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November 25, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 13

John L. Allen Jr.


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John L. Allen Jr.

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Joan Chittister

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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

China, Taiwan and the Vatican; Media obtain text of gay seminarian document; Sex abuse scandal in Brazil; Assisi and a curial shake up; Short takes: Taxes, Thanksgiving and the Swiss Guard


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Taiwan’s ambassador to the Holy See believes there will be no change in relations between the Vatican and mainland China in the foreseeable future, because China is unlikely to make even minimal concessions on religious freedom. Taiwanese Ambassador Chou-seng Tou spoke to NCR in an exclusive interview Nov. 23.

“Once the people of mainland China enjoy religious freedom, the demand for other freedoms will follow,” Tou said. “The regime is afraid that it will become a tidal wave and things will get out of control.”

As evidence of this recalcitrance, Tou pointed to the recent Chinese swing by U.S. President George W. Bush, during which Bush pushed for greater religious freedom.

“If the regime wants to do somebody a favor, usually they’ll release some prisoners,” he said. “Before Bush’s visit, they actually arrested a few priests and seminarians.” Contrary to a flurry of speculation in the global press, Tou said he doesn’t believe a major change in Vatican-China ties is imminent.

“Let me tell you something,” Tou said, speaking from his Rome office overlooking the Via della Conciliazione, the broad avenue that leads to St. Peter’s Square.

“When I entered the Foreign Service 30 years ago, my first job was to track affairs in Europe, including the Vatican. I remember people telling me, ‘Look out, something is about to happen, the Vatican is going to move its embassy to Beijing.’”

“It’s thirty years later, and we’re still waiting,” Tou said. “I don’t believe this is going to happen anytime soon.”

Tou said his government was “encouraged” by recent statements by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, currently the head of the Vatican library and the Holy See’s former foreign minister, to the effect that if the Vatican does eventually move its embassy, it will leave behind some diplomatic representation in Taipei.

“That way, at least the people of Taiwan will not feel like they’re being sacrificed,” Tou said.

Tauran is currently visiting Taiwan, and some had speculated that his visit might herald a shift in Vatican/Chinese relations. It’s no secret that the Vatican longs for diplomatic relations with mainland China. Pope Benedict XVI said so in an audience with diplomats shortly after his election, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, has said that the Holy See would move its embassy to Beijing “tomorrow” if conditions were right.

There are some 300,000 Catholics in Taiwan, but an estimated 12 million on the mainland. The Vatican is anxious to resolve the schism between an official Catholic church dominated by the government, and an “underground” church whose members are still harassed and subject to arrest.

In addition, there’s an obvious spiritual hunger in mainland China without an established religious system to serve it; missionary experts believe that, if the government were to loosen controls, those 12 million Catholics on the mainland could become 120 million within a generation.

Still, Tou did not disguise his ambivalence about the Vatican’s outreach.

“We are somewhat the victims of the Holy See’s strong desire for rapprochement with the mainland,” Tou said.

He cited the fact that the Holy See has not appointed a nuncio, or full ambassador, to Taiwan since 1979. The pope is represented in Taipei by a charge d’affaires, in what many see as preparation for an eventual shift to Beijing.

“We’re the victims,” Tou repeated, “but we also understand.”

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I asked Tou what importance diplomatic relations with the Holy See hold for Taiwan.

“We respect the Holy See’s policy on international peace, justice, and concern for the poor,” he said.

“In addition, the Holy See is the only European nation with which we still have relations,” he said. “We’re encountering huge difficulties in the international community, and the Vatican is very important to us.”

If the Vatican were to drop Taipei for Beijing, Tou said, “We would feel like we’ve lost our friends.”

In the long run, Tou said, mainland China will change. He cited several forces slowly eroding the government’s grip: the Internet, the number of Chinese visiting other countries, the number of young Chinese studying abroad, and the foreign tourists inside China who bring more open, liberal ideas.

“It will take a long time, but I’m optimistic,” Tou said.

Tou argued that as this process unfolds, difficulties between Taiwan and the mainland will dissipate.

“The differences across the Taiwan Strait will find a solution when the mainland is a different country that respects people’s rights,” he said. “We’ll work things out if the People’s Republic of China becomes a liberal, democratic country.”

Whatever the solution may be, Tou said it’s unlikely to take the form of the “One China, Two Systems” deal in Hong Kong.

“Some Hong Kong people are not very happy,” he said. “Their rights have been reduced, and they’re afraid to criticize the government. We can’t accept that solution.”

Still, Tou said, “we must have patience” with China.

“One day a Chinese Gorbachev will appear, and the situation will be very different.”

Who might that be?

“Maybe Hu Jintao’s successor,” he said.

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Speaking of China, Bush, and the Vatican, the Italian daily La Stampa carried a piece Nov. 22 citing anonymous Vatican sources to the effect that Bush’s appeal on behalf of both the Vatican and the Dali Lama in his recent meeting with Hu Jintao was “unscheduled” and unhelpful.

“If we go to Beijing, it will certainly not be on the back of the U.S.,” a Vatican official was quoted as saying. “The Chinese authorities will not grant us greater religious freedom on the basis that Bush asked for it.”

The piece caused consternation among American officials, who know that on several past occasions the Vatican has explicitly requested American interventions with the Chinese on questions of religious freedom -- on the theory, apparently, that sometimes the only way to get their attention is precisely “on the back of the U.S.”

How to explain the seeming contradiction?

In part, it may be the same diplomatic two-step that goes on whenever America exercises its influence internationally -- even people grateful for the intervention may not want to be identified with it.

In part, too, it illustrates that in the Vatican today one can find the same divisions on China as used to exist on the old Soviet Union -- one current supporting a gradualist, Realpolitik approach, another taking a slightly more assertive line.

What remains to be seen, as on so many other things, is where Benedict XVI will come down.

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We finally have the text of the long-awaited document from the Congregation for Catholic Education regarding the ordination of homosexuals. Though it will be officially published on Tuesday Nov. 29, the intrepid Italian news agency Adista obtained an advance copy and published it on the Internet Nov. 22, after it had been distributed to all the Italian bishops.

Senior Vatican officials have acknowledged that the 1,300-word text is accurate.

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The heart of the document is that candidates who are “actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture” cannot be ordained.

The instruction never uses the word “orientation” or “condition” with respect to homosexuality. Instead it refers to “tendencies,” a seemingly deliberate choice, suggesting that homosexuality is an impulse or inclination which can be reversed.

Central to the document is its distinction between “transitory” and “deep-seated” tendencies. Transitory impulses are not disqualifying if they have been clearly overcome.

“When dealing … with homosexual tendencies that might only be a manifestation of a transitory problem, as, for example, delayed adolescence, these must be clearly overcome at least three years before diaconal ordination,” it says.

The bottom line seems clear -- men with a fixed, “deep-seated” identity as homosexuals should not be ordained Catholic priests.

Critically, however, the document does not define what “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” means, leaving it unclear how to establish the difference between “transitory” and “deep-seated” impulses.

Further, since a “tendency” is usually understood as an impulse to do something, some seminary rectors and others involved in religious formation told NCR it’s unclear to them whether the document would automatically preclude someone with a stable attraction to the same sex, but no inclination to act on it.

The document does not specify exactly who ought to make these determinations. It states that it is up to bishops and religious superiors, in tandem with seminary rectors, spiritual directors and others involved in formation, to make judgments, and that “it remains understood that the candidate himself is primarily responsible for his own formation.”

As one canon lawyer said this week, “You can slice and dice this thing a thousand different ways.”

That seems cold comfort, however, to some critics.

“An honest reading of the document shows that the Vatican is simply banning gays,” said Jesuit Fr. James Martin. “The ‘application’ of the document, even the portion of the document that says that rectors are ultimately responsible for their men, will be meaningless: No emotionally mature gay applicant these days will want to enter.”

“The passage that states that gay men per se cannot ‘correctly’ relate to men and women will certainly cause anguish to the many celibate gay priests already working in ministry in the church,” Martin said.

An Italian church official, however, denied that the instruction amounts to discrimination.

“The word discrimination can be used where there is a right,” Monsignor Giuseppe Betori, secretary general of the influential Italian bishops conference, said in a press conference last week. “Vocation is not a right but a gift.”

Taking into consideration the “negative consequences” of ordaining homosexuals represents an important part of assessing candidates, Betori said.

Other bishops don’t see it this way.

In a Nov. 12 column in his diocesan newspaper, Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, New York, wrote, “Good seminary formation needs to provide an environment in which both heterosexual and homosexual candidates can grow to commit themselves wholeheartedly, even joyfully, to chaste and faithful celibacy.”

Addressing himself specifically to gay candidates, Clark wrote: “We try to treat all inquiries fairly. You will be no exception.”

William Donohue of the Catholic League, generally seen as a conservative commentator on church affairs, welcomed the document’s nuance.

“The Vatican is prudent not to have an absolute ban on admission of homosexuals to the priesthood: there are too many good men with homosexual tendencies who have served the church with distinction,” Donohue said.

“But there is a monumental difference between someone who is incidentally homosexual and someone for whom the gay subculture is central to his identity. Only those blinded by sexual politics will fail to make this distinction,” he said.

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One bit of insider baseball: At least according to the text published by Adista, the new instruction was not explicitly issued in forma specifica, meaning with the weight of a papal act, and hence it carries the authority of a Vatican office rather than the pope himself.

When a curial office issues a document, it does so with the pope’s permission. The pope can give that permission in forma specifica, meaning that he’s invested the document with his own personal authority, or in forma communi, which means that he’s read it and has allowed it to be published, but it remains the document of a Vatican agency.

Patrick Hayes of Fordham has explained the distinction this way:

In forma specifica documents have deliberate papal approbation, and so the documents, even though issued by a Vatican office, take on the character of speaking to a papal concern. … In forma communi documents, in contrast, have been reviewed by the pope as one aspect of the pontiff’s daily activities. They do not indicate the pope’s explicit approval, even though they might have it.”

Some recent high-profile documents have carried the in forma specifica language. A 1997 document on lay ministry, for example, had this formula: “The Supreme Pontiff, in Audience of the 13th of August 1997, approved in forma specifica this present Instruction and ordered its promulgation.”

When the Congregation for Catholic Education, the same office that issued the current instruction, put out a decree in 2002 changing the requirements for study in canon law, it adjusted a 1979 apostolic constitution issued by John Paul II called Sapientia christiana. The 2002 decree’s concluding formula read that the pope “has approved in forma specifica article 76 of the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia christiana with the innovations to it carried herein.”

Some canonists, however, argue that under Pope John Paul’s 1988 apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus, documents from Vatican agencies do not necessarily have to carry this formula in order to enjoy the pope’s personal authority. It can be enough, they say, that he order publication.

The most one can say, therefore, is that the new instruction does not clearly state in forma specifica, and hence it’s at least arguable that it enjoys a lower level of authority than an explicit papal act.

To be clear, this does not mean the instruction is non-binding. (Anything contrary to existing law, however, would be void.) In practice, it could mean the instruction is more open to eventual reconsideration, though canonists and others will no doubt debate the point.

Canonists also note that the new document does not write changes into canon law, specifically canon 1041, which lists a series of “irregularities” that prevent someone from being ordained a priest.

As a footnote (and certainly not an exact parallel), there is at least one example of the Vatican backing down from a seemingly rigid ban on the ordination of a given group. Canonists point to recent Vatican rulings on the ordination of men who are celiac, meaning wheat-intolerant, or alcoholics.

On Aug. 22, 1994, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a prohibition on such candidates, stating, “Given the centrality of the celebration of the Eucharist in the life of the priest, candidates for the priesthood who are affected by celiac disease or suffer from alcoholism or similar conditions may not be admitted to holy orders.”

After much reaction and debate, however, the congregation issued a new document on July 24, 2003, which softened the ruling: “One must proceed with great caution before admitting to Holy Orders those candidates unable to ingest gluten or alcohol without serious harm,” it stated.

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Another disedifying chapter in the sexual abuse crisis opened last week, with revelations in a Brazilian newsmagazine called Istoè that four Brazilian priests in recent months have been charged with abuse of minors; three have been criminally convicted, while a fourth was arrested in November in a hotel room in Northeastern Brazil with four young boys. In that case, the priest has denied charges of molestation.

Istoè stated that 10 Brazilian priests are currently behind bars for abuse of minors, with another 40 missing.

The magazine also reported that in at least two instances, priests eventually convicted of sexual abuse had previously been transferred from one assignment to another after initial complaints surfaced. According to the same report, one emeritus bishop has been accused of sexual misconduct by a young priest whom he ordained.

The leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera suggested that the reports show sexual abuse by priests is not a uniquely American phenomenon.

Perhaps the most spectacular finding is that two priests already convicted of abuse left diaries of their experiences.

Fr. Tarcisio Tadeu Spricigo, 48, convicted in 2003 of the sexual abuse of a nine-year-old boy, listed 10 guidelines for identifying potential victims. They included:

  1. “Age: 7, 8, 9 or 10”
  2. “Sex: Male”
  3. “Social condition: poor”
  4. “Family condition: preferably a boy without a father, living with a single mother or a sister”
  5. “Where to find him: in the streets, in schools or in families”
  6. “How to lure him: guitar lessons, or service as an altar boy or girl”
  7. “Very important to keep the family at a distance”
  8. “Possibilities: an affectionate young man, calm, without inhibitions, missing a father, without moralisms”
  9. “Find out what pleases the young man and, departing from that premise, lead him to give everything to me”
  10. “How to present yourself: always certain, serious, dominating, like a father, never ask questions, always have certainties”
The diary, according to the Istoè report, came to light after Spricigo accidentally gave it to a religious sister, who turned it over to police.

Likewise, Fr. Alfieri Edoardo Bompani, 45, was convicted of abuse in 2004 and sentenced to 93 years in jail, considered a symbolic gesture since the maximum sentence under Brazilian law is 30 years. Quotes from his diary provided in the Istoè account include lurid, and sometimes repugnant, sexual details.

Finally, the magazine also reported that Pope Benedict XVI sent a commission to Brazil in September to investigate the reports of abuse. That aspect of the story, however, cannot be confirmed.

The logical Vatican agency to have impaneled the commission would be the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has responsibility for cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests under a February 2001 ruling from Pope John Paul II. A Vatican source told NCR on Nov. 21, however, that the congregation was not aware of any commission sent to Brazil.

A spokesperson for the Brazilian bishops’ conference told NCR Nov. 21 that the conference was also not aware of any such commission.

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On Nov. 19, the Vatican announced that Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has been made the new bishop of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino. At the same time, a papal motu proprio was issued which, among other things, creates new hierarchical controls over the basilicas of St. Francis and St. Mary of the Angels, administered by the Conventual Franciscans and the Friars Minor, respectively.

The motu proprio specifies that the Franciscans must obtain the permission of the bishop of Assisi, the president of the bishops of Umbria, and the president of the Italian bishops’ conference (currently Cardinal Camillo Ruini) for any initiatives “with pastoral aspects,” meaning practically everything.

Some Italian observers saw the motu proprio as a kind of personal settling of scores by Pope Benedict XVI.

Some argued that it’s a way of muzzling the normally left-leaning Franciscans ahead of expected Italian national elections in 2006. Others, such as Italian Catholic writer Vittorio Messori, suggested that the roots of the motu proprio reached back to 1986, and a summit of religious leaders John Paul II hosted in Assisi. Horror stories have long circulated about what happened -- including Buddhists putting smoking prayer-sticks in front of the Tabernacle in one church, and African animists slaughtering chickens in another.

An official of the Congregation for Bishops told NCR Nov. 23, however, that such interpretations are off-base.

“We had been studying the canonical situation in Assisi for years, and this document was prepared under John Paul II. The new pope had almost nothing to do with it, except for signing it. The idea that this is a ‘restoration’ by Ratzinger is absurd,” this official said.

Whatever the case, the move at the Congregation for Divine Worship is potentially even more interesting.

Sorrentino had been the secretary at the Congregation for Divine Worship since August 2003, meaning just 27 months. The previous occupant of the job, Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino, served for four years, from April 1999 to August 2003. Both put in less than the normal five-year term.

Some have construed Sorrentino’s departure as the first wave of the curial “tsunami” expected under Benedict XVI.

Whether that tsunami emerges remains to be seen. What seems clear, however, is that Sorrentino’s transfer is more than a routine reassignment. Both Sorrentino and Tamburrino were nominations from the Secretariat of State, and both embodied a “softer,” more flexible stance on liturgical questions than the prefects they served: Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez in the case of Tamburrino, Cardinal Francis Arinze in the case of Sorrentino.

“What the Secretariat of State was probably after was balance,” a Vatican source said Nov. 21.

It’s not clear whether that kind of “balance,” however, is what Pope Benedict XVI wants, since over the years he has been supportive of efforts to restore greater reverence, sobriety, and traditional forms of expression in worship. In November, the pope sent a letter to the Vox Clara Commission, created to advise the congregation on liturgical translation in English, in which he affirmed Liturgiam Authenticam, the congregation’s 2001 document that demanded greater fidelity to Latin originals.

On the other hand, some sources say the problem with Sorrentino was not always content, but style.

Those sources say that Sorrentino was a highly scrupulous secretary, wanting to be well informed and to hear multiple points of view before making decisions. Some believe that occasionally translated into gridlock. This was a particular liability, sources say, since the congregation’s prefect, Arinze, is one of the most-traveled Vatican officials, giving lectures and conferences in various parts of the world. Given that, sources say, it’s especially important to have a secretary who can make the trains run on time.

In general, observers believe that under Benedict XVI, the Secretariat of State is likely to play a less prominent role in filling positions such as that vacated by Sorrentino. Such decisions are more likely to come from the papal household, or at least to be subjected to a greater degree of review by the pope.

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There appears to be some progress in the long-running saga of negotiations between Israel and the Holy See on the tax and juridical status of church-affiliated institutions in Israel.

Negotiators met in Jerusalem on Thursday, and afterwards issued this comminque: “The Bilateral Permanent Working Commission between the Holy See and the State of Israel has met today …. The delegations have dealt with a number of significant issues, and have brought about progress …. The atmosphere was cordial and the delegations are looking forward to their next scheduled meetings.”

Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger, one of the principal negotiators for the Holy See, afterwards struck a positive note.

“It appears to give grounds for renewed hope that the agreement is achievable, that the good will is there,” he said.

Anyone familiar with Jaeger’s normal caution about such matters will recognize a change in tone. It remains to be seen if the coming weeks will justify that optimism.

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On Saturday, Nov. 19, several leading figures from the Society of St. Pius X, the body founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, were in Rome to present the Italian edition of his biography. It was written by Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, one of four bishops consecrated by Lefebvre in 1988, the act that sealed his break with the Vatican.

Lefebvre was a leading critic of reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). According to Tissier, Lefebvre stood courageously “against this great liberalizing affliction.”

Also present at the press conference was Fr. Franz Schmidberger, Lefebvre’s first successor as the head of the Society of St. Pius X. Schmidberger offered the society’s version of inter-religious encounter.

“Other religions, as such, are false systems,” Schmidberger said.

“St. Peter, the first pope, preached to the Jews and told them that ‘if you want to be saved you must do three things: you must regret your sins and convert, believe in our lord Jesus Christ and, thirdly, be baptized.’ We expect that every pope who claims to be the successor of St. Peter should take the same stand in meetings with leaders of other religions, and tell them the same three things,” Schmidberger said.

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Yesterday was the American festival of Thanksgiving, marked in Rome by the traditional Mass at Santa Susanna, the American parish, presided over once again by Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council of Social Communications. Foley pointed out that it was his 22nd Thanksgiving in Rome.

The annual Presidential Proclamation for Thanksgiving was read by the new American Ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Rooney.

In his homily, Foley quoted from a new preface to the Liturgy of the Eucharist approved for use in the United States on Thanksgiving, which invokes Old Testament imagery about “a place of promise and hope.”

“For all its faults,” Foley said, “America remains a beacon of hope in an often despairing world.”

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The Vatican held a press conference this week to present plans for celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Swiss Guards in 2006. A reporter asked the commander, Col. Elmar Theodor Mäder, if one day women might be admitted to the guard.

“I can’t imagine service with women,” he responded. “We live in a very small barracks. There’s also the criterion of discipline. These are young people, and we don’t want an entire corps full of problems.”

“It’s certainly not that women can’t do the job,” Mäder said. “This is not the point.”

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