|I almost feel sheepish writing
a “Word from Rome” this week, since it seems all I have been doing the
past 72 hours is pouring out a torrent of words from Rome for various media
outlets covering the Vatican summit with the American cardinals.
news cycles create a demand for commentary even when there is, quite frankly,
very little to say. For example, I was in Chicago when the news broke that
the pope was calling the American cardinals to Rome, in a meeting with
the editors of US Catholic magazine. My cell phone buzzed within
minutes with a call from a radio program, asking what I knew.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Great! Let’s go live.”
Yet I must say that I’ve
earned a new respect this week for my colleagues at CNN, Fox, NBC, CBS,
National Public Radio, and other broadcast outlets. As I staggered bleary-eyed
and exhausted from one interview to another, I realized that for people
such as Fox’s Greg Burke, or CNN’s Alessio Vinci, or NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli,
this round-the-clock pace is a matter of daily routine. Say what you will
about the limits of broadcast news, its penchant for banality or its pressure
for instant analysis, but these people work for a living.
As the curtain dropped
on the summit, the obvious question was whether the event was a success
or a failure.
As a reporter, it’s not
my business to draw that conclusion. But what I can do is identify three
aspects that struck me as noteworthy, leaving it to others to comment on
First, like most journalists,
I was impressed by the frank manner in which most of the participants responded
to the press. (I’m referring here to those bishops who made themselves
available; some, most notably Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, were missing
In the press briefing
on April 23, for example, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S.
bishops’ conference, was asked about homosexuals in the priesthood. Here
was his full response:
“I’d like to acknowledge
that one of the difficulties we face in seminary life and recruiting is
made obvious when there is a homosexual atmosphere or dynamic that makes
heterosexual men think twice before entering, thinking they may be harassed.
After the papal visitation in the 1980s, our seminaries did an awful lot
to be sure we are living up to the highest standards of the church. It
is an on-going struggle to be sure that the Catholic priesthood is not
dominated by homosexual men, that the candidates we receive are healthy
in every possible way, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually.
Most seminaries are working vigorously to provide such an environment.”
Of course, the question
of linkage between homosexuality and the abuse crisis is debatable. But
what’s remarkable about Gregory’s response is that it is the first time
a senior American prelate has publicly acknowledged what close observers
of the Catholic scene have long known — that there are a disproportionate
number of homosexuals in seminaries and in the priesthood.
Not long ago, saying
this out loud could get people into trouble. After Fr. Donald Cozzens wrote
Changing Face of the Priesthood, in which he made this very point,
he became a lightning rod for controversy. (Though now every news show
in America knows his name, one sign that telling the truth brings its own
rewards). Now, Cozzens’ message has been validated by Gregory on the most
public stage imaginable. Under the weight of the current crisis, in other
words, some old taboos in Catholic public life are disintegrating.
Another example. I asked
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago whether the pope’s emphasis in his address
April 23 on “the power of Christian conversion” amounted to rejection of
a “one strike and you’re out” policy. It was an especially striking remark
since a few sentences before the pope had, for the first time, referred
to clerical sexual abuse as a crime.
George admitted that
he too was puzzled by the pope’s choice of words. “I don’t know where that
leaves us,” he said, adding that the cardinals were likewise divided on
how strong a policy to adopt.
I can’t recall the last
time a cardinal publicly threw up his hands about a papal statement in
quite that fashion.
Later I tracked down
Bishop William Skylstad, vice-president of the bishops’ conference, to
ask him about this point. (Actually I called my colleague Jim Bitterman
of CNN, who I knew was standing next to Skylstad right after an interview,
and Jim passed him a cell phone).
Skylstad said the bishops
are moving toward a “one strike” policy, but the details will have to be
worked out in Dallas in June. He added that there is still debate over
whether such a policy should apply to all cases, or just new ones, and
whether it should apply to all kinds of abuse, or just classic pedophilia.
Once again, I was struck
by the open way he answered questions about supposedly secret proceedings.
Normally I’d have to work hard, dancing around such a question a number
of times, before I got the answer. This time, the bishops seemed to realize
that the only way out of their fix is honesty.
Once that genie’s out
of the bottle, it’s awfully hard to put it back in.
A second striking element
of the summit was the way its final communiqué took sides in the
argument between left and right over how to analyze the sex abuse crisis.
Since the stories first
began to break, liberal Catholics have been arguing that the roots of the
problem lie in mandatory clerical celibacy, the refusal to ordain women
(both measures which limit the pool of potential candidates), and a negative
and repressive streak towards human sexuality in Catholic tradition. Conservatives,
meanwhile, tend to point the finger at doctrinal dissent, confusion on
church teaching about sexual morality, and tolerance of a gay subculture
in the priesthood.
The summit ratified the
conservative diagnosis, while ignoring the liberal.
pointed to “doctrinal issues underlying the deplorable behavior in question,
and called on pastors to more vigorously promote “the correct moral teaching
of the church” and to “publicly reprimand individuals who spread dissent
and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care.”
Though the document did
not identify homosexuality by name as a causal factor, it stated that “almost
all the cases involved adolescents and there were not cases of true pedophelia.”
Most of those cases involved adolescent males.
The document proposed
a papal investigation of seminaries and religious houses of formation,
“giving special attention to their admission requirements and the need
for them to teach Catholic moral doctrine in its integrity.” Both phrases
are veiled references to the issue of homosexuality.
It will be interesting
to watch how this decision to take sides in the left/right debate plays
out. If the bishops follow through in an aggressive fashion, the resulting
crackdown could result in an American church further bruised and divided.
It will be important to watch this aspect of the debate in Dallas in June.
Finally, over the course
of the two-day session, several cardinals and bishops told reporters that
the inclusion of lay people in the decision-making process of the church
was a key to long-term resolution of the crisis. George said bluntly that
part of the reason bishops had made such terrible mistakes is that they
were making these decisions by themselves, rather than listening to the
It was striking, therefore,
that the final documents of the summit made no mention of an expanded role
for laity in decisions on governance, finance or personnel. When I asked
this question at the concluding press conference, Cardinals Theodore McCarrick
and Francis Stafford, along with Gregory, took pains to emphasize how much
they support greater lay involvement. McCarrick said language about laity
had been in the document at one point, but apparently got dropped in the
The bishops seemed in
earnest about a greater lay role. Still, Catholics who worry about their
bishops being out of touch will perhaps be little consoled to realize that
the lone reference to laity was left on the cutting room floor.
* * *
One of the real treats
in the middle of this week’s media circus was meeting Jimmy Breslin, the
legendary New York columnist. After the midday press briefing on April
23, I found myself in the middle of a knot of reporters asking for my quick
run-down on what we had just heard. As I peeled myself away, I heard a
gruff, raspy voice asking where I was going and if he could tag along.
I said yes and began answering his questions without realizing I was talking
to a journalistic icon.
Breslin took it upon
himself to dish out some professional advice, mostly along the lines that
I should stop offering my professional expertise for free. (His actual
words were considerably more colorful).
When we arrived at a
BBC truck outside the Vatican for an interview I had agreed to, the producer
told me it would be a minute or two before they were ready. Breslin then
shouted: “What the Hell’s going on here? My client has places to go.”
They got me on the air
Breslin later offered
to give me the name of an agent, though frankly I think I’d rather just
have him. This is a man who knows how to get things done.
Breslin, by the way,
says he is writing a book about the sex abuse crisis, which I’m sure will
be a must-read.
* * *
In order to make it back
to Rome to cover the summit, I had to pull out of the last three dates
on my lecture tour with Robert Blair Kaiser. I know that with Bob’s wit,
charm, and command of the Vatican beat, our audiences didn’t suffer at
all from my absence. (In a sense Bob even managed to bilocate, since La
Stampa, one of Italy’s largest daily papers, reported that the fact
that both he and I had returned to Rome was a sign of the importance of
the summit in the American press).
Still, I would like to
take this chance to express my regrets to Columbia University’s journalism
program, to St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, and Trinity College in
Hartford, Connecticut. I’ll try to find a way to make up for it.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111