|Jan. 18-25 marked the annual
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and two events were among the highlights
on this side of the ocean.
Paulist Fr. Thomas Stransky
gave a marvelous talk at the Centro Pro Unione, the ecumenical nerve center
in Rome, on Jan. 23. His topic was “An Unique Case Study of Dialogue: The
Delegated Observers at Vatican II.”
Stransky, 72, was one
of the four original staff members of the Secretariat for the Union of
Christians, founded by Pope John XXIII on June 5, 1960. Stransky worked
alongside Cardinal Augustin Bea, the future cardinal Johannes Willebrands,
and Bishop Jean-Francois Arrighi. Bea and Righi are dead, while the 93-year-old
Willebrands is seriously disabled and cared for by a community of nuns
Stransky was president
of the Paulist Fathers from 1970-78, and from 1987 to 1999 rector of the
Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies in Jerusalem.
Stransky said that over
the four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), there were 167
ecumenical observers and 22 guests. At the beginning, he said, many non-Catholic
Christians were lukewarm about the very idea of a council.
Many Orthodox Christians
regarded the decision to convoke an “ecumenical council” as an act of papal
arrogance, since no council could be truly ecumenical without the Orthodox
churches. Protestants, who saw the Council of Trent and Vatican I as deviations
from the faith, worried that Vatican II would be another affirmation of
a “Rome is home” ecclesiology. The Baptist World Alliance actually asked
to be invited because of concern the council would sanction a model of
church/state relations justifying the persecution of Protestant minorities
in Catholic nations such as Spain and Portugal.
Those cautions, over
time, dissolved. One marvelous anecdote: the American Baptist delegate
was Stanley Stuber, whose book A Protestant Primer on Roman Catholicism
been assigned to Stransky in his Paulist seminary — to refute! In Rome,
however, they met as partners rather than debaters.
Most of the observers
lived in a pensione near the Castel Sant’Angelo, entirely taken
over by the Secretariat for Christian Unity. They met in the Centro on
Tuesday afternoons to discuss the conciliar schema in sessions led by Willebrands.
The observers were given front-row seats at the council, received all the
secret documents, took part in regular deliberations organized by Stransky’s
office, and had an influence on the council’s work, especially the document
on ecumenism. Protestant luminary Oscar Cullman put things this way towards
the end: “In everything which concerns the council, you have hidden absolutely
nothing. There is no ‘Iron Curtain’ here.”
The influence of the
observers was real. Cullman, Stransky revealed, was partially responsible
for the famous language on the “hierarchy of truths” found in #11 of Unitatis
Redintegratio, the decree on Ecumenism. (“When comparing doctrines
with one another, [theologians] should remember that in Catholic doctrine
there exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their
relation to the foundation of Christian faith.”) The idea came from discussions
at the pensione with Cullman, other ecumenical observers, and two
Catholic theologians who served as consultors — Gregory Baum and Johannes
Feiner. When the phrase made it into the document in the council’s third
session, Cullman said it represented “the most revolutionary to be found,
not only in the ecumenism schema but in any of the schemata.”
Vatican II, Stransky
said, amounted to a Catholic reform of the Counter-reformation, “within
limits and without schism.”
Stransky said his counciliar
experience suggests a three-step understanding of ecumenical dialogue.
The first step, he said, is to enter inside the other church, see them
as they see themselves. The second is to evaluate that way of seeing things
from the point of view of Catholic tradition. The third is to incorporate
those truths that the church needs for its own reformation.
Ecumenism has, of course,
never lacked critics. At Vatican II the Coetus Internationalis Patrum,
the conservative opposition, complained to Paul VI that the non-Catholic
observers were too influential. The pope, concerned not to alienate the
traditionalists, took the complaint seriously. He wrote to Bea, asking
if perhaps the presence of the “separated brethren” and their “mentality”
were “excessively dominating the council, thus diminishing its psychological
freedom.” Paul emphasized that protecting “the coherence of the teaching
of the Catholic Church” was more important than pleasing the observers.
According to Cardinal Jean Villot, the secretary of state, Pope Paul considered
“disinviting” the observers to the fourth session. Stransky said that he
does not know how Bea responded, but he recalled Willebrands saying privately
that, “We did not invite them to particular periods, but to the entire
In any event, the observers
returned. “The pope’s concern never reached beyond our small sub secreto
circle,” Stransky told his audience at the Centro.
As evidence of how much
changed over four years, Stransky cited the moving words of Paul VI in
a sermon at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls on Dec. 4, 1965. “We are about
to separate,” Paul said to the observers. “The council is ending. Each
of you is about to take the road of return to your own home, and we shall
be alone once more. Allow me to confide in you this intimate impression:
your departure produces a solitude around us unknown to us before the council,
and which now saddens us. We should like to see you with us always.”
It was, as Stransky said,
Paul’s best self.
I sat down with Stransky
for an interview on Jan. 28 at the Casa Internazionale del Clero, near
the Piazza Navonna. I wanted to hear Stransky talk about the present ecumenical
He reminded me of a line
he used immediately after the council: “The first challenge is to convert
Catholics to the Catholic Church,” by which he meant getting ordinary believers
to understand and accept the ecumenical aims that had been adopted by the
council. That challenge, he suggested, is still with us.
One remaining headache
is inter-communion, or the sharing of one another’s Eucharist. Stransky
said it’s a red herring to think that “if you had inter-communion, all
the other problems would go away.” It annoys him that some churches do
little for ecumenism for 51 weeks out of the year, then complain that they
can’t have inter-communion during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
At the same time, he
said, the possibilities for inter-communion should be expanded, especially
in mixed marriages. “The difficulties of a mixed marriage are not the fault
of the couple,” he said. “The Christian family is divided, and we have
to figure out how to live with it.” Stransky pointed out that according
to Catholic sacramental theology, the bride and groom are the ministers
of marriage, hence a mixed marriage is communicatio in sacris, sharing
in the sacraments. “Shouldn’t that be confirmed by sharing the Eucharistic
bread?” he asked.
Stransky said he believes
a new push for inter-communion may come from the Third World, where the
Christian churches are involved together in struggles against corruption,
corporate exploitation, and injustice. “Is the Eucharistic meal going to
be the only thing we can’t do together?” he said.
* * *
On Jan. 25 my wife and
I caught a train to Perugia, in the Umbrian hills, to hear a lecture by
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting
Christian Unity (the successor to the ecumenical office created by Pope
John). Kasper had gone to Perugia, where Cardinal Gioacchino Pecci served
as bishop for 32 years before becoming Pope Leo XIII, to talk about Leo
and the ecumenical movement.
2003 marks the 100th
anniversary of Leo XIII’s death, and his pontificate is worth a look back.
Leo launched modern Catholic social doctrine with his 1891 encyclical Rerum
Novarum. He broke with his 19th century predecessors by
their nostalgic desire to revive the Catholic monarchies, cautiously embracing
democracy. He made John Henry Newman, the Anglican convert whose views
were frowned upon by the church’s traditionalist wing, a cardinal in 1879.
Newman had expressed reservations about the proclamation of papal infallibility
at Vatican I.
Archbishop Giuseppe Chiaretti
of Perugia, a man deeply in love with the memory of his illustrious predecessor,
told me with passion (and perhaps a touch of exaggeration) that Leo actually
“founded” inter-religious dialogue. In 1884, Chiaretti said, Leo became
the first pope ever to officially receive a Buddhist, when he granted an
audience to the ambassador of Siam (today’s Thailand) to Italy. One year
later he became the first pope to receive a Muslim when he met with the
Sultan of Johore (Malaysia). In 1897, Leo was the first pope to receive
a non-Christian head of state, King Chulalongkorn of Siam.
Kasper credited Leo’s
pontificate with representing the “dawn of ecumenism.” He was especially
strong with the Orthodox. Leo stressed the Eastern tradition as the common
inheritance of the entire Christian church. He insisted that Propaganda
Fide, the Vatican’s evangelization department, respect the traditions
and rites of the Eastern Catholic churches, who had complained to him about
being “Latinized.” On Sept. 30, 1880, he extended the cult of Saints Cyril
and Methodius to the entire church.
Leo’s record with the
Anglicans was more mixed. He encouraged Fr. Ignatius Spencer to found a
society of prayer for unity with the Anglican Church. Yet in the bull Apostolicae
curae (1896), Leo declared Anglican ordinations “null and void,” deepening
the theological divide.
In Perugia, Kasper revealed
something to his audience that even historical experts had not known.
On March 19, 1885, Leo
broke with all papal precedent by establishing in the Roman curia a “commission
for the promotion of reconciliation with the dissidents,” composed of cardinals
with a staff of consultors and experts. (He did so in a motu proprio
called Optatissimae.) It was, Kasper said, “the first stable curial
dicastery of the modern type, with structures and functions analogous to
those assigned to the post-tridentine Roman congregations.” The commission
was authorized to open relations in the name of the pope with the hierarchies
of the Christian churches separated from Rome.
As it turned out, Leo
was too far ahead of the game. The separated churches were suspicious of
the commission, the Roman curia hostile. Leo’s successor, the anti-modernist
Pope Pius X, suppressed the commission in 1908, and the idea of a curial
agency for ecumenism lay dormant for more than a half-century until John
XXIII created the secretariat that Stransky served. (Proof anew of that
old Roman saw, “What one pope can do, another pope can undo.”)
“The courageous ecumenical
path indicated by Leo XIII quickly appeared too far-sighted and magnanimous
for the prejudices of the mentality of that epoch, whether Catholic or
Orthodox and Anglican,” Kasper said.
The story of Leo’s commission
is, I suppose, a bit of a “glass half full or half empty” test in perception.
Should one be discouraged that it took more than 50 years for John XXIII
and Vatican II to revive Leo’s vision, or encouraged that Pius X’s attempts
to “turn back the clock” merely delayed, but could not prevent, its flowering?
Perhaps the moral of
the story is that in Catholic affairs, “good things come to those who wait.”
* * *
An unexpected ecumenical
front that has opened up in Europe in recent years is the common struggle
of the Christian churches to ensure that religious bodies have a voice
in the new European Union.
The pope and other Christian
leaders were badly rattled in December 2000, when all direct references
to religion were eliminated from the Charter of Basic Rights signed at
Nice in France. (A further reason why some of the more conservative elements
in European Catholicism look upon the EU with approximately the same affection
they feel for the Freemasons and the Communist Party). Instead, a rather
vague reference to Europe’s “moral and spiritual heritage” was inserted.
A Jan. 27 conference
at Regina Apostolorum, the Legionaries of Christ university in Rome, brought
together Vatican officials and European politicians, mostly from center-right
parties, to talk about the new “constitutional treaty” currently being
elaborated for the EU. The highest profile speaker was Gianfranco Fini,
the number two figure in Italy’s governing coalition. The aim was to ensure
that religion is not “sanitized” in the treaty the same way it was in Nice.
The Vatican and other
Christian leaders are pressing for a formal recognition of the “Christian
roots” of Europe in the document, seen as a question of cultural identity.
One speaker noted that according to U.N. statistics, out of a total European
population of 730 million, some 560 million are Christian. Fini quoted
a German political thinker who observed that if one wants to feel a son
of a common Europe, of a single culture, there is only one place to go:
politicians have proposed language for the treaty based on the Polish constitution.
It reads: “The union values include the values of those who believe in
God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty as well as those who
do not share such a belief but respect these universal values arising from
Though that phrasing
may seem innocuous enough, it remains controversial. French President Jacques
Chirac, for example, recently expressed opposition. “As the representative
of a secular state, I am not for a religious reference,” Chirac told the
French daily Le Figaro.
Yet as Fr. Pietro Parolin
of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State pointed out, even if the church wins
this argument, by itself a verbal reference to religion could be empty
symbolism. To have teeth, he said, the treaty should also include three
specific provisions for religious groups:
• Juridical recognition of the right of churches
and religious communities to organize themselves freely in accord with
their own statutes;
• Creation of a “structured dialogue” between
the EU and the religious bodies of Europe;
• Respect for the peculiar status each church
and religious community enjoys within national laws and ordinances.
Parolin observed that
the common struggle for these points has become “an important and effective
moment of ecclesial communion and fraternal ecumenical collaboration.”
One interesting footnote
is that several speakers at the Regina Apostolorum conference, both politicians
and Vatican officials, stressed “subsidiarity” as a specific contribution
of Christian values to the construction of the new Europe. It holds that
decisions should be made at the lowest level possible, with higher authority
intervening only when local powers are insufficient to resolve a problem.
“The union will have
to augment subsidiarity in order to … reduce the risk of centralized and
bureaucratic degenerations, with the most ample recognition possible of
the autonomous initiatives of citizens as well as their associations,”
said Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for
Justice and Peace.
This is especially noteworthy
since Vatican officials have shown less enthusiasm for subsidiarity in
the internal life of the Catholic Church.
It was not always so.
Pius XI spoke positively of subsidiarity, and in 1946 Pope Pius XII picked
up on his comments: “Such words are indeed enlightening; they apply not
only to society, but also to the life of the church within its hierarchical
structure.” The Synod of Bishops of 1967 voted to make subsidiarity one
of 10 guiding principles for the revision of canon law, and the 1969 synod
voted to apply subsidiarity to episcopal conferences. The preface to the
revised 1983 Code of Canon Law says subsidiarity “must all the more
be applied in the church since the office of the bishops and their powers
are of divine law.” The 1985 Synod of Bishops called for a study of subsidiarity
(with an explicit reference to Pius XII’s 1946 address).
Since 1985, however,
the tide has shifted. Efforts by participants at the 1998 Synod for Asia
to invoke subsidiarity in defense of the rights of local churches, for
example, were rebuffed. At the 2001 Synod of Bishops, a call for a study
of subsidiarity and its application to the church appeared to have strong
support, but did not survive in the final propositions presented to the
pope. Instead the propositions called subsidiarity an “ambiguous” idea
that may be in conflict with the powers of the pope.
The argument is that
subsidiarity is a concept from political theory that doesn’t translate
well into ecclesiology. In secular governance, power comes from the people,
while in the church power comes from the risen Christ and is transmitted
through the apostles. Hence a bias in favor of local levels of authority
may be appropriate in the secular realm, this view holds, but not in the
* * *
Joseph Nye, a former
Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and now the
dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, was in Rome this week.
Nye is the author of The Paradox of American Power, where he argues
that the U.S. would make a mistake by going it alone in world affairs.
He says we should rely less on “hard power,” meaning military might, and
more on “soft power,” meaning the power of our ideals to persuade.
Nye spoke at a Jan. 29
conference on “The United States and Europe: The Challenges of the 21st
Century” along with Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University,
and Italian scholar Ernesto Galli della Loggia. I was invited to a lunch
with Nye and Fisichella before the event, along with a few Italian journalists.
The event was sponsored by the Centro per Orientamento Politico,
a think tank founded by Italian Gaetano Rebecchini, a councilor of the
Vatican city-state and the son of a former mayor of Rome.
Nye told reporters that
he believes the Bush administration needs to do a better job of making
the case that Iraq poses an imminent threat, but he thinks a war may be
Nye observed that it’s
interesting how American attitudes have mutated since the 1991 Gulf War.
The Kennedy School hosted a debate on Dec. 3 between Fr. Brian Hehir, president
of Catholic Charities USA, and journalist Christopher Hitchens, in which
Hehir opposed a war in Iraq on grounds of Catholic just war theory, while
Hitchens argued for it from a leftist human rights viewpoint. Both men,
Nye noted, took the opposite positions in 1991. Hehir felt that the Gulf
War could be justified, while Hitchens opposed it.
I asked Nye, who is not
Catholic but very attentive to the Catholic world, what impact the strong
Vatican line against the war was likely to have. The Vatican is, after
all, a state with nothing but “soft power.”
Nye said given the fact that there are 65 million
Catholics in the United States, positions taken by the Vatican are taken
seriously. At the same time, he said, it’s clear to the White House that
not all American Catholics agree with the pope on the merits of a war in
Iraq. Hence the more the pope turns up the volume, thus bringing the American
church along, the more seriously policy-makers will take what he’s saying.
The pope’s opposition won’t necessarily stop the president from going to
war, but it will be heard.
“Compared to Greenpeace
or Oxfam or something like that, the Vatican is, if you like, an NGO with
a much greater standing,” Nye said.
Nye pointed to the evolution
of American policy on Latin America in the 1980s, where growing Catholic
criticism eventually prompted a cluster of American Catholic members of
Congress, in tandem with others, to adopt policies hemming in the Reagan
administration. “That’s what eventually got John Poindexter into trouble,”
Nye said. “So you can sometimes trace an influence.”
* * *
Speaking of turning up
the volume, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state and
hence the number two man in the hierarchy after the pope himself, held
a lunch for Italian journalists Jan. 29 in which he spoke against a war
in Iraq in remarkably blunt terms.
“I said to an old American
friend: didn’t the lesson of Vietnam teach you anything?” Sodano said,
as quoted in Italian press reports.
“The Holy See is against
the war, it’s a moral position,” Sodano said. “There’s not much to discuss,
whether it’s a preventive war or non-preventive, because this is an ambiguous
term. It’s certainly not a defensive war.”
“The keys in this moment
are in the hands of the United States and Great Britain, and we’re trying
to provoke reflection not so much on whether it’s just or unjust, moral
or immoral, but whether it’s worth it,” Sodano said.
“From the outside we
can appear idealists, and we are, but we are also realists,” Sodano said.
“Is it really a good idea to irritate a billion Muslims?”
“Not even in Afghanistan
are things going well,” Sodano said. “For this reason we have to insist
on asking the question if it’s a good idea to go to war.”
Tauran also reiterated the Vatican’s strong anti-war line. Tauran, the
Vatican’s foreign minister, took questions from reporters in conjunction
with a talk on Christianity and development sponsored by the Association
of Volunteers for International Service on Jan. 30.
“People are talking about
a preventive war, but the question we must put before ourselves is how
to prevent the war,” Tauran said.
“We are not pacifists,
we are realists,” Tauran said, but added that in this case a strike against
Iraq does not appear to pass the “just war” test. He mentioned the traditional
criteria of proportionality and protection of civilian populations as two
I asked Tauran if he
shared Sodano’s concern about the impact of a war in the Islamic world,
and he replied by quoting, as he has before, an Arab foreign minister who
warned that war would “open the gates of hell.”
“Specifically, a war
would exacerbate extremism and threaten to inflame the situation in the
Middle East. These are two obvious concerns,” Tauran said.
I also asked Tauran if
the Vatican’s position would change should the United Nations approve a
strike in Iraq. He seemed to suggest it would not.
“A U.N. resolution would
be a different track,” he said. “It would address the legality of the action.
But humanitarian and moral concerns would remain.”
In response to another
journalist’s question, Tauran denied that the U.S. embassy to the Holy
See is applying extraordinary pressure on the war. “We are having conversations,
but they are calm and serene,” Tauran said. “I would say they are persevering
in making their argument.”
Finally, Tauran was asked
if the pope might try some gesture of peace in the near future, such as
sending emissaries to Baghdad and Washington. “We’re thinking about it,”
Tauran said. “Something might happen in the coming days. But for now there
is no concrete plan of action.”
* * *
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn
of Vienna, Austria, widely seen as papabile, or a candidate to be
the next pope, has compared the situation of Christians in today’s Europe
with the hostility faced by Jews throughout the centuries of their diaspora
in the midst of Christianity.
“This hostile, rejecting
attitude in our secularized countries is felt ever more frequently. … We
are increasingly regarded as foreign bodies, disturbing the peace in a
neo-pagan society,” said the Dominican Schönborn, 58.
Just as the Jews were
often the object of “excessive accusations” by a society that regarded
them with contempt, so too the church is today “held responsible for all
the evils of mankind,” Schönborn said.
In that sense, Schönborn
said, the situation of European Christians today is analogous to that facing
both Jews and Christians in antiquity, when their refusal to place their
God into the pagan pantheon along other gods was considered “highly intolerant.”
in late January at Vienna’s Edith Stein House on the subject of inter-religious
Schönborn did post-graduate
studies at the University of Regensburg under Joseph Ratzinger in the late
1970s, and was later tapped by Ratzinger as general editor of the Catechism
of the Catholic Church.
* * *
There are signs that
John Paul II’s unusually direct rebuke of Russia in his Jan. 13 address
to diplomats accredited to the Holy See has had an effect.
“As far as the Catholic
Church is concerned,” the pope said in his annual speech to the ambassadors,
“I will mention but one situation which is a cause of great suffering for
me: the plight of Catholic communities in the Russian Federation, which
for months now have seen some of their Pastors prevented from returning
to them for administrative reasons. The Holy See expects from the government
authorities concrete decisions which will put an end to this crisis, and
which are in keeping with the international agreements subscribed to by
the modern and democratic Russia. Russian Catholics wish to live as their
brethren do in the rest of the world, enjoying the same freedom and the
While Russian Orthodox
leaders reacted testily to the pope’s complaint, the response from the
government seems more positive. On Jan. 28 came news that the Russian government
has granted a permanent residency permit to Bishop Clemens Pickel of San
Clemente a Saratov in southern Russian, which means that Pickel can leave
the country without worrying about getting back in.
Tauran told me Jan. 30 that the Russian foreign minister actually responded
to his most recent inquiry, which is the first time in recent months that’s
happened. Tauran said the Russian Catholic Church will be able to replace
five priests who were expelled in the past year. There is as yet no progress,
however, on the case of Bishop Jerzy Mazur. In April, the Russian government
blocked Mazur, the bishop of Saint Joseph’s diocese in Irkutsk in Eastern
Siberia, from re-entering the country.
“It seems the pope’s
words have already borne fruit,” Tauran said. He called the Vatican’s approach
to Russia “a policy of small steps.”
* * *
Blessed Pope John XXIII’s
star has not dimmed in Italy. Last year a TV mini-series starring Ed Asner
aired on the state TV network RAI, earning a massive audience of some 11.5
million people in a nation of 57 million. This week, another mini-series
was broadcast on the competitor Mediaset network, and it too captured enormous
ratings. The production starred English actor Bob Hoskins, who recited
his lines in English and then was dubbed into Italian.
Hoskins was quoted in
the local press saying that he comes from a non-believing, communist, and
“proletarian” family, and before this role he knew little of John XXIII.
He was impressed with what he found.
“To play a bad guy is
simple, because all of us have some evil in our soul,” he said. “But giving
voice to goodness is a much more difficult challenge. You risk rhetoric
and fiction. Right away I rejected the idea of playing a saint. Instead
I tried to present a man who came from the land, and even if he became
powerful, he never stopped being in dialogue with the most humble.”
Having watched both nights
of the program, it was perhaps tinged with hagiography (the young Roncalli
was more angelic than any human child could possibly be), but Hoskins convincingly
brought out the deep humanity of “good pope John.” The scene of his visit
to Rome’s Regina Coeli prison, just after his election, was an especially
My wife, as the final
credits rolled, turned to me and declared: “He was the best pope ever.”
Such was the general tone of the production.
One hopes both the RAI
and the Mediaset series will become available on video so they can reach
an international audience.
* * *
A final sign of the times,
this one from the inter-religious front.
Bishop Jacques Noyer
of the French diocese of Amiens, who is 75 and preparing for retirement,
recently insisted that a conservative priest by the name of Abbé
Philippe Sulmont comply with a diocesan restructuring scheme that made
him an associate rather than a pastor. Though the change had been in the
works for some time, it coincided with some highly critical language about
Islam published by Sulmont, 80, in his parish bulletin. (Sulmont suggested,
among other things, that Islam is diabolical). A human rights group has
threatened to sue Sulmont for incitement of racial hatred. Noyer wrote
Sulmont, saying that his attitudes “are not consistent with the position
of the Catholic Church outlined at the Council in the document Nostra
Scholars estimate that
there are between 4 and 5 million people of Muslim extraction living in
France, making it one of the most important laboratories in the world for
the Christian/Muslim relationship.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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