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November 18, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 12

John L. Allen Jr.


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John L. Allen Jr.

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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

Pope, Israeli president meet; The Vatican on terrorism ; Tariq Aziz and Pope John Paul; U.S. bishops tackle liturgical language; Schönborn on evolutionism again; Talking with Andrew Greeley


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Israeli President Moshe Katsav met Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, Nov. 17. The big-picture themes of the conversation were the Israeli/Palestinian problem, with the Holy See reiterating its support for a two-state solution, and the possibility for humanitarian collaboration between Israel and the Vatican, especially in Africa. Katsav also delivered an invitation for Benedict XVI to visit Israel.

The obvious shadow hanging over the meeting, however, was long-delayed negotiations between Israel and the Holy See over the tax and juridical status of church-run institutions in the Holy Land.

Speaking to a press conference following the visit, Katsav said he had met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, "promising that an effort would be made to accelerate the (negotiations) and respond positively to the requests of the Catholic Church."

A senior Vatican official told NCR Nov. 18, however, that he did not see "any step forward" resulting from the visit.

"They're still firm in their positions," he said. "Whether this trip will result in an acceleration remains to be seen."

Over the past decade, these negotiations -- which, most observers say, pivot on a set of relatively minor and technical differences -- have metastasized into a diplomatic rift that not only impedes Israeli/Vatican relations, but also complicates the broader Jewish/Catholic relationship.

Franciscan Fr. David Maria Jaeger, one of the principal negotiators for the Holy See with Israel, told Asia News service earlier in the week that outstanding issues include local tax exemptions for church institutions, such as monasteries and convents, and the capacity of church institutions to take property disputes before Israeli courts.

Jaeger stressed that he was speaking in his own name, not in an official capacity.

The tax exemptions, Jaeger argued, represent centuries-old prerogatives, recognized under the Ottoman Empire and reflected in United Nations Resolution 181, which marked the creation of the modern State of Israel. Yet they're more than a matter of historical justice, he said. Given high local property tax rates and the limited means of many institutions, the absence of such an exemption "could be the death knell," Jaeger said, for at least some monasteries and convents.

On the question of access to courts, under current Israeli law, property disputes involving religious institutions are handled by the executive branch of government. Jaeger said that Catholic institutions merely want the same right to a "day in court" that other bodies in society enjoy.

"I think they're afraid of losing political control over these disputes," the senior Vatican official who spoke to NCR on Nov. 18 said.

Ironically, negotiators on both sides say the broad outline of a deal on these points has been in place for years. The problem has been getting the attention of senior policy-makers, especially on the Israeli side, to move things forward.

Sources on both sides add that a deeper matter also remains to be solved, which each side construes differently. At issue is whether agreements between Israel and the Holy See will be subject to changes in Israeli law.

For example, if, six months after an agreement is signed, the Israeli Knesset adopts a new tax code that reclassifies non-profit organizations, potentially changing their legal rights or the rates at which they're taxed, would church-affiliated institutions be subject to those changes?

For the Israelis, this is a matter of national sovereignty. They believe that by insisting church-affiliated institutions be exempt from such legislation, the Holy See in effect wants a form of "extra-territoriality" for those institutions, a privilege the Israelis say such institutions don't enjoy in other nations. For the Holy See, it's a matter of honoring the nature of international treaties. What's the point of signing a bilateral agreement, negotiators ask, if it can be unilaterally revised by one of the parties?

"If they don't want the rights of church-run institutions to be governed by treaty, that's a perfectly respectable position," said one negotiator. "But they should have thought of that in 1993, when they committed to reaching these agreements. It's too late now."

A related question is the binding character of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement, and future side agreements, under Israeli law. Jaeger said that recent declarations by the Israeli government before the nation's High Court of Justice seem to suggest that the government does not recognize the legal force of such agreements.

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The next meeting of the negotiators is set for Nov. 24 in Jerusalem. Some observers say the pattern of meeting for just a few hours every few months is part of the problem, in that it does not allow for the kind of sustained, roll-up-the-sleeves exchange necessary to produce a real breakthrough.

Sources on both sides said they hope the Katsav visit will generate new momentum.

"We are very close to the conclusion," Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See Oded Ben Hur said this week in an interview with Stacy Meichtry of the Religion News Service. "The promises are in the future and the future is not that far away," he said.

The senior Vatican official, however, was less sanguine.

"I'd say that's more an expression of a hope than a statement of fact," he said in response to Ben-Hur's optimism.

An Israeli official responsible for outreach to world Judaism, Nimrod Barkan, held meetings with Catholic groups this week in Washington, including a session with officers of the U.S. bishops' conference. Some saw Barkan's Washington swing as a sign of Israeli seriousness, sources told NCR, while others saw it as a PR offensive intended to shore up Israeli positions.

One senior Jewish leader in the United States, long involved in Catholic/Jewish dialogue, told NCR this week that he had recently pressed the Israeli Foreign Ministry to take the negotiations seriously, even resorting to "cursing in Yiddish" to stress the importance of the issue. The Jewish leader said it is "absurd" that the broader Catholic/Jewish relationship should be complicated by such relatively minor diplomatic differences.

This Jewish leader said he believes Israeli officials are now committed to bringing the matter to conclusion.

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On the subject of a papal trip, Ben-Hur told NCR Nov. 18 that Pope Benedict XVI told Katsav that if he does come, he'd like to visit the site of a recent discovery of an ancient Christian church in the northern Israeli town of Megiddo -- the word which is the root for the Biblical term "Armageddon," referring to the final apocalyptic battle between good and evil.

An inscription on a mosaic is seen on the floor of what is believed to be an ancient Christian church dating back to the third or fourth century in Megiddo, Israel, Nov. 6. Excavations unearthed the remains of a structure that included a mosaic with inscriptions in Greek and murals of fish as well as an altar, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Excavators believe the church dates to the third century, making it the oldest preserved church in Israel, and perhaps in the entire world. Critics, however, challenge that dating, arguing that there's no evidence for "churches" before the fourth century. Prior to that time, they say, Christians gathered for worship in private homes.

An Israeli prisoner serving a two-year sentence for traffic violations made the discovery, during a work detail to clear space for a new prison. His shovel touched the edge of an elaborate mosaic that, experts believe, was part of the floor of the ancient church. The inmates unearthed and cleaned the mosaic, which uses the fish symbol for Christ rather than the cross, as was common in ancient Christianity, and tells the story of a Roman officer and a woman named Aketous who donated the money to build the church.

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One of the ugliest moments in recent Israeli/Vatican relations came in July, after Pope Benedict XVI in a July 24 Angelus address expressed sympathy for the victims of recent terrorist attacks, but omitted Israelis from the list.

Five Israelis had died on July 14 after a bombing in Netanya.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israel foreign ministry, complained that the omission "cried out to heaven," and that it "could be interpreted as a license for acts of terrorism against Jews." The Israeli foreign ministry called in the papal nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, for an explanation. In return, the Vatican issued a statement indicating that "the Holy See cannot allow itself to take instructions and directives from another authority regarding the orientation and contents of its own declarations."

Many assumed that the episode was the result of hasty emotional over-reaction on both sides. A senior Orthodox American rabbi told NCR this week, however, that the Israeli complaint was not impulsive, but rather the result of a careful and pre-meditated strategy. The rabbi said the Israelis consulted widely before taking the Vatican to task, including among senior Jewish leaders in the United States.

This rabbi, the leader of a major Jewish organization in the United States, told NCR that he was one of those consulted.

"At first, I was against it, telling them that we have enough problems in our relationship with the Vatican," the rabbi said. "But I was persuaded by the evidence. They did a careful study, and they found that the pope rarely talked about terrorism when it was directed against Israel, or, when he did, it would be linked to questions of justice for the Palestinians in a way that took the edge off the condemnation of violence," the rabbi said.

This rabbi said that despite the nastiness of the July exchange, he believes it had the effect of "getting the Vatican's attention."

Ben-Hur told NCR that one result of the Katsav visit may be an impetus to "upgrade relations" between Israel and the Vatican, which might include, among other things, exchanges of visits between heads of government -- meaning that the Vatican Secretary of State or foreign minister could visit Israel, and the Israeli Prime Minister could visit the Vatican.

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Last week I reported on Fr. Jean-Marie Benjamin, the French-born priest whose activism on Iraq was at the heart of suggestions of a "Vatican connection" to the Oil-for-Food Scandal documented in the recent Volcker report.

In fact, Benjamin was never a "Vatican official." (He served as a part-time aide for a retired cardinal from 1991 to 1994). Even without a Vatican portfolio, however, Benjamin's ties with the government of Saddam Hussein, and especially its leading spokesperson, Tariq Aziz, generated controversy. Some see him as a courageous anti-sanctions crusader, others as an apologist for the Hussein regime.

No episode better illustrates the point than Benjamin's role as the principal architect of a February 2003 visit by Aziz to Pope John Paul II, and then to Assisi, where Aziz was given a warm welcome from the Franciscans -- much to the consternation of Western diplomats and some American Catholics, who were galled at the way Aziz was heralded as a man of peace.

In his Nov. 6 interview with NCR, Benjamin supplied some previously undisclosed details as to how the visit came about.

On Jan. 13, 2003, Benjamin told NCR, he sent a letter to Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, then the pope's foreign minister (now a cardinal and head of the Vatican Library), asking whether, if Aziz came to Rome on a private visit, the pope would receive him. On Jan. 15, Tauran responded by fax saying that the procedure for requesting an audience could be activated -- in effect, "yes."

Benjamin then went to Baghdad to meet with Aziz, who agreed to the trip.

Upon his return to Italy, Benjamin said he next met with the superiors of the three branches of the Franciscans in Assisi: the Friars Minor, the Capuchins, and the Conventuals. When he explained that he wanted to bring Aziz, they were stunned.

"Their jaws dropped," Benjamin said, "because they knew there would be strong opposition."

Benjamin said the Friars Minor and the Capuchins reacted positively, on the grounds that Assisi is a place of peace where all pilgrims are welcome. The Conventuals, on the other hand, were worried about the danger of "politicizing" the event, Benjamin said. The Conventuals administer the basilica containing the crypt of St. Francis, and, because the basilica is under direct papal authority, they said they would have to consult the Secretariat of State.

Afterwards, Benjamin said, the Conventuals informed him that Aziz would have to enter the basilica through a back door and proceed directly to Francis' tomb, without any journalists in tow.

"I was not going to accept that we were supposed to hide the visit of someone from a country about to be bombed," Benjamin said. "I told them that we'd just come to Assisi as two simple pilgrims, and make more noise that way."

In the end, Aziz's visit came off as Benjamin had originally planned, in full public view. Benjamin said he never asked whether that decision came from the Conventuals or the Secretariat of State.

One other intriguing detail: As part of the financial statement he provided to the Volcker commission, Benjamin said that he covered most of the expenses for the Aziz trip himself, an outlay of some $10,600. It's entirely possible that those funds came from a $140,000 donation in 2001 to a foundation run by Benjamin, a gift made by a Swiss lawyer whom Benjamin introduced to Aziz, and who subsequently brokered sales of Iraqi oil through the "Oil-for-Food Program." The lawyer paid hefty "surcharges," or kickbacks, as part of the exchange.

It's possible, therefore, that Aziz's visit to the pope, designed to spotlight the suffering caused by the embargo on Iraq, was financed by the corruption of a program intended to alleviate that suffering.

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I happened to be in the United States as the American bishops assembled this week for their fall meeting in Washington, D.C., where among other things they discussed a proposed new translation of the Order of Mass prepared by the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL).

The details of that discussion aren't as compelling as the test case the bishops' reaction may create for Pope Benedict XVI's commitment to collegiality.

In broad strokes, the new translation of the Mass is the latest installment in a long-running drama over liturgical translation that heated up in the 1990s and culminated with the May 2001 Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam, which demanded translations more faithful to the Latin original. The underlying concern was that in the post-Vatican II excitement about modern, "relevant" language, the church sometimes threw out the baby with the bathwater, abandoning too much of its distinctive speech.

Liturgiam Authenticam thus set in motion a reorganization of ICEL and the preparation of new translations for virtually everything, most critically the Order of Mass.

While the new translation involves literally thousands of changes, most are debated only within a limited circle of experts. When it comes to the "people's parts," however, meaning those phrases recited aloud by the people, things become much more sticky.

The three most controversial examples of proposed changes to the "people's parts" are:

  • Changing the prayer "Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed" to "Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed";
  • After the priest's blessing of "the Lord be with you," changing the response from "and also with you" to "and with your spirit";
  • Changing the "Gloria" from "Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory," to "We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory, Lord God, heavenly king, O God, almighty Father." Among other things, this translation would not work with any existing musical arrangements for the "Gloria."

What became clear in Washington is that the American bishops are divided on these questions. When polled, 56 percent said they prefer the existing language, 44 percent said they like the proposed changes.

Division aside, however, that's a solid majority for the status quo. Since the new translation would require a two-thirds vote from the bishops, it does not appear, at least for now, that it has much chance of being approved.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago offered perhaps the most candid explanation of this result: "There are those who have been quite critical of the [older] translation, but who are now saying that we don't want to disturb the people, especially in the situation of weakened episcopal authority we have now."

This does not mean that the bishops have rejected the new translation entirely, or that translators have to go back to the drawing board. It does mean that the bishops have expressed a clear preference that the "people's parts" be left alone.

In the wake of the discussion in Washington, the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy will now report to ICEL. If the other English-speaking bishops' conferences concur, ICEL will likely produce a text without the changes listed above. Each conference would then submit this translation to the Congregation for Divine Worship for the recognition, meaning formal approval.

Therein lies the rub, because the Congregation for Divine Worship is the office that produced Liturgiam Authenticam, which specifically cited the change to "and with your spirit" as the kind of revision needed. It's possible that the congregation could insist upon the changes to the "people's parts" despite the reservations of what appears to be a majority of American bishops, and perhaps bishops from other English-speaking nations as well.

The stage could then be set for Benedict to have to choose. If that's indeed how things shake out, we may have an interesting window onto how the new pope understands the nature and limits of collegiality.

* * *

Last July, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, set off a firestorm with a widely read op/ed piece in The New York Times about the Catholic church and evolution. In essence, Schönborn argued that Christianity cannot accept a worldview that rejects the idea that the universe has "design." He called that "evolutionism," to distinguish it from the strictly scientific use of evolutionary theory to explain the progression from simple to more complex organisms through random mutation and natural selection.

Schönborn's piece was widely seen in the United States as a boost for anti-evolution "intelligent design" advocates -- in part because it was placed in the Times by a PR firm that works for an American pro-intelligent design group called the Discovery Institute, in part because Schönborn referred to a famous 1996 pronouncement from Pope John Paul II that evolution is "more than a theory" as "rather vague and unimportant."

In fact, Schönborn has now said that he did not mean to challenge evolution on strictly scientific grounds.

In an Oct. 2, 2005, catechetical lecture delivered in St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, he said: "I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific theory are maintained."

Schönborn announced that he intends to deal with the theme of "creation and evolution" in his catechetical talks this year, but not as a scientist.

"I do not intend to delve into the scientific details; in that domain I would doubtlessly not be qualified," he said.

The Vienna archdiocese published an English translation of Schönborn's lecture in early November to rebut charges that the cardinal had "pulled back" from his New York Times piece.

In the lecture, Schönborn argues aggressively that Christianity actually made modern science possible by rejecting both the pagan deification of nature, and the Gnostic rejection of nature.

"The proposition that the relationship between the Church and science is a bad one, that faith and science, since time immemorial, have been in a state of interminable conflict, belongs to the enduring myths of our time, indeed, I would say, to the acquired prejudices of our time," he said.

"Many historical examples demonstrate how the creation faith served as the rational foundation for scientific research," Schönborn said, pointing to the Austrian Benedictine monk Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics.

Schönborn said that the real problem between science and religion is the perennial risk of "border violations," meaning the temptation of one side or the other to exceed its competence.

He offered an example from Sir Julian Huxley in 1959, on the centenary of Darwin's Origin of Species:

"In the Evolutionary pattern of thought there is no longer either need or room for the supernatural," Huxley wrote. "The earth was not created, it evolved. So did all animals and plants that inhabit it, including our human selves, mind and soul as well as brain and body. So did religion. Evolutionary man can no longer take refuge from his loneliness in the arms of a divinized father figure."

This, Schönborn said, is not science.

"I am convinced that this is not a claim within the realm of the natural sciences, but rather the expression of a worldview," he said. "It is essentially a 'confession of faith' -- that faith being materialism."

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I was in Chicago on Tuesday to deliver the Bernardin Lecture at the Catholic Theological Union that evening. Among other things, the stop afforded me the chance to visit with Fr. Andrew Greeley, an indefatigable observer of religious sociology.

Greeley brought me up to speed on a new book project on which he's collaborating with Professor Michael Hout of Cal-Berkeley, which, among other points, profiles "conservative Christians" in the United States, including those Protestants usually referred to as "evangelicals."

Evangelicals, Greeley said, represent roughly one-quarter of white Protestants and as many as one-third of African-American Protestants. In the abstract, those numbers can suggest a rising fundamentalist tide in American religion. Yet Greeley said that when one asks how many of those evangelicals hold beliefs generally associated with their most prominent activists and spokespersons -- such as opposition to legal abortion and homosexuality in all circumstances, and insistence on reading the Bible as the word-for-word, literal dictates of God -- the numbers are much lower. In fact, he said, evangelicals are not that much different than Catholics in terms of percentages of members who differ from "official" teaching on at least some points.

"They're not all in lockstep," Greeley said. "But in a large and complex society, who is in lockstep?"

We also spoke about the phenomenon of the "sects," aggressively missionary Pentecostal and evangelical movements that have made serious inroads into traditional Catholic populations in various parts of the world in recent decades, above all Latin America.

Like many observers, Greeley attributed their growth to their commitment to mission, and their success in giving people a strong sense of personal morality. He said that their biggest growth has come among "aspirational" Latin Americans, meaning white collar groups not yet among the social elites but hoping to move up.

One interesting point Greeley made is that at least in Brazil, the evangelicals don't generally consolidate their gains among the second generation. The children of evangelical converts, he said, are more likely to end up spread out among many of the esoteric and syncretistic religious movements on the Brazilian landscape.

I also asked Greeley what his instincts tell him about likely American reaction to the forthcoming Vatican instruction on the admission of homosexuals to Catholic seminaries.

In essence, Greeley said that liberal Catholics sympathetic to homosexuals will be angry, and in some secular circles of opinion it will be taken as further evidence of hostility towards homosexuals on the part of the Catholic church. Anti-gay Catholics will also be disappointed, because the document seems unlikely to be the blanket policy for which many had hoped. Secular news outlets, he said, will likely accent one of these reactions or the other, rather than reporting the mixed bag the document is actually likely to represent.

In the end, Greeley said, he's skeptical that the document will change much in terms of actual seminary practice in the United States. Seminaries and houses of formation that want to take a strict anti-gay stance will do so, but those with a more flexible, case-by-case approach will be able to cite the document to justify that stance as well.

Just before my lecture that evening, a group of 2006 "Bernardin Scholars" was presented to the audience by Sheila McLaughlin of the Catholic Theological Union, who was also my host. Msgr. Kenneth Velo, Bernardin's closest aide and today the senior executive of the Office of Catholic Collaboration at DePaul University, addressed the group.

Velo told the young scholars, who are pursuing master's and doctoral studies in various ecclesiastical disciplines, that they bear a "serious responsibility" as inheritors of Bernardin's legacy and vision. He particularly accented Bernardin's "Common Ground" project, an effort to foster dialogue within the Catholic Church.

"He was one of the greatest churchmen of our time, and perhaps in the entire history of the church in the United States," Velo said.

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

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