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April 28, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 34

John L. Allen Jr.


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Vatican in condom debate; "Prayer for Peace"; Religion in the media; Who's going to be the next Secretary of State


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Sources told NCR this week that a draft study currently being prepared by the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care would provisionally accept the use of condoms in the narrow context of a married couple, where one partner is infected with HIV/AIDS and the other is not, as a means to prevent transmission of the disease.

That tentative conclusion, said to have been approved by the council's consulters, must still be reviewed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and ultimately by Pope Benedict XVI. It is not clear when, or if, an official Vatican document on the subject will be released to the public.

Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragān, President of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, confirmed in an April 23 interview with the Roman newspaper La Repubblica that his office was asked by Pope Benedict XVI to look into the subject.

Speaking on background, an official in Lozano Barragān's office later told NCR that the draft takes a favorable position on the use of condoms to halt the spread of the disease "inside marriage and the family, not outside of it."

Lozano Barragān, however, has stressed in subsequent interviews that the work of his office is on-going and provisional, and has indicated that it will be up to Benedict XVI to decide if a document should be issued.

The study seems, at least in part, a response to public discussions of the issue among senior church officials, including several cardinals, such as Jean-Marie Lustiger, the former archbishop of Paris; Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan; Swiss Cardinal George Cottier, theologian of the Papal Household under John Paul II; Cardinal Godfriend Danneels of Belgium; Cardinal Cormac Muphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England; and Lozano Barragān himself, all of whom have supported condoms in the context of AIDS in one fashion or another.

Other senior officials have opposed such a move, including Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family. In a 2004 interview with the BBC, Lopez Trujillo, a Colombian, argued that the HIV virus is small enough to "easily pass through" latex. Lopez also asserted that condoms encourage promiscuity, which he deemed among the root causes of the pandemic.

Given the public fascination with the Catholic church and birth control, any statement on condoms would be sure to generate wide interest. Speaking with theologians and Vatican officials this week, two points seem especially important to make in advance.

First, a finding in favor of condoms in the context of marriage to fight HIV/AIDS would not mark a "change in policy," since the church has never spoken officially on this specific question.

Such a conclusion would not, according to these experts, represent a break with the church's traditional ban on birth control. The aim would be the prevention of disease, not contraception. No matter what happens, according to these Vatican sources, the church is not on the brink of approving condoms or any other "artificial" means for the purpose of limiting births.

Second, if there is eventually a document, how important it might be would depend on what line of reasoning it employs. Specifically, experts would be looking to see if it treats condom use in the context of AIDS simply as a "lesser evil," or takes a more positive view.

In essence, the question boils down to this: Can a condom ever be used without sin?

The "lesser evil" argument goes back to St. Augustine. In summary form, it holds that one may counsel a lesser evil if it is the only way to stop someone from doing a greater harm. A classic example employed in moral theology courses is the mob boss who comes to confession and says he's planning to kill an enemy. The confessor must try to dissuade him, but if it can't be done, he can suggest that the boss beat up his enemy instead.

The beating is obviously not morally acceptable, but it's preferable to murder. In this case, the confessor has not "approved" the action, but rather saw it in a pastoral setting as the best that could be achieved. Neither, obviously, would the church be "recommending" beatings as a matter of policy.

Applied to AIDS and condoms, many theologians regard the "lesser evil" argument as fairly clear. If someone is determined to have intercourse where there is serious risk of infection, and can't be talked out of it, this view holds, it's better to use a condom. Often bishops and theologians phrase this argument in terms of applying both the sixth commandment, "thou shalt not commit adultery," and the fifth, "thou shalt not kill."

For those who take this view, the most urgent question is usually not about the logic of the conclusion, but the pastoral wisdom of announcing it publicly, given the risk that people may misunderstand it as a kind of "approval" of condoms.

There is vigorous theological debate, however, on the far more tricky question of whether such use is not merely a "lesser evil," but no sin at all. There are strong views on both sides.

Some Catholic moralists argue that because sexuality must be open to life, intercourse using condoms is, by the physical character of the act, immoral. They point to Paul VI's insistence in Humanae Vitae that sexual activity must be "apt in itself" for the generation of children.

Respected ethicist Luke Gormally, writing in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly in January 2005, put the argument in graphic form.

"A condom is as inappropriate a receptacle for the deposition of semen as the anus," Gormally wrote. "Choosing to ejaculate into either amounts to the choice of a type of act which … plainly detaches sex from its ordering to the good of children. And that, as St. Thomas teaches, is the essence of 'unnatural vice.'"

On this line of reasoning, sexual intercourse with a condom must always be immoral, even for the noble aim of preventing infection with a deadly disease.

Others, however, argue that wearing a condom during intercourse cannot have moral value in itself. It's the intent, they say, that matters.

"It's not sex with a condom that's intrinsically evil, but contraception," Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, a leading moral theologian at Rome's Alphonsian Academy, said in an April 25 interview with NCR.

He argued that use of a condom to prevent AIDS infection within a marriage can be seen as an instance of the "principle of double effect," in the sense that the aim of the action is to block disease, with preventing pregnancy merely an undesired but foreseen consequence.

"From my reading of the Catholic moral tradition, I think it can be justified," he said.

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As Johnstone explained it, the principle of double effect was initially formulated in the 17th century and nuanced further in the 19th and 20th centuries. Generally speaking, it holds that if an act can be foreseen to have both good and evil effects, one can morally commit the act if four circumstances obtain:

  • The act is not intrinsically evil
  • One intends the good effect, not the bad
  • The good effect does not occur by means of the evil effect, since one may not do evil to obtain good
  • There's "proportionate reason," meaning, roughly, that the good outweighs the evil

Johnstone believes the case of married couples where one partner has AIDS is a classic example. The couple does not intend to prevent pregnancy, he said, merely to block the disease, and the preservation of life is an obvious good.

Other theologians, however, argue that using condoms violates the first condition, i.e., that the act must not be intrinsically immoral.

"Condomistic intercourse cannot be conjugal intercourse," said Fr. Robert Gahl of Rome's Opus Dei-sponsored Santa Croce University. "Since that's the only licit kind, condomistic intercourse cannot be an affirmation of the love between a man and a woman."

Gahl said that if intercourse between husband and wife poses a risk, then "they ought to express their affection in another way."

Johnstone noted there is at least one precedent for the Vatican considering the intent behind the use of artificial birth control, rather than focusing exclusively on the physical character of the act.

In the early 1960s, Johnstone said, the Holy Office (today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) gave permission for religious women in the Belgian Congo to use contraceptives as a defense against rape.

"It was seen as a protection against pregnancy arising from unwanted, unfree sexual intercourse," Johnstone said.

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I was in Washington, D.C., yesterday for the international Sant'Egidio conference "Prayer for Peace," a version of its annual inter-religious gathering held annually for the last 20 years, since John Paul's 1986 summit of religious leaders in Assisi.

The event also marked something of a debut for Sant'Egidio on the American public stage. Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a longtime veteran on inter-faith dialogue, voiced the hope that Sant'Egidio will have "a much higher profile, higher visibility."

In a panel discussion Thursday morning, Douglas Johnston of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy said that religious freedom in recent years has "leapt to the forefront in global pursuit of human rights," and become "a significant touchstone in American foreign policy."

The range of difficulties soon became clear, especially in the Islamic world.

An audience member from the Ahmadiyya movement within Islam, for example, said that the group has recently been outlawed in Pakistan, where even issuing the call to prayer from an Ahmadiyya mosque, or offering the customary "Salam Alaikam" greeting by a member of the movement, is a crime which can be punished by up to three years in prison.

Schneier observed that the one million Catholics in Saudi Arabia are not able to build churches or worship openly on Sundays. Kevin Hasson, from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told the story of being invited to appear during a call-in show on the Al-Jazeerah network. The first caller, he said, was "Muhammad from Mecca," who asked why the network was talking to Hasson rather than carrying out jihad against him.

Hasson argued that the best way to make a case for religious freedom is through anthropology, not theology or political theory.

"We can find an Islamic warrant for religious liberty with an Islamic warrant for human dignity," he said.

Hasson said that the problem with much Western discourse about religious freedom is that it's premised on relativism.

"The theory of relativism gives liberty only to relativistic religion," he said. "Believers of a recalcitrant sort who actually think that what they believe is true aren't allowed to express themselves in public."

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the pope's nuncio in the United States, agreed that anthropology is fundamental.

"The most fundamental question, it seems to me, is this: Who is the other, according to my religion? If he or she is an enemy, I will take one attitude. If it's somebody to be converted, I will take another. But if he or she is a creature of God, the same God to whom I pray, then all human rights will be recognized."

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I was on a panel titled "Mass Media: Religions, War and Peace," chaired by Sr. Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. bishops' conference, which featured Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, editor of America magazine; Rev. Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former Democratic Congressman; Mario Marazziti of Sant'Egidio; and Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal.

Christiansen argued for a "public philosophy of forgiveness" in terms of how religious believers articulate their positions in the media. On a practical level, he also suggested that religious groups need to worry not just about educating reporters, but also editors, since quite often journalists will complain that their editors compelled them to shape religion stories according to pre-determined scripts.

Edgar said that many seminaries today are "exquisitely preparing students for the 19th century," meaning for a world that no longer exists. Concretely, he said, seminaries treat sermons and the written word as the fundamental building block of preaching, when most people today get their information from visual media.

Edgar also said that moderate religious believers need to become more aggressive about making their voices heard to counteract what he described as the "radical religious right."

Marazziti warned about a new kind of censorship he sees at work in the press today, not by the state but by the market. He pointed to several stories of international significance which draw precious little attention in the global press, including the crisis in Somalia, which, he said, "is worse now than 15 years ago, but it's as if it doesn't exist."

Noonan opened by quoting Bismarck to the effect that "war is the health of the state." It is also, she observed, the health of the media, since it offers high drama and great visuals.

Noonan said that some people, looking at the religiously inspired conflicts around the world, conclude that what we need is less religion. In fact, she said, we need more conversation about the deep faith convictions of religious believers, not just their political and social engagement. She described a recent conversation with a friend, explaining what's "good" about Good Friday. In the end, she said, that sort of substantive exploration of religious beliefs can "make us more comprehensible to each other, and lower the heat."

I gave a shortened version of my standard plea for a greater spirit of communion within the church, arguing that we cannot foster peace in the world if we do not practice it among one another.

That provided the basis for an interesting exchange with Edgar. I challenged his use of the phrase "radical religious right," observing that often these are simply religiously serious people who want to bring their faith and moral concerns to public debates. It's not a good basis for dialogue, I said, to use language that others perceive as prejudicial.

Edgar said he saw the point, but offered examples of statements from figures such as Pat Robertson he considers radical.

Noonan asked me to clarify whether John Paul II had specifically condemned the U.S.-led war in Iraq. I said that it's true the pope never made a direct statement saying "this conflict by these people is immoral," because popes never use that kind of language, but there was no doubt about his disapproval. His most senior aides did specifically condemn the war on several occasions, and taken in context, the pope's own language was unambiguous.

What John Paul and the people around him were concerned about was that their opposition not be confused with the ideological criticism from secular European leftists, who bore images of the pope alongside Che Guevara in their protest marches. As soon as the war was a reality, Vatican efforts shifted to trying to work with the United States to make the best out of the transition.

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I had the experience of attending Mass Thursday morning in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel, where the celebrants outnumbered the congregants. The Mass was led by Cardinals Theodore McCarrick of Washington and William Keeler of Baltimore, along with Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Apostolic Observer of the Holy See at the United Nations, and Msgr. Ambrogio Spreafico, rector of the Urban University in Rome.

Those of us in the pews were originally three, though our ranks swelled to five by the end. McCarrick began by noting the situation was a bit like the early church -- more priests than people, but, he pointed out, that was the basis for big things later on.

McCarrick is a notoriously irrepressible speaker. Despite the spare turnout, McCarrick delivered a sparkling impromptu homily about the story of the early church as a great adventure, and invited his listeners to never be bored in thinking about the faith.

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In most circles, the only parlor game related to Vatican jobs that really gets people's blood moving is trying to guess the next pope. Among Vatican conoscienti, however, there's almost an equal fascination with the question of who's going to be the next Secretary of State, since in the president/prime minister system of Vatican affairs, the buck ultimately stops on the pope's desk, but a great deal of the day-to-day governance is carried out by his most important deputy.

These days, the question of who will succeed 78-year-old Cardinal Angelo Sodano excites almost as many whispered conversations around Roman lunch tables as potential successors to John Paul II did a little more than a year ago.

The buzz is all the more intense given the lack of reliable information.

In background conversations this week, I asked two senior Vatican officials what they're hearing, and both emphasized that there's a lot of talk but no firm indications. The uncertainty, both said, comes from the fact that while Benedict XVI consults widely, asking pointed questions and listening carefully to answers, he doesn't give any on-the-spot feedback. Hence officials leave these sessions feeling they've been heard, but unsure what the pope intends to do with the advice.

One senior Vatican official speaking on background told me last week that he's sure a new Secretariat of State will be in place prima del'Ferragosto, meaning before the traditional August doldrums in Italy.

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A different cardinal, however, told me that he doesn't believe Benedict will make any important personnel moves prior to the summer break, and may in fact never lead the sweeping overhaul of the curial system that some have anticipated.

This official said it's possible that Sodano will serve until he turns 80 in November 2007. Sodano is in good shape, he said, he wants to continue, and he's surrounded himself with a support staff composed largely of Piedmontesi, clergy from his native Italian region of the Piedmont, with whom he's entirely comfortable.

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While I have no crystal ball, each of the following names has been floated in recent months in connection to the Secretariat of State's job. I present them in alphabetical order, not "rank."

  1. Archbishop Fortunato Baldelli, 70: Currently nuncio in France, Baldelli previously served in São Tomé and Príncipe, and later in Peru. (His claim to fame in Peru is that he became good friends with an up-and-coming Opus Dei bishop by the name of Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne, naming him Cardinal-Archbishop of Lima. The two men are still friends.) Baldelli is close to Benedict XVI, and has been quietly received several times over the course of the pope's first year. Those meetings have led to speculation that Baldelli is a key figure in the pope's "kitchen cabinet," especially on curial reform. If Baldelli does not take over Sodano's job, some have mentioned him as a possible successor to Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos at the Congregation for Clergy, and as head of the Ecclesia Dei Commission for traditionalist Catholics.
  2. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 71: Bertone would be an obvious choice, given that he served under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1995 to 2002. He knows the pope's mind, and his working style. A Salesian, Bertone has a jocular, outgoing personality that would make him a good public "face" for the Holy See. Bertone comes from outside the diplomatic corps, yet he knows the curia and Italian politics quite well. One drawback is that Bertone is a canonist, not a theologian, and some believe he may not have the deep intellectual and cultural formation Benedict would desire.
  3. Bishop Salvatore (Rino) Fisichella, 54: Were it not for his youth, many observers believe Fisichella would be a slam-dunk for Secretary of State. He and Benedict XVI were both principal contributors to John Paul's 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio. As the rector of the Lateran University, Fisichella has earned a reputation as an able administrator. He knows the Italian political scene, having served informally as chaplain of the parliament. Yet he also has a deep theological background, and has written extensively on the cultural future of Europe -- one of Benedict's favorite subjects. He is also a key advisor to Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome and also a close friend of Benedict XVI. The problem is that if the pope appoints a Secretary of State at 55, then either he stays in the job 20 years, or he has a terribly long run as an emeritus.
  4. Cardinal Attilio Nicora, 69: Nicora is a veteran administrator, who came to prominence as the architect of the 1984 revision of the concordat between Italy and the Holy See. Nicora is currently President of the Apostolic Patrimony of the Holy See, placing him in charge of the Vatican's financial operations. Shortly after his election, Benedict asked Nicora to help him review the Roman Curia, leading some to speculate he might be in line for Sodano's job. Nicora's February appointment as legate to the Patriarchal Basilicas of St. Francis and S. Maria degli Angeli at Assisi, however, took the edge off those rumors. While Nicora is an astute manager, some wonder if he has the intellectual and spiritual depth Benedict wants. On the other hand, the pope brings those qualities himself, and may want a shrewd figure such as Nicora as his alter ego.
  5. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, 72: Had John Paul II remained healthy longer, most Vatican-watchers believe Re would have been a certainty to become Secretary of State. He served under John Paul as the sostituto, or number two official, for 11 years, making him one of just a handful of Vatican officials who could see the pope without an appointment. Now the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Re is a consummate Vatican diplomat -- agile intellectually, with an astonishing command of detail and a capacity to save face and preserve the bella figura. For precisely those reasons, however, many observers believe he may not be quite what Benedict is looking for.
  6. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, 75: Most observers discount Ruini because of age, but for a pope elected at 78, appointing a Secretary of State at 75 may not seem so incongruous. Perhaps the deeper reason Ruini is considered a long shot is because, in Benedict's eyes, he may well seem far too valuable where he is as president of the Italian bishops' conference. Beyond that, however, Ruini brings everything Benedict would desire: strong leadership, deep theological convictions, political savvy and vast experience. Ruini has also made efforts to broaden his language skills, though some would still question his understanding of issues and cultural currents outside the Italian, and European, context.
  7. Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, 62: Like Re, his predecessor as sostituto, Sandri comes out of the Vatican diplomatic corps, having served as nuncio to Venezuela and to Mexico. Sandri is Argentinean, so like Sodano, he has a deep sensitivity to Latin America. Like Re, Sandri is known as a bright and competent administrator who knows how to get things done. He demonstrated pastoral sensitivity during the final days of Pope John Paul II, when Sandri became the pope's voice, reading his messages aloud. It was Sandri who broke the news of the pope's death to the crowd in St. Peter's Square on April 2, saying, "We all feel like orphans this evening." Sandri, too, is seen as more of a fix-it figure than a theologian, and most would interpret his elevation as a "status quo" move.
  8. Cardinal Angelo Scola, 64: The patriarch of Venice, Scola is the first adherent of the Comunione e Liberazione movement to become a cardinal. He is a member of the Communio school, with a particular interest is bioethics and the "culture of life." Scola is fluent in several languages, including English, the result of his having studied at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He is also an affable, charismatic personality who does well in the media. His appointment would be seen as an imaginative choice. Memories of old battles over Comunione e Liberazione are still strong among the Italian clergy, however, especially in the northern Italian regions that tend to dominate the Secretariat of State, which might make Scola's appointment divisive.
  9. Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, 62: Sepe first came to prominence as secretary of the Congregation for Clergy in 1996, when he organized a massive celebration of the 50th anniversary of John Paul's ordination to the priesthood. He then was placed in charge of the Jubilee 2000 effort, and managed to orchestrate a yearlong calendar full of conferences, ceremonies, and spectacles in St. Peter's Square. In February 2001 he became a cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Sepe holds a secular doctorate in philosophy from Rome's Sapienza University, but is nevertheless seen by some as lacking the vision that Benedict would want. Most consider Sepe a better candidate to succeed Cardinal Michele Giordano of Naples.
  10. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, 63: Tauran served for almost 13 years as the Vatican's "Foreign Minister," formally known as the "Secretary for Relations with States." Most famously, he led the Holy See's opposition to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Tauran, who is French, is perceived to have fallen out of favor with Ruini, who felt Tauran's line veered dangerously close to the pacifist and anti-globalization rhetoric of the secular left. His health was also rumored to be precarious, though he insisted these concerns were overblown. Currently heading the Vatican library, Tauran is acknowledged to have a sharp mind and a deep understanding of the global situation.

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