Conservative critique of the Vatican, U.N.; Opus Dei gets a bishop in
Spain; Mea Culpa for the Inquisition; Debating Stem Cells; Not the Dean After
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Catholic conservatives historically have tended to exempt the Vatican
from their normal antipathy towards bureaucracies. The Holy See, after all, is
vested with the authority of the pope, which gives it a moral standing that the
U.S. Postal Service certainly cant claim. Moreover, conservatives are
accustomed to thinking that the Vatican is more likely to be on their
wavelength than, say, big government or the academy.
In recent months, however, a conservative critique of the Vatican has
been gathering strength, especially in the United States. It emerged with the
sex abuse crisis, when many Americans were disappointed that the Holy See did
not act more aggressively. That disillusionment metastasized into anger when a
couple of Vatican officials suggested the American crisis was the product of a
hostile press and a litigious culture. (These things didnt irritate just
conservatives, but thats another story).
Resentment was compounded by perceptions of anti-American bias during
the build-up to the war in Iraq. With Vatican Radio suggesting that the Bush
administration wanted to expand American oil interests, and even the secretary
of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, asking out loud if the Americans had
learned anything from Vietnam, some conservatives began to see the
Vatican as just another European talk shop.
The result is a new form of the classic distinction between the Holy
Father and the men around him.
As this critical reflection deepens in conservative circles, one issue
where I suspect it will increasingly focus is the Vaticans attitude
towards the United Nations. Although the Holy See has waged battles against
elements within the United Nations on the family and population control, the Vatican
remains one of the United Nationss most enthusiastic cheerleaders on international
relations and war and peace.
Conservatives devoted to the principle of subsidiarity increasingly
wonder why the Vatican is gung-ho about handing over chunks of national
sovereignty to an international authority they see as unaccountable and
occasionally hostile to religious values.
The June 2004 issue of Catholic World Report, widely read in
conservative Catholic circles, offered a special dossier critiquing what it
called this strange alliance.
The U.N. shows very little respect for the Catholic faith, or for
the public positions taken by the Holy See on crucial matters of international
policy, an opening editorial said. Although the Vatican apparently
views the U.N. as an ally, many important actors at the U.N. clearly look upon the
church as an enemy.
This reticence feeds what has become a standard conservative critique of
John Paul that hes a magnificent evangelizer and visionary, but a
so-so governor. He has worked around rather than through the Vatican, according
to this reading, leaving the system largely intact.
On international questions, this approach has meant a heavily European
sociology and cultural formation still shapes Vatican thinking. The clergy who
graduate from the Vaticans school for diplomats, the Accademia,
tend to come from the same social and intellectual milieu as the politicians
who end up running foreign ministries in France, Italy and Germany. Hence the
center of gravity in the Vatican is, like the EU, instinctively -- and some
would say, uncritically -- pro-U.N.
Given these perceptions, important elements of the churchs
conservative wing are likely to push for a successor to John Paul who will take
the reins of governance into his own hands, and who will challenge some of the
customary patterns of doing business within the Roman Curia.
Expect the United Nations, and the whole question of the international
legal order, to be high on their list -- especially among Americans.
* * *
A fascinating window onto this conservative critique of international
law was opened by a June 13 and 14 Rome conference on International Law,
Democratic Accountability, and Moral Diversity.
Sponsors of the event included some of the most prominent figures in
conservative Anglo-American Catholic thought and activism: the Federalist
Society, Ave Maria Law School, the Culture of Life Foundation, the Catholic
Family and Human Rights Institute, and The National Interest.
Some of the most prominent names in those circles were in attendance,
including Judge Robert Bork, nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court under
President Ronald Reagan but not confirmed for his strict constructionist views
about constitutional interpretation; William Cash, perhaps Englands most
prominent Euro-skeptic; John OSullivan of The National Interest
and a former advisor to Margaret Thatcher; and John O. McGinnis of the
Northwestern University School of Law.
In different ways, speakers sounded alarms about the use of
international law to impose policies through judicial fiat, especially
concerning abortion, marriage and human sexuality, that could not prevail in an
open democratic vote.
William Saunders of the Family Research Council, for example, cited
remarks by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day OConnor to the effect
that American courts should look more to decisions of European and other
international tribunals. Saunders said this is indicative of a growing tendency
to smuggle the decisions of international courts into U.S. law
through a judicial backdoor.
Bork delivered the events keynote address during a June 13 dinner
at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. Other sessions took place at Romes
Santa Croce University.
In his speech, Bork warned against what he called a caste of
Olympians, self-appointed experts who know better than everyone
else how life ought to be ordered. Since it is difficult for such people to win
elections, Bork suggested, they tend to prefer to work through the judiciary,
especially at the international level where few checks and balances exist. Bork
therefore described himself as pessimistic about the possibility of
building democratic accountability into any international legal system.
Bork challenged the Vaticans insistence that the U.S.-led war in
Iraq should have had the support of the United Nations. He called the idea that
the morality of the conflict was somehow dependent upon a majority vote in the
General Assembly or a unanimous vote in the Security Council a doctrinal
(In fairness, it should be noted that this was not quite what Vatican
diplomats were saying. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, now the Vatican librarian
but then the foreign minister of the Holy See, said repeatedly that there were
both legal and moral objections to the conflict. The question of United Nations
authorization pertained to legality. The wars morality, however, depended
upon traditional just war tests. Nevertheless, one can understand the
confusion, given the tendency of some Vatican spokespersons to invest the
United Nations with moral significance).
During question time, I asked Bork how he explains Vatican support for
the United Nations. He replied that the only answer he can give is the European
McGinnis argued that trade agreements such as the World Trade
Organization that promote open markets are democratically defensible, but
international instruments on matters such as the environment, human rights,
criminal justice or world peace should be viewed with deep skepticism.
McGinnis argued that treaties are to be preferred to customary
international law, meaning interpretations of law based on how states really
act, which he said is a form of rule by a secular priestly caste
this time in the form of nongovernmental organizations and law professors.
Bruce Anderson, a conservative columnist for the Independent,
shared the fear that a narrow cast of extremists could manipulate international
tribunals and conventions.
International law as practiced by the left is an oxymoron,
Anderson said. It is not between nations, and its not law. We must
repudiate it and fight it whenever we can.
Alternate views were represented.
Italian scholar Natalino Ronzitti took on McGinnis, saying that the
World Trade Organization
cant substitute for the broader world order. He defended the
International Criminal Court, saying it operates on the principle of
complementarity, meaning that it asserts jurisdiction only when a national
court is unwilling or unable to prosecute a crime.
Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute argued
that even when international agreements on matters such as human rights are
unobjectionable in themselves, they spawn interpretive bodies that go out
completely on their own. He cited the example of Convention for the
Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, whose implementation committee,
Ruse charged, directed China to legalize prostitution.
Its hard to see how multilateral agreements are always
democratic, he said.
In the end, OSullivan and Cash seemed to articulate one of the
overriding concerns of this group: how to assert the supremacy of the
democratic process, the power of the people, over that of judges
This is the debate of the day, Cash said. Subsuming
into domestic courts of international principles is attacking the right of the
people to review.
The whole question of democracy and accountability is
put at risk.
Though no one quite said so out loud, it was clear the Catholics in the
group worry that the Holy See has uncritically embraced the evolving
international system of jurisprudence. Their message is certain to reach the
Vatican, since one of the participants in the conference was Jesuit Fr. Robert
Arujo, who works for the Holy Sees observer mission at the United
Nations. Arujo was
careful not to identity himself with one or another position, but as a lawyer
and an astute listener, he will have gotten the point.
* * *
As I write this column Im in Barcelona, Spain, doing research for
future projects. Thus I happened to be on hand when John Paul II provided new
grist for the mill for those tracking the ecclesiastical fortunes of Opus Dei,
undoubtedly the most-discussed of the new groups in the Catholic church that
have flowered after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
On June 15 the Vatican announced that the enormous Barcelona archdiocese, which previously counted more than
4 million Catholics, had
been divided into three new ecclesiastical jurisdictions. The remaining
archdiocese of Barcelona now counts 2.6 million, while the new diocese of Terrassa has one million and the diocese of Sant Feliu de Llobregat around
Since the move coincides with the retirement of Barcelonas
Cardinal Ricard Maria Carles, three new bishops were named to the new dioceses.
Carles successor in the now-reduced Barcelona archdiocese will be
Archbishop Lluís Martínez Sistach, 67, formerly of the diocese of
That appointment in turn created a vacancy in Tarragona, which, although
small, is one of the traditional primatial sees of Spain. Therein lies the rub,
for also on June 15 the pope announced Sistachs successor in Tarragona:
Jaume Pujol Balcells, 60, who is a priest of Opus Dei.
Despite the fact that Opus Dei was born in Spain in 1928, Pujol will
actually be the first priest member to become a Spanish bishop. The bishop of
Burgos, Francisco Gil Hellin, belongs to the Opus Dei-affiliated Priestly
Society of the Holy Cross, but technically that does not make him a member of
Opus. Spanish Cardinal Julián Herranz was among the early members, but
he serves in Rome as president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation
of Legislative Texts.
One bit of Opus Dei trivia: The country with the highest number of Opus
Dei bishops is Peru, with seven (though not all are full members).
Reaction in Spain varied.
A new English-language daily in Barcelona, Catalonia Today, made
the Pujol appointment its lead article, under the headline: Vatican
slap in the face condemned. The piece cited the leader of a
progressive activist group called Església Plural, who said that nothing
like this had been seen since the days of the dictatorship,
referring to the Franco era.
Other papers were more restrained, focusing largely on complaints that
the decision to divide Barcelona in three had apparently been made without wide
consultation. A few interpreted the four appointments as a turn to the
right in the Catalonian church.
One issue still waiting Vatican adjudication is the question of a
separate bishops conference for Catalonia. Although the nationalist
movement in the Basque region is better known around the world because of the
ETA terrorist group, there is also passionate nationalist sentiment in
Catalonia (so much so that many here seemed blasé about Spains
European Championship soccer match against Greece on June 16). Some of the
bishops of the region have long pressed for permission to create a separate
conference. In 2001, the Spanish bishops gave the project a green light, but a
judgment from Rome has not arrived. Some local observers believe that given the
delicacy of the question, the Vatican will want to take its time.
* * *
In the mid-1990s, veteran Italian vaticanista Luigi Accattoli
published a book chronicling no fewer than 94 times Pope John Paul II asked for
forgiveness for something, usually addressing God and speaking on behalf of the
sons and daughters of the church. The days in which being pope
meant never having to say youre sorry, based on Accattolis account,
are definitely finished.
Since then, John Paul has not slowed down. I was present in Athens,
Greece, in 2001, for example, when he famously apologized to the Orthodox for
their mistreatment at the hands of the Latin church.
Now theres another item to add to the list.
John Paul has on previous occasions expressed regret for the
churchs use of violence to coerce adherence to the truth, statements
always understood partially in the context of the Inquisition, but always
indirect. On March 12, 2000, during a Liturgy of Pardon in St.
Peters Square, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said before the pope: Even
men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods
not in keeping with the Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the
On June 15, however, John Paul offered a specific request for pardon
connected to the Inquisition.
Lord, God of all men, in certain epochs of history Christians have
sometimes consented to methods of intolerance and have not followed the great
commandment of love, sullying thereby the face of the church your spouse. Have
mercy on your sinful children and receive our resolution to seek and promote
the truth in the sweetness of charity, knowing well that the truth cannot be
imposed except in virtue of the truth itself.
The occasion for the request was the issuance of s thick volume, 783
pages in all, collecting the acts from a 1998 Vatican symposium on the
Inquisition. Its aim was to separate myth from reality, so that the true
dimensions of what happened during the various inquisitions created
in Europe to combat heresy could be established. (Each country had an
inquisition that operated more or less autonomously, with the best known being
the Spanish Inquisition).
At a June 15 news conference, Vatican officials tried to strike a
balance between sincere regret for wrongs committed without fueling what they
see as an exaggerated black legend about the Inquisition.
In fact, they would insist, the brutality of the churchs
inquisitorial process has been distorted in the popular imagination. Of the
125,000 cases processed by the Spanish Inquisition over some 300 years, for
example, less than 1 percent ended in death sentences, according to lay
Professor Agostino Borromeo, who edited the volume.
You cant ask forgiveness for things that didnt
exist, said Cardinal George Cottier, the papal theologian and a member of
the scientific body created by John Paul II to study the Inquisition.
To some, such comments will sound like a numbers game, an attempt to
evade the obvious moral repugnance of trying people for their religious
convictions by suggesting it wasnt as widespread as people think. But
papal apologies are never popular in some circles of Catholic opinion,
especially among those who fear it hands ammunition to enemies of the church.
Such views are well represented in the Roman curia. By balancing the request
for forgiveness with insistence on historical precision, John Paul and his
advisors no doubt hope to keep these various tensions in balance.
Whether they have succeeded is a matter for opinion.
* * *
Fr. Tad Pacholczyk is one of those rare cultural polyglots who speaks
the language of both science and religion. He holds a PhD in neuroscience
from Yale, and did postdoctoral work at Massachusetts General Hospital and the
Harvard Medical School. Yet he also holds degrees in theology and bioethics
from the Gregorian University and the Lateran University in Rome.
Despite this rare combination of learning, Pacholczyk is adept at
expressing himself in terms accessible to nonexperts, which is probably one of
the reasons he is often called upon to testify on bioethical issues before
legislatures across the United States. Pacholczyk is a strong opponent of
cloning and embryonic stem cell research, and he brought his case to Rome in
He spoke at the Centro Russia Ecumenica on the Borgo Pio June 11, at a
gathering sponsored by the Vatican Forum, a group of Rome-based journalists. I
also had the chance to sit down with Pacholczyk the next day at the North
American College, where he lived in the late 1990s while studying in Rome.
Pacholczyk organized his presentation in terms of what he called 10
myths in the debate over stem cells. They are:
1. Stem cells can only come from embryos.
In fact, Pacholczyk said, stem cells can be taken from umbilical cords,
the placenta, amniotic fluid, adult tissues and organs such as bone marrow, fat
from liposuction, regions of the nose, and even from cadavers up to 20 hours
2. The Catholic church is against stem cell research.
There are four categories of stem cells, Pacholczyk said: embryonic stem
cells, embryonic germ cells, umbilical cord stem cells, and adult stem cells.
Given that germ cells can come from miscarriages that involve no deliberate
interruption of pregnancy, Pacholczyk said the church opposes the use of only
one of these four categories, that is, embryonic stem cells. In other words, the
Catholic Church approves three of the four possible types of stem cell
3. Embryonic research has the greatest promise.
Up to now, no human being has ever been cured of a disease using
embryonic stem cells, Pacholczyk said. Adult stem cells, on the other hand,
have cured thousands. Pacholczyk gave the example of the use of cells from the
hipbone to repair scar tissue on the heart after heart attacks. Research using
adult cells is 20 to 30 years ahead, he said, and holds greater promise.
4. Embryonic stem cell research is against the law.
In reality, while President George Bush has banned the use of federal
funding to support research on embryos created after August 2001, it is not
illegal. Anyone using private funds is free to pursue it.
5. President Bush created new restrictions to federal funding of
embryonic stem cell research.
The 1996 Dickey Amendment prohibited the use of federal funds for
research that would destroy embryos. Bushs decision to permit research on
embryos created before a certain date thus relaxes this restriction from the
6. Therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning are fundamentally
different from one another.
Pacholczyk insists that the creation of cloned embryos either to make a
baby or to harvest cells occurs by the same series of technical steps. The only
difference is what will be done with the cloned human embryo that is produced:
will it be allowed to be born, or will it be destroyed for its stem cells?
7. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is different from cloning.
In fact, Pacholczyk argued, somatic transfer is simply
cloning by a different name. The end result, he said, is still an embryo.
8. By doing somatic cell nuclear transfer, we can directly produce
tissues or organs without having to clone an embryo.
At the present stage of research, Pacholczyk said, scientists cannot
bypass the creation of an embryo in the production of tissues or organs. In the
future, he said, it may be possible to inject elements from the cytoplasm of a
womans ovum into a somatic cell to reprogram it into a stem
cell. This is called de-differentiation. If so, there would be no
moral objection, Pacholczyk said.
9. Every body cell or somatic cell is somehow an embryo and thus a
Pacholczyk played a video of a doctor who said on MS-NBC: Every
cell in the body has the potential to become an embryo. Does that mean that
every time we wash our hands and are shedding thousands of cells, we are
killing life? It doesnt. Pacholczyk said this is a red herring
because it overlooks the difference between a regular body cell, and one whose
nuclear material has been fused with an unfertilized egg cell, resulting in
what Pacholczyk says is an embryo.
10. Because frozen embryos may one day end up being discarded by
somebody, that makes it morally allowable, even laudable, to violate and
destroy those embryos.
Pacholczyk says the moral analysis of what we may permissibly do with an
embryo doesnt depend on its otherwise going to waste, nor the fact those
embryos are trapped in liquid oxygen. If we think about a schoolhouse in
which you have a group of children that are trapped through no fault of their
own, it would not make it OK to send in a remote control robotic device that
would harvest organs from those children and cause their demise, he
Pacholczyks is not, it should be noted, the only view on this
Louis M. Guenin, for example, teaches ethics at the Department of
Microbiology and Molecular Genetics of the Harvard Medical School. In the June
2001 issue of Science, Guenin, a Catholic, argued that the church should
accept embryonic stem cell research.
It seems difficult to deny that relieving widespread suffering is
morally better than destroying embryos at no gain, Guenin wrote.
In the end, however, Pacholczyk argues that church teaching on embryonic
stem cell research is a fundamental matter of human equality.
The danger is that were going to cordon off a certain part
of humanity, he said. Weve done that before. Weve said
to ethnic groups, youre different from the rest of us and were
going to discriminate against you. Embryos are the new category that weve
decided are different enough that we can do things to them we would never do to
one of our adult brothers or sisters.
* * *
In last weeks Word from Rome, I reported that
President George Bush, during a June 4 meeting with Cardinal Angelo Sodano and
other Vatican officials, asked for the Vaticans help in encouraging the
American bishops to be more outspoken on cultural issues, especially gay
marriage. I cited a Vatican official and other sources. The story subsequently
was picked up by a number of other news outlets.
In a brief story citing my piece, the June 13 New York Times
identified me as dean of Vatican journalists.
Thats flattering, but hardly accurate. The term dean
carries a connotation of seniority, and by that standard, I do not qualify. In
the English language, reporters such as Victor Simpson for the Associated Press
and Philip Pullella of Reuters have been covering the Vatican much longer, as
have John Thavis and Cindy Wooden of the Catholic News Service, among
In Italian, roots reach even deeper. The real dean of the Vatican press
corps, at least as measured by the calendar, is Arcangelo Paglialunga, who
writes for the newspaper Gazzettino di Venezia. He is a walking font of
historical memory. He recently gave an interview to the ANSA news service in
which he recalled watching the American tanks roll into Rome on June 5, 1944.
Paglialunga was dumbfounded by the well-equipped, well-fed Americans. Noting
that dentists were among the arriving forces, Paglialunga said he thought at
the time: Who could possibly beat these guys, who even bring
Ive got a long way to go before I can rival such veterans, either
in length of service or tales to tell.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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