By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
By now, anyone pondering the sexual abuse crisis in
the Catholic church would have to agree that for too long the church was
unwilling to openly acknowledge the problem, seeking to deal with it in the
shadows rather than the light of day.
theory to explain this secretiveness is that it sprang from a clerical mentality
that sought to protect the church’s “good name.” From this point of view, some
church officials were in denial, naively hoping that concealing the problem
would make it disappear.
darker theory construes the silence as not merely naïve, but criminal. This view
posits a “cover-up” ordered from on high, with the Vatican being the most
commonly hypothesized culprit. The charge tends to be most tenaciously asserted
by victims’ advocates and civil lawyers.
recent discovery of a 1962 Vatican document subjecting some sex abuse cases to
secrecy, under threat of excommunication, has given this theory new life. (More
on that document below).
Without defending the secrecy that long enveloped the church’s handling of the
sex abuse problem, it is perhaps worth spending a few moments trying to
understand it. If one can’t at least grasp the values church officials were
trying to defend, then dialogue becomes virtually impossible.
procedural matter, canon lawyers insist there is a legitimate role for
confidentiality. Secrecy is designed to allow witnesses and other parties to
speak freely, the accused party to protect his good name until guilt is
established, and victims to come forward without exposing themselves to unwanted
publicity. Hence absolute transparency would not necessarily serve the interests
are three other values that have traditionally supported secrecy in the church.
is a certain view of law. Law, from a Roman point of view, is the
expression of a human ideal, a descriptor of a perfect state of affairs. This
reflects what writer Christopher Dawson has described as the “erotic” spirit of
cultures shaped by Roman Catholicism, based on a passionate quest for spiritual
This view carries with it a
realism that most people, most of the time, will fall short of the law’s ideal.
It is important to uphold that ideal, however, to point people beyond
themselves. Too much focus on violations could lead people to question the
wisdom, or the feasibility, of the law. Hence the public forum is for discussion
of the ideal; the private forum, behind closed doors, is where individual
failures are addressed.
Second, there is a respect
for authority. If the working assumption of democracies is that power
corrupts, within the ecclesiastical system it’s precisely the opposite – power
ennobles, because it flows from Holy Orders and draws on the grace of the
Secrecy thus carves out a space in which church authorities can use discretion,
finding a solution that best fits a particular set of circumstances, without
fear that it will become swept up in broader public debates. The assumption is
that church officials normally act with the best interests of the broader
community in mind.
third value underlying secrecy is objectivity. It drives some people
crazy that the Vatican will not hand over its case files even to interested
parties, such as theologians under investigation. The logic, however, is to
protect the independence of the one giving judgment.
case files were public, pressure could be brought to bear to try to sway
judgments. The classic example, which still looms large in the Vatican’s
collective unconscious, is the 1967 publication by the National Catholic
Reporter and Le Monde of the majority report from Paul VI’s birth
control commission, which had supported a change in church teaching. Pope Paul
decided against this proposal, and the publication of the report subjected him
to withering criticism for “ignoring” his own advisers. The culture of the Holy
See resists exposing its decisions to the pressures of public relations or
interest group politics, neither of which are viewed as reliable means for
arriving at truth.
Again, none of this is to justify sweeping problems under the rug. Recent
experience has shown that these three values underlying secrecy must be balanced
against other legitimate concerns, such as collaboration and accountability. But
the debate will be more constructive if critics appreciate the values secrecy
was originally intended to serve, and work with church officials to find ways to
uphold those values consistent with greater openness.
* * *
those convinced of the cover-up theory, the hunt has long been on for a “smoking
December, for example, there was a brief flurry surrounding a May 25, 1999,
document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, defrocking an
American priest named Robert Burns. In the letter, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez
wrote that Burns “ought to live away from the places where his previous
condition is known,” unless his presence “will cause no scandal.” Some took this
as evidence that the Vatican had ordered a cover-up of Burns’ abuse. The story
fizzled, however, when it became clear that the Vatican had taken action against
Burns, and the concern with where he lived afterwards was for the healing of the
communities where his abuse had taken place.
another Vatican document is in the spotlight. It’s a 39-page set of canonical
procedures from 1962 for dealing with cases of solicitation, meaning accusations
that a priest propositioned someone sexually from the confessional. Concluding
paragraphs extended the scope of the procedures to cover homosexual conduct by
priests. The document, titled Crimen Sollicitationis, was issued in
confidence, to be stored in each diocese’s secret archives.
paragraph 11, Crimen Sollicitationis ordered that these cases be covered
by the “secret of the Holy Office,” today known as “pontifical secrecy,” which
is the highest grade of secrecy in the church. Violations were to be punished
with excommunication. Boston attorney Carmen L. Durso sent a copy of the
document on July 28 to U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, arguing that it may
prove the church has been obstructing justice.
document may provide the link in the thinking of all of those who hid the truth
for so many years,” Durso said, as quoted by the July 29 Worcester Telegram
and Gazette. “The constant admonitions that information regarding
accusations against priests are to be deemed ‘a secret of the Holy Office’ may
explain, but most certainly do not justify, their actions,” Durso told the
fact, however, canon lawyers say Crimen Sollicitationis is not a “smoking
First, the document was so obscure that few bishops ever heard of it, which
means it’s unlikely their behavior was significantly influenced by it.
Second, one has to distinguish between canonical and civil procedures. Crimen
Sollicitationis mandated secrecy for canonical investigations and trials,
but did not address whether or not a bishop, or other church officials, should
report the priest’s action to the police if it involved a minor. Though most
bishops in the 1960s undoubtedly sought to handle such cases quietly, there’s
nothing in Crimen Sollicitationis that would have tied a bishop’s hands
had he wanted to involve the civil authorities.
Third, the argument that Crimen Sollicitationis was not designed to
“cover up” sex abuse, canonists say, is clear in paragraph 15, which obligates
anyone with knowledge of a priest abusing the confessional for that purpose to
come forward, under pain of excommunication for failing to do so. This penalty
is stipulated, the document says, “lest [the offense] remain occult and
unpunished and always with inestimable detriment to souls.”
* * *
July 31, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document on gay
marriage titled, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to give Legal Recognition
to Unions between Homosexual Persons.”
commentary on the document dwelt on its strong language denouncing
homosexuality, and on its challenge to Catholic politicians to resist the
legalization of same-sex unions.
truth, however, all that was old hat. The church’s position on homosexuality has
long been known, as has its opposition to any redefinition of marriage as a
union between a man and a woman. Insistence that Catholic politicians must vote
“coherently” with their faith was at the heart of the
“Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in
Public Life” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Jan.
If there is
something new in the July 31document, it is not in the teaching or political
stance of the church, but its analysis of the social situation. Whereas previous
documents had called the church to arms to fight the legalization of homosexual
relationships, “Considerations” seems designed, at least in part, to prepare the
church for resistance in situations in which that legalization has already taken
doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out that at least in the developed
world, the church is losing the argument.
Twelve European nations today, for example, have laws
under which gay couples enjoy at least some of the civil benefits of marriage.
They are: France, Germany, Switzerland, Britain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden,
Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Croatia. (In Spain, there is no
federal legislation, but autonomous regions are free to craft their own
policies. Catalonia, for instance, recognizes same-sex unions, but not adoption
light of this, the July 31 Vatican document appeals to all Catholics, by no
means just politicians, to refuse to cooperate with these measures.
situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been
given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic
opposition is a duty,” it states.
refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of
such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on
the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to
might that mean?
In theory, any
Catholic whose work intersects with marriage issues — adoption counselors, civil
registrars of marriage, even inheritance and retirement specialists —
could find themselves facing a choice between the civil law and the demands of
Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, a moral theologian at Rome’s prestigious
Alphonsian Academy, said that Catholic adoption agents would clearly face a
conflict of formal cooperation if the law were to give adoption rights to gay
parents. The new Vatican document comes down hard on adoption, stating that such
measures “would actually mean doing violence to these
children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place
them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.”
Catholic marriage counselors would be in a difficult position if a same-sex
couple were to seek their services.
A bit more
complicated, Johnstone said, would be the case of a Catholic who works as a
civil registrar of marriages.
argue that both ways,” Johnstone said. “You could argue that this person is
uniting his will with that of the same-sex couple and hence is cooperating with
the marriage. Or you could take the view that he is simply willing the civil
effects of that act and not the ‘marriage’ itself.”
complex, Johnstone said, would be a case in which a same-sex couple wishes to
enroll their child in a Catholic school.
“It’s hard to
construe accepting that child as formal cooperation,” Johnstone said. “But there
could be a problem under the heading of scandal.”
In this case,
Johnstone said, he meant not the popular sense of “scandal,” meaning shocking
people, but the technical sense of inducing someone to commit sin against the
faith or morals of the church. In that sense, he said, someone might be able to
argue that by accepting the children of homosexual unions, the church was in
effect legitimizing those unions and hence inducing people to accept them.
short, Catholics who work with married couples and
their children may find themselves in much the same situation as Catholic health
care professionals, who have long had to negotiate matters of conscience on
issues such as abortion, birth control, and artificial reproduction.
* * *
July 15, the Holy See announced the appointment of Archbishop Justin Rigali of
St. Louis as the new archbishop of Philadelphia, succeeding Cardinal Anthony
Bevilacqua. If naming Bishop Sean O’Malley to Boston struck observers as daring
and bold, the Rigali appointment seemed more like business as usual. Italian
writer Sandro Magister opined that Rigali has a reputation as one of the most
career-minded prelates around.
Church insiders had known about the move for some time. In fact, word around the
Vatican was that the Philadelphia announcement was held up until after the U.S.
bishops’ June meeting in St. Louis so that the transition would not be a
Vatican-watchers had been expecting something for Rigali since Cardinal Giovanni
Battista Re took over at the Congregation for Bishops in September 2000. Re and
Rigali are, as they say in the lingo of the Holy See, della stessa parrocchia
– “from the same parish.” That’s a colloquial way of saying they belong to the
same network of friendship and mutual support. Both served in the Roman Curia
under the patronage of the late Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who was the
right-hand man of Pope Paul VI, and are numbered among “Benelli’s widows,” a
group that also includes the former nuncio to the United States, Cardinal
when Rigali’s friend Re received the all-important assignment at Bishops, it was
only a matter of time before something tumbled.
Rigali’s move to Philadelphia assures him of membership in the College of
Cardinals, it also closes another circuit in the Vatican system. Rigali had been
the only former secretary of the Congregation for Bishops not yet a cardinal.
The job is considered virtually a guarantor of a red hat. (Re and Argentinean
Jorge Mejia are cardinals who once held the secretary’s job).
* * *
Speaking of cardinals, several reporters in recent weeks have contacted me to
ask when we can expect a new batch.
I’ve written before, I expect a consistory, the event in which new cardinals are
created, in February 2004. (The traditional date would be Feb. 22, Feast of the
Chair of St. Peter). All the cardinals have been asked to gather in Rome in
October for the 25th anniversary of the pope’s election on Oct. 16,
and most will stay for the beatification of Mother Teresa on Oct. 19, but it’s
unlikely John Paul will use this occasion to name new members.
this writing there are 166 cardinals, of whom 109 are under 80 and therefore
eligible to vote for the next pope. Between now and February 2004, eight more
turn 80: Silvestrini, Shan Kui-hsi, Taofinu’u, Clancy, Korec, Lourdusamy,
Piovanelli, and Deskur. Two more, Tomko and dos Santos, turn 80 the following
month. Given that 120 has been the traditional ceiling on participation in a
conclave, that means John Paul would have 21 slots to fill. The pope also
usually names a few beyond the 120 limit, on the theory that by the time a
conclave actually happens a sufficient number will have died or aged that the
total would fall back under 120. One could reasonably expect perhaps as many as
30 new cardinals next February, though probably not the bumper crop of 44 of
O’Malley and Rigali be among them? Both men will eventually become cardinals,
but whether they may have to wait is an open question. The United States is
already arguably over-represented, with 13 cardinals, the second largest
national block in the college. Brazil, with a Catholic population more than
twice as large as the United States, has only 7 cardinals. If John Paul has to
choose, expect the red hat to go more quickly to O’Malley. He will want to give
O’Malley every show of support in facing the monumental challenges in Boston.
* * *
Paul II named Italian Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino on Aug. 2 as the new
secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the
Sacraments, the office that handles liturgical issues. He replaces Archbishop
Francesco Pio Tamburrino, a Benedictine, who held the job since April 1999.
Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez was prefect of the Congregation for
Worship, many observers felt Tamburrino provided something of a contrast to
Medina’s staunchly traditionalist stance. Tamburrino, who had been
abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Montevergine,
was seen as a bit more sympathetic to the liturgical reforms that followed the
Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
brings no background in liturgy to his new post. He was ordained in 1972 for the
Italian diocese of Nola, and obtained a degree in political science from the
Gregorian University in Rome. For nine years, he worked in the Vatican’s
Secretariat of State.
served since 2001 as the pope’s delegate to run the sanctuary of the Madonna of
Pompei, also known as the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Most Holy Rosary. I met
Sorrentino when he gave a talk on the rosary at a Focolare conference last
presentation, Sorrentino came off as warmly disposed to the devotional piety of
the rosary, but also in touch with historical scholarship and willing to take a
“warts and all” look at the tradition. For example, he noted that the invocation
of the rosary when facing threats or dangers has sometimes given it an
association with military events, such as the victory over the Turks at Lepanto
connection, to tell the truth, in today’s context of interreligious dialogue is
rather embarrassing, so much so that the pope made only a very veiled reference
to it” in his recent apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae,
Sorrentino said. He noted that successive popes have redefined this “martial”
aspect of the rosary in terms of spiritual battle, so that in effect the
rosary has become a privileged prayer for peace. John Paul II invoked it in that
sense when he asked Catholics to pray the rosary seeking peace in the build-up
to the Iraq war.
In the same
address, Sorrentino expressed the hope that the rosary can become a bridge of
ecumenical cooperation, stressing that Marian prayer always leads devotees to
contemplate the face of Jesus.
also the postulator for the sainthood cause of Giuseppe Toniolo (1845-1918), a
lay Catholic economist and social theorist involved in the search for a “third
way” between Capitalism and Socialism. Toniolo anticipated many of the reforms
of his era: mandatory days of rest, defense of the rights of women and child
laborers, limitation of the length of work days, and the defense of small
enterprises against vast monopolies. Toniolo was seen as an “apostle” of the
social vision of Pope Leo XIII as expressed in the encyclical Rerum Novarum.
Sorrentino’s interest in Toniolo certainly does not mark him as a radical, but
it places him in the tradition of Pope Leo’s cautious opening to modernity and
* * *
Another man in
line to become a cardinal, Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has announced that his office will
convene a group of experts in the fall to discuss genetically modified
organisms. “We need to hear not only the scientists, but also producers and
consumers,” Martino said.
news will no doubt please U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson, who
has made winning the Vatican over to GMOs one of the front-burner priorities of
his mandate. At a conference on hunger last spring in Rome, Nicholson spoke
movingly about his own experience of growing up hungry on an Iowa farm, and of
the moral imperative to use scientific discoveries to help feed starving people.
Proponents of biotech crops contend the technology will fight hunger by
improving quality and quantity of crops and protecting against pests. Opponents
say the modified crops cause health and environmental problems, and make local
farmers dependent upon multi-national biotech companies.
activist Jose Bove said Monday any Vatican endorsement of biotech crops would be
believe that St. Francis, if he were living today, would have something to say
about this stance of the Roman shepherds,” he told La Stampa. Bove was
released from jail last week after serving about a month for destroying
genetically modified corn and rice crops.
Martino will certainly face pressure to take a critical look at GMOs from
elements within the Catholic church, especially in the Third World.
May 6, for example, 14 Brazilian bishops put out a “declaration on transgenic
crops,” in which they condemned the cultivation and consumption of GMOs. The
bishops cited three risks: 1) health consequences, including increased
allergies, resistance to antibiotics, and an increase in toxic substances; 2)
environmental consequences, including erosion of bio-diversity; and 3) damage to
the sovereignty of Brazil, “as a result of the loss of control of seeds and
living things through patents that become the exclusive property of
multinational groups interested only in commercial ends.”
In 2002, the Catholic Bishops of South Africa issued a
statement asserting that, “It is morally irresponsible to produce and market
genetically modified food.” In February 2003, the Catholic Bishops Conference of
the Philippines asked President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to postpone use of a
genetically modified form of corn, citing possible health risks.
stance is backed by religious communities, especially missionary orders. Hence
it will be interesting to watch how Martino, who has said publicly that he has
no personal objection to GMOs, navigates those shoals.
* * *
Finally, in this period of terrible blows to the public image of the Catholic
priesthood, Italy has had a reminder of the heroism of which priests are still
Stefano Gorzegno, 44, had taken about 50 children aged
12 to 16 on a trip to Termoli, on the Adriatic coast, from his southern Italian
parish in Boiano. A group of swimmers became trapped by a strong undercurrent,
and Gorzegno, still wearing his clerical clothes, dived in to save them. He
pulled all seven children from the sea, but collapsed with his lungs full of
water. “He saved all of them, but just barely,” a police officer said.
last words were said to be, “Are the boys all right?”
parliament stood to applaud his bravery, and L’Osservatore Romano ran a
front-page tribute titled, “He was a true priest.”
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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