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June 11, 2004 
Vol. 3, No. 42

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


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 on.

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, “We’re here and we’re proud!” Such affirmations usually are designed for themselves as much as anyone else.

What unfolded in Bern, Switzerland, during John Paul II’s June 5-6 visit looked very much like a politics of identity for the Catholic church.

In that sense, the pope’s 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 church has virtually no influence on public life. Just two days ahead of the pope’s 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 world’s leading exponent of Catholic dissent, famed theologian Hans Küng, is Swiss. Prior to the pope’s 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 bishops.

Thus the deep logic of John Paul’s 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 Bern’s 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 unseemly.

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 I’m part of something.”

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 devotions?

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 he’s 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 where’s 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 Rome’s Ciampino airport.

* * *

Public reaction before John Paul’s June 5 arrival was largely negative. Here’s 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 Holiness’s 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 Saturday’s 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 “Protect yourself … the pope won’t do it.”

“We don’t 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 Paul’s 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 minutes.

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 youth.

“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 Jesus.”

The crowd hung on the pope’s 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 Bush’s 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 Paul’s 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 regard.”

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 they fancy.

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 administration’s efforts to secure a United Nations resolution recognizing the new government.

The official said that Bush’s meeting with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s 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, it’s 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 pope’s 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 -- they’re the only game in town. Our concern is with means, not ends, and we’re 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 activism.

Other sources in the meeting said that while they could not recall the president’s exact words, he did pledge aggressive efforts on the cultural front, especially the battle against gay marriage, and asked for the Vatican’s 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 president’s 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 Paul’s dramatic 1983 encounter with Polish General Wojciech Jaruzelski. My intent was to draw a comparison between the pope’s 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 America’s 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 who’s 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 backfired.

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 wasn’t 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 December 1998.

If that were to happen, it would raise the question of Montalvo’s successor. The nuncio’s 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 it’s improbable, one dream candidate for a number of American Catholics would be Archbishop Celestino Migliore, 51, currently the Holy See’s 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 reasonable.

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 take over.

* * *

Saturday night, the pope’s 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 Reagan’s religious legacy.

In brief, I said that Reagan was the president who put the “Religious Right” on the map in the United States. It’s 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 wouldn’t 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 it’s 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 Sant’Egidio, recalls in his 1996 book Sant’Egidio: 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 I’ve 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 is better.”

Part of Reagan’s 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 Bonhoeffer’s 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 stunning.

A German Bonhoeffer expert, Hans Pfeifer, gave me a fascinating overview of the uses to which Bonhoeffer’s 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 Bonhoeffer’s works spread in the Soviet era from East Germany through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland.

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 Bonhoeffer’s work illustrates the same point: that however well intentioned, a weak ecclesiology makes the church vulnerable to manipulation for someone else’s 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 I’d 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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