a choice between “counseling or confession,” he said.

“In the end, the gifts of God that we administer are more important,” he said. “But psychiatry and the spiritual life of the church should accompany one another. What’s needed is a profound dialogue with the experts in this field.”

On Nov. 13, Lozano Barragán opened the conference with a fascinating overview of 20th century philosophical trends. His basic contention was that the root cause of today’s epidemic of depression (one estimate says 12 percent of the world’s population is depressed) is post-modernity, and especially its embrace of “weak thinking,” meaning relativism and skepticism. Given the collapse of confidence in human reason and in the rationality of the world — we can’t know anything, and we can’t trust anything — it’s no wonder, Lozano Barragán suggested, lots of people are depressed.

Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for Saints, argued that authentic Christian spirituality is the best antidote.

“Whoever truly believes in the paschal mystery of Christ, and in his or her own likeness to him, can never be depressed,” Martins said. “Depression is not Christian, it’s not part of Biblical anthropology, or of the Catholic faith.”

Martins meant, it should be noted, that Christian faith in itself does not produce depression, not that individual Christians who find themselves depressed have somehow failed in the spiritual life. That point was made at the Nov. 12 press conference by Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the spokesperson for the Vatican and himself a psychiatrist.

“Depression is an illness of the body, not the soul,” Navarro said. “It can happen to the most holy person and to the least holy, just like a broken leg.”

* * *

I had the treat this week of spending time with two of the most prominent authors in the English-speaking Catholic world, who happened to be in town: Fr. Andrew Greeley and John Cornwell.

Greeley, an American, is a best-selling novelist, whose prolific works include the charming Blackie Ryan detective series. He is also a distinguished sociologist and commentator on church affairs. Cornwell, meanwhile, is best known as the author of the controversial book Hitler’s Pope, which charged that Pius XII failed to decry the Holocaust in part because of anti-Jewish prejudice. It has sold some 350,000 copies worldwide.

Greeley is a friend, and my wife and I had dinner with him Sunday evening at a favorite haunt in Trastevere. (One sign of my esteem is that I was willing to miss most of the game between Rome’s soccer club and cross-town rival Lazio. In the end Greeley brought good luck, as Rome won 2-0). I also had the privilege of introducing Greeley to Cardinal Godfried Danneels over breakfast on Tuesday morning. Cornwell, meanwhile, invited my wife and me to dinner on Tuesday evening.

Neither author is everyone’s cup of tea. Some find Greeley’s novels superficial or overly titillating, and regard his sociological and ecclesiastical observations as skewed by his liberal outlook. Equally, some regard Cornwell’s book as unreliable and unfair.

What became clear from our exchanges, however, is how much both men care about the Catholic church. Objectively one can dispute their conclusions, but their subjective good will seems clear.

This capacity to hold objective disagreement in the context of subjective respect is something the Catholic church badly needs these days.

* * *

Speaking of Danneels, he had time for a brief interview at the Thérèse conference.

We spoke of liturgical matters, in light of the upcoming 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum concilium, the document of the Second Vatican Council on liturgy. Danneels expressed reservations about nostalgia for the pre-conciliar Latin Mass.

“The question is, is it wise to celebrate today in Latin? For me, the answer is no. It’s not adapted to modern times, other than perhaps for intellectuals with a certain culture.”

Danneels said helping people grasp the mystery of the Eucharistic celebration is a much more pressing task.

As for controversial issues such as dance, Danneels rejected blanket policies.

“Dance is very different by culture,” he said. “There’s no eroticism in African dance, for example. What’s important is that it shouldn’t become the Nutcracker Ballet. The dance should make you think about God, not the performance.”

Danneels said the great gift of Sacrosanctum concilium was the simplification of the liturgy, “taking away things from the Middle Ages that had been integrated into the Mass that were not essential.”

I pointed out that some critics believe simplification has been responsible for much confusion.

“I don’t agree with that,” Danneels said. “The texts themselves have not changed very much. The essentials of the Roman Canon are present in the other prayers. There is nothing that is lacking.”

“The problem is that in the normal way of celebrating, we often emphasize community, convivality,” Danneels said, leading to neglect of the transcendent and sacrificial dimensions.

On another subject, I asked Danneels about the future of Christianity in the developed West. As the archbishop of Brussels, he has been the primary interlocutor between the church and the new Europe.

“There will come a time when the negative image of the church will disappear,” Danneels said. “People get annoyed with all these negative images.”

Danneels said that denial of the immaterial world in the West is giving way to a new wave of spiritual interest, but it’s focused on “eroticism, Eastern religions, occultism and the New Age.”

“There is a great spiritual hunger,” he said. “The problem is that it’s not coming to the right address.”

I asked if the future of the church in Europe depends upon the new movements, such as the Neocatechumenate and Opus Dei.

“I am in favor of the movements, but they are not eternal, and they will not last for a long time,” Danneels said. “That is the nature of movements in the church. In the early 20th century, there was the liturgical movement. Now the whole church is liturgical. There was also the Biblical movement. Now the whole church is Biblical.”

“In the Middle Ages, there were dozens of Franciscan movements, while today only three remain.”

* * *

For an upcoming piece in NCR on the anniversary of Sacrosanctum concilium, I interviewed Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, on Nov. 11.

The use of vernacular languages and a spirit of active participation were two main fruits of the post-conciliar reform the cardinal identified.

I asked what Arinze sees as the main liturgical challenges.

He mentioned promotion of scripture, the translation of liturgical texts, and the proper approach to liturgical adaptation and inculturation. His main message was that translation needs to be as faithful as possible to the Latin originals, and that priests need to stick to the approved rites as outlined in the various approved liturgical books.

Arinze stressed that liturgy is the work of the whole church, not the product of someone’s individual creativity.

“Many people are disturbed and unhappy in liturgical matters because, as they would put it, I went to Mass last Sunday and my parish priest did something very funny at the altar,” Arinze said. “Or he did something not just funny, but something that I consider unacceptable. Some people use a stronger word. There, we priests and bishops have a duty. We are really servants of the mysteries of Christ, we are not masters.”

I asked Arinze about the forthcoming document on “liturgical abuses,” meaning violations of the rules as spelled out in the church’s various liturgical books, being prepared by his office and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He said it will not be a dry catalogue of abuses, but an exposition of the faith that underlines the liturgical regulations. He said he could not predict when the document would appear, but that “good progress” is being made.

Arinze said that when people find abuses in the liturgy, they sometimes stop coming to Mass or spin off to a splinter group such as the Society of St. Pius X, the pro-Latin Mass movement founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

“They believe they find greater faith in that group than in the Catholic church,” Arinze said. “It would help tremendously if our liturgies stressed more clearly the transcendent. It’s a tragedy that these people feel they can’t find that sometimes in our Mass, and we have to ask ourselves the question of why that is happening.”

As far as Latin is concerned, Arinze said he hopes for wider celebration of the new rite of the Mass in Latin in parishes and dioceses around the world. He noted that the Roman Missal is issued in Latin, and no priest needs special permission to celebrate the Mass in Latin.

Look for the full interview with Arinze in an upcoming issue of NCR.

* * *

Finally, still on the subject of liturgy, one of Rome’s most prominent liturgists currently has two new books out that together would form an excellent reading project in connection to the Sacrosanctum concilium anniversary.

The liturgist is American Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers of the Gregorian University, a favorite of the Roman press corps because he is smart, articulate, and willing to help reporters understand the frequently arcane world of church politics. His two books offer a similar kind of well-informed, yet crystal-clear, overview of liturgical issues.

Dynamic Equivalence: The Living Language of Christian Worship (Liturgical Press) reviews the transition into the vernacular languages since the Second Vatican Council. From the choice of title and the dedication to former ICEL executive secretary John Page, Peckler’s sympathy for the more “liberal” approach now out of favor with the Vatican is clear. Nevertheless, the book is an excellent resource for understanding debates over translation.

Meanwhile, Peckler’s Worship (Continuum) offers a broad overview of the state of liturgical theology in the Catholic church. He considers the development of Christian worship, then examines topics such as worship and culture, and worship and popular religion. It’s a terrific primer for non-experts.

Both books can be ordered on-line at

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

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