Would you like to donate to NCR?

January 13, 2006 
The Word From Rome
Vol. 5, No. 19

John L. Allen Jr. 




'Commitment to truth is the soul of justice, Benedict XVI says; Ali Agca and the plot to kill a pope; Pope meets with the Neocatechumenal Way; Ethical issues facing Benedict XVI


In his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI offered the formula "development is the new name for peace."

An assertion with no specifically religious content, it became one of the slogans of the style of social engagement that dominated the post-Vatican II church. Catholic social activists, in an attempt to build broad coalitions and to work should-to-shoulder with people of all faiths, and of none, focused largely on "development," avoiding specifically religious "evangelization" and sometimes playing down contentious elements of Catholic doctrine that might alienate potential allies. (Catholics involved in HIV/AIDS relief in Africa, for example, often say very little about official teaching on contraception).

It's an approach that has put the church on the front lines of struggles for social progress in the secular world, and has allowed Catholic charities to penetrate parts of the globe that would have been inaccessible if the perception had been that their presence was a "front" for proselytism.

It will not, however, be the style of social engagement of Benedict XVI.

For the pope who declared a "dictatorship of relativism" to be the most urgent challenge facing humanity, the path to peace runs not primarily through development, but through truth. Only by embracing objective truths about the meaning and purpose of human life, he believes, can a stable social order be built.

This was the core of Benedict XVI's message for his first World Day of Peace, an annual observance instituted by Paul VI. In a telling shift of emphasis, Benedict chose as his theme: "In truth, peace."

That slogan was also the heart of the pope's address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See on Monday, widely seen as his most important political and diplomatic speech of the year. Well before his election as pope, Joseph Ratzinger was concerned about the collapse of confidence in objective truth in post-modern culture, leading to a philosophical and moral relativism with geopolitical consequences, such as the claim that "human rights" are a Western construct lacking universal validity. Nonsense, Benedict insists; the vocabulary of human rights may be Western, but the content expresses universal truths about human dignity.

This concern is one of the reasons that the International Theological Commission, the chief advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is currently working on a document on natural law and its relationship to moral law.

"Commitment to truth is the soul of justice," Benedict said in his speech to the diplomats on Monday.

"Man's unique grandeur is ultimately based on his capacity to know the truth. And human beings desire to know the truth. Yet truth can only be attained in freedom … truths of the spirit, the truths about good and evil, about the great goals and horizons of life, about our relationship with God. These truths cannot be attained without profound consequences for the way we live our lives."

Given that premise, Benedict drew some specific conclusions, such as a strong condemnation of terrorism.

"Terrorism does not hesitate to strike defenseless people, without discrimination, or to impose inhuman blackmail, causing panic among entire populations, in order to force political leaders to support the designs of the terrorists," he said.

The pope also issued a strong call to address under-development in the global south.

"On the basis of available statistical data, it can be said that less than half of the immense sums spent worldwide on armaments would be more than sufficient to liberate the immense masses of the poor from destitution. This challenges humanity's conscience," he said.

In the end, however, the pope's thought transcended specific issues to focus on what he sees as the core matter.

"By seeking the truth one can identify the most subtle nuances of diversity, and the demands to which they give rise, and therefore also the limits to be respected and not overstepped," he said. "Then problems can be resolved and disagreements settled according to justice, and profound and lasting understandings are possible."

This is social action, Benedict-style -- not in the first place "no peace without justice," but "no peace without truth."

* * *

Perhaps the biggest "pope story" of the week came on Thursday, with the release from Turkish prison of Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot John Paul II on May 13, 1981. He was serving time for the murder of a Turkish journalist before the attempt on the pope's life. He was freed from Italian prison in 2000, where he was serving a sentence for the attack on the pope, after John Paul II requested his release as part of a general appeal for clemency for prisoners during the Great Jubilee Year.

Since Agca also evaded his mandatory term of military service in Turkey, he could be taken into custody anew by Turkish military officials.

While most media outlets have focused on the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination attempt, especially the so-called "Bulgarian Connection" that many believed ultimately stretched back to Moscow, it's worth recalling that John Paul himself never expressed great curiosity about who else, if anyone, was behind the two shots Ali Agca fired that afternoon in St. Peter's Square.

During a May 2002 visit to Sofia, in a meeting with Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov, John Paul said, "I have never believed in the so-called 'Bulgarian connection,' out of respect for the Bulgarian people."

In fact, John Paul was convinced he already knew the author of the assassination attempt, and in the final analysis it wasn't the KGB or Islamic extremists. It was the "powers of this world," the force of evil at work in history. He saw what happened to him as part of a vast cosmic drama, and in that connection he felt it was certainly no accident the attempt fell on May 13, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

John Paul would later travel to Fatima to place the bullet doctors removed from his abdomen before the statue of the Virgin, in effect thanking her for altering the flight path of that bullet and saving his life.

In a taped address four days after the attempt, John Paul invited prayers for Ali Agca and said he had already forgiven him. In 1983, he visited the would-be assassin in an Italian prison to extend that forgiveness in person. His former personal secretary, now Archbishop Stanislaw Dsizwsz of Cracow, later said that Ali Agca's main interest in that conversation was whether the Virgin of Fatima would seek vengeance. John Paul, according to Dziwisz, assured him that the Virgin was a gentle, compassionate mother.

Of course, one might wonder why, if the Virgin could push the bullet a few inches, she couldn't stop it entirely and save John Paul a long and painful convalescence. In a rare public lecture in 2002, Dziwisz supplied the answer. The pope's blood had to be spilled, Dsizwsz argued, in order to augment his witness against bloodshed in the world, above all with respect to abortion. It has always impressed John Paul and Dsizwsz that the Italian left had scheduled a major abortion rights rally in Rome the evening of May 13, 1981, which was cancelled out of respect for the fallen pope.

The connection between the assassination attempt and Fatima, made famous by what is believed to be a series of 1917 revelations from Mary concerning, among other things, the rise and fall of Communism, would continue to haunt John Paul II.

On May 13, 2000, during the Jubilee Year, John Paul instructed Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano to publicly reveal the much-discussed "Third Secret of Fatima." It turned out to be a vision of a bishop dressed in white who "makes his way with great effort towards the cross amid the corpses of those who were martyred … he, too falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire." The pope recognized himself and the martyrdoms of the 20th century in the vision, an interpretation confirmed, according to Sodano, by Carmelite Sr. Lucia dos Santos, the final Fatima seer.

Against this backdrop, it never struck John Paul as terribly important who put Ali Agca up to firing at him. The pope's cosmic reading of that afternoon's events made the question of human origins almost irrelevant, which is just as well, since given Ali Agca's frequently shifting testimony, it may well prove impossible to peel the onion back any further.

Some Italians, meanwhile, are hoping that Ali Agca's release may finally shed some light on yet another Vatican mystery: the disappearance in 1983 of Emanuela Orlandi, a 15-year-old daughter of a Vatican employee. There were theories at the time that the girl, who was never seen again, was abducted in order to pressure Italy into releasing the Turkish gunman from prison.

Other observers, however, doubt that Ali Agca -- who once claimed to be Jesus Christ -- really has the capacity to shed light on this affair or much else.

* * *

The "Bulgarian connection" is not the only conspiracy theory that has surrounded the 1981 attempt on the life of John Paul II. A tantalizing alternative, though one short on proof, came in the 2000 novel To Kill the Pope by Tad Szulc, a Polish journalist and former ABC news analyst on Vatican affairs. Because Szulc could never prove his theory in journalistically satisfactory fashion, he chose the vehicle of a novel.

In essence, Szulc believed that far-right Catholic forces around the schismatic French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, disenchanted with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and who believed that John Paul was leading the church deeper into heresy, were responsible for the attempt on his life.

Other journalists have spent much time and treasure trying to confirm that theory, but to date with no firm results.

* * *

On Thursday, Benedict XVI met with a large group of members and supporters of the Neocatechumenal Way. The group featured five cardinals, 30 bishops, 1,100 priests, 2,000 seminarians, and some 700 catechists. Also present were Kiko Argüello and Carmen Hernandez, the Spanish founders of the Neocatechumenate.

The five cardinals were: Dario Castrillon Hoyos, a Colombian and Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy; Crescenzio Sepe, Italian and Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples; Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, another Colombian and President of the Pontifical Council for the Family; Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for the Rome diocese; and Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., a longtime supporter of the Neocatechumenate.

In the audience, Benedict formally dispatched 200 Neocatechumenate families on missions to the most de-Christianized zones of the world, including the former Eastern Germany, Holland, and the south of France.

The pope has long been an admirer. At the time of the grand assembly of new movements in the church called by John Paul II for Pentecost 1998, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger recalled his first meeting with the Neocatechumenate:

"I was a professor at Tübingen, and some people from the Neocatechumenate came to me, including Toni Spandri, who was later my student and now works in Munich. Those young people were touched by the discovery that the church needed a new post-baptismal catechesis, which had to realize anew the personal and communitarian appropriation in a common path. Reflecting on baptism, I realized that for some time baptism had been almost a forgotten sacrament in the church, yet it is the foundation of our being Christian. Having studied the Fathers, in particular, I knew how for them the sacrament was realized in a path of initiation, and for that reason I was happy that there might be a new beginning to this experience. What the Neocatechumenate understood, in fact, was precisely that even if we are baptized as infants, we have to enter into the reality of our baptism, we must throughout all our life, naturally in diverse stages, enter into this initiation into communion with Christ in the church. I was happy that a path of renewal could be opened of this fundamental experience of the church, and above all in a time in which the family and the schools are not, as they once were, places of initiation into the faith and into communion with Christ in the church."

The Neocatechumenate is present in over 900 dioceses in the world, with over 20,000 communities in 6,000 parishes.

The audience comes on the heels of a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship, which in part asked the Neocatechumenate to bring some aspects of its liturgical practice, including the mode of distribution of communion and celebration with the broader parish community at least once a month, into line with the general discipline of the church. Spokespersons for the Neocatechumenate have insisted that there is nothing corrective about the letter, and point to the Jan. 12 audience as evidence of Benedict's favor.

During my travels in the United States this week, however, I met one senior American prelate, himself a backer of the Neocatechumenate, who said he felt the group's attempt to "explain away" the Vatican letter was ultimately counter-productive.

"Better to just take the hit," he said, "than to be perceived as denying the obvious."

In his address at the Jan. 12 audience, Benedict XVI seemed to call the Neocatechumenate to accept the congregation's instructions.

"I am sure," the pope said, "that you will attentively observe these norms, which are based on liturgical texts approved by the church. By faithful adherence to all church directives, you will render your apostolate even more effective, in harmony and full communion with the pope and the pastors of dioceses."

* * *

I've been in the United States, in Phoenix on Jan. 5 for a lecture for the Society of Christian Ethics on "Benedict XVI and Moral Theology," followed by an address for a Jan. 8 brunch of the John Carroll Society in Washington, on how Benedict was elected and where's he taking the church, and a couple of talks for the priests of the Washington archdiocese on Jan. 9. I also gave a talk at St. Theresa's Church in Briarcliff Manor, New York, Jan. 10.

I reproduce below excerpts from the last part of my lecture to the Society for Christian Ethics, which examined four specific ethical issues facing Benedict XVI.

* * *

Most of the hot-button moral issues in Western culture are not live topics in official circles of the Catholic church, because they're regarded as largely resolved: abortion, homosexuality, and so on. But other issues are generating lively debate, with constituencies in the church pressing for an official statement of position. Stepping through four such issues may serve as an "early warning system" for eventual ethical interventions of Benedict's pontificate.

(1) Embryo Adoption

Official Catholic teaching holds that the creation of embryos in a laboratory is intrinsically immoral, since an embryo is a human being, and every human being has the right to be conceived and born within marriage and from marriage. Despite this teaching, however, embryos are artificially generated and conceived in large numbers. In 2003, The Washington Post found there are roughly 400,000 human embryos preserved in American fertility clinics alone. The question is, what should be done with them?

A growing number of Catholic ethicists believe that since these embryos are human beings, it is a moral imperative to give them the opportunity to be born and to develop. These ethicists would not only permit, but would positively encourage, the implantation of these embryos in women willing to bring them to term. Indeed, some would permit the implantation of these embryos in single mothers, or even in surrogate mothers for adoption by homosexual couples, on the grounds that the right to life trumps any other consideration. Critics, on the other hand, believe that such use of embryos amounts to cooperation in an evil act. Further, they warn that providing moral "cover" for implanting embryos will simply encourage the production of even more embryos, aggravating an already immoral situation. Finally, they argue that Catholic teaching regards procreation as a matter of collaboration among husband, wife and God, and any technique that introduces a "fissure" in this process cannot be approved.

To date, Church authority has not pronounced on the question, leaving many Catholic ethicists, physicians, and counselors in doubt as to how to explain the Church's official position. Given the growing number of preserved embryos, and the urgency that advocates of "embryo adoption" feel about the issue, pressure is likely to grow for Pope Benedict to issue clarification.

(2) Condoms and AIDS

Official Catholic teaching on artificial birth control is clear -- contraception violates the inherent inseparability between the procreative and unitive dimensions of marriage, and hence is forbidden. A question that remains open, however, is whether use of a condom in the context of HIV/AIDS necessarily involves the intent to contracept. In a situation in which one spouse is infected and the other is not, could a condom be morally permissible because the intent is to preserve life -- with contraception, in the language of traditional Catholic analysis, regarded as a "foreseen but unintended" consequence?

It is often a surprise for many people to learn that the church has never officially pronounced on this issue. In fact, there is a lively discussion at the highest levels. (As a footnote to my colleagues in the press, it is therefore inaccurate to characterize the Catholic position as an outright "condom ban"). For example, the President of the Pontifical Council for the Health Care, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, said in 2004, "If an infected husband wants to have sex with his wife who isn't infected, then she must defend herself by whatever means necessary." Similar arguments have been made by others, including Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England.

Yet there are opposing voices. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, has argued that even in the context of HIV/AIDS the use of condoms is forbidden, not only because artificial birth control is intrinsically evil, but also because condoms have a small but significant failure rate.

I should also note that virtually every Catholic ethicist I know believes that in a situation in which an HIV-positive person is determined to have sex, regardless of Church teaching, it's preferable for that person to use a condom, so as not to add a potential homicide to an already sinful situation. The problem is not so much the clarity of the teaching, but the pastoral judgment about how to communicate it in a way that doesn't end up promoting promiscuity and reckless behavior.

Given the pressing nature of the AIDS crisis, and the divergence in views at the highest levels, Benedict will face growing pleas to say something definitive.

(3) Altered Nuclear Transfer

In light of the volatility of debates over stem cell research, the quest today is for a "third way" that would allow scientists to conduct research on stem cells without, as many see it, destroying embryonic life. The most-discussed such proposal comes from Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, and a Protestant scientist who has gone to great lengths to solicit Catholic approval for his work. He proposes a method called "altered nuclear transfer," which means creating cellular systems that resemble embryos but without the characteristics of human life.

In essence, the idea is to generate entities more like tumors than human beings, which produce embryonic stem cells that could be harvested for research and therapy. Altered nuclear transfer mimics cellular systems such as ovarian tumors that generate pluripotent, but not totipotent, stem cells. Hurlbut believes the resulting cellular structure is not an embryo, and therefore is legitimate matter for research. The proposal has powerful backing from what are usually seen as conservative Catholic circles; signatories to a recent statement endorsing it include William May, Germain Grisez, and Archbishop John Myers of Newark.

Yet there are also strong Catholic critics, such as David Schindler, editor of the American version of Communio and professor at the John Paul II Institute in Washington. Schindler argues that altered nuclear transfer shares the same philosophical premises as embryonic stem cell research, specifically a mechanistic metaphysics that treats organisms as machines. To get a sense of Schindler's point, imagine that scientists could engineer an embryo so that it would grow into an entire body, minus the cerebral cortex. Could we then kill it and use its organs? Other critics reject the claim that Hurlbut's cellular mass is not an embryo. One has said the technique simply creates "an embryo programmed to die." For such critics, Hurlbut risks becoming another John Rock, the Catholic scientist who pioneered the birth control pill as a purported resolution to ethical debates over contraception, only to see the Catholic church reject his solution.

Aside from ethical critiques, some scientists believe the genetic manipulation involved in Hurlbut's proposal would be extraordinarily complex, thus questioning its feasibility on purely technical grounds.

Given the strong pressure for expanded stem cell research, the possibility of a "Catholic alternative," promising the same results but without the ethical qualms, is alluring. For that reason, altered nuclear transfer will receive close scrutiny in the Vatican. Archbishop William Levada, Ratzinger's successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is positively inclined; while still in San Francisco, he wrote President Bush on Hurlbut's behalf, saying, "This proposal offers hope that there may be a solution to an area of great challenge and controversy." Ethicists wonder if that will become official teaching under Benedict XVI.

(4) Just War and Humanitarian Intervention

The traditional Catholic tests for the moral legitimacy of war come from St. Thomas Aquinas, who distinguished between justice ad bellum, meaning the reasons for the war, and in bello, meaning how the war is waged.

The usual principles of a just war ad bellum are:

  • A just cause, usually an act of self-defense or defense of another
  • Declared by a proper authority (the sovereign)
  • Right intention
  • A reasonable chance of success
  • A last resort
  • The end is proportional to the means
The usual tests for justice in bello are:
  • Discrimination, meaning the capacity to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants
  • Proportionality, meaning minimizing destruction and casualties
In recent years, however, the Holy See has tended to rely less on the traditional language of "just war" and more on the relatively new concept of "humanitarian intervention," which generally sets the bar much higher to justify force, especially for initiating a conflict. The Holy See has opposed the two U.S.-led Gulf Wars, and Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has even suggested that Catholic moral teaching is evolving in a quasi-abolitionist stance on the use of armed force.

Critics of such an evolution, including some influential voices in the American church, disagree. They argue that Aquinas' tests were devised in a context in which war was mostly a prince-to-prince affair involving clearly identifiable armies, and are inadequate to the new threats posed by modern terrorism. George Weigel, for example, has argued that the fundamental moral obligation of statesmen is to defend freedom and preserve order, and faced with amorphous terrorist networks that pose a nearly constant threat, sometimes "pre-emptive" strikes will be required.

The Holy See, it should be noted, accepts the moral legitimacy of force under some circumstances. John Paul II, who once said "I am not a pacifist," was among the first to demand the use of military force in the Balkans in the early 1990s. The Holy See also tacitly supported the U.S.-led strikes in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Yet Vatican diplomats, and to some extent Benedict XVI, size up the global situation differently than many American analysts. Especially key is the question of sovereignty, and the extent to which one can meaningfully speak of a global sovereignty invested in international organizations such as the United Nations. Does justice ad bellum in the 21st century require that the United Nations approve the use of force? A closely related issue is the rule of law, and the binding force of international law. Events may well compel the pope to clarify how the traditional principles of Just War analysis, or "humanitarian intervention," should be applied to new historical circumstances.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is  jallen@natcath.org

Copyright © 2006 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111                 All rights reserved. TEL:  1-816-531-0538      FAX:  1-816-968-2280