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 The Word From Rome

November 19, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 13

John L. Allen Jr.


"This is God's world, and we are made to be at home in it. It is not an alien, incomprehensible place. … Human beings are made to thrive in the truth, it is our natural home."

Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe,
speaking Nov. 15 at Angelicum University in Rome

Looking again at who's in charge; Meeting the Patriarch of Constantinople; Reflections on truthfulness; A 'state of the union' on ecumemism; The importance of George as vice president


Recent weeks have seen yet another round of speculation about "who's in charge" in the Vatican. A Nov. 5 piece in The Washington Post, picking up on a cover story in L'Espresso by Italian Vatican writer Sandro Magister, pointed to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's top doctrinal official, as an increasingly important behind-the-scenes force (as well as potentially the next pope). Meanwhile, Roman gossip continues to tap Archbishop Stanislaw Dzwisz, John Paul's private secretary, as virtually a "vice-pope."

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Because this sort of guessing game can easily veer into fantasy, it's important to recall some basics.

First, no one, not even the pope, is ever "in charge" in the sense of making all the decisions in the Catholic church. The worldwide membership of the Catholic church is around 1.1 billion, while the total work force of the Roman Curia is 2,659, according to the 2003 Annuario Pontificio. That's a ratio of one official in Rome for every 413,689 Catholics in the world. To get some sense of proportion, this figure is roughly equivalent to the size of many American congressional districts. Imagine if a member of congress had to handle the affairs of that district alone -- no staff, no advisors, no district offices. Simply put, the Roman Curia has neither the personnel nor the infrastructure to provide anything other than a very thin veneer of global coordination; it could not routinely micro-manage the church, even if it wished.

Despite its reputation as rigidly hierarchical, Roman Catholicism is remarkably decentralized. The vast majority of decisions that shape the daily lives of Catholics are made at the local level, from parish budgets to school curricula. Hence when the pope weakens, it does not automatically mean a slowdown in most areas of church life, and does not create the need for "vice-popes" in Rome.

Second, even inside the Vatican, the pope is not "in charge" in the sense of making all the decisions. The Vatican has a president/prime minister structure, in which the pope is the head of state, but much of the day-to-day work of running the church is carried out by the Secretary of State, currently Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Once again, this means that when the pope is ill or otherwise occupied, the machinery of government continues to clank along.

It's a structural reality of the Vatican that no one fills the pope's shoes when he isn't wearing them. By design, there is no "vice-pope" who steps in and exercises the full range of papal powers. Instead, as the pope weakens, his authority is spread around among a variety of officials in different areas of competence. To ask "who's in charge" is therefore meaningless as stated; it's necessary to specify, "in charge of what?"

As John Paul weakens, there is a natural desire to protect him from unnecessary burdens. Hence, matters that might once have been referred to the pope are today being resolved at the level of individual departments. Cardinal Francis Arinze at the Congregation for Divine Worship, for example, tends to call the shots on liturgical matters, while Sodano and his aides are crafting foreign policy, and Ratzinger and his team are handling doctrinal matters. Cardinal Walter Kasper is largely running the show on ecumenism. To some extent this has always been the case with John Paul, who has never taken a strong personal interest in the nuts and bolts of government. The new situation imposed by the pope's health thus amounts to a change in degree, not in kind.

None of this means that Vatican officials are careening off in directions contrary to the pope's will. As spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls says, if a CEO has been running a company for 26 years, he doesn't have to be in the office every day to ensure that it operates according to his design.

For all that, the reality is that decisions are increasingly being made at the departmental level, at times with only a cursory reference to the papal household.

Is this bad for the church? I can see three potentially negative consequences.

First, it poses the risk of incoherence as departments begin to pull in different directions, with only nominal coordination.

Second, there is a risk of paralysis, not so much with routine business, but on big-picture questions that would require the personal initiative of the Holy Father. Some observers believe the lethargic response of the Vatican to the American sex abuse crisis is a case in point.

Third, this situation could eventually undermine the authority of the Holy See. In normal times, it is assumed that the Vatican acts at the request of the pope, so that particular documents or policy decisions are presumed to reflect his will. If that presumption is called into question, it could weaken the confidence Catholics have in Vatican decisions.

On the other hand, some observers argue that John Paul is providing a precious witness about the inherent dignity of human life from beginning to end, and is a powerful symbol for elderly and suffering people. Moreover, it is perhaps no bad thing that Catholics learn to distinguish between the juridical powers of the papal office, and the spiritual witness of the papacy. Even if John Paul becomes incapable of giving direction (a state which he has not yet reached), he would still be a spiritual father to 1.1 billion Catholics. Perhaps the realities of his condition will help Catholics shift from a corporate-political model of the papacy, to one based more on theological and spiritual considerations.

In any event, John Paul's decline will increasingly raise difficult managerial questions. What it will not do is result in a "vice-pope." The plain truth is that when the pope is not "in charge," in the sense that only popes can be, nobody is.

* * *

An event of major ecumenical significance will take place in Rome Nov. 27. On that date, John Paul II will hand over to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, relics preserved in Rome since the 12th century of two of the greatest saints of the Eastern tradition: St. Gregory Nazianzus (329-389) and St. John Chrysostom (347-407). Both are doctors of the church, both were once themselves archbishops of Constantinople, and both date from an era before the split between East and West conventionally dated to 1054.

"This is actually far more important than the return of the Icon of the Madonna of Kazan," said a longtime veteran of ecumenical exchange with the Orthodox churches Nov. 17. He was referring to the return last September of a prized Russian Orthodox icon by a Vatican delegation in Moscow.

"On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of the significance of these figures, they're a 10," this expert said.

One Vatican official told NCR Nov. 17 that some officials of the Roman Curia, in fact, feel a bit ambivalent about the gesture, wondering where the reciprocity is on the Orthodox side for what is becoming an ever more lengthy series of magnanimous gestures on the part of John Paul.

One recent case in point: the hierarchs of the Church of Greece, a body composed of 62 Greek Orthodox bishops, in early October vetoed plans by Archbishop Christodolous of Athens to meet with the pope in Rome, to reciprocate John Paul's 2001 trip to Athens.

Despite such obstacles, the ecumenical expert I spoke with is optimistic in the long run.

"This is unlikely by itself to produce any great breakthroughs," he said. "But it's part of a series of steps by the pope that eventually will have an impact. It's like Chinese water torture -- eventually it will get through that we're trying to do the right thing," he said.

The relics of Sts. John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzus disappeared from Constantinople in the early 1200s when mercenaries, allegedly participating in the Fourth Crusade to the Holy Land sacked the city instead. St. Gregory's bones are preserved in the Gregorian Chapel of St. Peter's Basilica, while St. John Chrysostom's bones are preserved under the altar of the Chapel of the Choir. Some of the relics will remain in the basilica.

* * *

This has been an unusually rich week for lectures in Rome, with high-profile talks by two Catholic luminaries: Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, former master general of the order, and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former archbishop of Milan. Radcliffe spoke Nov. 15 at the Dominican-run Angelicum University, where he received an honorary doctorate, while Martini was at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University Nov. 17 to keynote a conference on the renowned Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan.

Radcliffe addressed what he called a "crisis of truthfulness" in Western society.

A few weeks ago, Radcliffe said, a British study found that 67 percent of the public does not expect to be told the truth by members of parliament, and 70 percent expect to be lied to by government ministers. The only professional groups that fared worse were real estate agents and journalists.

"Thank God," he noted wryly, "they did not ask about the clergy.".

It is often assumed, Radcliffe said, that the answer lies in complete transparency. In fact, Radcliffe said, total transparency "is neither possible nor desirable."

"It would be likely to encourage evasions, hypocrisies and the half-truths that we call 'political correctness,' as well as self-censorship or deception," he said. "You would never know when words might be used against you."

Radcliffe reflected on the resources Christians bring to this crisis of truth.

"It's not that we are more transparent, or less inclined to lie," Radcliffe said. "Christians are not usually better than other people. Jesus came to call sinners, and in this regard he continues to be extremely successful."

Christians can, however, witness to an older and deeper understanding of truth.

"Western society understands truth in terms of the Enlightenment," Radcliffe said. "We are all children of the Enlightenment, and it brought many good things. But if it becomes the dominant paradigm, it will create a climate of suspicion and mutual accusation in which the bonds of communion will be weak."

A Christian spirituality of truth, Radcliffe said, "must scandalize a child of the Enlightenment, because it begins with doctrine."

For the Christian, "This is God's world, and we are made to be at home in it. It is not an alien, incomprehensible place. … Truth is prior to error and deceit. Human beings are made to thrive in the truth, it is our natural home."

Lying, Radcliffe said, is destructive of language, which is the basis of human solidarity. It is an offense against the community. That understanding of truth and falsehood, Radcliffe said, rebuts a fact-driven positivism.

"Facts, like telescopes and wigs, were not invented until the 17th century," he said.

Indeed, Radcliffe argued, Christianity has historically been far more concerned with lies than sex, modern preoccupations notwithstanding. Dante put the sins of passion in the outermost circles of Hell, while the middle circles were for violence, and the deepest pits were for frauds, flatterers, forgers, and traitors.

The main task of Christian communities, Radcliffe suggested, including universities such as the Angelicum, is to carve out spaces where an alternative concept of truth may flourish.

"We need to build ecosystems where our eyes can be cleansed and we can learn to see differently," he said.

* * *

One good Radcliffe joke.

He told a story of a man in a hot-air balloon who finds himself stuck in a tree in the middle of nowhere. He spots a passer-by and calls out, "Where am I?"

"You're in a tree," the passer-by responds.

"Ah," the man in the balloon says. "You must be a Dominican."

"How did you know?"

"What you say is perfectly true," the man responded, "and absolutely useless."

* * *

Martini spoke at a conference on the centenary of Lonergan's birth. Now retired from Milan and splitting his time between Italy and Jerusalem, Martini mounted the platform at the Gregorian with the help of a cane. He was visibly weakened, though his voice and his spirit appeared undimmed. He noted that he has been relieved from his full-time pastoral duties, "also for reasons of health," so that he may devote himself to prayer and study.

Martini, a former rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, said that he never met Lonergan, although he was teaching at the Biblicum when Lonergan was at the Gregorian in the 1960s.

"I heard people talk about this professor, who taught in very correct Latin, and pronounced it in ways almost impossible for Anglo-Saxons," Martini said. "But I was too immersed in Biblical studies to allow myself to hear him.

Nevertheless, he said, he felt he knew Lonergan, based on repeated readings of his books, especially Insight and Method.

Martini compared Lonergan and the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Just as the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius brought order to the spiritual life, making sense of a conflicting welter of feelings and impulses, so Lonergan brought order to human "thinking, knowing, and reasoning."

Martini cited above all the Canadian's profound "mystical sense of human existence," as well as the "primacy of the experience of God, of falling in love with God."

"This was a theologian," Martini said, "who had the courage to say that love precedes consciousness in some privileged occasions."

In this context, Martini made some fascinating comments about Lonergan's approach to non-Christian religions. He noted that Lonergan once defined religious conversion as "the habitual acceptance of God's gift of his love flooding our hearts through the Holy Spirit he has given us," relying on Romans 5:5 (Martini noted that this was the Biblical verse most frequently cited by Lonergan).

"This understanding of grace provides a theological basis for dialogue with non-Christians, and even with atheists," Martini said. "The latter can love God in their hearts even when they don't know him in their heads. For me, this is something fundamental."

Martini jokingly observed that Lonergan once said that human beings generally achieve religious "interiority," meaning a thoughtful and personally chosen stance, around the age of 30.

"I always think about this when 25-year-old seminarians come to me, hoping that in five or ten years I'll see some maturity," he said.

* * *

Last week, a unique joint conference on "Communion and Solidarity between Africa and Europe" was co-sponsored by the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE) and the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM). The aim was to generate a stronger sense of inter-continental solidarity between European and African bishops, as well as to place a spotlight on the struggles of the African continent.

The same motive has led John Paul II to announce plans to call a second Synod for Africa, building on the first such assembly in April-May 1994.

At the CCEE/SECAM conference, topics included migration, the rise of Islam in both Africa and Europe, and HIV/AIDS.

On Islam, the president of CCEE, Swiss Bishop Amedée Grab, said that while "the striking growth of the construction of mosques in many African countries, financed by some Arab governments even before there are faithful" is indeed worrying, "we cannot react to fundamentalism with another fundamentalism." Even if religious liberty is denied in some predominantly Islamic states, he said, this is no reason to refuse religious liberty to Islamic immigrants in Europe.

Perhaps the most interesting reflection, at least for an American audience, came from Nigerian Archbishop John Onaiyekan, president of SECAM, speaking on the subject of religion and politics.

"When politicians start to make religious speeches, watch out," Onaiyekan said, "because often this is only for instrumental reasons. It happens among us in Nigeria, but it is also happening in the United States." On this score, Onaiyekan was especially hard on U.S. President George W. Bush.

"His affirmations about the defense of life, opposing abortion, worry us, since there's no problem with killing 40,000 Iraqis," Onaiyekan said. "There must be more consistency. It's not enough to be against abortion in order to be a good Christian. One must also be against injustice in the world, against an economic situation that oppresses people."

* * *

Also last week, the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity marked the 40th anniversary of Unitatis redintegratio, the Vatican II document on ecumenism, with a major conference at Rocca di Papa outside Rome.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the council, delivered what amounted to a "state of the union" address on ecumenism.

Kasper began by noting that Vatican II, while it marked a clear sea change in the ecumenical interest of the Catholic church, did not proceed from nothing. In the 19th century, Catholic theologians such as Johann Adam Möhler and John Henry Newmann pioneered ecumenical reflection. Popes such as Leo XIII and Benedict XV prepared the way, and Pius XII in a 1950 instruction endorsed the ecumenical movement, saying it had its origins in the Holy Spirit.

Vatican II built on these foundations by revitalizing the "eschatological dimension" of the church, Kasper said, treating the church as "a people on the way." At this point, Kasper offered a fascinating observation that is worth quoting at length:

In this eschatological perspective, the ecumenical movement is strictly linked to the missionary movement. Ecumenism and mission are like two twins. Mission is an eschatological phenomenon, thanks to which the church assumes the cultural patrimony of the peoples, purifies and enriches it, thereby enriching itself and reaching the fullness of its Catholicity. In the same way, in the ecumenical movement, the church participates in an exchange of gifts with the separated churches, enriching them and at the same time making their gifts its own, carrying them into the fullness of their Catholicity, and thereby realizing fully its own Catholicity.

Kasper dwelt on the famous formula in Vatican II's document on the church, Lumen Gentium, which said that the church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic church, rather than "is" the Catholic church. The council thereby acknowledged, Kasper said, that there are "elements of church" outside the visible Catholic church, so that separated churches and ecclesial communities can be for their members vehicles of salvation.

Finally, Kasper offered an analysis of the ecumenical situation with the Orthodox churches, and with Western Christians.

Catholics regard the Orthodox as "sister churches," Kasper said, and recognize that their patrimony is part of the full Catholicity of the church. The real problem, he said, is the petrine ministry, i.e., the papacy. This will be a hard nut to crack, he acknowledged, and limited himself to the hope that the international theological dialogue between Catholicism and the Orthodox will resume and pick up this question.

With the Christians of the Reformation, on the other hand, the theological differences are much more serious: differing doctrines on Christ and redemption, scripture and its relationship with the church, the magisterium, the church and its ministers, the role of Mary, and some moral questions. Moreover, the Eucharistic celebration in Protestant communities is, from a Catholic point of view, incomplete. This suggests an approach this is patient, but at the same time non-polemical, Kasper said.

* * *

At the same Rocca di Papa conference, Geoffrey Wainwright, Methodist chair of the Catholic/Methodist dialogue and a professor at Duke University, challenged the Catholic church on its understanding of Protestant traditions as less than full churches: "It is regrettable," he said, "that the degree of shared faith and ecclesiality was apparently insufficient to allow for other Christian communities to be seen by the document Dominus Iesus of 2000 as partners with the Catholic church in the urgent task of witness to the sole Savior of the world."

Yet Wainwright was obviously searching for creative new possibilities for ecumenical progress.

"Off my bat, I have made the suggestion of a 'perichoretic episcopate' in the shape of a local college of bishops," he wrote, "perhaps with a rotating presidency, and allowing ample opportunity for spiritual fellowship, sacramental communion, and joint action among the mutually open, confessionally reconciled, and culturally diverse communities represented in the council of bishops 'in each place.' "

* * *

While the election of Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane as president of the U.S. bishops' conference dominated the headlines Stateside in mid-November, it was the choice of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago as vice president that raised eyebrows in Rome.

In George, 67, the Vatican will be dealing with someone it already holds in high regard. In Vatican circles, sources have repeatedly told NCR, George is seen as the deepest thinker among the 13 American cardinals, and an indispensable point of reference on American affairs.

The Holy See has long tended to prefer dealing with a nation's cardinals, who are created by the pope and presumed to have a special bond of loyalty with the Holy See, than with the elected officers of a bishop's conference. From the point of view of the May 1998 Vatican document Apostolos Suos, a bishop's conference has no official standing between the individual bishop and the Holy See. Yet a conference's officers come with a mandate to speak on behalf of their fellow bishops that a cardinal may lack. Now George has both.

That combination means George is set to play an even more central role in delicate exchanges between the Holy See and America on issues ranging from norms for cases of sex abuse, to English-language translations of liturgical texts. Many Vatican observers believe that while Skylstad will be the public face of the bishops' conference for the next three years, George may well emerge as the most important behind-the-scenes force, especially in dealings with Roman authorities.

Sources close to the bishops' conference told NCR that the election of George was to some extent calculated to produce precisely this effect. One source said that outgoing President Bishop Wilton Gregory had suggested to George that he run, thereby adding "gravitas" to the Skylstad ticket. In this fashion, the bishops' tradition of the vice-president succeeding to the presidency of the conference would be maintained, while at the same time the Vatican would have confidence in the result.

If that was indeed the thinking, it seems to have worked. Several Vatican officials told NCR in mid-November that George is indeed a figure who enjoys wide esteem here.

"He's on the A-list of cardinals that every dicastery wants for its congresses and plenary assemblies," one official said. "He's seen as a tremendously supple thinker, as well as somebody who knows how to get things done."

One American in the curia told NCR that George is the United States' answer to cardinals such as Diogini Tettamanzi of Milan or Ivan Dias of Bombay, i.e., a speaker everyone wants to have. It's a widely held view in Rome that if George were not an American, and hence a citizen of the world's lone superpower, he would be a serious contender to be pope.

As proof of the point, in recent months George has given major Roman addresses at a plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, an international congress organized by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, during the ad limina visit of American bishops, and a major conference at the Lateran University on moral law.

In 2001, John Paul II tapped George to preach the annual Lenten retreat for the Roman Curia, widely seen as a sign of special papal favor. (Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow preached for Paul VI in March 1976 prior to his own election as pope). George is a member of four all-important Vatican congregations -- Eastern Churches, Divine Worship, Evangelization and Consecrated Life -- as well as the papal charity "Cor Unum."

George brings several assets to the Roman scene.

For one thing, he is no stranger to the Eternal City; from 1974 to 1986, he served here as vicar general of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, acquiring an intimate knowledge of the ecclesiastical scene and a fluent grasp of Italian. George is also a genuine academic. He was coordinator of the Circle of Fellows of the Cambridge Center for the Study of Faith and Culture in Cambridge, Mass., from 1987-90, which means that he is comfortable with the abstraction and theory that is often fashionable in European intellectual circles. Finally, as the archbishop of a wealthy and complex archdiocese, he has resources at his disposable that are keenly prized by Vatican officials for various projects and causes.

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

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