National Catholic Reporter ®

December 14, 2001 
Vol. 1, No. 16

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Rome on America: Thanks for
the money, stop rocking the boat

“They like our money,” the canonist said. (As well they should; the bishops’ conferences of the United States and Germany are, according to official figures, the two largest contributors to the Vatican’s annual budget). “And they like our personnel. We’re good managers, we get things done.”

“That,” he concluded, “is about it.”

As it does every year, the North American College, home to U.S. seminarians in Rome, marked Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, with a Mass and a luncheon. It’s a special day for the college, because it was Dec. 8, 1859, that twelve seminarians formed its first class. 

     (Those 12 guys entered the original NAC on the Via dell’Umilita, around the corner from the Trevi Fountain. Today’s 200-plus seminarians live in a larger facility on the Janiculum Hill. I can see the tower of its chapel from my office window. Former rector Timothy Dolan, now an auxiliary bishop in St. Louis, once told me that Pope Pius XII asked his best friend, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, to erect the complex in part as a way of putting Romans to work in the post-war years).

     I was happy to be among the guests on Dec. 8, because it’s a good chance to connect with fellow Americans in Rome, and also because the NAC knows how to lay out a good spread. (A gaggle of seminarians is assigned the happy task of bringing around as many additional helpings as you might require, and I managed to keep a couple of them on their toes).

     I received a door prize of sorts from the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Jim Nicholson, in the form of a lapel pin featuring crossed Vatican and American flags. Wearing it around, I found myself ruminating on the odd love/hate relationship between the Vatican and the American Catholic church.

     Last week I interviewed some of Rome’s leading canon lawyers for a story about a new process for handling, among other things, accusations against priests for sexual abuse of minors. One of those canonists is an American who has spent years dealing with the Vatican’s ecclesiastical courts. We began talking about how America is perceived in the curia.

     “They like our money,” the canonist said. (As well they should; the bishops’ conferences of the United States and Germany are, according to official figures, the two largest contributors to the Vatican’s annual budget). “And they like our personnel. We’re good managers, we get things done.”

     “That,” he concluded, “is about it.”

      By which he meant that while curial types appreciate the resources of the American church, many also harbor a deep antipathy. They see American culture as rooted in Calvinist individualism, with, consequently, an under-developed concept of community and of the church.

     Reflecting this view, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago recently said that immigrants to the United States from Catholic nations of Latin America have a difficult time adjusting to the “cultural Calvinism” they find north of the border.

     Many of us who work with the curia have encountered this perception. 

     Case in point: Most nights I leave work around 7:00 pm, and I usually catch a bus for home that stops by the Vatican. There an under-secretary from a curial congregation, a kindly little Italian monsignore, often gets on, and he and I have become conversation partners. He’s usually the one to start things, and it’s almost always the same thread: How can I justify the awful behavior of U.S. Catholics?

     The first time we met, he wanted to know why U.S. Catholics felt they could pick and choose among the teachings of the church. I objected that this is hardly an American phenomenon, pointing inter alia to a new Datamedia poll showing that 74.7 percent of Italians believe divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to receive the sacraments without an annulment. The same poll showed a majority of Italian Catholics say that in their parishes, such people receive the sacraments regardless of church rules.

     My under-secretary friend, who has been to the United States all of three times, granted that such tendencies exist everywhere, but insisted the situation is “much worse” in America.

     I then tried arguing that individualism has not prevented us from developing much more vital parish communities in the post-conciliar years than most places in Europe, again to little avail. 

     A few nights ago, our paths crossed again as my wife and I were leaving the Paul VI audience hall after a papal concert. This time the monsignore wanted to talk about Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 papal document on Catholic higher education that requires theologians to get a clean bill of health from bishops.

     How is it possible, he wanted to know, that American Catholics could put up a fuss about this document? Don’t they realize that the faithful have a right to have church teaching presented accurately?

     After pointing out that there is a strong conservative wing of the American church that defended Ex Corde, I tried to explain why other Catholics were bothered by it. I pointed to the psychological impact of the McCarthy era in American politics, how anything that smacks of loyalty oaths and blacklisting doesn’t go over well. I added that case law on church/state relations also plays a role, since the level of ecclesiastical oversight of American Catholic universities could affect, among other things, their eligibility for some kinds of funding.

     My conversation partner wasn’t buying it. He insisted that the reaction against Ex Corde is a rebellious assertion of individual freedom against the collective good of the church.

     The problem is not that this guy is all wrong, but that he sees only one side of a complex picture. 

     By themselves, I suppose, his attitudes aren’t all that important. As one long-time Vatican friend of mine puts the point, “In every office there are five guys who get things done and about twenty who lick stamps.” The man I share the bus with almost certainly falls into the second category.

     Yet his prejudices do reflect, I believe, a widely held curial view, a way of seeing the American church that reaches as far back as Leo XIII and the crackdown on “Americanism” in the late 19th century. There’s something very European about it, a combination of awe and resentment about the United States. 

     Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to the NAC. The establishment of national colleges in Rome in the middle of the 19th century was part of the centralizing strategy of Pope Pius IX, designed to anchor the future leaders of local churches more closely to Rome by making sure they imbibed its spirit during their formative years. 

     I bump into guys from the NAC often, as my office is just down the hill, and I can see Pius IX’s philosophy at work. In a handful of extreme cases, the seminarians can be “more Roman than the Romans,” projecting an unctuous piety, defending every papal utterance, and mimicking the worst, most clubby aspects of clerical culture. 

     A Roman professor friend of mine loves to tell the story of an embassy party he attended with some of the best-known professors from the city’s pontifical universities, along with a smattering of bishops. A group of seminarians from the NAC had been invited. The profs and bishops, feeling no need to prove themselves, showed up in casual dress. The NACsters, however, arrived in freshly pressed clerical suits, Roman collars and French cuffs, and stood out like sore thumbs. Wry smiles filled the room.

     Yet this sort of thing is really not representative, despite what some media coverage of the new breed of conservative seminarians may suggest. Most of the guys at the NAC, in my experience, are well meaning, competent young men preparing to serve American parishes and dioceses as best they can. 

     It’s true, of course, that the people at the NAC are aware of how Americans are viewed in Rome, and it’s natural that they (at times unconsciously) seek to send reassuring signals by wearing the right clothes and saying the right things.

     Yet I found myself praying Dec. 8 that the NAC will also foster an appreciation for the individualism about which the curia sometimes frets. The church needs the diversity it generates. Every now and then, the church needs cantankerous folk who buck up against the system, who challenge it, and who keep it vital.

     Rome, in other words, needs our prophets as much as our profits.

* * *

An update and an invitation.

     I recently made a comparison in this column between a Vatican conference I attended on family and sexuality issues, and a hearing of the European Parliament where I had been invited to chair a session on the same topics. I suggested, on the basis of these experiences, that a gulf separates the Catholic church from international bodies such as the UN and the EU. Rather tongue in cheek, I proposed that perhaps Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, who runs the Pontifical Council on the Family, and Parliamentarian Lousewies van der Laan, a Dutch liberal and Vatican critic, should sit down for coffee to try to find common ground.

     I was surprised by this prompt response from van der Laan:

     “I would like to consider the part you write, about Lopez Trujillo and me trying to find common ground over a cup of coffee, as an invitation. Because of your understanding of both sides of the line, you would be the ideal moderator who could prevent us from drifting off on our own prejudices about each other, and help make it a real dialogue. As a journalist you have a good excuse for setting up a conversation like this.”

     It’s creditable openness, in my opinion, and certainly the prospect of an encounter between two such intelligent, rhetorically gifted individuals with strong views on important issues gets my journalistic juices flowing. As it happens, I have to be in the Council for the Family on other business this week, and I intend to sound Lopez Trujillo out on the idea. 

     Watch this space for further developments.

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

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