The Word From Rome
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June 10, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 35

John L. Allen Jr.


"Dogma is a bad word! But beauty has its own authority, an authority to which every human being responds, and an authority that in no way threatens. We need to find ways of disclosing God's beauty to our contemporaries."

- Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe

Benedict on the family; Radcliffe on multi-religious Europe; Benedict meets with Jewish leaders; Archbishop Chaput on anti-Semitism; A raucous seminar on church history; One note on Fr. Maciel; Speaking engagements


Earlier this week, headlines in the American press reported that Pope Benedict XVI had attacked gay marriage. Though the statement fell into the "Dog Bites Man" category of utterly predictable news, it nevertheless illustrates how any pronouncement by an official of the Catholic church on a sexual topic will draw attention.

One point perhaps worth noting: In his 48,978 words of teaching as of June 9, Benedict XVI had used the word "sex" exactly once, while the word "Africa," mostly in the context of an appeal for attention to the problems of Africa, appeared 11 times. It's no mystery which has been given greater prominence in the international press.

Be that as it may, here is Benedict XVI's line about gay marriage from a June 6 speech in Rome: "The various forms today of dissolution of marriage, such as free unions and 'trial marriages,' up to pseudo-matrimony between persons of the same sex, are expressions of an anarchic liberty that wrongly passes itself off as a true liberation of the human person."

For those not familiar with his thought, the pope's reference to anarchy may require a bit of exegesis. Fundamentally, Benedict rejects the voluntaristic understanding of freedom current in the West, i.e., that freedom means an absence of external constraints on behavior. Instead, he accepts a classic teleological view, according to which freedom means the free choice to become the kind of person God intends. From this point of view, it is not an exercise in "liberty" to choose a mode of life he considers inconsistent with natural law, but "anarchy."

From the news coverage, one could get the impression that Pope Benedict's statement was primarily "about" gay marriage, since that's all that was quoted. In fact, the line above was one sentence in a 3,000-word speech delivered at a convention on the family for the diocese of Rome. The broader theme was the Christian concept of the family.

Importantly, the speech marked the first time since then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned against a "dictatorship of relativism" on April 18, the morning the conclave opened, that Pope Benedict XVI has returned explicitly to the theme. The fact that Benedict used this occasion to discuss relativism suggests that one place where the rubber will hit the road, so to speak, in his struggle against the dictatorship of relativism will be precisely on issues of family, gender and sexuality -- in other words, the culture wars.

In his address, Benedict XVI links the core intellectual concern of his pontificate, the struggle against philosophical and moral relativism, with explicit political engagement in defense of the family. He said:

"Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to our educational work is constituted by the massive presence in our society and culture by that relativism which, not recognizing anything as definitive, treats as the final measure only the self and its own desires, and under the appearance of liberty, becomes for everyone a prison," the pope said.

"Within such a relativistic horizon, therefore, true education isn't possible: without the light of truth, sooner or later every person is in fact condemned to doubt the goodness of his or her own life and the relations that make it up, as well as the validity of his or her commitment to construct something in common with others."

"It's clear, therefore, that we have to seek to overcome relativism not only in our work of formation of persons, but we are also called to resist its dominance in society and in culture," the pope said. "Therefore, alongside the words of the church, it's important that we offer testimony and a public commitment of Christian families, especially in order to reaffirm the inviolability of human life from conception to natural end, the unique and irreplaceable value of the family based on marriage, and the necessity of legislative and administrative measures that support families in their duties of generating and educating children, a duty that is essential for our common future."

Naturally, every culture reads these words through the filter of its own current events. In Italy, for example, the pope's words were taken as a reference to a looming national referendum seeking to liberalize the country's restrictive statute on in-vitro fertilization. In Spain, the June 6 address was received in the context of debates over gay marriage and adoption rights for gay couples. As noted above, American reporters tended to emphasize the line on homosexuality. These applications are not in themselves misleading, in that Pope Benedict clearly meant to encourage Catholics to draw political implications from his words.

What the June 6 address reveals about this pontificate, however, cuts deeper than a position on this or that issue; the pope clearly sees the struggles over the family as ground zero of the broader fight to recover the concept of objective truth in a highly subjective, relativized Western culture.

"The emptying out of human love, the suppression of the authentic capacity of love, has revealed itself in our time as the most adept and effective weapon for alienating God from the human person, for distancing God from human eyes and hearts," the pope said. "By way of analogy, the desire to 'liberate' nature from God leads to losing sight of the reality of nature itself, including the nature of the human being, reducing the person to a collection of functions, which can be disposed of at will in order to construct a 'better' world, and a more 'happy' humanity."

"The greatest expression of liberty is not, therefore, the search for pleasure without ever arriving at a true decision," the pope said. "It is, however, the capacity to commit oneself as a definitive gift, in which human liberty, surrendering itself, rediscovers its true self."

All of this suggests that while engagement in the "culture wars" will be an important feature of this papacy, the pope does not see those issues as an end in themselves, but as the leading edge of a broader struggle. The next skirmishes on this front will come this weekend, June 12-13, with the Italian referendum on assisted procreation, and June 18 in Spain with a large pro-family rally.

The success or failure of Benedict's pontificate may rest, at least in part, on his capacity to persuade the broader culture that the Christian vision of the family is not an imposition or a restriction, but a roadmap for true fulfillment etched in human nature. The next few days will bring interesting indications of just how much work, at least in Europe, he's got to do.

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Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, the former Master General of the Order of Preachers and a widely noted author and lecturer, recently spoke in Bologna on the contribution of Christianity to the future of Europe. Especially since the Christian identity of Europe is a top priority for Pope Benedict, Radcliffe's reflections are timely indeed.

Radcliffe believes that a critical issue facing Europe is its capacity to bear diversity without succumbing to tribalism. Especially when it comes to religion, the question is whether Christianity can help shape a future of peace.

Radcliffe believes it can.

"Christians can bring peace to multi-religious Europe because we are able to understand the role of faith in the lives of other believers better than atheists," Radcliffe said. "In 1989, France was split by the affaire du foulard, the controversy over Muslim girls wearing headscarves to school. It was Christian leaders who understood why it mattered to them, people like the archbishop of Marseille and the archbishop of Canterbury. We Christians could identify with the Muslims. After all, if they could not wear their foulards, then why should nuns be allowed to wear their veils in school?"

Jokingly, he added: "I believe that it is still technically illegal for religious to wear their habits in public in England, and so I am at this moment liable to be arrested!"

More deeply, Radcliffe asked how the Christian gospel can make a contribution to today's Europe. He phrased his answer in terms of Christianity's traditional aim of accompanying pilgrims towards goodness, truth and beauty.

On goodness, Radcliffe asserted that most Europeans don't respond well to moral edicts issued by the church, in part because sexual abuse scandals and other human failures have caused the church to lose credibility, in part because Europeans are allergic to any exercise of authority. Radcliffe proposed that the church recover a more Thomistic approach to morality, speaking less of rules and prohibitions, and more of virtues.

"If one thinks that being good is fundamentally about obeying rules then one will focus on individual acts," he said. … "Virtue ethics look at the shape and unity of the whole of human life, as we make our way to God and happiness.

In part, Radcliffe argued, this is about pastoral prudence, meeting people where they are.

"When the good Dominican, St. Antoninus, archbishop of Florence, asked Cosimo de Medici to ban all priests from gambling, Cosimo replied wisely, 'First things first. Shouldn't we begin by banning them from using loaded dice?' "

Further, Radcliffe argued, it should be clear from the personal witness of Christian men and women that following the moral path marked out by the church leads to real human happiness.

"Nietzsche once wrote of Christ that, 'His disciples should look more redeemed,'" Radcliffe observed.

On truth, Radcliffe argued that Christianity's role in part is to keep alive confidence in human reason, in the capacity of the mind to attain truth, in an age that in some ways seems to have given up on it altogether.

In fact, Radcliffe said, there's sociological evidence that Christianity does foster a more rational approach to life.

"According to Rodney Stark, Christians are much less accepting of 'UFOs as alien visitors, of ESP, astrology, Tarot cards, séances, and Transcendental Meditation than students who said they had no religion,' " Radcliffe said. "As G.K. Chesterton said, 'A man who won't believe in God will believe in anything.' "

On beauty, Radcliffe argued that the aesthetic dimension of Christianity may be one of its most important resources in attempting to reach modern Europe.

"Every great revival of Christianity has gone with some new exploration of beauty," Radcliffe said, "from the Post-Tridentine Baroque, which I do not like much, to Wesley's hymns."

"Modern Europeans are resistant to church teaching," Radcliffe said. "Dogma is a bad word! But beauty has its own authority, an authority to which every human being responds, and an authority that in no way threatens. We need to find ways of disclosing God's beauty to our contemporaries."

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On Thursday, June 9, Pope Benedict XVI received a group of Jewish leaders in audience, marking his first session with representatives of international Judaism since his April 19 election.

The leaders, gathered under the umbrella of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, represented most of the major Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the World Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee.

In his remarks, Benedict XVI recalled that the Second Vatican Council in its document Nostra Aetate, adopted 40 years ago, called for greater understanding and esteem between Jews and Christians.

"At the very beginning of my pontificate, I wish to assure you that the church remains firmly committed, in her catechesis and in every aspect of her life, to implementing this decisive teaching," Benedict said.

Noting that the history of Jewish/Christian relations is troubled, Benedict called for on-going purification of memory.

"Remembrance of the past remains for both communities a moral imperative and a source of purification in our efforts to pray and work for reconciliation, justice, respect for human dignity and for that peace which is ultimately a gift from the Lord himself," he said. "Of its very nature this imperative must include a continued reflection on the profound historical, moral and theological questions presented by the experience of the Shoah."

After the session, I spoke with Rabbi Jerome Epstein, head of the Conservative movement within Judaism in the United States.

Epstein said the session with Benedict XVI was "warm and positive," and said the pope struck him as "very committed to continuing the growth in our relations" that had been such a hallmark of the papacy of John Paul II.

Epstein said the Jewish leaders had come to know the pope while, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and had enjoyed good relations with him.

On Thursday, Epstein said, the pope made it clear he intends to make Judaism a top inter-religious priority.

"In any relationship, both the tangible and the intangible elements are important," Epstein said. "It wasn't just what he said that was important, but the way he said it."

Epstein said approximately 12 or 13 Jewish representatives participated in the June 9 session. From the Vatican side, in addition to the pope, Cardinal Walter Kasper was on hand, who serves as head of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Jews. His deputy, Bishop Brian Farrell, was also present.

Epstein said he told the pope that Catholics and Jews have to focus not just on strengthening their own bonds, but working together for common objectives in the world, such as eliminating poverty and hunger.

Once again, he said, the pope responded positively.

Epstein struck one note of caution.

"It's way too early to tell what all this means," he said. "There was little substance in the meeting in terms of concrete action."

I pressed him on what matters of substance Jewish leaders would like to see the new pope pick up.

"We'd like to see concrete actions in terms of making certain that anti-Semitism is reduced," he said. "We hope the pope will continue the trend of speaking out against it."

Further, Epstein said, he'd like the pope to commit the Catholic church to specific joint efforts with Judaism to put a dent in global poverty.

Jewish leaders will also be tracking how the pope orients Vatican diplomacy on the Middle East, Epstein said, especially the State of Israel.

"It will be important to see how he reacts to situations and the role he plays," Epstein said. "I hope he can encourage both sides to try to move towards peace. … In my view Israel is already working for peace, and I hope he can get that message to the other side."

I asked Epstein if Benedict XVI had said anything to the Jewish leaders about plans to visit the synagogue in Cologne this August when he travels to that German city for World Youth Day. Epstein said the point did not come up, but that if Benedict does visit the Cologne synagogue, it would offer a golden chance to address anti-Semitism.

"It would be a very powerful statement," Epstein said. "The symbolism would not be lost."

The Jewish community in Cologne is the oldest in Europe north of the Alps, and at the time of Hitler's rise to power in 1933 numbered some 20,000 people. Roughly 11,000 Jews from Cologne perished during the Holocaust, and the rest fled to other countries. The community was rebuilt after the Second World War, and today numbers 4,000 members.

Finally, I asked Epstein if Jewish leaders are now satisfied that the brief controversy over Benedict XVI's compulsory enrollment in the Hitler Youth has been laid to rest.

"Unless something else comes out, I see no reason why that would be brought up again," Epstein said.

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Speaking of Catholic leaders and the fight against anti-Semitism, Archbishop Charles Chaput spoke at a June 8-9 conference in Cordoba, Spain, sponsored by the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Chaput appeared on a panel on anti-Semitism put together by the Anti-Defamation League.

Chaput clearly repudiated anti-Semitism and called for a continuing examination of conscience among Catholics.

"The Holocaust is the central human tragedy of our time," Chaput said. "Even in a century marked by mass murder and political violence, the Holocaust dwarfed anything in human experience for its scope, thoroughness and brutality. History has seen many evil moments and many examples of genocide. But the Holocaust will always be an icon of both the evil that ordinary people can do, and the greatness of the human spirit in surviving and overcoming that evil."

The Holocaust was also, Chaput noted, "a religious catastrophe in which millions of people who claimed to be Christians enabled, colluded in or ignored mass murder. The only way to prevent that in the future is to honestly examine the past and repent."

One of Chaput's strengths as a dialogue partner, however, is that he's not interested just in healing old wounds. He won't duck disagreements for the sake of politeness.

That was evident in his remarks in Cordoba.

"It does no good to repent of the past if we don't understand history's real events and their context. Many Catholics would argue that choices that seem easy to criticize today were often brutally complex and difficult at the time. Many Jews would regard that as an evasion, or worse. But neither laundering nor blackening the historical record serves the truth. Reflecting on the Holocaust will be a long process, which is why Catholics and Jews will have issues of serious disagreement -- like the legacy of Pius XII -- for many years to come," he said.

"In that regard, I've heard from many Catholics -- including people committed to better relations with the Jewish community -- who were very offended by both the content and the spirit of Arthur Hertzberg's May 14 piece on 'the Vatican's sin of omission' in the The New York Times," Chaput said.

In that piece, Hertzberg, a visiting professor at New York University and author of The Fate of Zionism, challenged the new pope to admit that the Vatican "remained silent while Europe's Jews were murdered."

"Mr. Hertzberg's biased writing was both unfortunate and unhelpful," Chaput said. At the same time, Chaput said, the piece indicates that a process of "mutual understanding and cooperation" is all the more urgent.

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Crowds at Vatican events are not typically very raucous, but Italian intellectual Ernesto Galli della Loggia, a professor of political science in Perugia and an editorialist for Italy's leading daily Corriere della Sera, managed to set off a reaction at a June 4 symposium sponsored by the Pontifical Committee of Historical Science.

Galli della Loggia is a conservative non-believer, long admired in Italian church circles, including the powerful vicar of Rome and president of the Italian bishops' conference, Cardinal Camillo Ruini.

In an hour-long address, Galli della Loggia outlined what he called the church's "expulsion" from modern society and politics - a gradual yet irreversible process that he believes began with French Revolution, and has been hastened by the church's political engagements in the 20th century.

"The church no longer makes history," he declared. "It has lost whatever sense of direction in the social sphere, and is almost always confined to sticking to lines of pure resistance."

Opposition to contraception and other reactionary impulses, Galli della Loggia argued, were not the product of sound theology but of political ideology designed to "relocate" the church in a modern context reconfigured by the forces of Darwinism and Marxism.

The church's focus on ideological principles, Galli della Loggia asserted, gave rise to a political "party of Catholic ideology" influenced by secular members whose agenda ultimately confused Catholicism's sense of religious identity. Diversity within the party membership, meanwhile, worked to the benefit of the pope, the one person who could keep the church on message.

"The church of politics, reduced to partisan ideology, needed a singular voice more than ever; it needed one symbol, in short, a leader."

Galli della Loggia drew a steady steam of hissing and occasional heckling from his audience of Catholic academics, clerics and church historians who, following the address, took turns challenging his positions. If the church no longer "made history," how did Galli della Loggia explain the Second Vatican Council?

Galli della Loggia answered that both the first and second Vatican councils provided evidence of a confrontational church, grappling with history rather than making it. In the first council the church expressed a repulsion towards modernity, he said, while in the second, the council expressed openness. In both cases, however, the calculations were political.

"If you can't kill your enemy, join him," he concluded.

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Two weeks ago I reported that a recent Vatican statement about the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, which stated that there is no case against Maciel related to charges of sexual abuse nor is one foreseen, had come from the Secretariat of State rather than the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is the doctrinal office which, under a 2001 motu proprio from Pope John Paul II, is charged with responsibility for cases of sexual abuse by a cleric against a minor.

One question that several readers asked in the wake of that report was whether the Secretariat of State acted on its own initiative, or whether it had been asked to issue a statement.

In fact, Vatican sources say, the current superior of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr. Álvaro Corcuera, who succeeded Maciel in January 2005, contacted the Secretariat of State to inquire about recent media reports that an investigation against Maciel was underway. It was in response to that inquiry, sources said, that the Secretariat of State issued its statement to the Legionaries, which was subsequently confirmed by the Vatican Press Office.

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The Order of Friars Minor, better known to the world simply as the Franciscans, has released a new documentary on DVD. It's called Misit Vos in Universo Mundo, or "He sent you into the whole world." The film chronicles the order's missionary works around the world, jumping from homeless shelters in San Francisco to AIDS relief centers in Thailand.

More information can be found at the official Franciscan Web site

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Earlier this week I was in the United States for a couple of speaking engagements, and to do a round of media appearances tied to the release of my new book, The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope Was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church (Doubleday). The book is available at

One stop was at the St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York, the mother church of the Paulist Fathers. The visit gave me the opportunity to thank the Paulists for their commitment to Santa Susanna, the American parish in Rome, where I sit on the Parish Council.

Santa Susanna represents a model American parish in Rome, which is important in terms of exhibiting American "best practices" to the rest of the universal church. We've been gifted with the inspired leadership of former rector Fr. Paul Robichaud, and now his successor, Fr. Greg Apparcel.

In an era of declining vocations and tight resources it's not easy for the Paulists to make this sacrifice, but they do more good than they realize.

I also spoke in Washington, D.C., for a group of Catholic philanthropic organizations called Founders and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA). That evening they were honoring a charming couple, Tom and Marilyn Donnelly, who have given generously of their time, energy and resources to the church over the years. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., was on hand to pay tribute, making the point that not only have the Donnelly's given much, but they had a good time doing it. That spirit of joy, McCarrick said, is especially laudable.

Two particularly enjoyable interviews from this swing came with the "Fresh Air" program on National Public Radio, and with "Busted Halo," an on-line service connected to the Paulists that's devoted to young adult spirituality. It's one of the more creative attempts I've seen to try to engage people in their 20s and 30s in a serious, yet lively, conversation about faith.

The NPR interview can be found at:, look for "Fresh Air" on the program menu. The Busted Halo site is

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

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