"If we test what we say against the reality
of people’s lives, then maybe our homilies will be more modest."
Fr. Timothy Radcliffe
former Dominican Master
|In the wake of
the sex abuse scandals in the United States, it is fashionable to calumniate
“clerical culture,” as if the only thing the Catholic priesthood ever produced
is pedophiles and the bishops who cover up for them. I think if I have
to hear someone accuse priests as a class of “stunted psycho-sexual development”
once more, I’ll run screaming into the night.
This is not to say that
some priests haven’t committed horrible acts of abuse, or that other priests
don’t have their own problems. God knows living in Rome I see plenty of
clericalism, the irritating superiority complex that infects some of the
ordained. (I recently heard a priest who works in the Roman curia, for
example, explain that nuns in his residence “cook, clean, and deal with
the help — you know, the stuff nuns are good at.”)
Yet like most Catholics,
I know too many humble, mature priests to believe that there is anything
inherent to “clerical culture” that produces either sexual predators or
jerks. If anything, the miracle is that so many priests come out not merely
normal, but far above average in intelligence, idealism, and work ethic.
This reality was brought
home for me last week at an international Jesuit conference on liturgy,
where former Dominican Master General Fr. Timothy Radcliffe spoke on “The
Sacramentality of the Word.” Radcliffe, an Englishman whose travels as
head of the Dominicans introduced him to the Catholic world, is a celebrated
author and speaker.
The Dominicans are the
“Order of Preachers,” and Radcliffe did not shrink from asserting that
most homilies delivered in Catholic churches on Sundays range from uninspiring
to dreadful. He suggested that priests would preach more effectively if
they were more honest.
A snippet of Radcliffe’s
“If we test what we say
against the reality of people’s lives, then maybe our homilies will be
more modest. The temptation of preachers is to make great and vague claims
that must make our hearers smile to themselves. I dread the ecclesiastical
indicative, ‘Married couples, living in complete unity and perfect love,
express the love of Christ.’ Really? Try asking some of my friends! Our
words will be more powerful if we say less. An old Eskimo woman was asked
why the songs of her tribe were so short. She replied, ‘Because we know
so much.’ We talk too much because we listen too little. As Barbara Brown
Taylor wrote, ‘In a time of famine typified by too many words with too
much noise in them, we could use fewer words with more silence in them.’”
Notice the erudition
packed into that paragraph, and how lightly it is worn.
One of my favorite moments
at the conference came when Radcliffe presented Dutch Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach,
the General of the Jesuits. Radcliffe and Kolvenbach obviously treasure
one another, and anyone with even a passing knowledge of the historical
enmity between the Dominicans and the Jesuits will grasp what a remarkable
turn of events that is. (Radcliffe pointed out that St. Teresa of Avila
once predicted that if ever the Dominicans and the Jesuits would stop fighting,
the Kingdom of God would arrive.)
There is an old tradition
that when the general of the Jesuits dies, the master general of the Dominicans
preaches the homily at his funeral, and vice-versa. It is one way in which
the two communities have worked at healing their wounds.
Radcliffe said that when
he took office, his predecessor, Fr. Damian Byrne, told him the first thing
he should do is talk to Kolvenbach, who would navigate him through the
shoals of ecclesiastical Rome. In turn, Radcliffe said, he told his successor
to do the same thing.
“And he will tell his
successor likewise,” Radcliffe said, “for while masters general come and
go, Fr. Kolvenbach endures.”
Despite his nondescript
appearance (he always sports a simple black cassock), Kolvenbach is among
the savviest figures in modern Catholicism. He has a profound sense of
the universal church. Before taking over as general of the Jesuits, Kolvenbach
was the rector at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, and he personally
follows the Armenian rather than the Latin rite. Kolvenbach’s tranquility,
good humor, and sound judgment have allowed the Jesuits to regroup after
the turbulence of Fr. Pedro Arrupe’s controversial generalship.
He returned Radcliffe’s
“Don’t believe what he
says about me,” Kolvenbach joked, “but read his books!”
My point? Both Radcliffe
and Kolvenbach are products of “clerical culture.” Yet both come across
as generous, compassionate, intelligent, and dedicated servants of the
gospel. Both are a tonic amid the anti-clerical tone these days.
* * *
Speaking of remarkable
people, scientist Norman Borlaug recently dropped by NCR’s Rome
office. He was in town for the June 10-13 World Food Summit, sponsored
by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the U.S. embassy
to the Holy See had asked me to set up a session for Borlaug with some
His claim to fame is
that he triggered the “Green Revolution” in the 1950s and 1960s by developing
wheat varieties that have strong disease resistance, broad adaptation to
growing conditions in a variety of climates, and high yield potential.
Plots of land that could feed hundreds could suddenly feed thousands. Under
the impact of Borlaug’s discoveries, wheat output in the world in the past
35 years has gone from 300 to 650 million metric tons a year. By some estimates,
he has personally saved more lives than anyone in human history.
Borlaug is today 88.
Like the idiot I too often am, I had scheduled our interview for midday,
in NCR’s non-air conditioned office, during a furious Roman hot
spell. The situation would have been enough to fell a hale and hearty undergrad,
let alone a jetlagged senior citizen.
The robust Borlaug, however,
took it in stride. For more than an hour he fielded our questions, responding
with a remarkable command of detail.
explained, the failure to curb world hunger is the result of huge gaps
in distribution systems. In the hardest-hit areas of the world, above all
in Africa, there are no airports, no rail systems, no roads over which
food can be delivered. Private enterprise won’t erect such networks, since
there is no market to exploit. Agencies such as the World Bank and IMF,
who ought to act in the public interest by bankrolling this infrastructure,
regard the time lag between funding and results as unacceptably long. Unless
they can see the fruits of a proposal in five years, Borlaug said, they
take a pass.
It will take decades,
and large-scale funding from the West, to build an effective delivery system,
but Borlaug believes hunger can’t be solved without it. (24,000 people
die each day from malnutrition, according to United Nations statistics,
and 800 million people are undernourished.).
Being journalists, and
therefore skeptics, my colleagues and I assumed Borlaug had been brought
to Rome by the U.S. government in order to defend genetically modified
organisms (GMOs), the biggest point of controversy at the World Food Summit.
These are new, laboratory-developed crops that American agribusiness is
anxious to promote, and Greenpeace-style eco-activists are equally anxious
to resist. The opposition is usually on grounds of health and safety (fear
of so-called “Frankenstein Foods”), or the evils of capitalism (fear that
Third World farmers will become dependent upon biotech companies for fertilizer
and seed). Borlaug, as the father of the Green Revolution, has obvious
credibility on the issue.
The embassy to the Holy
See got involved because there is some alarm that the Vatican might denounce
GMOs, given its reservations about genetic tampering in other areas. Simply
put, if the pope were to slam GMOs, it would be bad for business. To try
to head off this prospect, the embassy organized a session between Borlaug
and Vatican experts the day after our interview.
On one level, Borlaug
delivered the anticipated pitch. When asked why the Third World was suspicious
of GMOs, his response was crisp.
“It’s easy to put words
into the mouths of suppressed peoples,” he said. “If the benefits were
explained to those simple people, I’m not convinced their answer would
be in the negative.”
Yet Borlaug is no shill
for lassiez-faire capitalism. He proposed government intervention to save
farmers from becoming hooked on high-priced fertilizers peddled by biotech
“There should be good
public research funds to compete with the private sector,” he said. “Patents
can be awarded to the public sector, to be given for the good of all.”
You will pardon the pun,
but Borlaug had us eating out of his hand. In part, this was due to his
beguiling humility. At one point he offhandedly said the Nobel Peace Prize
“came to agriculture” in 1970. I interrupted to observe that, more specifically,
the prize came to him. He brushed off the point, saying it recognized research
for which many people were responsible.
“Yeah, well, your name
is on the trophy,” I insisted.
Later, we asked Borlaug
to explain two pins in his lapel. One was the insignia of the University
of Minnesota, where he had been a champion wrestler.
The other? It was a symbol
of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor,
which Borlaug received in 1977. It put him in the company of national legends
such as Thurgood Marshall, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, and Cardinal Joseph
The thing is, the medal
wasn’t even on Borlaug’s bio. Had it been me, I remarked, I would have
worn the citation around on a T-shirt.
* * *
A popular theory, though
one I don’t hold myself, is that John Paul II’s successor should be Italian.
The pope is the Bishop of Rome, so the logic runs, and it is good for a
bishop to come from the local church he is ordained to serve. Moreover,
some believe that a weakness of the Wojtyla pontificate has been micro-management
by the Roman Curia, while an Italian pope who knows the Vatican would take
personal charge of its business. Finally, some believe an Italian pope
would be more flexible than a hard-nosed Pole.
I don’t buy it. For one
thing, there are too many examples of Italian popes who were inflexible,
or incapable of controlling their own apparatchiks. Moreover, electing
an Italian because the pope is the bishop of Rome strikes me as an anachronism.
We should seek the best candidate, regardless of what passport they hold.
Nevertheless, I recognize
that the Italian hypothesis has to be taken seriously. For the better part
of two decades, the leading Italian candidate has been Cardinal Carlo Maria
Martini of Milan. The Jesuit Biblical scholar has turned 75, however, and
is itching to move on to retirement in Jerusalem.
The question of who follows
Martini in Milan thus shapes up as an important bellwether.
Martini’s successor could
be a relative unknown outside of Italy, someone such as Renato Corti, the
bishop of Novara. But if Milan goes to either of two candidates currently
drawing interest, it would be important indeed. They are Cardinals Diogini
Tettamanzi of Genoa and Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation
Corriere della Serra,
Italy’s leading daily, reported June 11 that Tettamanzi, 68, is the front-runner.
Tettamanzi has a roly-poly bearing reminiscent of John XXIII, and is well
known to his Italian colleagues, having served in the powerful position
of secretary of the Italian bishops conference (where he distinguished
himself, they say, by not making mortal enemies). A moral theologian, he
is rumored to have worked on John Paul’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae.
In recent months, Tettamanzi has burnished his credentials with traditionalists
by writing letters in support of indulgences and church teaching on the
Devil. At the same time, he helped his standing with the social progressives
during the G-8 Summit in Genoa in July 2001. He embraced the anti-globalization
protest, delivering a rousing address in which he insisted that “a single
African child sick with AIDS counts more than the entire universe.” Tettamanzi
is perhaps the only papabile to have corporate sponsorship; in 2000,
Microsoft published his volume on bioethics on-line and in CD form.
Re, 67, served for 11
years as sostituto, the official in the Secretariat of State responsible
for the day-to-day management of Church affairs. The job has been a springboard;
Giovanni Battista Montini was the sostituto under Pius XII before
becoming Paul VI. Re has not shrunk from the role of curial enforcer. When
an Italian priest took part in a pro-gay rally in Rome in July 2000, Re
demanded disciplinary action. He also refused permission for Bishop M.P.M.
Muskens of Holland to hold a diocesan synod, fearing that the liberal prelate
might let things get out of hand.
Yet Re is generally considered
a moderate, and has given signals of support for collegiality. When Scotland’s
late Cardinal Thomas Winning needed support in 2001 for an appeal against
the Congregation for Worship and its attempts to take control away from
bishops’ conferences on liturgy, he got a sympathetic ear from Re. He is
a legendary hard worker, often returning calls from his office late on
Sunday nights, and has an encyclopedic grasp of the inner workings of the
Vatican. Re is personable and approachable in a way few curial figures
If either Tettamanzi
or Re goes to Milan, it would be a signal that powerful forces like him.
If you’re looking for an Italian horse to back, therefore, keep your eyes
* * *
This weekend I’ll be
in Passau, Germany, to observe the ordination of several Catholic women
as priests. The event has been in the offing for some time, and organizers
claim to have a couple of authentic Roman Catholic bishops lined up to
perform the ceremony. They have refused to name them before the fact, however,
ostensibly to protect them from harassment. NCR will post my coverage
on its web site.
I can tell you in advance,
however, what the official reaction will be (if the Vatican bothers to
make a statement). As women are not “proper matter” for ordination, the
ritual will have no effect and the women will not be considered priests,
even if Cardinal Ratzinger himself does the honors.
* * *
My new book Conclave:
The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election
(Doubleday) went on sale June 18. If you want to find it on-line, you can
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
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