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April 14, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 32

John L. Allen Jr.


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Church and politics: Italy, Opus Dei, U.S. Ambassador Rooney; The Gospel of Judas; Latin Mass speculation; Medjugorje; Holy Week TV specials


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While for Christians the big "news" of Holy Week is always the good news of the Resurrection, electoral calendars follow a different logic, and hence this week's big Rome story was the nail-biter in the Italian elections. As of this writing, the drama has seemingly ended in a narrow victory for the center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi, a political veteran with deep ties to the Catholic church, though an ambivalent relationship with the hierarchy.

Incumbent Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is contesting the result based on alleged voting irregularities, but most observers doubt a recount will affect the result.

The return to power of the center-left in Italy, assuming that's the eventual outcome, suggests a new front may be opening in Pope Benedict XVI's struggle against the "dictatorship of relativism," this one running through his own backyard.

Few believe Prodi's rule will turn into an Italian version of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Socialist government in Spain, defying the Catholic church across the board on hot-button issues such as divorce, abortion and gay rights. The church still wields considerable clout in Italy, and few political forces relish open conflict. In addition, Prodi's narrow victory means it will be difficult to pass legislation without broad consensus, and in any event Prodi's own coalition includes moderate Catholics in parties such as the Margherita and Udeur, which will put a brake on more radical forces.

Yet on a handful of issues -- most notably, civil recognition for "de facto couples," potentially including same-sex couples -- clash between the new Italian government and the church seems on the horizon. The fact that it's happening in Italy means it will exercise disproportionate influence on how Vatican officials construe broader political trends.

Prodi, 66, served as prime minister from 1996 to 1998. He became president of the European Commission from 1999 to 2004, then returned to Italy to lead the opposition.

From one point of view, it would be difficult to imagine a more "Catholic" politician than Prodi. He and his wife Flavia are regular Mass-goers, and Prodi comes out of the circles around the late Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro in Bologna, where Prodi and his wife still live -- a progressive and socially engaged Catholicism, inspired by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Over the years, Prodi, who taught economics at University of Bologna, has been close to the left-leaning "Bologna School" of Catholic church historians Giuseppe Alberigo and Alberto Melloni.

One churchman with ties to Prodi in the early days was then-Fr. Camillo Ruini, who served as a chaplain for university students in Prodi's region of Reggio Emilia. Ruini, today president of the Italian bishops' conference and widely recognized as one of the most powerful cardinals in the world, celebrated Romano and Flavia's wedding in 1969.

Prodi remains respectful of the church, but has also put some distance between himself and the hierarchy, saying that he regards himself as an "adult Catholic" capable of making his own political calls.

There's no denying the sense of disappointment many Italian Catholic leaders feel in recent moves by Prodi.

Last summer, for example, the Italian bishops and Pope Benedict XVI backed an ultimately successful effort to persuade Italians to boycott a referendum that would have liberalized the country's law on in-vitro fertilization. Prodi, however, insisted that Italians should vote as a matter of civic duty, and went to vote himself. (He did not reveal which way he voted). That choice put Prodi on a collision course with his old friend Ruini, who was the unofficial sponsor of the boycott campaign.

Prodi also came out last fall in support of legal rights for long-term unwed couples, including same-sex couples. To make matters more explosive politically, his comments came in a letter to Franco Grillini, president of Arcigay, the leading gay rights organization in Italy.

Although Prodi was clear to say he did not support "gay marriage," his statements nevertheless triggered an avalanche of criticism from L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, and L'Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops, to say nothing of individual bishops, including Ruini.

L'Osservatore charged that Prodi was trying to "relativize" and "ideologize" marriage, and accused him of "lacerating the family for the sake of votes."

Such moves have led Prodi's most bitter Italian Catholic critics to dub him "Proditero," or alternatively "Zapaprodi," both references to the specter of Zapatero, who has become something of a Darth Vader figure for European Catholics.

Prodi did his best to distinguish his position from the Spanish premier's.

"I never compared de facto couples to marriage, and I never talked about adoption," Prodi said. "I'm talking about something completely different from Zapatero's proposals."

Such reassurances did little to diminish the criticism.

At least one headache for Catholic politicians who find themselves at odds with the church doesn't seem, however, to haunt Prodi, at least for now: the potential for being refused Communion.

Last October, during a press conference at the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, the question of Prodi and Communion was put to Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University and chaplain to the Italian parliament, as well as a close advisor to Ruini.

Fisichella responded that he "did not see a reason" for denying Communion to Prodi.

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As the May 19 release of "The Da Vinici Code" movie nears, news agencies around the world are putting together packages on Opus Dei, the legendary Catholic group that looms large in Dan Brown's potboiler tale.

Here's an intriguing sidebar from the Italian elections: A numerary of Opus Dei, meaning a celibate who lives full-time in an Opus Dei center, was elected to the national Senate … from the center-left.

As such, Senator-elect Paola Binetti, 63, defies the image of a monolithic hard-right political climate within Opus Dei.

To be sure, when it comes to "culture of life" issues, Binetti yields to no one in her defense of "Catholic" positions. A medical doctor, university professor, and former president of the "Association for Science and Life," Binetti helped spearhead last summer's campaign against the in-vitro fertilization referendum. She has also irritated fellow members of Prodi's coalition by her dogmatic opposition to changes to Italy's restrictive law on abortion.

Yet on most other issues, Binetti's agenda skews to the secular political left. She campaigned for policies favoring "the poorest and the most excluded," greater levels of social development, expanded health care for the most vulnerable families, the emergence of a strong Europe capable of defending peace in global affairs, and a clear option for the Third World, especially Africa, in favor of "reducing unacceptable inequalities."

Historically, Opus Dei has had a profile as conservative and male-dominated. Irony of ironies, Binetti's victory means that two of the most visible Opus Dei politicians in the world -- Binetti in Italy, and Ruth Kelly, the Minister of Education in England -- are now women who belong to center-left parties.

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On the subject of the church and politics, I sat down this week with the United States Ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Rooney, to discuss what we've learned about Benedict XVI's attitude towards the United States over the course of his first year. Excerpts from that interview appear below. The full transcript is available on in the Special Documents section: Rooney Interview.

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You've been in this job for six months now. What have you learned?
U.S. Ambassador Francis Rooney attends the pope's annual address to Vatican diplomats Jan. 9 at the Vatican.
I've debunked the myths I came over here with about the Curia, about it being a very closed, secretive, sometimes anti-American group. I haven't felt that. I've felt that they're just a lot of good priests trying to work hard to deal with some very complicated secular issues. … The depth of knowledge of the people in the Secretariat of State about these various global issues is incredible. They have people who are just as knowledgeable, who drill just as deeply on the issues that affect the countries they have charge over, as the desk officers in our own State Department. It's very impressive.

On the whole, you find that Benedict XVI has a positive attitude towards the United States?
Very positive, and very understanding. We talked about immigration during our first meeting, and I said it's very important for our country, the melting pot. He said that you have this "great tradition of assimilation."

He was hoping the country will remain open to immigrants?
Exactly. He sees it as a complicated issue, important for the United States but also important for the church.

I recently interviewed Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles on the immigration debate.
When I met Cardinal Mahony at the recent consistory, I encouraged him to continue to speak out about immigration, and also to say some nice things about the President. [President Bush] is right there with Senators McCain and Kennedy, the only people who are trying to do something productive and useful that respects human rights and the added value of the labor of these workers.

Have there been any new conversations between you and the Holy See about when the use of force is justified to curb terrorism?
No. The subject hasn't come up. I haven't seen any particular reason to raise that at this point. When we talk about Iran, the Holy See has been clearly supportive of all the nations working to avoid a nuclear armed Iran. There's really nothing to talk about at this point. I think we all agree that a war in Iran would be a horrible thing. …We've encouraged [the Vatican] to be strong, to continue to speak up, because that shows Iran the whole world is united against them having nuclear weapons and threatening their neighbors.

You haven't heard anything from the Holy See to the effect of, 'Please don't use force in Iran?'

You mentioned religious liberty. Benedict XVI seems more outspoken than John Paul II on this issue, especially with respect to Islam. Some welcome that, others worry that it will heighten tensions. What's your reading?
I think the evolving consensus that the church needs to be clear and strong that religious freedom is a two-way street is unimpeachable. I haven't heard anything from my government to oppose that. We're for religious freedom of all stripes. When you apply that principle, you have to say that for Saudi Arabia to say, 'There can't be any churches,' is an issue. I believe even Secretary Rice is starting to address that, and I think the President's comments that pluralism in Iraq should germinate pluralism elsewhere, is all playing into that same thing. You can't have it two ways.

You would agree that there's a stronger line under Benedict XVI?
Absolutely. I think they've hardened up. I think they've gotten clearer. They're focusing on this reciprocity doctrine. They're also focusing on the possibilities of working together [with Muslims] in non-doctrinal areas, which I think is smart. It's kind of hard for people to hate each other who have worked together building a Habitat for Humanity house. … There are also the life issues, where the Catholic church has been on the same side with Islam before the U.N.

Where do things stand in terms of the Holy See and China?
My last understanding, which is pretty recent, is that everybody is feeling pretty good about the gradual progress. They're not expecting too much from China. They're thankful that the President continues to put the heat on them about religious freedom, and about the list of imprisoned people. China seems to be reacting to that, vis-à-vis both the United States and the Holy See. …

Critics would say that by allowing China to be part of the international economy despite human rights violations because, frankly, they're just too big a market to ignore, the world is sending a signal that they don't have to play by the same rules as everyone else.
I don't know that I would agree. We're seeing very positive reactions to the President's trip over there. He's called for religious freedom, and some of the actions that they've taken [are encouraging] But you're right, they do kind of lean one way and then the other. There are a lot of people here in the Holy See that express increasing confidence, and they continue to look towards 'morphing' the patriotic church and the historic underground church into, ultimately, one entity. They're hopeful the government will allow them to expand the number of seminarians, as that's one way the government keeps control over the church.

Let's talk about the United Nations. Over the years, the Holy See has expressed more confidence than the United States about the U.N. as an organ of international governance.
You don't have to have a lot of confidence to have more confidence than we do.

Where do you see that conversation standing?
I think they're probably still not as enthusiastic about taking on the well-documented defects of the United Nations that Ambassador Bolton and the President are willing to confront, and we'd like to see them be a little more supportive of that. It would be good.

American administrations, Republican and Democratic, have seen the United Nations as a forum for international cooperation rather than the nucleus of a sovereign system of global governance, which has been the dream of several popes.
The Holy See can have the liberty of seeking attributes of sovereignty for an organization that no country can.

The United Nations, by definition, is only a reflection of its constituent members. [Sovereignty] would mean overturning the whole philosophy. I don't think the United States could ever go for that. What we need to go for is an effective, clean, honest U.N. that can bring all nations together.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed the Holy See wanted to promote the emergence of a strong Europe as a counter-weight to the predominance of America in global affairs. Some of that enthusiasm seems to have cooled, as they've watched the runaway secularism of Europe. Now it appears they're more likely to see the United States, for all its defects, as the best ally of institutional Christianity. Does that analysis seem right to you?
That's exactly what I meant when I said a couple of things earlier. First of all, [it's reflected in] the Holy Father's keen understanding of and appreciation for the United States -- our faith, our church attendance, our tradition of religious freedom, and so on. That's mirrored by the fact that I haven't seen any specific or general instances of anti-Americanism here. I've found a lot of appreciation for what we do. Sure, they may have a little different opinion of the U.N., or the Cuban embargo, but on the important questions on the direction of the world, on the life issues, on the role of religion in the world, on how people should raise their families, how they procreate, and what kind of world we're going to leave to our kids, we couldn't ask for a better partner than the Holy See, and they couldn't ask for a better partner than us.

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Headlines around the world have recently touted the discovery of an ancient manuscript that could dramatically shake up our understanding of the most notorious villain in Christian history. The "Gospel of Judas" depicts Judas not as a nefarious traitor, but as Christ's closest disciple, selected by Jesus to receive secret revelation about cosmic mysteries.

Despite the seemingly dramatic implications, however, most experts say that "The Gospel of Judas" adds nothing of value to our understanding of the historical Judas Iscariot, or, for that matter, Jesus himself. Instead, they say, it's a resource for the study of second century Gnosticism. It's a late and largely mythic text, these experts say, more interested in theological musings than in passing along historically accurate traditions.

I sat down on Monday, April 10, with Jesuit Fr. Stephen Pisano, Rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, to discuss the issues raised by the "Gospel of Judas." Excerpts from that interview appear below. The full transcript is available on in the Special Documents section: Pisano Interview.

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Hearing about rival gospels such as "The Gospel of Judas," the average person may think, 'My Gosh, the Bible had it wrong.'
That's simply not true. That's the short answer. Other Gnostic gospels haven't really changed our view of things, and one more isn't going to do that either. This is literature that came from a particular sect, a particular group, which followed this Gnostic philosophy.

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One of the things that's important to see, I think, is that we're in the second century. This is really a very short time after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In this period of the early church, Christian theology as we know it today was in its infancy. We shouldn't have the idea that already in the second century we had something developed like the Catechism of the Catholic church. That's the result of 2,000 years of theological reflection. If we try to put ourselves back into the mentality of the second century, the early believers didn't really know yet what to believe, what context to put their belief in, and I think there were a lot of attempts to express the faith and to find a philosophy that fit in with the resurrection faith. Some of these attempts bore fruit and became part of mainstream Christian theology, and some were dead ends. This is one that was a dead end.

The proof of that is that you have Irenaeus writing around the year 180, and already then he is condemning this very approach to Christian theology. If it was condemned and seen as deviant already in the second century, I don't think it's something that is going to come back and be seen as relevant today.

The church's traditional teaching that Judas' betrayal was a sinful act is not going to be challenged by this discovery?
I don't think so.

One interesting question, though, is whether Judas had full knowledge of what he was doing when he betrayed Jesus. From what we can gather from the gospel accounts, he had full knowledge that he was betraying Jesus. But did he have full knowledge that he was betraying the Son of God? That's more difficult to say. … Whether he saw Jesus basically as a political leader, a subversive leader who was going to lead the Jewish people against the Roman yoke, and then realized that wasn't Jesus' intention, is hard to say. We don't really know what he thought about things.

But we do know he betrayed somebody for money, so that at least on the basis of the canonical gospels, it's hard to make him a hero.
That's right, yes, indeed.

Let me ask you briefly about Benedict XVI. Have you been struck by how rich his homilies and other texts have been so far in Scriptural imagery?
I have, very much so. I hope that his constant use of Scripture will help stimulate a renewed interest. In a meeting with young people last week, a young man asked him how to read the Bible, and Benedict encouraged him to pray while he reads the Bible, and also to make use of recent books written along these lines. He referred specifically to the many books by Cardinal [Carlo Maria] Martini.

Do you anticipate any particular impulse from Benedict in scripture studies?
It could well be the whole question of the proper use of the historical-critical method in Biblical studies. … When you read the Biblical texts in terms of looking for historical and philological accuracy, some people say this is the wrong approach, because you're not reading the Bible as a book of faith but simply as a book containing historical accounts. … My view is that nothing that can help us understand the Biblical text should be excluded, just as long as we keep clear what the purpose of the different approaches are, and what their limits are as well.

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The Catholic blogosphere has been abuzz with speculation about a hypothetical document from Benedict XVI regarding wider use of the Rite of Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Though versions differ, the most popular rumor is that the pope will declare that the pre-Vatican II Mass was never "abolished," meaning that it could be celebrated by any priest at any time, without need for permission.

One theory had the document coming out on Holy Thursday, in place of the "Letter to Priests" that John Paul II typically issued. (That idea surfaced in an April 9 article in the Italian paper Il Tempo).

In the event, Holy Thursday came and went with no such document. To be honest, speculation that Benedict might disrupt the liturgical focus of Holy Week with a major policy document already suggested the rumors were a bit surreal. Benedict is keen that important events on the liturgical calendar should speak for themselves; one of the reasons he did not want his first encyclical to appear over Christmas, for example, is because it could have obscured the focus on the Incarnation that's the core of the Christmas festival.

I spoke with one Vatican official this week who said that while he had no inside knowledge about a document, he found the rumors difficult to believe.

"Whenever there have been meetings about this among the cardinals, it's not just that there's division," he said. "The overwhelming majority is against it [universal permission to celebrate the old rite]. It's not like it's fifty-fifty."

This source pointed out that just two weeks ago, in Benedict's closed-door meeting with cardinals, the bulk of cardinals who spoke were against such a move.

"If it were up to Castrillon Hoyos, it would already have happened," the source said, referring to Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Ecclesia Dei Commission for traditionalist Catholics.

"But Benedict is trying to operate on the basis of consensus, and there's just no consensus," he said.

Another senior Vatican official said simply, "It is not a theme that is yet mature."

Given the way Benedict XVI has played his cards close to the chest on other matters, it's possible that a document is in the works without most of his key advisors knowing about it. But so far, on this issue, what we have is a lot of smoke in search of a fire.

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The famed site of Medjugorje, where devotees believe the Virgin Mary has been appearing and offering revelations since 1981, falls within the territory of the diocese of Mostar-Duvno in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Almost from the beginning, there have been tensions between the Franciscans at Medjugorje, many of whom have embraced and supported popular belief in the apparitions, and the local bishops, who have generally been more skeptical.

Bishop Ratko Peric, 62, of Mostar-Duvno recently gave an interview to his diocesan newspaper, Crkva na kamenu, which means "The Church on the Rock," about a conversation he had with Pope Benedict XVI during his late February ad limina visit. Peric indicates that Benedict shares his skeptical stance.

The following is an excerpt:

Some newspapers have written that this Pope visited Medjugorje incognito while he was a cardinal and that he is preparing to recognize Medjugorje as a shrine, etc. Did you touch upon this topic?
We did, and I wrote to and spoke with the Holy Father on it. He only laughed surprisingly. Regarding the events of Medjugorje our position is well known: not a single proof exists that these events concern supernatural apparitions and revelations. Therefore from the church's perspective no pilgrimages are allowed which would attribute any authenticity to these alleged apparitions.

The Holy Father told me: "We at the Congregation [for the Doctrine of the Faith] always asked ourselves, how can any believer accept as authentic apparitions that occur every day and for so many years? Are they still occurring every day?"

I responded: "Every day, Holy Father, to one of the [visionaries] in Boston, to another near Milan and still another in Krehin Gradac (Herzegovina), and everything is done under the protocol of 'apparitions of Medjugorje'. Up till now there have been about 35,000 'apparitions' and there is no end in sight!"

… The numerous absurd messages, insincerities, falsehoods and disobedience associated with the events and "apparitions" of Medjugorje from the very outset, all disprove any claims of authenticity. Much pressure has been made to force the recognition of the authenticity of private revelations, yet not through convincing arguments based upon the truth, but through the self-praise of personal conversions and by statements such as one "feels good". How can this ever be taken as proof of the authenticity of apparitions?

… Finally the Holy Father said: "We at the congregation felt that priests should be of service to those faithful who seek Confession and Holy Communion, leaving out the question of the authenticity of the apparitions."

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Following her stellar performance as an analyst and reporter during last April's conclave, Delia Gallagher joined CNN fulltime as the network's first "faith and values" correspondent. Those of us who have worked with Delia knew it was a wise choice, and she confirmed that assessment with her brilliant "CNN Presents" special, "The Last Days of Pope John Paul II: The Untold Stories," which aired in conjunction with the anniversary of his death on April 2.

In the interests of full disclosure, I play a minor role in the two-hour program, but its heart is formed by Delia's interviews with all the principals: Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, then John Paul's private secretary; American Cardinal Edmund Szoka, a close friend of the late pope; the doctors who treated John Paul, other Vatican officials who served him, and Catholic personalities around the world inspired by him.

"The Last Days of John Paul II" will air again this weekend, Saturday and Sunday from 7-9 p.m. Eastern Time in the United States, and at various times over the weekend on CNN International.

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I'll have a round-up of Benedict's activity during Holy Week in the next "Word from Rome."

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

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