National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly

?Sign Up Here For Weekly E-mail

 1 Archives  | 

 The Word From Rome

December 5, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 15

global perspective


"The basic choice is not between being a church in dialogue or one proclaiming the gospel. Rather the option is being a church following the Spirit's lead to partake humanly in life with others … or else a church closed in on itself in a self-imposed ghetto, with little concern for and involvement with people of other faiths with whom Christians share culture, history, citizenship, and common human destiny"

Fr. Thomas Michel
Jesuit expert on inter-religious dialogue

Catholic-Anglican dialogue and issues in ecumenism; Cardinal Francis George on Sacrosanctum concilium; Union of Superiors General meeting; 'the greatest challenge facing the church today'


Although I’m on frustratingly intimate terms with the thousand-and-one ways we journalists can err, sometimes even I cringe when I see certain howlers in print.

Such was the case on Monday, Dec. 1, when an English newspaper published a story that began: “Top level unity talks between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have collapsed after the consecration of Anglicanism's first openly homosexual bishop.”

Three days earlier I had sat in the office of Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s top official on ecumenism, and among other things we had discussed the relationship with Anglicanism. Kasper gave no indication the dialogue was on the verge of collapse; in fact, we discussed its future at some length. Either Kasper is the smoothest liar I’ve ever met, I thought on Monday, or there’s something wrong with this story.

Moreover, it defied reason. This is the very last moment the Holy See would want to embarrass the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, since Williams is trying to persuade the liberal wing of Anglicanism to ponder the implications of the ordination of gay American Bishop Gene Robinson.

In fact, the story was terribly overstated.

The reality is that one Catholic-Anglican forum, the relatively new International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, has been put on hold. Its meeting had been scheduled for February in Seattle. The commission’s aim was to publish a common statement of faith, and current events have put in question just how much faith the two sides share.

Subcommittees of this commission, however, will continue to meet. Williams has offered, and the Vatican has accepted, the formation of an ad-hoc subcommittee to consider the ecclesiological implications of the Anglican crisis. In effect, Roman Catholics have been offered a voice in Anglican reflections about identity and structures. It is, therefore, precisely the opposite of “collapsed talks.”

Moreover, the IARCCUM commission was never the primary instrument for Anglican-Catholic dialogue; that body is the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, founded in 1970, which is working towards a document on Mary. Sources say that after its current mandate expires in 2004, ARCIC will be renewed and will find other topics to investigate.

Certainly the Robinson situation has triggered an emergency, and the resignation this week of Episcopalian Bishop Frank Griswold, who presided at Robinson’s consecration, from the Anglican/Catholic dialogue is a further sign of how deep the fissures go. At the same time, however, the dialogue is far from dead.

Two footnotes.

One, even though both sides appear determined to keep talking, Anglicans should be under no illusion about the depth of Catholic concern. Some Catholics point to the May 2000 “Mississauga Statement,” in which Anglicans and Catholics agreed that neither side should make decisions in faith and morals that would put distance between the two. A more dramatic breach of that agreement, one American Catholic theologian recently told me, is hard to imagine.

Two, the Catholic/Anglican dialogue is hardly the only one to feel the fallout of the Robinson consecration. On Nov. 20, the Moscow patriarchate froze relations between the Russian Orthodox church and the Episcopalian church in the United States. Its statement said: “We shall not be able to cooperate with these people, not only in the theological dialogue, but also in the humanitarian and religious public spheres. We have no right to allow even a particle of agreement with their position, which we consider to be profoundly anti-Christian and blasphemous.” The Oriental Orthodox churches (including the Syrian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts and the Armenian Orthodox) have likewise frozen talks with the Anglicans. In that context, the Vatican response could seem relatively temperate.

* * *

Despite the air of crisis, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is forging ahead with plans for an ecumenical vademecum, Cardinal Walter Kasper has said, to outline things Catholics can do with other Christians to celebrate and deepen the faith they already share.

Kasper spoke in a Nov. 27 interview with NCR.

One example of something Kasper said the vademecum could propose would be an ecumenical post-baptismal liturgy. The idea is that the various Christian denominations would conduct separate baptismal rites, then come together for a joint liturgy in which they would welcome the newly baptized persons into the Christian family. There is nothing theologically problematic with such a liturgy, Kasper said, and it would emphasize the baptism that Christians have in common.

The document will not challenge discipline on inter-communion, which largely prohibits sharing the Eucharist with Protestants. It will instead focus on the range of liturgical, spiritual and practical experiences Catholics can share with other Christians. It is intended for use on the parish and diocesan levels.

In an address to a mid-November plenary assembly of his council, Kasper made two interesting observations about trends within Christianity. First, he said, there is an increasing tendency inside denominations towards fragmentation.

“The lack of consensus internally can only obstruct, and at times impede, the attainment of ecumenical consensus ‘externally,’ and could lead to a paralysis in ecumenism and even to its impotence,” Kasper said.

In this context, Kasper suggested, the Catholic church may need to practice a “two-speed ecumenism.” In effect, that would mean maintaining dialogues with the official representatives of other Christian bodies, but at the same time opening conversations with dissident groups “who come knocking at our door.”

One such group might be the American Anglican Council, which has led the opposition to the Robinson ordination. In the days before a crucial October convention in Plano, Texas, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal officer, wrote a letter to the council.

Ratzinger’s letter said: “I hasten to assure you of my heartfelt prayers for all those taking part in this convocation. … I pray in particular that God’s will may be done by all those who seek that unity in the truth, the gift of Christ himself.”

The letter was seen by some Anglicans as interference in their internal affairs, though it was welcomed by the dissenters. Was that, I asked Kasper, an example of “two-speed ecumenism”?

“The cardinal wrote that letter on his own personal initiative,” Kasper said. “It is not for me to judge.”

One problem, Kasper said, is that dissident groups are often not unified in anything other than opposition to the official stance of their confessions. This is in some ways the case, Kasper said, with the Anglican groups. It’s thus difficult to know who the appropriate dialogue partner might be in a “two-speed” approach.

Kasper’s second point concerned “new confessionalism” within Christian bodies.

“In contrast to the ecumenical attitude of openness to new thought, to conversion and reconciliation, one discerns the opposite tendency, characterized by arrogance, or rather by obstinacy and self-interest,” Kasper said. This phenomenon is especially pronounced, Kasper noted, within the “sects” – a tough-to-define term covering a wide variety of Christian movements, especially in the Third World.

I asked Kasper if the Catholic church has its own version of “new confessionalism.”

“Of course,” he said. “There are Catholics who have the same fear about loss of identity,” he said, adding that, “it’s not an unreasonable concern.”

At the same time, Kasper insisted, the defense of one’s identity cannot justify a retreat from dialogue.

“A mature identity is always an open identity,” Kasper said.

* * *

Dec. 4 marked the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum concilium, the document on liturgy of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The occasion was marked in Rome with a daylong conference sponsored by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

More anniversary coverage
of Sacrosanctum Concilium

In the Dec. 12 issue of National Catholic Reporter, John Allen writes in depth of the impact Sacrosanctum Concilium has had over the last 40 years and how the document -- and the debate surrounding the document -- continues to shape the life of the church.

Allen's analysis includes examining what the reforms did right -- such as opening the scriptures to a wider audience and increasing participation -- and what went wrong; as Allen writes: "One person's deft touch is another's sacrilege."

His coverage includes interviews with:

  • Cardinal Geraldo Agnelo, who served as secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship in the 1990s.
  • Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
  • John Page, former executive secretary of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.
  • Cardinal Godfried Danneels, a former professor of liturgy at the Catholic University of Leuven.
Read the whole package in the Dec. 12 issue of NCR. (The electronic edition is available Dec. 10 at

If you are not yet a subscriber to NCR, you can subscribe online now: SUBSCRIBE. If you already subscribe, consider sending a gift subscription.

The morning’s major address was delivered by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Liturgy.

George laid out his talk in terms of questions about the anthropological and philosophical underpinnings of liturgical reform. He stressed that he did so not as an opponent of the reforms, but to promote a deeper reflection than the immediate post-conciliar work of implementing Sacrosanctum concilium allowed.

“Liturgical reform was treated too much as a program and a movement for change, without enough thought being given to what happens to a community when its symbol system is disrupted,” George said. He took the example of the liturgical calendar.

“Since time is a condition of human thought … the doctrines of the church will be done differently when liturgical time is changed,” George said. At a practical level, he said, every bishop has had the experience of someone asking why, if the church no longer recognizes long-established saints such as St. Christopher and St. Philomena, it can’t change its teaching on women’s ordination and so on.

George said one question requiring reflection is the subject of the liturgy.

“In the post-conciliar period, a limited understanding of the ‘People of God’ has often led to a limited, horizontal concept of the subject of the liturgy,” George said. Instead, he said, the primary actors are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, followed by “the heavenly powers, all creation, Biblical saints, the martyrs, the all-holy Mother of God and the great multitude of the elect.” Only then comes “the local celebrating assembly, ordered hierarchically in such a way that each person has his proper role.”

Second, George said, the church needs to reflect on what liturgical “participation,” an overriding concern of Sacrosanctum concilium, actually means. Construed as speech and gestures, participation leaves little space for silence, interior devotion, and attention to the Trinitarian dimension of worship.

Without a deeper sense of participation, George argued, “the Eucharist can be imagined as a recreation of the Last Supper,” a simple meal.

George said that much contemporary liturgical discussion is dominated by two rival anthropologies. The Enlightenment anthropology affirms reason as the ultimate test of truth; Romantic anthropology emphasizes imagination, sentiment, and sense experience.

“The reality is a complex one, different in different places, but liturgical polarization between a rationalist and a romantic position is common, and few people have the tools necessary to move beyond the present impasse,” George said.

George’s bottom line was that in addition to “wise pastoral action,” the liturgical field today needs “renewed theoretical study.”

A complementary, but somewhat different perspective, came from Fr. Matias Augé, a consultor for the Congregation for Divine Worship and a teacher of liturgy in Rome.

Augé said the reception of Sacrosanctum concilium in Europe was conditioned to some extent by “minority groups,” such as the pro-Latin Mass movement of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. 

In fact, Augé argued, the liturgical reforms of the council were not “improvised,” but “the fruit of more than 100 years of history.” He said the future lies in greater inculturation, meaning adaptation to local realities (including in Europe), and in “formation,” meaning education about the significance of the renewed rites.

The conference opened with the reading of an apostolic letter from John Paul II, in which the pope called for an “examination of conscience” concerning the reception of Sacrosanctum concilium. The pope called on bishops and liturgists to build on the “riches” of the reform while also pruning “serious abuses” with “prudent firmness.”

* * *

Canadian Senator Douglas Roche, who served as his country’s disarmament ambassador from 1984 to 1989, has impeccable Catholic credentials.

He is a longtime friend of Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and former observer of the Holy See at the United Nations.  In 1995, Pope John Paul II presented Roche with the Papal Medal for his service as special adviser on disarmament and security. In 1998, the Holy See named Roche a Knight of St. Gregory the Great. When the Holy See’s mission to the United Nations organized a conference this fall to mark both the 40th anniversary of John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris and the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s election, Roche was asked to speak.

Roche has just published a new book, The Human Right to Peace (Novalis). He was in Rome last week to address a gathering of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, and sat down for an interview.

Roche’s chief concern is how the United Nations and international law can be enhanced to counter what he calls a “culture of war.”

In his book, Roche argues that the “just war” theory is outmoded, in part because modern weaponry makes distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants impossible. I noted, however, that the Bush administration says the Iraq conflict was a textbook case of a just war, because the cause (liberation from a tyrant) was just, and because the means were highly discriminate, with civilian casualties held to a minimum.

“I do not buy that at all,” Roche said.

“The way the number of deaths caused by bombing in both Afghanistan and Iraq has been written off, almost dismissed, is scandalous. The destruction of economic and social life – water systems, health, and human security – is just forgotten. The forces of propaganda, which have been aided by a corporate media structure, give us a lot to worry about concerning the truthfulness of what we’ve been told.”

Since Roche was addressing Nobel Peace Prize winners, I asked if he felt the Nobel should have gone to John Paul II this year.

“My short answer is yes,” Roche said. “I recognize the tremendous contribution he has made to the world in trying to lead it away from the ravages of war. I thought the 25th anniversary was the ideal moment to give the Nobel Peace Prize to him.”

At the same time, Roche said, awarding the prize to Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi sent a powerful signal that Islam is not just about terrorism.

I asked Roche what he makes of media labels of John Paul II as a “conservative.”

On the pope’s 1984 tour of Canada, he spoke in Edmonton, the city where I live. I remember it extremely well. He made his famous north/south speech, in which he said that the poor south will judge the rich north. His eyes were blazing, and his voice was strong. He was flaying out at economic disparities,” Roche said.

“How to characterize such a complex man in the simplistic political terms that we use to either praise or dismiss people with one word? I think he defies such a simple analysis.”

I noted that some claim to see a softening in the Vatican’s opposition to the war in Iraq, beginning with the comments of Cardinal Camillo Ruini at the funeral Mass for the 19 Italian soldiers who died on Nov. 12 in a terrorist attack in Nassiriya. Ruini declared: “We must not flee before the terrorists, but indeed, we must confront them with all our courage.”  Some saw the relatively low-profile assignment at the Vatican library given to Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who had been the architect of the church’s opposition, as further evidence of a shift towards a “realistic” stance.

Has Roche detected a change?

“On the contrary, it seems to me there’s been a reaffirmation of the futility of war, and the damage done by the war in Iraq,” he said. “What one cardinal says at a funeral can hardly be construed as a shift in the stand the Holy See takes.”

“I’m sure that those who supported the war would like to see some revisionist history with respect to the Holy See’s position, but I have not seen any weakening, and I fervently hope there will not be any. … It’s extremely important that the moral leadership of the Holy See not go fudgy or soft.”

Finally, since Roche is an old hand at the United Nations, I asked his opinion about the Holy See becoming a full member. Currently it has observer status, but Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano has said that the Holy See might seek to move up.

“I belong to the school of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Roche said. “The manner in which the Holy See has been represented has had a certain subtlety, without getting involved in every dogfight that makes up the daily routine. Were the Holy See to seek and receive full membership, it could set off a backlash from fundamentalists, from all manner of people, including Catholics themselves. It is not something I would advise,” he said.

“I can’t think of anything it would gain. The more you force me to ponder this question, the more I would say, leave it alone.”

* * *

The Union of Superiors General, an umbrella group for superiors of men’s religious orders, held its fall assembly in Rome Nov. 26-28, focusing on inter-religious dialogue.

Fr. Thomas Michel, the Jesuits’ expert on inter-religious dialogue, brought this message to the assembly:

“The basic choice is not between being a church in dialogue or one proclaiming the gospel. Rather the option is being a church following the Spirit’s lead to partake humanly in life with others … or else a church closed in on itself in a self-imposed ghetto, with little concern for and involvement with people of other faiths with whom Christians share culture, history, citizenship, and common human destiny.”

I sat down over lunch on Dec. 3 with the union’s newly elected vice president Fr. Joseph Tobin, superior of the Redemptorist order, to talk about the gathering. Tobin, an American from Detroit, said the meeting allowed leaders to discuss both the promise and peril of dialogue.

Some superiors with members in Islamic nations, he said, voiced concerns about reciprocity – does it make sense to dialogue with Muslims in the West, when in Islamic nations there doesn’t seem to be a similar openness? Some observed that while Rome has the largest mosque in Europe, funded by the Saudi Arabian government, Christians can’t even legally wear crosses in Saudi Arabia.

Other superiors, Tobin said, worried that an over-emphasis on dialogue could lead to compromises on Christian identity. The fear is “soft-pedaling” proclamation of the gospel.

At the same time, Tobin said, there was consensus that whatever its challenges, inter-faith dialogue is a fact of life. In a world in which one in 47 people is a migrant or refugee, Tobin said, religions are fated to rub shoulders.

In that exchange, Tobin said, religious communities may have a special contribution to make.

“In most of the great religious traditions, there is an experience of religious life,” he said. “Like may be able to talk to like.”

Tobin said superiors also discussed the need to make inter-religious awareness part of formation programs.

One practical initiative Tobin mentioned is a USG database of inter-religious experts by country. Hence if a community wants someone in Belgium who can lead a discussion of Hinduism, the USG can suggest someone. (That project is led by an American, Marianist Fr. David Fleming).

Inevitably, I also asked Tobin whether there had been fallout at the USG gathering from a controversial article by former USG president and Discalced Carmelite Fr. Camilo Macisse, published in a Chilean journal and subsequently in the Tablet

Using strong language, Macisse accused the Vatican of “moral and psychological violence.” Among other examples, he cited the pope’s refusal to meet with either the Union of Superiors General or its female equivalent, the International Union of Superiors General, since 1995, and the way that a document on cloistered female religious life was issued without consulting women’s communities.

Tobin said Macisse had articulated widely shared frustrations.

“There’s a concern about the relationship between religious life in its mainline form and the hierarchy,” Tobin said. “The church is supposed to be a communion, and an essential aspect of that is communication.”

This concern cuts across a wide swath of issues, Tobin explained. For example, the October 1994 Synod on Religious Life proposed a study on the possibility that brothers could be elected to lead a community that includes priests. That study apparently reached a negative conclusion, as evidenced by the Vatican’s refusal to permit Capuchins in the United States to elect a brother as provincial minister. (This despite the fact that St. Francis himself was not a priest). So far as Tobin knows, however, major religious communities were not consulted in reaching this conclusion.

At the same time, Tobin said, some superiors were uncomfortable with what they saw as the overly aggressive tone of Macisse’s article, and worried that it might be counter-productive.

This tracks with what I have heard from other superiors. One told me recently:

“I was glad to see the article, but felt it too confrontational and perhaps too impatient to represent me personally.  I do share some hurt feelings about not being admitted to see the pope, and feel that in general religious orders are not seen as participating in curial decision making, even in areas where it would seem logical to be consulted.”

As a footnote to seeing the pope, Tobin observed that John Paul still routinely meets with individual communities, often during their chapters – as he did with Tobin’s Redemptorists, for example, in mid-September.

* * *

Whenever a top official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith identifies what he considers the “greatest challenge facing the church today in its new evangelization,” it’s worth paying attention. It could be an insight into the thinking shaping policy choices in the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog agency.

 In an address Dec. 4 at the Regina Apostolorum, the Rome university of the Legionaries of Christ, Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia identified that challenge as “the lingering influence of nominalist patterns of thought in moral theology,” coupled with a “variety of secular humanisms and anti-humanisms.” 

Di Noia, an American, is the under-secretary of the doctrinal congregation.

Nominalism, Di Noia argued, “let loose a catastrophe on the human race” by separating morality from anthropology. To explain his point, he offered the students a rather homespun analogy. Imagine, he said, a mother cooking dinner who spots her child eating cookies. The mother could say, “eating cookies is forbidden in this house,” appealing to her authority. Or she could say, “if you eat those cookies, you’ll spoil your appetite,” appealing to a truth about human nature. Nominalism proposes the first kind of morality, Di Noia said, while Thomism proposes the second.

Speaking of nominalism, Di Noia said: “The prevalence of this kind of moral theology gave rise to the intolerable tensions experienced by many Catholics in the face of the moral teaching of Humanae Vitae – and eventually the entirety of Christian teaching about human sexuality – which seemed to impose an outdated moral obligation whose connection with the human good was either denied or dismissed, or more commonly, simply not apparent.”

Di Noia was equally critical of secular humanism, which he said severs the good of human life from the good of eternal life, as if to suggest that focus on the after-life is in tension with human welfare here and now. He cited as one example a recent op/ed piece by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times attacking the Vatican’s opposition to condoms in the context of HIV/AIDS.

Di Noia said the aim of John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor was to resuscitate a natural law approach to morality, one that sees obedience of moral commands “not as the suppression of the human person, but its perfection.” For this reason, Di Noia said, Veritatis Splendor may turn out to be the most important of John Paul’s 14 encyclicals.

Finally, Di Noia argued that Aquinas’ theology of the imago Dei can make a significant contribution to the pope’s project. He said a recovery of Aquinas is underway in the work of several younger theologians, many in their 30s, both Catholic and Protestant.

* * *

Officers of the Simon Wiesenthal Center were in Rome this week to give John Paul II a humanitarian award for “forging an unprecedented relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people,” as well as a “profound commitment to world peace and tolerance.” The pope joins previous honorees such as Francois Mitterand, Margaret Thatcher, and (the Wiesenthal Center is in Los Angeles, after all) celebrities Michael Douglas and Billy Crystal.

Rabbi Marvin Hier called on the pope to join efforts to have suicide bombings declared a crime against humanity. Hier said an “international mechanism” should be set up to put suicide bombers on notice, as has been done for war criminals in Africa and the former Yugoslavia.

“If the pope says ‘this is the crime of the 21st century and we have to do something about it,’ that will provide the fodder for political leaders to do more than they have done, because they have ignored this subject,” Hier said.

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

2003 Friends of NCR Annual Appeal (October 2003-December 2003)

Dear Reader of The Word From Rome,
Please consider contributing to our annual appeal and join the ranks of readers who give to the Friends of NCR campaign. Contributions are tax-deductible in the United States.

Together let's spread the good news.
  Send Contributions to:

National Catholic Reporter
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO   64111     USA

Make checks out to: NCR

P.S. Contributors receive a specially designed NCR Christmas ornament as a thank you gift.

Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2003 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280