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December 2, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 14

John L. Allen Jr.


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The Word From Rome

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

Gays in the seminary: Interpreting and applying a tough-sounding document; Theologian named for papal household; Remembering Fred McManus; The latest on limbo


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On Dec. 13, 2002, some three years ago, I offered an update in "The Word from Rome" about a Vatican document then in preparation on the ordination of homosexuals. Here's what I wrote:

"Bishops with a blanket policy against the ordination of gays will be confirmed by the new document, but others favoring a case-by-case approach may be able to read it in a way that permits that stance … In that sense, the new document will certainly cause an explosion in the press, but it may not change a great deal in terms of existing practice."

My gift for prognostication, it should be said, is notoriously spotty - I once predicted that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would not be elected pope. In this case, however, at least judging by early reaction to the new instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education, I seem to have been a bit closer to the mark.

In the wake of the document's official Nov. 29 release, some commentators have indeed taken it as a prohibition of anybody with a same-sex attraction, regardless of their psychological maturity or capacity for celibacy.

This was the unambiguous thrust, for example, of the official commentary published in the Nov. 30 L'Osservatore Romano by French Monsignor Tony Anatrella, a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for the Health Care Pastoral.

"Candidates who present 'deep-seated homosexual tendencies,' that is, an exclusive attraction with regard to persons of the same sex (a structural orientation) - independently of whether or not they've had erotic experiences - may not be admitted to seminaries and to sacred orders," Anatrella wrote.

Anatrella criticizes the "permissive attitude" that says as long as a candidate is capable of celibacy, he may be ordained. In fact, Anatrella asserts that gay priests experience a whole host of other difficulties.

He offered these examples: "Closing oneself off in a clan of persons of the same type; exaggerated affective choices; [becoming] a narcissistic position in front of a community that [the gay priest] disturbs even to the point of dividing it; a mode of vocational discernment that seeks candidates in his own image; relations with authority based on seduction and rejection; … an often limited vision of truth and a selective way of presenting the gospel message; particularly in the areas of sexual and conjugal morality, these are habitually zones of relational and intellectual confusion and ideological combat, disapproved by a correct search for truth and the wisdom of God."

On a more theological level, Anatrella argues that gay priests cannot effectively incarnate a "spousal tie" between God and the church, nor the "spiritual paternity" a priest is supposed to exhibit.

While Anatrella's essay does not carry the weight of the original instruction, observers say it represents a quasi-official explication of its contents.

Yet among many bishops, religious superiors and seminary rectors, the document is being read in very different ways. Some believe they can make a distinction between a same-sex orientation in itself, which would not necessarily disqualify a candidate, and "deep-seated homosexual tendencies," meaning a fixation on sexuality that raises questions about a candidate's maturity, his commitment to church teaching, and his capacity for chaste celibacy.

"The instruction is not saying that men of homosexual orientation are not welcome in the priesthood," said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England, in a prepared statement. "But it is making clear that they must be capable of affective maturity, have a capacity for celibacy and not share the values of eroticized gay culture."

Auxiliary Bishop Herve Giraud, president of the Commission of the French Bishops' Conference for Ordained Ministry, said his reading is that "the question is not so much to know if a candidate is homosexual, but to distinguish his capacity for pastoral relations."

Priests in Rome wait near the Vatican's press office Nov. 29 for release of the official Vatican document on homosexuality and the priesthood.
A Nov. 23 statement from the Swiss Bishops Conference also read the document in this fashion. "When, for a particular man, homosexual tendencies make impossible a life of sexual abstinence, then admission to ordination is not possible," it said. Yet, the Swiss statement clearly asserted that "a homosexual tendency lived out in sexual abstinence does not exclude one from pastoral ministry."

The Belgian bishops issued a statement along the same lines.

"The Vatican instruction makes a point of recalling that if the homosexual orientation of a candidate proves to be an obstacle with regard to freely chosen celibacy, or in terms of right relations with men and women, this candidate may not be admitted to the seminary," their Nov. 29 communiqué stated.

The Dutch bishops, in a similar Nov. 29 statement, said that the point of the instruction is to ensure that "every priest is able to establish pastoral and affective relations with others which are compatible with his celibate state of life."

Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, likewise seemed to endorse a more permissive reading in a Nov. 29 Vatican statement.

The instruction, Skylstad said, would rule out a candidate "so concerned with homosexual issues that he cannot sincerely represent the church's teaching on sexuality." The question of whether "homosexually inclined men" can be good priests, Skylstad said, therefore depends on how they live and what they teach.

The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the largest umbrella group of men's religious orders in the United States, said that the aim of the document is "men who are well integrated and psychologically mature, faithful to church teachings, and who posses a clear understanding of the meaning of, as well as the spiritual and emotional capacity to commit to chaste celibacy for life."

In summary, the presidents of the English and the American bishops' conferences, the French bishop in charge of priestly life, the bishops' conferences of Switzerland, Belgium and Holland, and the chief representative of men's communities in the States, all have said in various ways that even under this document, a same-sex orientation by itself will not exclude candidates from the priesthood.

By no means, however, is this a universal consensus among bishops.

Bishop John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., in the United States, for example, told The Washington Post that Skylstad's interpretation is "simply wrong."

"I would say yes, absolutely, it does bar anyone whose sexual orientation is towards one's own sex and it's permanent," D'Arcy said. "I don't think there's any doubt about it. ... I don't think we can fuss around with this."

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Logically enough, some observers wonder if, in light of this conflicting welter of interpretations, the Vatican will issue further official clarification. I put the question on Dec. 1 to a church official who advises several Vatican congregations.

The official said he does not expect new pronouncements.

Despite the language of Anatrella's commentary, he said, the point of the document was not principally to ban each and every candidate with a same-sex orientation, but to "raise the bar" to ensure that the church is not putting potential abusers into the priesthood. (This despite the fact that work on the document began well before the most intense period of the sexual abuse crisis).

"Everybody knows there are gay men who are fine priests, and everybody knows that being gay doesn't mean somebody is a pedophile," he said. "This is not about scapegoating homosexuals."

"However, everybody also knows there are gay priests out there who should never have been ordained, who are fixated on sexuality and who have caused all kinds of problems. The church has a responsibility to be sure that adolescent males in its care are not at risk from homosexual priests who are not chaste. That's the obvious truth, but nobody wants to say it."

This official said the same point applies to heterosexual candidates, but that gay priests face a different set of pressures, since a priest is much more likely to have unsupervised contact with adolescent males than with females.

Time will tell, but for now it seems the church may be left with the same dynamic that often follows Vatican pronouncements -- a tough-sounding document, applied and interpreted in varying ways.

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One dimension of this story that has perplexed many observers, including a number of Vatican officials, was the endless cycle of leaks and counter-leaks leading up to publication of the document, often producing widely varying accounts of what it would contain. Veteran reporters working for prominent secular news outlets such as The New York Times and Corriere della Sera, to say nothing of the Catholic press such as NCR, published "scoops" that often seemed flatly contradictory.

It's been tempting for some to conclude that reporters were either just making things up, or that their stories were written for particular ideological motives. While such things are not impossible, I suspect a more basic force is at work, and it would be wise to file this point away for future reference.

Reporters are dependent upon sources, and in the Catholic church different sources sometimes have strong motives for wanting to construe Vatican documents in different ways. When sources talk to us about a forthcoming document or policy decision, therefore, sometimes their description is filtered through those hopes or fears.

In the case of the instruction on gay priests, those Catholics most in favor of a strong ban wanted the most sweeping document possible, and hence probably tended to emphasize its toughest aspects. Ironically, liberal critics of the Vatican's position on homosexuality probably did the same thing, underlining from their point of view how "out of touch" the Vatican really is.

Many bishops and church bureaucrats, on the other hand, seeking to avoid public relations problems and to preserve room for flexibility in interpretation, often try to minimize the force of these documents, especially when they have a disciplinary component. They tend to emphasize nuance and ambiguity. Thus when they're talking to a reporter, they may be describing the same document, but it will sound quite different.

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For example, imagine a hypothetical reporter prior to the document's release talking on background to Skylstad, versus one talking to Anatrella. (I have no reason to believe either man actually offered background comments to anyone; this is merely a thought exercise). The reporter who talked to Skylstad would probably file a very different story about the forthcoming document than the one who talked to Anatrella, not because anyone was engaging in deception, but because the perspectives of these two sources, each quite authoritative, are nevertheless also quite different.

In other words, it's safe to assume that the same diversity in interpretation one finds publicly after a document comes out also exists while it's still under preparation, and therefore one has to be extra cautious about "leaks" - not because they're inventions, but because sometimes they're one part information, and one part exegesis.

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Pope Benedict XVI this week appointed a new Theologian of the Papal Household in Dominican Fr. Wojciech Giertych, currently a professor at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, popularly known as the Angelicum, and a senior official in the Dominican order in charge of intellectual life.

Giertych, 54, is an English-born Pole whose father was a well-known Polish intellectual in exile. He's said to speak six languages fluently.

"He is a man with a profound common sense, and beyond the ideological divisions, with a deep sense of Aquinas, but always in touch with what people live and experience," said Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, the former master of the order, who appointed Giertych to his leadership team.

"He also has a strong sense of the complementarity of men and women," Radclifee told NCR. "His two favorite theologians are Thomas (of course) and Therese of Lisieux."

In a 2004 interview during the Dominicans' General Chapter, Giertych commented on the role of the theologian.

"There is a saying of Fr. Yves Congar which was disturbing Roman theologians in the 1950s -- 'My answers might be wrong, but the questions are true!' He asked questions concerning the theology of the laity, the meaning of the baptism, ecumenism and ecclesiology. Those questions were innovative at that time, but the Second Vatican Council followed Fr. Congar," Giertych said.

"Posing questions, even difficult ones, even if we do not know the answers or our answers are wrong, is an important part of the church's life," he said.

The Theologian of the Papal Household, once known as the "Maestro of the Sacred Palace," is often referred to informally the pope's theological advisor. Under Benedict XVI, himself an eminent theologian, that dimension of the job is probably less significant. One wag on the Internet wrote that "being theologian of Benedict XVI's household would be about like being beer drinker of Homer Simpson's household: you're not going to be asked to do something your boss couldn't do first and probably better."

It's worth noting that despite being an Augustinian rather than a Thomist, the pope has maintained the centuries-old tradition of naming Dominicans, and therefore Thomists, to the job. (All the theologians of the papal household have been Dominicans, except for a handful of cases when Franciscan popes named Franciscans). It's another small sign that Pope Benedict has no intention of imposing his own personal tastes on the office of the papacy.

The real work of the Theologian of the Papal Household is to read all papal texts except for diplomatic matters, screening them for theological consistency. In part, therefore, the job is to be sure that in the tidal wave of messages, telegrams, greetings, and discourses a pope has to produce every week, he's not contradicting himself, sending conflicting signals, or wading into questions not yet ripe for a papal intervention.

While Benedict XVI prepares his own remarks, there still remains a vast sea of material issued in the pope's name that has to be scrutinized.

The Theologian of the Papal Household also screens texts for style and matters of good taste. Cardinal George Cottier, Giertych's predecessor, tells the story of a charitable group that once had an audience with the pope. The draft for the pope's remarks they provided had him congratulating the group for declaring a given Sunday in their own honor. In other words, they wanted the pope to become a public sponsor of their own initiative. Cottier took it out, not because there was any particular theological issue at stake, but it just seemed a little tacky.

Radcliffe said Benedict has found the right man for the job.

"I think that he will offer a real service to the Holy See, though he will miss community life with his brethren, who will also miss him," Radcliffe said.

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(CNS/The Pilot)
Msgr. Fred McManus
If I had but worlds enough and time, I would write a proper tribute this week to Msgr. Fred McManus, who died on Nov. 27 at the age of 82. McManus was one of the great men of the American Catholic church, a pioneer in both the liturgical movement and ecumenism who was also a gifted canon lawyer to boot.

Just before I came to Rome in 2000, I spent a long weekend with McManus in Boston, unwinding in his apartment in the Regina Cleri retirement home for priests of the Boston archdiocese. I knew that he was an invaluable font of oral history about Roman Catholicism in the 20th century, so I kept a tape recorder rolling for hours and hours as we spoke, maybe 14 to 20 hours of tape in all. (Those tapes are studded with places where the recorder stopped and started, because McManus was forever taking phone calls from old friends hither and yon who wanted to swap the latest clerical gossip).

Somewhere in a storage unit in the United States I have those tapes, awaiting a day when I have the time to do them justice. This unfortunately is not that time, so my recollections here will be scattered and inexact. But I didn't want to let the occasion drop, because this was a special man whose passing deserves to be noted by those for whom he gave his life in service.

McManus was president of the Liturgical Conference in the United States 1959-62 and 1964-65, and was appointed to Vatican II's Liturgy Commission, where he was the primary drafter of portions of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. He became director of the secretariat of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Liturgy during the council, and held the job until 1975.

McManus was also among the "founding fathers" of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. He was there in the council hall, under the bleachers, when a group of English-speaking bishops from various countries decided it would be a good idea to create a body responsible for common translations of liturgical texts into English. From that moment until the political battles surrounding ICEL in the late 1990s, McManus was a key point of reference for the commission's work.

Of course, the implementation of the liturgical reform in the English-speaking world in the years after Vatican II is still a matter of deep debate. Some critics believe that McManus and his colleagues went too far in trying to adapt the church's liturgical language and practice to contemporary culture, in effect "throwing out the baby with the bathwater." The bitter "liturgical wars" fought in the 1990s have resulted in an approach that is more faithful to the Latin originals of liturgical texts, and more conscious of the need for a certain Roman uniformity in worship.

Whatever side one takes in those arguments, no one disputes that McManus acted for the good of the church, and did so with enormous energy and distinction. No doubt the equilibrium time always brings will eventually focus anew on the many ways in which his contributions, and those of so many colleagues and contemporaries, enriched Catholic life.

McManus also served on many of the most important theological dialogues between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy. For his service, he was made an "archimandrite" of the Melkite Church, one of the Eastern rite churches in communion with Rome.

When we were together in Boston, he showed me the clerical garb that came with the honor, and then recounted how the pope's apostolic delegate at the time reacted (this was before the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the United States, so it was a papal delegate, not a nuncio). Because "archimandrite" in the East is more or less the equivalent of "monsignor" in the Western church, the Vatican often takes a dim view of Western clergy receiving the honor, seeing it as a kind of "backdoor" way of gaining ecclesiastical promotion. McManus told me he was only allowed to receive the Melkite distinction after assuring the delegate he would not "comport himself" as a monsignor. (Later, he was installed as a monsignor in the full Western sense).

McManus was a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America from 1958 until his retirement in 1993 at the age of 70, and he continued teaching for several years after that. He chaired the canon law school from 1967-74, was university vice provost and dean of graduate studies from 1974-83, as well as academic vice president from 1983-85.

Fred McManus was a tall, dignified man, strikingly handsome in his younger days, a sort of Hollywood casting version of a Catholic priest. He wore his learning and accomplishment lightly. He took an interest in everyone; on a couple of occasions when I visited him in Boston, we went out to his favorite seafood place, and he spent almost as much time chatting with the waiter and hostess as he did going over the fine points of church politics with me.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, a fellow liturgical and ecumenical expert who teaches at the Pontifical Oriental College in Rome, told me that McManus was "easily one of the most respected priests in the United States."

"He would have been a great candidate for an honorary American cardinal," Taft said.

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Catholics who grew up before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) tend to have strong memories of the concept of "limbo," referring to a sort of antechamber in the afterlife for babies who die without baptism, and hence are stained with original sin and can't go to Heaven, but who have not incurred any guilt of their own, and therefore don't belong in Hell either.

Over the centuries, theologians locked horns over how to define limbo. Some, basing themselves on Augustine, said it was essentially a milder form of Hell, while others, including Aquinas, said it was a more positive state of "perfect natural happiness," meaning the full flowering of our natural capacity for fulfillment, though without the added supernatural joy of the Beatific Vision.

Limbo, it should be said, was never defined as a dogma of the Catholic faith, but is instead a concept worked out by theologians as a way to try to solve a conflict between the necessity of baptism and the mercy of God.

In more recent theological reflection, limbo has generally been downplayed in favor of hope that these infants will make it to Heaven in the full sense. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1261, says this:

"As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: 'Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,' allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism."

This week, the International Theological Commission, the main advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is meeting at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the $30 million hotel on Vatican grounds where the cardinals lodged during the conclave, to consider a document on eschatology, meaning the church's doctrine of Heaven, Hell, and final judgment. The document started out as a specific reflection on limbo, but the commission decided that to do justice to the subject, they needed to put it in this broader context.

Broadly speaking, the commission is expected to recommend that the concept of limbo not be revived, and that it be replaced by an emphasis on Christian hope. Following the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, the idea is that we don't know the limits, if any, to God's mercy, and therefore we are entitled to hope (not to assert as a matter of principle, but to hope) that all may be saved, including infants who never received baptism.

Snappy news headlines this week have suggested that the pope is about to "drop" or "cancel" limbo. In fact, the document will not be published for some months, if not longer, and even then it has only the status of a recommendation to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It's not always certain the CDF will take the advice; the International Theological Commission published a document on Christian liberation in 1977, for example, that was friendlier to liberation theology than the CDF's eventual instruction in 1984.

Nevertheless, an old concept is getting a new look this week, which illustrates one form of what Cardinal John Henry Newman called the "development of doctrine."

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

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