|This week’s column
is written from the States, where I am speaking at various places across
the country about the Vatican and the election of the next pope.
On Feb. 28 I was in San
Diego, then March 1-2 in Anaheim at the mammoth Religious Education Congress
sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. For one of my sessions, I
spoke in a large concert-style arena in the Anaheim Convention Center before
a crowd of a few thousand; I felt like I should be on stage belting out
“Smoke on the Water” rather than analyzing the dynamics of papal politics.
Lest I conclude that
all those people had come to hear me, however, a conference organizer helpfully
pointed out just before I went on stage that most people probably wanted
to get a good seat for the Native American liturgy to follow. I was, as
it turned out, the warm-up act.
The congress is an incredible
event, reflecting the energy, the diversity, and the sheer size of Los
Angeles itself. A friend who works for the U.S. bishops observed that it’s
remarkable that so many lay Catholics — somewhere around 22,000 — would
give up a beautiful Southern California weekend to sit through what amounted
to a series of lectures on ministry, trends in catechesis, and the issues
facing John Paul’s successor. For three days, the Anaheim Convention Center
literally buzzed with Catholicity.
For all the trauma of
the past year, the overwhelmingly positive energy was a salutary reminder
of the basic health, the optimism and commitment, of American Catholicism.
One star attraction was
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who must have turned some
heads. How do I know? When I mentioned the 60-year-old’s name in my session
as a possible papal contender, the arena burst into strong applause.
I was also pleased to
discover that American Catholics have not lost their sense of humor. I
watched Fr. R. Tony Ricard, a sort of non-profane, Roman collar-wearing
version of Chris Rock, keep a large crowd, composed mostly of young people,
Sample: The pope, Billy
Graham and Oral Roberts all die the same day. They arrive in heaven, and
St. Peter tells them their housing is not ready. Peter calls the devil
to ask if he can put the three of them up for the night. The devil agrees,
and off they go. Two hours later the devil calls St. Peter, demanding that
he take the three men back immediately. “Why?” a bewildered Peter asks.
“Because the pope is down here forgiving everyone,” Lucifer responds, “Billy
Graham is trying to save everyone, and Oral Roberts has raised enough money
to put in air conditioning.”
Bishop Howard Hubbard
told a group of catechists a story about a weekly television program sponsored
by his Albany diocese called “The Table of the Lord.” He said that recently
an African-American gospel choir appeared with him on the show and brought
the house down. Hubbard said he called his sister after the event to see
what she thought. She responded that the program was terrific, but seeing
her son vainly trying to keep rhythm with the performance, an alternative
title occurred to her: “White Men Can’t Clap.”
But there was more than
humor on offer in Los Angeles.
Paul Ford, a professor
of liturgy at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, kept a large crowd entertained
while stepping them through a somewhat arcane presentation on the Holy
Spirit. Ford argued that Western Catholicism has tended over the centuries
to Christo-monism, breeding a kind of neglect of the Spirit. It’s a point
that I heard Cardinal Walter Kasper make earlier in the week in a lecture
at the Angelicum, when Kasper pointed out that the Orthodox have long complained
about the suppression of the Spirit in Roman Catholic theological reflection.
These Orthodox critics believe that emphasis on the pope as the vicar of
Christ in the West has led Catholics to under-appreciate the creative,
unpredictable role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.
Ford actually sang his
own translation of the Veni, Creator Spiritus in a rich stentorian
voice, one of the weekend’s more impressive moments.
Hubbard called the catechists
to an approach to ministry premised on a proper ecclesial perspective,
loyalty, humor, and acceptance of the cross, among other qualities. I found
especially striking his invitation that they be reconcilers in a polarized
church. Hubbard also asked the catechists to make three groups the special
object of their concern: the poor, Catholics who are fallen away or unchurched,
and all those hurt by the sexual abuse crisis.
University of Toledo
theologian Richard Gaillardetz offered a fascinating overview of developments
in the theology of ministry. He suggested that the church may be moving
towards a definitive rejection of the ancient Roman idea of the cursus
honorum, in which one ministry is a stepping stone to something higher
on the career ladder. In that sense, Gaillardetz said, it may make sense
to rethink the “transitional diaconate,” in which priests-to-be are first
ordained deacons. Symbolically, doing so treats being a deacon as a way-station
along the path to the “higher office” of the priesthood. In fact, Gaillardetz
suggested, the church may wish to consider finding bishops from among the
ranks of permanent deacons or even laymen rather than bringing them forward
exclusively from the priesthood, which encourages the view that the priesthood
is a sort of preparation for the episcopacy.
I heard Benedictine Fr.
Laurence Freeman offer a lovely meditation on prayer. Freeman said that
what matters in prayer is not so much our intentions as our attention.
Choosing to give someone our attention, he said, is in effect an act of
These reflections do
no more than scratch the surface of the congress, whose sheer scale makes
any attempt to “sum up” a futile exercise. It was a delight, however, to
see so much of the best of American Catholicism on display.
* * *
For once, I came to the
States and the big Vatican news of the week followed me here. I refer to
the mission of Cardinal Pio Laghi, who met with President George Bush on
March 5 in a last-ditch effort to avert war in Iraq. This was but the latest
installment in the Vatican’s full-court diplomatic press. The day before,
in fact, John Paul II quietly received Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi,
a rare Bush ally in Europe, for an exchange of views about the international
In his conversation with
Bush, Laghi accented the role of the United Nations, a constant theme of
Vatican diplomacy. The Vatican sees the U.N. as the last, best hope for
a meaningful international political organism capable of representing the
common good within the economic order being constructed by globalization.
Laghi also stressed that Iraq must comply with U.N. disarmament plans,
the Vatican’s way of underlining that while it is anti-war, it is not pro-Saddam
After his session
with Bush, Laghi defined the meeting as “very friendly” but also “very
frank,” diplomatic code language for a meeting in which no one changed
The Vatican is
under no illusion that Laghi’s appeal, in itself, is likely to stay Bush’s
hand. Privately, sources in the Secretariat of State say that while one
can always hope for a miracle, war is likely a foregone conclusion. The
Vatican’s diplomatic service, the oldest in the world, is anything but
naïve, and it is not in the habit of throwing good diplomatic capital
What, then, are
Laghi, the 80-year-old
former papal ambassador to the United States, was speaking, indirectly
but unmistakably, to Cairo and Tehran, Khartoum and Peshwar, and Jakarta
and Abouja. His presence in Washington spoke a message to the Islamic street:
This is not our war.
Making that point is
seen by Vatican diplomats as especially urgent in light of fears over the
fate of Christian minorities in Islamic nations. In several such places,
Christians are facing increasing strain.
In the eastern islands
of Indonesia, for example, white-uniformed militiamen of Laskar Jihad are
forcibly converting Christians to Islam. This campaign has cost the lives
of 5,000 to 6,000 people. In Bangladesh, small radical groups supporting
Osama bin Laden have bombed or burned down churches.
In Sudan, some estimate
that as many as 2 million people, chiefly Christians, have been killed
in a civil war fought by the radical Islamic regime in the north of the
country against the non-Arab population in the south.
Since the first intifadah
in the 1980s, there has been a steady exodus of Arab Christians out of
the Middle East, fleeing conflict, economic collapse, and a rising tide
of Islamic fundamentalism. Today more Christians born in Jerusalem live
in Sydney, Australia, than in Jerusalem. More Christians from Beth Jallah
reside in Belize in Central America than are left in Beth Jallah.
In Iraq, some 200,000
Christians have left since the first Gulf War. At the start of 1991, the
Catholic population of Baghdad was more than 500,000. Today, Catholics
number about 175,000.
“It’s like a biblical
exodus,” one Vatican official said in mid-February.
This is the context in
which last week the Vatican ended almost a month of speculation by formally
asking the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See to arrange a meeting between Laghi
and Bush. Rome had been filled with speculation about such a mission, especially
after John Paul II dispatched French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray to Saddam
Hussein in mid-February.
Vatican officials, speaking
to NCR on background, have said that debate within the Secretariat
of State over whether or not to send Laghi, a personal friend of the Bush
family, boiled down to two positions. Those opposed argued that doing so
would feed American arrogance by bolstering the idea that war is Bush’s
decision to make. This camp preferred to treat the United Nations as the
diplomats had quietly discouraged the pope from sending an emissary to
the White House on similar grounds, saying that the dispute is not between
Hussein and Bush, but between Hussein and the U.N. Thus the Americans and
the more anti-American wing in the Vatican found themselves on the same
The majority view within
the Vatican, however, was that a direct personal appeal to Bush was worth
the risk, and not because they believe it is likely to change the president’s
The Vatican’s aim, therefore,
is less to change the U.S. position than to shape public opinion in the
“I see the visit as significant
in shaping the understanding of well-informed Muslims and policy-makers
and of confirming the perception of many that it’s not an issue of Christianity
versus Islam,” said Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, one of the Catholic Church’s
leading experts on Islam and a former Vatican official.
“At the popular level,
many Muslims will probably continue to see an eventual war as a Christian
attack on Islam and Islamic peoples,” Michel said.
Fear of a potential eruption
in Christian/Islamic relations was at the heart of a Feb. 23-24 meeting
of a joint committee between the Vatican and Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar
institute, widely considered the Vatican of the Islamic world. The Vatican
was represented by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, head of the Pontifical
Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.
“War is a proof that
humanity has failed,” its concluding statement read. “It brings about enormous
loss of human life, great damage to the basic structures of human livelihood
and the environment, displacement of large populations, and further political
“In the present circumstances
there is the added factor of increased tension between Muslims and Christians
on account of the mistaken identification of some Western powers with Christianity,
and of Iraq with Islam.”
The statement suggested
the Vatican’s diplomatic effort, which has included recent papal tête-à-têtes
with Joschka Fischer, Tarik Aziz, Tony Blair, Jose Maria Aznar and Mohammad
Reza Khatami of the Iranian parliament, has borne some fruit in shaping
“The Muslim members of
the committee welcomed the clear policy and strenuous efforts of His Holiness
Pope John Paul II in favor of peace,” it said.
In the Arab world, the
most sizeable Christian community is in Egypt, which has 10 million to
12 million Copts. About 1.5 million Christians reside in Lebanon,
with the largest group being the Maronites, Eastern-rite Catholics loyal
to Rome. There are perhaps one million Christians in Iraq, with large concentrations
in the Kurdish zone. There are some 1.2 million Christians in Syria, including
Aramaics, Armenians, Melkites and Orthodox. There are small but significant
Christian communities in Iran, Jordan, Israel, and less significant in
Turkey and Algeria.
The Vatican has long
insisted that these communities have a “special mission” to keep the faith
alive in the land of Christianity’s birth.
* * *
Many readers in recent
days have written to ask if John Paul II might go to Baghdad as part of
his last-ditch appeal for peace. A few have asked that I carry letters
to the pope proposing this idea, which of course is not my role as a journalist.
Tom Fox, the publisher of NCR, recently published a column calling
on John Paul to undertake such a journey.
It’s not for me to say
whether the pope should go, but I can explain some of the reasons that
a trip to Baghdad under the present circumstances is unlikely.
First, if the pope were
to put himself on the line as a sort of human shield in this conflict,
then he would face pressure to do so every time any group anywhere on earth
finds itself under fire. If he’s willing to risk himself to save Iraqis,
then why not the Congolese, why not the Colombians, why not the Sudanese,
etc.? Rather quickly John Paul could find himself doing precious little
else, with obvious consequences for his capacity to run the church.
Second, the pope cannot
allow himself to become a “get out of jail free” card for regimes that
violate human rights and defy the will of the international community.
If such regimes know that when things get rough, the pope will show up
and prevent the bombs from falling, it could encourage them to persist
in behavior of which John Paul deeply disapproves.
I have interviewed any
number of Iraqi Christians, and privately they tell me that few Iraqis
would shed any tears at Hussein’s downfall. The problem, they say, is who
would replace Hussein, and what his ouster would cost in human blood and
worsened Christian/Muslim relations. But they are under no illusions about
the brutality of his government. The Vatican is well aware of this, and
has no wish to be seen as an apologist for the Hussein government. Several
weeks, even months, of the pope’s presence in Baghdad would almost certainly
feed such an impression.
As I have written before,
anyone who covers John Paul II knows never to be too confident about what
the pope will do. Yet in this case the odds seem long that the pope will
fulfill the wishes of peace activists by placing himself in harm’s way.
* * *
The Pontifical Academy
for Life, which advises the Vatican on issues of the family, sexuality,
and bioethics, held its plenary assembly in the Old Synod Hall Feb. 24-26.
These are always interesting sessions, because the scholarly papers presented
often foreshadow the content of future Vatican documents or interventions.
William May, who teaches
at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the
Catholic University of America, spoke on various ethical issues surrounding
biomedical research. He offered a fascinating example of how Catholic moral
reflection on these issues, driven along by technological change and the
need for quick analysis, is not always fully coherent.
May offered the case
in point of “proxy consent,” or the question of whether a third party may
give consent for research on someone who cannot speak for him or herself.
While proxy consent for therapeutic research, meaning the cure of the person
concerned, is not terribly problematic, things get more complicated when
the research is for someone else’s benefit. The magisterium is clear that
proxy consent for non-therapeutic research on unborn life is never permitted.
Vitae, the 1987 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, reads: “To use a human embryo or the fetus as an object or instrument
of experimentation is a crime against their dignity as human beings.”
Yet directive number
31 of the United States bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for
Catholic Health Care Services authorizes proxy consent for non-therapuetic
experiments on incompetent persons after birth. “In instances of non-therapeutic
experimentation, the surrogate can give this consent only if the experiment
entails no significant risk to the person’s well-being,” the document reads.
A similar directive is found in the Australian bishops’ Code of Ethical
How do we explain this
May said he considered
the possibility that the authors of Donum Vitae simply concluded
that it is technologically impossible to conduct research on unborn life
that does not pose a significant risk. Yet he points out that the absolutist
language in Donum Vitae does not seem open to revision even if this
hurdle could be overcome.
There is no relevant
moral difference between a child one day before birth and one day after
that could ground a different standard for proxy consent. Hence, May suggests,
the difference between Donum Vitae and the bishops’ Ethical and
Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Service on this point
is likely to be found in textual history and context, not logic. Donum
Vitae was written in part to speak prophetically on behalf of unborn
life, threatened not only by abortion but by non-therapeutic experiments
in which embryos and fetuses are treated as guinea pigs.
While May does not make
the point, it seems clear that in the rush to produce moral reflection
on new biotechnological developments, the church has not had the time to
make sure its various pronouncements are internally consistent. Circumstances
demand that we say something, with the understanding that smoothing out
the rough logical edges is a task for another time. Hence one challenge
for future development is an ironing out, a systematization, of what the
church intends to say in its defense of life.
Professor Eugene Diamond,
a professor at Loyola University in Chicago and director of the Linacre
Institute, offered a fascinating overview of various forms of “the intrusion
of political and economic issues into medical care.”
Diamond pointed out,
for example, that medical journals such as the New England Journal of
Medicine have recently revised conflict of interest standards to allow
authors with financial interests in a company to nevertheless publish articles
or editorials on that company’s products, as long as their interest is
The National Institute
of Health and the Association of American Medical Colleges have likewise
relaxed conflict of interest standards, largely because they were increasingly
unable to find contributors who weren’t in some sense on the payroll of
mammoth pharmaceutical and medical companies.
As Diamond points out,
the end result is “reduced confidence in the reliability of published data.”
Increasingly we have to worry that medical research is driven less by objective
truth than the subjective good of those who stand to gain from the results
of that research. Diamond asserted, for example, that a 1990 article in
the New England Journal of Medicine that concluded RU-486 is “effective
and safe” was written by six authors who were also employees of Roussel-Uclef,
Another form this growing
commercialization takes is the sale of human tissue for use in experimentation,
usually drawing on aborted fetal material. Diamond quotes gruesome “price
lists” for various kinds of tissue placed in advertisements in medical
journals. He also cites proposals to approve payment for donor organs,
creating the possibility of a grotesque market in body parts. Families
might be pressured to forgo life support or renounce treatment options
for loved ones because of the potential windfall to be reaped from auctioning
off their heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs.
Currently such a trade
is supposedly barred, but Diamond notes that market forces have already
found their way in the back door. “Americans are purchasing organs from
strangers in China, Peru and the Philippines and then returning to the
U.S. for post transplantation care,” he said.
Another way in which
politics intrudes into research is the question of whether or not scientists
should publish studies that could be misused, an especially acute question
in the post-9/11 world. For example, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology
has recently conducted studies on the 1918 influenza virus, suggesting
a way to make it more resistant to the immune system. Should those results
be made public in the interests of the free flow of scientific data, or
is it foolhardy to make such information available to potential bio-terrorists?
Finally, Diamond warns
against so-called “advocate science,” or the ideological manipulation of
science in favor of the interests of specific groups. He cited as examples
the claim that homosexuality is genetically based (when, he says, research
shows that identical twins are discordant in their sexuality, contradicting
the idea of a genetic basis), and the refusal of some scientists to acknowledge
a link between abortion and breast cancer.
I don’t know the literature
well enough to draw conclusions on either point, but surely Diamond is
correct that scientists do no one any favors when they skew their results
to support pre-determined conclusions.
* * *
I’m looking forward to
a projected papal trip to Mongolia, which may happen later this year.
There are only about
136 Catholics in the entire country of three million, 96 percent of whose
population adheres to Tibetan Buddhist Lamaism. (It’s reminiscent of Azerbaijan,
where the country features perhaps 120 Catholics. On that May 2002 trip,
I calculated that it would have been about three times less expensive to
fly all 120 Catholics to Rome than to bring the pope to Azerbaijan. Yet
John Paul obviously saw a value on visiting these Catholics in situ,
and bringing his greetings to the people of Azerbaijan and the region).
The Catholic Church arrived
in Mongolia for the first time in 1992. It’s one of the few spots left
on earth that is genuinely mission territory, where a local form of Catholicism
is being built from the ground up, and I find that a terribly energizing
prospect. One can assume John Paul II does too, and that is in part the
motive for the journey.
I contacted Monsignor
Wens Padilla, a Scheut missionary who is the apostolic administrator in
Mongolia, to ask his impressions about the visit.
“I take the papal trip
to Mongolia as a magnificent opportunity to strengthen diplomatic ties
between the Vatican and Mongolia, and to reiterate commitments of solidarity
between the Catholic Church and the ‘infant Church’ in Mongolia,” Padilla
“On two occasions, in
2000 and 2002, the President of Mongolia, Natsagiin Bagabandi, and the
Mongolian Ambassador to the Vatican, Chuluuny Batjargal, respectively,
in their individual visits to Rome, have invited the Holy Father to come
“Moreover, last year,
on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s mission
here, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization
of Peoples, and Archbishop Giovanni Morandini, Apostolic Nuncio for Korea
and Mongolia, saw the growth and vibrant projects of the mission. Likewise,
in my ad limina visits to Rome, I have felt the Holy Father’s enthusiasm
and interest in this new thriving church in Mongolia.
“Cardinal Sepe and Archbishop
Morandini initiated the move from the church’s side for the papal visit,”
“For me personally, I
see the visit of His Holiness as an encouragement for this newly established
mission. I certainly believe that such a visit manifests concretely the
Holy Father’s concern for the faithful, not only of countries with big
Christian/Catholic membership, but also in smaller communities as we have
here in Mongolia.
“I see the big Catholic
Church going to the smallest church to affirm its rightful place of belonging.
I am very sure that this visit will be very much appreciated by the small
flock that we have. I hope that it will inspire our converted Mongolian
brothers and sisters to live up more authentically their Christian faith.
“On the occasion of the
visit, His Holiness will bless the first Catholic Church building ever
to be constructed on Mongolian soil. This church will be a sign to foster
stability and will boost the identity of the institutional church. In a
place like Mongolia, where the Catholic populace is very scarce, such a
structure assures confidence and belonging. Mongolians need some physical
structure with which to identify themselves. In the Catholic Church, external
signs and symbols are very important, and I hope that the church building
and the liturgies that will be performed in it will bring about that end.
“As to the authorities
in Mongolia and the Mongolian people at large, a papal visit will certainly
give the country credibility in its bid for democracy and in its membership
in the community of democratic and peace loving nations. This year in June
2003, Mongolia is hosting an international conference on democracy. Such
a pope’s visit will certainly boost the country’s efforts for democratic
Those are worthy aims,
and one hopes the pope is able to make the trip.
* * *
I reported last week
on changes to the Catholic Church’s norms governing sexual abuse signed
into law by John Paul II on Feb.7. Those changes were discussed at a recent
behind-closed-doors seminar for canon lawyers in Washington, D.C., led
by Msgr. Charles Scicluna of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Here are the reflections
of one participant in the seminar. An especially important point comes
near the end — this person’s impression that the Vatican is reluctant to
impose additional penalties on priests with one offense many years ago,
who have led exemplary lives since.
“On the basis of the
extensive presentations given to us, I would have to say that the changes
getting attention in today’s news reports are minor,” this participant
“For example, the point
about expedited dismissals really amounts to the addition of a third way
in which disciplinary laicizations can come about. The existing methods
have been by canonical trial on the local/regional level (this being the
ordinary procedure) or by decree of the Holy Father. The additional means
is by way of a collegium of officials from the CDF who, having received
a request from a bishop (or religious superior), and having listened to
the defense of the accused, issue a decree of dismissal from the clerical
state. This method is intended for use in cases where the priest has already
been convicted in a governmental criminal trial.
“I think it is worth
noting that the accused priest has the opportunity to appeal the action
of a local tribunal or of the CDF, but not when it is a decree of the pope.
Also, dismissal by a
local tribunal or by decree of the CDF includes the removal of the obligations
of the clerical state (celibacy, etc.) but dismissal by papal decree
does not include removal of those same obligations. The individual must
petition for them to be removed.
“The other item, that
judges do not have to be priests with doctorates in canon law, simply allows
for some non-priest canonists with the lower degree of a license (both
having extensive trial experience) to serve in a given case on a tribunal
panel of three or five judges. Most likely the tribunals in the United
States will be composed of judges, promotors of justice and advocates drawn
from the pool of those who have participated in this ‘in service’ training
and, since all in attendance were priests, lay judges in these cases probably
will not come to be.
“As for the training
sessions, everyone seems to agree that we have never before experienced
such an excellent series of workshops on canonical topics. Msgr. Scicluna,
the Promotor of Justice (prosecutor) at the CDF, was born in Toronto and
raised in Malta — his English is excellent, and his wit is dry.
“Regarding the CDF’s
attitude toward the penal procedures flowing from the American ‘Essential
Norms,’ the CDF appears to be eminently reasonable and at times quite critical
of the high-handed behavior of some American ordinaries.
“On the basis of the
presentations we received, it seems to me that cases against priests who
committed one grave offense many years ago and since then have lived exemplary
lives will not result in any further penalties. The CDF is, in fact, concerned
about how to repair the reputations of those priests following unwarranted
exposure of their past crimes/sins — how to put the toothpaste back in
“The phrase we kept hearing
was ‘the principle of proportionality’ — that is, the penalty should not
be out of proportion to the crime.”
This participant notes
that four American bishops were in attendance: Harry Flynn of St. Paul;
Thomas Doran of Rockford; John Myers of Newark; and David Fellhauer of
Now that the canonical
system for dealing with these cases is in place, it will be important to
watch how that system functions. One can assume that victims and their
advocates, as well as the press, will be paying careful attention.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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