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May 20, 2005 
The Word From Rome
Vol. 4, No. 31

John L. Allen Jr. 
Vatican 
Correspondent

jallen@natcath.org

 

 

Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ; Interview with the Roman-Anglican commission cochair; Next U.S. ambassador to Holy See named; Reactions to Levada's appointment

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.

Occasionally, significant turning points in history are recognized as such at the time, but more often they pass more or less unnoticed until later, when, with the benefit of hindsight, their importance reveals itself.

Such may well have been the case this week, with the release of the long-awaited Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, the latest document from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC).

Though it's dangerous with a complex document of almost 16,000 words to reduce its content to a couple of sentences, in essence, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ declares that, properly understood, Anglicans can accept the Marian content of the two dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, infallibly defined by popes in 1854 and 1950, respectively.

"The teaching about Mary understood within the biblical pattern of the economy of hope and grace, can be said to be consonant with the teaching of the Scriptures and the ancient common traditions," the text concludes.

Known as the "Seattle Statement" because much of the work was carried out there, the document was presented in Seattle on May 16 by the co-chairs of ARCIC, Roman Catholic Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle and Anglican Archbishop Peter Carnley of Australia. There will also be an ecumenical vespers service in Rome on Sunday to mark the occasion, with Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's top ecumenical officer, preaching.

The document comes at a propitious time.

In the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Anglican-Catholic relations made enormous progress, and the dialogue between the two represented a standard, both for theological depth and for civility, against which other ecumenical encounters were measured. In recent years, however, given deep disputes over the ordination of women and the consecration of an openly gay bishop by the Episcopalians in the United States -- to say nothing of longstanding differences over issues such as papal primacy -- it has become crystal clear that the dream of full structural unity between Rome and Canterbury is unlikely to be realized anytime soon.

A May 9 press release from the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, announcing the impending release of the Mary document, was indirect but frank. "Over the past two years, the Pontifical Council has been concerned by the impact of recent developments in Anglicanism in North America on our relations," it said, adding that recent reflections within the Anglican communion on authority and decision-making have been encouraging.

When and if structural unity does eventually come about, historians of the ecumenical movement will likely look back at Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ as a moment in which one of the traditional stumbling blocks to unity was, at least in principle, cleared away.

At the time the two Marian dogmas were defined in the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, there was widespread skepticism and resistance among Anglicans. A 1981 ARCIC statement on authority alluded to those reactions: "The dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption raise a special problem," it said, "for those Anglicans who do not consider that the precise definitions given by these dogmas are sufficiently supported by scripture."

By design, the document does not treat the authority by which the dogmas were defined, and Anglicans may still harbor doubts about the concept of papal infallibility, or the mode in which it was exercised in these instances. But at least as far as Marian content goes, the document concludes unanimously that Mary's conception without sin, and assumption into heaven, are legitimate matters of Christian belief.

Given the way differences over Mary have long divided Catholics from the other Christians, that is a historically significant conclusion indeed.

The document also acknowledges, on the Catholic side, that there have been historical excesses in Marian devotion, which must not be allowed to obscure the centrality of Christ in the life and faith of the church. That frank acknowledgment will no doubt be well received by many Anglicans, and by other dialogue partners of the Catholic church.

"We believe there is no continuing theological reason for ecclesial division on these matters," the document concludes, with reference to asking Mary to pray for believers.

The first third of the document traces Mary in scripture, before turning to the "ancient common traditions" that both Anglicans and Catholics accept. Finally, subsequent developments within both Catholicism and Anglicanism are studied.

The document, which marks the formal end of the second phase of ARCIC's work, does not officially commit either the Anglican communion or the Roman Catholic church to its conclusions. Instead, it's offered by ARCIC as a stimulus to reflection and study within both communities, to determine to what extent it embodies a genuine consensus.

The commission was made up of 18 members, and its work on the document stretched over five years.

In that sense, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ represents something of a testimony to the persistence of the men and women involved in today's ecumenical movement. Given the frustrations and flashpoints of recent experience, and the ways in which on some essential moral questions Catholicism and parts of the Anglican communion seem to be growing apart, it can be tempting to conclude that ecumenism is a pipe dream not worth the time and effort. The fact that ARCIC persevered in this climate, and came up with a breakthrough, speaks to the dedication and patience of those involved.

Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ will be available on-line by the end of May on the Vatican Web site.

* * *

In conjunction with the release of Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, I interviewed Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle, co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. As fate would have it, I reached him on a Sunday morning in mid-May, on his way to St. Mary's Church in McGowan, Washington, just slightly downstream from a spot on the Columbia River where Lewis and Clark spent 10 days at a "station camp" in 1805.

Given the way debates over Mary have traditionally divided Catholics and Anglicans, how important is this document?
Brunett: It's critical for that very reason. If you look at the conclusions, you just say, "Wow." It was a long, difficult process, which involved much dialogue, much discussion, much rewriting. The way something is expressed can often cloud the issue, so we had to be very attentive to language.

Were you surprised at how much agreement you were able to achieve?
I was. In 1981, an earlier ARCIC document talked about these dogmas as involving very difficult issues, and that the dialogue was going to be complicated unless we could get beyond them. Given that, it's very positive that we were able to come to these conclusions on Marian dogmas. We didn't deal with the process by which they were proclaimed, but we were able to agree that their content is consistent with the scriptures. We were aided by experts who helped us look at both the scriptures and our common traditions.

What was the key to the breakthrough?
I think it was a close reading of scripture. On the Assumption, for example, we were aided by eschatological insight into the life of Christ. We saw Mary's assumption in the contest of the eschatological destiny of all believers. On the Immaculate Conception, we read it in terms of Romans 8:30, "And those who he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified." We tried to unpack that scriptural quotation, and came to see that it can be said to apply to Mary; and that we see in her life a pattern of grace and hope which is consistent with the scriptures, a pattern which is true -- in a certain sense -- of all believers. We understood that she was marked out from the beginning for the task that laid ahead of her.

The document speaks of the need for a 're-reception' of elements from the Bible and church tradition. What does that mean?
This is one of the typical expressions in the document. When we look at both scripture and tradition, we sometimes find elements that have been forgotten, neglected or abused. So, 're-reception' is an invitation to have fresh recourse to these forgotten aspects of our traditions. We have to re-receive them in order to understand them, in order to have the freedom to respond in fresh ways to challenges.

Do you have any concerns about how this document will be received within the Anglican communion, especially in the United States?
Certainly the differences in episcopal structure and governance can sometimes make things complicated. In the United States, the Episcopalians have a convention every two or three years, which tends to be the deciding factor in theological and moral issues. There's not as much chance for dialogue at these events. You can make presentations and so on, but real dialogue can't be done at that level. So you never know what might happen. But we're presenting the document to them, and we're hopeful.

I suspect it may unfold like the response to "The Gift of Authority." [Brunett refers to a 1999 ARCIC document, which voiced a cautious opening on the part of Anglicans to some form of papal primacy as a symbol and guarantor of Christian unity]. It was fairly well received in many parts of the Anglican communion, but the Episcopalian church here in the United States had lots of problems with it. It was more "user-friendly" to Anglicans elsewhere. The same thing may happen on this document. But it breaks ground in the discussion, and it will be very good for them.

What about Catholic response?
Certain groups of Catholics may find parts of the document very difficult. There's not much on private devotions or apparitions, for example, and some Catholics will certainly be looking for that kind of thing. There's no mention, for example, of Lourdes or Fatima.

The document does not criticize those devotions, correct?
No, but if people are looking for some kind of a justification of them, they won't find it. We don't qualify which apparitions are legitimate, for example. We simply don't mention them. I know there is strong Catholic interest in these subjects. When I go to preach, I'm always asked about an apparition, or why I'm not consecrating the United States to the Blessed Virgin Mary in light of Fatima, and so on. People attached to these devotions may be disappointed. Really, all the document intends to do is to call us back to deepen our prayer and reflection on Mary.

Any other concerns about reception?
The important thing is to read the whole document. It's very tightly put together, and you need to see the process by which conclusions are reached. If people can see the conclusions in context, I think we'll avoid a lot of objections. But you need to follow the reasoning.

Does the document have larger significance, beyond what it says about the Marian dogmas?
It might be a bridge document, in that it illustrates that we have a lot in common in the way in which we put things, the ways in which we do theology. It's highly diachronic, in that it deliberately asks what our tradition is, and how we got to where we are today. It tries to get back to the apostolic tradition, which I think will be very helpful. I also think it's significant that Bishop Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church in the United States, along with Episcopalian bishops and priests from every region of the country came for the presentation. Coming together can do a lot of good, and this means the door's open.

It's worth remembering that the very issuance of this document means we accomplished something. Anglican-Catholic dialogue was in effect stopped [in the wake of the consecration of a gay bishop by the Episcopalian church]. This document was more or less ready a year and a half ago, and we had to get that straightened out first. The fact that we were able to come together and finish our work already is a positive sign.

What maintains your enthusiasm for ecumenical work?
I've been in this for over 30 years. I was one of the first, and I've been part of almost all the different dialogues. After all those meetings and experiences, I've never yet come away saying, "That was useless." What you accomplish may or may not affect the entire church, but you get people better able to enter into dialogue in their own communities. You overcome prejudices and stereotypes, and so you open up an avenue for conversation. We find that we have much in common, and we can build on that experience.

* * *

Although the nomination is not official until announced by the White House and confirmed by the United States Senate, sources in Rome have confirmed to NCR that Francis Rooney, 51, will be the next United States Ambassador to the Holy See.

Under the terms of diplomatic protocol, the Holy See has already given its agreement to the appointment, those sources said. At the moment, the White House is examining Rooney's financial disclosure forms, with a formal announcement of the appointment expected sometime in late May or early June, and Senate hearings shortly thereafter.

Barring a surprise, confirmation is expected to come swiftly.

Rooney, a Catholic, is an Oklahoma native and a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center. A businessman, he owns Manhattan Construction and Hope Lumber in Tulsa, Okla., and is also CEO of the Florida-based investment firm Rooney Brothers Inc., as well as Rooney Holdings.

Assuming he's confirmed, the posting to the Vatican would be Rooney's first diplomatic assignment. He is not expected to move into the Villa Richardson, the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, until late summer or early fall.

Rooney has been an ardent supporter of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Rooney Holdings donated more than $500,000 to the president's re-election campaign in 2004. Data released by the Federal Election Commission on Feb. 7, listed Rooney and his wife Kathleen in fifth place on the list of largest individual donors to political campaigns in the 2004 elections, having distributed $341,396 to various candidates. According to the FEC data, 99 percent of that money went to Republicans.

In 2004, Rooney Holdings contributed $100,000 to "Progress for America," a group promoting the president's Social Security proposals.

In turn, Bush named Rooney to be part of a small delegation led by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to the August 2004 inauguration of Panamanian President Martin Torrijos. Rooney's construction company does business in Central America, and since 2003 he has served on the advisory board for the Panama Canal.

Rooney's commercial activities have intersected with conservative political causes over the years. Manhattan Construction, for example, built the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas as well as the $6 million headquarters of the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank with libertarian leanings.

The ambassador's position has been vacant since James Nicholson returned to Washington, D.C., in early 2005 to take up duties as the new Secretary of the Veteran's Administration. The U.S. embassy to the Holy See has been administered during this time by charge d'affaires Brent Hardt, who was called upon to organize the American delegations both for the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the installation of Pope Benedict XVI.

Hardt himself is scheduled for reassignment over the summer.

* * *

I spent a fair bit of time this week working on a profile of the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco, which will appear in the May 27 issue of National Catholic Reporter (available on the Web site to subscribers on May 24). I have interviewed Levada several times and spoken with him informally on other occasions, and my research for this piece deepened my impression that he's a fascinating man. His tenure at the congregation should be most interesting to watch.

As I collected reactions to the May 13 nomination, one point driven home for me is how much difference point of view makes in trying to size up the complex record that a leader with decades of experience on the national and international stage is bound to accumulate.

For the secular press, Levada looms as a strong doctrinal hawk. Both Time magazine and The Times of London used the word "hardline" in characterizing his views, and a Nexis search under the terms "William Levada" and "conservative" for the past 60 days generated 90 hits, more or less summing up how most commentary in the English-language media interpreted the appointment. (Though to be fair, many of those pieces went on to note that Levada has a capacity for nuance that often defies people's expectations).

On the other hand, insta-reaction within Catholic circles offered a very different take. Surveying the cyber-world of Catholic blogs and bulletin boards, it seemed those most disappointed in the appointment tended to come from the Catholic right, not the left, as secular reaction might have suggested. Much of this commentary was tempered, but some of it verged on hysteria.

Here's a sampling of the stronger comments I came across before the appointment, when Levada was rumored to be the leading candidate, and in the first 24 hours after the nomination was announced:

  • "I know he hasn't applied Ecclesia Dei [the 1988 indult from John Paul II permitting celebration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass with the authorization of the local bishop] in his diocese, and I would like to hear a justification for that. It's not the sort of thing that makes me trust a bishop."
  • "Maybe no one here lives in the Bay Area, but this is not a good thing. [One parish] has been allowed the entire tenure of Levada to have its annual float in the Gay Pride Parade with all of its usual antics. As an alum of USF, I can't even begin to tell you all of the things that go on there, but it's bad news. Take for example the Jesuit-run pagan prayer practices, like centering, yoga, and the labyrinth (prominently in the main plaza of the University). ....Finally, look at the activities and organizations supported by his ecumenical office, such as the United Religions Initiative. This is not good, folks."
  • "It is time to make our outrage known. Swamp the Holy Father's e-mail."
  • "I think that the elevation of the heresiarch Levada to this high curial post will answer the question once and for all whether this pontificate will be sympathetic to the concerns of so-called 'traditionalists' or even conservatives."
  • "My heart skipped a beat when I saw this article. Levada is a supporter of United Religions Initiative. The thought that he would be at the helm of the CDF scares the heck out of me!"
  • "The United States is the one location in the world, where the church has an opportunity to limit or even turn back the modernist, secular, feminist, homosexual agenda attacks. An American Catholic could be a brilliant appointment. However, Levada may not be Catholic. His record of appeasement and iconoclastic churches speaks to a mentality alien to the CDF."

I realize there's a risk of caricaturing this discussion about Levada by citing selectively, and out of context, only the most incendiary remarks. I do so just to make this point -- perceptions of what counts as a "conservative" or a "liberal" are very much relative to one's frame of reference, and one person's "hardliner" is another's "heresiarch."

These strong reactions may also teach us something else, which is that Catholic traditionalists took enormous cheer from Pope Benedict XVI's election, perhaps creating unrealistic expectations about how far and how fast he would move.

One of the spots in cyber-space where this conversation unfolded is a blog run by American Catholic writer Amy Welborn, called "Open Book." Generally speaking, the center of gravity on "Open Book" tends to tilt a bit to the right, but it is no talk-shop for ideologues; Welborn's own analyses, for example, always come across as measured and generous.

I asked her what she made of the discussion about Levada.

"I think the reactions to the rumors, and then the reality, of Levada's appointment are symptomatic of the deep, deep frustration that so many Catholics have," Welborn said. "There is such hope being invested in Pope Benedict, all eyes are on his every move and every word, and with the Internet, reactions can explode within hours of something happening. I think it's a great thing that we can be so much better informed, so quickly, but it lends itself to snap judgments, too, which can end up being what snap judgments usually are: wrong."

Finally, it's worth noting that perceptions can also be reconfigured by switching cultural, rather than ideological, perspective. I asked an Italian friend of mine, a longtime veteran of the Vatican, how the Italians in the Roman Curia were reacting to the Levada appointment. In general, he said, the reactions were mixed. In part, he said, it's because the Italians continue to feel their traditional dominance in the Roman Curia slipping away. In part, he said, it's because Levada has defended the American sexual abuse norms, the heart of which is the "one-strike" policy -- for even one credible accusation of abuse, no matter how distant in the past, a priest is removed from ministry for life. In some respects, it's difficult to reconcile that policy with the universal law of the church, which emphasizes the discretion of judges to make the penalty fit the crime, and establishes a statute of limitations for these offenses.

The norms in the United States thus seem to some in Rome as another case of "American exceptionalism," an insistence on the part of American Catholics on doing things their way regardless of the rules everyone else plays by. These critics sometimes point to the annulment system in the United States (where 6 percent of the world's Catholics account for 75 percent of the world's annulments), and the various exceptions to some liturgical norms that American bishops have requested over the years, as additional examples. All of this, of course, must be understood against the backdrop of the ambivalence many people from other countries already feel about the United States. Thus for some, the Levada appointment seems another plum for a national church that already is too accustomed to special treatment.

If nothing else, all this ought to serve as a reminder of the complexity of leadership in a global church, with such a riot of differing backgrounds, perspectives, and expectations.

* * *

Speaking of Italians in the Roman Curia, it has not escaped their attention that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department traditionally known as la suprema because of its singular importance, is increasingly an Anglophone enterprise.

Prior to the Levada nomination, the under-secretary was already an American, Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia, and the promoter of justice is Maltese Monsignor Charles Scicluna. Another American priest, Fr. Charles Brown from the New York archdiocese, is on assignment in the CDF, and there's also an Irish priest, Fr. John Kennedy, on the staff.

Now the boss is an American, and he intends to bring with him his secretary, Fr. Steven Lopes of the San Francisco archdiocese, who will also work in the congregation. In September another English-speaker arrives, Fr. Patrick Burke, a Scotsman who is currently a parish priest in Stirlingshire, and who will serve in the congregation's doctrinal section. (Burke is the author of a recent book on the famed Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, Reinterpreting Rahner, published by Fordham University Press).

To be sure, that's only seven English-speakers out of a total staff of perhaps 40, but it's almost certainly a historical peak, and with Levada, Di Noia and Scicluna, they represent three-quarters of the all-important superiori, or "superiors," in the office.

For some Italian traditionalists in the Curia, this is strong medicine.

* * *

My new book on the conclave and the direction of Benedict's papacy, The Rise of Benedict XVI, is soon to be published in the United States by Doubleday, and by Penguin in the United Kingdom. For those who are interested, the book may be pre-ordered at amazon.com.

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


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