When John Paul scans the world scene, the one
conflict that obviously troubles him most is the Middle East. He said in
his Christmas Urbi et Orbi message: “Day after day, I bear in my
heart the tragic problems of the Holy Land.”
In part, this attention reflects a genuine
horror that the birthplace of the Prince of Peace is so scarred by war.
In part, however, there is also a Realpolitik motive for Vatican
concern: Christian depopulation.
|John Paul II’s
next big turn on the world stage will come Jan. 24 in Assisi, when he summons
leaders of the world’s religions, for the third time, to the birthplace
of St. Francis. The agenda is to pray for peace.
One can reasonably wonder
about the efficacy of such made-for-TV events. The 1986 gathering did not
end the Cold War, and the 1993 summit hardly stopped the bloodletting in
Bosnia. Moreover, the Vatican’s theological skittishness about syncretism
will once again put the pope in the embarrassing position of declining
to pray with non-Christian spiritual leaders. Every group will retreat
to its own corner for prayer, a symbol of division rather than unity.
(That, by the way, has
not been enough to stop Catholic ultra-traditionalists from blasting the
event. I recently saw a letter to friends and benefactors of the St. Pius
X Society, followers of schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, warning
that the Assisi summit “forever reduces truth to the level of a subjective,
personal opinion, having no meaning outside of one’s own personal consciousness”).
For myself, I still believe
the papal bully pulpit is important. As I was writing this column, I happened
to hear George Bush on the BBC World Service describe Osama bin Laden as
“pure evil.” When the commander of the most powerful army in the history
of the planet defines an enemy in such apocalyptic terms, one can sense
a bad moon rising. Any voice of peace and pardon, especially one that can
guarantee prime time exposure on CNN, is welcome.
I will be in Assisi to
cover the story for NCR.
* * *
When John Paul scans
the world scene, the one conflict that obviously troubles him most is the
Middle East. He said in his Christmas Urbi et Orbi message: “Day
after day, I bear in my heart the tragic problems of the Holy Land.”
In part, this attention
reflects a genuine horror that the birthplace of the Prince of Peace is
so scarred by war. In part, however, there is also a Realpolitik
motive for Vatican concern: Christian depopulation.
The Christian exodus
from the occupied territories, to which such appeals are an increasingly
desperate response, is dramatic. In Bethlehem, 20 percent of the population
is Christian and 80 percent is Muslim. Thirty-five years ago, those numbers
were reversed. By most estimates, some 1,000 Christians a year are leaving
the region, a serious hemorrhage from a total Christian population of some
170,000 in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Christians find
themselves squeezed by fundamentalist Islamic intolerance, the corruption
and chaos of the Palestinian Authority, and the bone-crunching economic
consequences of the Israeli crackdown.
The nightmare scenario
is that Bethlehem and Nazareth could become Christian holy sites with no
living Christian presence, under the control of Muslim extremists.
Driven by this fear,
the Vatican has become increasingly critical of the Sharon government,
considering it the stronger party and hence most responsible for the impasse.
Relations between the Vatican and Israel are frosty.
I recently interviewed
the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Yosef Lamdan. Choosing his words
very carefully, he said, “Vatican diplomacy does not put great emphasis
on outreach.” It is a polite way of putting the point. Other sources told
me that while Lamdan is frequently asked by his superiors to make
representations to the Vatican, mostly along the lines of why the Israelis
are victims of Palestinian terrorism, the Vatican has not once initiated
a policy conversation with Lamdan.
Though the Vatican has
also been critical of the Palestinians, it’s clear where the preference
lies. Small gestures as well as policy statements tell the story. The small
chapel in the synod hall, for example, is lined with a set of pearl-white
Stations of the Cross, a gift to John Paul from Yaser Arafat.
Christians on the ground,
meanwhile, tend to be still more fiercely pro-Palestinian. This is in part
because most are Arabs. Many of the early authors of pan-Arabist ideology
were Christian; the idea was that being Arab, rather than being Muslim,
might become the touchstone of regional identity. In part, their bias is
simple realism. Christians realize that if they have a future in places
such as Bethlehem and Nazareth, it will be under the Palestinians.
Of course, this is a
complex, tangled mess, and no simple assignment of blame will suffice.
For one thing, as Israeli officials point out, there is no commensurate
Christian depopulation in Israel; in fact, the Christian population has
inched up each of the last three years. Moreover, Christian leaders in
the region were not always so enthusiastic about the Palestinian cause.
Not long ago, many Christians wanted Bethlehem annexed into greater Jerusalem,
on the theory that the Israelis would never abandon Jerusalem and hence
would never abandon the Christians. Thus some Israelis find the current
finger-pointing from the Christian side disingenuous.
For all of John Paul’s
well-intended concern, the papacy also has its share of historical responsibility.
As Italian journalist Gad Lerner points out in Crusades: The Millennium
of Hate, Christian abandonment of the Holy Land is related historically
to the debacle of the crusaders, whipped into a frenzy by a string of popes.
They left Jerusalem, as Lerner puts it, a city “full of churches and empty
of Christians.” Of its 600,000 people, some 10,000 are Christian.
One hopes peace will
finally come. One also hopes there will be room for a faithful remnant
of Christians, who remind us of our origins — and of our destiny in the
“heavenly Jerusalem” that, after Sept. 11, seems more distant than ever.
The holiday season is
a time for savoring book treats long promised to oneself but oft-delayed.
One title I can recommend is I Call You Friends, by former Dominican
Master General Timothy Radcliffe (Continuum).
Radcliffe is currently
on sabbatical after finishing his nine-year term. I know him personally
and consider him a treasure, so I was not surprised by the vision in the
book, which is intelligent, warm, and traditional in the best sense.
It’s a pity that Radcliffe
has been seized upon in certain circles as a standard-bearer for Catholic
liberalism, because nothing is further from his spirit than being a partisan
in ecclesiastical debates. His special gift lies in pointing a way beyond
polarities. As he puts it, Catholics should be “mendicants of truth” --
hands outstretched, begging for pieces of the truth wherever one can find
it, from whatever ideology or life experience or point of view.
Radcliffe also has a
wonderful human touch. I recall seeing him in action at a missionary conference
in Rome in December 2000 (his text is in the book), where he followed the
fiery Joan Chittister. At one point Sr. Joan made a typically uproarious
joke about men in the church, forgetting momentarily that Radcliffe was
sitting to her left. He smiled impishly, and when Joan realized that her
quip could be taken as a shot at Radcliffe, whom in fact she adores, she
grimaced. Radcliffe smiled even more broadly, leaned over, and planted
a kiss on her cheek. The crowd, needless to say, went wild.
Talk about preaching
without need of words.
Something I had forgotten
about Radcliffe, which his book called to mind, is that he taught Biblical
studies at Oxford for twelve years. As I think about it now, this may have
something to do with his open, confident Orthodoxy, a kind of faith that
does not need heresy-hunters rushing to its defense.
In my experience, Biblical
scholars tend to be theologically tolerant and non-defensive folk, in part
because they know pluralism is at the heart of Christian origins. In the
first century we had not one “Christianity,” but several “Christianities.”
Biblical scholars are not scandalized by historical or scientific challenges
to the faith; they realize that over the long run such challenges are usually
productive. Biblical scholars realize that every literary formulation,
even of a dogma, is provisional, always open to new understandings.
At Vatican II, many of
the prelates responsible for the council’s progressive direction were graduates
of the Pontifical Biblical Institute: Joseph Frings, Achille Liénart,
Giacomo Lercaro, Bernard Alfrink, and Franz König. Of course, Cardinal
Carlo Maria Martini of Milan is also a scripture scholar.
Consider the recent transition
in Australia from the former archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Edward Bede
Clancy, to the current man, George Pell. Clancy took a licensiate from
the Biblicum in the 1950s. As cardinal, he was no radical. He once said
women’s ordination would be like adding a fourth person to the Trinity.
Yet he left room open for local flexibility, and he defended the moderate
tone of the Australian church against a handful of shrill conservative
critics. That moderation is noticeably absent under Pell.
Did Clancy’s Biblical
studies make the difference? By themselves, maybe not. But exposure to
scripture study helps shape a turn of mind that in my opinion is almost
always tonic. (And yes, for the record, my graduate studies were in the
New Testament and early Christian literature).
Find yourself pondering
with this in mind?
Someday I’ll scour the
academic backgrounds of all the candidates. For now I can point out one
interesting tidbit. Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga Rodríguez of Honduras,
an attractive figure for a variety of reasons, did his theological work
at the Alfonsian Academy in Rome. He studied under famed Redemptorist moral
theologian Fr. Bernard Häring, who jousted with the Vatican a time
or two. Rodríguez calls Häring a “mentor.”
was named a cardinal in February, I dropped by the Alfonsian to read his
thesis, written in 1974. (Judging from the layer of dust, I think I was
the first person to ever pull it off the shelf). It breathes the post-conciliar
air. Rodríguez wrote that the Christian moral life cannot be reduced
to “a series of prohibitions,” but instead should be a loving response
to “the dignity, the nobility, the ideal of a new creature in Christ.”
Moral thought in the
letters of St. Paul.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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