|John L. Allen Jr.
John Paul's June 5-6 trip to Switzerland offered something of a checkup on the state of the relationship between John Paul and his flock in the affluent, highly educated Western world.
Identity Politics in Switzerland; The Vatican and America;
Personnel Changes in the Holy See; Bonhoeffer and Ratzinger
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In 20th century academic jargon, the phrase politics of
identity has come to describe efforts by minority groups to reclaim
images once used to justify their inferior status and turn them into sources of
group solidarity. Hence the Black Pride movement, for example, and
similar efforts by Jews, women, gays, Native Americans, Hispanics and so
In a sense, the politics of identity is simply a new label
for what minorities have always done to defend themselves against majorities,
whether the threat is overt in the form of repression or implicit through the
lures of assimilation. Minority groups reinforce group boundaries by
celebrating special days, speaking their own language, putting on the tribal
costumes, singing their songs and cooking their foods and otherwise shouting,
Were here and were proud! Such affirmations usually are
designed for themselves as much as anyone else.
What unfolded in Bern, Switzerland, during John Paul IIs June 5-6
visit looked very much like a politics of identity for the Catholic church.
In that sense, the popes 103rd foreign trip, and his first in
seven months, reflects the epochal transition now underway in much of Western
Europe, where Catholicism is moving from being a culture-shaping majority to
being an embattled minority.
Switzerland is a microcosm of the ecclesiastical winter
besetting much of Europe. The country has a rich Catholic past, centered
especially on famous monastic foundations such as the Abbey of St. Gall and
Einsiedeln. Despite the impact of the Protestant Reformation, officially
speaking, some 44 percent of the 7.7 million Swiss remain Catholic.
Yet rates of church attendance hover around 16 percent, and they fall
off more in urban areas. Anti-clerical prejudices run deep, and under the
impact of secularization, there is a widespread indifference to institutional
religion. Vocations to the priesthood are scarce, and the Catholic
virtually no influence on public life. Just two days ahead of the popes
visit, for example, the national parliament in Bern approved a bill for civil
registration of same-sex unions.
Swiss Catholics are also divided. Perhaps the worlds leading
exponent of Catholic dissent, famed theologian Hans Küng, is Swiss. Prior
to the popes arrival, a number of Swiss priests, theologians and lay
people openly called on him to resign. A recent opinion poll for the Herbert
Haag Foundation found that 90 percent of Swiss Catholics support intercommunion
with Protestants. Some 89 percent backed optional celibacy for priests, 76
percent want women priests, and 65 percent want dioceses to elect their own
Thus the deep logic of John Pauls weekend stop was to give this
local church a shot in the arm.
Saturday night, John Paul rocked and rolled with 13,000 screaming young
Catholics in Berns Ice Palace, normally used as a hockey rink. The
enthusiasm was palpable, although the largest and most vocal contingent seemed
to be composed of Poles. The next day the pope celebrated an open-air Mass in
Allmend field before a crowd that organizers estimated at 70,000.
The weekend was designed as a celebration for Swiss Catholic youth, and
both the rally and the Mass had a definite air of Catholic
Woodstock. The upbeat pop soundtrack certainly left toes tapping, but
produced a distinctly unliturgical vibe at several moments, including after the
presentation of gifts and just before the Eucharistic prayers at Sunday Mass.
There was also a jazz swing number during what is normally quiet reflection
time after the distribution of Communion. A couple of Swiss bishops let it be
known they would not be in attendance because they found all this slightly
The overall effect seemed energizing, however, for at least some youth I
found in the crowd.
I feel more Catholic today, said 14-year-old Michele
Tassone, an Italian speaker from the Swiss town of Lanquart. Being here
with all these other Catholic kids, I feel like Im part of
Moreover, John Paul can point to at least one direct fruit of his visit.
President Joseph Deiss announced that Switzerland, always loath to compromise
its historic neutrality, would nevertheless upgrade its diplomatic
representation to the Holy See.
At the end of the two-day journey, however, two questions seemed to hang
in the air.
Granted that Swiss Catholicism needs a politics of identity, was Bern
really the model? The pop tunes at Mass and MTV-style presentations at the
Saturday rally sometimes had an almost desperate feel, as if the Swiss were
trying a little too hard to be relevant. Can a robust Catholic identity really
be forged by mimicking the modes of expression of the larger culture? Or would
the church do better to foster its own distinctive speech, prayer and
The second question is one of leadership. Anyone who sat through the
Saturday night rally saw that John Paul II set these young people on fire. He
may be a controversial figure within certain circles of the church and in the
broader culture, but for youth longing for a full-bodied sense of Catholic
identity, he is an icon. But hes the pope, not the primate of
Switzerland, and though he may reign for some time yet, the odds are this was
his last sojourn among the Swiss. So wheres the homegrown leadership that
will foster a viable politics of Catholic identity, not just over a weekend,
but day in and day out?
That, too, seemed an open question as John Paul mounted an Alitalia
plane for the flight to Romes Ciampino airport.
* * *
Public reaction before John Pauls June 5 arrival was largely
negative. Heres how some local newspapers headlined their coverage:
The Pope in a Bern far from Rome. No display of welcome for the pope.
Indifference to opposition in the local population. A Protestant boycott and
fine-tuning from the Vatican against a press critical of the pope. No warm
reception for John Paul II.
Even President Deiss felt constrained to acknowledge that some of
his constituents were less than thrilled.
In a land of democracy and cultural diversity, it is natural that
some of Your Holinesss doctrines and precepts elicit intensive
debate, Deiss said. However, tied to this is an acknowledgment that
you compel us to reflect on key questions affecting society.
On the streets of Bern, criticism was much more blunt. A small but
determined group of young radicals staged a rally in the streets of Bern the
night before the pope arrived, chanting, To the devil with the
pope. As John Paul was getting ready for Saturdays youth rally,
local college students were wandering around the downtown area handing out
lengthy tracts against Opus Dei, as well as condoms bearing the label
the pope wont do it.
We dont want the pope, Mike Dee, 24, told me over a
beer Saturday afternoon in downtown Bern. He is too conservative on AIDS,
on women, on everything.
Despite the fact that Dee and several of his friends, all from
Protestant families, conceded that they never go to church, they insisted on
feeling hurt because the pope would not give them Communion.
On the other hand, veteran observers of papal trips know that John
Pauls press is usually better on day two, after the media sees the
rapturous reception the pope always gets from his core supporters. The pattern
held up in Bern, where the Sunday papers, reflecting the youth rally the night
before, carried headlines that were usually some version of Pope
celebrated as pop star.
It was true.
When John Paul appeared on stage at the Ice Palace at 6:12 p.m., the
crowd exploded as if the Swiss team had just scored the game-winning goal in
the Olympic hockey finals, and sustained a deafening roar for a full 10
A few moments later, the pope began his speech and appeared to be
incapable of carrying on, breathing heavily. When an aide tried to take his
papers, however, John Paul vigorously slapped him away, triggering another
full-throated roar that shook the rafters.
Throughout the trip, John Paul appeared sluggish and tired, but he
finished all his speeches and maintained all his public engagements.
I too, like you, was once 20 years old, the pope told the
I liked to play sports, to ski, to act. I studied and I worked. I
had desires and worries. In those years that are now far away, in times in
which my homeland was wounded first by war and then by a totalitarian regime, I
was searching for the sense to give to my life.
I found it, he said, in following the Lord
The crowd hung on the popes every phrase. They sang, they danced,
they did the wave, and for a few moments the ennui of centuries of
history seemed to lift. Swiss Catholicism felt young.
* * *
George Bush met June 4 in the Vatican with John Paul II, and rarely has
a high-profile encounter between two leaders been subject to more widely
varying interpretations. According to White House sources and Vatican
spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls, it was a cordial encounter that
produced a meeting of the minds on Iraq, as well as appreciation for
Bushs stands on life and the family. According to some media outlets, on
the other hand, it was a dramatic confrontation; the Manchester
Guardian, for example, called it a papal tongue-lashing.
The truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere in between.
John Pauls speech was, in the eyes of many observers, somewhat
tougher than expected. Despite predictions that the pope would take Bush
to the woodshed, papal rhetoric, at least in public, is usually
circumspect and polite. If there was to be clash, most expected it would happen
behind closed doors.
Instead, the pope reminded Bush of past disagreements.
Your visit to Rome takes place at a moment of great concern for
the continuing situation of grave unrest in the Middle East, both in Iraq and
in the Holy Land, the pope told the president. You are very
familiar with the unequivocal position of the Holy See in this
One Vatican official told me June 9 that this line should put to
rest speculation that John Paul himself was not as critical of the Iraq
war as some of his aides.
At the same time, the pope extended Bush a warm welcome, he
received the Medal of Freedom and he praised Bush for the promotion of
moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life
and the family.
Hence, there was enough material for observers to apply whatever spin
I spoke to a senior Vatican diplomat June 9, who was at pains to
emphasize that the meeting between Bush and the pope had been very
positive, and that relations with the Americans are much closer
today than one year ago.
This official conceded that the pope did not hide certain criticisms,
but insisted that there were more points of convergence than
difference. Especially on Iraq, he said, the Holy See supports the
transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis and is cheered by the
administrations efforts to secure a United Nations resolution recognizing
the new government.
The official said that Bushs meeting with Cardinal Angelo Sodano,
the Vaticans Secretary of State, and other senior officials dealt with
Iraq and the Middle East, including the fate of Christian communities in both
places, as well as Africa and religious liberty in China.
Without putting it in quite these terms, what this Vatican diplomat made
crystal clear is that the Holy See does not want to be the ecclesiastical
equivalent of France. That is, it does not want a reputation for knee-jerk
anti-American sentiment, because if Vatican diplomacy is anything, its
realistic. Realism in the present world situation means you either work with
the Americans, or you sit on the sidelines.
That explains, for example, why Navarro went out of his way to play down
the critical elements in the popes speech. Asked for comment, Navarro
said the pope had extended Bush a warm welcome, which was the first line of the
speech, and praised him for defense of the family, which came near the end. In
effect, he glossed over everything in between.
Another high-ranking Vatican diplomat explained it to me this way
several months ago. We want the Americans to succeed, he said, because for the
issues we care about -- human dignity, religious liberty, the rule of law --
theyre the only game in town. Our concern is with means, not ends, and
were trying to encourage America to be the best version of itself.
* * *
During his June 4 visit, Bush asked the Vatican to push the American
Catholic bishops to be more aggressive politically on family and life issues,
especially a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union
between a man and a woman.
A Vatican official told NCR June 9 that in his meeting with
Cardinal Angelo Sodano and other Vatican officials, Bush said, Not all
the American bishops are with me on the cultural issues. The implication
was that he hoped the Vatican would nudge them toward more explicit
Other sources in the meeting said that while they could not recall the
presidents exact words, he did pledge aggressive efforts on the cultural
front, especially the battle against gay marriage, and asked for the
Vaticans help in encouraging the U.S. bishops to be more outspoken.
According to sources, Sodano did not respond to the request.
Sources say Bush made the remark after Sodano thanked him for his stand
on the issues of family and life. They also said that while Bush was focusing
primarily on the marriage question, he also had in mind other concerns such as
abortion and stem cell research.
Bush supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and has
urged Congress to take swift action. Since polls show that in several
battleground states in the fall election a majority of voters is opposed to gay
marriage, some Bush analysts think an aggressive push on the issue will help
the presidents prospects.
* * *
Speaking of the relativity of perceptions, I published an op-ed piece in
the New York Times the day before the Bush visit, which also appeared in
the International Herald Tribune the next morning. I had conceived of
the piece as a relatively neutral recitation of the more important differences
on international policy between the White House and the Apostolic Palace.
That was not, however, how it was seen in some quarters.
One prominent American Catholic wrote to say that the piece was a
blatant attempt to insult and to cause embarrassment to Bush. You
could not have done John Kerry a greater service, or more acutely ridiculed the
president, he said.
This writer, and others, were especially offended at the way I opened
the piece, with a reference to John Pauls dramatic 1983 encounter with
Polish General Wojciech Jaruzelski. My intent was to draw a comparison between
the popes political impact in the early 1980s and today, but these
readers thought I was comparing Jaruzelski, a communist dictator and Bush, the
leader of the free world.
Russell Harris of Overland, Mo., was blunt: Are you proud of
penning such asinine and slanderous drivel? he asked.
Frankly, I think that the rest of the op-ed, where I described
differences in emphasis between Washington and the Vatican on preemptive force,
international law, the United Nations and Americas role in the world,
would not have elicited such reactions. Allowing for some journalistic
compression and over-simplification, those four areas are, in the eyes of
anyone whos been paying attention, obvious matters about which the two
sides have contrasting (though not contradictory) views.
One official in the Secretariat of State told me that he would not
change one comma in the piece.
Sadly, however, the opening created an adversarial dynamic, especially
in a white-hot American election season. I did not mean it as a partisan attack
on Bush, but I now recognize that my attempt at a clever historical hook
The writing of which I am most proud is composed of pieces where readers
of differing views can all conclude, Yes, this is how it is. That
obviously wasnt the case here.
* * *
Readers are forever asking about future Vatican personnel shake-ups.
These are notoriously difficult matters to predict, but one move that does seem
to be in the offing is a change in the government of the Vatican city-state.
The current president of the Governatorato is Cardinal Edmund Szoka, an
American, who will turn 77 in September.
Among the candidates widely mentioned as a possible replacement for
Szoka is Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, 74, a Colombian who is currently the
apostolic nuncio in the United States. It is customary for the nuncio to the
States to go on to a post that entitles him to become a cardinal, so this would
be a fitting appointment for Montalvo, who has served in Washington since
If that were to happen, it would raise the question of Montalvos
successor. The nuncios job is critically important, not merely because he
serves as an interlocutor with the government, but because he also coordinates
the search process for new bishops. A nuncio with vision can help shape a
national church, and rarely has the American church faced a more critical
crossroads than today.
Though its improbable, one dream candidate for a number of
American Catholics would be Archbishop Celestino Migliore, 51, currently the
Holy Sees nuncio to the United Nations in New York.
Migliore speaks English well, knows American culture and has a
reputation as one of the more sympathetic observers of the United States in the
world of Vatican diplomacy. He is also seen as hard-working, intelligent and
It would be unusual to lift someone out a high-profile assignment such
as the United Nations after just 18 months on the job. The last occupant,
Cardinal Renato Martino, held the post 16 years.
Yet in Italian, the phrase il migliore means the
best. If Montalvo does move on, some American Catholic observers will
press the Holy See that its man in New York is the best choice to
* * *
Saturday night, the popes trip to Bern lost whatever tenuous
toehold it had in the American media market when news broke that former
President Ronald Reagan had died. For the next few hours, every other story
dropped off the radar screen.
I was called upon by both CNN and the BBC to comment on Reagans
In brief, I said that Reagan was the president who put the
Religious Right on the map in the United States. Its
illustrative that the Moral Majority was founded in 1979 and disbanded in 1989,
almost exactly overlapping the Reagan years. Although Reagan himself did not
wear his religious convictions on his sleeve, he was the first presidential
candidate to explicitly conceive of religious conservatives as an essential
part of his electoral base.
In this context, I was asked several times about the relationship
between Reagan and John Paul II. There is no question that both men saw a
providential logic in their elections, and both agreed that the battle against
the Soviet Union had to be waged on the plane of ideas. Prior to Reagan and
Wojtyla, the tendency was to think of the East/West conflict in terms of
geopolitics and tactics. These two men, however, insisted it was fundamentally
a moral struggle, and did not hesitate to apply the categories of good and evil
in characterizing it.
It should be noted, however, that support of John Paul II by the U.S.
government did not begin with Reagan. It was already policy under President
Jimmy Carter. For example, when John Paul visited Poland for the first time as
pope in June 1979, the Polish government had banned the national TV system from
broadcasting his schedule. The idea was to hold down crowd size by ensuring
that people wouldnt know where to go. In a forthcoming documentary for
the Discovery Channel, however, former CIA director Robert Gates relates how
the American spy agency used a suitcase to smuggle a device into Poland that
overrode Polish TV and broadcast the itinerary.
Perhaps its also worth recalling that while Reagan and John Paul
were very much in lockstep on communism and the defense of traditional
morality, they were not singing from the same songbook on every issue. Reagan
was a classic American conservative, believing in a slimmed-down state and the
free play of market forces.
John Paul has a somewhat different view. Andrea Riccardi, founder of the
Community of SantEgidio, recalls in his 1996 book SantEgidio:
Rome and the World a private conversation with the pope in 1979. In that
exchange, Riccardi quotes John Paul as saying, Look, I can surely say by
now that Ive got the antibodies to communism inside me. But when I think
of consumer society, with all its tragedies, I wonder which of the two systems
Part of Reagans undeniable political appeal is that he did not
seem to wrestle with similar doubts.
* * *
Some 100 scholars from 14 countries are in Rome this week participating
in a conference on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and author who
opposed Hitler and the Nazis and was hanged by the Gestapo in 1945.
I had wanted to interview someone on Bonhoeffer and the Catholic church,
but it turns out, according to Professor Michael Lukens of St. Norbert College
in Wisconsin, that this is one of the underdeveloped fields of Bonhoeffer
research. He gave me an extract from Bonhoeffers diary from 1918-1927,
which includes notes from an extended stay in Rome in 1924.
During that time, the cerebral Prussian encountered the earthy,
incarnational reality of Southern Mediterranean Catholicism for the first time.
Pope Pius XI did not make a grand impression (he lacked everything that
is indicative of a pope
all grandeur and anything extraordinary was
missing), but Bonhoeffer found the art and liturgy of Rome in Holy Week
A German Bonhoeffer expert, Hans Pfeifer, gave me a fascinating overview
of the uses to which Bonhoeffers thought was put among Protestants in the
Soviet era who were looking to reconcile Christianity and Marxism.
Bonhoeffer advocated a religionless Christianity, meaning a
form of Christianity disentangled from all institutions and civil power. Some
liberal Protestants argued that the radical secularity of the Marxist state was
thus a blessing for Christianity. The church, they argued, could be at home in
a religionless environment. This reading of Bonhoeffers works spread in
the Soviet era from East Germany through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and
Listening to Pfeifer, I was reminded of an argument once made by
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about Christianity and the Nazis. Only those
Christians with a thick ecclesiology, Ratzinger argued, were able
to withstand the pressures from the Nazis to assimilate. Liberal Christians who
had deliberately weakened their concepts of church, he said, found themselves
naked in front of the pressures of a hostile state.
No doubt Ratzinger would say the Soviet appropriation (or
misappropriation) of Bonhoeffers work illustrates the same point: that
however well intentioned, a weak ecclesiology makes the church vulnerable to
manipulation for someone elses ends.
Some of my readers may recall an old PBS television program where actors
portraying famous people from various eras were seated around a dinner table,
and conversation ensued. If I could conjure up such an evening, two of the
guests I think Id want there would be Bonhoeffer and Ratzinger. That
would be a fascinating conversation indeed.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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