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 The Word From Rome

April 2, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 32

global perspective


"The church wants to help the offender not to offend again. But does returning him to ministry actually do this? We wouldn't ask a recovering kleptomaniac to count the collection."

A reader,
defending the U.S. bishops' "one-strike" policy on sexual abuse

Reader response to report on U.S. bishops' norms for sexual abuse; Vatican and the White House 'kiss and make up'; Talking with young American Catholics; Archbishop George Carey's take on Islam


NOTE: Throughout 2004, the American bishops will be making their every-five-year ad limina vists to Rome. Pope John Paul II will speak to each group, and collectively these talks should reveal a great deal about the thinking of the pope and the Vatican with respect to the American Catholic church. The pope's first address, to the bishops of the provinces of Atlanta and Miami, took place this morning. Here is the full text in English:

Last week I reported on a conference on canon law at Rome’s Santa Croce University, where the U.S. bishops’ norms for sexual abuse, and especially their “zero tolerance” policy, came in for criticism.

As I noted, the norms aren’t popular among canonists who believe they undercut procedural guarantees in the Code of Canon Law. Example: I ran into a prominent Italian church observer this week who called the American norms “the Guantanamo Bay of the Catholic church.” He sees them as an ecclesiastical analogue to what the Bush administration is doing with Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners in Cuba — in his view, flouting due process standards.

On the other hand, the norms have their defenders, and I heard from several. One American close to the work on the charter and the norms, in fact, sent me a point-by-point response to the criticisms that surfaced at Santa Croce. Below I offer some excerpts, because they help set the terms of debate that no doubt will unfold between the Holy See and the U.S. bishops’ conference between now and March 5, 2005, when the two-year approval for the norms expires.

• Some canonists at Santa Croce objected that by seeking to remove priests from ministry using administrative authority rather than a canonical trial, the American bishops are neglecting the due process rights of priests, something these canonists see as a matter of “natural justice.” The commentator made two arguments: First, a full-blown trial may not be necessary if the priest is obviously guilty, in which case an abbreviated administrative process could do the trick; second, the demand for trials at all costs risks exalting the rights of priests over everybody else.

Due process seems to be defined solely as the juridical procedures of canon law. … While the church may currently demand a judicial forum in every instance, that doesn’t mean another method cannot be just. … Is a church trial really necessary for someone whose guilt has been amply demonstrated in a civil trial?

“I find it difficult to accept the rhetoric of natural justice applied to situations in which the natural rights of life and liberty are not in jeopardy, but only continuation in ministry, to which there is no natural right. … When we apply conceptions of natural justice in this way, we seem to be protecting not the rights of all, but the rights of some.”

• Another complaint is that the American “one-strike” policy does not make allowance for the rehabilitation of the offending priest. The expert said: “The church wants to help the offender not to offend again. But does returning him to ministry actually do this? We wouldn’t ask a recovering kleptomaniac to count the collection.”

• One of the most oft-heard complaints among canon lawyers is that the American bishops could have brought abuser priests to trial in the 1980s and ’90s but didn’t, in part because they didn’t want to play the heavy, in part because it was just too much work. This expert, however, said that’s not so.

“Most of the cases were not canonically prosecutable,” he said, “either because the canonical five-year statute of limitations had passed or because of lack of imputability due to mental illness.” (That means the defendant lacked competence to stand trial.)

Moreover, the expert said, the American bishops had a legitimate fear of undertaking a costly procedure that might run afoul of Roman review. “A trial could be a real crap-shoot,” he said. “It’s a lengthy process, and then [it might be] shot down in Rome on account of procedural errors.”

• One canon lawyer at Santa Croce charged that the Vatican’s new rules on sex abuse trials do not give the defendant the right to confront his accusers, something that the American expert says is hardly a novelty: “The world might be a better place if that were a ‘cornerstone of judicial procedure,’ but it has never been an absolute principle in church practice, as far as I can see,” he said.

• Another canonist complained that under new Vatican rules “prescription,” or the statue of limitations in canon law, can be waived on a case-by-case basis for priests charged with sexual abuse. The canonist said this too violates the natural rights of the priest, an argument our expert wasn’t buying.

“How is prescription an element of natural justice? It may be a wise and prudent measure, but it is a procedural norm that varies widely. For some crimes, in both civil and canon law, there is no prescription. … Canon law is not an adversarial system, and its goal is to determine the truth. If truth and justice are not being done due to a procedural rule, then why shouldn’t the rule yield?”

• Finally, some canonists argued that church law envisions a fitting proportion between one’s crime and the penalty. An automatic penalty such as permanent removal from ministry, they argued, is foreign to canonical tradition.

Not so, our expert said. “What about automatic excommunications for various crimes? Isn’t that ‘zero tolerance’ of certain behaviors?

“Let’s be real here. Canon law doesn’t deal in a wide variety of punishments, as does civil law with its numerous lengths of sentences, suspended sentences, community service and all the rest. … Canon law often calls for ‘a just penalty,’ whatever that is. In this case, fundamentally it comes down to suspension or dismissal. One way to judge what is appropriate might be to ask whether such behavior would disqualify a candidate for the priesthood. If so (as I believe it would), why shouldn’t it be disqualifying for continuation in ministry?”

* * *

On his February 2003 visit to Rome during the build-up to the war in Iraq, American Catholic intellectual Michael Novak charged Vatican critics of the war with anti-American bias.

“Some of the comments that have come from some Vatican sources have been, they’ve been a little bit emotionally anti-American,” Novak said during a Feb. 8 interview on Vatican Radio. “Somebody said Americans are inebriated with power. Well, that’s pretty much of an interpretation, and I don’t see that at all. … I just wish people would mind their rhetoric a little bit more.”

That perception of anti-American animus in the Vatican didn’t go down well on either side.

In part, this is because key figures on both sides believe there is much common ground between the United States and the Vatican — a shared commitment to human rights, religious freedom and the rule of law. In part, this is also for the Realpolitik reason that both sides need each other. Bush needs Catholic votes to get reelected, and the Vatican can’t defend its people on the ground in places such as China and Russia without U.S. help.

Hence, ever since the shooting stopped there has been a kind of diplomatic “kiss and make up” initiative between the Vatican and the White House. That effort took center stage on March 31at the Lateran University, where a revised edition of the book The United States and the Holy See: The Long Road, by U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson, was presented. The book, which documents the history of diplomatic contacts between the United States and the papacy, carries prefaces by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Vatican foreign minister Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the French diplomat who had been the architect of the Holy See’s opposition to the war.

Tauran was on hand for the presentation, as was former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, who wrote the book’s introduction. Andreotti’s 30 Giorni magazine is the publisher.

An overflow crowd turned out: 30-some ambassadors to the Holy See, plus Cardinals Dario Castrillon-Hoyos, Agostino Cacciavillan and Pio Laghi, plus Msgr. Pietro Parolin, currently the number three official for foreign policy in the Secretariat of State.

Everyone was at pains to emphasize the strength of the U.S./Vatican relationship.

“Our position was interpreted as anti-American, but it was not. It was antiwar,” Tauran said to reporters. “War cannot be a solution. But the disagreement over Iraq is a matter for historians and doctoral theses. The important thing is what we do tomorrow.”

As for the United States, Tauran fairly gushed: “It is a great people, and a great Catholic church. I’ve always said that.”

Nicholson and Tauran agreed on a verbal formula for relativizing the Iraq dispute, with both men arguing it was merely a disagreement over means (intervention vs. inspections), while there was fundamental agreement over ends (peace, justice and prosperity for the Iraqis).

Still, comparing Nicholson and Tauran’s presentations, it was clear that despite the bonhomie, there remain differences in some areas, as is no doubt to be expected in any bilateral relationship.

Nicholson made it clear that he wants the Holy See to get more firmly on board with U.S.-led efforts to promote biotechnology, and especially genetically modified organisms, as a response to global hunger.

“I believe this is an issue in which the Holy See needs to invest its moral authority even more forcefully,” Nicholson said. “A child who dies from starvation is just as dead as one who dies of an abortion.”

Tauran, meanwhile, despite applauding a “complete agreement on goals” between the U.S. and the Holy See and their “shared values,” also called for the “defense of law that puts limits to the absolute power of the state.” Though he did not make the link himself, most in the audience recalled that during the debate over Iraq, Tauran repeatedly argued that the war was illegal, and insisted that the international community must be governed by “the force of law, not the law of force.”

With reporters after his talk, Tauran was more direct. He was asked if he agreed with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that “preventive war” is not authorized by the church’s Catechism.

“The important point is that it’s not permitted by international law,” Tauran shot back. “The Catechism is another thing.”

Tauran, now the head of the Vatican library, also addressed a subject he said has been at the heart of all contacts between John Paul II and his collaborators and the Americans in recent years, which is the search for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Tauran called the conflict the “the mother of all crises in the Middle East.”

Though Tauran did not unpack the point, the United States and the Holy See have somewhat differing visions for the outlines of a peace deal. Among other things, the Vatican wants a special international status for Jerusalem, above all its holy sites, and favors sending international monitors.

Finally, Tauran offered a brief reprise of Vatican peace rhetoric familiar from the Iraq debate. He closed by citing John Paul II from an inter-religious gathering in Assisi in January 2002: “Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In God's name, may all religions bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness, life, and love!”

Tauran concluded: “I am moved to add, ‘Amen.’ ”

* * *

Andreotti, the elder statesman par excellence of Italian politics and a leading voice in Italian Catholic culture, echoed Nicholson’s position on GMOs.

“The theme of biotechnological foods recalls to a great extent the polemics that were generated in its time by the introduction of chemical fertilizers,” he said. “In a growing world, in which our theological vision can’t allow us to fatalistically accept shortages of bread, we have to greet innovations; indeed, we have to stimulate them, abandoning states of mind of diffidence and various kinds of protectionism.”

Andreotti also paid a historical debt to the people of the United States.

“I have the moral obligation of recalling here the grandiose activity of assistance that the Italian people received from the American people during the war, with an intensity of aid that was truly providential,” he said.

Andreotti told a story that he has previously recounted in other circumstances about a lunch at the American embassy with President John F. Kennedy. Andreotti asked Kennedy about the prospect of opening formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See, and Kennedy responded that it was something he wanted to do in his second term. As it happened, there was no second Kennedy term, and full relations had to wait until Reagan’s presidency in 1984.

* * *

Nichsolon’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in the American/Vatican relationship. Among other nuggets, Nicholson offers the response to a Trivial Pursuit-style question: Who was the first pope ever to set foot on American territory?

Answer: Pius IX.

Careful readers will note that the question refers to “territory” rather than “soil.” This is because Pius IX’s U.S. foray was onto a boat, specifically the USS Constitution, which in 1849 was anchored in the port of Gaeta, Italy, where the pope had taken refuge after a popular uprising in 1848 chased him out of Rome. Pius IX was the guest of Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies. John Rowan, the U.S. representative in Naples, happened to visit the king, who expressed an interest in seeing the ship, and Rowan felt obliged to invite the pope as well.

That turned out to be a bit of a diplomatic gaffe, since both Pius and Ferdinand were in the middle of defending their thrones against counter-revolutionaries, and it was the policy of the American government to maintain neutrality. Nevertheless, the captain of the Constitution, John Gwinn, allowed the visit to proceed. Pius IX walked about distributing rosaries to the Catholic sailors and giving blessings. As it happened, the pope became a bit seasick and took a brief rest in the captain’s chambers, then disembarked to a 21-cannon salute.

For his role in the episode, Gwinn was threatened with a court-martial, but he died of a cerebral hemorrhage before his trial could be held. Pius IX, meanwhile, successfully returned to Rome in 1850 and gave the Papal States another 20 years of life.

* * *

Times of crisis tend to bring out the best and worst of human behavior. If one were to seek figures who embody the least attractive aspects of what the recent sexual abuse scandals have revealed about American Catholicism, for example, various names might come to mind. This week, however, I’d like to propose someone who puts a face on the best.

My nominee is Brian Barras, 22, of Mansfield, Texas.

At a point in which the public image of the Catholic priesthood in the United States may well be at an all-time low, Barras, a senior in Biomedical Science at Texas A&M University, is contemplating a vocation as a priest.

“People ask me why, they tell me that you don’t want to go down that path,” Barras told me in a March 30 interview in Rome. “But because of everything that’s happened I feel an even greater call to live out the faith as a priest, a witness to the true Catholic church.”

Barras is not naïve or in denial about the gravity of the American crisis, telling me it has been a sobering reminder of the “humanity” of the church. At the same time, he said, he sees it as an invitation to take personal responsibility.

“To me, what the crisis means is that there’s a real need for better Catholic Christians.”

Barras was in Rome for the 8th International Youth Forum, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Laity. It’s a gathering of 300 college-aged youth from 100 countries to discuss how college students can be more effectively evangelized, and eventually become evangelizers.

I asked Barras, who comes across as bright, polished, and earnest, what “evangelization” means to him.

“It could be as simple as a smile, to walking someone across campus, to inviting a roommate to church to share my faith,” Barras said.

To some, Barras might seem “conservative.” He is, for example, an unabashed admirer of John Paul II.

“I’ve grown up with one pope,” he said. “I’ve been so blessed to have such a strong leader, such a humble leader. Youth are inspired by this man because we’ve seen how prayerfully he leads his life. That’s how I try to model my faith.”

He is captivated by traditional devotional practices such as Eucharistic adoration.

“It’s one of my favorite ways to pray,” he said. “I love to simply be in the presence of God.” Likewise, Barras told me he was excited when John Paul II added five new “mysteries of light” to the rosary in 2002.

Barras also said he is “in line with the church” on hot-button questions such as birth control and women’s ordination, and that he found the Mel Gibson movie “The Passion of the Christ,” in a word, “awesome.”

Whether or not one takes these as markers of conservatism, his is certainly not a narrow or judgmental spirit. His strong convictions stir in him a fascination with the beliefs of others.

“It’s healthy to hear opposing viewpoints,” Barras said. “If you only hear your own side, you don’t know much.”

Barras emphasized that a turning point in his life came when he arrived at A&M and found St. Mary’s Catholic Center and its pastor, Fr. Mike Sis. That community, he said, showed him what real Christian living could be, with an accent on welcome and service.

I’ve spent considerable time talking to Catholic young people, whether delegates to World Youth Days or seminarians at the North American College and various institutions in the States. They tend to share with Barras a hunger for a rich devotional life, a deep affection for John Paul II, and a tendency to take traditional stances on doctrinal and moral questions.

What Barras adds is optimism, generosity, and an infectious warm personality. That these qualities have been augmented rather than dimmed by the recent trauma in the American church says something potentially good about the church – and unquestionably good about Barras.

* * *

Accompanying Barras and the other American students in the Youth Forum is Michael Galligan-Stierle, assistant secretary for Catholic High Education and Campus Ministry with the U.S. bishops’ conference. He too sat down for a March 30 interview in Rome.

Galligan-Stierle said he hopes the Americans pick up “an international perspective.”

“Americans can be very myopic in their worldview,” Galligan-Stierle said. “I hope after this experience they’ll be better positioned to grasp the universality of the faith.”

At the level of brass tacks, Galligan-Stierle said he hopes people involved in collegiate ministry from dioceses, bishops’ conferences and the various “new movements” in the church can work out strategies for cooperation.

I asked Galligan-Stierle about complaints that sometimes the movements pursue their own agendas at the expense of collegial working relationships.

“Generally I would say, ‘let a thousand flowers bloom,’” Galligan-Stierle said. “But when you get down to the level of particular campuses or parishes, it’s always good when there is one person who is clearly the pastoral leader. Catholic groups should always work through that person.”

Does that happen?

“I would say it’s the norm, but there are exceptions and it leads to awkward situations,” Galligan-Stierle said.

As for the sex abuse crisis, Galligan-Stierle said he’s worried that to the extent it causes a financial crunch, youth ministry may suffer.

“With dioceses cutting resources, I have a pastoral concern about young adults,” Galligan-Stierle said. “There are already places that have cut services.”

Galligan-Stierle issued a plea for support.

“We need to form young people in the faith, so that they can in turn produce a cultural transformation of the world,” he said.

* * *

To write a news story is to choose. Journalists have to compress, so inevitably subtlety and detail fall by the wayside, and the inherent risk is distorting someone’s thought.

Every now and then a cautionary tale comes along that calls us to greater vigilance. Such was the case with the March 25 lecture of George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, at Rome’s Gregorian University.

I was present for the lecture, which was an overwhelmingly positive, friendly treatment on Christian/Muslim relations.

A headline in London’s Daily Telegraph the next day, however, called the lecture “an attack on Islamic culture,” accenting points in which Carey criticized the failure of moderate Muslims to condemn suicide bombers, and asserted that Islam, over the past 500 years, had displayed a “strong resistance to modernity.”

The Muslim Council of Britain saidCarey's comments were “unhelpful to the promotion of dialogue and understanding between the various faith communities.” Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he was dismayed. 

“One is surprised to find Lord Carey recycling the same old religious prejudice in the 21st century,” Sacranie said.

In fairness, Carey did indeed have some challenging things to say. He called on moderate Muslims to be more forceful in denouncing extremism, said authoritarian regimes should be replaced by democracies, and hypothesized that the suspiciousness of modernity in Islam has taken a toll on intellectual and cultural development. At the same time, he also had equally tough things to say about the West, so that it seems dishonest to call his talk an “attack” on Islam. More importantly, his challenges were obviously situated in the context of admiration and friendship.

Here, then, for the sake of the record, was the heart of Carey’s take on Islam:

“There is much we can admire in Islam — the simplicity of faith and devotion of worship,” he said. “Islam is not a complicated faith and perhaps we have made Christianity too complicated. We can admire the devotion of the people and their desire to promote their faith. We can admire their commitment to traditional values, the family, children and peace.”

“I for one,” Carey said, “do not accept that the future is one of escalating violence, deepening bitterness and a grudging dialogue between ‘incompatible faiths’ and cultures.”

Moreover, Carey showed a strong sensitivity to concerns that often anger Muslims about the West.

“We must focus on root causes of unrest where religions clash and seek to heal the wounds of the past,” he said. “We must confront the deep sense of injustice felt by ordinary Muslims in much of the developing world where people see the tyranny of their own leaders, the growing gap between rich and poor and what they see as the massive support of the West to regimes inimical to Islam.

“Israel is a serious flashpoint of unrest, and America has a key role to play in healing the wounds of a land beloved to adherents of three world religions. However, Muslims do not perceive even-handedness in America’s treatment of Palestinians and the Palestinian cause. Of course, Israel has a right to a homeland and above all to peace. There can be no serious argument about that. Christians, of all people, should honour the special religious ties they have with Jewish people.

“That should not restrain us from recognising that Palestine, no less, demands and deserves a viable state with secure borders and an independent government. Resolve this urgent issue and a great deal of Muslim bitterness and antagonism towards the West will in time be replaced by understanding. This longest-running conflict in modern times deserves the West’s urgent attention.”

Whatever one makes of Carey’s analysis — and it is open to critique — an “attack on Islam” this was not.

* * *

Anglican theologian and longtime veteran of ecumenical dialogue Mary Tanner spoke at the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier del Caravita on March 31, offering her personal experience of the ecumenical movement.

The heart of her testimony was the following:

“Ecumenism has something to do with ‘creative imagination,’ ” she said. “It has to do with learning to get out of one’s own skin, to see things with others’ eyes, to stand with the other and understand the otherness of the other. If you can do that you never quite see things in the same way again. I learnt too that ecumenism has to do with friendship, [that] friendship is the basis of ecumenical progress.”

Tanner told a series of fascinating stories of experiences at various ecumenical gatherings, such as a 1982 meeting of the Faith and Order Commission in Lima and the 1992 Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order in Dublin. During the latter session, Tanner, recounted, the late Dominican Fr. Jean-Marie Tillard, widely reputed to be among the principal contributors to John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, was giving a presentation on the ecumenical vision when an unkempt stranger wandered in the room.

“Do you realize,” the stranger thundered after listening for a few minutes, “that out there people take drugs, get drunk, shoot one another, family is against family, brother against brother. He came to bring life and unity, and that’s why he died. For God’s sake, get on with it!”

The stranger then shuffled out of the room, but he had made his point.

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

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