National Catholic Reporter ®

December 27, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.18

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The liberal side of John Paul II; Italy’s rebel priest; and Merry Christmas to all
 The pope carefully notes he is not advocating a “global super-state,” but he leaves no doubt that he is talking about a significantly beefed-up United Nations, with real power to ensure that the global economic order is answerable to a political authority capable of representing the common good. 

Two recent documents from John Paul II, both of which reflect his personal imprint, illustrate anew how insufficient it would be to define this pontificate simply as “conservative.” 

First came John Paul’s message for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, 2003, released in a Dec. 17 Vatican news conference. This year John Paul II styled his text as a meditation on John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris. As John Paul recalls, John XIII issued that letter just two years after the erection of the Berlin Wall, and six months after the Cuban missile crisis. He intended it as a plea for a change of heart on both sides, avoiding the unilateral denunciations of socialism and communism that had peppered earlier papal documents (including his own 1961 Mater et Magistra).

Pacem in Terris generated no small amount of controversy. On one side, it was criticized by Cold Warriors accustomed to thinking of John’s predecessor, Pius XII, as “the chaplain of NATO” for his fierce anti-Communist stance. From within the church, a traditionalist wing attacked (and still attacks) Pacem in Terris because its embrace of human rights stood in apparent conflict with much 19th century papal teaching. 

No one could accuse the present pope of being soft on communism. Yet John Paul II in his message for World Peace Day praises Pacem in Terris as a “noble vision.” 

Most pointedly, John Paul echoes John XXIII’s insistence upon the construction of a “new constitutional organization of the human family,” capable of ensuring peace and guiding the development of nations towards a more just social order. The pope carefully notes he is not advocating a “global super-state,” but he leaves no doubt that he is talking about a significantly beefed-up United Nations, with real power to ensure that the global economic order is answerable to a political authority capable of representing the common good. He is, in effect, talking about a form of one-world government. 

That’s certainly a more daring vision than one hears from most Western political leaders these days. 

The second papal text of note was John Paul’s annual Christmas address to the members of the Roman Curia on Saturday, Dec. 21. It’s the only occasion in which the pope addresses the entire Curia, and he styles the speech as a look back over the year. Curial personnel are always on alert on this occasion, because the pope’s choice of highlights is a way of revealing his priorities. If you want to know the mind of John Paul II, which themes out of all his activity stand closest to his heart, studying these texts is a good place to start. 

This year, the address touched upon seven themes: peace, inter-religious dialogue, human rights, environmentalism, ecumenism, youth, and holiness. 

John Paul began by recalling the various conflicts that are spilling blood in various parts of the world. He said the situation in the Holy Land is “emblematic” of the violence, but noted that many other “forgotten” wars are no less devastating. “Terrorism too continues to generate victims and dig new graves,” the pope wrote. 

In this context, John Paul said, the church must “continue to raise her voice” for peace. In particular, he referred to his decision last January to invite world religious leaders to join him in Assisi, for the third time since 1986, in a day of prayer for peace. The religious leaders issued a common declaration disavowing violence in the name of God. “Together with the representatives of the other religions, we gave testimony to the mission of peace that is the special duty of all those who believe in God,” the pope said. 

One should recall that these Assisi gatherings have been the object of sharp criticism from Catholic conservatives, including some in the Roman Curia itself, fearful of creating the impression of religious relativism. 

On the environment, the pope lamented the “devastation that a lack of human care is capable of causing to the environment, inflicting wounds on nature every day that turn back on humanity itself.” In this connection, John Paul took pride in the common ecological declaration he signed on June 10 with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew. (The occasion was actually a videoconference with Bartholomew in Venice and John Paul in Rome). The two men called for a new “ecological consciousness” among believers. 

On human rights, the pope recalled his visit to the Italian parliament on Nov. 14, the first time any pope had visited the citadel of the secular, lay-run Italian nation. (Though a non-story in most of the rest of the world, the visit drew Moon landing levels of coverage in the Italian press). Politically, the old standoff between the Vatican and Republican Italy ended with Pius XI and the 1929 Lateran Accords. John Paul II, however, has closed the gap intellectually, especially by reconciling the Republican concept of human rights with Catholic doctrine. Truth cannot be imposed but must be met in freedom, the pope has said repeatedly, and the assertion of universal rights (beginning with religious freedom) is the best guarantor of that freedom. Hence there is no conflict between the Catholic Church and a modern, pluralistic democracy, an affirmation to which the pope’s trip to parliament lent an exclamation point. 

John Paul then shifted his focus to intra-Christian concerns, especially ecumenism. He suggested that the past year has registered some notable steps forward, even if some “motives for bitterness” are also present (no doubt a reference to the freeze in Catholic/Russian Orthodox dialogue after last February’s upgrade of four apostolic administrations in Russia to dioceses). He pointed to a high-profile visit to Rome of a delegation from the Greek Orthodox Church in Athens, as well as the October visit of the Romanian Orthodox Patriarch, Teoctist. 

“When will the Lord finally give us the joy of full communion with the Orthodox brothers?” the pope asked. “The answer remains in the mystery of divine providence. But trust in God,” the pope added sharply, “does not dispense one from personal commitment.” 

John Paul next recalled World Youth Day, asking the Catholic Church to put young people at the center of its pastoral concern. The pope closed with an invitation to holiness, pointing to canonizations in the last year such as Juan Diego, Padre Pio and Josemaria Escrivá de Balaguer, as well his trip to the sanctuary of Divine Mercy in Poland in August. 

All this, it should be clear, does not a conservative pope make. As a thought experiment, translate John Paul’s priorities into a secular political program: a strong United Nations, promotion of social justice, an end to war, environmentalism, human rights, inter-religious tolerance, and a special option for the young. Throw in a couple of the other stands for which the pope is well known, such as staunch opposition to the death penalty and the concept of a “living wage.” Such a candidate could not get nominated for president by the Democrats in the United States, let alone the Republicans, because he would be seen as too liberal. 

Of course, there are areas in which John Paul is clearly conservative. Sexual morality and collegiality come to mind. But that should not occlude the point that in other areas this pope has been quite progressive, especially measured against the broad sweep of church history. 

Two additional notes. 

It will be disappointing to some Catholics, perhaps especially in the United States, that nowhere in John Paul’s review of 2002 did he allude to the sex abuse crisis that has so rocked the Catholic Church this past year. Of course the speech is intended to pick out highlights of the year, which the scandals obviously were not. This relentlessly optimistic pope has, too, always been one for looking forward rather than back. Still, one element of the dismay that many Catholics felt this year is a sense that their leaders haven’t fully appreciated the magnitude of the crisis or the shock it has caused for ordinary believers. At some stage, an additional word of recognition along these lines from the pope would likely be helpful. 

Second, as if to drive home the point that whether or not John Paul is “conservative” depends on your point of view, consider this Dec. 14 broadside from Scottish columnist Gerald Warner, writing in the English newspaper The Spectator

“Is the Pope a Catholic? The jury is still out, in the view of a growing number of critics of the current pontificate. These new dissidents are not recruited from the usual suspects — the We are Church Weirdos and Easter People — but from the hardcore remnant of faithful but deeply troubled Catholics. They survey, with dismay, the fruits of a pontificate that has been far from the authoritarian, conservative caricature purveyed by the secular media. …

“At Bombay, in 1986, the Vicar of Christ allowed a priestess of Shiva to anoint his forehead (already anointed in the Apostolic Succession) with the pagan sign of the Tilak. He has kissed the Koran in public and engaged in dialogue with voodoo witch doctors. Historically, countless Catholics have suffered martyrdom rather than collaborate in such gestures. …

“Where does courtesy end and apostasy begin? …

“In that spirit, many are asking why the Pope who presided at a Mass in Papua New Guinea where the epistle was read by a bare-breasted woman will not allow the unrestricted celebration of the Latin Tridentine Mass throughout the world. More than two million people now attend the Old Rite, despite frenzied attempts to crush it by bishops tolerant of such lesser scandals as pedophile priests. …

“Vatican II has been made the ultimate totem of Catholicism, while the teachings of 261 popes and 20 previous ecumenical councils have been marginalized. Rome faces the same dilemma as an alcoholic: until it acknowledges the problem — Vatican II — no cure is possible. Only by revisiting that aberration of the 1960s can the Barque of Peter regain an even keel. So argue the increasingly vocal critics of a pontificate that has been, in reality, more progressive than conservative.”

* * * 

As I read through the avalanche of recent tributes to Philip Berrigan, the former Josephite and peace activist, I was reminded of the old truth that a prophet always has a hard time finding space in the church. This point has been on display in Italy in recent weeks with the story of Fr. Vitaliano Della Sala, probably the country’s best-known leftist activist priest. 

Della Sala is a familiar figure in Italian newspapers and TV. He has long been a friend of the centri sociali, gathering places for young Italian radicals that establishment Catholic figures either shun or outright oppose. During the Holy Year of 2000, he was one of a very few Catholic voices supporting the celebration of an international Gay Pride festival in Rome, over the Vatican’s opposition. 

More recently, he has emerged as the leading Catholic sympathizer with the “no-global” movement, a loose network of anti-globalization forces running along the European left. At its extreme end, the coalition includes the kind of “black block” anarchists who smash banks and McDonald’s storefronts. Though Della Sala has always condemned violence, his association with the radicals has nevertheless led many to question his judgment, and at one point this year he actually faced a criminal indictment for complicity in the rampages at Genoa during the G-8 meeting in August 2001. 

Through the controversy, Della Sala has insisted that his lone aim is to be a priest in the spirit of the gospel, meaning standing by the “little ones” of society who are being crushed or consigned to the margins. 

On Nov. 22, the inevitable dénouement of Della Sala’s ecclesiastical situation began with a letter from his superior, a Benedictine abbot named Tarcisio Nazzaro, who for a quirky historical reason has jurisdiction over Della Sala’s parish in Sant’Angelo a Scala, a tiny hamlet in the northern Italian province of Avellino. In the letter, Nazzaro formally removed Della Sala as pastor of St. James the Apostle parish and ordered him out of the rectory. He cited “disturbance to ecclesiastical communion” and “scandal for the faithful” as the motives for the disciplinary measure. 

The faithful of Sant’Angelo a Scala, to judge by their reaction, seemed more scandalized by the abbot’s decree than by Della Sala. They immediately organized demonstrations outside their small church, at one point building a symbolic wall to try to protect their pastor. To his credit, Della Sala has encouraged the parishioners to accept the priest tapped by Nazzaro to take over, a 26-year-old Argentinian. 

I sat down with Fr. Della Sala for an interview on Dec. 18, in a coffee bar a couple of blocks from the Vatican. The 40-year-old was in Rome to prepare a canonical appeal against Nazzaro’s decree. 

“I didn’t choose to be a prophet. It’s more like being a prophet chose me,” Della Sala said. “I don’t think of myself as an exceptional person. I’m a normal person who asks questions.” 

Della Sala has received a lengthy document from Nazzaro and two consultors detailing his alleged offenses. Della Sala posted the document on his web site (, and it makes fascinating reading. 

Consider the following excerpt: 

“Given his unstable and contrasting behaviors, mixing the sacred and the profane, the suspicion arises that there is a double personality in him that manifests itself in a kind of alienation of judgment and an absence of religious consciousness. He himself admits that he feels a strong desire ‘to be a priest at any cost’ (which comes from his fervently Catholic mother) but also a lay, anti-clerical impulse derived from his paternal figure and the communist circles he frequented as an adolescent.” 

So it goes, mixing accusations of canonical offenses and doctrinal errors with pop psychology and innuendo about Della Sala’s personal life, even his mode of dress and his use of language . “A rumor is circulating about insolent expressions and even true blasphemies against the Blessed Virgin,” the report reads. “We want to believe that these are, in fact, only rumors put in play by mean-spirited parties.” 

All in all, it is one of the more sui generis justifications for disciplinary action against a Catholic priest one is ever likely to read. 

To add insult to injury, Nazzaro has ordered Della Sala to leave his present assignment without telling him where to go or what to do next. In his letter Nazzaro promised to pay a pension to Della Sala, but has so far said nothing about how much or where Della Sala can pick it up. 

Della Sala told me he intends to fight Nazzaro’s decision, because he feels responsible to his parishioners, to those Catholics who share his vision of church, and to the young people in the “no-global” world who look to him as a bridge to the faith. 

A footnote for those tracking the papabili, or candidates to be the next pope. Della Sala says he believes that Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, is the eminence grise directing his drama from behind the scenes. Why would Re have ordered the crackdown? Della Sala believes it may be because Re was the sostituto, the number two official in the Secretariat of State, in 2000 when Della Sala was an outspoken critic of the Vatican line on the Gay Pride festival. 

Finally, because Della Sala has been expelled from his parish, he decided to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass outdoors in Sicily for a group of striking workers. He told me that perhaps he will take up a more universal priestly ministry not restricted to a particular parish, a kind of “personal prelature” all his own. 

* * * 

A few quick additional vignettes. 

• Monica Lewinsky was in Rome recently, attempting to negotiate a lucrative deal to appear on Italian television without having to go into all the unsavory details of “sexgate.” She finally appeared to have things worked out and showed up at the studios of RAI, the Italian state TV system, to tape a segment of Porta a Porta, one of the country’s most-watched evening talk programs. The evening had been billed as a discussion of difficulties faced by people who find themselves at the center of public controversy, or something of the sort. Lewinsky, however, walked off the set in a huff as soon as she arrived, because she saw the phrase “Sexgate” in enormous letters in the backdrop. She left the country the following day. The Vatican-related aside is that Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the pope’s secretary of state, is reported to have phoned the president of RAI to express his disappointment at the prospect of an interview with Lewinsky, especially coming so close to the Christmas holidays. 

• When Archbishop Renato Martino, the new head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, presented the pope’s message for World Peace Day, he suggested that people all over the world might engage in an individual “gesture of peace” this Christmas. Specifically, Martino suggested kissing one’s mother-in-law as an example, as well as bringing roses to one’s wife or shaking the hand of someone who cheers for your team’s most hated rival. Noting that the world’s press did not really seize on the proposal, Vatican Radio did a fresh report on Monday, Dec. 23, to relaunch Martino’s idea, and asked me to respond. Fortunately I have a good relationship with my mother-in-law, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to muster an endorsement. More seriously, I reflected on why the press has paid relatively little attention to the various world voices, including the pope and the Vatican, proposing alternatives to war. Could it be because so many news organizations have invested so much money and personnel in preparing to cover the war that, by now, we journalists are actually complicit in creating a psychological context in which war seems inevitable? Something to ponder. 

• On Friday, Dec. 20, John Paul II signed decrees for 17 candidates for sainthood, including Mother Teresa. The act cleared the way for Mother Teresa’s beatification next Oct. 19 in Rome, a recognition that has been widely expected since her death in 1997. Since CNN called me in to do some commentary as the news was breaking, I looked up a few factoids to prepare myself. Naturally none of the material I prepared actually helped me, but at least I can make use of one bit here. Mother Teresa’s beatification will be the fastest on record, both as measured from the date of her death (six years) and from the opening of her cause (which happened on July 26, 1999, so the beatification will occur four years and three months later). Previously, the record for the shortest time span from opening of cause to beatification belonged not as many believe to Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei (for whom it took 11 years), but to Zeferino Giménez Malla, known as “El Pelè,” the first gypsy to be declared blessed. Giménez Malla, martyred during the Spanish Civil War in 1936, was beatified on May 4, 1997, just five years after his process opened. (The Spanish diocese in which the martyrdom occurred had not opened a cause until 1992, and the new urgency reflected in part John Paul’s desire to express solidarity with Europe’s troubled gypsy population). 

* * * 

Finally, a very Merry Christmas to the readers of “The Word from Rome,” or, as we say here, Tantissimi Auguri!

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

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