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February 3, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 22

John L. Allen Jr.

Vatican 
Correspondent
jallen@natcath.org


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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

African Catholicism; Notre Dame president discusses challenges; On Catholic education: Fisichella, Jenkins, Jenky; The latest on Lefebvrites; The future of the Holy Land; Jesuits called to elect new superior

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.

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Modern journalism privileges events over trends. If a bomb goes off in Baghdad today we'll hear about it, but long-term developments reshaping the nature of Shi'ite Islam won't lead the news unless they, in turn, cause a bomb to go off someplace. The result is that journalists are almost always playing catch-up ball, trying to figure out the back-story to something that's already happened, rather than anticipating what might come next.

Given the pace and complexity of events, such an approach is perhaps inevitable. Every so often, however, it's worthwhile to try to pull back and to identify deeper forces causing the tectonic plates of the culture to shift, offering a sort of "early warning system" for where the next earthquake might be.

Arguably the most significant such "mega-trend" in Roman Catholicism at the moment is the population shift from North to South, from the developed to the developing world, amounting to the most sweeping demographic transformation in Christianity's 2,000 year history. Nowhere is this more clear than Africa, which experienced a mind-boggling growth rate of 6,708 percent in the 20th century, from 1.9 million Catholics in 1900 to 130 million in 2000.

During the Cor Unum conference last week prior to the release of Deus Caritas Est, I ran into Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, the elected president of both the Nigerian bishops' conference and the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM).

I caught up with him Saturday morning, Jan. 28, at the generalate of the Society for African Missions, for a wide-ranging interview about the challenges and opportunities facing African Catholicism. The full text of our exchange will appear in a forthcoming issue of the National Catholic Reporter, so here I'll offer a few highlights.

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Do you look forward to a day when a papal encyclical will begin by citing an African proverb rather than a line from Nietzsche?
"I don't see anything stopping the pope from citing African proverbs. This will come as we have some good Africans among the drafters of the encyclicals who are familiar with our traditional wisdom.

"When Benedict quotes Nietzsche and Descartes, these are the people with whom he's familiar, and I don't believe that's an accident. We must start with the faith position that, apart from anything else, it's the Holy Spirit who is behind who emerges as pope. As soon as this pope was elected, the first thing that came to my mind was that the greatest challenge facing the Catholic church today is how to restore the spirit of the church to this technological, advanced, powerful Western world. It's as if the Holy Spirit chose somebody who can address the culture in its own language, drawing on its own philosophers, both good and bad.

"To be blunt, when Ratzinger critiques German theological currents or the European Union and its philosophical positions, it has an impact. If an African pope were to say the same things, people would say, 'He's an African, he doesn't know what he's talking about.' Even with John Paul II, there was sometimes an undercurrent of dismissal. People said he's been in Poland all this time, he's trying to force the church into a kind of Polish model. I don't think that was true, but it was said. No one will be able to make such a case for Benedict XVI.

"If this pope can find a way to help the Western world recover a sense of God, and to try to reflect it in public life, it would be a great blessing for Europe and for the rest of us."

Will the astounding growth in the African Catholic church continue?
"It can't continue at 6,000 percent forever! At some point, you're saturated.

"I don't believe there's any natural way of explaining this phenomenon. What we've seen is an explosion of God's grace on our continent. God doesn't work such miracles for no reason, so the question is, what is God's challenge to us?

"The reality is that the great majority of our people live day-in, day-out in poverty. In that context, we can't just fold our arms and pray our rosaries, although we pray our rosaries very well. I believe it's God's purpose that the church will be a factor for making sure that God's will is done, that our people achieve a better future and enjoy at least a minimum degree of human dignity. I say this not just for the Catholics, but all people."

African Christianity has a reputation for a strongly traditional sexual morality. Is that an accurate perception?
"I would put it differently. The virulent and strong currents that have tried, and almost succeeded, in pushing a non-traditional view of sexuality -- on homosexuality, abortion, and so on -- are actually quite circumscribed, even if they're in circles that are very powerful. It's not only the Africans who are complaining [about these currents], but it's the Asians too, and the Latin Americans. It's not as if the Africans are the only ones who hold these views. We are the mainstream, not them. So why are they doing this? The onus lies upon them to explain why they are doing something new. It's a very heavy onus to explain how it is that for 2,000 years the church somehow did not understand what Jesus meant."

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When Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins became Notre Dame's 17th President last July, he inherited bitter debates over two events: "The Vagina Monologues", a play celebrating women's sexuality, and the Queer Film Festival, an event dedicated to gay and lesbian cinema. Some critics believe that both events, at least implicitly, challenge Catholic teaching on sexual morality.

Jenkins recently gave a powerful speech as to how he intends to respond. His speech appears in its entirety in the Feb. 10 issue of National Catholic Reporter.

In brief, Jenkins has allowed the film festival to proceed, but with a change of name, which Jenkins believes gives less of an impression of advocacy; he has also allowed "The Vagina Monologues" to be staged, but without ticket sales or fundraising for causes potentially at odds with church teaching. In both cases, the decisions are valid for this year, and Jenkins has solicited input about what to do in the future.

Jenkins and the Notre Dame Board of Trustees were in Rome this week for a business meeting, along with visits to various Vatican officials. I sat down with Jenkins for an interview, which appears in same Feb. 10 NCR.

What follows are brief excerpts.

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Is this discussion about striking the proper balance between Catholic identity and academic freedom?
"Yes. A university should be a place with a diversity of views, where a variety of perspectives is presented. There must be freedom for faculty and for events, but at the institutional level there should also be clarity about the values we represent."

Activists on both sides therefore make important points.
"The trouble is that each side can see nothing legitimate in the position of the other. I hope that the university can help move us out of this ideological ghettoization, by fostering an actual conversation that's both open and guided by tradition. My hope that we can do it is based on two points: 1) As Catholics, we have a very rich intellectual tradition, which is wide, not narrow; 2) We're not a sectarian religion. Like it or not, we're in this thing together, and we have to find a way to talk to each other. "

Many Catholic colleges and universities are wrestling with decisions like commencement speakers and theatrical productions. Do you think there should be some national discussion?
"I think the autonomy of each institution is important, based on the principle of subsidiarity. Universities have different contexts and different kinds of missions. I would not want a kind of lockstep uniformity. On the other hand, some sort of national discussion so there's a broad understanding of the principles at work could be helpful."

In that conversation, what should be the role of the bishops?
"There should be conversation between the university and the bishop. It should be cordial, based on our common mission to serve the church. I haven't heard the bishops say that they should be dictating terms. There should be attentiveness, dialogue, and a sense of common purpose."

How do you assess the Catholic identity of a university?
"I'm not sure the most important things can ever be 'assessed.' Of course, we should ask if the students have a basic literacy in Catholic teaching. We can look at attendance at Mass, we can do surveys of what they say about the faith. We can measure the numbers involved in service opportunities. We can also try to identify how the university is a center of vibrant discussion on the important issues of the day, in dialogue with Catholic tradition. I'm wary, however, of trying to quantify this. One must be careful about falling into the trap that this sort of thing is easily accessible, especially when we're talking about the spiritual life of people."

Some might worry that too much emphasis on the difficulty of assessment can become a rationalization for not wanting to be assessed.
"I agree with that but [assessment] must be done in a discerning and thoughtful way."

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On Feb. 1, Notre Dame awarded two honorary doctorates in a ceremony at the Pontifical Lateran University, popularly known as "the pope's university" because of its proximity to the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the pope's cathedral as Bishop of Rome. The degrees went to Bishop Salvatore Fisichella, rector of the Lateran and a distinguished philosopher and theologian who was a major contributor to John Paul's 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio; and Francis Rooney, the Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See and a Notre Dame booster.

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Prior to the conferral, Fisichella and Jenkins both gave addresses, along with Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois, a member of the Holy Cross order that sponsors Notre Dame and the former rector of the campus' Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

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Fisichella, 54, is a rising star in the Catholic firmament. An auxiliary bishop of Rome, he is a close collaborator of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops' conference and the pope's vicar for Rome. His influence on Fides et Ratio was so pervasive that Roman wags still jokingly call the document Fisichella et Ratzinger. Many observers believe that, were it not for his youth, he would be a leading candidate as the Vatican's next Secretary of State.

Fisichella said the cultural dislocations of our time create special challenges for Catholic higher education.

"Modernity and post-modernity are ever more familiar in our vocabulary, but they require an effort to influence events, so [those events] do not appear to be merely casual, or, even worse, the product of anonymous forces that do not allow for the full development of personal liberty," Fisichella said.

"Catholic universities face the heavy responsibility of offering an education founded not only on the professional capacity of the individual teacher, but above all upon personal witness as a guarantee of the credibility of our teaching," he said.

Fisichella argued that Catholic universities must foster "an intelligent synthesis between study and life, between the search for truth and its existential experience."

"No discipline which exists within our walls lies beyond this responsibility," he said.

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Jenkins, who holds a doctorate from Oxford on St. Thomas Aquinas, sketched the intellectual method of the "Angelic Doctor." Aquinas began with a list of questions, Jenkins said, offering tentative replies, carefully noting objections, and finally moving to conclusions.

That method, Jenkins said, holds lessons for how Catholic universities might play their role as an "intermediary" between the church and culture.

First, "if a Catholic university is not engaging at the highest level in the most pressing questions of our age, we are not fulfilling our mission," he said. Second, a Catholic university "must listen to, and take seriously, contrary voices." Third, Jenkins said, one "must strive to give arguments persuasive to those engaged in the discussion" through universal principles of reason.

Noting that Aquinas's greatest intellectual influences, aside from Scripture and the Fathers, were Aristotle, Avicenna and Maimonides -- a pagan, a Muslim and a Jew -- Jenkins said that part of Aquinas's strength was a willingness "to learn from any source he could."

"Through dialogue, the culture is enriched with the truths of the gospel, but we must remember that we ourselves also learn," Jenkins said.

"The church always faces crises," Jenkins concluded. "Our strength is to face them with reason and hope, grounded in the gospel; to take confidence in the truth discovered through reason; to never fear the truth; and to show charity towards all."

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Jenky, the bishop of Peoria, began by painting a picture of enormous cultural upheaval, which he called "unsettling and threatening for believing Catholics." He pointed to "a general condescension for the past," where "familiar customs seem to disappear overnight."

"Older patterns, past structures, traditional norms and received values all seem to be undergoing a process of radical deconstruction," he said. "It is a culture heady with its own power. Scientific advances sometimes seem to explain away any need for faith or for God. The seemingly all-pervasive perspective, at least among many elite, is aggressively hostile to religion in general and to Catholicism in particular. The Catholic clergy and religious orders seem to be under siege. Moral lapses are magnified in the popular media, and most religious congregations are profoundly uncertain about their role in the world or even their communal survival. The great universities, once powerful centers of faith, are now virtual bastions of atheism, and even Catholic schools struggle to maintain any independent educational role or any real religious identity. Some have entirely lost their religious character, with Catholic faith and practice only vestigial remnants of what was once their reason for existing."

The rhetorical catch is that the cultural scene Jenky had in mind was not today, but the late 18th century, the era into which Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the order that sponsors Notre Dame, was born.

Faced with a changing world that posed enormous obstacles to evangelization, Moreau "preferred to fight rather than to switch," Jenky said.

In light of Moreau's legacy, Holy Cross schools "should never choose between being excellent or being Catholic," Jenky said. "Catholicity combines in itself identity and universality. Catholic tradition in all its ancient variety and richness is so profound, so wide and so self-confident in its exploration of truth that it can dare to ask questions and promote dialogue."

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The rumor mill has been active this week with reports of alleged new developments in the on-again, off-again talks between the Society of St. Pius X, the group of traditionalists founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and Rome. Some believe a gathering of society leaders in Flavigny, France, this week could mark the beginning of a return to communion with Rome.

Officially, society spokespersons have said that the Flavigny gathering is a normal business meeting, in view of a General Chapter coming up in July.

Meanwhile, Benedict XVI has convoked an "interdicasterial" meeting for Feb. 13, meaning a meeting of the cardinals and archbishops who head the various Vatican offices, to discuss relations with the society. Though sources told NCR the preparatory materials distributed for the meeting are brief and rather vague, discussion will doubtless touch on the four conditions posed by officials of the society for reunion: 1) wider permission for celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass; 2) lifting the excommunications for the four bishops consecrated by Lefebvre in 1988; 3) recognizing a right to criticize certain aspects of Vatican II, especially its teaching on religious liberty; 4) a canonical structure to provide traditionalists with some autonomy, such as an apostolic administration.

Society members were greatly cheered by Pope Benedict's December address to the Roman Curia, in which he denounced "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture" in the interpretation of Vatican II.

"That opened the door for us," one society official told NCR Feb. 2.

A note of caution, however, is in order. Anyone who knows the history of this relationship understands that periodically rumors of breakthroughs circulate, only to prove unfounded or exaggerated. Despite good will all around, the psychological and theological rifts often seem profound.

One Vatican cardinal who spoke to NCR Feb. 2 said he doubted the Holy See could accept the conditions posed by the society for reunion, especially a right to disagreement with elements of Vatican II.

"That would have very serious implications for the unity of the church," he said.

The cardinal said he feels the pope "understands this very well," and hence would be cautious about moving forward.

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Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger is widely credited with being the principal drafter and lead negotiator both of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, and the 1997 "Legal Personality Agreement."

Jaeger spoke as part of Rome's "Theology on Tap" series Feb. 2 on the "Future of the Holy Land." I was unable to attend, but Jaeger was gracious enough to give me a preview of his comments. He stressed that he spoke in a purely personal capacity.

Jaeger said the lone model he sees for serious progress towards peace is the 1991 Madrid Conference, organized under the first Bush administration and then-Secretary of State James Baker. That conference brought Israel, the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon and other actors around the same table.

Its results, Jaeger said, were "sidetracked by Oslo," referring to the 1993 Oslo Accords, which he faulted for spelling out a process for peace without an end result. The Madrid model, he said, has "lain dormant" since 1991, but could be revived.

Jaeger said the results of the recent Palestinian elections shouldn't affect such an initiative, since the international party recognized to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians is the Palestine Liberation Organization, not the government of the Palestinian Authority. The victory of Hamas at the ballot box, he said, is in that sense irrelevant.

Jaeger also praised the reaction of President George W. Bush to the Palestinian elections. In his comments, Bush said the Palestinian voters had wanted to "send a message" about the status quo.

Bush's response, Jaeger said, illustrates "his commitment to spreading democracy not a utilitarian commitment, but a commitment to a value and a principle."

Finally, I asked Jaeger about the status of the long-running negotiations between Israel and the Holy See on the tax and judicial status of church-affiliated properties in Israel. The next round of meetings is set for May 17-18.

"There is hope," he said. "The formula for resolution is known, and there is a very good possibility of convergence. There's no objective reason why there shouldn't be an agreement."

What's needed, Jaeger said, are "sustained negotiations" rather than quick one-day or two-day sessions, and parties with "commensurate mandates" - meaning that both sides have the capacity to reach deals, not simply shuttle messages back to superiors.

Jaeger said the Israeli elections on March 28 should not affect the negotiations.

"There's no divergence between the political parties in Israel with regard to policies towards the church," he said. "It's not a partisan issue."

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The Jesuits announced Thursday that they will hold a General Congregation in January 2008, the central drama of which will be the election of a successor to Dutch Superior General Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, who has governed the order since 1983.

Over almost 25 years, Kolvenbach's steady leadership has become the stuff of Catholic legend.

I was once at a Rome conference where both Kolvenbach and then-Master General of the Dominicans Fr. Timothy Radcliffe were on the program. Radcliffe said that when he took office, his predecessor, Fr. Damian Byrne, told him the first thing he should do is consult Kolvenbach, who would navigate him through the shoals of ecclesiastical Rome. In turn, Radcliffe said, he told his successor to do the same.

"And he will tell his successor likewise," Radcliffe said, "for while masters general come and go, Fr. Kolvenbach endures."

Radcliffe's point was well-taken, even if his prognostication was a bit off. As it happens, Fr. Carlos Azpiroz Costa succeeded Radcliffe in 2002 and will serve a nine-year term, so that by the time he's offering wisdom to his successor, there will be a new Jesuit general.

Tributes about Kolvenbach are not hard to elicit.

"He saved the Society of Jesus," said Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, voicing a sentiment many observers offer.

Taft, an American and a distinguished scholar at Rome's Oriental Institute, was referring to the tumult under former Superior General Fr. Pedro Arrupe, when tensions between the Vatican and the Jesuits led to John Paul II appointing interim leadership in 1981. Since then, Kolvenbach's reputation for balance and discretion has helped calm the waters.

Back in 1983, Taft predicted that Kolvenbach, his rector at the Oriental Institute, would become the new general. He said one part of Kolvenbach's wisdom was fostering good relations with the Vatican.

"If you want to swim in this pool, you have to make your peace with the lifeguard," Taft said, laughing.

Australian Jesuit Fr. Dan Madigan said that Kolvenbach "won the confidence of the Jesuits with his intelligence, wisdom and great experience," while at the same time gaining the trust of the Holy See.

A story makes the point. Kolvenbach is never seen without his black cassock, and Madigan said that one Jesuit, skeptical of clerical garb, challenged him, asking, "Why do you dress like that?"

Kolvenbach's response, as Madigan tells the story: "I dress like this so you can dress like that."

The anecdote reflects both Kolvenbach's wit, and his sense of his mission -- trying to foster the creativity and diversity of the far-flung Jesuit community, while keeping them tethered to the church and its leadership.

Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, an American liturgist who teaches at Rome's Gregorian University, praised Kolvenbach's "international vision" and his "grasp of complex situations."

"At this time in the church, I don't think you could have asked for a better leader," he said.

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As this column went to press, I received news that an American who worked in the Vatican, a good friend named Lynn Yuill, passed away Feb. 2. Lynn, who was just 39, worked in Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican's umbrella group for Catholic charities. Earlier in her career, she worked for Vatican Radio. She had been battling cancer for the past five years.

Those who knew Lynn cherished her wit, her intelligence, and her friendship. Her funeral Mass is Saturday, Feb. 4, and I invite prayers for Lynn and her family.

I also received word that American Archbishop John Foley, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, is undergoing kidney surgery as this column is being posted. For him too, prayers are welcome.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

 
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