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 The Word From Rome

May 28, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 40

global perspective


"If I were to pick up 1 Corinthians 11 and ask, 'What does this suggest about Eucharistic fellowship?', the biggest issue that shouts back is that the rich, white, Western world, which keeps the 'two-thirds world' in grinding poverty and unpayable debt, stands condemned every time it receives the Eucharist. … Though I happen to agree with the stance on abortion, it seems blindingly obvious that it is not the big moral issue of our time. Global debt and the economic systems that … slope the table so the money slides into the pockets of the Western banking system, seems to me as big a moral issue as slavery was 200 years ago."

Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, England

Who speaks for the Vatican?; European and American approaches to pro-choice politicians; Law's new assignment; Admitting homosexuals to Catholic seminaries; An Anglican viewpoint


This week I lunched with a group of Western diplomats accredited to the Vatican, and we had a wide-ranging, stimulating conversation. One of their eternal frustrations around which we kept circling is the following question:

When a Vatican official speaks, how do you know if he's speaking for the Vatican?

To the uninitiated, this might appear a silly question, on the order of "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" To most people, it seems obvious that if a Vatican official speaks on an issue of interest to the Catholic church, he is doing so on behalf of the Vatican. This is, in fact, how such comments are routinely reported in the press: "The Vatican today said …"

In fact, however, things are not nearly so simple.

Almost every diplomat and journalist has had the experience of asking for clarification after a Vatican official has given an interview or made a speech in which he said something explosive. Routinely, the reply is that this official was not speaking on behalf of the Holy See, but was merely expressing a "personal opinion."

Recent cases in point include Cardinal Renato Martino's criticism after the capture of Saddam Hussein, saying Hussein had been treated "like a cow." Officials at the U.S. embassy were told that Martino was speaking only for himself. Similarly, American bishops coming through Rome for their ad limina visits have been told that when Cardinal Francis Arinze told the press that a pro-choice politician should be denied communion, a comment that made considerable waves in the States, he was simply expressing a personal view.

One problem with diplomats is that they are generally too, well, diplomatic to ask the obvious follow-up question: "What is this guy doing expressing a personal opinion, when the whole world is going to think it's the Vatican line?"

The truth is that things are more complex. Some personal opinions, to put it bluntly, are more equal than others. Sometimes an official may be giving voice to a view widely held in the Holy See; sometimes, he may be saying something that the Secretariat of State or the pope wants said, even if they can't say it themselves.

Hence, the reading of the tea leaves that goes on every time a Vatican official speaks works like this: For whom is he speaking? How close is this to a consensus? How official is this unofficial comment?

To take a practical example, the 82-year-old Cardinal Pio Laghi, former papal ambassador to the United States, gave an interview to Corriere della Sera last week. In it, Laghi said that John Paul would take George Bush to task when he visits on June 4 because "the actual choices made by America are not bringing the Middle East closer to respect for human rights." The suggestion was that the visit would be something of a trip to the woodshed for the president.

Does that represent the official position of the Holy See?

On the one hand, Laghi is retired and has no mandate to represent the Vatican. It's certainly a more pointed analysis than either the pope or his foreign minister has ever offered. Yet Laghi is frequently called upon as a papal trouble-shooter, including his mission last February to Bush to carry John Paul's appeal for peace. It's difficult to imagine that these comments don't reflect, in some general way, the outlook of the pope's foreign policy braintrust.

As one diplomat told me, he flipped a coin and then cabled his government that Laghi represented the Vatican's official line. That's probably about right.

All of which doesn't make the job of covering the Vatican, either for a government or a newspaper, very easy - but it does make it interesting.

* * *

If you ask most people who have spent time around the Vatican what has surprised them most, many will say it's precisely this internal diversity - the frequent lack of a "game plan," the spectacle of Vatican officials or information outlets taking different, sometimes even contradictory, positions. It shatters the stereotype of the Catholic church as an ultra-hierarchical, top-down environment.

Last October, for example, on John Paul's 25th anniversary as pope, I had lunch with a couple of producers from CNN who were in Rome to manage the network's coverage. The Vatican earlier that morning had released the pope's apostolic exhortation closing the 2001 Synod of Bishops, titled Pastores Gregis. It's a long and complex meditation on the bishop's office, but the passage making news was a brief reference to the sex abuse crisis.

My producer friends were incredulous that the Vatican would, in effect, stomp on its own story, reminding the world of a blot on the pope's record on the very day of his anniversary. Tom Goldstone, producer for CNN's Paula Zahn and a tough-minded journalist, leaned across the table and asked: "Who in the Vatican is gonna get fired for this?"

I laughed out loud.

It was one of those moments that crystallize the difference between the world of secular politics, where communications is king, and the more insulated environment of the Holy See. Goldstone and his colleagues were astonished to hear that there is no "war room" in the Vatican where strategists gather in the morning to craft that day's message. Rarely does anyone "crack the whip" if an official goes off half-cocked, and it simply never occurred to anyone to ask how Pastores Gregis would "play" in media coverage of the anniversary.

The reality that there is a surprising lack of coordination across departmental lines in the Vatican, about communications strategy or anything else. There are at least three reasons why this is so.

o Structural: Much activity in the Vatican falls under the segreto d'ufficio, or "secret of the office." It stipulates that no one may give information the employee knows because of his or her work to anyone who does not have a right to it. (This is spelled out in article 38 of the employee handbook, called the Regolamento generale). Because much Vatican work concerns personnel or pastoral situations, this rule is designed to protect personal privacy. The result is that there is a culture of discretion, rather than a free flow of information.

o Historical: The reform of the Curia carried out by Pope Pius X in 1908 specified that the congregations would be autonomous in their own area. The aim was to solve the problem of overlapping jurisdiction that plagued the Vatican in the 19th century, when appellants who didn't like the answer they got from one office sought out another, with the result being a riot of conflicting rulings. By putting up walls around the work of each dicastery, Pius hoped for greater consistency. In fact, his reform created the possibility for greater inconsistency at the big-picture level, with different dicasteries pulling in different directions.

o Political: Senior Vatican officials sometimes don't want their subordinates building networks across departmental lines that could give them an independent power base. As in every bureaucracy, in the Vatican information is power, and no one wants to share too much of it.

The cumulative effect is that one constantly hears complaints about a lack of collaboration and communication - between the Council for Justice and Peace and the Secretariat of State, for instance, or between the Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Examples abound, but one will suffice. When the explosive document Dominus Iesus appeared in September 2001 from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said his office had not been adequately consulted.

This lack of tight internal controls could be a product of history and chance, but anthropologists would insist that a culture generates systems that respond to its perceived needs. This would suggest that, at some level, the Vatican likes things this way.


My hunch is that the Catholic church is too big and complex to be governed any other way. With more than a billion constituents in every corner of the globe, the Holy See cannot jump too fast and too unanimously into one approach to a problem. Other alternatives, other points of view, and other experiences would be artificially excluded. As I have written before, America is a microwave culture - we want things done fast. The Holy See is a crockpot culture, in which problems and questions are allowed to stew, with one office adding something here, another there. Even a document from the pope or one of the congregations may not be the decisive ingredient in the mix, and everyone knows that.

Hence the lack of a war room or a daily "message" may reflect the fact that this culture resists being driven by daily news cycles or insta-polls. It's trying to take a longer view, based on the assumption that the right answer will eventually emerge with time, patience and prayer.

Whether it actually works this way in any given case is, of course, a matter for debate.

* * *

In January 2001, Rome's outgoing mayor, Francesco Rutelli, was the candidate of Italy's center-left "Olive Tree" coalition to be the country's next Prime Minister. (Rutelli went on to lose to Silvio Berlusconi). Rutelli's political background was in the Radical Party, which had led the battle for legalized abortion in Italy. As he moved into the mainstream, Rutelli took the classic position of left-leaning Catholics in public life: personally opposed to abortion, but not willing to impose his stance through law.

On Jan. 6, Rutelli and his wife Barbara, who are regular Mass-goers, attended the final act of the Catholic Church's Jubilee Year: the closing of the Holy Door at St. Peter's Basilica. Despite what in the United States would be termed his "pro-choice" stance, Rutelli came forward for Communion and received it from Pope John Paul II himself.

By itself, the episode does little to indicate the right answer to the communion controversy currently raging in the United States. But it does reflect a striking aspect of the debate, which is that so far it is an exclusively American phenomenon.

Across Europe, there are many Catholic politicians who differ from church teaching on issues such as abortion, gay rights, euthanasia, and stem cell research. One clear example comes in Germany, where Christa Nickels is a deputy in the Bundestδg with the leftist Green Party, which favors marriage rights for homosexuals. Yet Nickels is also a practicing Catholic and the spokesperson for environmental and bio-ethical questions for the Central Committee of German Catholics, a state-sponsored body. To date, no German bishop has suggested denying her communion.

Similar examples can be found in every European parliament. In Austria, the Social Democratic Party supports abortion rights, and features a number of practicing Catholics. In Belgium, the Christian Democratic Party includes Catholics who clash with the church on homosexual marriage and euthanasia.

So why is it just the Americans talking about sanctions?

I put this to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who was in Rome May 25 for his ad limina visit to the Holy See. He and I sat down for an interview at the North American College. The full text can be found here: George Interview.

"That's a very good question, and we've raised it ourselves, even with the Roman Curia," George said.

"Of course they're not going to talk about another conference, that's not their job, anymore than they would talk about us to the Belgians or the Spaniards. But they listened, and they noted the fact," he said.

How does George explain it?

"First of all, we're the only country that has said there is a constitutional right [to abortion]," he said. "Other countries have passed it as a matter of legislative procedure, and therefore they can work with it more easily.

"[Attempts to limit abortion are seen as] against the freedom of women, and freedom is our most important value. We'll kill for freedom, we do it all the time. That's a peculiar cultural situation in our country.

"We also have a political situation that changes culture and laws by crusades. You have ideological movements that are much more single-minded in some ways. Given that, you also have groups eager to capture whatever authority they can from the church, and so you have a politicization of the internal conversation in the church herself that you wouldn't have elsewhere. Not about doctrine, but about pastoral practice.

"For all those reasons, I think we have a unique situation in America, for good or for ill, and you can't easily make the comparison to other places," George said.

I asked if Europe's experience of anti-clericalism also played a role. Perhaps European bishops are more sensitive than Americans to the risk of backlash if the church is perceived as too explicitly political.

"That's an interesting idea. I'd have to think about that, but it makes sense," he said. "I'm somewhat aware of the history of anti-clericalism in France, in Italy, and in Spain, and while I'm not sure what you say is true, it might well be."

* * *

Also on the abortion issue, I also asked George the same hypothetical I've put to a number of bishops and others.

Suppose there's a Catholic politician who clearly upholds the teaching of the church on the immorality of abortion. He or she may give money to help pregnant women, may counsel women on alternatives to abortion. Yet, on the basis of a prudential political judgment, this politician believes that in the present historical moment, outlawing abortion would not reduce its frequency, but would drive it underground and produce negative consequences. Hence, the politician concludes that the cultural ground must first be prepared, and in the meantime he or she will vote against restrictive measures. Is that a coherent Catholic position?

George's reply:

"It's not an American position," he said. "The only people who can change the legislation on abortion to abolish it are the justices on the Supreme Court. This is now a constitutional right, it's not something enacted by law, which makes the rhetoric strange. The language of rights means that normally you try to advance rights, rather than to diminish them. [What you describe is] a situation that can't arise in the United States, because we can't abolish this by legislative action. Even attempts by legislators to limit it run into constitutional provisions that the courts have given. I don't feel that's a real situation for us pastorally."

But is there room for a diversity of opinion on political strategy - whether it's legislative, judicial or cultural - as long as the moral point is clear that no just society can tolerate abortion?

"That's right," George said. "The question is, how do we limit it most effectively? Those are questions of prudential judgment around which there can be many discussions. The church has not taken a position on which of those strategies is to be preferred, and I don't think we should."

That point, certainly, is at the heart of the present debate.

* * *

On May 27, Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston who resigned over his handling of sex abuse allegations, was named Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. The nomination means that Law, 72, will now reside and work in Rome.

I reported that such a move was under consideration in "The Word from Rome" on Feb. 13.

Each of the four major partriarchal basilicas in Rome has a cardinal-archpriest who is the administrator of the facility. Typically it is a quasi-honorary post given at the end of someone's career.

In Law's case, the dynamics were different. In effect, this amounts to a recognition that Law cannot play a public role in the church in the United States, nor could he head a major Vatican agency given both his age and his baggage. This appointment allows him to be part of the Roman scene, continuing to serve as a member of the seven congregations and two councils to which he already belongs, and performing whatever other informal functions might be asked of him.

As I wrote on Feb. 13: "I suspect that Rome is in some ways a more comfortable environment for Law than the States; he is not stalked by TV cameras here, and, rightly or wrongly, many Roman observers regard him with sympathy, believing Law was unfairly made the scapegoat of the American sex abuse crisis."

* * *

An update concerning the long-rumored document on the admission of homosexuals to Catholic seminaries, being prepared under the aegis of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

In various drafts, the idea of a document on this subject has been around for years. In April 2003, however, a special closed-door Vatican summit on pedophilia seemed to arrest its momentum. During that session, scientific experts on sexual abuse told Vatican officials that homosexuality does not "cause" abuse. They said it is a risk factor associated with clerical sexual abuse, but so are many other things - such as being ordained less than five years.

Sources told NCR at the time that these statements impressed a number of senior Vatican officials. One Latin American cardinal said at the time, "It's clear to me that a man's bio-genetic makeup shouldn't be our interest so much as his behavior."

In fact, however, the document is far from dead.

"The Holy Father wants it, so there will have to be a document," a senior Vatican official told NCR in late May. This official offered no prediction, however, as to when the document might appear.

As to content, the official said the document would to some extent repeat the norms contained in a 1961 instruction of the Congregation for Religious, titled Religiosorum institution, which stated: "Those affected by the perverse inclination to homosexuality or pederasty should be excluded from religious vows and ordination."

One key is what exactly the term "homosexuality" means. At one pole, a single same-sex attraction experienced years ago and never acted upon might mark someone as "homosexual." The other pole might restrict the definition of "homosexuality" to active and on-going sexual behavior. Most people would probably reject the former as overly strict, and the latter as overly loose. The question, then, is where to fall in between.

The senior Vatican official told NCR the document would likely not settle this question.

"It's not reasonable to expect the Holy See to get into those details," the official said. "That's something that almost has to be determined on a case-by-case basis."

It seems therefore probable that bishops will retain some flexibility in deciding how to apply whatever standards are set out in the document. Dioceses that have a strict policy against the admission of homosexuals will continue, but those who emphasize a candidate's capacity for celibacy, rather than sexual orientation in se, could argue that such a candidate is not "homosexual" in the sense intended under the norms.

It's possible, therefore, that the thunderclap the document will cause in the press will not be matched by changed realities on the ground.

* * *

When John Paul's new book Alzatevi, Andiamo! (Get Up, Let Us Go!) appeared last week, eyebrows went up when Mondadori, the Italian publisher, did not offer plans for an English translation. Cynical observers assumed that Mondadori wanted more money than publishers in the States were willing to offer.

In this case, the cynics seem to have known what they were talking about.

Rights to John Paul's book are being handled for Mondadori in the American market by power-agent Mort Janklow, who also brokered the multi-million dollar deal in 1994 with Knopf for the pope's first book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. (Janklow's other clients include Sean Connery). Reports suggested that Janklow netted $9 million for the book, which eventually sold 20 million copies worldwide.

When the pope published Gift and Mystery in 1996, a reflection on his 50 years of priesthood, Mondadori was not involved and hence the deal played out on a lower scale. The book was published in the United States by Doubleday, and sales were relatively modest.

This time around, Mondadori and Janklow are again the main players, so the pope's back in the literary big leagues. Sources tell NCR that Janklow gave Knopf first shot at the English-language rights, but they came up with a relatively low offer of $750,000. That's short of the $9 million or so Janklow must have had in mind, and so he opened the bidding.

Whoever ends up publishing the book is expected to rush it out, so an English-language edition should be available by the fall.

* * *

Anglican Bishop N.T. (Tom) Wright of Durham, England, is one of the world's leading scholars on the New Testament, and especially on the letters of Paul. He is also a member of the Eames Commission currently pondering the crisis within Anglicanism caused by the consecration of an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in the United States.

I interviewed Wright May 21 on the Anglican crisis, as well as on the resources the New Testament might offer to the debate over denying communion to politicians who disagree with church teaching. Wright was in Rome for a series of lectures at the Lay Centre. The full text of our interview can be found here: Wright Interview.

The following are excerpts.

You believe a Christian morality faithful to scripture cannot approve of homosexual conduct?

Given that, did you disapprove of the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in the United States?
It would be inappropriate for me to comment, given my membership on the Eames Commission, which is not going to be easy.

You acknowledge that the consecration is problematic?
I agree with what the primates said last October at their emergency meeting, which is that the consecration, if it were to go ahead, would "tear the fabric of the communion." I think that was clearly, almost analytically, true.

What do you do now?
We don't know. … There are those who say we must go to a looser structure, a kind of federation structure. Perhaps something like the Lutheran World Federation, a looser affiliation where they merely acknowledge that they stand in the same tradition without any sort of tighter belonging. … But most Anglicans around the world have never seen their koinonia that loosely. They've seen it as a matter of tight shared bonds, and mutual support. For instance, when Desmond Tutu was facing rioting mobs, the Archbishop of Canterbury would send a senior bishop physically to stand beside him, as a way of saying that Tutu is part of a larger thing, and we're here supporting him. Don't think he's just one lone voice. I know for Anglicans in the Middle East, it is hugely important that they're part of a koinonia that happens to be rooted in Canterbury, but that spreads around the world. … Others want to push us in the other direction, towards a stronger central authority. I constantly get e-mails from American friends saying, 'beware of creeping papalism.'

Are you willing to live in communion with the Americans?
The Americans are not a monolith. The American province has its own enormous internal tensions, and part of the question is who speaks for the American church. … I don't know that I can answer that question, because I'm not sure that until we have gone further down the road, we actually know what that might look like and what that might mean.

Can scripture shed light on the debate in American Catholicism about denying communion to public officials who take positions contrary to church teaching?
If I were to pick up 1 Corinthians 11 and ask, 'What does this suggest about Eucharistic fellowship?', the biggest issue that shouts back is that the rich, white, Western world, which keeps the 'two-thirds world' in grinding poverty and unpayable debt, stands condemned every time it receives the Eucharist. … Though I happen to agree with the stance on abortion, it seems blindingly obvious that it is not the big moral issue of our time. Global debt and the economic systems that were set up in 1944 with the Breton Woods Agreement, to slope the table so the money slides into the pockets of the Western banking system, seems to me as big a moral issue as slavery was 200 years ago. … To play around with your Democratic presidential candidate seems to play with one pawn without noticing what's happening on the chessboard as a whole. … It looks like something you do rather frantically in order to avoid having to talk about the elephant in the living room.

* * *

A footnote to my report last week about the lineamenta for the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in October 2005. I wrote that "religious orders" have been invited to submit responses. In fact, it is the Union of Superiors General, the umbrella group for men's religious communities, and the International Union of Superiors General, the companion body for women's orders, that will prepare responses. The World Conference of Secular Institutes may also offer comments.

The idea, according to synod procedures, is that religious orders can offer input to the USG or UISG, just as laity can provide comments through their local bishop and episcopal body.

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

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