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March 24, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 29

John L. Allen Jr.


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The Word From Rome

John L. Allen Jr.

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Joan Chittister

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Thomas Gumbleton

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A digest of links to media coverage of clergy abuse.

NCR's Latin America Series

The churches in Asia gather
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 and cardinals discuss Islam, Lefebvre and retired bishops; Biography of Honduran cardinal reveals his global vision; Vatican explains dropping of papal title; A tough line on Islam; A new DVD about John Paul II; 'Word From Rome' on the move


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Rome's big event this week is Benedict XVI's first consistory, with the creation of 15 new cardinals, two of them Americans. By midweek, TV crews from Boston, San Francisco and Hong Kong, to say nothing of Slovenia and Venezuela, were prowling St. Peter's Square.

The bestowal of the biretta, marking the formal induction of the 15 new members into the College of Cardinals, took place today, while a thanksgiving Mass in which the pope hands out rings to the new cardinals will be tomorrow.

While these ceremonies are largely pro-forma, the week did have one bit of journalistic interest. Benedict XVI asked the entire College of Cardinals to spend Thursday with him in a working meeting, in effect an opportunity for the cardinals to air what's on their minds.

The cardinals met in the Synod Hall from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., then came back from 5:00 to 7:30 p.m. Discussion was largely devoted to three themes: Islam, the followers of French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and retired bishops. The evening also provided time for an open discussion, however, when cardinals could raise topics of their choice.

Cardinals were asked to fill out a card indicating their desire to speak, and then gave short "interventions" when their turn came. There was little back-and-forth exchange, though in some cases cardinals would request the floor in order to respond to something said earlier.

Benedict listened attentively, and at the end of the day offered a brief summary of the discussion. The pope is known for his capacity to absorb information and synthesize it rapidly, and sources told NCR he was in good form Thursday.

"It was a tour de force," one cardinal said. "He never relied on translation, so he had been listening all day in five languages, and then offered a brilliant précis of all the important points."

Sources told NCR that on the subject of Islam, several cardinals touched on the need for greater emphasis on reciprocity -- the idea that if Muslim immigrants to the West claim the benefit of religious freedom, the same should be true for Christian minorities in majority Islamic states.

"I think most of us felt that Islam represents a challenge to the church, and we need to reflect on how to respond," one cardinal told NCR.

In that regard, sources told NCR that the emerging line of Benedict XVI's papacy on Islam, featuring more explicit challenges to Islamic leaders on terrorism and religious freedom, enjoys strong support in the College of Cardinals.

With regard to the Lefebvrite movement, sources said that a variety of opinions were expressed. Some cardinals were in favor of rapid movement towards reconciliation, including wider use of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, while others were concerned with the terms upon which reconciliation might occur. These cardinals stressed the importance that traditionalists accept the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

"There wasn't any strong consensus," one cardinal said. "We'll continue to study and review the situation, but I'm quite sure the pope is not going to issue a decree tomorrow."

As for retired bishops, various proposals were floated for ensuring that their material needs are met, and that they continue to have opportunities to make contributions to the church. One cardinal suggested the idea of raising the retirement age above 75.

Despite expectations to the contrary, one cardinal told NCR that there was basically no discussion of reform of the Roman Curia.

A number of cardinals left the Synod Hall expressing the hope that such encounters can be held on a regular basis. Many cardinals complained during last April's conclave that they do not have adequate time to get to know one another, or to reflect together on issues. Some cardinals suggested trying to hold similar "study days" once a year.

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This week saw the launch of a new book titled L'Oscar color porpora: Il cardinale Rodríguez Maradiaga, voce dell'America Latina. This biography of Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is written by Enzo Romeo, a distinguished Italian journalist with TG2, one of Italy's main television news outlets.

The book was presented at the Salesian University Friday night, with Archbishop Angelo Comastri, vicar of the Vatican City-State; Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant'Egidio movement; Romeo; and Rodríguez himself.

Rodríguez, a telegenic 63-year-old, is easily among the most charismatic members of the College of Cardinals. When he returned to Tegucigalpa from the April 2005 conclave, even though he hadn't been elected pope, the local daily El Heraldo dedicated a special section to him under the headline, "Our Hope, Our Leader, Our Pride."

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In the book, Rodríguez paints a heart-breaking picture of the inhumanities fueled by chronic poverty. He says, for example, that in Honduran maquilas (factories in Latin America zoned to produce for the export market) women are sometimes driven to abort their children because they're not given maternity leave, and that in Guatemala desperately poor young men in street gangs have taken to kidnapping the babies of middle class women as they enter supermarkets, demanding that the women purchase items on a shopping list before the children are returned.

Rodríguez lays out a vision of humane globalization in terms of a nine-point program, articulated at three levels.

Social Development:

  • Creation of a global fund against poverty that would permit underdeveloped countries to guarantee an adequate diet, basic health, drinkable water and basic education to their citizens;
  • Cancellation of the external debt of the most impoverished nations, debt that every year transfers hundreds of millions of dollars to rich countries;
  • An increase in labor protections in developing nations, to prevent companies in the North from assembling goods in the South under unacceptable working conditions, with unjust wages and no social protections.

International Financial Markets:

  • Regulation of the free circulation of capital, to combat the tendency towards speculation, instability and the creation of financial crises;
  • Democratization of the International Monetary Fund, which in substance obeys the wealthiest nations;
  • Elimination of "fiscal paradises," which benefit the mafia with the laundering of dirty money, and which favor tax evasion, attracting capital where there are no taxes to the benefit of the rich and to the detriment of public agencies.

International Commerce:

  • Elimination of the subsidies that rich countries provide for their farmers, which provoke ruin for the majority of the poorest citizens of the planet;
  • Changes in the system of intellectual property when it negatively effects the social development of poor nations, as is the case with pharmaceutical patents;
  • Greater openness from the World Trade Organization, considering that de facto today rich countries have closed their markets to poor nations.

Critics might see such a platform as an excessively political exercise for a member of the clergy, but Rodríguez said he's convinced it's an essential part of the church's "service to social justice and to dialogue among the civilizations."

"We're not Noble Prize winners in economics," he said of socially engaged Catholics, "but we know humanity, and much of the time that's enough. The economy must be at the service of the human person, not the other way around."

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During Q&A, Rodríguez was asked about the lasting significance of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.

"Romero demonstrated how to live the gospel to the very end, giving his life to be a voice for those who had no voice," Rodríguez said. "To seek peace, Christians sometimes have to be signs of contradiction."

Rodríguez said he believes the "polarization" in El Salvador over Romero has declined, saying that for the first time the country's press spoke openly of Romero's legacy without any type of censorship.

"Some saw him as a saint, others as the cause of every evil," Rodríguez said, describing the bitter divisions over the archbishop.

"John Paul II said he was a martyr, killed out of hatred for the faith while celebrating the Eucharist," Rodríguez said. "This act was not just to silence someone who spoke about justice. Now we will see his holiness with more objectivity."

Today, March 24, is by the way, the 26th anniversary of Romero's assassination.

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One difference between an Italian and an American audience these days is that no one in Rome asked Rodríguez about the sexual abuse crisis, a subject he could not have escaped in the United States.

American Catholics will remember that in May 2002, in an interview in 30 Giorni, Rodríguez compared what he called media "persecution" of Cardinal Bernard Law and the U.S. Church with the ancient Roman emperors, and with 20th century dictators such as Hitler and Stalin.

In addition, a June 2004 report in the Dallas Morning News suggested that Rodríguez had sheltered a Costa Rican priest accused of child abuse for a brief period in 2003.

The only other occasion upon which Rodríguez has discussed the sexual abuse crisis was in a July 2003 interview with me. At that time, he clarified that he hadn't meant to minimize the seriousness of sexual abuse, but said that he believes media emphasis on the crisis was out of proportion with the suffering imposed every day by poverty.

Neither the book nor his comments at the Friday launch add much to this picture, except for one point. Romeo notes that two days after Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras in 1998, Law flew into the country, offering a contribution of $6 million towards rebuilding. As Romeo puts it, this helps to explain the "great solidarity" that Rodríguez felt for Law when the Boston scandals broke out.

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A month after the fact, the Vatican has issued an official explanation of the recent decision to drop the papal title "Patriarch of the West." Issued on Wednesday, the six-paragraph statement from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity says that the title never had a clear meaning, and appeared officially in the Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican's yearbook, only in the 19th century.

The statement makes three key points:

  • Dropping the title "Patriarch of the West" signifies no new claim to papal authority;
  • The move should therefore not be read as anti-ecumenical, and may even have positive ecumenical value;
  • The pope has a special relationship to the Latin Church, which involves a more direct form of authority than he has in the East, but the term "West" is not the right way to designate that relationship.

In addition, it seems clear from the March 22 statement that the creation of new patriarchates in the West is not in the cards, since the document says that bishops' conferences and international associations of conferences represent "the canonical order adequate for the necessities of today."

"The title 'Patriarch of the West,' which was not very clear from the beginning, became over the course of history obsolete and practically not usable any more," the statement said.

"Abandoning the title … clearly does not change anything regarding the recognition, solemnly declared by the Second Vatican Council, of the antique patriarchal churches," the statement said. "Even less so does the suppression signify new claims of authority. Renunciation of the aforesaid title is intended to express a historical and theological realism, and, at the same time, the renunciation of a pretense that could be helpful for ecumenical dialogue."

Though the statement did not quite say so explicitly, the Council for Unity issued the text in response to requests for clarification from other Christian bodies, especially the Orthodox churches in the East.

While most experts said the statement seemed fine so far as it goes, several said that there are still unanswered questions.

First, some wondered if the statement goes too far in suggesting a kind of equivalence between patriarchates in the East and bishops' conferences in the West. Patriarchates, these experts argue, are not a purely juridical construct like conferences, but belong to the apostolic patrimony of the early church. Some worry that Eastern Christians might be offended by the suggestion that an Eastern patriarchate is the equivalent of a Western conference of bishops.

Second and related, some experts said the statement may attribute a weight to bishops' conferences that they can't bear. The relationship of a diocesan bishop to the president of an episcopal conference in the West, for example, is far more informal and collegial than the relationship of a bishop in an Eastern church to his patriarch, who is clearly his superior.

Third, the statement acknowledges that the pope has a special relationship with Latin Christianity, yet with the suppression of "Patriarch of the West," he now has no title to designate that relationship. Isn't it odd, some experts ask, to acknowledge a core aspect of the papal office without offering a vocabulary to name it?

Fourth, the statement says that the term "West" is no longer a geographical concept, since "Western Christians" can be found as far away as New Zealand. Experts add that much the same thing could be said of Eastern churches, which also have faithful scattered worldwide. Hence there's a need to rethink the identification of rites with territorial boundaries.

Despite such points, many experts initially concerned about the decision to drop "Patriarch of the West" appeared reassured by the March 22 statement.

"I am very happy to see that the distinct role of the pope as the head of the Latin Church is being acknowledged," said Monsignor Michael Magee, an American who works in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Magee defended his doctoral thesis at Rome's Gregorian University on February 20, calling for a renewed appreciation of the pope's role as "Patriarch of the West."

"More will have to be worked out at a future date regarding that role, because it's important to have a sense that the Latin Church is not just a particular church, but one particular church," Magee said.

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Perhaps it is mere coincidence, but just two days before the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued its statement, perhaps the best-known Orthodox theologian in the world was in Rome. Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, famous internationally for his "Eucharistic ecclesiology," delivered a lecture on Monday at the Oriental Institute on an anthropological approach to ecclesiology.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's top ecumenical official, was in attendance.

While Zizioulas did not touch on the "Patriarch of the West" issue in his public comments, it's not difficult to imagine that he and Kasper, or members of Kasper's staff, stole a few moments to talk about Orthodox reaction to the move, and what might be helpful by way of clarification.

In the lecture, Zizioulas unfolded what an ecclesiology based on the classical, patristic notion of "person" might look like.

In a wonderful turn of phrase, Zizioulas said the very notion of "person" as it's used today "has a birth certificate signed by the Fathers of the Church." By that he meant that the fathers saw the concept of "person" not just in ontological, but in relational terms, with the two dimensions being inseparable - there is no such a thing as a "person" in complete isolation from others.

In that sense, it is the action of the Holy Spirit which transforms individuality into personhood, and thus, Zizioulas argued, builds the church.

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The more hawkish line of this papacy on Islam was on clear display again this week, triggered by recent comments of Cardinal Renato Martino, President of both the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees. In response to a request from the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy for religious instruction for Muslim children in Italian schools, Martino was favorable, saying that European countries "cannot backtrack" on religious pluralism.

In contrast, two senior figures in the Vatican power structure have taken a tougher line in response to the Muslim request.

Speaking to the Italian paper La Repubblica, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's Secretary of State, was ambivalent about teaching Islam, saying he would stress "reciprocity."

Muslim states, Sodano said, should give Christians the same rights that Muslims enjoy in the historically Christian countries of Europe. Among these rights, he said, is free exercise of one's religion.

In a March 20 address to the Permanent Council of the Italian bishops' conference, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the conference and the pope's vicar for the Rome diocese, was even stronger.

"As a matter of principle, instruction in the Islamic religion does not appear impossible," Ruini said. "It's important, however, to underline some fundamental conditions that must apply to any kind of instruction in Italian public schools: in particular, there must not be any conflict in the content of that teaching with respect to our Constitution, for example regarding civil rights, starting with religious liberty, or equality between men and women, or marriage."

"As a practical matter, up to now there's not been any representative subject for Islam that could establish an accord with the Italian state in this regard," Ruini said.

"Further, it would be necessary to ensure that teaching the Islamic religion would not give way to a socially dangerous kind of indoctrination," he said.

Ruini argued that it's false logic to say that because the state teaches Catholicism, therefore it should also teach Islam.

"Any comparison with teaching the Catholic religion doesn't hold up, given that this instruction, as article nine of the Accord of Revision of the Concordat affirms, has among its motives the fact 'that the principles of Catholicism are part of the historic patrimony of the Italian people,'" Ruini said.

"Proposals to suppress this instruction, eventually substituting it with teaching the history of religions … on the basis of greater religious pluralism born from immigration, as well as a presumed but non-existent decline in the vitality of Catholicism in Italy, don't take account of the fact that 91 percent of students freely attend lessons in the Catholic religion, to say nothing of the demand to conserve and reinforce our roots that's strongly present in the Italian people."

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On Tuesday, the Italian state TV network, RAI, held a press conference to launch a new DVD about John Paul II, called "A Pope towards Holiness: Chronicle of a Pontificate." The DVD is being issued with the April 7 issue of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's massive daily sports paper. It's the first time the paper has ever carried a disk about anything other than sports.

The film includes images of John Paul in the early years of his papacy, and one thing they call to mind is how much John Paul wore his heart on his sleeve, deploying his emotions as part of his communications toolbox. There are scenes of the pope obviously angry, shouting at his audience; then we see the pope beaming, for example while hiking (wearing the all-white papal ski jacket) in the Polish mountains; there are moments when the pope is clearly lost in prayer and adoration, oblivious to the bedlam swirling around him. In contrast to the reserve with which Benedict XVI carries himself, John Paul, we are reminded, was a figure who "let it all hang out."

On hand for the presentation was Fr. Slawomir Oder, a Polish priest based in Rome for the last 21 years who is now the postulator for John Paul's sainthood cause.

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Speaking to reporters, Oder said that it's too early to project a date for beatification.

"We're working very hard," he said, "but I can't anticipate when this might happen. There are many factors that can play a role in how a particular cause moves forward."

Oder said his job is an "extraordinary adventure" and a "great moment of grace."

"I feel the weight of this responsibility, especially with aspects like relations with the press, for which in many ways I was not prepared," he said.

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The March 31 issue of National Catholic Reporter carries a small news story that makes an announcement on my behalf, which may be of interest to "Word from Rome" readers. Following is the text of that article.

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John L. Allen Jr., the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter based in Rome for the past six years, will be relocating to New York in July, a move that will allow him to report more extensively on the Catholic church in the United States as well as to travel and report on the Catholic community worldwide.

Even though Allen will move to the United States, said NCR Editor Tom Roberts, he will remain the paper's Rome correspondent. NCR will maintain an office and residence in Rome which will allow Allen to spend periods of time there, particularly during the spring and fall, and to travel there anytime the news requires.

"John Allen has done a remarkable job of explaining the Vatican, its inner workings and what it all means to the Catholic community and the world at large," Roberts said. "He has brought an unparalleled level of sophistication and balance to Catholic journalism. Six years ago, NCR decided that it was essential to place a reporter in Rome, and the paper made an enormous investment of resources for a small publication in order to make that happen. Experience has confirmed the wisdom of that assessment, and the Vatican beat remains an important priority.

"While we would love to see John Allen remain in Rome for the foreseeable future," said Roberts, "we also are happy to accommodate his personal and professional wishes to return to the United States and to broaden his reporting horizons."

Being in New York and removed from, as Allen puts it, the "day-to-day vicissitudes at the Vatican" will provide the freedom and location from which to respond to Catholic news wherever it breaks.

"Catholicism in the 21st century will be increasingly 'upside down,' driven by the experience and energy of the global South, meaning Africa, Asia and Latin America," Allen said. "I want to tell the story of how this transition will reconfigure virtually everything inside Catholicism, by spending time in those places, figuring out what makes the churches there tick, and then teasing out how that will influence broader trends."

Being in New York will allow Allen to bring his international experience to reporting on issues, trends and personalities in American Catholicism

"When I lecture, I'm fond of reminding American audiences that we represent just six percent of the global Catholic population - 67 million out of 1.1 billion," said Allen. "Out of both theological and sociological necessity, the future of American Catholicism is tied up with 94 percent of the Catholics in the world who live outside the United States. I want to try to bring that perspective to placing American Catholic stories in their broader context."

Allen said he hopes that his experience in coming to know a wide variety of Catholic personalities and movements around the world "will be useful in helping to think past the ideological and tribal divisions that often characterize public discussion of Catholic matters in America. Doing so is part of telling the whole Catholic story, striving to be fair to all points of view, and providing readers with the fullest possible set of facts and perspectives.

"NCR, uniquely among American Catholic publications, is trying to do two things at once: keep the institutional church honest by reporting tough stories on its political, administrative and financial dimensions, while at the same time striving to promote a responsible dialogue across party lines. I hope my base in New York will allow me to contribute to that mission in a new way," said Allen.

Finally, being in the United States will make it easier to respond to speaking invitations "without stealing too much time away from my primary responsibilities as a reporter and analyst."

During his time in Rome, Allen has traveled on 16 papal trips to 22 countries; covered the second half of the Great Jubilee year in 2000; the eruption in 2002 of the sexual abuse crisis and the Vatican response; John Paul II's moral opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq; the long decline of John Paul and his eventual death; the election of Benedict XVI; and the first year of Benedict's papacy.

In addition to the conclave that elected Benedict, his reporting has included three synods and three consistories. He has interviewed the head of every office in the Vatican as well as scores of other officials, more than half the members of College of Cardinals and hundreds of bishops, priests, religious and laity from almost every country on earth.

Allen will maintain his weekly Internet column on, which beginning in July will be rechristened "All Things Catholic," reflecting his new circumstances.

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

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