National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly

?Sign Up Here For Weekly E-mail

 1 Archives  | 

 The Word From Rome

June 18, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 43

global perspective




Conservative critique of the Vatican, U.N.; Opus Dei gets a bishop in Spain; Mea Culpa for the Inquisition; Debating Stem Cells; Not the Dean After All


Catholic conservatives historically have tended to exempt the Vatican from their normal antipathy towards bureaucracies. The Holy See, after all, is vested with the authority of the pope, which gives it a moral standing that the U.S. Postal Service certainly can’t claim. Moreover, conservatives are accustomed to thinking that the Vatican is more likely to be on their wavelength than, say, big government or the academy.

In recent months, however, a conservative critique of the Vatican has been gathering strength, especially in the United States. It emerged with the sex abuse crisis, when many Americans were disappointed that the Holy See did not act more aggressively. That disillusionment metastasized into anger when a couple of Vatican officials suggested the American crisis was the product of a hostile press and a litigious culture. (These things didn’t irritate just conservatives, but that’s another story).

Resentment was compounded by perceptions of anti-American bias during the build-up to the war in Iraq. With Vatican Radio suggesting that the Bush administration wanted to expand American oil interests, and even the secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, asking out loud if the Americans had “learned anything from Vietnam,” some conservatives began to see the Vatican as just another European talk shop.

The result is a new form of the classic distinction between the Holy Father and the men around him.

As this critical reflection deepens in conservative circles, one issue where I suspect it will increasingly focus is the Vatican’s attitude towards the United Nations. Although the Holy See has waged battles against elements within the United Nations on the family and population control, the Vatican remains one of the United Nations’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders on international relations and war and peace.

Conservatives devoted to the principle of subsidiarity increasingly wonder why the Vatican is gung-ho about handing over chunks of national sovereignty to an international authority they see as unaccountable and occasionally hostile to religious values.

The June 2004 issue of Catholic World Report, widely read in conservative Catholic circles, offered a special dossier critiquing what it called this “strange alliance.”

“The U.N. shows very little respect for the Catholic faith, or for the public positions taken by the Holy See on crucial matters of international policy,” an opening editorial said. “Although the Vatican apparently views the U.N. as an ally, many important actors at the U.N. clearly look upon the church as an enemy.”

This reticence feeds what has become a standard conservative critique of John Paul – that he’s a magnificent evangelizer and visionary, but a so-so governor. He has worked around rather than through the Vatican, according to this reading, leaving “the system” largely intact.

On international questions, this approach has meant a heavily European sociology and cultural formation still shapes Vatican thinking. The clergy who graduate from the Vatican’s school for diplomats, the Accademia, tend to come from the same social and intellectual milieu as the politicians who end up running foreign ministries in France, Italy and Germany. Hence the center of gravity in the Vatican is, like the EU, instinctively -- and some would say, uncritically -- pro-U.N.

Given these perceptions, important elements of the church’s conservative wing are likely to push for a successor to John Paul who will take the reins of governance into his own hands, and who will challenge some of the customary patterns of doing business within the Roman Curia.

Expect the United Nations, and the whole question of the international legal order, to be high on their list -- especially among Americans.

* * *

A fascinating window onto this conservative critique of international law was opened by a June 13 and 14 Rome conference on “International Law, Democratic Accountability, and Moral Diversity.”

Sponsors of the event included some of the most prominent figures in conservative Anglo-American Catholic thought and activism: the Federalist Society, Ave Maria Law School, the Culture of Life Foundation, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, and The National Interest.

Some of the most prominent names in those circles were in attendance, including Judge Robert Bork, nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court under President Ronald Reagan but not confirmed for his strict constructionist views about constitutional interpretation; William Cash, perhaps England’s most prominent Euro-skeptic; John O’Sullivan of The National Interest and a former advisor to Margaret Thatcher; and John O. McGinnis of the Northwestern University School of Law.

In different ways, speakers sounded alarms about the use of international law to impose policies through judicial fiat, especially concerning abortion, marriage and human sexuality, that could not prevail in an open democratic vote.

William Saunders of the Family Research Council, for example, cited remarks by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to the effect that American courts should look more to decisions of European and other international tribunals. Saunders said this is indicative of a growing tendency to “smuggle” the decisions of international courts into U.S. law through a judicial backdoor.

Bork delivered the event’s keynote address during a June 13 dinner at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. Other sessions took place at Rome’s Santa Croce University.

In his speech, Bork warned against what he called a caste of “Olympians,” self-appointed experts who know better than everyone else how life ought to be ordered. Since it is difficult for such people to win elections, Bork suggested, they tend to prefer to work through the judiciary, especially at the international level where few checks and balances exist. Bork therefore described himself as “pessimistic” about the possibility of building democratic accountability into any international legal system.

Bork challenged the Vatican’s insistence that the U.S.-led war in Iraq should have had the support of the United Nations. He called the idea that the morality of the conflict was somehow dependent upon a majority vote in the General Assembly or a unanimous vote in the Security Council a “doctrinal innovation.”

(In fairness, it should be noted that this was not quite what Vatican diplomats were saying. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, now the Vatican librarian but then the foreign minister of the Holy See, said repeatedly that there were both legal and moral objections to the conflict. The question of United Nations authorization pertained to legality. The war’s morality, however, depended upon traditional just war tests. Nevertheless, one can understand the confusion, given the tendency of some Vatican spokespersons to invest the United Nations with moral significance).

During question time, I asked Bork how he explains Vatican support for the United Nations. He replied that the only answer he can give is the European influence.

McGinnis argued that trade agreements such as the World Trade Organization that promote open markets are democratically defensible, but international instruments on matters such as the environment, human rights, criminal justice or world peace should be viewed with deep skepticism.

McGinnis argued that treaties are to be preferred to customary international law, meaning interpretations of law based on how states really act, which he said is a form of rule by “a secular priestly caste -- this time in the form of nongovernmental organizations and law professors.”

Bruce Anderson, a conservative columnist for the Independent, shared the fear that a narrow cast of extremists could manipulate international tribunals and conventions.

“International law as practiced by the left is an oxymoron,” Anderson said. “It is not between nations, and it’s not law. We must repudiate it and fight it whenever we can.”

Alternate views were represented.

Italian scholar Natalino Ronzitti took on McGinnis, saying that the World Trade Organization “can’t substitute for the broader world order.” He defended the International Criminal Court, saying it operates on the principle of complementarity, meaning that it asserts jurisdiction only when a national court is unwilling or unable to prosecute a crime.

Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute argued that even when international agreements on matters such as human rights are unobjectionable in themselves, they spawn interpretive bodies that “go out completely on their own.” He cited the example of Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, whose implementation committee, Ruse charged, “directed China to legalize prostitution.”

“It’s hard to see how multilateral agreements are always democratic,” he said.

In the end, O’Sullivan and Cash seemed to articulate one of the overriding concerns of this group: how to assert the supremacy of the democratic process, the “power of the people,” over that of judges and activists.

“This is the debate of the day,” Cash said. “Subsuming into domestic courts of international principles is attacking the right of the people to review. … The whole question of democracy and accountability is put at risk.”

Though no one quite said so out loud, it was clear the Catholics in the group worry that the Holy See has uncritically embraced the evolving international system of jurisprudence. Their message is certain to reach the Vatican, since one of the participants in the conference was Jesuit Fr. Robert Arujo, who works for the Holy See’s observer mission at the United Nations. Arujo was careful not to identity himself with one or another position, but as a lawyer and an astute listener, he will have gotten the point.

* * *

As I write this column I’m in Barcelona, Spain, doing research for future projects. Thus I happened to be on hand when John Paul II provided new grist for the mill for those tracking the ecclesiastical fortunes of Opus Dei, undoubtedly the most-discussed of the new groups in the Catholic church that have flowered after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

On June 15 the Vatican announced that the enormous Barcelona archdiocese, which previously counted more than 4 million Catholics, had been divided into three new ecclesiastical jurisdictions. The remaining archdiocese of Barcelona now counts 2.6 million, while the new diocese of Terrassa has one million and the diocese of Sant Feliu de Llobregat around 661,000.

Since the move coincides with the retirement of Barcelona’s Cardinal Ricard Maria Carles, three new bishops were named to the new dioceses. Carles’ successor in the now-reduced Barcelona archdiocese will be Archbishop Lluís Martínez Sistach, 67, formerly of the diocese of Tarragona.

That appointment in turn created a vacancy in Tarragona, which, although small, is one of the traditional primatial sees of Spain. Therein lies the rub, for also on June 15 the pope announced Sistach’s successor in Tarragona: Jaume Pujol Balcells, 60, who is a priest of Opus Dei.

Despite the fact that Opus Dei was born in Spain in 1928, Pujol will actually be the first priest member to become a Spanish bishop. The bishop of Burgos, Francisco Gil Hellin, belongs to the Opus Dei-affiliated Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, but technically that does not make him a member of Opus. Spanish Cardinal Julián Herranz was among the early members, but he serves in Rome as president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.

One bit of Opus Dei trivia: The country with the highest number of Opus Dei bishops is Peru, with seven (though not all are full members).

Reaction in Spain varied.

A new English-language daily in Barcelona, Catalonia Today, made the Pujol appointment its lead article, under the headline: “Vatican ‘slap in the face’ condemned.” The piece cited the leader of a progressive activist group called Església Plural, who said that nothing like this had been seen “since the days of the dictatorship,” referring to the Franco era.

Other papers were more restrained, focusing largely on complaints that the decision to divide Barcelona in three had apparently been made without wide consultation. A few interpreted the four appointments as a “turn to the right” in the Catalonian church.

One issue still waiting Vatican adjudication is the question of a separate bishops’ conference for Catalonia. Although the nationalist movement in the Basque region is better known around the world because of the ETA terrorist group, there is also passionate nationalist sentiment in Catalonia (so much so that many here seemed blasé about Spain’s European Championship soccer match against Greece on June 16). Some of the bishops of the region have long pressed for permission to create a separate conference. In 2001, the Spanish bishops gave the project a green light, but a judgment from Rome has not arrived. Some local observers believe that given the delicacy of the question, the Vatican will want to take its time.

* * *

In the mid-1990s, veteran Italian vaticanista Luigi Accattoli published a book chronicling no fewer than 94 times Pope John Paul II asked for forgiveness for something, usually addressing God and speaking on behalf of the “sons and daughters of the church.” The days in which being pope meant never having to say you’re sorry, based on Accattoli’s account, are definitely finished.

Since then, John Paul has not slowed down. I was present in Athens, Greece, in 2001, for example, when he famously apologized to the Orthodox for their mistreatment at the hands of the Latin church.

Now there’s another item to add to the list.

John Paul has on previous occasions expressed regret for the church’s use of violence to coerce adherence to the truth, statements always understood partially in the context of the Inquisition, but always indirect. On March 12, 2000, during a “Liturgy of Pardon” in St. Peter’s Square, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said before the pope: “Even men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the truth.”

On June 15, however, John Paul offered a specific request for pardon connected to the Inquisition.

“Lord, God of all men, in certain epochs of history Christians have sometimes consented to methods of intolerance and have not followed the great commandment of love, sullying thereby the face of the church your spouse. Have mercy on your sinful children and receive our resolution to seek and promote the truth in the sweetness of charity, knowing well that the truth cannot be imposed except in virtue of the truth itself.”

The occasion for the request was the issuance of s thick volume, 783 pages in all, collecting the acts from a 1998 Vatican symposium on the Inquisition. Its aim was to separate myth from reality, so that the true dimensions of what happened during the various “inquisitions” created in Europe to combat heresy could be established. (Each country had an inquisition that operated more or less autonomously, with the best known being the Spanish Inquisition).

At a June 15 news conference, Vatican officials tried to strike a balance between sincere regret for wrongs committed without fueling what they see as an exaggerated “black legend” about the Inquisition.

In fact, they would insist, the brutality of the church’s inquisitorial process has been distorted in the popular imagination. Of the 125,000 cases processed by the Spanish Inquisition over some 300 years, for example, less than 1 percent ended in death sentences, according to lay Professor Agostino Borromeo, who edited the volume.

“You can’t ask forgiveness for things that didn’t exist,” said Cardinal George Cottier, the papal theologian and a member of the scientific body created by John Paul II to study the Inquisition.

To some, such comments will sound like a numbers game, an attempt to evade the obvious moral repugnance of trying people for their religious convictions by suggesting it wasn’t as widespread as people think. But papal apologies are never popular in some circles of Catholic opinion, especially among those who fear it hands ammunition to enemies of the church. Such views are well represented in the Roman curia. By balancing the request for forgiveness with insistence on historical precision, John Paul and his advisors no doubt hope to keep these various tensions in balance.

Whether they have succeeded is a matter for opinion.

* * *

Fr. Tad Pacholczyk is one of those rare cultural polyglots who speaks the language of both science and religion. He holds a PhD in neuroscience from Yale, and did postdoctoral work at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School. Yet he also holds degrees in theology and bioethics from the Gregorian University and the Lateran University in Rome.

Despite this rare combination of learning, Pacholczyk is adept at expressing himself in terms accessible to nonexperts, which is probably one of the reasons he is often called upon to testify on bioethical issues before legislatures across the United States. Pacholczyk is a strong opponent of cloning and embryonic stem cell research, and he brought his case to Rome in early June.

He spoke at the Centro Russia Ecumenica on the Borgo Pio June 11, at a gathering sponsored by the Vatican Forum, a group of Rome-based journalists. I also had the chance to sit down with Pacholczyk the next day at the North American College, where he lived in the late 1990s while studying in Rome.

Pacholczyk organized his presentation in terms of what he called 10 “myths” in the debate over stem cells. They are:

1. Stem cells can only come from embryos.

In fact, Pacholczyk said, stem cells can be taken from umbilical cords, the placenta, amniotic fluid, adult tissues and organs such as bone marrow, fat from liposuction, regions of the nose, and even from cadavers up to 20 hours after death.

2. The Catholic church is against stem cell research.

There are four categories of stem cells, Pacholczyk said: embryonic stem cells, embryonic germ cells, umbilical cord stem cells, and adult stem cells. Given that germ cells can come from miscarriages that involve no deliberate interruption of pregnancy, Pacholczyk said the church opposes the use of only one of these four categories, that is, embryonic stem cells. In other words, the Catholic Church approves three of the four possible types of stem cell research.

3. Embryonic research has the greatest promise.

Up to now, no human being has ever been cured of a disease using embryonic stem cells, Pacholczyk said. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, have cured thousands. Pacholczyk gave the example of the use of cells from the hipbone to repair scar tissue on the heart after heart attacks. Research using adult cells is 20 to 30 years ahead, he said, and holds greater promise.

4. Embryonic stem cell research is against the law.

In reality, while President George Bush has banned the use of federal funding to support research on embryos created after August 2001, it is not illegal. Anyone using private funds is free to pursue it.

5. President Bush created new restrictions to federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

The 1996 Dickey Amendment prohibited the use of federal funds for research that would destroy embryos. Bush’s decision to permit research on embryos created before a certain date thus relaxes this restriction from the Clinton era.

6. Therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning are fundamentally different from one another.

Pacholczyk insists that the creation of cloned embryos either to make a baby or to harvest cells occurs by the same series of technical steps. The only difference is what will be done with the cloned human embryo that is produced: will it be allowed to be born, or will it be destroyed for its stem cells?

7. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is different from cloning.

In fact, Pacholczyk argued, “somatic transfer” is simply cloning by a different name. The end result, he said, is still an embryo.

8. By doing somatic cell nuclear transfer, we can directly produce tissues or organs without having to clone an embryo.

At the present stage of research, Pacholczyk said, scientists cannot bypass the creation of an embryo in the production of tissues or organs. In the future, he said, it may be possible to inject elements from the cytoplasm of a woman’s ovum into a somatic cell to “reprogram” it into a stem cell. This is called “de-differentiation.” If so, there would be no moral objection, Pacholczyk said.

9. Every body cell or somatic cell is somehow an embryo and thus a human life.

Pacholczyk played a video of a doctor who said on MS-NBC: “Every cell in the body has the potential to become an embryo. Does that mean that every time we wash our hands and are shedding thousands of cells, we are killing life? It doesn’t.” Pacholczyk said this is a red herring because it overlooks the difference between a regular body cell, and one whose nuclear material has been fused with an unfertilized egg cell, resulting in what Pacholczyk says is an embryo.

10. Because frozen embryos may one day end up being discarded by somebody, that makes it morally allowable, even laudable, to violate and destroy those embryos.

Pacholczyk says the moral analysis of what we may permissibly do with an embryo doesn’t depend on its otherwise going to waste, nor the fact those embryos are trapped in liquid oxygen. “If we think about a schoolhouse in which you have a group of children that are trapped through no fault of their own, it would not make it OK to send in a remote control robotic device that would harvest organs from those children and cause their demise,” he said.

Pacholczyk’s is not, it should be noted, the only view on this question.

Louis M. Guenin, for example, teaches ethics at the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics of the Harvard Medical School. In the June 2001 issue of Science, Guenin, a Catholic, argued that the church should accept embryonic stem cell research.

“It seems difficult to deny that relieving widespread suffering is morally better than destroying embryos at no gain,” Guenin wrote.

In the end, however, Pacholczyk argues that church teaching on embryonic stem cell research is a fundamental matter of human equality.

“The danger is that we’re going to cordon off a certain part of humanity,” he said. “We’ve done that before. We’ve said to ethnic groups, you’re different from the rest of us and we’re going to discriminate against you. Embryos are the new category that we’ve decided are different enough that we can do things to them we would never do to one of our adult brothers or sisters.”

* * *

In last week’s “Word from Rome,” I reported that President George Bush, during a June 4 meeting with Cardinal Angelo Sodano and other Vatican officials, asked for the Vatican’s help in encouraging the American bishops to be more outspoken on cultural issues, especially gay marriage. I cited a Vatican official and other sources. The story subsequently was picked up by a number of other news outlets.

In a brief story citing my piece, the June 13 New York Times identified me as “dean of Vatican journalists.”

That’s flattering, but hardly accurate. The term “dean” carries a connotation of seniority, and by that standard, I do not qualify. In the English language, reporters such as Victor Simpson for the Associated Press and Philip Pullella of Reuters have been covering the Vatican much longer, as have John Thavis and Cindy Wooden of the Catholic News Service, among others.

In Italian, roots reach even deeper. The real dean of the Vatican press corps, at least as measured by the calendar, is Arcangelo Paglialunga, who writes for the newspaper Gazzettino di Venezia. He is a walking font of historical memory. He recently gave an interview to the ANSA news service in which he recalled watching the American tanks roll into Rome on June 5, 1944. Paglialunga was dumbfounded by the well-equipped, well-fed Americans. Noting that dentists were among the arriving forces, Paglialunga said he thought at the time: “Who could possibly beat these guys, who even bring dentists?”

I’ve got a long way to go before I can rival such veterans, either in length of service or tales to tell.

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

Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2003 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280