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April 21, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 33

John L. Allen Jr.


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Benedict's Holy Week: Back to basics, The centrality of love, Service and power, Preferential option for Africa; Other Items: Advances in artificial reproduction; Condoms as a 'lesser evil'; Jesuit anniversaries; The Opus Dei cartoon; Hans Küng on radio; and The 'Hope Monstrance'


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Benedict XVI was elected in mid-April, which this year meant his first anniversary coincided with Easter. Last week, he had seven high-profile occasions to present himself: the Chrism Mass and the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, the service of the Passion of the Lord and the Via Crucis on Good Friday, the Easter vigil on Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday itself, and his Angelus address on what the Italians call Pasquetta, or the "little Easter," on Monday.

Asked endlessly during the same arc of time to comment for the global press on who the pope is and what he's doing, I was sometimes tempted to respond, "This isn't Kim Jong-Il … just listen!"

In summary form, Holy Week underscored at least four points about Benedict XVI: 1) His emphasis on the basics; 2) The centrality of love to his thought; 3) The distinction he draws between service and power; and 4) His "preferential option for Africa" with respect to the developing world.

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Ticking off the topics Benedict covered during Holy Week, at first blush they seem entirely predictable -- the need for priests to be men of prayer, Jesus' washing the feet of the disciples as an act of love, the reality of evil, the link between Easter and Baptism, and so on. It's the nature of the liturgical season.

The striking thing, however, is that Benedict did not treat these subjects as a point of departure for other reflections, but rather as the very core of his concern. There was never a sense that he wanted to use the platform afforded by Holy Week to launch a message; Holy Week was the message.

In that sense, Benedict is a "back to basics" pope.

The church doesn't need new paradigms or initiatives, he believes, so much as the capacity to explain its core teachings well, and to inspire a desire to live them. Benedict's theology is never speculative, but pastoral and "kneeling."

This focus on the fundamentals is reflected in how he has approached the papacy. Statistics help tell the story: At the end of his first year, John Paul II had given 569 talks, and held 68 major public events. Benedict over his first twelve months gave 291 talks, and held 31 events. (One might profitably ask if the church has really missed those other 278 papal speeches!)

Benedict has pared the papacy back to what he considers its core functions, and when he does take the stage, he is determined to get to the heart of the matter.

None of this, however, means Benedict is incapable of surprise.

In his homily during the Easter vigil, for example, he described the resurrection as a kind of evolutionary "leap," awakening echoes of the late French Jesuit theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin, whose thought indirectly influenced the document Gaudium et Spes at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and who saw physical evolution as part of a broader cosmic and spiritual process. At the time, then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger was critical of what he saw as an overly optimistic thrust in Teilhard, and in French theology generally, but he never dismissed the core insight.

"If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution," Benedict said, "it [the Resurrection] is the greatest 'mutation,' absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development. … It is a qualitative leap … towards a new future life, towards a new world which, starting from Christ, already continuously permeates this world of ours, transforms it and draws it to itself."

One well-known theologian in Rome told me this week that he always holds his breath when Benedict XVI speaks, because he may hear something that will take him off guard -- generally in the sense of opening up a new perspective on a topic he thought he already understood.

This will not be a papacy of great innovation, but neither will it be about stagnation or "glorious repetition." Instead, it is shaping up as a case study in the "return to the sources," or ressourcement, which has always been Benedict XVI's theological and pastoral style.

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In the aftermath of Benedict's election, many commentators, myself included, expected that "truth" would be the watchword of the new pope's struggle against the "Dictatorship of Relativism."

The surprise is that, if one were to select a single word to summarize Benedict's magisterium so far, it would have to be "love." Joseph Ratzinger, the erstwhile enforcer of the faith, has metamorphosed into the world's most ardent Apostle of Love.

In his six homilies and messages during Holy Week, totaling (in Italian) 6,958 words, Benedict managed to use the noun "love" 29 times, plus some form of the verb "to love" 10 times. That's one reference to love for every 178 words, meaning that it was rare for a paragraph to go by in which the pope didn't return to the theme. The word for "sin," by way of comparison, appeared only three times, the word "evil" only four times.

Pressing such numbers too far can turn into a kind of Kabbalah, but as a rough indicator of the pope's interests, they are indicative.

At the Lord's Supper on Thursday, for example, Benedict defined sin as "the refusal of love, not wanting to be loved, and not loving."

"The holiness of God is not just an incandescent power, before which we must draw back in terror," he said. "It's the power of love, and therefore a purifying and healing power."

At the Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday, Benedict described the resurrection as "an explosion of love, which broke the formerly indissoluble bond between 'dying and becoming.'"

Perhaps most tellingly, Benedict closed his message for the "Urbi et Orbi" blessing on Easter Sunday with the Latin formula Christus resurrexit, quia Deus caritas est (Christ is risen, because God is love!) Among other things, the line is an echo of Benedict's first encyclical, also on the theme of love.

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Benedict returned during Holy Week to another favorite theme, which is a sharp disjunction between service and power. Priesthood, indeed any ministry in the name of Christ, must be about service, the pope insisted. Moreover, the Christian message, particularly its emphasis on the sovereignty and supremacy of God's law, sets limits to all forms of secular power.

Speaking to priests in the Chrism Mass, Benedict pressed the theme.

"Christ wants us to be instruments of service," the pope said. "If human hands represent human faculties, and, generally, the technical capacity to dispose of the world, then anointed hands must be a sign of the human person's capacity to give, of the creativity to shape the world with love."

In his Easter vigil homily, Benedict said the new life offered by Christ is "a formula of contradiction with all the ideologies of violence, and a program for opposition to corruption and to aspirations to power and possession."

As one implication, Benedict stressed that Christians cannot remain indifferent regarding injustice.

"On the Via Crucis, there is no possibility of being neutral," Benedict said. "Pilate, the skeptical intellectual, wanted to be neutral, to stay out of it; but in so doing he took a position against justice, for the sake of conformism and his career."

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Typically, the pope offers a quick survey of current events in his "Urbi et Orbi" blessing on Easter, and Benedict XVI followed suit, ticking off a host of global hotspots: Darfur, the Great Lakes region in Africa, and Africa generally; Iraq; the Holy Land; Latin America; and the current nuclear crisis with Iran, though without mentioning that nation by name.

It's revealing that Benedict started with Africa, and that he mentioned more specific concerns in Africa than in any other part of the world. Over Holy Week, in fact, Benedict mentioned Africa as often as he did sin.

That builds on a track record.

Last June, Benedict announced plans for second Synod of Bishops for Africa. In a message to the clergy in Rome on May 13, he urged the priests and deacons from African not to allow their continent to be overcome by the vices exported from Europe. On May 25, at his regular weekly audience, he urged international leaders to be mindful of the material difficulties faced by the peoples of Africa, a message he's repeated on other occasions.

During the daily General Congregation meetings leading up to the conclave, several African cardinals delivered eloquent pleas for the next pope, whoever he might be, to put the suffering of their continent at the top of his pastoral agenda.

"The pope sat through all of that," one African cardinal told me immediately after Benedict's election. "He has to know our concerns."

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This week's L'espresso magazine carries a fascinating exchange between Dr. Ignazio Marino, an Italian transplant surgeon at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, Penn., and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan and widely considered one of the leading intellectual lights in the church.

On the issue of artificial reproduction, Marino says new technologies are now emerging that would not create and freeze surplus embryos, but ovocites, well before the masculine and feminine strands of chromosomes are combined, and hence before new DNA exists. In other words, what would be created and frozen, Martino argued, would not be a human being.

Martini was cautiously approving.

"It also appears to me that what you propose could overcome the rejection of all forms of artificial reproduction that's present today in a number of circles," he said. "It produces a painful split between a practice that's commonly accepted by most people and approved by law, and the attitude (at least in theory) of many believers."

Martini also supported "embryo adoption," meaning allowing frozen embryos to be implanted in women who volunteer to bring them to term, even if the women are not married, if the alternative is that the embryo will eventually be eliminated.

"The insertion [of the embryo] in the womb of a woman, including a single mother, would seem preferable to its pure and simple destruction," he said.

"Where there is a conflict of values, it seems to me ethically more important to incline to that solution which permits a life to expand, rather than allows it to die," Martini said. "But I understand that not everybody will be of this opinion. I just don't want us to clash on the basis of abstract and general principles, when instead we're in a gray zone where we can't start with apodictic judgments."

On abortion, Martini firmly upheld the moral teaching of the church, but acknowledged the complexity of writing it into public policy.

"It seems to me difficult [to imagine] that, in situations like ours, the state would not distinguish between acts that are punishable in a penal fashion, and acts for which a penal solution doesn't make sense," he said. "That doesn't mean a 'license to kill,' but that the state doesn't intervene in every possible case. Its efforts should be to reduce the number of abortions, to impede them with every means possible (above all after a certain period from the beginning of the pregnancy), to reduce the causes of abortion, and to take precautions so that women who decide to take this step, especially during the period when it's not illegal, do not suffer grave physical damage or have their lives placed at risk."

Martini noted that the risk of serious physical injury is especially grave in the case of clandestine abortions, and hence said that, all things considered, Italy's abortion law -- which permits abortion during the first trimester -- has had the positive effect of "contributing to the reduction and, eventually, elimination" of back-alley procedures.

In a case in which a fetus threatens the life of the mother, Martini said "moral theology has always sustained the principle of legitimate defense and of lesser evil," in order to justify a procedure that would save the life of the mother while terminating the pregnancy.

Similarly, asked about the use of condoms to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, Martini responded: "Certainly the use of prophylactics can, in some situations, constitute a lesser evil," mentioning the case of a couple where one partner is infected and the other isn't.

The problem, Martini said, isn't really the ethical analysis. The problem is the PR headaches that follow whenever a church official says this out loud. To put it bluntly, anytime a senior church official says that use of a condom might be a "lesser evil" in the context of a deadly disease, the next day's headlines trumpet "Church okay with condoms," which is not the same message.

"The question is really if it's wise for religious authorities to propagandize in favor of this method of defense [from HIV/AIDS], almost implying that other morally sustainable means, including abstinence, are put on a lower level," Martini said. "The principle of a 'lesser evil,' applicable in all the cases covered by ethical doctrine, is one thing; another thing is who ought to express these judgments publicly."

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In upholding the moral tolerability of condoms as a "lesser evil" in the context of HIV/AIDS, Martini joins Cardinal George Cottier, theologian of the Papal Household under John Paul II; Cardinal Godfriend Danneels of Belgium; Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, President of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Health; Cardinal Cormac Muphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England; and Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa.

In 2004, the Indian bishops launched an awareness campaign about HIV/AIDS that includes information on condoms, and in 2005, a spokesperson for the Spanish bishops said that condoms might be justified in some circumstances to combat the disease.

Msgr. Angel Rodriguez Luńo, an Opus Dei priest, a professor at Santa Croce University in Rome, and a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has said there's actually not much debate over the theology; most moralists, he said, believe the argument for condoms as a lesser evil is fairly clear. The question is how to explain that conclusion in a way that doesn't seem to offer a free pass for irresponsible sexual behavior.

"The problem is, anytime we try to give a nuanced response, we see headlines that say, 'Vatican approves condoms,' Rodriguez Luńo told The Washington Post Jan. 23, 2005.

"The issue is more complicated than that. From a moral point of view, we cannot condone contraception. We cannot tell a classroom of 16-year-olds they should use condoms. But if we are dealing with someone or a situation in which persons are clearly going to act in harmful ways, a prostitute who is going to continue her activities, then one might say, 'Stop. But if you are not going to, at least do this.'"

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An event will take place in St. Peter's Basilica tomorrow morning, April 22, that's worth noting.

The Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, is celebrating three major anniversaries in 2006: the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis Xavier, who was born April 7, 1506; the 500th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Peter Faber, born on April 13, 1506; and the 450th anniversary of the death of St. Ignatius Loyola on July 31, 1556.

Tomorrow morning, a Mass for the Jesuits in honor of the Blessed Virgin, Mother of the Society, marking the three anniversaries, will be celebrated in St. Peter's by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State. At the end, Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in the basilica and speak briefly.

Those remarks will be especially closely watched given two points: 1) The Jesuits are approaching a crucial crossroads in early 2008, with the election of a successor to Superior General Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach; 2) The Jesuits are the flagship religious order in the Catholic church, and the Vatican has long felt some ambivalence, worrying that some Jesuits take an excessively critical attitude towards church teaching and discipline.

It will be the first time a pope has addressed an event formally organized by the Society of Jesus since the 34th General Congregation of the order in 1995.

Benedict's affection for the Jesuits is clear. On Feb. 17, he visited La Civiltŕ Cattolica, the Jesuit-edited journal that's a semi-official publication of the Secretariat of State; on March 3, he visited Vatican Radio, another Jesuit-run enterprise; and on March 24, he made Jesuit Fr. Albert Vanhoye, former rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, a cardinal. Moreover, one of the pope's closest collaborators over the years has been a German Jesuit, Fr. Karl Becker, of the Gregorian University.

Yet there's also no doubt that Benedict has qualms about some currents in the society, evidenced by the decision shortly before his election to request the resignation of Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese from America magazine, and the parallel inquest into Stimmen der Zeit, a Jesuit-edited publication in Germany. Many Vatican cardinals privately voice frustration over the way they perceive the Congregation for Religious did not "take in hand" the situation facing religious life on John Paul's watch, and were hoping for a more energetic approach from Benedict.

In that light, many will be listening closely for what Benedict XVI has to say tomorrow morning.

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Whenever a new wind blows in Catholicism, inevitably some enthusiasts will push it to excess. That law of church life operated again this week, with the news that Studi Cattolici, an Italian intellectual journal that includes some Opus Dei members among its staff, published, initially defended, then quickly apologized for a satirical cartoon about the prophet Muhammad.

Studi Cattolici is directed by Cesare Cavallieri, a numerary member of Opus Dei, meaning a celibate who lives in an Opus Dei center. Sources said the magazine has a circulation of perhaps 2,000.

The cartoon, which plays on a scene from Dante's Divine Comedy, showed Dante and the poet Virgil looking into Hell. Though Muhammad is not clearly depicted, Dante asks: "That man divided in two from his head to his feet -- isn't that Muhammad?"

Virgil replies: "Yes, it is him, and he is in two because he has divided society -- while the woman next to him with the burning coals represents Italian politics towards Islam."

Islamic groups were quick to protest, with one Islamic leader in Italy saying, "The mother of cretins is always pregnant."

At first, Cavallieri defended the decision.

"It is not a cartoon against Muhammad, but rather a cartoon about the loss of identity in the West," he told reporters.

On that sentiment, at least, Cavallieri reflects a growing tide of Catholic opinion, especially strong in Rome and environs, that under John Paul II the church's response to Islam was a bit anaemic. Many senior figures believe that Europe must become more explicit in articulating and defending its cultural values, derived in significant ways from its Christian heritage.

Yet Cavallieri's mode of expressing that concern, especially in light of the global outrage the last time someone published a cartoon of Muhammad, seemed to most observers grossly irresponsible. Within 24 hours, he apologized.

In an unusual move, Opus Dei itself also quickly apologized.

An April 15 statement, issued by the Opus Dei Communications Office in Rome, acknowledged that it would be hard for Opus Dei to ask Sony Pictures to respect the religious beliefs of its members, and of Catholics generally, on "The Da Vinci Code," and at the same time be associated with a publication that offends Muslims.

"We have tried to show others the kind of treatment we ask for ourselves," the statement said. "Anything else would be inconsistent and hypocritical."

Noting that the editors of Studi Cattolici had already apologized, the statement said, "We feel obliged to unite ourselves to this request for forgiveness."

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I can report two other points about the Studi Cattolici controversy.

First, while Opus Dei members in Italy seem virtually unanimous that the cartoon was in poor taste, not everyone is happy with the group's official apology.

The discussion is not over whether the cartoon merits censure -- most seem to agree on that -- but whether Opus Dei should comment in corporate fashion on the independent initiatives of its members.

It is a cardinal principle of Opus Dei's philosophy that outside the doctrinal and spiritual formation members receive, they're free to act on their own in their professional and civic activities. A bank with an Opus Dei member on its board is not an "Opus Dei bank," they say, and the same thing is true for magazines or TV agencies. They have to rise or fall on their own. Behind that principle is the conviction that Opus Dei members are supposed to be out in the secular world transforming it from within, not building a chain of "Opus Dei" franchises.

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The question some Opus Dei people ask, therefore, is: By what logic should the group apologize for a publication for which it's not responsible?

Anticipating this concern, the statement said:

"The Prelature [of Opus Dei] is not responsible for Studi Cattolici. However, some members of Opus Dei work in this publication, and understandably this fact has created some confusion. Also, many Muslims and persons from different religious beliefs cooperate with the works of Opus Dei. Consequently, our office has been receiving queries … and we have felt it necessary to provide a response."

Second, not all commentators in Italy were ready to hop on the anti-Cavallieri bandwagon.

Writing in Corriere della Sera, Italy's leading newspaper, deputy editor Magdi Allam asked why the same outrage didn't follow a recent "South Park" episode in which Jesus is depicted defecating on President George Bush and the American flag.

Allam, an Egyptian Muslim who has become a well-known journalist in Italy, argued that the right to satire is an essential element of a democratic society, and that the Koran actually contains no prohibition against depicting Muhammad.

"If anything, the ones who are offending Islam are the terrorists who blow themselves up even inside mosques," Allam wrote.

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One more Opus Dei update.

Members in Japan have written to Sony Pictures asking that "The Da Vinci Code" movie begin with a disclaimer that the film is fictional, with any relationship to actual people or groups being coincidental.

I asked Sony spokesperson Jim Kennedy to respond.

We have not revealed any details regarding what is or isn't going to be in the film," he said April 17.

"As we have indicated to Opus Dei in the past, we view 'The Da Vinci Code' as a work of fiction, and at its heart, it's a thriller, not a religious tract," Kennedy said. "We believe the filmmakers are going to deliver an exciting movie that will delight audiences, not offend them. We recognize the fact that the story has inspired many conversations about history and religion, and there is a growing consensus among religious leaders, including Opus Dei, that the release of the film can provide a unique opportunity to educate people about their work and beliefs."

"That is why we support a Web site,, where prominent Catholic and other Christian writers are contributing essays that explore the foundations of faith and its impact on history and our lives," Kennedy said.<

As a matter of full disclosure, I authored the piece on Opus Dei for the Sony Web site.

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One of the best bits of broadcast journalism devoted to religious affairs is the "Sunday Sequence" program by the BBC in Northern Ireland, hosted by William Crawley. Last Sunday, Crawley interviewed Swiss theologian Fr. Hans Küng, the informal leader of the "loyal opposition" in the church, about Benedict XVI's first year.

Küng was cautiously optimistic, for reasons that are by now familiar -- mostly that the pope has not lived up to his Draconian public image in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Perhaps of greatest interest is that Küng speaks at some length about his Sept. 24 meeting with the new pope at Castel Gandolfo. He said Benedict was especially interested in three issues: the church's engagement with the natural sciences; Islam; and Küng's efforts towards a "Global Ethic," a set of ethical standards that believers of all religions and non-believers can accept, as a basis for promoting justice and peace in the world.

The interview can be heard here:

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Benedict XVI blesses a monstrance from St. Dominic's Parish in New Orleans, La., on March 15. Speaking is Fr. Christopher Nalty, a priest of the New Orleans archdiocese who works in the Congregation for Clergy, accompanied by pilgrims from the archdiocese.
Occasionally in the rush of travel and breaking news, certain items I've flagged for "The Word From Rome" fall through the cracks. Here's one, however, that despite being more than a month old is still worth recording.

On March 15, Benedict XVI expressed his solidarity with the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the United States by blessing a monstrance recovered from St. Dominic's Parish in New Orleans, located in one of the hardest hit areas of the city.

A group of parishioners had dug up the monstrance from several feet of mud, where it had remained for three weeks while the eight-foot-high flood waters receded. The group feared it was ruined, but weeks of painstaking restoration eventually brought it back to mint condition.

Pilgrims from New Orleans brought the monstrance to Rome, where Benedict XVI had agreed to bless it with Holy Water at the conclusion of a Wednesday General Audience. Afterwards, he also gave the pilgrims the white zucchetto he was wearing in exchange for a new one they had purchased at the famed Roman clerical shop Gammarelli's.

Now dubbed the "Hope Monstrance," the monstrance and zucchetto, along with photos of the event, are set to make the rounds of parishes and schools in New Orleans, serving the twin purpose of promoting Eucharistic Adoration and offering a symbol of the city's rebirth.

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

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