'The Passion' and 'liturgy wars'; A tour of Denver; Annual Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles; Canadian talk show TV; The John Jay report
|John L. Allen Jr.
"The hard task of the church today is not to beat the bushes for new priestly vocations, but to clear away every obstacle not precluded by divine revelation that might prevent our church from properly discerning and empowering the many charisms that are now present, 'ripening on the vine.' When we do that, we may just discover that our 'priest shortage' will appear in a quite different light."
an American lay theologian
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
in North America this week, having lectured in Denver and Los Angeles, followed
by an appearance on Canadian television in Vancouver. Aside from the John Jay
study on the sexual abuse crisis in the United States (more on that later), two
stories keep coming up as I move around: Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the
Christ” and the most recent developments in the Catholic Church’s “liturgy
former comes up with just about anybody, while the latter belongs to the
rarified sphere of liturgical specialists (which will tell you something about
the people I tend to hang around with). But as I sat in a hotel room in Los
Angeles reading a leaked copy of the ratio translationis, a 70-page set
of principles for translation in English recently circulated by the Vatican, I
had a flash of insight.
There’s an odd sense in which the movie and the liturgical battles are really
the same story.
precisely, there is a common element underlying both stories, along with a slew
of other recent developments in religion. It’s a trend towards bold assertion of
identity from Christian conservatives tired of asking permission to proclaim who
they are and what they believe, in their own language and on their own terms.
consider “The Passion” first.
usual case against the movie reflects the psychology of an enlightened Christian
majority. Given how images of “the Jews” and their role in the death of Christ
have been exploited by anti-Semites though the centuries, the argument runs, one
must show extra sensitivity. It is not enough simply to tell the Gospel story;
one must ensure the story is properly understood, that it does not inflame
hatred or prejudice. The implicit assumption is that Christians still more or
less set the cultural tone.
is not how things seem, however, from Mel Gibson’s side of the fence.
Gibson and those Catholics and evangelicals most supportive of him, the dominant
culture today is in fact post-Christian and rabidly secular – at best
indifferent, and at worst hostile, to traditional Christian belief and practice.
In such a context, they believe, Christianity has too long sought to put on a
socially acceptable face in order not to give offense. In the bargain, it has
sometimes sacrificed a clear sense of self.
visceral appeal of “The Passion” for many Christians lies precisely in the fact
that no rough edges have been sanded off, no potentially divisive elements have
been smoothed over. It is not the Gospel “lite.”
same impulse to self-assertion cuts across the liturgical battles, even though
the issues are more complex and public interest much smaller. Here too,
conservative forces have long insisted that post-Vatican II translations for
worship in English gave too much away to the argot of secular modernity, as well
as to nice-sounding ecumenical formulae that they regard as spotty in terms of
fidelity to Catholic tradition.
Vatican’s new ratio translationis, a document that sets out principles to
guide translation of liturgical texts from Latin into English, instructs
translators to seek a distinctive “liturgical vernacular.” They are to resist
influence from academic style manuals, psychological or emotional verbiage,
colloquial speech, or language drawn from Protestants. The idea is to sound more
the extent that a vernacular is a liturgical one, it refrains from using
‘expressions of the moment’ and instead searches for words that can draw from
its own literary history to express the divine realities found in the liturgy,”
the ratio says.
Because academic style manuals are “unconcerned with properly liturgical
practices” and ignorant of “biblical and theological contexts,” those manuals,
“like many other handbooks of grammar or usage derived from commerce,
advertising or politics … cannot be used as reliable standards for liturgical
identity impulse cuts across a wide range of issues, from doctrinal debates
(such as Vatican insistence on Christ as the lone savior of humanity) to trends
like home schooling. In part, the assertion of traditional identity is a
reaction against the cultural homogenization driven by globalization. It’s not
just religion – there’s a strong trend towards assertion of traditional
languages and cultural practices too, in disparate areas such as cooking and
crafts, within communities all around the planet fearful of losing their sense
is new, perhaps, is the extent to which practicing Christians feel themselves
one of these besieged minority communities. Given the way the cultural winds are
blowing, the “identitarians” will likely be a growing force inside and outside
* * *
of the most controversial points of liturgical translation has long been the use
of “inclusive language,” that is, avoiding gender-specific terms, both in a
horizontal sense (for people) and vertical (for God). The idea is two-fold: 1)
to show respect for women by avoiding language that excludes them, and 2) to
better render the actual meaning of ancient texts, whose content was often
intended to be inclusive, even in some cases where the terminology was
Conservative critics, however, have long argued that this form of adjustment to
modern sensitivities can distort the text. The place to comment on texts is in
catechesis, they argue, not translation. It was thus to be expected that the new
Vatican ratio translationis, prepared under the guidance of the Vox Clara
committee led by Cardinal George Pell of Australia, would discourage inclusive
subject is treated most extensively on page 44, in example 25, “Collective terms
and gender.” The ratio quotes the May 2001 document Liturgiam
Authenticam to the effect that when the original text uses a term that
expresses the interplay between an individual and the entire human community, it
must be retained in English. The obvious reference is to the word “man.”
the ratio insists: “When speaking of Christ’s Incarnation, the term ‘man’
is used to designate not simply his own assumption of human nature as an
individual male but, as well, his unique role in taking all humanity unto
himself for the sake of the redemption of the whole world.”
English translations of the Creed must read that Christ “became man,” the
ratio stipulates, and similarly, the title “Son of Man” in liturgical
settings must be retained. Sayings of Christ such as “Come, follow me, and I
will make you fishers of men,” may not be reconfigured as “fishers of men and
women.” Eucharistic Prayer IV must be translated as “You formed man in your own
image, and entrusted the whole world to his care,” since this is a case of
“clear parallelism or interplay between God and man.”
Later, in example 39, the ratio stipulates that in the Creed, the
translation should be, “For us men and our salvation, he came down from Heaven,”
despite the fact that it is common practice in many English-speaking
congregations to drop “men” when the Creed is recited.
ratio follows Liturgiam Authenticam in rejecting solutions such as
a transition from singular to plural, the splitting of unitary collective terms
into masculine and feminine parts, or the introduction of impersonal or abstract
example, according to example 40, to render the Latin Unus enim Deus, unus et
mediator Dei et hominem, it would be unacceptable to say “For there is one
God, and one mediator between God and men and women.” The clear implication is
that it must be “between God and man.” Several similar examples are offered.
position contrasts with the moderate approval of inclusive language approved by
the U.S. bishops in their
November 15, 1990 statement, “Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language
Translations of Scriptural Texts proposed for Liturgical Use.” It will no doubt
disappoint some Catholic women and others who believe that inclusive language,
used in the right measure, is an appropriate step of “inculturation,” adapting
to the sensitivities of contemporary English speakers.
It should be
noted, however, that the forces behind the ratio are not always
dogmatically opposed to inclusive language. In fact, a draft translation of the
new Order of Mass circulated by the International Commission on English in the
Liturgy, reflecting the philosophy of the ratio, drops “man” in a few
instances where it was judged inessential to meaning.
a general sense it would seem that the use of “man” to mean “humanity” is with
the Catholic liturgy to stay.
for Divine Worship has asked for feedback on the ratio translationis from
English-speaking bishops by March 1.
A footnote. One
of the most serious criticisms leveled against the first generation of
liturgical translations into English following the Second Vatican Council
(1962-65) is that they were done in haste. Some liturgical observers believe the
same thing may eventually be said of the translation of the Order of the Mass
currently making the rounds, as well as the ratio translationis intended
to guide it. Due to overwhelming pastoral pressure to produce a text, these
observers say, the process of reflection and review has been short-circuited.
Hence some critics of the new ICEL translation and the ratio are hoping
to persuade at least a few bishops to push to slow things down, in hopes of
“buying time” to take a second look.
* * *
Denver, I lectured in Bonfils Hall at the John Paul II Center, where the two
seminaries in the archdiocese are located – St. John Vianney, the archdiocesan
seminary, and Redemptoris Mater, run by the Neocatechumenate, one of the new
movements in the Catholic Church.
been invited to speak in Denver by Archbishop Charles Chaput, with whom I share
a connection through the Capuchin Franciscans. (Chaput is a Capuchin, while I
grew up in Capuchin schools in Western Kansas.) Several Capuchins from the local
friary attended the lecture, which gave me a chance to publicly thank the
community for its many gifts to me over the years.
Chaput is a national point of reference for conservative Catholics who
appreciate his strong stands on doctrinal questions and his pastoral dynamism.
For that reason, some see the Denver archdiocese as a stronghold of the Catholic
right, but Chaput disputes the characterization.
“People sometimes have the impression that Denver is full of neo-conservatives
or retrograde whiners for the past,” he told me. “Actually, it’s a very balanced
diocese full of energy and enthusiasm and evangelical zeal, and all kinds of new
and creative programs that aren't at all conservative. We do focus on
faithfulness, both in teaching and in acting, but isn't that what the Catholic
church is all about?”
Chaput invited my wife Shannon and me to dinner at his residence, which is
located on campus so that his seminarians can have ready access. The meal was
served by members of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, who in addition to teaching
philosophy, theology and other academic disciplines at the seminary, also seek
to serve in more humble ways. Chaput took pains to present each sister to us,
asking her to share a bit of her story and her interests.
to my talk, I received a whirlwind introduction to the archdiocese through a
series of appointments graciously arranged by the chancellor, Fran Maier. It’s
difficult to take the temperature of a place in eight hours, but I can at least
confirm the energy and enthusiasm of which Chaput speaks.
breakfast, for example, with a young lay professor named Tim Gray, who directs
the archdiocese’s Catholic Biblical School, a rigorous four-year program of
scripture study for adults. This is not a glorified Bible study group;
homework is required each week and a “memory retrieval
exercise” is given at the end of each 10-week quarter. Yet the program is
growing beyond Gray’s capacity to meet the interest – a sign, he believes, that
Catholic laity are hungry to be challenged.
archdiocese also has a catechetical school for adults linked to the Lateran
University in Rome, which is seeking professional accreditation in North
America. Both programs aspire to be national models.
I also met
Terry Polakovic, the founder and director of ENDOW (“Educating on the Nature and
Dignity of Women”). It’s an outreach program for young women designed to help
them challenge destructive social stereotypes about beauty, sexuality, and
lifestyles, drawing upon Catholic teaching and especially the writings of John
Paul II. Polakovic broughtJamila Spencer to our meeting, a 20-something Catholic woman who helps run ENDOW presentations.
Spencer passionately believes John Paul’s “new feminism” offers what it takes to
resist the impossible expectations society thrusts upon women.
Spencer described what it’s like to talk with women these days about the
Catholic church. Almost always, the question of women priests come up, and
Polakovic and Spencer do their best to defend the church’s position. What struck
me was not so much the cogency of their argument, which one can find more or
less convincing, but the passion with which they believe that all women, even
those sometimes furious with the church, should have a place at the table.
I also met
with Sergio Gutierrez, a dynamic young Latino Republican who’s worked on the
staffs of Colorado Governor Bill Owens and President George W. Bush, and who is
the archdiocese’s new communications director. Nancy Walla, an attorney with
international corporate experience, offered me an overview of the situation in
Denver with respect to compliance with the national charter on sexual abuse.
Deacon John Neal and Fr. Michael Glenn briefed me about operations at St. John
I did not meet
with anyone from the Neocatechumenate seminary, nor was I offered a look around.
spent the late afternoon with Linda-Ann Salas, special assistant to the
auxiliary bishop of Denver, Bishop Jose Gomez (who is a member of Opus Dei).
Gomez has a special responsibility for the Hispanic community in Denver, and
Salas drove me out to the new Juan Diego Pastoral Center, a refurbished old
girls’ school converted into a center for English and business classes,
retreats, and community events. Salas and the Hispanic ministry team are some of
the most positive, passionate Catholic professionals I’ve ever met.
overall impression I had in Denver is of a group of bright, competent people
excited about their work – and their boss.
* * *
Denver I moved to Los Angeles for the archdiocese’s annual Religious Education
Congress, an event that draws almost 40,000 teachers, catechists, lay
professionals and men and women religious to Anaheim. It’s supposedly the
largest gathering of Catholics in the country, and it is indeed breathtaking in
both size and energy level. Like last year, I was dazzled by the diversity, the
dynamism and the good vibes.
last year, I gave a lecture on the main stage in the arena, where again I felt I
should be belting out rock-and-roll numbers rather than making observations
about Vatican politics.
Denver is seen as a center of conservative energy, Los Angeles is a point of
reference for the Catholic center-left under Cardinal Roger Mahony.
moderate-to-progressive spirit was clear in Los Angeles, both from the speakers
and the audience. The Saturday and Sunday keynoters, for example, were Richard
Gaillardetz and Scott Appleby, two lay American theologians who articulate a
moderate, inside-the-tradition argument for church reform. Gaillardetz is seen
by many observers as his generation’s version of Frank Sullivan, an expert
representing the broad middle of American Catholicism on ecclesiology and church
structures. (Sullivan, a Jesuit priest, taught for many years at Rome’s
Gaillardetz has a genius for imagery that brings complex theological ideas home
to non-specialists. Here’s his explanation of Catholic liturgy as communion:
“Perhaps, instead of thinking of the worshiping assembly as 500 private phone
lines connected, through the altar, up to God, we should be thinking of our
worship as a conference call in which the liturgy is our shared conversation
with God,” he said.
Gaillardetz delivered what amounted, in part, to a stirring defense of American
Catholicism. He noted, for example, that while pockets of the American church
have a priest shortage, there is no vocations shortage. He pointed to a corps of
some 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers in the American church, many of whom are
paying their own tuition costs and making other sacrifices to serve the church
while also raising a family.
hard task of the church today,” Gaillardetz argued, “is not to beat the bushes
for new priestly vocations, but to clear away every obstacle not precluded by
divine revelation that might prevent our church from properly discerning and
empowering the many charisms that are now present, ‘ripening on the vine.’ When
we do that, we may just discover that our ‘priest shortage’ will appear in a
quite different light.”
that many lay ecclesial ministers were in his audience, it’s no surprise he drew
also heard the English Dominican Bishop of Nottingham, Malcolm McMahon, discuss
“Leadership in a Changing Church.” He argued in favor of collaborative ministry
and subsidiarity, somewhat in the spirit of his fellow English Dominican Fr.
Timothy Radcliffe, former master general of the order.
gave two presentations. Gauging from how audiences reacted, and the questions
they asked, it seemed that these people – most either volunteers or employees of
the church, thus core Catholic faithful – seemed especially interested in two
questions: opening up decision-making in the church to lay participation and the
role of women. By the latter, I mean not necessarily women’s ordination to the
priesthood, but the broader question of how the church can be more responsive to
the concerns of women, and more convincing when it says it values the gifts and
contributions women have to offer.
the end, I again came away from the Religious Education Congress awed by the
commitment and positive spirit of so many wonderful Catholic laity – better, in
a sense, than the institutional church sometimes deserves.
* * *
Vancouver I taped a segment of the Vicki Gabereau show, who is, I was told,
something of a Canadian analogue to Oprah Winfrey. I had a good time, in part
because Gabereau gives her guests time to speak, so you can actually develop a
thought or two. She struck me as a host who does her homework; she seemed to
have read my book Conclave with care. She wanted to talk about the pope,
the Vatican, and the Catholic church, and in my line of work TV doesn’t get any
better than that.
revealing, therefore, that Gabereau still seemed to suffer from the “perception
gap” about the Catholic church that anyone who bases their impressions entirely
on the newspapers and TV tends to contract.
started out asking me about the priest shortage, and with a rising voice, wanted
to know how in God’s name anyone could offer their life to a church that had
engaged in such outrageous immorality in the treatment of children. The
reference was to the sex abuse crisis, and her tone of voice seemed to suggest
that someone signing up for the priesthood these days is the moral equivalent of
someone registering as a lobbyist for Big Tobacco.
tried to respond by referencing the Los Angeles gathering I had just attended,
where I saw 40,000 people passionate about their faith. It has always been thus,
I said; the church goes through periodic cycles of crisis and reform, but most
Catholics seem capable of distinguishing between their faith and their church,
and the failures of the human beings in charge. This does not make the scandals
less repugnant, or the work of reform any less urgent, but it does mean that
when a young person chooses to offer his or her life in a religious vocation, it
is for something more fundamental than the moral perfection of church leaders.
Bottom line: Most Catholics want to feel good about the church, and given half
an excuse, they will find a way to do so, sometimes against all logic. They will
give their time and treasure to the church, they will pour their hearts into
service and devotion, and they will ask precious little in return. Some will do
so in religious life; others will pursue other vocations.
people looking in on the institution from the outside, and that describes most
journalists, this will always seem puzzling, and never more so than now.
Therein, perhaps, lies the difference between reason and faith.
* * *
long-awaited John Jay study on the American sexual abuse crisis appeared today,
and as expected, it revealed a higher number of incidents and accused priests
than previously believed. Victims’ groups expressed skepticism, suggesting that
because the data is self-reported, it may actually lowball the true dimensions
of the problem.
crucial point is that the study asked dioceses to report every accusation in
their files, regardless of credibility. Thus when the study concludes that 4,392 priests have been accused, it does
not necessarily mean that 4,392 priests are
guilty of sexual abuse.
the report puts the crisis back on the front page, one aspect that has drawn
relatively little attention is the canonical resolution of priests’ cases. Under
the terms of canonical norms adopted by John Paul II in 2001, all cases in which
a priest is alleged to have sexually abused a minor are to be reported to the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The CDF is then to determine whether
the case will be resolved immediately on the basis of the available evidence,
sent back to the local level for trial, or handled in Rome.
Indications are that there is a serious backlog in Rome. Msgr. Charles Scicluna,
the Maltese canonist who serves as promoter of justice in the CDF, faces
hundreds of files awaiting review.
result is that some cases sent over more than a year ago are still awaiting
replies. One American cardinal told me that he has stopped asking the CDF for
status reports; the only thing he’s received, he said, is a fax asking him to
confirm that the CDF has an accurate list of all the cases he’s sent over. A
prominent American canonist said that his diocese is awaiting replies on cases
that should be fairly straight-forward, such as a priest who is incarcerated
and petitioning for laicization after pleading guilty to the rape of a child.
prelate told me he has a priest of whose innocence he is morally certain, given
the nature of the charge and the shady reputation of the person bringing it. He
would like to be able to hold a canonical trial locally, and if the evidence
bears out his belief, the priest could be reinstated. He needs permission from
Rome to proceed.
lunch in Los Angeles with a priest from the East Coast who has retired out West,
and had been helping out in a local parish. Only when the West Coast diocese
contacted his East Coast diocese after he applied for a chaplain’s card did he
learn that an accusation had been brought against him back East, and he was
subsequently suspended. He is contesting the charge, and has filed a canonical
appeal. He has been waiting months, with no word, and meanwhile the elderly
pastor at the parish where he had been assisting has to do without his help.
have no way of assessing this man’s guilt or innocence. As an observer, however,
I can say that he and many priests like him with whom I have spoken are deeply
demoralized. One hopes they get their day in court, and soon.
Finally, one American canonist suspects that some bishops are short-circuiting
Rome altogether by asking priests to resign or retire when guilt seems
established, seeing that as an adequate resolution, and hence they are not
forwarding their cases to the CDF. The problem, the canonist pointed out, is
that such a strategy normally means that the diocese bears ongoing financial
responsibility for the priest, meaning ongoing civil liability for wrongdoing.
Moreover, it is a violation of canon law … and a lack of respect for the law was
part of what got the church into this mess in the first place.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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