National Catholic Reporter ®

December 20, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.17

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Behind Law’s final days; update on document on admitting gays to seminary; new curial appointments

“The ‘preventive war’ does not serve peace, but places humanity in a state of permanent war, in addition to the very grave fact that the theory of ‘preventive war’ lies beyond the most ethically secure rules and those most universally accepted by international law.”

La Civiltà Cattolica
In the aftermath of Cardinal Bernard Law’s Dec. 13 resignation, making him the 19th Catholic bishop to step down since 1990 in the wake of sex abuse scandals (including nine Americans, nine archbishops, and two cardinals), many observers are trying to understand, “Why now?” Given the Vatican’s traditional reluctance to cede to public pressure, and John Paul’s oft-stated aversion to a bishop renouncing spiritual paternity, why did the pope decide to let Law walk away after 11 months of riding out the storm?

     A Law spokesperson has said that the cardinal made up his mind to resign on Dec. 5, then flew to Washington to inform the papal nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, who in turn urged him to go to Rome to communicate his decision directly to the pope. Yet it’s not so much Law’s will to resign that begs explanation, as the pope’s decision to accept it.

     Most Vatican officials, off the record, seem to agree that three factors were paramount:

  • A grand jury subpoena served to Law on Friday, Dec. 6;
  • The threat of bankruptcy;
  • A letter from 58 of Law’s priests calling for his resignation.
     This final element was, according to Vatican sources, probably the most critical. On Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 9 and 10, the consensus was that Law would be told to stay on, as he had been last spring when he first offered to step aside. That shifted decisively on Wednesday, however, and most officials pointed to the impact of the priests’ letter. Seen from Rome, protests from American lay groups such as Voice of the Faithful can seem like just another expression of the noisy, confrontational political culture in the United States. When the rebellion comes from within the clerical fraternity, however, it’s much more difficult to ignore.

     Is the Law story now over? Not quite.

     Law’s resignation concerns only his role as head of the Boston archdiocese. He remains a cardinal, bishop, and priest. Among other implications, this means Law will continue to be a member of a number of congregations in the Roman curia. (The congregations are the most powerful decision-making organs of the papal bureaucracy). They include five with direct responsibility on issues relating to sexual abuse. They are: the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for Clergy, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, the Congregation for Divine Worship, and the Congregation for Education.

     The Congregation for Bishops supervises the performance of diocesan bishops, Clergy handles clerical discipline as well as diocesan finances, Consecrated Life oversees religious orders, Worship handles laicization cases, and Education is responsible for seminaries. Hence Law still has, at least theoretically, the right to be at the table when core aspects of Vatican policy on matters related to sexual abuse are hammered out. 

     Law’s membership in the Congregation for Bishops is especially striking, because it means that he could also have an official voice in the selection of his own successor in Boston. (He is one of three Americans to serve on Bishops, the others being William Baum and James Francis Stafford).

     A senior Vatican official said Dec. 16 that while Law would not be asked to resign any of these posts, it is expected that he will use discretion and not participate when matters related to sexual abuse or Boston arise. It will be interesting to see if such informal assurances will satisfy critics. 

     In a Dec. 17 interview with NCR, David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said the group intends to demand an “across the board” resignation by Law that would include stepping down as a cardinal. The Vatican official, meanwhile, said that such demands amount to a “genuine persecution” of Law.

     The only man in the 20th century to resign from the College of Cardinals was Jesuit Louis Billot of France in 1927. Billot was a supporter of the right-wing Action Française movement, which was also accused of being anti-Semitic, and when Pius XI condemned it in 1926 Billot decided to protest by renouncing his red hat. He retired to the Jesuit novitiate in Galloro and died in 1931, four years later. Hence if Law were to step down as a cardinal, it would not quite be unprecedented, but the next thing to it.

     In Boston, meanwhile, the Law story will not truly be over until a permanent successor is named. Vatican sources say the appointment will not be made in haste, and that Bishop Richard Lennon, the interim apostolic administrator, will be given time to turn things around before a new man is named. The transition, those sources say, will probably be measured in months rather than days or weeks. 

     In the United States, two names drawing attention as possible candidates are Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul/Minneapolis, head of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. Both are serious possibilities, though both are viewed with some reserve here in Rome.

     Gregory is admired for his handling of the media, but his appointment of former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating to head the National Review Board raised Vatican eyebrows, especially given Keating’s very public suggestion that Catholics unhappy with their bishop might withhold money or go to Mass outside the diocese. Flynn, meanwhile, was the architect of the sex abuse norms adopted by the bishops in Dallas in June, about which the Vatican had serious objections, leading to the formation of a special “mixed commission” in October. Flynn, however, has at least one powerful advocate in Rome: Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, the pope’s ambassador to the United States from 1980 to 1990.

     Other candidates whose names have surfaced in recent days include Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, head of the military archdiocese and a former rector of the North American College; Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh; Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport; Bishop Sean O’Malley of Palm Beach; and Archbishops Charles Chaput of Denver, Justin Rigali of St. Louis, and Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe. 

     Two footnotes.

     Both O’Malley and Chaput are Capuchin Franciscans, making this perhaps the first time in recent memory that two Capuchins made anyone’s short list for a bishop’s appointment. The Capuchins, much to their credit, are not known for ecclesiastical ambition. (I say this as a product of six years of Capuchin education — and whether that is to their credit is best left to the reader’s judgment).

     Finally, in a week full of non-stop TV and radio interviews, I was asked countless times to describe the “atmosphere” in the Vatican surrounding Law’s visit and his resignation. I got the impression that at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, many people assumed the Vatican must feel like the Nixon White House in 1975, with the same air of bitter defeat. In fact, however, the mood in the Apostolic Palace last week was actually fairly sprightly, due mostly to the approaching Christmas season, perhaps coupled with satisfaction over the pope’s physical improvement. 

     My evidence? On Thursday, Dec. 12, as Law’s resignation announcement was being drafted, I found myself in the papal apartment as part of a press pool covering the visit of the President of Singapore, S.R. Nathan. As several of us waited outside during the private encounter between the pope and Nathan, Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, then pope’s private secretary and closest advisor, emerged carrying a tray of Austrian chocolates. He walked around the room handing them out, beaming broadly, then stayed to banter with the photographers, joking that one of them looked like a Palestinian (the president of Israel was also on the pope’s schedule that day). Hence it would hardly be accurate to say that the pope’s inner circle was “hunkered down in crisis mode” as the Law saga played itself out. 

     On the other hand, sources also say that Dziwisz and others in the circle around the pope are increasingly concerned that the sex abuse scandals, which seemed months ago like isolated local incidents, now threaten to taint the closing phase of John Paul’s papacy. Taken together, they could paint a picture of subpar episcopal appointments and administrative neglect on John Paul’s watch. Certainly no one doubts the pope’s personal integrity, or his horror at revelations of sexual abuse of children by priests. It is a fair question, however, if more aggressive leadership from Rome might have spared an enormous amount of suffering, both by victims and by the church. Perhaps in some small measure, this concern, too, helps explain the papal change of heart on Law.

* * *

     On Dec. 16, the Vatican released a letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, granting the recognitio to the sex abuse norms adopted by the U.S. bishops in Washington in mid-November. The decision means that those norms have the force of law in every diocese in the United States. 

     The decision was widely anticipated, since the norms had been revised by a “mixed commission” of U.S. bishops and Vatican officials in late October. This column reported Dec. 6 that the recognitio had been granted.

     No one should think, however, that Vatican approval of the norms for two years means the end of the story. In fact, there are serious unanswered questions about how these rules will work in practice. They include:

     What actually is meant by “sexual abuse?” The standard in the norms, “an external, objectively grave violation of the sixth commandment,” leaves much room for interpretation, with the risk that the same act might have a priest restored to ministry in one diocese but barred for life in another.

     How will the requirement of “pontifical secrecy” affect cooperation with civil and criminal authorities? Will both victims and accused priests be left in the dark for long periods of time as the legal machinery grinds on? Will a lack of transparency undermine public confidence in the process?

     How will the American norms work with the new Vatican norms on sex abuse, proclaimed in secret 18 months ago and recently published for the first time on the NCR web site? How will church officials ensure that a uniform standard of justice is being applied at both levels?

     Will the Vatican grant waivers from the statute of limitations, set at 10 years from the victim’s 18th birthday, as a matter of course, as the U.S. bishops told the American press in Washington? Or will there be cases in which the evidence seems insufficiently compelling to Vatican officials, or the crime insufficiently grave, to justify reaching 30 or 40 years into the past? If so, how will victims and lay activist groups react when the accused priest is restored to ministry?

     If a bishop removes a priest on the basis of norm nine, using administrative authority, when he can’t secure a conviction in a canonical court but is convinced the priest is guilty, will the Vatican back him up on appeal? (Such an appeal from an administrative measure is technically called “recourse”). What happens if the bishop is overturned, since bishops have vowed that such men will never be returned to ministry? 

     Where do religious order priests and deacons fit in this process? They were written into the norms at the last minute in footnote #1, but almost everyone recognizes this is not a satisfactory solution. Will the orders be able to maintain their traditional autonomy while at the same time cooperating in the spirit of the new norms?

     This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it gives some indication of the challenges to be worked out over the next two years. 

* * *

     An update on the forthcoming Vatican document on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries.

     This week I had the opportunity to speak with an official involved in the drafting. He explained the complexity of the process, since while the document is formally being prepared under the aegis of the Congregation for Education, many other offices are involved. These include the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Secretariat of State, the Congregations for Clergy and for Consecrated Life, the Congregation for Divine Worship, and any congregation with responsibility for seminaries, which include the Congregations for Evangelization of Peoples and for Oriental Churches. 

     The official indicated that the document would probably bar the admission of a seminary candidate with a “permanent, enduring” homosexual orientation. The problem, he said, is how to know whether or not a particular man fits that profile. “If a man has had certain experiences, but has come out of them, can you really say that’s permanent and enduring?” he asked. The official stressed that it’s always up to bishops and seminary formators to make these decisions in individual cases — pointedly, he added, “not psychologists.”

     I asked why this document was being prepared now, given that there are other ways to give indications to bishops without inviting the storm of media attention that will certainly follow the issuance of a formal document. The official replied, “because the American bishops asked for it.” In their ad limina visits to Rome, he said, various American prelates made the request for the Vatican to say something authoritative.

     One internal tension in the drafting process is between those who want something unambiguous and with teeth, and those who would prefer to phrase the document positively, as an exposition of the qualities the church seeks in a priest. Such an approach would stress that a priest is someone capable of giving his whole heart unreservedly to God, in response to a vocation that comes from God. Taking the latter route, the official said, would avoid using harsh language on the unsuitability of gays, but risks watering down the desired message. 

     “We don’t want to exclude vocations,” this official said. “There are priests who have had these experiences in their lives who are nevertheless wonderful, holy priests, who can be compassionate. It would be wrong to exclude these men.”

     Nevertheless, the official said, the crisis in the United States illustrates the costs of being “imprudent” in the admission of candidates to the priesthood.

     The official stressed two or three times how much the drafters are “suffering” in the preparation of this document. Some people believe Vatican potentates enjoy cracking heads, this official said, but people involved in the process on this document are agonizing. 

* * *

     Vatican opposition to the prospect of a U.S.-led war in Iraq grows steadily more overt.

     On Dec. 17, the Vatican released the pope’s message for the World Day of Peace, on Jan. 1. This annual gesture was introduced by Paul VI, who selected New Year’s Day because it is a secular, not specifically Christian, observance, and hence can appeal to all “people of good will.”

     In this year’s message, John Paul II emphasizes the need for respect of human rights, and the construction of an international political order capable of backing up these rights. While stressing that he is not talking about a “super-state,” it was nevertheless clear that the pope wanted to give strong backing to the United Nations.

     On hand to present the message in a Vatican press conference was Archbishop Renato Martino, for 16 years the Holy See’s observer the U.N., and now prefect of the Council for Justice and Peace. Martino was blunt in his application of these principles to the idea of what some in the Bush administration have labeled a “preventive war” against Iraq.

     “A preventive war is a war of aggression,” Martino said. “There is no doubt. This is not part of the definition of a just war. There has to be an offense, an invasion, and then there can be a legitimate defense.”

     Asked about the need to disarm aggressors, Martino stressed anew the need to work through the United Nations.

     “This disarming of belligerents must be done through the organs at our disposition, which is the United Nations,” Martino said, recalling that Paul VI had referred to the U.N. as “the obligatory path for humanity in modern times.”

     A recent editorial in La Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit journal that serves as a semi-official house organ for the Vatican, recently put an exclamation point on this criticism.

     “The ‘preventive war’ does not serve peace, but places humanity in a state of permanent war, in addition to the very grave fact that the theory of ‘preventive war’ lies beyond the most ethically secure rules and those most universally accepted by international law,” it read.

     As in the Gulf War in 1991, if the United States does go to war in Iraq, it seems increasingly clear it will do so without the support of the Holy See.

     A footnote. In his message for World Peace Day, John Paul pointed approvingly to “the almost universal demand for participatory ways of exercising political authority, even international political authority, and for transparency and accountability at every level of public life.” In the wake of the sex abuse crisis, these words will have a special resonance for American Catholics, who will perhaps see applications for them inside the church as well.

* * *

     Two important curial appointments were announced Dec. 19. Salesian Fr. Angelo Amato, an Italian, was named the new secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, while Legionaries of Christ Fr. Brian Farrell, from Ireland, has been named the new secretary of the Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. 

     Amato has long been a key consultor to the CDF, so his appointment was not a surprise. He was one of the primary authors of the September 2000 document Dominus Iesus, which generated worldwide controversy by asserting that followers of other religions are in a “gravely deficient situation” in comparison to Christians, who alone “have the fullness of the means of salvation.” 

     A professor of theology at Rome’s Salesianum University, Amato was the driving force behind the lengthy CDF investigation of Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis. His 1997 book Towards a Theology of Religious Pluralism, which argued that other religious have a positive role in God’s plan for humanity, generated alarm in the Vatican about diminished missionary efforts and a “one’s as good as another” religious relativism. When Dupuis was brought in for a confrontation with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in September 2000 (the day before Dominus Iesus was issued), Amato was the lone theological advisor present. He did not, however, speak during the meeting.

     Amato, a Christologist, studied in India as well as Greece, and speaks Greek fluently. He has expertise in both Orthodox theology as well as Oriental religions, perhaps explaining his interest in some of the same issues that occupy Dupuis, despite their different conclusions.

     Last year Amato gave a talk at the Legionaries of Christ university in Rome, Regina Apostolorum, in which he said that John Paul II’s lasting contribution to Catholic theology is “Trinitarian Christocentrism,” that is, placing Christ at the center of theological discourse within a Trinitarian perspective. In this connection, Amato said that Dominus Iesus simply re-expressed what the pope had written in his 1990 encyclical on evangelization, Redemptoris Missio.

     It may intrigue some readers to know that Amato devoted 10 of the 31 pages of his talk to whether there should be a new, fifth Marian dogma, assigning her the titles of “Mediatrix” and “Coredemptrix.” This is a hot question at places such as the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where the champion of the “final dogma,” Professor Mark Miraville, promotes the cause. Amato’s conclusion was negative. Such titles, he wrote, are confusing theologically and unnecessarily provocative ecumenically.

     Speaking of the Legionaries of Christ, the other curial appointment of note is Farrell, a Legionary, who has worked in the Secretariat of State since 1981. At the Council for Promoting Christian Unity he replaces Marc Ouellet, a Sulpician, who has recently been named the archbishop of Quebec. 

     Farrell took over the role of the head of the English-language section in the Secretariat of State when American James Harvey moved up to the assessor’s office, before eventually becoming head of the Pontifical Household. In that post, Farrell has been responsible for many of the pope’s English-language speeches, which include memorable discourses at World Youth Day and the trip to the Holy Land. He also had a hand in preparing the pope’s addresses for the ad limina visits of the U.S. bishops. One Vatican source described Farrell as a “solid, orthodox guy.”

     While the appointment took many by surprise, Farrell actually has a long-standing interest in ecumenical issues. Farrell’s doctoral work was performed under Jesuit Fr. Karl Becker at the Gregorian University, himself a longtime consultor for the CDF, on the subject of inter-communion among Orthodox, Protestants and Catholics.

     A family note: Farrell’s brother, Kevin, is an auxiliary bishop in the Washington archdiocese. He was appointed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as vicar general and moderator of the curia. Kevin Farrell started out as a Legionaries of Christ priest as well, but left in 1984 to become a member of the diocesan clergy.

     For Anglo-Saxons, Amato’s appointment is probably more important than Farrell’s, for two reasons. First, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been assigned exclusive jurisdiction over cases of priestly sex abuse of minors, hence the secretary of that office automatically becomes the Vatican’s point person on the sex abuse crisis. Second, given that Ratzinger has pulled back somewhat from the day-to-day management of the congregation, the secretary’s role becomes critical in terms of providing leadership and setting the tone. Farrell, meanwhile, will be serving a strong leader at the top of his game in Cardinal Walter Kasper, meaning the personal imprint he will leave on the office will likely be correspondingly less.

     One curiosity lingers about the Amato appointment. Typically there is a canon lawyer among the three top officials at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the theory that the office’s work is in part theological and in part canonical. The outgoing secretary, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone (also a Salesian) was a canonist, Ratzinger a theologian. Amato, however, is a theologian, as is the under-secretary, Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia, an American. Hence the canonist is sort of a missing link.

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

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