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June 24, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 37

John L. Allen Jr.


A church more willing to fight back; Cardinal Angelo Scola, an interesting intellectual; Christians and Islam; Christians in Sudan; A new history of Vatican II


Much has been made of Pope Benedict XVI's description of Christianity as a "creative minority," especially in Europe. It tracks with other images the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has employed for the church in the West -- such as a "mustard seed," a seemingly insignificant presence that nevertheless generates life.

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Some have taken these references as signaling a desire for the church to collapse in on itself, to withdraw from the broader culture and nourish its inner life. The choice of the name "Benedict" could be read in the same light, since St. Benedict was the founder of European monasticism, an effort to carve out separate Christian enclaves as the Roman empire crumbled.

The early days of Benedict XVI's papacy, however, suggest a very different reading. Far from implying disengagement from social and political affairs, being a "creative minority" seems to generate a diverse, and arguably stronger, kind of involvement -- sharper, more challenging, with more "edge." By liberating the church from the expectation that it will be a mass presence in society, enjoying broad acceptability and close ties to governing institutions and elites, the pope hopes its public witness will become more evangelical, less inhibited by diplomatic and institutional cautions.

The result seems likely to be a church more willing to take sides, to flex its political muscles, and to fight back.

One example came in Italy with a June 12-13 referendum on in-vitro fertilization, where a strong campaign by the Catholic church helped keep turnout below 50 percent and hence defeated four liberalizing measures. The pope gave his explicit support to the efforts.

Saturday, June 18, provided another case in point. Throngs of Spanish Catholics took to the streets in Madrid to protest a new gay marriage law set for approval by that country's Socialist government on June 30. Organizers claimed that 1.5 million people turned out; police put the figure at 166,000; most of my colleagues in the Spanish press seemed to settle on a number somewhere around 500,000.

I've written a cover story for the July 1 issue of National Catholic Reporter on the Spanish situation, which will be posted to June 28.

Whatever the final count on Saturday, it was an impressive display. The Spanish Forum for the Family, an umbrella group for a variety of pro-family movements and associations, organized the demonstration. It carried the official endorsement of the executive committee of the Spanish bishops' conference, as well as the main conservative opposition party in Spain, the Popular Party of former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

The event energized many, but alarmed others, in the Spanish Catholic world.

Virtually every Catholic I met in Spain concurs that the cultural agenda of the ruling Socialist government -- liberalized divorce, euthanasia, stem cell research, abortion, gay marriage, along with threats of reductions in state funding for the church and the elimination of religious instruction in state schools -- poses a challenge to which the church is obligated to respond. There are Catholics, however, including some bishops, who were uncomfortable with what they saw June 18. For this group, the protest risked becoming too partisan, too divisive.

In some ways, this clash can be read in terms of a difference between Pope Benedict's bold, counter-cultural vision of the public role of the church, and an older vision sometimes associated with Pope Paul VI (1963-78) -- somewhat softer, less confrontational, emphasizing dialogue with all forces in society at least as much as clarity of witness.

To put the matter bluntly, the more Benedict-style, "creative minority" bishops were enthusiastic about Saturday's rally, while the Paul VI, "dialogue" types generally stayed home.

Nineteen Spanish bishops were present in all, including Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela of Madrid and Archbishop Antonio Cañizares Llovera of Toledo. (There are 70 dioceses and roughly 120 bishops in Spain). On June 9, the executive committee of the Spanish bishops' conference endorsed the event, marking the first time since 1983 the bishops had officially backed a public protest.

The embrace was not universal. Pointedly, Bishop Ricardo Blázquez Pérez of Bilbao, the newly elected president of the bishops' conference, did not participate, and neither did Cardinal Carlos Amigo Vallejo of Seville, who said the only processions he attends are religious.

No bishops from the Basque territories and Catalonia came, although their ambivalence may have been due to the fact that the Popular Party is widely disliked in those regions as a symbol of Spanish centralism.

More generally, several bishops regarded the demonstration as too partisan (especially since it came on the eve of important regional elections in Galicia). Some also saw it as divisive, a kind of "pressure tactic" inconsistent with the church's mission.

Auxiliary Bishop of Barcelona Joan Carrera Planas, for example, told a regional radio network June 17 that "what is worrying is that two poles are forming, and the Catholic church is included in one of them."

"This situation means that half of Spain will not look at Christianity with spiritual peace or intellectual curiosity, because it will be divided along political lines … I would do everything possible so this does not happen," Carrera said.

This view was laid out for me by Jesuit Fr. José M. Martín Patino, who runs an independent think tank in Madrid called the Fundacion Encuentro, and who helped edit the section in the Spanish constitution on religious liberty.

First, he argued, a mass event in the streets is an "act of pressure," an attempt to impose a conclusion rather than to propose it. Quoting Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi, Martín Patino added: "Not all democratic means are evangelical means."

Second, Martín Patino said, it risks creating the appearance of an alliance with a political party.

"People will think the bishops are trying to discredit the government in order to win votes for the Popular Party," he said.

Significantly, the 80-year-old Martín Patino served as vicar general under Madrid's former Cardinal Vicente Enrique y Tarancón, a Paul VI appointee, and was Tarancón's peritus, or theological expert, at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He's very much a man of the dialogic, non-confrontational school.

The inherent risk to this approach is that the church's witness might be muted or ambiguous on matters of vital public interest; the risk of Benedict's "creative minority" option, on the other hand, would seem to be that the church may appear as a partisan lobby pursuing its special interests, rather than a socially unifying force seeking to embrace all men and women of good will.

Neither one of these outcomes necessarily flows from its respective foundation; avoiding them may largely be a matter of being self-conscious about the dangers, and making wise strategic decisions.

In any event, the Spanish situation throws the contrasts between these two options into a uniquely clear, and urgent, light.

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While the foregoing accurately describes a tension at the senior level of the church, with implications beyond Spain, it could create the impression that the June 18 rally was largely an affair of the bishops. In fact, the bishops played a supporting role; the energy and vision came from the grassroots, especially the Forum for the Family and a wide cross-section of movements and causes.

I had dinner Thursday night in Madrid with about 15 Spanish Catholics involved with the rally, most of them journalists who write for a variety of Catholic publications and Web sites. (In typical Spanish fashion, we gathered at 9 p.m. and didn't finish until around 1 a.m.).

They were young, in their mid-20s through early 40s. There was much dynamism, coupled with pent-up frustration with what many perceived as the church's quiescence in the face of serious threats. In that light, the June 18 rally seemed a catharsis, a long-awaited opportunity for men and women of faith to find their voice in publicly significant fashion.

I asked one young woman what she hoped the rally might accomplish, since it seems clear the Spanish parliament will approve the gay marriage law on June 30 in any event.

"It's important that people hear us," she said, simply. "We have been silent for too long."

In a sense, this frustration is reminiscent of how religious conservatives in the United States felt prior to the birth of the Christian Coalition and other activist groups that transformed them into a potent political force.

That comparison is not accidental; Ignacio Arsuga, a 32-year-old Spanish lawyer who runs a Web site called (loosely meaning "listen up!"), and who was one of the architects of the rally, told me on the day of the demonstration that he and his like-minded Catholic friends dream of building something like the Christian Coalition in Spain.

Overall, the group seemed to have the potential to form the nucleus of a new political force in Spain, a sort of Catholic version of the "religious right," with all its promise and peril. How that force takes shape, and the kind of decisions it makes, will have a tremendous impact in Spain -- and may represent a model for the church elsewhere.

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One point everyone in Spain seemed to agree upon is that if the Catholic church is serious about the family, it's insufficient to be against measures such as gay marriage or expedited divorce. It also has to put forward positive proposals, on matters such as child care, housing, health care, tax breaks for families, flexible working hours for parents, longer maternity leave, and other concrete issues. Concerned Catholics have to build a comprehensive "pro-family" movement.

Unfortunately, there's not much evidence of it happening.

Certain groups have outlined programs; both the Foundation for the Family and the Fundacion Encuentro have made policy recommendations, but to a great extent, according to most observers, they remain words on paper.

The strong polarization of Spanish politics means that it is difficult to combine the "family values" emphasis of the right, with the social justice concerns of the left.

Enrico Juliana, Madrid bureau chief for the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia, told me he's skeptical that the current crisis might stimulate such thinking.

"I don't see it," he said.

"We're passing through a time in which everyone feels the need to affirm their own identity, on both left and right," Juliana said. "That means they keep returning to old scripts, fighting old battles."

One test for the new political force in Spain represented by the people I had dinner with Thursday night is whether they'll follow the script of partisan activism, or whether they can imagine a creative new alignment of forces in support of "family values" in the broadest sense.

Time will tell.

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In his Friday June 24 visit to the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Pope Benedict reaffirmed his commitment to a strong public role for the Catholic church. Ciampi, in his remarks to the pope, affirmed "as President of the Republic and as a citizen, the lay character of the Italian Republic."

The pope expressed agreement on what he called a "healthy lay character of the state," but also said, "the autonomy of the temporal sphere does not exclude an intimate harmony with superior and complex exigencies derived from an integral vision of the human being and of the human being's eternal destiny." He went on to mention as essential concerns of the church the defense of matrimony, the family and of human life from conception to natural end, and education.

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Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice ranks as one of the most intellectually interesting members of the College of Cardinals. The founder of the Italian version of the theological journal Communio, a disciple of famed Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the former rector of the Lateran University, Scola is one of the few cardinals whose theological credentials bear comparison with those of Pope Benedict XVI.

Scola is the kind of thinker who, when asked a relatively straightforward question about dialogue with neo-Protestant "sects," which I put to him on June 21 in Venice, will begin his answer with a seemingly out-of-left-field reference to the German Protestant theologian Karl Barth, and his famous distinction between "faith" and "religion." (Essentially, Scola wanted to say that individual faith needs to be embedded into a religious community, without which it can be co-opted by the prevailing ideology, which is what he believes has happened with many of the sects, driven by an ethos of individualism and competition).

He's also one of the relatively few European cardinals who doesn't engage in a lot of hand-wringing about the "silent apostasy" of Europe. In fact, he's convinced that Christianity is profoundly rooted in Europe, even today, and that it can be awakened if the church has but the nerve.

I was in Venice on Tuesday for a presentation of one of Scola's signature projects -- an international journal called Oasis, directed at countries with an Islamic majority and designed to promote dialogue between the Christian minorities in those countries. It's published in four editions: English-Arabic; English-Urdu; French-Arabic; Italian-Arabic.

Journalists were invited in for the conclusion of their working meeting on Tuesday, and afterwards Scola and four participants held a session with the press.

Scola issued a plea to "stay anchored to the reality."

"We are the sons and daughters of an incarnate God, who entered into all the events of human history," Scola said. "The Incarnation is a logic, a method for dealing with life."

"Social processes don't ask our permission to happen, and they don't leave us time to work out theories at the table," he said. "We have to go out to meet them, to correct them where necessary, to give them direction."

In that sense, Scola said, it is important that as the church tries to think its way through the challenges posed by cultural diversity, it "depart from reality," not from the abstraction that often is second nature for European intellectuals.

Having said that, Scola launched into an excursus on philosophical anthropology, which, if one didn't know better, would have sounded curiously like abstraction.

In essence, he argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the "closure of the modern epoch," and that the "physiognomy of contemporary man" is different as a result. Today, he said, the "utopian biases" of the old ideological systems are bankrupt, and for the post-modern person "all the basic questions are open."

In that sense, he argued, the church has a better shot at evangelizing post-modernity, since the characteristic post-modern person is a seeker rather than an ideologue.

"Christianity can respond to the questions of the contemporary person, in a way that it could not do in modernity," he said. "We can respond to the basic questions about happiness and liberty, which are the two key words in the gospel of Christ."

The trick, he believes, is to demonstrate that truth is not in conflict with freedom -- that it is not a surrender of liberty to terminate one's search when faced with the truth. For that, he said, Christianity needs the witness of committed individuals who live what the church teaches.

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Two other notes about Scola.

First, he was asked by a reporter where he stood on the question of Turkey's entrance into the European Union, a matter of debate within the Catholic community. Prior to his election as Pope Benedict XVI, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had expressed opposition based on concerns about Europe's cultural identity.

In a deft ecumenical move, Scola avoided answering the question directly. Instead, he said that for Christians Turkey suggests the Patriarch of Constantinople and the sister churches of the Orthodox. Before taking a position, therefore, he said he would want to know where the Orthodox stand.

In fact, this seemed an indirect way of saying he doesn't have a problem with Turkey joining the EU, since Scola knows well that Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has expressed strong support for Turkey's candidacy.

Second, after our meeting broke up at the Basilica della Salute in Venice, both Scola and I were headed to the Piazza San Marco (where the patriarch's headquarters are located). I had assumed he would be moving in a private conveyance, but in fact he took the same waterbus as everyone else, and hence we had a few moments to chat.

He asked what I had been doing, and I explained I had just returned from Spain, where I covered Saturday's rally and the broader church/state crisis. I said I felt a political translation of what Pope Benedict means by Christianity as a "creative minority" was taking shape in Spain.

Interestingly, Scola said that when the pope addressed the Italian bishops a couple of weeks ago (shortly before the June 12-13 referendum), he acknowledged that there is still a popular Christian base in Italy profoundly rooted in the country's social fabric.

"That seemed a little bit of a correction from the idea of a 'minority,'" Scola said. "I think he sees things slightly differently now that he's pope."

As we exited the waterbus, a British tourist in front of us started to lose his backpack, at which point Scola stepped forward, caught it, and then reattached the man's strap. Only at the end did the startled Brit turn around to see someone in a cardinal's robes helping him out, and stammered an embarrassed "thank you." The beaming Scola waved and headed off.

All in a day's work for the Patriarch of Venice, where, especially in the summer, tourists outnumber his own flock by a wide margin.

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Beyond Scola, participants who met with the press included Melkite Archbishop Jean C. Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria; Bishop Anthony Lobo of Islamabad, Pakistan; Nikolaus Lobkowicz; and Fr. Franz Magnis Suseno, from the University of Jakarata in Indonesia.

The integration of minorities is the theme of the next issue of Oasis, and it generated conversation.

"Sometimes this century seems to illustrate exactly the opposite, disintegration," Jeanbart said. "In my nation, fundamentalist movements ignore the real concerns of the country. This is not a generalized phenomenon, but it comes from some people who pretend to be Muslim. They're mistaken, because this is not real Islam."

Lobo said there is a case for optimism in what he sees as a growing openness, at least in official circles in Pakistan, to the Christian minority.

As examples, he pointed to the fact that Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the country's president, has reformed the system of national elections to give Christians a greater voice, and has patronized Christian schools. In a small but telling move, Lobo said that Musharraf every year hosts a Christmas dinner, officially billed as such, and on the menu lists "Christmas turkey" and "Christmas pudding" -- seemingly trivial but telling gestures from the head of state in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

Lobo also said he was encouraged when a group of female Muslim students, fully veiled, recently came to him for information on a research project on the Catholic charismatic renewal. That suggests, he said, a new level of interest among Muslims in understanding Christianity.

At the same time, Lobo conceded, there is much work yet to be done.

For one thing, he said, most young Muslims recruited by terrorist groups come not from the national university, but from the madras system, where, he said, young Muslims are taught that "all Christians are infidels."

Most Christians in Pakistan converted 150 years ago, Lobo noted, and were drawn largely from the oppressed outcast classes. There remains a strong current of social discrimination based on these class origins, he said. For example, if a Christian buys a cup of tea at a roadside shop, and the Muslim owner intuits that he's a Christian, he might smash his cup against the wall, saying that the Christian must pay for it because it's now polluted and no one will drink from it.

In fact, Lobo noted, this is not really religious discrimination so much as the lingering effects of the caste system, but it does shape the quality of life of Pakistani Christians.

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For another window onto the struggles of some Christians in the Islamic world, I had lunch this week with a Sudanese priest who recently finished his doctoral work in Rome. Sudan, by the way, is home to the largest Arabic-speaking Christian population in the world.

Traditionally the Christian population in Sudan is concentrated in the south, but the pressures of war in the 1980s and 1990s drove many to the Islamic north, and there they face serious challenges.

For example, this Sudanese priest said, Christians are not allowed to build churches. In Khartoum, they have a series of "centers," which are legally classified as schools but are also used for communal worship. That worship, by the way, has to take place on Friday, because it is the only day people have off from work. Sunday Mass is celebrated, but very few are able to come.

Police will sometimes disrupt the services, or bar the gates to keep people away; the vicar general of the Khartoum archdiocese recently spent a week in jail after showing up to celebrate Mass on Friday.

When John Paul II visited Khartoum in 1993, the priest said, the government brought food and drink into Christian-dominated refugee camps, telling them the pope would visit them and there was no need to go to his Mass, in an attempt to keep turnout low. On the day of the event, they shut down bus service and minimized television broadcasts, worried that the event might give a political boost to the Christian minority.

When young Christians want to enter the university, this priest said, they generally convert to Islam and take Muslim names, because otherwise the most prestigious programs are denied to them. Most, he said, remain Christians "in their hearts." This has created a debate within the Christian community, he said, between those who believe Christians shouldn't engage in this kind of subterfuge, and those who see it as a practical necessity. Many Christians in the north, he said, hide their religious affiliation on the job or even among friends.

This priest said things are to some extent getting better, in part because of pressure from the American government. (For that reason, he said, many Sudanese Christians rejoiced when George W. Bush was reelected, counting on him to keep it up). At least officially, the Sudanese government no longer insists on applying shariah, or Islamic law, to Christians.

There are an estimated 3.8 million Catholics in Sudan, and a roughly equivalent number of other Christians, especially Anglicans.

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On the subject of Christian-Muslim dialogue, the United States government this week brought the Islamic chaplain at Georgetown University, Imam Yahya Hendi, to speak to Islamic leaders in Italy. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an imam who works for a Catholic institution, Hendi is a big believer in dialogue.

He met with reporters at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See on Monday afternoon, June 19.

Hendi said that he's trying to persuade Muslims that inter-religious dialogue reflects the teaching of the Koran. He pointed to a verse, for example, that quotes God as saying he divided humanity into various tribes "so that you may come to know each other." In that sense, he said, he doesn't worry that some Muslims may be skeptical about him as a guest of the American government; in the end, he said, they have to respond to his arguments.

I asked Hendi about the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, and whether as a Muslim leader he believes it makes the case for dialogue between Islam and the West more difficult.

"I think there has to be a clear study carried out by our government and civil rights groups to establish exactly how America is really handling its prisoners, not just there but elsewhere," he said. At the same time, he said, he's sure that if there are abuses there, "they will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law."

On Benedict XVI, Hendi said he finds the new pope "very encouraging … he gives me hope." He said the pope's vision of Jesus, and his early statements about outreach and dialogue, suggest "wise leadership."

Finally, I asked Hendi a question with one eye to the next consistory, meaning the event in which new cardinals are created. Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald is presently the Catholic church's top officer for dialogue with other religions. Would representatives of other religions feel that they are taken more seriously if the pope named him a cardinal?

"In the mind of somebody like me," Hendi said, meaning someone involved in dialogue, "it does make a difference."

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Among Catholics who believe that the content of the Second Vatican Council has sometimes been misrepresented by a one-sided reading of its "spirit," it has long been a frustration that the standard histories of the council generally reflect the more progressive reading. (The most influential example, according to these critics, would be the multi-volume history of Giuseppe Alberigo and the "Bologna School").

On June 17, the opposition struck back.

On that day, a new volume, The Second Ecumenical Vatican Council: A Counterpoint to its History by Italian Archbishop Agostino Marchetto was presented in Rome. Marchetto, currently the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees, has long challenged the Alberigo model.

"The intent is to contribute to finally grasping a history of Vatican II," Marchetto writes, asserting that the historical record to date has been skewed by a "vision that I define as ideological in principle and that has monopolized that publishing market."

Marchetto devotes particular attention to the constitution Lumen Gentium, challenging the notion that the document's call for greater collegiality implied a decentralization of Vatican power. Such interpretations, Marchetto writes, presents a myopic distortion of history that "marginalizes the importance of the synthesis between aggiornamento and tradition … in order to point only at the aspects that appeared to be innovative."

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops conference, who presented the book at a June 17 press conference, had enthusiastic praise for Marchetto's reassessment.

"This not only makes a counterpoint but provides orientation for a different history -- one that has yet to be written," Ruini said.

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Last week I reported the closing of Regina Mundi, an institute for theological studies for women in Rome. I mentioned that a forerunner came with the creation of an institute for women by Sr. Mary Madeleva Wolff, a religious of the Congregation of Holy Cross, in 1943. I erroneously located that institute at the University of Notre Dame; it was actually founded at Saint Mary's College, also in Indiana.

Along with several other readers, Holy Cross Sr. M. Veronique, a member of Board of Trustees at St. Mary's College, wrote to correct the mistake:

"Sr. Madeleva's school was at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana, a women's college sponsored by the Sisters of the Holy Cross across the highway from Notre Dame," she wrote, "and it remained open until the University of Notre Dame opened its graduate theology studies to women. It is one of our 'great moments' and we are proud to claim it."

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

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