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January 6, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 18

John L. Allen Jr.


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John L. Allen Jr.

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Papal Coverage: Read NCR's 25 days of non-stop coverage of the death of John Paul II and the elction of Benedict XVI. This includes Sr. Joan Chittister's essays, An American Catholic in Rome

Benedict XVI is a man of his word; First encyclical nears release; John Paul II's Marian spirituality; Conclave campaigning; A letter from the Neocatechumenal Way


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Those closest to Pope John Paul II were annoyed when, after the election of Benedict XVI, pundits began to style John Paul as a "pope of symbols" in contrast with Benedict as a "pope of words."

One evening in Rome last August I was with Archbishop Renato Boccardo, who organized John Paul's final trips, after Boccardo had spoken with a group of Canadian youth. Describing the claim that John Paul was a pope of gestures, Boccardo used the Italian word stupidaggine, which roughly translates as "idiocy." Boccardo, of course, knows better than most that John Paul was indeed a master of symbolism, but his point was that John Paul also delivered some meaty words -- 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations and 11 apostolic constitutions, for example, to say nothing of thousands of speeches during 105 foreign trips.

Point taken.

Yet the words/symbols contrast does, nonetheless, capture something, which was on display anew as Benedict XVI led his first Christmas and New Year's liturgies last week.

John Paul II had a theatrical personality, with a keen sense of timing, inflection, and dramatic effect, so that reading his speeches and listening to them in person were often two different experiences. Benedict XVI is more literally a man of his word. Every term, every phrase, in his public addresses is chosen carefully, and the structure is critical. He rarely deviates, and rarely can single phrases be lifted to "stand in" for the broader argument.

Clearly, it is the text, not the delivery, that interests him. While Benedict's ability to speak fluently in multiple languages is impressive, and he's more charismatic in public than some expected, seeing him "live" does not generally add much to his message.

This is not by accident.

The emerging heart of Benedict's papacy is about truth -- his belief that modern men and women must find their way back to objective truths about human life, imprinted in nature by the Creator. Even if the fallen human mind needs the "purification" of faith to perceive this truth, Benedict believes that it nonetheless responds to something deep in the human heart.

As such, Benedict feels little need for razzle-dazzle. His aim seems to be to subtract himself from the equation as much as possible, so the message may shine through more clearly.

In a personality-driven age, this determination carries obvious risks. The global media has so far taken scant notice of the pope's activity, so average people often have little idea of what he's saying and doing. Reaction to the Vatican document on gay priests was illustrative. I was repeatedly asked, by both reporters and average Catholics, "What does it mean that this is Benedict's first big move?" Among other things, it means there's a gap between what the pope is pitching and what many have caught, because this was hardly his first notable act.

A similar dynamic was visible over the holidays. The usual gorgeous images were broadcast from midnight Mass at St. Peter's Basilica and from St. Peter's Square on New Year's Day, but there was relatively little discussion of the pope's message, in part because his thoughtful reflections didn't lend themselves to sound-bites.

Under John Paul, reaction to the pope sometimes broke down along conventional liberal/conservative lines, and sometimes it scrambled those categories, but few were indifferent. Under Benedict XVI, it's possible that the most important division will be between those who are paying attention and those who aren't, since the force of the pope's personality may no longer be sufficient to command the world's interest.

Of course, one could fall back on Benedict's oft-cited dictum that Christianity is destined to be a "creative minority," concluding that it doesn't matter whether the pope reaches the masses, as long as he's shaping a future generation with a strong sense of Catholic identity and passion. Certainly the size and enthusiasm of turnout in St. Peter's Square so far, and in Cologne in August for World Youth Day, suggest that one should not underestimate that potential.

Yet the "creative" part of Benedict's formula is at least as important to him as the "minority." He wants a church with an impact on the culture, one that radiates joy and conviction, and thereby points the way to a different future. In other words, he wants a church the world takes seriously.

Benedict's gamble seems to be that, for all its superficiality, the post-modern world will still respond to the force of unadorned argument -- at least enough of the world to make a difference. For all those who take the pope for an Augustinian pessimist, it's actually a rather hopeful stance. Whether he's right -- and whether his particular arguments are winning ones -- will shape the drama of his papacy.

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A senior Vatican official told NCR in early January that the release of Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus caritas est, would likely come sometime after Jan. 15. This official said that Benedict is concerned about "information overload" from the Vatican, and wants the Christmas and New Year's messages to have time to sink in before another important text is issued.

Anyone looking for a "warm-up exercise" might consider C.S. Lewis' 1960 book The Four Loves. The encyclical is expected to review different concepts of love, much like Lewis did in distinguishing among affection, friendship, erotic love and unconditional love. Like Lewis, Benedict will argue that if the modern world could arrive at a proper understanding of the nature of love, many problems would be on their way to resolution.

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There's a famous Italian play on words to the effect that tradurre è tradire, "to translate is to betray." This is perhaps especially the case when trying to "translate" church thinking for the outside world, since one can easily get boxed into categories that end up distorting the content at issue.

This comes to mind in light of a piece I recently published in The Spectator, outlining ways in which Catholic social teaching under recent popes, including Benedict XVI, has clashed with certain choices of Bush and Blair, for example on "pre-emptive war." In the fish-or-fowl dualism of secular politics, that can suggest the Vatican is "anti-Bush."

The headline writer for my piece suggested such a take: "Why the Pope does not back the Bush doctrine."

In fact, the Vatican probably enjoys better relations with Bush than with any American president since Reagan, and that will continue under Benedict XVI. On issues such as the role of religion in public life, abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, and other matters, the Vatican and the White House are largely in synch.

Yet it's equally the case that the vision of a just world outlined by recent popes is not fully reflected in any current political alignment, and Western conservatives who hastily concluded that Benedict will be a reliable ally across the board are likely to be disappointed, especially on issues such as war, international law, the death penalty, and global economic systems.

As I put it in The Spectator piece: "Benedict XVI may well feel closer to social conservatives than to secular liberals, but in the end the pope's agenda remains his own."

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Generally little happens in Rome between Christmas and New Year's, but this year an interesting conference took place Dec. 28-30 at the Teresianum, titled "The Marian Magisterium of John Paul II."

John Paul's deep Marian devotion was well-known; the motto of his papacy was Totus tuus, "all yours," in reference to Mary (The phrase comes from the "Treatise of True Devotion to the Most Holy Virgin" of St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort.) The three-day conference traced ways in which that Marian interest translated into doctrinal developments.

I dropped in on Dec. 28 to hear Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, outline what he saw as John Paul's main contributions.

The audience was composed largely of Italian members of women's religious orders.

Amato noted that the bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) opted not to issue a separate text on Mary, but to devote chapter eight of Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the church, to Marian teaching. Amato called that chapter "the most important Marian text of the magisterium in 2,000 years," saying it was also "magisterial" in the lay sense of the term, meaning authoritative because of its quality.

Amato singled out four elements of Lumen Gentium 8: its "renewed method," weaving salvific, ecumenical, and liturgical criteria into a "magna carta" for Catholic Mariology; its "Trinitarian approach," treating Mary as the beloved daughter of the Father, the mother of the Son, and the temple of the Holy Spirit; the way it treats Mary as the "eminent model" of the church; and its approach to Mary's "cooperation" in the salvation won by Christ. On this final point, Amato said that Lumen Gentium avoided "soteriological symmetry" between Mary and Christ, treating her instead as the "first fruit" of his redemption.

In the end, Amato said, Vatican II left a Mariology "rich with promise" which John Paul carried forward, following what Amato called a "winter in Mariology" from 1964-74.

The heart of John Paul's thought, Amato said, was "Trinitarian Christocentrism," in which "all the elements of the faith, and mission of the church are brought back to Christ." This was also the approach, Amato said, that John Paul took with Mary -- "back to Christ."

Hence 1987's Redemptoris Mater, in which John Paul argued that calling Mary mediator "does not diminish the lone mediation of the Redeemer, but rather adds to it." Or 1994's Tertio Millenio Adveniente, in which Mary is presented as a model of lived faith and a "woman of hope."

Amato noted that John Paul also unfolded his Marian teaching in a cycle of catechetical lessons during his weekly General Audiences stretching from 1995 to 1997, a total of 70 lessons in three parts.

Amato summed up John Paul's contributions in three points:

  • Confirming the "Marian note" of the church, beginning with the Incarnation;
  • DevelopingVatican II, especially in his treatment of the title "mediator" in Redemptoris Mater;
  • Leading all Christians, including those outside the Catholic church, to a "new deepening and openness" to Mary.

Amato said John Paul also brought a new focus to Marian spirituality, bestowing "legitimacy" upon it as a form of Christian experience, which is not a competitor or a parallel to a spirituality focused on Christ.

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"According to John Paul, a Marian spirituality means the experience of configuration to Christ according to the example of Mary, and with the help of Mary," Amato said.

Amato said that John Paul also gave the rosary, once considered a prayer of the humble and illiterate, a new dignity. Among other things, he cited John Paul's decision to add five new "luminous" mysteries.

"Each throws light on the mystery of man, in light of the plan of creation and redemption," Amato said.

Finally, Amato said John Paul had also contributed to an "adult and mature" Marian spirituality through his emphasis on her as a "Eucharistic woman."

"Mary guides the church to the Eucharist, and accompanies the faithful to communion with her Son," he said.

Amato exhorted his audience that this "extremely rich pontifical magisterium" should not be a "dead letter," but should be "assimilated, lived, applied and taught."

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In recent years some theologians have argued for what might be called a "minimalist" reading of the hierarchical magisterium. One theory in the mid-1990s, for example, suggested that the magisterium's role be understood as "guaranteeing the rules of discussion" for reflection on ecclesial praxis, a bit like a host at a presidential debate rather than an authoritative teacher.

In his Dec. 28 remarks, Amato offered a more "maximalist" reading.

"The magisterium is the power conferred by Christ to the apostles and the successors to the apostles to expound and defend authentic doctrine, as a means of salvation intrinsically connected to the salvation of peoples," he said.

Amato urged Catholics to sentire cum ecclesia, "think with the church," rather than to dissentire ab ecclesia, "dissent from the church."

"The magisterium is the truth of God, the word of God, for the culture of today," Amato said.

"Speculative journals can often mislead without solid criteria of discernment," he told the sisters. "True updating is done by the magisterium … True inculturation is done by the magisterium of the church, not in our laboratories."

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Last week, an article published by the Brazilian paper O Globo made ripples around the world. Written by journalist Gerson Camarotti, the article is based on an interview with an anonymous Brazilian cardinal, who asserted that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger planned his own election as pope, with the assistance of the Roman Curia and Opus Dei.

Camarotti, who said he negotiated for eight months with this cardinal for the interview, and who told me he prepared for it by reading the Portuguese edition of my book Conclave, asked my reaction.

Here's what I said.

First, there's much that seems well-founded. For example, Camarotti names Cardinals Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of Colombia, Jorge Medina Estevez of Chile, and Christoph Schönborn of Austria as leading campaigners for Ratzinger, something many journalists had already reported. Further, Camarotti is correct that conservative cardinals met in Rome behind closed doors in the days leading up to the April conclave, putting together the Ratzinger offensive.

On the subject of Ratzinger's alleged role, however, things are less clear.

Direct testimony of a participant in the conclave, which is what Camarotti claims to have, must be taken seriously. Further, if Ratzinger had been running for pope, it would be difficult to imagine a more skillful campaign than his performance as Dean of the College of Cardinals from the death of John Paul II through the opening of the conclave.

Yet there's also powerful evidence suggesting that Ratzinger did not want the job, in part for reasons of age and health.

Each of the three most recent times his five-year appointment as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expired, in 1991, 1996, and 2001, Ratzinger asked John Paul for permission to retire. Each time the pope refused.

Just before the conclave opened, a senior official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told me Ratzinger had informed key aides that he hoped the new pope would grant him a few more months on the job, and then he would step down. He wanted to return to Bavaria, and resume writing on liturgy, ecclesiology, and other subjects.

I interviewed eight cardinals immediately after the conclave, and none had the impression Ratzinger had sought the job, though all said some cardinals (above all Schönborn) ran an aggressive campaign on his behalf.

Moreover, Benedict himself asserted he had not wanted the job in an audience with German pilgrims on Monday, April 25.

"As slowly the balloting showed me that, so to speak, the guillotine would fall on me, I got quite dizzy," he said. "I had thought I had done my life's work and could now hope for a peaceful end of my days. … So with deep conviction, I told the Lord: 'Don't do this to me! You have younger and better men, who can do this work with different verve and strength.'"

Of course, it's possible to dismiss this as a pro forma show of humility from a victor, especially someone who has conquered an office one is not supposed to seek.

Until and unless the identity of the Brazilian cardinal is revealed, or we know more about the extent to which he was part of the "inner circle," his impressions of Ratzinger's role will likely remain interesting but inconclusive.

As for Opus Dei, I suspect that ascribing Benedict's election to its machinations, whatever they may have been, overstates its political muscle. Only two of the 115 cardinals who elected Benedict were Opus Dei members, and neither is reported to have played a significant role: Cardinal Julian Herranz, a Spaniard who heads the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Lima, Peru. Both men were probably Ratzinger voters, but that doesn't make them responsible for the outcome.

Lopez Trujillo, Medina, and Schönborn are not Opus Dei members. Camarotti says they're "close to Opus Dei," a vague formula, and more to the point, each is also close to a wide variety of other conservative movements, orders and groups.

I prescind from the question of whether Opus Dei actually "campaigned" for Ratzinger. The group's leadership insists that Opus Dei does not take corporate positions on church politics, but they can say that until they're blue in the face and some people won't buy it.

The bottom line, however, is that while many Opus Dei members were no doubt delighted with Benedict's triumph, to give them the credit (or blame, depending on one's point of view) overstates the case.

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Before I took a week off for Christmas, I reported on a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship concerning the Neocatechumenal Way, a catechetical path founded in Spain in the 1960s by Kiko Arguello and Carmen Hernandez.

That item brought the following response from Giuseppe Gennarini, spokesperson for the Neocatechumenate:

I read with great surprise the article published in the National Catholic Reporter in regard to the letter of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments given to the initiators and leaders of the Neocatechumenal Way, Kiko Argüello, Carmen Hernandez and Fr. Mario Pezzi, and deemed "confidential" by the express desire of the Congregation.

The article, apart from reporting pieces of news as if they were real without any foundation (in particular, I would remind you that no lay person of the Neocatechumenal Communities has ever given the homily in place of the priest) totally overlooks the content of the letter. Even from a merely journalistic point of view, the letter is not in fact a reproach to the communities for the presumed "idiosyncratic features" of their liturgy, but is very important since it represents the first official document to accept some variations present in the liturgical praxis of the Neocatechumenal Way as a correct and licit adaptation for helping contemporary man receive the grace communicated by the sacraments.

This document constitutes the arrival point of a process that has lasted several years with a very positive outcome for the liturgical praxis of the Neocatechumenal Way thanks precisely to Benedict XVI and his esteem for the Neocatechumenal Communities even from the time that he was a professor in Tübingen and in 1974 when he acted to introduce the Neocatechumenal Way to Germany. This esteem is openly testified in many of his books.

  1. The great novelty of the letter is that it recognizes the fundamental principle of the full legitimacy of special celebrations in the "Dies Domini" for the Neocatechumenal Communities (which are composed 70 percent by baptized persons who abandoned religious practice and who therefore are in need of a sacramental mystagogy). In order to fully appreciate this concession, it is enough to remember that even up to today many opposed this practice as elitist or divisive (even if the liturgies of the Way are open to all): now, instead, the principle is being approved officially. The request to participate once a month in the general celebrations of the parish is already practiced widely in the Neocatechumenal Communities, given the fact that on the occasions of Christmas, the Epiphany, the Missa in Coena Domini, the Patronal Feast day, the Immaculate Conception and on many other solemnities, the communities already celebrate with the entire parish.
  2. The letter concedes that the sign of peace be exchanged before the offertory: here, too, in order to grasp the magnitude of this concession, it is enough to remember that just a few days prior to the letter, the Prefect of the Congregation had explained to hundreds of Bishops participating in the Synod on the Eucharist (the Acta would show this) that no one would ever be allowed to change the place of the sign of peace.
  3. Also permitted are the admonitions before the Readings and the echo before the homily: these, too, have been contested, and instead here receive official recognition.
  4. Finally, permission is given -- indeed in writing -- to the mode of distribution, and for a long period, albeit ad experimentum, which shows that it is not a question of an irreverent practice but wholly legitimate within the context of the approval of the Statutes. Once the period ad experimentum is completed, the Interdicasterial Commission of the five Congregations that approved the Statutes (the Council for the Laity, and the Congregations for Faith, Clergy and Catechesis, Liturgy, and Catholic Education) will verify the necessary adaptations.

All of these adaptations -- practiced for over thirty years and always having informed and in communion with the Congregation for Divine Worship (such that various Prefects have presided the Eucharist of Neocatechumenal Communities) -- were presented to the Congregation for the approval of the Holy Father, following the process established when the Congregation held that the adaptations requested receive a foundation. Pope Benedict XVI, who received the initiators of the Way on 19 November and will again receive in a public audience on 12 January 2006 representatives of the Neocatechumenal Way to send over 200 families on mission to the most de-Christianized areas of the world, has approved them.

If one considers that we are before the only case of an ecclesial reality that has been allowed some important liturgical variations, one can understand the consideration and the importance given to this by Benedict XVI and the Congregation itself: the letter concludes in fact by expressing gratitude "to the Lord for the good fruits borne to the Church" by the Neocatechumenal Way.

Gennarini's response is essentially a copy of one he sent originally to Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, who broke the story, and who replied in Il Giornale on Dec. 27. Aside from apologizing for some imprecision in language, and conceding that recent popes have thought highly of the Neocatechumenate, Tornielli said it remains "undeniable" that the Vatican letter asks the Neocatechumenate to bring aspects of its liturgical practice into line with the rules of the church.

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I'm in the United States this week. I gave an address on "Benedict XVI and Moral Theology" at the Society of Christian Ethics conference in Phoenix on Jan. 5, and I'm also scheduled to speak in Washington for the Red Mass Society Jan. 8 and for the priests of the Washington archdiocese Jan. 9. I'll have some reflections on these experiences next week.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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