Benedict XVI wins round in culture wars;
results explained; next round in Spain;
Vatican and Israel on taxing church property;
with WCC head; Regina Mundi, early theology school for women, closes;
and peace council applauds debt forgiveness.
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
For those keeping score in the contest between the
Catholic Church and the “dictatorship of relativism” identified by Pope Benedict
XVI as the central threat to the faith in the West, this week the church jumped
out to an early 1-0 lead, winning a hotly contested June 12-13 referendum in
Italy over in-vitro fertilization.
Last Sunday and Monday,
Italians were asked to vote on four proposals to liberalize the country’s
restrictive law on what’s known here as “assisted procreation.” Under the strong
leadership of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar in Rome and president of
the Italian bishops’ conference, and with the explicit support of Pope Benedict,
the Catholic church mobilized at all levels to persuade Italians to stay away
from the ballot box, with the goal of keeping turnout lower than fifty percent
and thereby invalidating the referendum.
In the end, only 25.9 percent of eligible voters showed up,
thereby preserving the 2004 law, known as Law 40, which:
- Restricts in-vitro techniques to heterosexual couples, thus banning access for homosexuals and single mothers;
- Stipulates that only three
embryos may be created at a time, and they must be implanted, effectively banning
- Prohibits research on embryos;
- Declares embryos holders of
The proposed reforms would have eliminated each of these provisions.
While analysts say there were many reasons for
the result – the proliferation of referenda in Italy, which has produced a kind
of apathy about special ballots, and the fact that assisted procreation directly
concerns only a small percentage of the population – nevertheless, in the court
of popular opinion, Ruini and the Catholic Church emerged as the great victor.
SkyTG 24, more or less the CNN of Italy,
broadcast a picture of Ruini the instant the polls closed on Monday,
unambiguously proclaiming him “the winner.”
Ruini was gracious, telling Italian television,
“I didn’t win anything. I simply did my duty as a bishop.”
The outcome reverses the church’s previously
dismal track record on Italian referenda. To great fanfare, it lost titanic
battles in 1974 over divorce and in 1981 over abortion. The result this time has
thus been seen as a demonstration of the church’s residual political muscle,
despite declining vocations and low rates of Mass attendance in some parts of
The efforts of the church were tenacious and
comprehensive. An annual June 11 pilgrimage to Loreto, Italy, where according to
tradition the “holy house” of Nazareth rests, became on the eve of the vote the
site of something akin to a political rally. In San Giovanni Rotondo, home of
the famous shrine of Padre Pio, the faithful were urged to “greater commitment
in defense of life.” (It seemed to work; San Giovannio Rotondo had one of the
lowest voter turnouts in the country, just 8.5 percent).L’Avvenire, the
official newspaper of the Italian bishops, published extensive pro-abstention
commentary in the days leading up to the June 12-13 ballot.
On Monday, May 31, Pope Benedict
XVI told the Italian bishops that he was close to them “in word and prayer” in
their efforts to “illuminate and motivate the choices of Catholics and of all
citizens regarding the referendum,” in what amounted to an endorsement of the
Indirectly, the pope gave another
boost in his General Audience on Wednesday, June 8, when he quoted the
sixth-century Christian author Barsanufius of Gaza: “What is the principle of
wisdom, if not to abstain from all that which is odious to God?” In context,
most Italian observers took the pope’s deliberate use of the word “abstain” as
an endorsement of the no-vote campaign.
Most analysts believe the church will draw
momentum from this result. Ruini emerges as perhaps the most important
power-broker in Italian affairs. Those politicians of both left and right who
stood with the church will enjoy enhanced credibility.
Further, the result will
strengthen the hand of those at senior levels in the church who agree with Pope
Benedict’s diagnosis of the cultural situation in the West, but not necessarily
the cure. Benedict sees Christianity, especially in Europe, as a “creative
minority,” long past the moment when it could pretend to shape mass culture.
Ruini is less willing to throw in the towel on the church’s social clout,
believing that a focused and united church can still mobilize the vox populi.
Ruini’s triumph will lend credibility to his side of that argument.
It remains to be seen where the Italian church will want to
spend this new political capital, or how long it may last, but for now the
church can bask in a clear win after a long, dry spell at the ballot box.
* * *
In Italy, as in the United States and
elsewhere, when politics become caught up in the “culture wars,” debates turn
bitter. Despite efforts to keep things civil this time around – Ruini, for one,
appealed for discussion in “serene and respectful fashion” – the June 12-13
referendum nevertheless saw its share of pique.
Posters and flyers that cropped up around Italy
illustrate the point.
“Woman, demonstrate that women are capable of
reasoning with their head and not just the uterus,” one read. In smaller print,
it went on to say: “Men, in order to satisfy their instincts, pay an Albanian
woman to use her body for his pleasure. Now women are paying another Albanian
woman to satisfy their reproductive instincts.” The reference was to the use of
poor immigrant women as “surrogate mothers.”
None of these inflammatory messages, it should
be said, were sponsored by the church.
Another poster showed provocative images of
“gay pride” parades, with the slogan: “Do we want to allow them to destroy the
sacredness of the family? Don’t vote June 12-13.”
Perhaps the most incendiary bit of campaign
literature showed an image of Adolph Hitler with his hand on the shoulder of a
blond-haired, blue-eyed youth with the slogan: “Perfect children? I’m voting
‘yes’ four times.”
On the other side, the ex-communist newspaper
Unità carried a pro-referendum headline attacking the opposition: “Four
million sick people condemned by a cruel law,” a reference to the prohibition on
research using embryos.
Marco Pannella, leader of the Radical party and
a longtime anti-clerical warrior, asserted: “If the embryo is a person, then the
spermatozoa are its father, and thus we should prohibit masturbation as the
homicide of millions of possible parents.”
In the past, Pannella has defined the Vatican
as an “enemy of life” that seeks “to create death and sorrow on every occasion.”
One of the more creative pro-referendum posters
showed an image of St. Joseph and the Holy Family, with the slogan: “Even if
he’s not the biological father, what difference does it make?”
* * *
An interesting facet of the Italian debate is
that, unlike in the United States, the “faith and values” vote does not break
exclusively along partisan political lines. There were a variety of positions on
both the right and the left, and the parties generally left members free to vote
For example, Gianfranco Fini, the Minister of
Foreign Affairs in the conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi and the leader of the National Alliance, a descendent of the old
Fascist party, announced that he would vote “yes” on three of the four proposed
reforms. (His one reservation was about opening up access to in-vitro techniques
beyond heterosexual couples). Stefania Prestigiacomo, Minister of Equal
Opportunity and a member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, also supported the
Meanwhile, Francesco Rutelli, leader of the
Margherita party and the candidate of the center-left as Berlusconi’s opponent
in the last national elections, supported the church in the abstention campaign.
Several other members of the “centrist” wing of the opposition joined Rutelli in
that stance, and many observers believe that Rutelli’s position in the coalition
has been strengthened by the outcome at the expense of Romano Prodi, currently
projected as the leader of the center-left in the coming elections, who
supported the referendum.
Given the perception of a big win for the
church, the result of the June 12-13 referendum is likely to strengthen the
“Catholic” voice on both sides, meaning the “culture of life” debates will be
less likely to function as wedge issues between the two major coalitions. In
that sense, the Italian left has so far managed to avoid being boxed into the
position of the Democrats in the United States, i.e., being seen as the party of
ideological secularism, leaving the Republicans to pick up the mantle of faith
This phenomenon also means the church is taken
more seriously as a “neutral arbiter” on moral issues, as opposed to a special
interest group backing one or another of the current political alignments.
* * *
For additional perspective on the Italian
result, I turned to Ernesto Galli della Loggia, an Italian political scientist
at the University of Perugia and a leading commentator on public affairs. Galli
della Loggia is a conservative close to Ruini, but at the same time a
non-believer sometimes critical of the Catholic Church.
“I don’t think this is a great victory for the
Italian bishops,” Galli della Loggia said. “Their role was important but not
Fundamentally, Galli della Loggia argued, the
referendum failed because it did not generate “passionate interest” among the
electorate. The divorce and abortion votes, he said, directly concerned almost
everyone, while in-vitro fertilization touched the lives of “a few tens of
Yet, Galli della Loggia said, it would be a
mistake to underestimate the importance of the church’s contribution. One
feature in particular made it different from previous national debates – perhaps
for the first time since the 1948 election between Christian Democracy and
Communism, virtually every sector of the Catholic world in Italy was in
lockstep. Unity among bishops, clergy, lay associations, and grassroots
initiatives, Galli della Loggia said, was impressive.
How to explain it?
First, he said, the choice for abstention was
“minimalist,” in that abstaining from the vote did not necessarily imply a
position on the reforms. It could also mean that one didn’t believe such
questions ought to be resolved at the ballot box, or that not enough information
was available. In that sense, it was a “bigger umbrella” than urging a “no”
Second, he said, the culture of the Catholic
Church in Italy has evolved in tandem with broader ideological and cultural
trends, creating less space for dissent and greater internal discipline.
“The general crisis of the left in
the West,” Galli della Loggia said, “has also been felt in the Catholic world.”
By that he meant that movements and individuals within the Catholic world who
might challenge official positions on issues such as the referendum today have
reduced momentum within the church, and are less likely to be bolstered by
allies in secular politics outside.
I asked Galli della Loggia about
complaints that the church was guilty of what the Italians call ingerenza,
meaning unacceptable interference in political matters. This was the thrust of a
June 16 editorial in the New York Times, for example, which suggested
that the Italian bishops had attempted “to dangerously tamper with democracy to
impose their rules on everyone else.”
“The church has the right to
express its views,” Galli della Loggia said. “As far as I can tell, ingerenza
is a word used to describe behavior that somebody doesn’t like. The same
behavior would be praised as good citizenship by somebody who happens to agree
with what the church is saying.”
He also noted that the hierarchy
did not threaten to excommunicate anyone for failing to abstain, and that
according to one estimate, 11,000 of the 25,000 parishes in Italy did not use
the anti-referendum materials sent out by the bishops’ conference, which would
suggest fairly wide latitude within the church.
(In fact, one Italian theologian
did lose a teaching position after having said publicly that he intended to vote
“yes” on three of the four reforms. Fr. Rodolfo Zecchini, who taught ethics at a
theological studies center named San Zeno in Verona, was removed by his bishop.
Zecchini also told a local newspaper that it is “debatable” whether an embryo is
a human being).
Finally, Galli della Loggia said
he believes the Italian victory may embolden the church in other European
countries, especially in Spain, where that country’s Senate is set to debate a
gay marriage law June 22. A massive street procession is scheduled for this
Saturday in opposition.
“Up to now, the Spanish bishops
have been on the defensive,” Galli della Loggia said. “This may encourage them
to pass to the counter-attack.”
* * *
Speaking of Spain, as this column is posted I’m
in Madrid to cover the June 18 demonstration, which is sponsored by the Foro
Español de la Familia, or “Spanish Forum for the Family,” an umbrella group
of some 150 grassroots associations. While secular organizations, as well as
Jews and Muslims, are part of the initiative, the overwhelming majority of those
involved are Catholics. On June 9, the Spanish bishops’ conference endorsed the
gathering, the first time since 1983 the bishops have given their blessing to a
Estimates of anticipated turnout range from
500,000 to one million.
Most immediately, Saturday’s rally expresses
opposition to a new gay marriage law, which also provides adoption rights to gay
couples. The Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero
has also vowed to speed up divorce, to relax restrictions on abortion, to
liberalize access to fertility treatments, to convert religious instruction in
Spanish schools into “education for citizenship,” and to reexamine the system of
state funding for the church.
Bishop Juan Antonio Reig of Segorbe-Castellón
recently defined the government’s efforts as “a tsunami of legislation … aimed
at the destruction of Christian civilization.”
The ill will has even surfaced in haggling over
details for the rally. Government officials have so far declined to issue
permits for the procession’s planned route, claiming that it would impede
traffic flow in Madrid. Organizers point out, however, that such concerns did
not stop the government from authorizing a group of nude bicyclists to pass
through the city center last weekend.
Spain is an increasingly important focus in the
battle against the “dictatorship of relativism,” and next week I’ll have a
report from the front.
* * *
June 15 marked the 11th
anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the
Holy See, and despite optimism and good will on all sides, the “side agreements”
on the economic status of Catholic institutions in Israel anticipated by the
Fundamental Agreement of 1994 have still not been reached.
The failure to come to agreement has
been a long-running nuisance in Vatican-Israeli relations, and has at times
threatened to complicate the broader Jewish-Christian relationship. Periodically
breakthroughs have been predicted, only to fall apart at the last minute.
The parties are continuing to meet, but
perhaps to avoid the cycle of raised expectations followed by frustration, they
are deliberately not saying much about the content of these encounters.
One matter illustrating the
difficulties that still encumber the relationship will come before Israel’s High
Court of Justice (more or less its Supreme Court) on June 29, when oral
arguments are scheduled in a case involving the tax status of a pilgrimage center owned by the Archdiocese of Cologne on the Sea of Galilee. Like many
church-administered institutions in Israel, the center was recently hit with a
substantial bill for back taxes by the regional authority. When it invoked the
Fundamental Agreement to justify suspension of the tax bill until agreement is
reached on financial matters, the regional authority appealed to the national
government, which stated that the Fundamental Agreement is not yet a matter of
binding Israeli law. In a complicated series of events, the matter ended up
before the high court.
Israeli authorities say that
the court will likely not render a judgment, awaiting resolution of the
negotiations between the Holy See and the Israeli government. Those authorities
also say that in the end, the pilgrimage center, like other church-run
activities, will not have to pay the tax bill, which in some cases involves sums
that could cripple these institutions.
The Israeli game plan, these
authorities say, is for whatever agreement is worked out to be written into
national law, so that the rights and obligations of both parties are clear. When
that happens, they say, cases such as that involving Cologne’s pilgrimage center
will no longer be an issue.
Parties on all sides say that the broad
outlines of an agreement exist, and that it’s a matter of patience and good will
to bring the negotiations to conclusion. Only time will tell if this bit of
optimism has a better possibility of being realized than those that have
* * *
The Secretary General of the
World Council of Churches met Pope Benedict XVI in a 15-minute private audience
on Thursday. The WCC is an umbrella group for ecumenical cooperation among 347
Christian churches, excluding the Roman Catholic Church, though Catholics work
cooperatively with the organization.
The meeting takes on an
added layer of significance given that in years past, some Christian
conservatives have seen the WCC as unacceptably liberal, and there have been
question marks about the extent to which Pope Benedict would see groups such as
the WCC as promising interlocutors.
Dr. Samuel Kobia, a
Methodist minister from Kenya, told reporters in Rome June 16 that his meeting
with the pope touched on three points: “spiritual ecumenism,” especially the
need to defend shared values in a constantly-changing world; the challenge of
secularity in Europe; and Africa, including the need for deep catechesis to
solidify the rapid spread of Christianity on the continent.
“What kind of
Christianity are we talking about?” Kobia asked. “There’s a proliferation of
groups and individuals who approach the gospel as a way of making money. In
Africa, we say that faith in Christianity is two miles long and two inches
Interestingly, Kobia said he and the pope did
not discuss a fourth point that Kobia raised in his written statement, which is
differing ecclesiological positions between Catholics and many other Christian
denominations. Kobia called for work towards “mutual recognition of churches as
churches”; as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the pope
was responsible for a 2000 document, Dominus Iesus, that said Protestant
churches lacking valid ministers and sacraments cannot be considered churches
“in the proper sense.”
Kobia extended an invitation to Pope Benedict
to visit the WCC in Geneva.
In his remarks, Pope Benedict reciprocated the
desire for good relations.
“The commitment of the Catholic Church to the
search for Christian unity is irreversible,” the pope said. “I therefore wish to
assure you that she is eager to continue cooperation with the World Council of
* * *
There’s some sad news this week with the
closing of Regina Mundi, the first center of studies in Rome explicitly created
for the theological education of women, and long a symbol of the intellectual
coming of age of women in the Catholic Church.
Ironically, Regina Mundi marked its fiftieth
anniversary just last year.
Regina Mundi is administered
by the International Union of Superiors General, the main umbrella group for
women religious in the Catholic Church. The leadership of the UISG cited
financial difficulties as the basic factor behind the closing, coupled with
In that sense, one faculty
member described Regina Mundi as a “victim of its own success.” It was founded
at a time when there were almost no other options for women to pursue advanced
theological studies in the Catholic Church. Today, similar institutes exist all
over the world.
Located on the Via
Lungotevere Tor di Nona in Rome, on the banks of the Tiber River, the Regina
Mundi currently has a student population of some 250 women religious from
various parts of the world, mostly from Africa, Asia, and the Near East.
The institute offers two basic programs.
One is a
three-year academic program leading to the equivalent of a baccalaureate in
religious sciences, which can become a master’s degree after an additional year
of study. The second is a course for “formators,” women involved in the
formation of other religious – mistresses of novices, vocations directors,
spiritual directors, retreat planners, and so on.
very international, and both pastoral and practical,” Sr. Judith Moore of the
Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary, said of the formators program. Moore
said her community has sent eight sisters, most from the Pacific, to the
Technically, according to
Sister of Mercy Clare McGovern, president of Regina Mundi, what has been
announced is a “suspension” of the institute rather than a formal closing.
Regina Mundi has been through one such hiatus before, from 2000 to 2002. This
time, however, sources say it is unlikely that the institute will be re-opened.
Regina Mundi was founded on
October 18, l954, during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. A precursor came in
1943 at the University of Notre Dame in the United States, when Sr. Mary
Madeleva Wolff, a religious of the Congregation of Holy Cross, was concerned by
the fact that no graduate schools of theology were open to the laity, mostly
women, who taught religion.She began the first graduate program in Sacred
Theology and Scripture, later recognized by the Vatican as a model for Regina Mundi.
McGovern told NCR
June 14 that the students at Regina Mundi have largely found places at other
Roman universities to continue their studies, such as the Gregorian University,
the Lateran University, and the Urban University (the university for students
from “mission countries” operated by the Congregation for the Evangelization of
Some members of the Regina Mundi community have expressed disappointment with the closure, arguing that
while alternatives exist, few provide the specialized support that women from
developing countries may need. Still, all concur that the situation for women
pursuing theological study is vastly improved from the time of Regina Mundi’s
founding, and that changed landscape is undoubtedly the heart of its legacy.
* * *
On Wednesday evening, June
15, I was atop a Roman rooftop with Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The occasion was a reception for the
Friends of Georgetown University at the Hotel Minerva. The outspoken Martino has
become a symbol of the Catholic Church’s engagement on issues of peace,
development, and social justice.
The council was
at it again this week, applauding the decision of the G8 to cancel $40 billion
in debt owed by 18 developing countries, and to work to expand the debt
forgiveness plan to an additional 20 countries.
made, however, two additional points.
council indirectly asked the governments of these countries to ensure that the
money released from debt repayments go to the public good.
Council calls for the money that will now be freed to be used to bring about
real and sustainable development opportunities to the people of those
countries,” its June 14 statement said. “This can be accomplished through
providing necessary public goods such as clean water, safe sanitation, basic
health care and educational opportunities.”
council prodded developed countries to do more on behalf of the world’s poor.
“It is the
responsibility of the governments of all nations to continue to work toward
achieving the promises that have been made over the past thirty years,” the
statement said. “This includes the commitment to provide 0.7% of GDP of
developed countries as Official Development Assistance to developing countries.The promise was made, but only a small fraction of that money has ever been
provided.This is the sort of program that should go hand in hand with debt
relief.It is not enough to simply wipe away the debt.An increase in
development aid should follow.”
in extreme poverty, who live with little hope for a brighter future for
themselves or their families must be given the opportunity to share in the
benefits of the world.It is the hope of this Pontifical Council that the
decision to forgive this initial $40 billion in debt might simply be the first
of many steps taken by all developed countries to work toward true solidarity
with one another,” the statement concluded.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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