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May 12, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 36

John L. Allen Jr.


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The Word From Rome

John L. Allen Jr.

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The Heritage of John Paul II on marriage and the family; Revised norms for clergy sex abuse; Sex abuse in Italy; Ware on 'cardiac anthropology'; Scorecard for the Da Vinci Code; A Radcliffe clarification


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Recently, I bumped into a friend who works for the Vatican. I mentioned that I'd like to talk sometime about the major theological questions facing the church over the next five to 10 years, and without hesitation his first response was: "Anything to do with bioethics."

No area challenges the church today with greater urgency than the moral and doctrinal dilemmas surrounding sexuality, marriage, the family and human life, challenges generated both by new technology and by changing cultural standards.

A major conference this week in Rome, titled "Loving Human Love: The Heritage of John Paul II on Marriage and the Family," sponsored by the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family, took up what we might call the philosophical substructure underlying these issues. Its all-star lineup of influential Catholic voices made the conference a useful "listening post" for evolving church reflection.

It's worth noting that the first two presidents of the institute are already cardinals, Carlo Caffarra of Bologna and Angelo Scola of Venice, and the third is well on his way, Bishop Rino Fisichella, currently the rector of the Lateran University. That's one sign of the favor with which the work of the institute was seen by John Paul II and now by Benedict XVI.

The conference marked the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the John Paul II Institute, intended as a concrete follow-up to the 1980 Synod on the Family. The pope had intended to announce it on May 13, 1981, at the conclusion of his General Audience. Of course, John Paul never made the announcement, because he was shot by Mehmet Ali Agca that day. The coincidence of the "culture of death" striking the pope on the very day he intended to launch a new initiative in defense of life has never been lost on the institute and its supporters.

Fr. Livio Melina, the current president of the John Paul II Institute, called May 13 "a day of the witness of blood."

"It is profoundly important that we find ourselves at the intersection of these dates of history," Melina said. "We are heirs of [John Paul's] love for man, for the human family, and his vision of the mystery of man and his vocation of the gift of self."

Receiving the group in audience on Thursday morning, Benedict XVI said that John Paul's special passion for marriage and the family was shaped in part by the difficulties that followed Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. Wojtyla realized, according to Benedict, the need for systematic study of these subjects.

On the subject of marriage, Benedict did not mince words:

"[The challenge of] avoiding confusion with other types of unions based on weak love presents itself today with special urgency," he said. "Only the rock of total and irrevocable love between a man and a woman is capable of founding the construction of a society that can become a home for all people," he said.

Afterwards, Melina told the conference that the pope's personal secretary, Msgr. Georg Gänswein, had told him that he had never seen the pope "so happy, so available to the people" during a Vatican audience.

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Anyone expecting the conference to get down quickly to brass tacks on issues such as homosexuality, genetic engineering, condoms or euthanasia doesn't know the world of the John Paul II Institute. This is a crowd that believes in getting first principles right, so the discourse is sometimes pitched at a fairly abstract level on topics such as Christian anthropology and the "mystery of human existence."

Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger said that the heart of John Paul II's theological method was to start from the concrete experience of the disciples of Christ. It was a "phenomenological" method, Lustiger said, and Lustiger criticized other theological approaches which are "theoretical discourses uncoupled from Christian life."

In that sense, Lustiger argued, Karol Wojtyla's own biography represents a "theological trope," meaning a source of theological insight in its own right. The pattern of self-giving love in Wojtyla's pastoral work, Lustiger said, is an analog of the self-giving that should be the heart of conjugal love as well.

Lustiger said that Wojtyla's concern for politics and the life of nations was built on this personalistic foundation, meaning concern for fostering the sort of society in which self-giving love is nurtured.

Polish Auxiliary Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, who teaches civil law at the Lateran University, recounted several episodes from Wojtyla's career as a priest and bishop in Poland, which in effect developed Lustiger's suggestion that the late pope's life was a "theological trope."

For example, Pieronek pointed to an initiative launched by Cardinal Wojtyla after the communists in Poland legalized abortion, called "Operation SOS," offering abandoned women a place to live along with child care and medical support. He also mentioned Wojtyla's support for the Oasis youth movement, which, as Pieronek acknowledged, caused some Polish bishops to worry "about its impact on parish structures." Pieronek said Oasis became a great "cradle for vocations to the priesthood and the monastic life."

Cardinal Wojtyla's support for Oasis was an obvious anticipation of his backing for the new movements as John Paul II.

Fr. Tadeusz Styczen, who is Karol Wojtyla's successor on the faculty of the Catholic University of Lublin, developed John Paul's description of the family as a communio personarum, "community of persons."

Styczen argued that the inner logic of love as a total gift of self yearns for that gift to be eternal, and hence God's power of life over death is a necessary condition of real love.

"We need the encounter of love with omnipotence to solve the enigma of love itself, the enigma of existence," Styczen said.

It almost sounded like a new argument for the existence of God, grounded in John Paul's personalist phenomenology: the experience of human love, a primordial and constitutive element of human existence, ultimately makes no sense without a ground of being who can extend that love into eternity.

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Thursday afternoon was devoted to a session involving two heavyweights from the world of the John Paul II Institute: Scola and Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec. It was hosted by Hanna Suchocka, Polish Ambassador to the Holy See, a former Prime Minister of Poland and widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable and effective members of the diplomatic corps in Rome.

Suchocka said that in the face of what she called an "aggressive feminism" in the United States and throughout the West, of which she said many women had "grown tired," John Paul II proposed a "new feminism."

"His vision went against the current of radical feminism," Suchocka said. "He stressed not battle [between the sexes], but complementarity, collaboration and integration rather than struggle."

Scola and Ouellet then argued that John Paul had, in effect, laid a new conceptual foundation for the church's traditional teaching on marriage and sexuality.

Scola said that John Paul surprised the world by putting the erotic squarely at the center of his reflections, building on the insights of figures such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Freud. The pope believed, according to Scola, that the sexual dimension of life is a "privileged point of departure for understanding the human person and the world."

John Paul was also was not afraid, Scola said, to confront the toughest question facing Christianity in the modern era, which is how a good God, a God of love, could permit the physical and moral evils the 20th century witnessed.

"His answer was to look at the crucified one," Scola said. "In him, the Spirit transforms suffering into salvific love."

Marriage, Scola suggested, is a sacrament of that Trinitarian love, and what the church regards as its objective features -- indissolubility, exclusivity to a man and woman, and openness to life -- amount to "moral responsibilities" flowing from this fundamental identity.

Ouellet said John Paul offered a "prophetic message" for a society often locked in a "contraceptive culture that has given rise to many other evils."

John Paul, Ouellet said, expanded the church's traditional doctrine on the human being as an image of God. On the anthropological level, John Paul saw human erotic love as a sacrament of God's own love. Ecclesiologically, he regarded the family as an ecclesial reality of the first order -- a "domestic church" not just in a symbolic sense, but theologically.

All that, Ouellet said, helps explain why John Paul was so passionate and relentless in his defense of the church's teaching on human sexuality.

To the extent that Scola and Ouellet represent decisive voices in the church's bioethical debate, it would therefore seem the tendency will be to search for creative new ways to explain traditional teachings to the modern world, drawing heavily on the thought of John Paul II, rather than attempts to revise those teaching.

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As a footnote to the assassination attempt against John Paul II on May 13, 1981, on Saturday the statue of the Madonna of Fatima from Portugal will be in Rome for a procession from the Castel Sant'Angelo to St. Peter's Square. Cardinal Ivan Dias from Bombay, India, will lead the procession. When the statute reaches the spot where John Paul II was shot, at roughly the same time of day (5:17 p.m.), the procession will stop for a moment of silent prayer. Afterwards, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome, will celebrate Mass inside the basilica, and later in the evening there will be a commemoration in the square marking the 25th anniversary of the attempt.

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The Holy See has given its recognition, or legal approval, to a revised set of "essential norms" governing the canonical dimension of the church's response to the sexual abuse crisis in the United States.

While most canonical experts say the revisions do not substantively alter the norms in use since 2002, they do clarify points in three broad areas: 1) the coherence between these norms and the universal law of the church; 2) due process for accused priests under canon law; and 3) the relationship between local bishops and religious superiors in cases of priests belonging to religious orders who are accused of sexual abuse.

According to Monsignor Frank Maniscalco of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the revisions were worked out by a mixed commission of American bishops and Vatican officials, and then adopted largely intact by the U.S. bishops during their June 2005 meeting. The recognitio, issued by the Congregation for the Bishops, means the revised norms are binding for all dioceses and other jurisdictions in the United States.

The revised norms were approved by the Congregation for Bishops donec aliter provideatur, meaning "until something else is provided." In effect, it means the norms have no built-in expiration date.

In general, the fourteen revisions to the 2,618-word document are brief, in some cases no more than a word or a phrase.

Among the important points:

  • The revised norms state that the contents are to be interpreted in accordance with the universal law of the church. Some canonists, especially non-Americans, had complained that the norms amounted to special law for the United States, especially in reducing the traditionally broad discretion bishops have enjoyed to make canonical punishment fit the crime.
  • Instead of offering a detailed explanation of what is intended by "sexual abuse," the revised norms simply refer to "sin against the Sixth Commandment," a traditional canonical offense, reinserting the norms into the broader legal tradition of the church.
  • The revised norms specify that during the preliminary investigation of a charge, which a bishop is obligated to carry out to determine in the charge has credibility prior to forwarding it to Rome, the accused party enjoys the presumption of innocence.
  • Under the new language, a bishop "may" request an exemption from the statute of limitations under canon law for prosecuting sexual abuse against a minor, currently ten years from the victim's 18th birthday. The old norms indicated the bishop "shall" apply, suggesting an obligation to do so. Canonists said this word change provides bishops with greater discretion as to whether to pursue cases from the distant past. The revised norms also state that such an exemption, technically known as "derogation," must be justified by "relevant grave reasons."
  • In referring to due process, the revised norms add the term "canonical." One Roman canonist said this was to make clear that it's not American civil concepts of due process that apply.
  • The last four revisions broadly concern the division of responsibilities between bishops and religious superiors when a priest from a religious order has been accused, or found guilty, of sexual abuse. This point remained controversial after the original norms were adopted in March 2003, when religious order priests were simply included in the document's first footnote without elaboration. The revisions tend to clarify that the bishop's authority applies to public ministry, such as saying Mass or hearing confessions in a parish, while decisions about where such a priest will reside or what functions he can perform inside the order are to be made by the religious superior.

A side-by-side comparison to the 2002 text and the revised 2006 text is available on the U.S. bishop's Web site,, and in the Special Documents Section of

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From time to time, one will still find the phenomenon of clerical sexual abuse described as an "American problem." No doubt there was something distinctive about the unrelenting attention in the press and judiciary in the United States, but the behavior itself is hardly confined to American airspace.

A fresh reminder of the point came in the May 13 bulletin of Adista, an Italian Catholic news agency, which documents the cases of 32 priests in Italy accused of sexual abuse from 2000 to 2006 alone. These are not "allegations" in the sense of mere rumor, but cases in which criminal procedures are either pending or have been brought to resolution, which is how the names and details became public.

Of the 32 priests involved, 27 were accused of direct acts of sexual abuse, three of the use of child pornography, and two of complicity in sexual abuse carried out by another priest. Twenty of the 32 priests have already received criminal sentences, and most of the rest are currently facing charges.

Perhaps most startling for American sensibilities is the fact that, according to the Adista report, at least five of these priests are still in active ministry, in four cases after having been convicted criminally of acts of sexual abuse with minors.

For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that the "one-strike" policy under which a priest is permanently removed from ministry for even one act of sexual abuse pertains only to the United States, and does not apply in other parts of the world, where bishops enjoy greater discretion.

Adista quotes a May 21, 2002, statement from the secretary general of the Italian bishops' conference, Msgr. Giuseppe Betori, who said that the phenomenon of clerical sexual abuse in Italy is "such a small reality that it does not merit specific attention … more than that reserved for other social categories." For that reason, Betori said, "the Permanent Council of the Conference has never spoken about cases of pedophilia, the conference has no list in this regard, we do not have any cases in evidence nor a procedure for monitoring [them]."

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Anyone in the English-speaking world who has ever had even a passing curiosity about Eastern Orthodoxy undoubtedly knows the name of Kallistos (Timothy) Ware. His 1963 classic The Orthodox Church has served as an obligatory point of departure for generations of anyone interested in the theological and spiritual traditions of the Christian East.

On May 5, Ware delivered a lecture at Rome's Gregorian University titled "Acquire Inner Peace: Prayer of the Heart in Orthodox Spirituality."

Ware opened by quoting from one of the Eastern fathers, St. Seraphim, who once said, "Acquire inner peace and thousands around you will find salvation." The remark, Ware suggested, reflects a core spiritual insight: "The outer depends upon the inner."

"The large scale divisions in Christianity and in the world have their source in the secret divisions in the heart of each one of us," he said.

Lest one think Ware restricts himself to pieties, it should also be noted he has a terrifically dry sense of humor. As a young priest, Ware said, he once asked his bishop for some wisdom about the priestly office. The bishop's rather prosaic response was, "Always have three points in your sermons, no more and no less." Later, he said, when he was made a bishop, he asked a similar question about how to approach episcopal office. The consecrating bishop, he said, responded: "Always fold up your own vestments!"

Returning to his theme, Ware offered a definition of prayer from another Orthodox father, St. Theophan the Recluse, which became the leitmotif of his lecture: "To stand before God with the mind, in the heart, and to go on unceasingly until the end of life."

The maxim led Ware to reflect at length on what "the heart" represents in the thought world of the Bible. In general, he said, Scripture does not make the distinction between the head as the seat of intelligence, and the heart as the center of emotion, which comes naturally to modernity. Instead, he said, in the Bible the heart is the moral and spiritual center of the person, including intelligence and wisdom.

The Bible, Ware argued, assumes what he called a "cardiac anthropology," a phrase he associated with St. Macarius of the late fourth century in Syria and Asia Minor. In this view, the heart governs the entire organism, and represents a meeting place between the physical and spiritual.

"It is a unifying and holistic concept," Ware said. "There is no division between body and soul, between the natural and the spiritual. It is a vision of the total human person as a spiritual subject."

Thus prayer "in the heart," to return to St. Theophan, is not just affective prayer and not just words, but a total engagement of the whole person, including intuition, emotion, and discursive reason.

As one way of entry into such a state, Ware commended what in Orthodox tradition is known as "The Jesus Prayer," meaning constant repetition of, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me."

"This is not just a technique," Ware said, "but a personal invocation and a conscious confession of faith."

This emphasis on personal prayer, Ware insisted, is not escapist or world-denying.

"Acquiring inner peace is not selfish," he said. "It transforms us into instruments of peace for others. It enables us to acquire stillness, so our actions will bring hope and healing."

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Today marks exactly one week from the release of "The Da Vinci Code" movie, and for those keeping score, we now have six current or former Vatican officials who have come out swinging against the "Da Vinci" phenomenon.

In March 2005, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa compared Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code to rotten food, and branded it "a sack full of lies." Bertone called on Catholic bookstores not to sell it.

More recently, the Preacher of the Papal Household, Italian Capuchin Fr. Rainero Cantalamessa, offered an unstinting challenge to "The Da Vinci Code" (while referring to it only as "a certain film") in his homily at St. Peter's Basilica on Good Friday.

"Christ is being sold again, no longer to the leaders of the Sanhedrin for 30 denarii, but to editors and booksellers for billions of denarii," Cantalamessa said, in the presence of the pope. "No one will succeed in halting this speculative wave."

The current secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Angelo Amato, added his voice to the chorus two weeks ago during a conference on Catholic communications held at the Opus Dei-run Santa Croce University. Here is what Amato said, arguing that the anemic Christian response to The Da Vinci Code is an example of what he called the "extreme cultural poverty" of today's Christians:

Otherwise it's impossible to explain the strange success of an obstinately anti-Christian novel such as The Da Vinci Code, which is full of calumnies, offenses, and historical and theological errors regarding Jesus, the Gospels, and to the church. Similar calumnies, offenses and errors addressed to the Koran or the Shoah would have justifiably provoked global protest; directed, however, at the church and at Christians, they have impunity. I think that in these cases Christians should be more determined to reject lies and gratuitous defamations. I recall that in 1988, when I was at that time in Washington, D.C., the film "The Last Temptation of Christ" by Martin Scorsese was shown. That film, extremely annoying and improbable, was not only contested in lively fashion because it was historically false, but was also boycotted at the box office, receiving a merited economic boycott.

Amato added, "I hope that you all will boycott the film."

Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Nigerian who serves as the Vatican's top official for liturgy, upped the ante even further recently by suggesting the possibility of lawsuits.

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"There are some other religions which, if you insult their founder, will not just be talking," Arinze observed in an interview with the Rome Reports television agency. He spoke as part of a documentary the agency prepared on The Da Vinci Code, titled "A Masterful Deception." Arinze recommended practical responses to the novel, possibly including legal action against the author.

In the same documentary, Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and himself an Opus Dei member, called The Da Vinci Code a fantasy, "ridiculous" and totally ignorant of how the church really works. Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said it was disturbing that "no respect is being shown for the hundreds of millions of people who believe in Christ, the church and the Gospels."

The film opens worldwide May 19. In what must be a galling twist for these Vatican officials, Rome has been plastered with posters promoting the film for the last several weeks.

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A footnote on Amato's presentation at the Santa Croce conference. He opened with a reference to my "Word from Rome" column of April 7, in which, among other items, I recounted a conversation I had with several students at the Catholic Center of the University of Texas when I stopped to speak there.

The students described being frustrated with the communications capacity of the church. They wanted reform, not in what the church teaches, but in its sophistication in presenting its teachings to the world. Amato quoted one student with whom I spoke, a 20-year-old named Ricardo Gutierrez, who said that if he were pope for a day, his priority would be pushing the church to find better ways to communicate the logic for its teachings on issues such as homosexuality.

"Being a theologian, I confess that I'm not an expert in the means of social communication," Amato said. "But as a pastor, I take very seriously the laments of the students of Austin, and the objection of Ricardo Gutierrez."

Amato went on to call the relationship between the church's magisterium and the media a subject of "great theological and pastoral importance."

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The National Catholic Reporter recently published a lecture by Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, the former master of the order, on communion in the church. I was asked by the newspaper to contribute a profile of Radcliffe, and I opened with an anecdote I recalled Radcliffe once relating. Here's how I described it:

"[Radcliffe] tells the story of once being in a taxi in England with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, a fellow Dominican and a fellow noble -- in Schönborn's case, the scion of Bohemian royalty. As Radcliffe tells it, the cabbie tired of listening to the two Dominican heavyweights comparing notes about how ancient their families were, interjecting in frustration: 'You know my family's old too, it's just that nobody's ever bleedin' heard of 'em!'"

As it turns out, I confused two unrelated episodes. Radcliffe wrote to clarify:

The story about the taxi is a good example of what biblical exegetes love, the conflation of two tales in a creative way. I do have a story about a conversation with a taxi driver in London. He was making rather awful racist remarks, and when I disagreed with him and told him that it was not true he replied: 'What do you mean, not true? It's my opinion. I've got a right to my opinion.' This has got combined with another event, at which neither Christoph nor I were present. The European Provincials were being taken around the cathedral in Prague, and they were shown a picture of a distant relation of Christoph's, also a cardinal. And a Provincial remarked, 'Timothy also comes from an old family, doesn't he?' And it was the English Provincial, now Bishop of Nottingham, Malcolm McMahon, who said, 'I come from a very ancient family too, only nobody knows who they were!'"

As I told Radcliffe, unfortunately I'm not in the business of imaginative retellings of oral tradition, but of journalism, and I depend upon readers having confidence that the episodes I describe actually happened. Since this one clearly didn't, it begs correction.

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

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