National Catholic Reporter ®

November 29, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.14

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The ‘secret’ norms; another Latin American blames the press; world protest against the death penalty; Milingo’s back

The key to recovery . . .  is that we must “face the garbage.”

Cardinal James Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for Laity

In last week’s NCR, we carried a story along with the full text of the previously secret Vatican norms governing six “grave delicts,” including sexual abuse of a minor. The norms had never been published, even though people were aware they were floating around as early as last December, when the Catholic News Service first wrote about them. 

     The Vatican took the position that the norms would be distributed on a case-by-case basis. They have since been circulating in a kind of samizdat fashion among canon lawyers, with most American bishops barely aware of their existence. 

     Most canonists I’ve spoken with feel it’s unfortunate the norms were not made public much earlier. For one thing, it’s basic legal principle that a secret law cannot oblige.  For another, much of the bumpiness from Dallas to Washington might have been smoothed out had the content of these norms been better known. Article 17 of the Vatican norms, for example, makes clear that cases involving sexual abuse of a minor can only be handled through a judicial process. Had the American bishops realized that the administrative solution they approved in Dallas was never going to fly in Rome, we might have been spared three weeks of press reports in October and early November suggesting the Vatican had “vetoed” zero tolerance or forced the bishops to “back down.” After making the Vatican-induced changes, the bishops still have a zero tolerance program, but they’re taking a different path to get there – one that runs through church tribunals instead of a bishop’s executive authority.

     You can find the story at

and the norms themselves at

* * *

     On Monday, Nov. 25, I had lunch with Cardinal James Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for Laity, in a little trattoria nestled in the Piazza of Santa Maria in the ancient Roman neighborhood of Trastevere. It was here that Rome’s Jews settled in antiquity, and for that reason it is also where the first Christians in Rome took root.

     The meal was a somewhat artificial exercise, since we had a TV camera trained on us the entire time. I was being shadowed by a producer and cameraman from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who were shooting a documentary segment about what it’s like to cover the Vatican.

     As I have written before, I admire Stafford, who in my experience tries to think his way through issues and is open to insight no matter where it originates. A quick story illustrates the point. When Stafford was a young priest in Baltimore with responsibility for Catholic Charities, it turned out that some church money was being relayed by a local African-American priest into a breakfast program for children run by the Black Panthers. The group was widely regarded as dangerous (some would call them “terrorists”), and this unexpected link between the Catholic Church and the Black Panthers became a local cause célebre. 

     Stafford, who is certainly no liberal on either political or theological matters, nevertheless set off for the inner-city neighborhood where the breakfast program was offered and actually met with the Panthers. Satisfied that they were not ideologically indoctrinating the children, that the money was being used responsibly and that the community supported the program, Stafford allowed the funding to continue. It’s a stand that I suspect few churchmen, made of more cautious stuff, would have taken.

     As our lunch unfolded, we talked a good deal about the crisis in the American church related to the sexual abuse scandals, a subject about which Stafford has some passionate ideas. I intend to write about this at greater length, but I can briefly anticipate some of its content here.

     The key to recovery, Stafford said, is that we must “face the garbage.”

     The reference, Stafford explained, is to a garbage strike in a large American city, when a Hispanic community activist taught his people a lesson in self-reliance. He urged them to “face the garbage,” i.e., to deal with the fact that the garbage was real, and it wasn’t going away unless they organized. They did, and for the duration of the strike the community picked up the garbage every day.

     In the same way, Stafford argued, the American Catholic Church has to face its garbage, which to him means acknowledging that there is a profound cultural metamorphosis afoot which has placed parishes and dioceses into deep crisis. In his view, we are becoming an increasingly “virtual” culture, dominated by television and video games and the Internet, by euphemistically named “gated communities” and “retirement homes,” which are really ways of locking undesirables either out or in. We are increasingly uncomfortable dealing with flesh-and-blood reality, Stafford believes, whether it’s sickness or aging or imperfect babies or the poor. There is a retreat from real life that inevitably means a retreat from genuine community, which is always messy.

     The contemporary American parish reflects this cultural mega-trend, Stafford argued, too often failing to build the kind of “enfleshed” community life that could serve as an antidote to virtual culture. According to Stafford, it is this tendency to ignore the unpleasant or the difficult elements in human relationships that, at least in part, allowed the scandals of sexual abuse by clergy to happen without adequate intervention from some bishops.

     One promising trend, Stafford said, is the new ecclesial movements that have grown up in the church since the Second Vatican Council, such as the Community of Sant’Egidio or the Neocatechumenate. Despite whatever rough edges these groups may possess, Stafford argued, what he hears from men and women involved in them is that they know how to build community. Hence, Stafford said, he hopes the American bishops will become more open to the movements.

     This is not, of course, an uncontroversial notion. Some bishops have reservations about the new movements in terms of their relationship with existing parish and diocesan structures, seeing them as competitive rather than complementary. I also know some Catholics who report bad experiences with some of the movements, faulting them for excessive control over members or for advancing narrow political or theological agendas. Hence Stafford’s suggestion is sure to provoke debate.

     A footnote: As Stafford and I were heading back to his office after lunch, we bumped into Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragán, who heads the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, and who was heading out for his regular afternoon constitutional. It turns out that Stafford and Lozano Barragán are old friends, having studied together in Rome at the Gregorian University in the early 1950s. In fact, Stafford told me, he and Lozano Barragán once sailed from New York to Europe together on the same ship: None other than the Andrea Doria, whose sinking in 1956 still ranks as one of the great maritime disasters of all time. Obviously, Stafford and Lozano Barragán shared one of the great ship’s previous 100 crossings of the Atlantic.

* * *

     Yet another Latin American cardinal has spoken on the sexual abuse crisis in the United States. 

     Readers will recall that in the June issue of 30 Giorni magazine, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, a leading candidate to be the next pope, blasted the American press for its focus on the scandals. Rodriguez compared it to persecutions of the church carried out by Nero and Diocletian, as well as Hitler and Stalin. In subsequent issues of 30 Giorni, Cardinals Norbert Rivera Carrera and Juan Sandoval Íñiguez echoed Rodriguez’s remarks.

     The latest to join the chorus is Cardinal Julio Terrazas Sandoval of Bolivia, a Redemptorist, who was in Rome in late November for the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. On Nov. 25 he gave a press conference at Vatican Radio, largely in order to call attention to the poverty and corruption that continue to haunt Bolivia.  He also gave a plug for the German bishops’ conference, whose Adveniat charity has long been a major source of support for the Catholic Church in Latin America. Terrazas Sandoval was leaving that afternoon for Germany for a series of public events in support of this year’s fundraising effort.

     It should be noted that Terrazas Sandoval did not come to Rome to talk about the American situation. I asked him about it during the press conference, wanting to know if he would agree with what his brother cardinals had said.

     “I have of course heard the opinions of my fellow cardinals,” Terrazas Sandoval replied. “I don’t know the situation well, but it does seem there is an institution in [U.S.] society that has as its goal to speak ill of the Church. In Bolivia, we hear there is a tendency [in the United States] to over-generalize about the Church. There seems to be a morbid focus on bad news. I don’t know if this is an accurate impression, but some news reports certainly create doubts in those who read them. There seems to be an effort to demonize situations and movements.”

     As Terrazas Sandoval spoke, he seemed neither angry nor defensive. I had the impression that this is a pastor largely preoccupied with the local challenges facing him in Bolivia, who has not followed the U.S. crisis closely, and is relying on what trusted friends and colleagues tell him. In that sense, I think his comments probably reflect a consensus among Latin American bishops. 

     Their laudable sympathy for the U.S. bishops does not mean, of course, that the Latin Americans have sized up the situation accurately. Most U.S. bishops with whom I have spoken over the last 10 months would not say the crisis in the church has been manufactured by the press. (It’s not that the press is entirely innocent, merely that the root causes of this crisis, the sexual abuse of children by priests and the failure of some bishops to stop it when they should have known better, are not media inventions). Complaining about persecution simply fuels perceptions that the bishops are “in denial” or “don’t get it.” In that sense, most U.S. bishops with whom I have spoken tell me the comments made by Rodriguez and the other Latin Americans were not really helpful.

     These days there’s much excitement about the possibility of a Latin American pope, and certainly Latin American Catholicism has much to recommend it: youthful vitality, self-confidence, unapologetic public piety. There are many impressive papabili, or candidates to be the next pope, among the Latins; Rodriguez, for example, is an impressive figure. Yet if the Latin Americans are to be serious contenders, many analysts believe they will also have to demonstrate that their loyalty can be critical, that they will not automatically see an enemy of the church lurking behind every negative news story or public challenge, and that they can exercise the self-discipline to grasp what impact their comments might have on a local church before making them.  In that sense, the storm that followed Rodriguez’s comments, at least in the English-language press, may all be part of the education of a papal candidate.

     Terrazas Sandoval, by the way, was asked about the idea of a Latin American pope, and he ducked the question.

     “I don’t get to Rome very much, so I don’t hear all the rumors,” he said. “When I saw the Holy Father recently, I found him lucid and strong, and I believe he will remain as pope for a long time.”


     Also part of the filming for the Canadian documentary was an interview on Nov. 27 with James Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Nicholson is smart, excellent on TV, and well informed about the Vatican.

     We spoke initially about the American war against terrorism and Nicholson’s role in explaining the foreign policy choices of the Bush administration to the Holy See. Nicholson emphasized the pope’s profound sympathy for American after 9/11, and his general support for the effort to neutralize terrorism. When we got down to brass tacks, however, it seemed that Nicholson has accepted the possibility that the pope and the Vatican may not support a war in Iraq should it come to that. Nicholson stressed that the Holy See is open and listening, but also found a couple different ways of saying, “We won’t always see eye to eye.”

     We also talked about media coverage of the Vatican, a subject that Nicholson handled with authority, since as the former head of the Republican National Committee he’s a veteran of the talk show circuit.

     The White House, Nicholson pointed out, has at least one press briefing each day in order to get its message out. Senior congressional leaders make themselves available to the press several times each day. There is a constant stream of content and access for political reporters. By way of contrast, the Vatican, as Nicholson pointed out, does not have a “felt need” for that kind of transparency. The result? Nature abhors a vacuum, and where solid information and personal contacts are lacking, speculation will take their place. Hence, as Nicholson observed, we get stories about the pope retiring, or being so old and out of it that he’s a puppet of his handlers. People who actually know what’s going on realize this is rubbish. 

     Reporters would, at least arguably, do a better job separating the wheat from the chaff if the Vatican took a lesson on this point from its counter-parts in the secular political world. 

* * *

     Speaking of press briefings, the Community of Sant’Egidio held two last week, one announcing their initiative to sponsor a “World Day Against the Death Penalty,” another to mark the 30th anniversary of their outreach to the elderly. (Sant’Egidio members are involved in bringing home services, such as shopping or basic health care, to the aging in Rome and other places). It was a rather typical week for the Sant’Egidio folks, who are perpetually involved in a blizzard of activities.

     I recently sat down with Mario Marazziti, spokesperson for the community, who told me that he wishes Sant’Egidio didn’t have to be so busy, but the community feels compelled when it sees an unmet need. Frankly, I don’t really believe him; in my experience the people of Sant’Egidio are incredibly energetic, and they thrive on moments when things seem just on the verge of spinning out of control, only to fall into place.

     Information about the World Day Against the Death Penalty, which will take place Nov. 30, can be found at Nov. 30 was chosen, by the way, because it’s the date in 1796 in which Tuscany became the first state to definitively abolish capital punishment. The idea is that various cities around the world will leave the lights on at famous monuments as an expression of support for the abolition movement. Significantly, New York’s Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has agreed to illuminate the New York City Commission building as part of the campaign.

* * *

     Last week I caught one of the most-awaited comebacks in recent Catholic history, sort of an ecclesiastical equivalent of that famous June night in 1968 when Elvis returned to live performing after spending a decade as a “movie star.” Making his triumphal return to public ministry on November 21 was Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, the 72-year-old Zambian prelate whose exorcisms and healings made him famous in the 1980s and 1990s, and whose marriage in 2001 under the aegis of Sung Myung Moon’s Unification Church made him infamous. 

     Milingo’s comeback was quiet … perhaps too quiet.

     The return came in a three-hour liturgy at the 11th-century Cistercian Monastery of Casamari, in the hills outside Rome. The afternoon was far more restrained than the spectacular healing services that made Milingo famous (no impromptu exorcisms, no possessed devotees writhing on the floor), but the archbishop seemed in fine form. He preached twice, for a total of almost 40 minutes, performed some rather tame prayers for deliverance, and joked with the crowd of some 1,000 people. 

     The closest we came to echoes of the old days was occasional noise in the back of the church, which sounded like howling or deep guttural pain, and which many of us took initially to be the cry of demonic possession. A few minutes later, however, a colleague entered the press gallery and informed us that the rumblings were actually coming from a 15-year-old autistic boy and were probably unrelated to Milingo or the liturgy. 

     One should not think that the Vatican was just hoping for the best. At the Nov. 21 Mass, the presence of Vatican personnel was overwhelming. A media minder stayed in the press section near the main altar for the entire event as if it were a papal liturgy. Security officers were prominently scattered throughout the church. Milingo has been assigned his own personal handler in retired Italian Archbishop Ennio Appignanesi, who sat by his side throughout the afternoon. Appignanesi is a veteran Vatican loyalist who served as vicegerente for the Rome archdiocese.

     Milingo will next make a trip to Africa in December, then will resume saying regular Masses at Zagarola, his old stomping grounds outside Rome. 

* * *

     A few items from this week that I don’t have time to develop, but they deserve a mention.

  • While the Austrian election that dominated headlines last week was the one in which Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party flopped, church-watchers will be more interested in the outcome of another vote in Salzburg. That archdiocese is one of a handful where the cathedral chapter still has the right to elect its archbishop, from a list of three names proposed by the papal nuncio. It selected Alois Kothgasser, currently the bishop of Innsbruck. Kothgasser is a theological moderate with a stellar reputation as a pastor. He was responsible for a working group that prepared a set of recommendations on the selection of bishops, mostly arguing for a greater local role in the process, which has been submitted to the Vatican. Most Austrians are hailing the choice. It’s nice to be able to point to an example where involving the local church, however imperfectly, in the selection of its shepherd seems to have worked.

  • John Paul II has asked Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State, to remain in his post despite turning 75. For the foreseeable future, therefore, Sodano will continue in the Vatican’s top job. The long-rumored ascension of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re to the Secretary of State’s office will thus have to wait.

  • In a Nov. 24 interview with Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, Sodano said the Holy See might consider seeking full membership in the United Nations (it is now a Permanent Observer, the only one left after Switzerland passed to membership status). An article on the web site of the Holy See’s mission to the United Nations, written by former Permanent Observer Archbishop Renato Martino, explains why the Holy See has traditionally preferred to remain an observer. “Full membership would involve the Holy See too directly in political, military, economic and commercial matters. As a full Member the Holy See would be obliged to abstain too often in these areas, due to the fact that it would go beyond the scope of its own specific mission,” Martino wrote. Sodano, however, said that the Holy See is now ready to take on a greater role in the United Nations as a way of supporting its peace-making efforts.

  • On Nov. 26, Santa Croce University, the Opus Dei university in Rome, awarded an honorary doctorate to Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan. It is the latest sign of affinity between Tettamanzi, widely considered a leading candidate to be the next pope, and Opus Dei. He penned the preface to Andrea Tornielli’s recent biography of Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá, for example, writing that “the life, the teaching and the work of Josemaría Escrivá are a true light along the path of the Church in our time.” 

  • Also on Nov. 26, the Vatican announced the resignation of Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of East Timor for reasons of health. Belo was the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner, along with Jose Ramos-Horta, for their work for peace and human rights in East Timor. Upon hearing the news, I was reminded of a plaintive op/ed piece Belo published Aug. 31 in the International Herald Tribune, challenging the international community to finish what it started. He wrote: “Don’t abandon us now!” Belo drew attention to unemployment rates that run as high as 80 percent, and to the insecurity and fear of the Timorese. “East Timor suffers from a rate of infant mortality among the highest in the world,” Belo wrote. “Many houses are still in ruins. A war in favor of the rule of law, and of equity in relations among peoples, is not won with the proclamation of a new constitution, but only with a revitalization of institutions, of law, of equity and of the security of a people.” As it turns out, this was more or less Belo’s final message to the world as East Timor’s shepherd. One hopes it doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

  • Finally, there is a push on in Italy to canonize a Capuchin known as Frate Indovino, who died recently at 87, and whose name roughly translates into English as “Brother Fortuneteller.” His claim to fame was an annual calendar he published for almost 60 years, beginning in 1946, which sold some six million copies each year. It featured uncannily accurate predictions of the future. Most concern when to plant seeds or prepare the harvest, but they were occasionally more sweeping. Frate Indovino claims, for example, to have foreseen the fall of the Berlin Wall. How? He studied star cycles in an observatory near Florence, in addition to drawing on a 14th century monk known as “Black Spider” who developed a theory about the sun’s influence on the atmosphere. In other words, he used astrology, though each prediction was verified by an inner voice that he recognized as his guardian angel. Frate Indovino was thus, to invoke a theological label, a model of syncretism, blending elements of pre-Christian folk religiosity focused on the stars with traditional Catholic spirituality. It’s fascinating that nobody in authority seems troubled by this, in a moment in which fear of syncretism involving Christianity and Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism is the Vatican’s top doctrinal concern. But, as I have repeatedly said in other contexts, if you’re looking for a perfectly consistent religion, the Catholic Church isn’t for you.
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