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 The Word From Rome

December 12, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 16

global perspective


"Rather than put on hold, I like to say [the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission has] been put on ice, like good champagne, ready to be drunk when the time is judged to be right."

Mary Tanner,
an eminent English ecumenist

Cardinal Renato Martino lunches with Americans in Rome; Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis; More Anglican-Catholic talk; U.S. House of Representatives honors John Paul II; Delivering humanitarian aid in conflict situations


A reconciliation of sorts took place at the North American College Dec. 8, where Italian Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, celebrated Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, then joined the college for its annual luncheon for Americans in Rome.

I say “of sorts” because, officially speaking, reconciliation was nowhere on the agenda, and in any event, Martino already sees himself as a great friend of the United States. He spent 16 years in New York as the Holy See’s observer in the United Nations, he speaks English fluently, and has a wide circle of American friends. In many ways he’s a natural filo-americano.

In recent months, however, that sympathy has been strained by hard feelings over Iraq. In the run-up to the war, Martino became the Holy See’s most outspoken critic of American policy ­– I once styled him as the pope’s answer to Donald Rumsfeld, in the sense that he too is an outspoken, tough-as-nails advocate for his administration’s position.

A few samples:

  • October 1, 2002: “[Invading Iraq] presumes that it is up to the United States to decide between peace and war. In short, it is pure unilateralism.”
  • Dec. 17, 2002: “A preventive war is a war of aggression,”
  • Jan. 4, 2003: “We cannot think that there is a universal policeman who takes it upon himself to punish those who act badly. … The United States, being part of the international assembly, has to adapt to the exigencies of others.”
  • Feb. 4, 2003 (in an interview with NCR, see The Threat of War), relative to the Middle East: “There is a double standard. We already have a war, why don’t you stop that one instead of starting another?”

Still smarting over this tongue-lashing, some American Catholics who supported the war are unlikely to have Martino on their Christmas card list. One prominent conservative, learning that Martino would be the principal celebrant at the NAC, said to me: “Good Lord, what a choice!”

In his homily, Martino emphasized a theme that does not, at least at present, divide the Holy See and the U.S. government: defense of unborn life. He also spoke warmly of his time in North America, referring to “many close and loyal friends.”

“I feel a solidarity with all of you and your families,” Martino said.

Martino also said that next year will be the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The anniversary, he predicted, will prompt new “debating and denying” that Mary was actually born without sin, which should make Catholics “angry and sad,” but also “resolved to celebrate this solemnity with greater joy.”

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is the patronal feast of the NAC, since the college was founded on Dec. 8, 1859.

All in all, Martino came off as charming and impressive, and perhaps helped smooth some ruffled feathers. In any event, as a veteran of the diplomatic corps, Martino understands the old political dictum: “There are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”

* * *

A Christian can’t ask a more basic question than, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Debates over the identity and significance of Jesus cut to the heart of Christian identity, and thus they tend to make the guardians of orthodoxy very, very nervous.

This is how a mild-mannered Belgian Jesuit named Fr. Jacques Dupuis ended up as the most controversial theologian in the Roman Catholic church today.

Dupuis was recently honored on the occasion of his 80th birthday with a book of essays titled In Many and Diverse Ways, presented on Dec. 5 at the Gregorian University.

The last time Dupuis was on the dais in the Gregorian was to present his 1997 book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, which set off an earthquake. It triggered a three-year investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that produced three different versions of a notification criticizing Dupuis’ work. The final version was watered down, citing only eight potential ambiguities. Yet it served its purpose: Dupuis’ theology was branded as suspect.

Christian debate over other religions is conventionally divided into three camps: exclusivism, that salvation is through Christ, with followers of other religions excluded; inclusivism, that salvation is through Christ, but followers of other religions can be included; and pluralism, that salvation is through other religions alongside Christianity. The official Catholic position is inclusivism, which both Dupuis and the Vatican defend, though with different accents.

The kernel of Dupuis’ argument is that other religions are divinely willed instruments of revelation and salvation, or to put it differently, that religious pluralism exists not just de facto (as a concession to sin), but de jure (as part of God’s plan for humanity). Nevertheless, salvation is always related to Christ. Dupuis locates this “relation” in Jesus’ identity as God’s Word, active in every human culture.

For some Catholic theologians, and the Vatican, this goes too far. They believe it risks religious relativism, in which one religion is as good as another, and a flagging commitment to missionary work. The doctrinal questions were laid out in the September 2000 Vatican document Dominus Iesus.

That Dupuis is not isolated, even within the ranks of Catholic officialdom, is clear from the fact that the book in his honor contains contributions from two cardinals (Austrian Franz König and American Avery Dulles) and one Vatican official (Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue).

Temperamentally, Dupuis is no firebrand. Short, bespectacled, and soft-spoken, Che Guevara he’s not. In fact, more avante garde theologians see Dupuis as a stick-in-the-mud, a conservative too tethered to official magisterial positions.

As Dupuis put it Dec. 5: “I may say in all sincerity that Jesus Christ has been the one passion of my life.”

* * *

Ironically, Dupuis was denounced to the Vatican by a fellow Jesuit, and another Jesuit, Fr. Karl Becker, helped the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith conduct its investigation.

Yet Dupuis also had powerful Jesuit backing.  In addition to Jesuit theologians such as Fr. Gerald O’Collins and Fr. Daniel Kendall, he also drew formal support from the South Asian Jesuit Provincials.  As Dupuis acknowledged Dec. 5, his most decisive Jesuit backer was the Father General himself, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, who accompanied Dupuis and O’Collins to a Sept. 4, 2000, meeting with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

O’Collins, an eminent Australian Christologist and Dupuis’ theological advisor during the Vatican investigation, presented a moving tribute on Dec. 5.

He recalled Dupuis’ decades of service to the Church, including his work as editor of the collection The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, published for the first time in 1973 and updated seven times since. Dupuis also served in India as editor of the Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection, and in Rome as editor of the Gregorianum. O’Collins also recalled that Dupuis was for 10 years a consultor for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and a primary author of the 1991 Vatican document Dialogue and Proclamation.

That document was a joint publication of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, then under the direction of Slovakian Cardinal Josef Tomko, who clashed with Dupuis by pushing for a stronger line on missionary efforts and conversion.

O’Collins commented on the Vatican investigation.

“As we know, Fr. Dupuis suffered much in the years in which his Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism was contested by ecclesiastical authority,” O’Collins said. “Being close to him I was profoundly edified by his faithfulness to Christ and his obedience to his superiors.”

“Before the controversy, Fr. Dupuis was already well known in Asia and in Italy,” O’Collins said. “Now he is well-known and sought after in other parts of the world. Many people, including many bishops, want to hear Fr. Dupuis. Recalling the years of controversy and the sufferings of Fr. Dupuis, I have to say: God writes straight with crooked lines.”

* * *

A few theologians may court controversy, taking delight when church authorities pay them the (albeit unintended) tribute of making a public issue of their work. Dupuis, however, is not among them. Anyone who knew him during the CDF investigation, as I did, can testify that the stress wore at him, even taking a toll on his physical health.

His remarks on Dec. 5 reflected the sadness of that period, yet he spotted a providential logic.

“I am sure there is much for me to be grateful for today, be it only for the enormous publicity which my writing has received; more importantly, because of the intense interest and sympathy I received from the world theological community,” Dupuis said.

Dupuis closed with a reflection:

I do not want this address to sound as an apologia pro vita sua, nor as a nunc dimittis. I do pray and hope that God may give me some more time to complete what I have attempted to say and write, very imperfectly. Yet I cannot but keep in mind what the psalm reminds me of, namely that I have reached a threshold in the span of human life. In this situation I may be permitted to mention the response I once made to an inquisitive questioner. He asked: “If, at the end of time, Christ were to ask you to give an account of the work you have done, what would you say to him?” I answered, not without hesitation: “I cannot imagine myself giving to the Lord, on the other side of this life, an account of the work I have done. Nor do I think such an account would be necessary. The Lord will know my work, even better than I know it myself. I can only hope that his evaluation of it will be more positive than has been that of some censors and, alas, of the church’s central doctrinal authority.

 * * *

The Christological controversies associated with the Dupuis case are far from over.

One shoe waiting to drop concerns American Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight, whose 2000 book Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis) advocates a Catholic version of the pluralist position, and hence is considered more radical than Dupuis. Haight too is under a CDF investigation.

A Vatican source told NCR Dec. 9 that the congregation is awaiting further response from Haight after his reply to their observations was found wanting. The source predicted the case “will not end well,” asserting that Jesus Symbol of God is “certainly heretical.”

* * *

Tensions within the Anglican Communion, as well as between Anglicans and Catholics, continue to reverberate in the wake of the consecration of an openly gay Episcopalian bishop in the United States. On Dec. 11, an eminent English ecumenist, Mary Tanner, lectured at Rome’s Centro Pro Unione. She argued that while the controversy has revealed serious fissures within the Anglican world as well between Anglicans and Catholics, it also reveals the closeness between the two branches of the Christian family. She argued that when Pope John Paul II in early October warned the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, of “new and serious difficulties” related to the ordination of Gene Robinson, it reflected a climate in which the pope felt he could speak the truth as he perceives it in love.

“Warnings there certainly were, but there was also warmth,” Tanner said.

Tanner said that warmth was expressed in photographs of John Paul kissing Williams’ episcopal ring during his Oct. 4-5 visit to Rome – a ring that another pope, Paul VI, had originally given to another archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey. (For that story, see The Word From Rome, Oct. 10, 2003.)

Tanner argued that both sides in the Anglican/Catholic dialogue have much to learn from one another on questions of authority – how discernment, teaching and reception on behalf of the community should occur.

“Our two communions have so much to learn from one another, both in terms of our strengths to be shared with one another and our weaknesses to be avoided,” she said. “In different ways, neither of our two communions has it right.”

Tanner argued that the Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogue was on the brink of a major breakthrough following a gathering of 26 Anglican and Catholic bishops in Mississauga, Canada, in May 2000. That group recommended a joint agreement that would acknowledge the consensus in faith the two bodies share, and would commit themselves to common life and witness. A commission was set up to produce such an agreement, the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM). This body, of which Tanner is a member, has been put on hold while the Anglican Communion sorts out its internal problems.

“Rather than put on hold, I like to say it’s been put on ice, like good champagne, ready to be drunk when the time is judged to be right,” Tanner said.

In the meantime, Tanner said it’s a positive sign that Williams has offered, and the Vatican has accepted, to create a sub-commission that will allow Catholics to have a voice as the Anglicans sort out the ecclesiological dimensions of the current crisis. (Tanner will serve on that body as well).

“This is of comfort for an Anglican who longs to live beyond Anglicanism, in that visible communion to which the Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogue has always been committed,” Tanner said.

Bishop John Flack of the Anglican Center in Rome was on hand for the lecture, saying that he “cannot imagine” Anglican/Catholic dialogue would collapse under the weight of current events. Two officials of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity were also present.

A footnote: Contrary to some reports, the IARCCUM process was not “cancelled” by the Vatican. Its suspension resulted from a meeting in Rome between Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, and John Peterson, secretary of the Anglican Communion, and was inter-twined with the decision to create the ad-hoc commission on which Tanner will serve. Officials on both sides say it was a mutual decision.

* * *

On Dec. 6, three American congressmen presented John Paul II with a resolution from the U.S. House of Representatives honoring his 25th anniversary. The resolution called the pope “a tireless voice for morality and decency” and for “peace and human dignity.”

Representatives Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich) and Mark Foley (R-Fl) later met with the press at the U.S. embassy to the Holy See. Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Az), did not attend.

Foley said the congressmen found the pope in good spirits.

His eyes are beaming, they’re very alert,” Foley said. “You can see that obviously, physically, he wants to escape his mortal self and say exactly what’s on his mind. But his eyes radiate a sense of purpose that still touches me hours later. … He mentioned ‘God bless America’ several times.”

Although McCotter and Foley are both Republicans, they offered a brief lesson in contentious American democracy by managing to disagree on three issues in the span of about thirty minutes.

First up was whether as Catholics they see any conflict between their public roles and their faith. Foley acknowledged some tension.

“You can never leave your church teachings completely outside your voting patterns,” he said, “but at some point I try to separate those two thought processes because I have to represent 600,000 people of various faiths and ethnicities.”

McCotter, on the other hand, saw no problem.

“When the church issues statements like that, what they’re asking is to remember human life, to have respect and reverence for it, and that you can’t do things that will harm people simply for your own betterment or the betterment of a handful,” he said.  “Many people get caught up on your voting record, but those are means to the goal.”

McCotter and Foley differed on the desirability of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Though both oppose gay marriage, McCotter supports an amendment, while Foley expressed doubts.

“My concern with gay marriage … is that the liberals want this in the courts, just as they wanted abortion before that,” McCotter said. “I believe that there has to be a constitutional amendment so the American people can decide this.”

Finally, the two struck different notes on anti-Catholicism.

“I don’t sense a direct anti-Catholicism, but I sense that people have just diminished their respect for faith [in general],” Foley said. “Hopefully as time moves on people will return to the flock, be they Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians, Presbyterians … whatever their faith.”

McCotter, however, said anti-Catholic prejudice is real.

“In America, if you’re going to slander or smear any ethnic group or religious group and get away with it, it would be the Catholic church,” he said. “When they accuse the Catholic church of one thing or another, there’s not the price to be paid as with another religious group.”

Why the bias?

“When you are a rock of morality in a tide of moral relativism, you are going to be lapped at by the ripples and tides of the waves every single minute of the day,” McCotter said.

* * *

Caritas Internationalis, a federation of Catholic charities around the world with offices in the Vatican, sponsored a fascinating seminar Dec. 4-5 on the relationship between humanitarian groups and the military, a very real dilemma in global hotspots such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hugo Slim of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue said that alarms went off about being co-opted in 2001 when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called non-governmental organizations “a force multiplier for us, an important part of our combat team.”  To make matters worse, in 2003, USAID administrator Andrew Natsios allegedly told NGO leaders that aid agencies must identify themselves as recipients of U.S. funding to show a stronger link to American foreign policy.

Archbishop Fouad El-Hage, a Maronite from Lebanon and president of Caritas, struck a note of realism on the opening day.

“I come from a country that has been torn apart by wars, and I know it was impossible to provide aid in many situations without some relation with the military,” he said. “As such, the issue is not whether Caritas agencies should relate to military actors, but rather to establish what the appropriate relationship should be, and where the boundaries should lie.”

Faiq Bourachi, representing Caritas in Iraq, agreed.

“Any NGO will have to choose between armed protection or no activities,” Bourachi said. “Someone described it as a situation where NGOs have the choice between the traditional worn-out T-shirt, shorts and sandals, or a protection helmet, revolver and bullet-proof vest.”

Bourachi said his agency has not been pressured by U.S. forces to “serve purposes other than humanitarian.”

Slim told NCR that another dilemma faced by NGOs is what sort of contacts to have with groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, in areas where delivering aid depends on their consent. Under the terms of the Patriot Act, Slim said, the U.S. government could shut down a U.S.-based NGO for contacts with groups identified as terrorists, even if they are made by an overseas branch of that NGO.

By the same token, Slim said, NGOs should not behave as if cooperation with the military compromises their moral purity.

“NGOs collaborate with governments all the time,” he said. “They follow the money. If you look at where NGOs are around the world, it’s a political geography, not a moral one.”

NGOs deliver aid where Western governments and private interests are willing to pay for it, Slim said, which is why, for example, so many NGOs are in Iraq and relatively few in rural Africa.

* * *

On the margins of the Caritas conference I sat down with Fr. Roberto Layson from Mindanao in the Philippines, where at least 100,000 people have died in fighting since 1971. Up to a million people have been displaced in conflicts between government troops and Islamic rebel groups.

Layson, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is pastor of a parish near a large base of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. He said he’s witnessed four pitched battles there.

Layson said that the church in Mindanao has good relations with Islam. Muslims, he said, visit his parish and even pray in his room. Sometimes, he said, they bring gifts for Mass. In fact, Layson was hustling back from Rome for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, when a large Muslim group was scheduled to join his parish celebration.

None of this means that tensions have disappeared. Last February the Filipino army assaulted a series of communities looking for terrorists, and in return, rebel factions targeted Christian homes and businesses. Yet relations are sufficiently strong, Layson said, that he complained to the Islamic Liberation Front commander, who apologized.

I asked Layson what impact Pope John Paul’s opposition to the war in Iraq had on his relationships with Muslims.

“It helps us convince our Muslim neighbors that we want to be friends, that this is the official teaching of the church.” Layson said that most Muslims don’t know what the pope stands for, but are pleasantly surprised when they hear.

* * *

A few other quick notes.

• On Dec. 9, Rabbi Jack Bemporad of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Englewood, New Jersey, spoke at the Centro Pro Unione. Franciscan Fr. James Puglisi, an American, runs the Centro, one of the foremost ecumenical centers in the world. Bemporad spoke on German philosopher Hans Jonas, his teacher and lifelong friend, the 100th anniversary of whose birth occurs in 2003. Bemporad explained that Jonas actually coined the term “demythologizing” later taken over by Rudolf Bultmann, but Jonas meant something different by it. Rather than a technique for jettisoning the supernatural elements of scripture, Jonas saw “demythologizing” as a technique for protecting God’s transcendence by relativizing any attempt to describe or characterize God in human terms.

• On Nov. 29, John Paul II appointed Msgr. Renato Boccardo secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, making him a bishop. He will thus become the deputy of Archbishop John Foley. Boccardo, who turns 51 on Dec. 21, has been the organizer of papal travel since 2001, and before that he was the official in the Council for the Laity responsible for World Youth Day. An Italian, Boccardo is widely seen as one the Vatican’s “best and brightest,” a smart, competent and hard-working official who gets things done. From the fact that he is to continue to plan the pope’s trips alongside his work in Social Communications, one can draw this conclusion: there will be fewer trips to plan.

• If ever one needed evidence that the Catholic church still has some political weight to throw around, it came Dec. 10 with a vote of the Italian parliament on artificial reproduction. In what the Italians call a trasversale result, meaning one that crossed party lines, Catholic parliamentarians of both left and right approved Europe’s most restrictive law. It prohibits “heterogeneous” reproduction, meaning that only stable heterosexual couples will be able to use artificial insemination, relying solely on their own genetic materials. Only three embryos can be created at a time, and they must all be implanted in the woman. No embryo can be frozen or otherwise preserved or destroyed. Research or experimentation on embryos for any purpose other than the health of that embryo is prohibited. The result is considered a major win for Cardinal Camillo Ruini, head of the Italian bishops’ conference, and his circle of politically savvy conservatives.

• Finally, the Sr. Wendy Beckett of cheese – known, appropriately enough, as “the cheese nun” – is to receive the “French Food Spirit Award” in Paris Dec. 15. Benedictine Sr. Noella Marcellino, from Connecticut, won the prize for her research on the microbiology of French cheese and her defense of traditional cheesemaking methods and biodiversity.  Marcellino’s work is described in an award-winning documentary “The Cheese Nun,” produced by the Paris American Television Company, which will be broadcast in the United States on PBS in 2004.   She was also the subject of a profile entitled “Raw Faith” in the New Yorker magazine in August 2002. As a major consumer of cheese, I can only salute Marcellino’s chosen apostolate.

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

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