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July 21, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 45

John L. Allen Jr.

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The Vatican responds to crisis in Lebanon; The U.S. bishops respond; A social action summer institute; Zambian archbishop breaks with Rome; A breakthrough for ecumenism; Two follow-ups: Padua and Valencia


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Even when leaders aren’t looking to make news, sometimes the news finds them. Such was the case this week for Benedict XVI, whose plan to spend a quiet few days of vacation in Valle d’Aosta was thrown a curve when he found himself drawn in on the margins of the expanding conflict in Lebanon.

In the peaks and valleys that seem always to characterize the relationship between the Vatican and Israel, and between the Catholic church and Judaism, this episode so far represents another valley.

On July 14, the Vatican’s outgoing Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, commented on the clashes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon on Vatican Radio. While denouncing terrorism, Sodano also said the Holy See “deplored” the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, a “free and sovereign nation,” as well as “a people which has already suffered for the defense of its independence.”

“Defense by a state is not exempt from abidance by the norms of international law, especially as regards the safeguarding of civilian populations,” Sodano added, in a clear reference to the Israeli offensive, stressing that “it seems clear that the only way to find a way out of the powder-keg is the path of sincere dialogue between the sides involved.”

As if to underline Sodano’s argument, the Holy See Press Office issued his comments as an official declaration. An official Hezbollah radio station rebroadcast Sodano’s statement that day.

Two days later, Benedict XVI spoke on the crisis during his Sunday Angelus address, lamenting civilian casualties in the Holy Land and appealing to leaders to “return to the path of reason … opening new possibilities for dialogue and understanding.”

“In recent days, the news from the Holy Land are a cause of new and grave concern for all, in particular the extension of armed conflict into Lebanon, and for the numerous civilian victims,” the pope said.

“At the origin of so many bitter conflicts are, unfortunately, objective situations of the violation of law and of justice. Neither terrorist acts nor reprisals, above all when there are tragic consequences for civilian populations, can be justified. On this path, as bitter experience demonstrates, positive results cannot be achieved.”

Benedict noted that Sunday was the feast day of the Madonna of Carmel, a mountain in the Holy Land, which dominates Haifa, “which has also been hit,” and is a few kilometers (miles) from Lebanon. He urged local churches to pray especially for peace in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.

Lebanon has a large Maronite Catholic population.

This “on the one hand, on the other hand” style of Vatican statements on the Middle East, criticizing both terrorist actions by groups such as Hezbollah as well as the inevitable Israeli response, has long irritated Israelis and Jewish leaders, who see an implicit moral equivalence between terrorism and legitimate self-defense. Privately, they often suggest that the Vatican’s judgment may be influenced by local church leaders in the Middle East, who are generally Arab and often fiercely pro-Palestinian.

On background, Vatican diplomats respond that they would have little objection to carefully targeted strikes against terrorists, but they cannot condone seemingly indiscriminate attacks that produce significant civilian casualties. Moreover, they argue, military solutions will not produce a lasting peace until a just solution is offered to the Palestinian problem.

On July 17, the Anti-Defamation League in the United States issued a press release calling the Vatican statements on the conflict “terribly one-sided and short-sighted.”

“The Vatican continues to be mired in a false paradigm that equates, on the one side, terrorist actions by Islamist extremists who view both Jews and Christians as infidels and seek Israel’s destruction with, on the other side, Israel’s right to defend itself and eliminate the ongoing and growing threats to its citizens,” the press release asserted.

“We call on the Holy See to reconsider its position in this time of crisis and stand up for Israel which is being forced to fight a war for survival on two borders,” the statement said.

Israeli officials told NCR they largely agree with the ADL’s criticism.

It should be noted, however, that it wasn’t just Jewish sources objecting to the comments from Sodano and the pope.

Speaking on Fox News July 16, Col. David Hunt, an American expert on counter-terrorism, called the statements “outrageous,” saying the Vatican “is not losing any soldiers.”

“Let them talk all they want,” he said. “Look at the moral imperative after the Israeli soldiers can come back. But they’ve got the right to help their soldiers.”

Aside from the rights and wrongs, this background may help explain why senior Israeli officials have been ambivalent about resolving the long-running financial and legal disputes over the status of church-affiliated institutions in the country. It also makes Benedict’s projected 2007 trip to Israel all the more interesting, lending it a political and diplomatic subtext beyond its obvious significance in terms of Jewish-Christian relations.

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On July 20, the Holy See Press Office issued a declaration on the Lebanon crisis.

“Facing the aggravation of the situation in the Middle East, the Press Office of the Holy See has been authorized to communicate the following:

  1. The Holy Father is following the fate of all the populations involved with great concern, and has indicated the next Sunday, July 23, as a special day of prayer and penance, inviting pastors and faithful of all the particular churches as well as all believers in the world to implore God for the precious gift of peace.
  2. In particular, the Supreme Pontiff hopes that prayer will be raised to the Lord for an immediate cease-fire between the parties, that humanitarian corridors will immediately be created to bring help to the suffering populations, and that rational and responsible negotiations will begin for bringing an end to the objective situations of injustice which exist in that region, as already indicated by Pope Benedict XVI in his Angelus of last Sunday, the 16th of this month.
  3. In reality, the Lebanese have the right to see the integrity and sovereignty of their country respected, the Israelis have the right to live in peace in their state and the Palestinians have the right to have a free and sovereign nation.
  4. In this painful moment, His Holiness addresses an appeal to charitable organizations to help all the populations struck by this bitter conflict.”

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Benedict made one further comment on the crisis in Lebanon during brief remarks to reporters on July 18, endorsing a G-8 statement that that criticized the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah for fueling an escalation in fighting and urged Israel to exercise restraint.

“I find myself in full agreement with the G-8 communique,” he said.

Meanwhile, Italian Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said on the same day that the violence is to be “repudiated, both the terrorist acts on the one side and the military retaliation on the other,” as they “constitute a violation of law and of the most basic principles of justice.”

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Martino also warned that any use of weapons of mass destruction would represent “a tragic page in the history of the human family.”

As a footnote, on Monday Benedict visited an enclosed Carmelite convent in the Italian Alps during one of his vacation excursions. The superior of the community, Sr. Maria, later told the Italian news agency Ansa that the pope had spoken with them about the international situation.

“He asked to pray also for the terrorists, because they don’t know that they’re hurting not only their neighbors, but above all themselves,” she said.

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On July 17, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Policy, issued a statement faulting Hamas and Hezbollah for triggering the present crisis, criticizing Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure, expressing solidarity with the Lebanese, and asking the United States to exercise greater leadership to bring a halt to the violence.

On July 18, the U.S. bishops’ conference staff prepared a set of talking points for social action directors in dioceses around the country about the statement. Among other things, it stressed that “we know who started the current cycle of violence,” meaning “extreme factions of Hamas and Hezbollah,” which, it said, was obviously intended to provoke a military response. The talking points said that “we recognize the right of Israel to defend itself.”

Nevertheless, they continued, Israel’s response “has been in some instances militarily disproportionate and indiscriminate.” The italic emphasis is in the original.

These comments reflect an irony often noted by observers of statements from the U.S. bishops on the Middle East over the years. Because of the pro-Israeli nature of American politics, U.S. Catholics are usually among the most sensitive to Israeli concerns in global Catholicism; yet given the generally pro-Palestinian tilt of Catholic opinion in other parts of the world, Catholics here are often among the most sensitive voices to the Palestinians in American debate.

In other words, because U.S. Catholics are pulled in both directions by different forces, their positions often come across as strikingly balanced.

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Nowhere else on earth does a local church invest the time and treasure fine-tuning the art of pastoral ministry on a local level as in the United States. The sheer volume of conferences, in-services, studies, academic programs and publications devoted to “best practices” and on-the-job training is staggering, making it one reason that parish ministry in America is the envy of the Catholic world.

This week I’m at one such event, the “Social Action Summer Institute,” a program for diocesan and parish social action personnel, sponsored by the National Pastoral Life Center and held at the University of Dayton July 16-21. The Cincinnati archdiocese is a co-sponsor.

Attendees are people intensely concerned with the social teaching of the Catholic Church. It’s the kind of crowd, for example, where an announcement that the campus bowling alley would be open Thursday night triggered little response, but the news that “fair trade beer” would be served generated sustained applause.

My task was to give the closing keynote address, on the future of social action in the Catholic church as seen from Rome. http://johnallen.ncrcafe.orgJoin the Conversation
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I wasn’t at the conference as a reporter, so I’m not in a position to provide a detailed account of its discussions. I can say, however, that among many other threads of conversation, I picked up a strong sense of the need to bring together pro-life and pro-justice advocacy efforts at both the parish and diocesan levels. This reflects the practical reality that these tasks in the church today are often carried out by different people, and even different offices. There was a general longing to think past stereotypes that often peg people involved in justice work as “soft” on abortion, and people committed to pro-life activity as indifferent to the poor.

While no magic bullet solutions were floated, the mere fact that people from “pro-life” and “peace and justice” circles mixed during the week already suggests that something interesting is moving.

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Last Friday, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to interview Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, the famed Zambian exorcist whose on-again, off-again, now on-again marriage to a Korean acupuncturist hand-picked by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in 2001 created one of the most titillating Vatican soap operas of recent memory.

In the end, Milingo responded to a personal appeal of Pope John Paul II and returned to ecclesiastical discipline, apparently swayed in part by the argument that the turmoil surrounding him was worsening the late pope’s health.

Now, however, Milingo has broken with Rome again, turning up last week in Washington in the company of Archbishop George Stallings, leader of the breakaway African American Catholic Congregation, and surrounded by key personnel in Moon’s Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. Milingo says he wants to push the Catholic church to reconcile with the roughly 150,000 priests who have left active ministry to become married.

My news story can be found here: Zambian archbishop breaks with Rome; Reaches out to married priests

One might be tempted to see Milingo’s vicissitudes as a sort of side-show unworthy of serious news attention. Yet I covered the events of 2001 in Rome, and I can testify that the Vatican took them seriously indeed -- in part out of pastoral concern for a member of the episcopal college, but also out of fear that Milingo’s high public profile backed by Moon’s vast resources could represent a major headache for the Catholic church, above all in Africa.

The nightmare scenario was that Milingo would go back to Africa and found his own church, perhaps uniting the various breakaway Catholic factions that already exist, offering a married priesthood and greater acceptance of traditional African spirituality, especially healing and the casting out of demons. That such thinking is not entirely a flight of fancy is indicated, among other things, by recent news that a Kenyan priest, Fr. Godfrey Siundu, has recently married and led several of his brother priests into a schismatic faction known as the “Reformed Roman Catholic Church.”

Because Milingo is a validly ordained Roman Catholic bishop, he could theoretically consecrate other bishops and create a genuine schism, an outcome the Vatican would move heaven and earth to try to avoid.

In our interview, Milingo denied he has any intention of challenging Rome on his home turf. Anyone who has followed the surprising ups and downs of the Milingo story over the years, however, can be forgiven a degree of doubt as to whether this is truly the last word on the subject.

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Excerpts from the Milingo interview:

Last time you were in the public eye, the story ended with a surprise meeting with John Paul II at Castel Gandolfo. Do you intend to seek a meeting with Benedict XVI?
So far, I see no reason for such a meeting at the time being. I want to move ahead with my mission to help married priests and so on. I have written to the Holy Father, I sent him two letters, explaining where I am and that after America I will return to Zambia.

Why did you make your break now?
I always asked myself, is this the right thing I have done? My doubts, difficulties, and questioning … kept on for five years. It was worsened by the situation in which I was living at Zagarola. I found myself literally surrounded by spies, there by the authority of the Vatican. I might have been satisfied with that, but they continually attacked my mission, which is preaching the gospel and casting out devils.

What was the difficulty?
All my problems come from the lack of appreciation [by church authorities] for the spiritual gifts I have. It was too much for them to believe that in the modern world, I can simply say ‘let this happen,’ and it happens.

Let us not hide the facts, let us be very honest. [After I returned in 2001], I spent four years helping the sick. Why was I not accepted in the Catholic church? They never asked, ‘How is it that Milingo has these powers?’ This is what they’ve forgotten. The Lord has given gifts to the church, the first of which is preaching the gospel. ‘It is not I, but Jesus who is in me,’ as St. Paul said.

A woman from Modena once called me, and said that 20 days after the birth of her child, there is no milk in her breasts. I told her to get a glass of water, and that I would bless it from here. I did it over the phone, and told her to drink it. Immediately afterwards, she began making milk. They can’t accept that.

In Milan, I once saw a woman who seemed dead. I put a handkerchief in her mouth, and held her hand. I felt the blood begin to move, and she came back to life completely. She is alive today.

… It reached a state I could not tolerate. … Some bishops couldn’t even stand my name. Some bishops jumped so high at the mention of my name, it was as if the church had springs. God almighty … I asked the Lord, ‘Why do you have such a structure that separates itself from humanity?’ People come and seek help from me. When they know when Milingo is here, thousands come. How is it that [church authorities] don’t see, don’t appreciate, what I am doing?

Do you plan to create a new church in Africa with Rev. Moon’s backing?
No, Rev. Moon has only talked to me about what they are already doing in some places, with dialogue with the Buddhists, reconciliation between the Palestinians and Israelis, and so on. He told me that they cannot [make decisions] about my needs. ‘You plan yourself what you’d like to do,’ he told me. I’m just doing as Jesus did, and I can find my own way. I want to find a way to preach the gospel.

So you are not going to create or attach yourself to a rival to the Catholic church?
We have no ambition at all, in any way, to do anything of that kind.

I have been impressed with how delicate [Moon’s followers] are with the Catholic church. I went fishing three times with Rev. Moon, and I was very surprised by the simplicity I’ve seen in that man. He speaks of living for others, and I’ve seen what he has done. What John XXIII talked about in Pacem in Terris, working for peace, this is what the Family Federation [for World Peace and Unification, Moon’s organization] is doing. They send ambassadors of peace to different places and so on.

I’m also impressed with the priority they put on marriage. In our church, sometimes marriage is not valued. In Europe, they applaud homosexuality, and there are even nightclubs where people swap husbands and wives. The Synod on the Family produced a document, Familiaris Consortio, defending the family, and this is what Rev. Moon is saying.

… I feel very strongly that I can be an intermediary to reconcile the Catholic church with Rev. Moon.

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Sometimes professional ecumenists, whose life’s work is reconciliation among the divided branches of the Christian family, are jokingly referred to as “ecu-maniacs.” The quip is usually one part satire, and one part grudging respect.

In fact, given the experience of recent years -- including ongoing tensions with the Orthodox over Ukraine and accusations of proselytism, and with the Anglicans and other Western churches over women’s ordination and homosexuality -- perhaps one does have to be just slightly dreamy to cling to the vision of full, structural unity among all Christians as anything other than an end-time objective.

Yet the ecumenists continue to plug away, exhibiting a rather remarkable confidence that everything will sort itself out in God’s time.

This week, the ecumenists scored an impressive victory in Seoul, South Korea, where the World Methodist Conference, representing 76 denominations with roots in the Methodist movement, voted on July 18 to join an agreement on the doctrine of justification first signed by the Catholic church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1998.

A signing ceremony will take place on Monday.

The heart of the agreement is this key sentence: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.” In one stroke, it seems to place Catholics and Protestants on the same page in terms of resolving the old “faith versus works” debate.

The Vatican official in charge of ecumenism at the time, Australian Cardinal Edward Cassidy, said the agreement “virtually resolves a long-disputed question at the close of the twentieth century.”

Of course, not everyone felt that way; some Lutherans rejected the agreement, and it had to be nuanced by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in order to pass Catholic muster. Ratzinger actually organized last-minute meetings at his brother Georg’s home in Bavaria in order to iron out the final version of the text.

Nevertheless, in the end, the agreement suggests that the Catholic church and the Lutherans were now in essential agreement over the issue that had been the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation. Cardinal Walter Kasper, today’s top Vatican official on ecumenism, said the decision by the Methodists to sign on is “historic,” marking a further stage in reconciliation. He also said he hopes other denominations will eventually join the agreement.

No one believes that the outcome in Seoul means that Catholics and Protestants will soon be taking part in one another’s Eucharists, or jointly recognizing the pope as their primate. There is much theological, political and cultural work still to be done. Yet facing an ecumenical landscape in which temptations to despair are plentiful, Seoul will represent a much-needed sign of hope.

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Last week I wrote about a remarkable gathering of Catholic theological ethicists from around the world in Padua, Italy, July 8-10. The conference was engineered by Jesuit Fr. James Keenan of Boston College.

Among other observations, I reported that over these four days in Padua theologians from the global south tended not to pay much attention to internal Catholic questions, such as the balance of power between Rome and the local churches, or the limits of theological dissent. They preferred to concentrate on ad extra concerns -- how the church should engage the crises of poverty, HIV/AIDS, war, corruption, and so on.

Upon reflection, I suspect my report may have created the misleading impression that the focus in Padua among northern theologians, on the other hand, was largely ad intra. In fact, the center of attention across the board was strongly ad extra, from both north and south. To the extent that northern theologians raised ad intra concerns, it was usually to argue that the church cannot effectively address matters of social justice without some sort of internal reform. (That was Jesuit Fr. David Hollenbach’s motive, for example, for flagging what he sees as an over-emphasis on sexuality and reproduction in official Catholic pronouncements on ethics.)

What I meant to suggest is not that northerners in Padua were hung up on inside Catholic baseball, but rather that they were more willing to at least put such issues on the table – which reflects a broad tendency in Catholic theological conversation, in which the ad intra debates that have loomed large in the last 40 years in Europe and America tend not to attract much interest in the south.

This point is not intended as a value judgment, but as a descriptive observation. If in the course of making it I created a misleading context for understanding what happened in Padua, I regret it.

Once again, the conference’s web site is here:

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In the late 1990s, when I was working on a biography of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, I interviewed an Austrian theologian, Michael Waldstein, who knew Ratzinger well. At the time, Waldstein was teaching at Notre Dame, and said he was struck by the “high level of irritation” with Rome he found in the academic theological community.

Waldstein said he felt that Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wasn’t terribly concerned with turning around such mentalities in the short term.

“I think he and John Paul are thinking very much in the long run,” Waldstein said. “In the present, the fronts of discussion are often very hard. It isn’t easy to sway people’s minds. I’ve yet to meet a theologian who said, ‘Before Humanae Vitae I was in favor of contraception, but then I changed my mind.’ That’s not the kind of response they’re looking for. In the long run, when some of the controversies of the present are forgotten, then you can expect an impact.”

No doubt that will be the spirit in which Benedict greets the latest news from Spain, just days after his July 8-9 trip to Valencia, where the pope minced no words in defining the family as “founded on the indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman.”

As if in response, the Socialist government under Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced July 14 that Spanish students in public schools are to be taught about same-sex relationships, unveiling plans for homosexuality to be part of a new school curriculum.

Pupils from the age of 10, government officials said, will be taught about tolerating and respecting the diversity that exists within society. Alejandro Tiana, general secretary for education, said such teaching is necessary because “children need to learn there are various types of families.”

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