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 The Word From Rome

December 19, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 17

global perspective


"A 'house of glass' where all can see what is happening and how it carries out its mission in faithfulness to Christ and the evangelical message."

Pope John Paul II
describing to journalists in January 1984 what he hoped the Vatican could become

On the myth of "Vatican secrecy"; Cardinal Martino on Saddam Hussein; The pope's 2004 World Peace Day message; The pope and "The Passion"; Culture "warrior" Archbishop Carlo Caffarra


In especially self-destructive moments, I sometimes agree to give talks in Italian. It’s not bad enough that I may have little insight to offer, but I risk compounding banality with grammatical ineptitude and poor pronunciation.

So it was that on Dec. 5 I found myself on a panel at the Gregorian University, the flagship pontifical university in Rome. Jesuit Fr. Robert White, an American teaching communications at the Greg, had asked me to make a presentation at a session on “The Challenge of Journalism Today: Finding Sources of Information.” I was assigned the topic of “The problem of ecclesiastical sources.”

Language becomes Catholic battleground

Fueled by fear of losing its identity, today's Catholic church finds itself embroiled in a war about words.

Language -- deep questions about how much terminology the church can absorb from the culture without jeopardizing its message -- has become a primary battleground for one of the mega-debates in global Catholicism.

Thus John L. Allen Jr. begins an analysis of who Catholics say they are. Allen asks the question: In a society sometimes toxic for authentic Christian living, how "different" must Catholics be in order to remain true to themselves?

The full essay appears in the Dec. 26 print edition of National Catholic Reporter. (The electronic edition is available Dec. 24 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.

I chose to focus on one of my pet peeves: the myth of “Vatican secrecy.” Here’s more or less what I said, in what I hope is a more coherent English version.

No myth about the Vatican is more enduring or widespread than the belief that it is an ultra-secret closed world, impermeable to the outsider. A cluster of adjectives expresses the idea: “Byzantine,” “mysterious,” “occult.”

Let’s unpack that mythology. Does the Vatican have secrets? Yes, as every government, corporation, NGO and other institution does. Moreover, for those things it wants to keep under wraps -- such as the files of theologians under investigation, or correspondence from bishops -- the Vatican is far more insulated from pressures for disclosure than secular democracies. There are no sunshine laws, no civil judges who can order the institution to turn over records. Unlike corporations, the Vatican does not have to file audited financial statements.

The relevant question, however, is this: Granted all the above, is the Vatican  successful at keeping things quiet? Not in my experience. The Vatican may try to be secretive, but for the most part, it doesn’t succeed. If you are determined and capable, there’s very little you can’t discover.

The Vatican is hard for outsiders to grasp, but this is less because it’s secretive than because it’s unique. One must master three “languages” to cover this beat. First is Italian, because it’s the working language of the Vatican; then the specialized language of the Catholic Church, meaning a knowledge of church history, scripture, theology, liturgy and canon law; and finally the language of the Roman Curia, meaning its systems and psychology.

One has to take Vatican officials to lunch and dinner, to attend the sometimes tedious symposia and book presentations and embassy parties where contacts are made, to read the theological journals and news services where intelligence on the Vatican is found. Most correspondents in Rome simply don’t have the time. They are expected to cover politics, finance, culture and trends, and not just in Italy but in the southern Mediterranean and the Balkans. Hence much coverage of the Vatican is episodic, superficial, and inaccurate.

Let’s be very clear: Would it be healthier if the Vatican were more transparent? Unquestionably. The Vatican is a long way from what John Paul said he wanted it to be in January 1984, speaking to 1,000 journalists: “A ‘house of glass’ where all can see what is happening and how it carries out its mission in faithfulness to Christ and the evangelical message.”

At the same time, it is a serious error -- a myth -- to believe that by virtue of its alleged “secrecy” the Vatican is impossible to cover. For anyone willing to take the institution seriously on its own terms, it is quite comprehensible.

* * *

I appear to have spoken too soon last week about reconciliation between Cardinal Renato Martino and the United States, especially elements in the American church and culture supportive of the war in Iraq.

Martino appeared at a Vatican news conference Dec. 16 to present the pope’s annual message for the World Day of Peace. That document is prepared by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which Martino heads, though it passes through the Secretariat of State and obviously the pope before it’s released. This year the editing process itself made news; more on that later.

Martino’s comments made headlines around the world, and reopened old wounds among those who suspect the cardinal of “anti-American” bias.

It began when I asked Martino for comment on the capture of Saddam Hussein, and on the question of where and how Hussein should be tried.

“The process that will follow his capture should take place in an appropriate venue,” Martino said, declining to elaborate what he had in mind. He expressed the wish that the capture and its aftermath would promote the “normalization and democratization” of Iraq.

At the same time, Martino, who for 16 years represented the Holy See at the United Nations, reiterated the Vatican’s long-standing opposition to the war.

“It would be illusory if we think [the capture] will repair the drama and damage of that defeat against humanity which war always is, as John Paul II has said.”

Another journalist asked Martino if the capture hadn’t given him at least a twinge of doubt that perhaps the war had been justified to remove such a brutal dictator.

“War is useless, it doesn’t accomplish anything,” he replied.

Martino then commented on the video images of Hussein.

“I was saddened to see him destroyed, reduced in this way,” he said. The tapes released by American forces of his medical examination showed Hussein being “treated like a cow, having his teeth checked,” he added. “We should have been spared these images.”

“I felt a sense of compassion seeing this man in his tragedy, also with his heavy responsibility. I imagine and hope that others felt it too,” Martino said.

The cardinal said he worried about “the wounds from this event,” meaning the capture, and prayed that it would not have “worse and uglier consequences.” He cautioned once again that Hussein’s capture “is not the complete solution to the problems in the Middle East.”

Martino also said the Holy See opposed capital punishment.

“The Holy Father has expressed himself on capital punishment many times,” Martino said. “At the United Nations, I’ve spoken several times against capital punishment. The European Union has abolished it. International tribunals, such as those for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, as well as the International Criminal Court, don’t permit capital punishment.”

* * *

Inside the Vatican, there was concern that Martino’s statements to the press effectively diverted attention away from the pope’s message, and could be misconstrued as an official statement of the Vatican.

One senior Vatican official called NCR Dec. 19 to make precisely this point.

"The thinking of the Holy Father is contained in his message," the official said. "Cardinal Martino added, beyond this, his own personal point of view."

The distinction this official wanted to make was clear: the text of the message speaks for John Paul and the Holy See, Martino spoke for himself.

* * *

Martino’s comments, especially his expression of compassion for Hussein, triggered immediate reaction.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington that Hussein “has not been held up as a public curiosity in any demeaning way, by reasonable definitions by the Geneva Convention.”

“He is a man who is representative of a regime that has been replaced, and it’s terribly important that he be seen by the public for what he is, a captive,” Rumsfeld said.

Even before I returned to my office, a rash of e-mail had arrived from readers who picked up Martino’s comments from the wire services. A representative outburst came from a man in New Jersey who said he wished he could say to Martino: “Sit down, your Eminence, and shut the hell up!”

I’m confident similar e-mail reached the Council for Justice and Peace.

In fairness, it should be noted that when Martino mentioned Hussein’s “heavy responsibility,” it seemed a reference to the former Iraqi leader’s human rights abuses. I have interviewed Martino on the war several times, and he has never been under any illusions about Hussein’s brutality. His argument has always been that there are other dictators around, and it’s not clear to him why war should be justified to remove this one and not others.

Whether one finds that logic persuasive, and whether Martino’s comments should have been balanced by a more clear acknowledgment of Hussein’s victims, is a matter for reasonable discussion.

It is also perhaps an irony worth observing that while the Vatican is often faulted for an alleged lack of compassion, in this case it’s an excess of sympathy that seems to have landed Martino in hot water. Depending on one’s point of view, this will illustrate either that the Vatican just can’t get anything right, or that it’s damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

* * *

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson released his own statement reacting to the Hussein capture, saying it “offered Iraq the first opportunity for true reconciliation and reconstruction.”

Nicholson’s statement was presented as an approving commentary on the pope’s peace message, though obviously he felt compelled to say something after Martino’s comments.

“A dictator, who has killed or ordered to be killed millions of people, now is no longer free to do so.  As the Chaldean Catholic bishops of Iraq have said, ‘fear has ended.’  I stand with them in proclaiming that ‘this is good news for the Iraqi people,’” Nicholson said.

“Hussein will now be prosecuted with dignity and justice — two basic human rights he never afforded to anyone else.  A new page in Iraq’s history can now truly begin.”

“I believe President George Bush said it best when he observed that the capture of Saddam Hussein was a triumph for the Iraqi people, who are rid of a source of their fears and can now focus with confidence on creating a hopeful and self-governing nation.”

* * *

Now for the editing controversy surrounding John Paul II’s 2004 message for the World Day of Peace Jan. 1.

The message bears the title “An Ever Timely Commitment: Teaching Peace.”  Yet back on July 17, 2003, when the theme of the message was announced in a Vatican news release, it was titled “International Law: The Path to Peace.” That news release can be found here:

Most observers felt that theme had been chosen, at least in part, as an implied criticism of the United States for waging war in Iraq without explicit authorization from the United Nations. Indeed, the Vatican news release made the connection: “The recent war in Iraq,” it read, “manifested all the fragility of international law, in particular regarding the functioning of the United Nations.”

The shift in the document’s title was interpreted by some as a softening of tone towards America and the Bush administration. In combination with other recent developments — such as Cardinal Camillo Ruini’s comment at the funeral for 19 Italians killed in Iraq that terrorism must be confronted “with all our courage,” and the reassignment of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, architect of the Vatican’s anti-war stance — the shift was taken as additional confirmation of a more “realistic” Vatican stance.

Martino minimized the importance of the change.

“We propose elements that we offer to the pope, and he changes them,” Martino said. “This happens all the time, it is the normal practice.”

Vatican sources, however, told NCR that beyond the title, the draft of the Peace Day message submitted by Martino’s office was, in fact, tougher on the United States at several key points. It did not directly accuse the Bush administration of violating international law, but this was its clear implication.

During the editing process, one senior Vatican official commented that the draft was a “good piece,” but that a couple of paragraphs seemed “anti-American.”

Why was it toned down?

“You can’t discount the Italian context to all this,” one Vatican official told NCR.

That context works as follows. Ruini, as the president of the Italian bishops conference, wants to maintain a good working relationship with the Italian government. (The Italian state conducts an annual tax collection that provides enormous revenues to the bishops, a sum that last year topped $1 billion). Under conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the Italians have been supportive of U.S. policy in Iraq. Every time the Vatican issues a critical statement about the war, therefore, it makes life more difficult for Ruini. Tauran’s replacement, Italian Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, is likely to be more sensitive to this reality.

“This Italian dynamic played itself out with this document, in a way that’s probably not very clear to the outside world,” the Vatican official said.

Vatican sources say none of the massaging amounts to a shift in the pope’s opposition to the war. Instead, it reflects a desire to lower the heat rhetorically, in order to maintain good working relationships with all parties.

As it stands, section six of the message notes that international law recognizes only two exceptions to the prohibition against the use of force: self-defense, within the limits of necessity and proportionality, and an action authorized by the system of collective security.

Section eight adds, “the fight against terrorism cannot be limited solely to repressive and punitive operations.”

* * *

Finally, a footnote concerning the pope’s health. Marco Politi, of the Rome daily La Repubblica, asked Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls how the pope’s work on documents such as the World Peace Day Message has changed in light of his physical condition.

“Not much has changed in his system of work,” Navarro replied. “Maybe the pope says more and writes less,” he said, meaning that it’s more common for the pope to dictate his thoughts while someone else writes them down or types them on a keyboard.

“That way he can do more in less time,” Navarro said.

“But he still writes a great deal,” Navarro added. “As always, he writes in Polish, and it’s then translated into the various languages.”

On the subject of the pope’s health, I spoke Dec. 17 to someone who had dinner with John Paul two nights earlier. The pope was in good form, this source said, deeply involved in the conversation, offering observations of several sentences in length. This person presented the pope with a collection of poetry, and the pope immediately cited one of the American poet’s major works — no mean feat, given that English is perhaps the pope’s fifth language. It suggests his memory remains in relatively good shape.

The dinner guest had written some weeks before to the pope to describe a personal situation. When he arrived, the pope, without prompting, said he had received the letter and would remember the intention in his Mass the next day.

John Paul tires easily, the dinner guest said. When 8:30 p.m. rolled around, the pope said, “that’s enough for tonight,” and everyone left. Still, this person’s overall impression was that the pope appeared in much better form than in October, during 25th anniversary celebrations.

* * *

Pope John Paul II has given a thumbs-up to Mel Gibson’s controversial new film “The Passion of Christ,” a senior Vatican official told NCR Dec. 17.

“The Holy Father watched and enjoyed the film,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “His comment afterwards was, ‘It is as it was.’”

The official said the remark meant that the pope regards the film as a faithful depiction of the suffering and death of Christ as described in the New Testament.

Officially, Vatican spokespersons have so far refused to comment on whether or not the pope has seen the film. The senior official who spoke to NCR, however, confirmed that the pope watched a version provided by the film’s producers.

While spokespersons have in the past identified certain films that John Paul has watched and enjoyed — including “Gandhi,” “Life is Beautiful,” and “Schindler’s List” — in general the Vatican is hesitant to comment publicly on the pope’s reactions for fear of being seen as issuing a commercial endorsement.

“The Passion,” which is scheduled for release on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, has drawn fire from some critics for alleged anti-Semitism in its portrayal of Jews involved in the death of Christ. Defenders, however, say the film simply depicts events as described in the gospels.

The pope’s positive reaction builds on a series of good reviews from other Vatican officials, who have watched “The Passion” during a series of Rome screenings.

Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia, an American who serves as under-secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rejected the charge of anti-Semitism.

“The film neither exaggerates nor downplays the role of Jewish authorities and legal proceedings in the condemnation of Jesus,” Di Noia said. “But precisely because it presents a comprehensive account of what might be called the ‘calculus of blame’ in the passion and death of Christ, the film would be more likely to quell anti-Semitism in its audiences than to excite it.”

Earlier in the fall, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, also spoke positively of the movie.

“I would gladly trade some of the homilies that I have given about the Passion of Christ for even a few of the scenes of his film,” he said.

Some observers have expressed surprise at Vatican enthusiasm for “The Passion,” given that Gibson himself is a traditionalist Catholic who rejects much of the mainstream Catholic church shaped by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

One Vatican official, however, told NCR that while Gibson may be a bit idiosyncratic theologically, “his heart is in the right place.”

 “There will be conversions because of this film,” the official predicted.

* * *

When John Paul named 31 new cardinals in October, I observed that he was not “stacking the deck,” because in addition to doctrinal conservatives he also named a few moderate-to-progressive cardinals, and a number of men whose interests are in social questions rather than doctrinal debates.

If you’re looking for evidence that doctrinal conservatives enjoy favor in this pontificate, a much better case in point came along Dec. 16: the appointment of Archbishop Carlo Caffarra to Bologna. The move puts Caffarra in line to enter the College of Cardinals.

Although Caffara’s doctorate is in canon law, his interest lies in moral theology. From 1980 to 1995 he served as president of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. In that capacity, he became one of the fiercest “culture warriors” on issues of human sexuality in the Catholic hierarchy.

Sources in the Italian church say Cardinals Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan and Angelo Scola of Venice, both of whom specialize in bioethics and have worked with Caffarra closely over the years, supported his promotion.

At the same time, most sources, including those appreciative of Caffarra’s positions, would not rank him with Scola in terms of intellectual acumen.

Caffarra’s stands have been warmly appreciated in conservative circles. In 1988, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, an honor he shared with Dr. James Dobson, founder of “Focus on the Family.”

Ironically, Caffarra will be taking over in a city once know as “red Bologna” because of its strong support for the Italian Communist Party. Bologna is a place where it’s still possible to find intersections such as “Workers’ Avenue” and “Stalingrad Street.” On the other hand, the man Caffarra replaces, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, was a strong conservative, so by now Bologna is accustomed to the dissonance.

For those interested in Caffarra, there is a web site devoted to his writings: The texts are in Italian.

* * *

Conservative Episcopalians in the United States opposed to the consecration of an openly gay bishop have announced that they are forming a new “network,” which in some ways amounts to a parallel church structure and hence could be a kind of prelude to schism. It’s the latest sign of the strain within the Anglican Communion, which also has consequences for Anglican/Catholic dialogue.

As I noted in last week’s column, the distinguished Anglican ecumenist Mary Tanner lectured recently at Rome’s Centro Pro Unione.  I had a chance to sit down with Tanner for an interview on Dec. 12. The full text of our conversation may be found in the Special Documents section of or follow this link: Tanner Interview.

In the 1980s Tanner was part of the Grindrod Commission, set up to study the consequences of the decision by the Episcopalians in the United States to consecrate women bishops. That group reported to the Lambeth Conference, a gathering of Anglican bishops, in 1988. The bishops opted to “remain in the highest degree of communion possible” with provinces that went ahead with consecrations of women, without determining the issue itself.

I pressed her on whether that model is ultimately satisfactory, since it seems to duck the issue — whether the ordination of women is consistent with scripture and tradition, or not. As she spoke, it became clear how much weight the Anglican Communion puts on the process of “reception” of a decision.

“I’m helped when I look at Acts 15,” Tanner said. “The early Christians were facing what I suppose was the first major issue, the question of gentile converts. I don’t imagine that council settled the matter all at once. There was a long process of reception before the whole church accepted it. … In the process of discerning the mind of Christ for the church, the process of reception is critically important — an open process, it could go either way.”

But surely there are limits. What if an Anglican province wanted to drop the Trinity? (Obviously a wildly improbable hypothesis, but one offered for the sake of discussion).

“Ah, now we’re back to the question of authority,” Tanner said. “I think that is the major question before us in authority in communion, which Anglicans have been working on and are still working on.”

Tanner said she believes a credible authority exists in the Lambeth Conference, meaning all the bishops as a college. She acknowledged this is more a moral authority than a juridical one, and said Anglicanism is trying to sort out if it needs “something more.”

Tanner said she remains an optimist about Anglican/Catholic relations.

“I want to say what Cardinal Kasper has said: ‘We may rub our eyes one day and be surprised at what God has done among us,’” Tanner said. “I’m not prepared to give up on the vision of full and visible unity. I think that’s what is required of us, and it’s a matter of our fidelity to the gospel.”

* * *

French President Jacques Chirac has announced that he will support a measure banning “conspicuous” religious symbols such as Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses in public schools.

Though polls show 69 percent of the French back the law, and while France would not be the first nation to adopt such a measure (Turkey also bans scarves), many observers are nevertheless dumbfounded that the birthplace of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” would contemplate such an infringement on religious liberty.

Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, who runs his order’s office on inter-religious dialogue, told NCR that he shares the incredulity.

“I see it as a debate between religious believers and secular fundamentalists who are adamantly convinced of the rightness of their own cause. These secularists are trying to force their views on everyone in society whether they like it or not,” Michel said Dec. 16.

“To me, the crux of the issue revolves around a simple question.  Has the young woman freely decided to wear a veil? If it is her decision, not that of her father, brother, imam or boy friend, she has the right to do so, and we should defend that right.”

Michel, who travels widely in the Islamic world, said such a free choice is more common than some Westerners might suppose.

“Some young women have discovered it to be a liberating element in their lives,” he said.

* * *

If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas gift, I can eagerly recommend Arthur Jones’ new book Pierre Toussaint (Doubleday).

It’s is a fascinating read, not just about the man who could become the first black saint from the United States, but about the Catholic church and larger social and political currents in the 19th century. Although Jones writes for my newspaper, he does not sign my paychecks, so I feel free to say that his book is engagingly written, rich in detail, and a model of the art of biography. Readers interested may find it here:   Pierre Toussaint

* * *

“The Word from Rome” came in for a mention in Newsweek this week, in a piece by that magazine’s veteran religion writer Ken Woodward. It can be found here:

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

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