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March 12, 2004 
Vol. 3, No. 29

John L. Allen Jr. 


The gospel story is not just that Christ shed his blood, but that his blood was shed for something. This point is the heart of the Eucharist, in which the bread and wine become Christ's broken body and blood for the redemption of the world. Hence in reflection on the suffering of Christ, the violence shouldn't produce alarm; it shouldn't frighten us. It should lead us to comprehend the great love of God.

Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,
commenting on "The Passion of the Christ"

Discussing Karl Rahner; Appointments to International Theological Commission; Briefing on the Pontifical Council for Culture; The importance of manners

A high-profile March 4-5 international conference at the Lateran University seemed to subtly conclude that Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit who was perhaps the best-known theologian of the 20th century, was an orthodox Catholic.

 If you weren’t aware that Rahner’s orthodoxy was in question, you haven’t been following which way the winds are blowing.

Rahner was among the intellectual architects of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and during the 1970s and 1980s more doctoral dissertations in Catholic theology probably took Rahner as a point of departure than any other thinker, including Augustine and Aquinas. In the John Paul II years, however, the tide has shifted, and today figures such as Hans Urs von Balthasar are in greater vogue. Conservatives sometimes accuse Rahner of smuggling relativizing impulses into Catholic theology through German philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, and of weakening the church’s missionary efforts through his doctrine of the “anonymous Christian.”

Given these reservations about Rahner, the line-up of magisterial heavyweights at the Lateran took on special significance. Participants included Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples; Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran; Jesuit Fr. John Michael McDermott of the Josephinum in Ohio; and Jesuit Fr. Luis Ladaria of the Gregorian University.

Officially the focus was on Rahner’s anthropology, not his orthodoxy, but the latter was clearly subtext.

Fisichella offered an appreciative treatment of Rahner’s understanding of divine revelation. He praised Rahner as the leading defender in the 20th century of the liberty of the human person. At the same time, Fisichella questioned whether Rahner adequately respected the liberty of God. This has long been a sore point among some conservatives, who believe Rahner takes his cues too much from Kant, and too little from the Bible, making God’s revelation almost a logical (and hence necessary, rather than free) consequence of an a priori system.

Amato, who was also positive about Rahner, began by noting a pluralistic current in the theology of religions today that reduces Christ to one savior among many. Attributing this in a footnote to the influence of English Presbyterian John Hick and American Catholic Paul Knitter, Amato suggested that their view reflects a Kantian bias that God as such, the absolute, cannot reveal himself in history. Amato said that by setting aside Rahner’s idea of the anonymous Christian and focusing on his Grundkurs des Glaubens (fundamental course in the faith), one can find resources to reject this view.

Above all, Amato said, Rahner held that the unique experience of Christ in history is a necessary pre-condition for speculative theological reflection ­— in other words, experience is primary, speculation derivative. Amato also praised Rahner’s speculative Christology for making clear why it had to be the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, who became incarnate, and not the Father or the Spirit.

In conversation afterwards, Amato explicitly acknowledged Rahner’s good faith: “Notwithstanding some ambiguous formulae, Rahner was an orthodox Catholic theologian,” he told me.

McDermott added succinctly, “Rahner came from the Black Forest. He was Catholic down to his toes. The problem is not with his thought, but how it’s been interpreted.”

Devotees of Rahner may rue the fact that such a clarification was even needed, seeing it as proof of theological revisionism in today’s church. Nevertheless, for all those who fear the influence of right-wing extremists on Catholic officialdom, it might be some comfort that the VIP speakers at the Lateran came to praise Rahner rather than to bury him.

* * *

Inevitably, a colleague from the Italian news service Ansa asked Amato for an opinion on the Mel Gibson movie “The Passion of the Christ,” which has earned more than $200 million in the first two weeks of release.

Amato said he hasn’t seen the film. He did say, however, that he has followed the public debate, and wanted to make a point. Much of the fascination with “The Passion,” he said, focuses on the film’s brutal depiction of the violence Christ suffered. Yet the gospel story, Amato said, is not just that Christ shed his blood, but that his blood was shed for something. This point is the heart of the Eucharist, Amato said, in which the bread and wine become Christ’s broken body and blood for the redemption of the world.

Hence, Amato said, in reflection on the suffering of Christ, the violence shouldn’t produce alarm: “It shouldn’t frighten us,” he said. It should lead us to comprehend the great love of God, as well as his assurance of ultimate victory over death.

* * *

 The International Theological Commission is an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith created by Pope Paul VI in 1969. The idea was to provide the congregation with input from the Catholic theological community, in response to criticism that the Vatican’s doctrinal office didn’t listen enough to theologians. Some believe the ITC functions as Pope Paul intended, while others charge it is a handpicked group that rubber-stamps the CDF’s approach.

Rahner abandoned the ITC in the 1970s voicing just this criticism.

The membership changes every five years, although members can be re-nominated. The new lineup, announced by Pope John Paul II on March 6, is as follows:

• Archbishop Roland Minnerath of Dijon (France).

• Fr. Peter Damian Akpunonu (Nigeria), teacher of Scripture at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Chicago (USA).

• Fr. Serge Thomas Bonino, O.P., teacher of philosophy at the Institut Catholique de Toulouse (France).

• Fr. Geraldo Luis Borges Hackmann, director of the Department of Theology at the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre (Brazil).

• Sr. Sara Butler, M.S.B.T., teacher of dogmatic theology at the New York archdiocese’s St. Joseph’s Seminary, Yonkers, New York (USA).

• Fr. Antonio Castellano, S.D.B., teacher of patristics and sacramental theology at the Catholic University of Chile, Santiago (Chile), and the Salesian University in Rome.

• Fr. Basil Cho Kyu-Man, teacher of dogmatic theology at the Catholic University of Korea (South Korea).

• Fr. Adelbert Denaux, teacher of dogmatic theology at the Faculty of Theology of the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium).

• Fr. Santiago Del Cura Elena, teacher of dogmatic theology at the Theology Faculty del Norte de España, Burgos (Spain).

• Fr. Gilles Emery, O.P., teacher of dogmatic theology at Fribourg (Switzerland).

• Fr. Ricardo Antonio Ferrara, teacher of dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Catholic University S. María de los Buenos Aires (Argentina).

• Fr. Bruno Forte, teacher of dogmatic theology at the Theology Faculty of Southern Italy in Naples (Italy).

• Fr. Pierre Gaudette, theology instructor at Laval University in Québec, and secretary general of the Assembly of Bishops of Quebec (Canada).

• Barbara Hallensleben (Germany), teacher of theology at Fribourg (Switzerland).

• Fr. Savio Hon Tai-Fai, S.D.B., teacher of dogmatic theology at Sacred Heart College (Hong Kong, China).

• Fr. Tomislav Ivancic, teacher of fundamental theology at the Theology Faculty of Zagreb (Croatia).

 Fr. István Ivancsó, teacher of Byzantine liturgy at the Superior Institute of St. Athanasius, rector of the Theological Institute of Nyíregyháza (Hungary).

• Fr. Tony Kelly, C.S.S.R., teacher of theology at the Australian Catholic University (Australia).

• Fr. Luis Ladaria, S.J. (Spain), teacher of theology at the Gregorian University.

• Fr. Jan W. M. Liesen, teacher of exegesis and Biblical theology at the Seminary of Rolduc (Holland).

• Fr. John Michael McDermott, S.J., teacher of dogmatic theology at the Josephinum in Columbus (USA).

• Fr. Paul McPartlan, teacher of theology at the University of London (UK).

• Fr. Thomas Norris, teacher of theology at Saint Patrick's College of Maynooth (Ireland).

• Johannes Reiter, teacher of theology at the Theology Faculty of Mainz (Germany).

• Fr. Paul Rouhana, teacher of theology at the Superior Institute of Religious Science of Beirut (Lebanon).

• Fr. Ignazio Sanna (Italy), teacher of dogmatic theology at the Lateran University, Rome.

• Fr. Leonard Santedi Kinkupu, teacher of theology at the Theology Faculty of Kinshasa, and rector of the John Paul I Seminary (Democratic Republic of Congo).

• Thomas Soeding, teacher of theology at the Bergische Universität Gesamthochschule di Wuppertal (Germany).

• Fr. Jerzy Szymik, teacher of theology at the Catholic University of Lublin (Poland).

• Fr. Dominic Veliath, S.D.B., teacher of systematic theology at Kristu Jyoti College in Bangalore (India).

Ladaria, McDermott, Sanna and Del Cura Eléna all spoke at the Lateran conference on Rahner.  Ladaria, a Jesuit who teaches at the Gregorian, has been named the new secretary general of the ITC.

Butler and McDermott are the two figures drawn from the theological community in the United States.  Here’s a read on Butler from one middle-of-the-road American Catholic theologian:

“She is an accomplished conservative theologian who recently served on the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.  She is well known for having switched her views on the ordination of women in mid-career, now supporting the Vatican position. Her arguments have been based on credible historical and systematic conversation.  More importantly she has remained active in the Catholic Theological Society of America, attending meetings and serving on the board.  I have always offered Sara as a model of responsible conservative Catholic scholarship willing to engage in dialogue.”

A similar assessment of McDermott:

“He is an accomplished theologian, albeit one who has become much more conservative in later years.  His essay in the Gregorianum assessing the Christology of Karl Rahner was considered a must read for students studying the thought of Rahner when I was doing my doctoral work.”

All the nominees from American institutions teach at seminaries, with no one from centers of theological study such as Notre Dame, Georgetown, or Berkeley. Some critics see this as a confirmation that John Paul appoints only theologians likely to support the CDF line. Others, however, insist that the ITC must presume a certain consensus about fundamentals in order to do its work.

One final observation. Only three of the new ITC members are laity. In the United States, estimates are that a third to a half of the theologians teaching in Catholic colleges, seminaries and other institutions are lay. Hence the relative under-representation of lay theologians can be expected to raise a few American eyebrows.

* * *

The appointment of Butler and Hallensleben marks the first time women have been named to the ITC in its 35-year history. This, taken in combination with the March 9 nomination of Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon as president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, has sparked talk of a “feminist turn” in Vatican personnel policy.

It’s probably no accident that all three appointments were announced on or near March 8, the United Nations-declared International Women’s Day.

Several media outlets asked me what to make of these gestures. In general, I’ve responded, one could say they amount to an implicit acknowledgement that the Catholic church has a problem with women. Fair or not, there is a widespread perception, especially in the developed world, that Catholicism is a male-run institution that ranges from indifferent to hostile with respect to the gifts of women. Certainly many cardinals and Vatican officials are aware of these perceptions, however unfounded or partial they believe them to be. Hence the recent appointments are, in effect, a way of saying that the church is serious in its desire to hear the voice of women.

Whether the moves will be convincing in this regard remains to be seen. It should also be noted that the appointments are more than tokenism; Glendon, Butler and Hallensleben are experienced, competent individuals irrespective of gender.

At the level of content, the three nominations probably do not augur significant course corrections in Vatican thinking. Glendon is a longtime Vatican advisor, and was the head of the Holy See’s delegation to the 1995 United Nations conference on women in Beijing. Butler, as noted above, is known as a conservative on most theological issues who supports the ban on women priests. Hence the change they will bring to Vatican deliberations seems likely to be sociological rather than ideological.

* * *

Rome this week has had something of the feel of a consistory, since so many different events have brought so many cardinals to town. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications and the Pontifical Council for Culture are both holding their annual plenary assemblies, the Australian and Dutch bishops are here for ad limina visits, and other prelates are in town on other business.

The result seems a bit like “old home week.” On Tuesday afternoon, for example, I was sitting in the Italian TV office near the Vatican interviewing Cardinal Keith O’Brien from Scotland, when the door to the room we were using popped open and Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia stuck his head in to say hello. Turns out that O’Brien and Rigali were made bishops together a number of years ago, and have remained friends since.

On the subject of the plenary assembly of the Council for Culture, French Cardinal Paul Poupard, who runs that office, held a briefing for the press on Monday, March 8, to present the instrumentum laboris for his meeting. The 35-page document presents the results of an extensive survey the Council for Culture conducted in recent months on the state of unbelief in the world.

Here are the key findings from that survey, which will inform the deliberations of the council about pastoral strategies for the Catholic church:

• There is no overall rise in disbelief in the world. It is largely a Western phenomenon with little impact in Asia, Latin America, Africa or the Muslim world.

• Militant atheism is diminishing and has little public influence, except in officially atheistic states: Cuba, North Korea, China, Vietnam and Laos. There is, however, a “widespread cultural hostility towards religions, especially Christianity and Catholicism” in the media, and also within “Masonic groups active in various governmental and international non-governmental organizations.”

• Religious indifference and practical atheism are growing. The report describes the present as the era of homo indifferens, that is, a person indifferent to the existence of God and whatever practical consequences God might have for daily life. Happiness is reduced to economic and sexual satisfaction.

• Atheism today hinges on lifestyle rather than gender, generation or class. “Among women who work outside the home, and above all among career women, the level of unbelief reaches levels almost equal to those of men.”

• There is a notable fall in the number of people attending church. These statistics, according to the report, do not betoken a rise in unbelief, but a transformation of religious belief and practice. Today, people believe but do not belong, which produces a “deconfessionalization.” Institutions are losing their credibility, while exotic practices such as magic and witchcraft gain ground.

• In all quarters, and especially in the West, there are signs of a new searching which is more spiritual than religious. There are two characteristics to this search, the report says: first, a refusal to acknowledge a role for institutions in mediating rapport with the transcendent; second, the divine is not recognized as a personal being. This explains the attractiveness of Asian spirituality, where human and divine submerge into a “singular wholeness.”

The report lists several causes for these phenomena, including the modern tendency to make the human person the center of the universe and the historic limits of Christianity. It also blames the mass media for “damaging the credibility of the church,” and in this context mentions priestly sex abuse scandals:

“Such revolting perversions are sometimes used and diffused, exploited or even orchestrated by third parties who use the mass media with the deliberate effect of damaging the reputation of the entire clergy and to the detriment of the entire church,” the report says.

The instrument laboris also lists several possible concrete proposals that are designed to respond to the pastoral situation it describes. They include:

• Dialogue with non-believers, including prayer for non-believers and apologetics to explain and defend core tenets of the faith;

• Evangelization of the culture of unbelief and indifference, including public witness by youth, new city missions, Christian movements and associations in the public sphere, and the promotion of public events on the great cultural themes;

• Promotion of educational institutions, especially church-affiliated schools;

• The “pathway of beauty and cultural heritage,” including cultural weeks, art festivals, exhibitions, and sacred arts prizes and art programs;

• The formation of Catholic Cultural Centers, creating public forums in which the church can make known Christian convictions about “man, woman, family, work, economy, society, politics, international life, the environment”;

• Religious tourism;

• The witness of charity.

* * *

Speaking of O’Brien, he and I spoke about the situation facing the Catholic church in Scotland. O’Brien is an optimist, noting that some 30 to 35 percent of Scottish Catholics still attend Mass on Sunday. He also said that while the priest shortage is a factor, he’s had some luck in generating vocations. This year he has two men retiring but will be ordaining two new priests, plus he has one man returning to service, so he’s actually “one up” for the year.

O’Brien acknowledged that there has been a drastic depletion of the ranks over the 40 years he’s been a priest. When he began, he said, there was a minor seminary in Scotland, two national seminaries, plus two Scottish seminaries in Rome and Spain. Today, the minor seminary is gone, the national seminaries have been merged into one, and the Spanish seminary is in the process of being “mothballed.” The result, O’Brien said, is that many of his priests are covering two or three parishes.

At the same time, O’Brien said this is not an entirely unmixed blessing.

“I’m happy to see the role of laity emphasized more and more and more,” he said, arguing that the priest shortage is compelling laity to grasp their responsibility. In this model, the priest can serve as the “sacramental boss,” while laity take over the administration and management of parishes.

I pressed O’Brien on what will happen if the number of priests eventually drops to a level that it imperils the church’s capacity to provide the sacraments to the people.

“I don’t know,” O’Brien answered candidly.

“Much depends on the next pope, and the way he faces it,” O’Brien said. “Also, the next synod is on the Eucharist, and I imagine a lot will be said then.”

“One thing is sure,” O’Brien said, referring to the pope’s recent encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. “If you don’t have the Eucharist, you don’t have a church.”

* * *

A footnote.

When we finished, I told O’Brien that I recently learned I owed him an apology. I have repeatedly attributed to him the remark that Italian Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi is a “wee fat guy.” I recently learned from Scottish sources, however, that when O’Brien spoke those words at a press conference at the 1999 European Synod, he was actually quoting the late Scottish Cardinal Thomas Winning.  These sources told me that O’Brien wrote Tettamanzi about the remark afterwards, apologizing for any offense. Tettamanzi apparently responded with good humor.

Hence, if Tettamanzi is elected pope, and his roly-poly carriage becomes a topic of public conversation, remember you heard it here first: “wee fat guy” was indeed the appellation given him by a Scottish cardinal, but it was Winning, not O’Brien.

* * *

American journalists who cover the Vatican have precious few natural advantages over colleagues from other languages and nationalities, but one of them is that we usually have a closer relationship with the American ambassador to the Holy See. Given the United States’ preeminence in global politics, American ambassadors enjoy a level of access and importance that no one else can rival, and hence they tend to be among the best-informed observers of the Vatican in the diplomatic world.

One former occupant of the post, Thomas Melady, recently published a set of memoirs entitled Faith, Family, Friends (Rutledge Books, 2003). Anyone interested in the Vatican will want to read Chapter Ten, which deals with his experiences as George Bush Sr.’s envoy to the Holy See from 1989 to 1993.

Melady describes the delicate diplomacy surrounding the surrender of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, who took refuge in the papal nunciature in Panama City. As it happens, the Vatican was no more eager to have Noriega there than the Americans. Melady writes that at one stage the nuncio threatened to move out, leaving Noriega in a building that was no longer Vatican territory. In the end, he surrendered.

A footnote: Melady later informed the Holy See that the phone lines in the nunciature had been bugged during Noriega’s confinement, a fact that ordinarily might have aroused diplomatic protest. In this case, however, Melady writes that his Vatican counterpart simply responded that he “was not surprised.”

Melady also describes the tension in the U.S./Vatican relationship over the First Gulf War, which will be eerily familiar to anyone who followed the debate over the Second Gulf War led by Bush fils.  As happened just months ago, also in 1991 the Vatican warned that the war would set off a broader regional confrontation. Publications connected to the Vatican, such as L’Osservatore Romano and La Civiltà Cattolica, criticized the war in harsh terms that the Secretariat of State disowned. Critics complained that the Vatican was aiding and abetting anti-Americanism on the Italian left. After the shooting stopped, there were efforts to paper over the differences, including a very warm visit by Bush pere to the pope on November 8, 1991.

The story underscores how, in diplomacy as in life, the past is often prologue.

Beyond Vatican anecdotes, Melady’s book is filled with material drawn from his remarkable life as a diplomat in Africa, a university president, a Republican political operative, and a husband. It’s a classic American story.

* * *

Nancy Sherman, a lay professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., spoke on March 9 at the Opus Dei-run Santa Croce University in Rome on “The Look and Feel of Virtue.” Basing herself largely on the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca, Sherman explored the idea that manners – codes of civility in speech, dress, and gesture – are a kind of moral prolegomena to the formation of virtue.

In essence, Sherman’s point (drawing on Seneca) was that manners matter. The way we speak in polite conversation, our smiles, even the way we dress, over time can help shape our deeper moral selves. Sherman noted that such externals can mask hypocrisy, but they also can help nudge us in virtuous directions. She calls this “the aesthetic of character.”

Sherman opened with a reference to her experience at the U.S. Naval Academy, where she taught the institution’s first course on ethics. Among other things, she commented on the attention paid in the military to decorum, including the way that a trim and neat uniform is believed to correlate with good conduct.

I was struck by the fact that Sherman made this observation before, in effect, a room full of men in uniform. There were 22 people at the seminar, 15 of whom were priests, and in typical Opus Dei fashion, all were in Roman collar. (Contrast this with her experience at Georgetown, where the Jesuits typically exhibit much greater sartorial flexibility). Her paper made me wonder if wearing priestly dress can help promote priestly virtue. Of course, as Sherman acknowledged, a uniform and other external conventions can also sometimes disguise hypocrisy.

Sherman will draw on her studies of Seneca and the military in a forthcoming book, Stoic Warriors, from Oxford University Press.

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

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