The Word From Rome
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March 11, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 25

John L. Allen Jr.


"The challenge Rome put to the local bishops was to take possession of the process itself, to have bishops involved in every step. Maybe it's more accurate to say that control has been taken away from the experts and given back to the bishops."

-- Cardinal Francis George of Chicago,
responding to a question about whether Rome has taken control of liturgical translation away from local churches.

Cardinal George discusses liturgy and translations; Stem cell research and debating 'embryo adoption'; Europe and the election of the next pope; The pope is a rock star?

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I sat down March 10 with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago at the North American College. George was in Rome for a meeting of the Vox Clara Commission, which advises the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on liturgical translation.

We spoke about liturgical questions, the pope's health, and the norms in the American church governing sexual abuse of minors by priests.

Probably the newsiest bit was George's confirmation that when the Vatican re-approves the norms, the American "one-strike" policy will remain intact. That policy decrees that any priest guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor is either to be removed from the priesthood, or permanently removed from priestly ministry. George said he expects that re-approval by the end of March; the norms were approved for two years in 2003, and expire this month.

My story, " 'One-strike' policy to be retained, says cardinal," is in the March 19 issue of NCR.

On liturgical matters, George said that English-speaking Catholics will indeed one day be saying "and with your Spirit" rather than "and also with you" when the celebrant says "The Lord be with you" during Mass. While there's room to discuss other proposed changes, he said, that one was specifically requested in the 2001 Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam, and hence it's a foregone conclusion.

He conceded it may be tough for some Catholics to swallow.

"People possess the English texts in a way they never possessed the Latin," he said. "For some, it will be a difficult habit to break."

For precisely that reason, George said, the preference among most bishops is to leave the rest of the "people's parts," meaning those phrases spoken aloud by the faithful, alone.

In addition to Vox Clara, George also serves as the American representative to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), a body that prepares translations of liturgical texts for the English-speaking bishops' conferences. ICEL was on the front lines of the "liturgy wars" in recent years, which culminated in a shift toward a more traditional style of liturgical translation, closer to the Latin.

George said things today in ICEL are "more relaxed."

"There are real differences of opinion, but there's trust," he said.

George argued that since concerns about the doctrinal fidelity of liturgical texts seem largely resolved, the bishops can return to some traditional issues associated with ICEL: a text's suitability for public proclamation, its beauty as English prose, and its comprehensibility.

Still, George predicted it will be at least another three years before work is completed on the new Roman Missal, the book containing the prayers for the Mass. He said roughly 40 percent of the work is done, and that the rest could be completed within that time "with a lot of hard work by a lot of people."

I pressed George on the "collateral damage" from the liturgy wars. Many professional liturgists in the English-speaking world, I observed, range from skepticism to hostility regarding recent changes in direction. As a pastor, what does he make of that, I asked.

George said that the liturgical community is not monolithic, but conceded that probably "a majority" of liturgists is suspicious.

That's not all bad, he said, since critical reactions to some early drafts of the new order of Mass have helped the bishops weigh important questions, such as how different the language of worship should be from ordinary speech. George said the word "deign," for example, which figured in early ICEL translations of the Mass, "probably won't be used."

Some liturgists, I noted, feel that what's happened is not so much about content as about power, specifically Rome's desire to take control of liturgical translation away from local churches.

"The challenge Rome put to the local bishops was to take possession of the process itself, to have bishops involved in every step," George said. "Maybe it's more accurate to say that control has been taken away from the experts and given back to the bishops."

"Canonically, I don't believe it's any more centralized than before," George said. "The structures are intact, but with a different cast of characters."

George did not minimize the fact that there are "deep wounds among people, very faithful people, who worked on liturgical issues over the years."

In the end, George said, the proof is in the pudding. "They have to be convinced by the texts," he said.

On the pope's health, we discussed the lacuna in canon law concerning incapacitation of a pope. There is no procedure for removing a pope if he should slip into a coma, or otherwise be alive but unable to communicate his will.

George said that, perhaps surprisingly, he's not worried about it.

"I ask myself, why am I not concerned?" he said. "I just don't think it will happen, and I don't really know why. I suppose it has something to do with the providence of God. This is a holy man, and somehow if God keeps his promises regarding the good of the church, it won't come to that."

At the same time, George conceded, "we can't second-guess God."

"It could be foolish, but I'm just not concerned," he said.

George said he can't imagine John Paul II resigning, but at the same time it's clearly "thinkable."

"I have great confidence in the prayer of the pope," he said. "Who can say what the Holy Spirit will or won't do? I truly believe that the Holy Spirit is an actor in all this, not just a vague term for our own desires."

* * *

A March 7-8 conference at Rome's Legionaries of Christ-run Regina Apostolorum University took up the vexed question of stem cell research. The gathering was sponsored by a number of American Catholic and pro-life groups, and several participants are connected to the President's Council on Bioethics in the United States. At least some of the voices represented what would conventionally be recognized as the "conservative" end of the Catholic spectrum. That said, the speakers represented a cross-section of disciplines and perspectives, and it was a fascinating discussion.

* * *

Dr. Maureen Condic of the University of Utah suggested that from a scientific point of view, the question of embryonic cells may be increasingly moot, since the use of adult stem cells seems to accomplish much, if not all, of what embryonic research promises.

Condic noted that there are several sources of stem cells in the human body: bone marrow, peripheral blood, fat, the placenta, the umbilical cord and umbilical blood. The conventional wisdom, she said, is that these cells are less useful therapeutically than the embryonic because: 1) they're harder to grow in culture; 2) they're less plastic and cannot differentiate into all cell types, therefore they only give rise to limited number of derivatives; and 3) can treat only a limited number of diseases.

In fact, she argued, the conventional wisdom is wrong on all three points.

As far as growth in culture, Condic pointed out that today it's possible to generate 10 trillion cells from umbilical material in 30 days, an amount greater in mass than the entire population of the planet. These materials, she said, "produce cells resembling blood, bone, muscle and nerve that are very appropriate for transplant into all people. This is increasingly true for almost every type of adult stem cell."

On the subject of plasticity, she said, the real issue is not so much the theoretical capacities of a cell, but how a cell responds in a real-world environment. In that context, she said, adult stem cells can produce virtually all the cells of an adult animal, and some classes of adult cells are just as "pluripotent" as embryonic cells.

In terms of their usefulness in treatment, Condic pointed out that adult cells are in use today to treat diverse conditions such as heart disease, spinal cord injury and retinal blindness.

"These cells are able to functionally integrate into host tissue, they can survive over long term, they do not cause pathology, and they will alleviate symptoms or potentially cure them," she said. "This is not science fiction, this is medicine."

* * *

Among people who feel a tension between the imperative to push forward with research, and to care for all human life even in the embryonic state, the quest these days is for a "third way" that might allow scientists to have their ethical cake and eat it too.

One such proposal comes from Drs. Donald Landry and Howard Zucker of Columbia University, who suggest that it may be possible to identify a moment at which embryos are "dead," in which case use of their genetic materials would become morally analogous to the use of cadavers in medical schools.

Landry suggests that death can be flagged by "the irreversible arrest of cell division," meaning a point at which the embryo stops expanding -- a marker that would arguably apply to a substantial majority of the embryos now frozen in in-vitro fertilization clinics, perhaps as many as 75 percent. (Landry cites an experiment in which stem cells from arrested frog embryos were injected into normal frog embryos. Only 25 percent of the cells began to divide again and were absorbed into the new embryos.)

Discussion at the Rome conference suggested that people in this circle are generally sympathetic to Landry and Zucker's aims, but somewhat dubious about methods and potential consequences.

The fear is that the absence of division may not be an infallible indicator, in which case some living embryos may inadvertently be destroyed. In such a case, some participants seemed to suggest, the benefit of the doubt suggests caution.

The other concern is that approval of the use of dead embryos may simply encourage the creation of embryos for the sake of waiting for them to die, so that their cells can be harvested. In this sense, the critique becomes a consequentialist one -- is the approval of research, even if morally legitimate in itself, worth encouraging an activity that people in this circle of thought regard as profoundly immoral?

* * *

Another proposal for a morally legitimate avenue of research comes from Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University, also a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. He proposes a method called "altered nuclear transfer," which essentially means creating limited cellular systems resembling embryos but without the characteristics of "orderly existence" characteristic of human life.

In essence, the idea is to generate cellular entities more like tumors than human beings, which also produce embryonic stem cells that could be harvested for research and therapy.

An embryo, Hurlbut argued, is "an implicit whole with an inherent potency towards full human existence," and "to interfere in its development is to transgress a life in process." An entity that lacks the proper chromosome configuration does not possess this inherent potency, and therefore it's not human life.

Altered nuclear transfer mimics cellular systems such as ovarian tumors that contain stem cells. It's well documented, Hurlbut pointed out, that certain tumors can actually produce well developed body parts and organs. (He showed a slide of a tumor in a woman's ovary that actually generated a set of teeth). The idea would be to implant cells that have been altered to "turn off" certain genes essential for development into a human being, so that what results is more akin to a tumor than human life.

Dominican Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, who holds a Ph.D. in biology from MIT, provided ethical support for Hurlbut's proposal, calling it "scientifically feasible and morally defensible."

Austriaco said, however, that rather that engineering a gene to turn off after some period of normal development, he would be more comfortable with altered nuclear transfer if something were altered from the very beginning, such as the disruption of the embryonic axes.

During the question and answer period, Richard Doerflinger, Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. bishops, said that under those conditions, the resulting cellular system "fulfills the criteria for a non-embryo."

In response to Hurlbut, Eric Cohen of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center asked rhetorically if the entity envisioned by altered nuclear transfer is really just a cellular system, or an embryo "pre-programmed to die." He also wondered if there is something corrupting about treating gametes and other elements from the beginning of life simply as tools for our disposal.

* * *

The final debate revolved around the ethics of "embryo adoption," meaning whether or not it is morally permissible for women to have embryos implanted and bring them to term, regardless of the morality of how those embryos were created in the first place.

Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, a priest of Fall River, Mass., who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Yale University, took the "negative" position, while Legionaries of Christ Fr. Thomas Williams, dean of the theology faculty at Regina Apostolorum, argued the "affirmative."

-- CNS photo
Fr. Tad Pacholczyk
Pacholczyk argued that the implantation of an embryo is an intrinsically evil act, because it separates aspects of procreation that should remain united. Procreation, understood as "collaboration between husband, wife and almighty God," he argued, extends from fertilization through conjugal relations to birth, and to skip one of those stages means instrumentalizing the process.

It also results, he said, in a "fissure in parenthood," since "spouses have an exclusive right to become mother and father solely through each other."

"One should not become a parent through any means other than one's spouse," Pacholczyk said. He also argued that since fathers are incidental to the process of embryo adoption, fatherhood "is gravely and intrinsically violated."

If Pacholczyk began from the point of view of the marital relationship, Williams began from the embryo.

If this is a human life, Williams argued, it has a right to be born and to develop. Whatever we make of how these embryos were created, they exist, and hence the right to life is the primordial good. "Embryo adoption" under these circumstances becomes not just permissible, but morally laudatory.

"I would propose that the adoption or rescue of human embryos does not violate any fundamental human goods but rather constitutes a sometimes heroic act of kindness toward extremely needy members of the human community," Williams said.

Williams disputed Pacholczyk's argument that procreation extends to birth. Procreation, he said, occurs at fertilization. "Otherwise we would find ourselves in the absurd situation of speaking of partially procreated children," he argued.

Given those premises, Williams said, while adoption by a married heterosexual couple is obviously the ideal, he would not rule out embryo adoption by unmarried people -- even, he said during question and answer, homosexuals.

"While we do not allow single men or women to adopt children, we would undoubtedly do so if their survival depended on it," he said. "It would not be the best option, but it would clearly beat the alternatives."

* * *

I was invited this week to speak to a group in Rome on the subject of Europe and the election of the next pope. Though the discussion was off-the-record, and hence I'm not at liberty to quote participants, my own comments are fair game.

To begin with, I said, many within the Vatican see Europe as a mixed bag. On the political level, the Vatican is generally pro-E.U., largely because it sees the E.U. as a potential counterweight to the United States on the world stage whose positions on some important issues are closer to those of the Holy See: multilateralism, strong doubts about the use of force, engagement rather than isolation in dealing with renegade states.

On the other hand, the Vatican also has strong reservations about Europe on the cultural level, recently epitomized by the rejection of a reference to God in the preamble of the European constitution and the way Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was rejected as European Commissioner of Justice on the basis of his strong Catholic views on women and homosexuality. Given declining fertility rates in Europe, low rates of Mass attendance and religious vocations, and the weak impact of the church on public policy, there is a sense that somehow Catholicism has fallen victim to rampant secularism, and in some cases to an exaggerated laicism that flirts with being a secular form of fundamentalism.

The question is, what to do? At the senior levels of the church, there are, as might be expected, different ideas.

Two schools of thought favor greater engagement, though in contrasting senses. One stream of opinion argues that Catholicism fails to reach large sectors of opinion in Europe because it's speaking the wrong language. Europe today no longer responds to arguments from authority; it breathes the air of democracy, egalitarianism, and the rule of law. The church, therefore, must learn to express itself in this argot, becoming more participatory and emphasizing witness rather than diktat. A reformed church, with more shared processes of decision-making and more closeness to the people, will be better able to appeal to European culture. Though with differing accents, this view is associated with cardinals such as Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper of Germany, Godfried Danneels of Belgium, and Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of England.

The other "engagement" school retains that the church's problem is not a crisis of structures, but of nerve. Catholicism possesses winning arguments on marriage, human sexuality, economic justice and a host of other matters, but it is at times too hesitant about asserting them. From this point of view, proclamation rather than internal reform is the order of the day. The trick is to live the Catholic faith in its integrity, and boldly present that faith to the outside world. In varying ways, this view characterizes cardinals such as Camillo Ruini, Angelo Scola and Tarcisio Bertone of Italy, Joachim Meisner of Cologne, and Jean Marie Lustiger, now the emeritus archbishop of Paris.

The "disengagement" hypothesis, on the other hand, sees hyper-secular, post-Christian Europe in the foreseeable future as a lost cause, and the reality is that rather than the church evangelizing Europe, it's more likely to work in the opposite direction -- Europe evangelizing the church. The short-term remedy is thus to abandon the pretense of being a mass presence, to prune away some of the church's institutional excess that has become functionally secular, and to rebuild a new generation of observant, faithful, dynamic Catholics, who may be small in number but who carry the capacity to build the future. This might be called the "mustard seed" diagnosis. One representative of this tendency is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and others might include Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna or Adrianus Simonis of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

Although I have named cardinals associated with these currents, I should stress that these are abstractions, not real people, and most cardinals would not recognize themselves fully in any one grouping. These groupings apply to the question of Europe; on other matters, the configurations are different.

In the discussion that followed, many people observed that by "Europe" I seemed to be speaking primarily of Western Europe. What about Central and Eastern Europe?

It's a fair point, though to some extent Vatican thinking boils down to trying to preserve those countries from going down the same route of secularization as the West. A special version of that point concerns the need to keep the historical experience of suffering and fidelity alive in the East, where the danger is it will die out as the generation that suffered, for a variety of reasons, doesn't want to talk about it, and their children sometimes aren't terribly interested. Hence one pressing challenge is the preservation of historical memory.

Another issue of special concern for Central and Eastern Europe under this pontificate has been the thrust for ecumenical unity with the Orthodox churches, especially the Russian Orthodox. On this point as well there are different currents within the College of Cardinals; some want to continue John Paul's priority of ecumenical détente, while others see it as something of a "black hole" into which resources are poured and little comes in return - an analysis that applies in a special way to the relationship with Moscow.

* * *

Archbishop Michael Miller, secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, spoke March 9 in the "Theology on Tap" series in Rome, at the Nag's Head Pub, on the subject "The Pope is a Rock Star!: Legacy of a Living Legend." Miller, former president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, is a natural; he's articulate, energetic, and great with young people. In addition to being a senior Vatican official, he's also the author of a well-regarded book on the papacy, The Shepherd and the Rock (1995).

Miller began by emphasizing that the title of his talk was assigned to him, and he doesn't think the pope is a rock star.

He then told two stories of John Paul II, one set in 1978 when Miller was a student at the Canadian College and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was first elected pope. "He was a strong man, a robust man, who simply dominated St. Peter's Square from the beginning," Miller recalled. He contrasted that memory with seeing the pope in February/March 2005, now the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

"We don't see God's athlete," Miller said. "We see a face frozen in this Parkinsonian mask. We see a man who has always been in touch with his own body slowly crumbling. … He's letting it unfold before us, allowing himself to be a kind of spectacle to the world. He's demonstrating that life is still wonderful and beautiful, that there's nothing shameful in illness, suffering and approaching death."

Miller then presented what he conceded is inevitably a partial list of elements of John Paul's legacy.

First, Miller argued, John Paul has "recast the meaning of the papal ministry, and set an agenda for what it means for generations to come. He has done so, Miller believes, by regarding "the whole world as his parish." He is "the evangelizer par excellence," so that it is now unimaginable that a future pope would "withdraw behind the walls of the Vatican and have people come to him."

Second, John Paul is a world leader, "the single most authoritative voice on moral questions worldwide." In this regard, Miller observed, no one in the future will ever be able to complain about a "silence" of John Paul II on pressing social and ethical concerns.

Third, Miller noted, John Paul is a "true believer," a man for whom there are "no shortcuts and no compromises." He said that "in a world of doublespeak, you get clarity."

Fourth, Miller said that John Paul has created a body of teaching "which surpasses that of any other pope," certainly in quantity, and arguably in richness and depth. Miller said that today some call John Paul II the doctor veritatis, or "doctor of truth." On quantity, Miller observed that John Paul has turned out 30 pages a day of written material.

Fifth, Miller said that John Paul has helped to shape "a new Christian humanism." The pope believes that modern civilization is in crisis, Miller said, and that the way forward must revolve around three central truths about Christ, the human person and the church. "The pope has a radical sense of Christ as the center of the universe and of history," he said. "He's Christological to the core."

Sixth, Miller said that John Paul has worked out a theology of the body that is deeply sacramental. It arises, he said, from the pope's "rich vision" of the human person and what human dignity requires.

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

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