National Catholic Reporter ®

November 22, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.13

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The U.S.-Vatican cultural gap; latest on new document on homosexuality; ambivalence on peace rally; word from the Remnant

“We believe that there’s a crisis in the Catholic Church today but that that crisis is only further fueled by the mistaken notion that conservative Catholics have the right to react against it by recklessly judging the seat of Peter vacant...making themselves popes and bishops, setting up the petite eglise, and operating like virtual Protestants. We have respectfully differed with some of Pope John Paul’s novel opinions, yes, but we have also consistently defended his strong moral stand and have never had any truck with those misguided Catholics who declare his seat vacant.”

Michael Matt
Editor of the Remnant

Since the clerical sex abuse scandals broke in the United States, it has often been observed that a “cultural gap” separates Rome and America. From differing concepts of corporate liability, to contrasting attitudes towards sexual misconduct, the divide between North America and the southern Mediterranean has influenced how Vatican officials size up the situation.

     Two recent stories out of Italy illustrate the impact of the cultural gap on another flash point, which is cooperation with civil authorities. 

     Most Americans regard this as a no-brainer: Sexual abuse of a minor is a crime, hence when a bishop receives an accusation against a priest, he should turn it over to the police. Such reporting was required in the norms adopted by the bishops in Dallas last June. The language was softened in the revised norms that came from a “mixed commission” of four U.S. bishops and four Vatican officials, with the requirement now being to comply with the civil law, which may or may not oblige automatic reporting. Yet in Washington during their fall meeting, the bishops pledged to observe the higher Dallas standard, a pledge that they pointed out remains in the Charter, the fuller statement of their sexual abuse policy.

     Why would some in the Vatican blink at such a requirement?

     In part, the concern is to protect a zone of intimacy in a bishop’s relationship with his priests, so a priest does not have to worry that every time he discusses a problem with his bishop, the police will be involved. This reflects the traditional theology of the bishop’s office, in which a bishop is understood as a paterfamilias, a head of the family, and his priests are both his brothers and his sons. 

     But there’s another factor, more psychological than theological, which is basic Italian skepticism about the impartiality of secular justice. Two headlines from mid-November make the point.

     The first concerns a bombshell verdict delivered Nov. 17 against seven-time former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, sentenced to 24 years in prison by an appeals court for allegedly instigating the murder of a muckraking journalist in 1979. Andreotti was first charged in the slaying in 1995 on the basis of testimony from a turncoat mob member, and after a long legal process, was exonerated in September 1999. Under Italian law, however, prosecutors as well as the defense can appeal a verdict, hence the case went before an appeals court, and against all expectations that panel found Andreotti guilty, even though it acquitted the men who were supposed to have actually done the killing. The case will now be heard by the country’s highest court. (Given Andreotti’s age, 83, and the fact that he is a senator-for-life, he is unlikely to go to jail no matter the outcome).

     Andreotti was the most powerful figure in Italy’s post-war political order, a towering figure in the Christian Democrats who ruled the country from 1948 until the party collapsed in a series of bribery scandals, known as tangentopoli, in 1992. He is closely identified with the Catholic Church. Andreotti is a daily communicant at the church of San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini, near NCR’s Rome office, and is the publisher of 30 Giorni, one of the country’s most widely read Catholic magazines. Hence Andreotti is an avatar of the old Italian political order linked to the church, and his supporters believe that leftist magistrates have engaged in a campaign of political persecution using trumped-up allegations.

     This view is widespread in Vatican circles. Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, a key player in the Roman curia in the years that Andreotti was in power, called the outcome “incredible.” Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini compared Andreotti to Jesus Christ, another victim of an unjust verdict, and hoped for a “resurrection” from the supreme court. L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, expressed “full solidarity” with Andreotti, saying the verdict “can only be rejected by good sense.” Cardinal Camillo Ruini, head of the Italian bishops conference and a key adviser to the pope, took the occasion of an address to the Italian bishops to express his “intact personal esteem” for Andreotti.

     Reaction from political figures was similar. Even the leader of the country’s main leftist party, Piero Fassino, said, “It calls for the need to discuss many issues, not just in the Andreotti trial, but trials in general.” Conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi minced no words, charging that Andreotti is the victim of “politicized sectors of the magistrates that have tried to change the course of democratic politics.” 

     Berlusconi, who has made attacking the alleged bias of the judicial system a staple of his rhetoric, was elected in a landslide to the prime minister’s job on May 13, 2001, despite the fact that he faces several rather serious criminal indictments himself. Many Italian voters simply assumed the charges were politically motivated and looked past them.

     A similar reaction, this time largely from the left, is underway to the arrest of 20 anti-globalization activists on Friday, Nov. 15, with another 21 under investigation. The activists are charged with “subversive activity” for conspiring to undermine law and order and the government by organizing “no global” protests, such as those that rocked the city of Genoa during the G-8 summit last year. One demonstrator was killed during those clashes and more than 100 were injured, along with scores of police. 

     Nationwide demonstrations have followed the arrests, led in part by Fr. Vitaliano Della Sala, a leftist Italian priest famous for his support of the anti-globalization movement. Della Sala has charged that the arrests of the young activists are politically motivated, an attempt to hobble non-violent civil disobedience that gives voice to the “no global” point of view. Many Italians are prepared to believe him, since they are accustomed to thinking of criminal justice, like war, as an extension of politics by other means.

     In both cases, the point is not that Andreotti or the no-global activists, or even Berlusconi, are necessarily innocent. Time will tell. For many Italians, however, all these cases confirm how one cannot trust prosecutors and judges to set aside their political biases. As one writer in La Repubblica, a major Roman daily, put it Nov. 20, “Practically every high-profile case in Italy is ‘instrumentalized’ and transformed into a new Dreyfus affair.”

     The result is deep ambivalence inside the Vatican about automatic referral of accusations against priests to the police. What about situations, Vatican officials wonder, in which the civil authorities are out to get us? It is a question that would strike many Americans as paranoid, but not so here.

     Americans will insist that this is not our experience, that by and large our district attorneys and judges are fair and independent, and their involvement is needed to correct the church’s tendency to protect its own. Why can’t the Vatican trust the American church to craft policy that makes sense for its situation? 

     There’s much merit to that question. Yet in a globalized world, nothing remains local for very long. The Vatican is keenly aware that the United States is the world’s lead culture, and that whatever American Catholics do will be watched and imitated. A colleague of mine from a German Catholic news agency, for example, was in Washington for the recent meeting of the U.S. bishops to report on developments as the German bishops shape their own sexual abuse policy. Hence the Vatican is convinced that the American bishops are setting a global precedent, and they worry about what that precedent might mean in cultures with different experiences of the trustworthiness of the legal system.

     In the end, I anticipate that American bishops will honor the pledge in the Charter to report all accusations, because they don’t want to face charges of cover-up. In explaining their policy to Rome, either now or after a two-year review, they will have to negotiate once again the cultural gap, making this point: In the United States, involving the civil authorities is not about handing a club to enemies of the church. It’s about ensuring that justice is done. Indeed, the best way to refute enemies of the church in the present American situation is to undo the impression that the hierarchy wants to stand above the law.

* * *

     A new document, Consecrated Persons and Their Mission in Schools: Reflections and Guidelines, put out by the Congregation for Catholic Education, was presented at a Vatican press conference Nov. 19. Because this is the same office preparing another new document that includes language on homosexuals and Catholic seminaries, the presence of the congregation’s two top officials, Polish Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski and Italian Jesuit Archbishop Giuseppe Pittau, attracted special media interest. Above all in the United States, people are on pins and needles waiting to see how hard a line that document is going to take on the eligibility of homosexual men for the priesthood. The press conference had nothing to do with homosexuality, but it was a chance to put the question.

     It’s always awkward at one of these affairs, however, to bring up a question unrelated to the subject at hand. The Vatican press corps is not like its White House equivalent, which has no problem listening to George Bush for 15 minutes on terrorism and then shouting questions about his niece’s drug problems. Vatican reporters are more hesitant to color outside the lines.

     Nevertheless, I asked Grocholewski and Pittau: “You’re both aware of the rumors concerning a new document from your congregation that makes reference to homosexuality. Is there such a document, and when will it appear? Is it the current discipline of the church that no candidate with a homosexual orientation should be admitted to a Catholic seminary?”

     Grocholewski was not thrilled, but here’s what he said. He spoke in Italian, so this is my translation.

     “We are studying many different problems. If such a document were to be published, I couldn’t tell you now what it will say, because the conclusion comes at the end. I don’t like a certain kind of journalistic sensationalism. I don’t know if a document will be published or what form it will take. I understand that journalists like to launch a bomb sometimes. It’s not news if a dog bites an old woman, you prefer to write that an old woman bites a dog. I don’t think this sort of thing has good ecological value for clearing the air, but instead it pollutes it. I can say that in upcoming months there will not soon be a document in this regard.”

     Translation: Don’t expect a document soon.

     For the record, the document that Grocholewski and Pittau had come to present, the one on the role of religious men and women in schools, contains some real gems, though unfortunately it’s a bit over-written and hence its most exciting ideas are buried under mountains of verbiage.

     The document calls on members of religious communities involved in education to go back to the gospel and reconsider their work in its light. It emphasizes the option for the poor, and explicitly states that in some cases religious orders have strayed too far from this idea. 

     “It might be necessary,” the document says, “ to leave perhaps even works of prestige … Consecrated persons are called to check to see if, in their educational activity, they are mainly pursuing academic prestige rather than the human and Christian maturation of the young people; if they are favoring competition rather than solidarity; if they are involved in educating, together with the other members of the school community, persons who are free, responsible and just according to evangelical justice.”

     A primary contributor to the document, Sr. Antonia Colombo, told reporters that indirectly the text was intended as a “critique of neo-liberalism,” and one can certainly find supporting references. Paragraph 63, for example: “The evangelical view will allow young people to take a critical attitude towards consumerism and hedonism that have wormed their way, like the tare into the wheat, into the culture and way of life of vast areas of humanity.” 

     Colombo, an Italian, is the Mother General of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, a member of the Salesian family of religious communities.

     In general, the document encourages educators to foster a critical attitude among students toward existing social values and structures. It will not appeal to those working to bring Catholic social teaching into line with the free-market economic liberalism associated with American capitalism.

     Another point of interest, signaled for the press by Colombo: Consecrated Persons and Their Mission in Schools, written in Italian, uses inclusive language more or less throughout. (That means gender-neutral terms, as a way of not excluding women). This touch may illustrate the virtue of bringing a woman’s sensitivity to the process of drafting Vatican documents.

     Pittau, by the way, made some interesting allusions to his own biography, referring to his two years teaching in a Japanese middle school as a Jesuit missionary as “perhaps the best of my life.” Pittau spent another 29 years in Japan at the university level before returning to Rome, so schooling is very much in his blood. He’s well placed in the Congregation for Education, an example of the value of ensuring that either the prefect or the secretary of a Vatican office is a content-area expert.

* * *

     Speaking of the “no global” movement (an odd label, since most people don’t object to globalization — as Nelson Mandela has observed, that’s like objecting to the coming of winter — but to disparities in the distribution of its benefits), its most recent manifestation unfolded in Florence Nov. 7-10. There the European Social Forum protested widening global inequality as well as the possible war in Iraq. Organizers said some 1 million people took part in the final march, though police estimates put the number closer to 400,000. As opposed to earlier anti-globalization outbursts, the event took place without violence.

     The “no global” phenomenon produces widely varied reaction in European Catholic circles. Some see it as a positive “sign of the times,” a secular expression of the same concern for social justice that has animated much of John Paul II’s pontificate, and hence a worthy cause that the church should encourage. Others see it as fatally contaminated by the forces of the extreme left, by young communists waving Che Guevara banners and anarchists smashing shop windows, and believe that any Catholic involvement would end up being compromised, looking like an endorsement of anti-social rage.

     This Catholic ambivalence was on display in the run-up to the Social Forum. The Union of Italian Major Superiors, the main umbrella group for religious women in Italy, had sent out a circular letter to its members in the days before the Florence rally, encouraging them to participate. The group saw doing so as an expression of their gospel commitment to side with the poor. 

     The Vatican, however, took a different view. Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, sent a letter to the major superiors, defining their initiative as “inopportune” and suggesting that they retract the invitation to participate.

     Functionally, it was too late for the sisters to do very much. But the episode reflects the tension that cuts through much Catholic thinking about the biggest grass-roots political phenomenon of the day.

     As a footnote, the Italian major superiors managed to raise some eyebrows on another front recently as well. Their magazine, Consacrazione e servizio, carried eight pages of coverage of the recent movie “The Magdalene Sisters,” which was widely pilloried by Italian bishops and Vatican officials as anti-church. The movie tells the story of a penal institution for women run by Irish nuns, and pulls no punches in illustrating some abusive practices. Rather than condemning the film, however, Consacrazione e servizio invited readers to go and see for themselves.

     The sisters are presumably still waiting for a letter from Somalo on that one.

* * *

     In last week’s column I made an off-hand reference to the Remnant, a Catholic newspaper on the right-wing end of the spectrum, suggesting that it has some affinities with sedevacantism, the view that John Paul II is not a legitimate pope. This came up in the context of Pat Buchanan telling me he was a Remnant reader. My comment was based on reading a couple of issues of the Remnant some time back that were critical of the pope’s stands on inter-religious dialogue and the post-Vatican II Mass, two frequent laments of sedevacantists (though these concerns are shared in other circles).

     The column brought a response from Michael Matt, editor of the Remnant, understandably concerned that his paper’s editorial position not be misunderstood. Matt, who says that the Remnant has fought sedevacantism for 20 years, writes:

     “We believe that there’s a crisis in the Catholic Church today but that that crisis is only further fueled by the mistaken notion that conservative Catholics have the right to react against it by recklessly judging the seat of Peter vacant...making themselves popes and bishops, setting up the petite eglise, and operating like virtual Protestants. We have respectfully differed with some of Pope John Paul’s novel opinions, yes, but we have also consistently defended his strong moral stand and have never had any truck with those misguided Catholics who declare his seat vacant.”

     I’m happy to let Matt’s words express where his paper stands. 

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

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