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 The Word From Rome

August 6, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 50

global perspective


Europe finds itself in "a moment of profound confusion … Exhaustion, weariness of the West. It may appear an abstraction to put it that way, but it's true. There's a point of reference missing in social and political life, an authority that could orient us in this ideological Babel in which we find ourselves. It's true that we are tired and lost ..."

Fr. Julián Carrón Pčrez,
the Spanish biblical scholar selected to head Comunione e Liberazione by the movement's founder Italian Fr. Luigi Giussani

Christian churches bombed in Iraq; 'On the Collaboration of Men and Women'; The Vatican and sports; The English translation of the Mass; Notes on ecumenism


It's an occupational hazard for journalists -- one we share with academics, policy wonks and others who make their living analyzing things -- to try to understand even the incomprehensible. We thereby run the risk of imparting logic even to acts of pure madness.

That said, the bombing of five Christian churches in Iraq Aug. 1, which resulted in at least 11 deaths and scores of injuries, nevertheless beckons reflection.

This was the first coordinated assault on Iraq's Christian minority, which ranges from 750,000 to one million in a population of 23 million, depending upon whose count one accepts. The majority is Chaldean Catholic, with the rest scattered among various Orthodox and Eastern Catholic denominations. There is also a small but growing handful of Protestant evangelicals.

Fr. Philip Naijm, representative in Europe of the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, pointed out to me on Aug. 2 that the attacks were an ominous warning to the Christian population in two ways. One, they happened just as Mass was concluding, indicating a desire to strike not just buildings but people. Second, they targeted the cathedrals of the Chaldean, Armenian and Syrian rites, as well as the patriarchal seminary of the Chaldeans, hence the most symbolically important Christian structures in the country.

Despite brave words from Christian leaders such as Bishop Rabban al Qas of Amadiya -- "We must have the courage to stay in Iraq for democracy and the future of the country" -- it seems clear that the attacks will accelerate what had already been a dramatic Christian exodus. Al Qas himself conceded that 15,000 Christians have left his diocese in recent years. A correspondent for Italy's Corriere della Sera reported that most Iraqi Christians already carried the phone numbers for the Baghdad consulates of countries such as Australia and Switzerland before the bombing, and now they're even more likely to use them seeking exit visas.

Part of the tragedy is that Iraq has a centuries-long tradition of Muslim/Christian tolerance. One of the few merits of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, originally Socialist and secular, is that it insulated this tradition from the pressures of Islamic fundamentalism. Even during the war, there was no serious anti-Christian backlash, as many had feared.

So why now?

Iraqi Chaldeans with whom I spoke take two things as articles of faith. First, that the authors of this violence came from outside Iraq -- they are, so the Chaldeans say, foreign extremists profiting from the unstable security situation to stir up trouble. Hence, the attacks are part of a larger pattern of destabilization, aimed at radicalizing Muslim opinion.

Second, the Chaldeans say, the growing presence of American Protestant evangelical missionaries in Iraq is not helping. By openly seeking Iraqi converts in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion, these missionaries have promoted the impression that all Christians are part of coalition forces.

No one is suggesting that these missions "caused" the attacks. Some Chaldeans believe, however, that the evangelicals have made a precarious situation that much worse.

"Fanatic Muslims now see us as if we're collaborators of the United States," Naijm said. "The problem is not just the Muslim extremists coming from the outside. It's the Christians coming from the outside too."

On Aug. 2, I asked a senior Vatican official who is tracking the Iraqi situation for an assessment of these concerns.

"I think your informers are probably right, at least to a certain degree," he said. "Though I think that possibly even without the presence of American missionaries the local Christian communities may have been attacked, not so much because of their links with the outside, but rather simply to prevent stability from being brought about."

To be fair, there may be other reasons why Christian churches such as the Chaldeans resent evangelical missionaries, having more to do with maintaining their membership than with impact on Muslim extremism. In the end, too, bad people will find any excuse to do bad things.

Still, the Chaldean warnings about American proselytism offer another indication that anyone trying to build a new order in Iraq these days, of whatever sort, should proceed carefully.

* * *

After hearing these concerns from the Chaldeans, I spoke with Mark Young, professor of world missions and intercultural studies at the Dallas Theological Seminary, who is in touch with evangelical missionaries across the Middle East, including Iraq. Young confirmed that there has been a "significant" influx of American evangelical missionaries in Iraq.

Young argued, however, that one cannot draw a connection between the evangelicals and anti-Christian violence.

"Violence is created by the evil of those who desire to do violence," he told me Aug. 2. "Could the evangelical presence be used as an excuse? That may be the case, but that doesn't argue against our presence."

That is not to say, Young added, that evangelicals are indifferent to the consequences of their activity.

"Certainly, evangelicals would be concerned if our presence led to violence against other Christians," Young said. "But I think that's a pretty far stretch."

Fr. Justo Lacunza-Balda, rector of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome, said he didn't believe the mere presence of American evangelicals in Iraq is destabilizing. The question, he said, is what they say.

"I don't think they're acting irresponsibly by being there," Lacunza-Balda told NCR Aug. 3. "But if they are preaching against Muslims or Islam, it's a problem. People already see Christians to some extent as part of the coalition forces, so sensitivities are very high."

To some extent, the swelling evangelical mission in Iraq is part of a broader global strategy known as "the 10-40 window," referring to a vast stretch of territory across the Middle East and Asia, representing the heartland of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. This belt is considered by many evangelical Christians to be prime mission territory of the future.

"We want to help in a humanitarian sense, as well as inviting people to express faith in the person of Christ," Young said. "Often the decision of whether to overtly identify with a Christian church is secondary."

Young acknowledged that some American evangelicals in Iraq, as elsewhere, are motivated not only by the drive to convert Muslims, but also by a desire to bring "real" Christianity to people who already call themselves Christians.

"I can't deny that some evangelicals feel that way," Young said. "They would feel that these people may call themselves Christian, but do they necessarily have faith in Christ?"

Other evangelicals, he said, "believe Christian expression has a broader tradition."

Young suggested that tension between established Christian denominations and evangelicals may help explain why the Chaldeans are disposed to see the outsiders as dangerous.

"It was the same problem in Russia as the Soviet Union began to collapse," Young said. "The Orthodox said the evangelical presence was detrimental." Given that some Orthodox opted for evangelical Christianity instead, Young said, "I understand why they feel threatened."

Young insisted, however, that the evangelical thrust be properly understood.

"It's not about targeting people," he said. "We're interested in their human and spiritual welfare. … It's our great desire that people have the opportunity to fairly consider who is Jesus Christ."

* * *

A positive dimension, if one can put it that way, to the attacks in Iraq has been the strong expressions of solidarity with the Christians heard from across religious boundaries.

On Aug. 2, Pope John Paul II sent the following telegram to Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly, head of the Chaldean Catholic church:

"The sorrowful news of the tragic attacks yesterday in Baghdad and Mossul against various Catholic communities gathered in prayer in their respective places of worship struck me deeply. In this hour of trial I am spiritually close to the Iraqi church and Iraqi society. I renew the expression of my heartfelt solidarity to the pastors and the faithful, assuring them of my prayer and my constant commitment so that as soon as possible a climate of peace and reconciliation may be achieved in this beloved nation. At the same time, I hope that all believers in the One God, kind and merciful, will unite in deploring every form of violence, and will cooperate for the return of concord in the troubled land of Iraq."

The latter part of the pope's message sounded almost like a challenge to Muslim leaders to speak out, and it was not long in being answered.

Ayatollah al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiites and a frequent critic of U.S. policy, condemned the attacks, saying they "strike at the unity, the stability and the independence of Iraq."

"We condemn and reproach these hideous crimes," al-Sistani said, "and deem necessary the collaboration of everyone -- the government and the people -- in putting an end to aggression on Iraqis."

The Najaf-based ayatollah said Christians have the right to live as full citizens.

"We assert the importance of respecting the rights of Christian civilians and other religious minorities," he said, "and reaffirm their right to live in their home country, Iraq, in security and peace."'

Prince Hassan bin Talal, a Jordanian Muslim who serves as moderator of the World Conference for Religions and Peace, was equally outspoken.

"Let there be no mistake that this tragic occasion marks a new escalation in the extremists' effort to incite a religious war," he said. "It is a particularly obscene blasphemy against the spirit of Islam and the character of Iraq."

* * *

The big news out of the Vatican last weekend was the release of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's long-awaited document on feminism, titled "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World."

My story appeared on the NCR Web site ( July 31: Vatican document rejects combative feminism, seeks 'active collaboration' for men and women

For readers seeking to grapple with the deeper issues raised by the document, I commend two essays posted to the NCR web site. One, by Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, is nuanced but critical (Since when did women become the problem?); the other, by Pia de Solenni, a moral theologian who works as the Director of Life and Women's Issues at the Family Research Council, is more positive (Now the conversation can begin).

I did a bit of broadcast on this story, and here's what general-interest observers seemed to want to know.

o Why now?
As I said on National Public Radio, any other organization on earth would be embarrassed to issue a response to a cultural phenomenon (in this case, "radical feminism") that by now is more than 40 years old. Yet this is the Vatican, where one thinks in centuries. The conviction, for better or worse, is that ideas have a long shelf life, and perhaps bad ideas most of all. The CDF and its theological advisors believe that the toxins let loose by feminism are still at work in the culture, such as growing acceptance of homosexuality. Hence it is a mistake to look for any recent event as a trigger for the document, such as the Massachusetts gay marriage law. It really is what it purports to be, i.e., a meditation on feminism that has been a long time in the works.

o What do they mean by "radical feminism?"
The drafters of the document see feminism in its most radical form, usually associated with North America, as Marxism under another guise. In other words, its aim, as Vatican critics see it, is to promote class struggle between men and women, on the assumption that the emancipation of women necessarily must be achieved at the expense of men. Further, this Marxist-feminism posits that in order for women to gain equality they must deny their differences from men, which leads to suppression of "the feminine genius" and confusion about gender. Whether this understanding corresponds to any actual version of feminism is a matter of debate.

o Were any women involved in drafting the document?
Yes. There is one woman who works full-time in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Belgian theologian Marie Hendrickx, who presented the pope's apostolic exhortation "On the Dignity of Women" to the press in 1988. Hendrickx gained a fleeting fame in January 2001 when she published an article in L'Osservatore Romano criticizing cruelty to animals, citing the modern food industry and bullfighting. Beyond Hendrickx, I'm told by Vatican officials that a number of female Catholic theologians and philosophers were consulted over the course of the roughly seven years of work on the text. Obviously, the choice of which women to consult reflected a sense of the desired conclusion.

o Does this mean Ratzinger is running the church?
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the German theologian who since 1981 has been the pope's doctrinal czar, was already the man many people regard as the Svengali behind the aging John Paul II, and the new document has fueled such speculation. Alas, reality is more prosaic. First, there has been no "coup," and in the big picture sense, John Paul II is still setting the tone. Second, as the pope ages, more and more of his capacity to make decisions at the level of detail is indeed slipping away, but it is not transferred to any single eminence grise. Instead it gets fractured across a number of senior aides, mostly in their areas of competence. Hence Ratzinger is more autonomous to make doctrinal decisions, but so is Cardinal Walter Kasper to make decisions on ecuminism, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo on foreign policy, and Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald on interreligious dialogue. We're in a moment in which Vatican offices are operating relatively independently, both of one another and of direct papal supervision. Thus Ratzinger is running the CDF, but the Vatican, to say nothing of the Catholic church, is another matter.

* * *

Speaking of Ratzinger, the Los Angeles Times asked me to write an op/ed piece on his impact, using the feminism document as a point of departure. The piece is in the Aug. 6 print issue and available here: The Blunt Hard-Liner at Pope John Paul's Side (You have to register to access the site, but registration is free).

* * *

Cardinal Bernard Law stepped onto the public stage in his new capacity as Archpriest of St. Mary Major in Rome for the first time this week, officiating at the annual celebrations of Santa Maria della Neve -- "Saint Mary of the Snow." The visibility indicates that his exercise of the archpriest's duties has apparently not been hampered by the baggage of the American sex abuse scandals.

The feast recalls the legendary origins of the basilica of St. Mary Major in 358, when Pope Liberius ordered a church built on the spot. The tradition holds that Mary appeared to Liberius, a patrician named John, and John's wife, signaling approval for the location by causing snow to fall there on Aug. 5, i.e., in the middle of Rome's blistering summer heat.

During the high pontifical Mass on Aug. 5, an artificial snowfall descended from the ceiling of St. Mary Major just after Law pronounced gloria in exlcesis deo, and continued as the basilica's chorus sang the Gloria. The large crowd in the basilica, overwhelmingly Roman, applauded at the beginning and the end.

Law's homily was largely a pious reflection on Mary, though there was perhaps just a slight echo of his recent past when he said that the light of Christ "penetrates any darkness that can gather around us."

Law ended by praying that grace may come "like a refreshing snow on an August day."

* * *

Last February and March, I referred to the "breakneck speed" at which movement towards a new English translation of the Mass was proceeding. Optimists such as Cardinal George Pell of Australia hinted that a new text could be ready as early as 2005.

In the background was a sense that the major ideological battles -- debates over inclusive language, for example, and the tension between flexibility in translation versus fidelity to the Latin original -- had been resolved, whether one liked it or not, by Rome. English-speaking bishops appeared to have little appetite for continuing resistance.

Those predictions now seem hasty.

The 11 bishops who govern the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, the translation body tasked with producing the text for the Mass, met in Washington, D.C., last week. After much discussion, there is still no consensus on several key issues, so there is no revised draft or "Green Book," in the argot of liturgical translation, to circulate for approval.

It now seems unlikely that the Order of Mass, or the core prayers for the celebration of the Eucharist, will be approved and published separately from the rest of the Roman Missal, the complete collection of Mass texts, as once seemed probable.

Fr. Bruce Harbert, executive secretary of ICEL, told NCR August 2 that he welcomes this development because "it gives time for the project to mature."

One outstanding issue remains the "people's parts" to the Mass, the lines spoken by the entire assembly. A controversial example: when the priest says "The Lord be with you," the assembly currently responds "And also with you." In keeping with the principle of fidelity to the Latin original, the draft had people saying instead, "And with your spirit." Some critics saw this as indicative of a push for theological rigidity at the expense of natural English expression.

"A balance needs to be found between linguistic, theological and pastoral considerations, and they will have an opportunity in the next few months to discuss this with their conferences," Harbert said.

Some bishops are also concerned about the ecumenical implications of changes in the language of worship. Ecumenical observers say one of the signal ecumenical achievements in recent decades has been the adoption of common prayer texts in English by most of the major Christian denominations, and some bishops are reluctant to compromise that.

Finally, Harbert said, the bishops also want to think more about the issues surrounding inclusive language.

As a footnote, the ICEL bishops re-elected their officers for a second two-year term. Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds, England, thus remains president; Bishop Douglas Crosby of St George's, Newfoundland, Canada, vice-president; Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore, Ireland, secretary; and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, treasurer.

* * *

John Paul II has always been keen on sports. A former goalkeeper, the pope was delighted during the Holy Year of 2000 with the "Jubilee of Sports," which culminated in a special soccer match made up of Italian All-Stars. (Unfortunately the match was not a thriller; it ended 0-0, and bored fans changed the ferocious Roman taunt devi morire, "you must die," to devi dormire, "you must sleep.")

Now just in time for the Olympics, the Vatican announced August 3 the creation of a new department in the Pontifical Council for the Laity called "Church and Sport." Its mission will be to coordinate contacts between the Holy See and the various national and international athletic organizations, as well as to promote a Christian vision of athletics. The latter includes the integral development of the person, plus the idea of sports as an instrument of peace and understanding among peoples.

* * *

Last week I wrote about a talk in Rome by Robert Royal of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Royal sends along the following clarifications.

"1. You give the impression that I actively want a lawsuit against the bishops. I always say, and said that evening, that it might not hurt if it happened. I don't think the church would lose, and it would clarify many things for many people besides Catholics.

"2. It's true I spoke of a neo-ghetto. But I always say, and said in response to your question about whether Catholicism can exist in a Calvinist/individualist culture, that we are a church not a sect, in the classic distinction. So, if we have to protect what sectors we can for the moment, ultimately we have to aspire to inspiring the whole culture. In short, we shouldn't settle for less and are not allowed to."

* * *

Speaking of ecumenism, the Faith and Order Plenary Commission of the World Council of Churches met this week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The theological conversation was focused on ecclesiology. A longtime American veteran in the Vatican, Fr. John Radano, represented the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the gathering. On the sidelines, Radano gave an interview on ecumenical dialogue that was published by the WCC.

Among the most interesting points:

What is your personal motivation to work in this process?
The divisions among Christians go against the mind of Christ. They are a scandal to the people, to the world. They are an obstacle to the preaching of the gospel. My motivation is to contribute within our church and in the ecumenical settings to overcome those divisions.

Will a common understanding of ecclesiology lead to a common Eucharist?
Our understanding of the Eucharist is tied to our understanding of the church. So this study, by promoting common perspectives on the church, will help in terms of our common understanding of the sacraments, including the Eucharist. We need, among other things, to have a common understanding of what is the nature and purpose of the church that Christ founded.

Could you imagine some sort of guest-status at the Eucharist?
No. We don't. Maybe other Christians do, but we don't. For us, the Eucharist is a sign of unity achieved -- an expression of perfect communion that exists. It's not something you do to achieve unity. The Eucharist is the summit and the source of the whole life of the church. So we don't envision guest membership along the way. We have to be very honest about that, although we do everything we can to promote unity.

* * *

Italian Fr. Luigi Giussani, the octogenarian founder of Comunione e Liberazione, has selected a collaborator as head of the movement that has spread in 50 years to 70 countries on five continents. The new leader is Spanish Fr. Julián Carrón Pčrez, 54, a Biblical scholar who has studied at l'Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Carrón Pčrez will assist Giussani in leading the ciellini, as members of the movement are known. Comunione e Liberazione is especially interested in the intersection between faith, culture and public policy, and hence Carrón Pčrez is positioned to be an important voice on these issues.

Carrón Pčrez was interviewed on July 31 in Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, and his comments on Spain and Europe were especially interesting.

You have just arrived, but for three years you've followed assiduously our nation. What impression do you have of the present political situation?
I see Italy in a situation of crisis that's not dissimilar from that of Spain or a good part of Europe. This is not simply due to the debate over the constitution and the question of Christian roots, but also because this debate has brought to light the moment of profound confusion in which Europe finds itself.

What is the heart of this confusion?
Exhaustion, weariness of the West. It may appear an abstraction to put it that way, but it's true. There's a point of reference missing in social and political life, an authority that could orient us in this ideological Babel in which we find ourselves. It's true that we are tired and lost, Spain even more so than Italy. The extreme emotionality of the vote after the attacks in Madrid demonstrates the difficulty of arriving at a mature judgment in the absence of points of reference. Once again in Spain, as much as in Italy, as Giussani has underlined for years, the fundamental importance of education as a possibility of orientation for life is clear; otherwise, the desert advances.

The first act of the Zapateros government that had just taken office, a matter of weeks from the Madrid bombing, was to present in parliament a series of legislative proposals in favor of gay marriage and de facto couples. A minister declared that the church should 'keep quiet.' Is this a rejection of Catholic tradition?
On the one hand, Spanish Socialism carries with itself this radical imprint; on the other, our Catholic tradition manifests the weakness of a simple popular faith, never disturbed, given that the long years under Franco kept it under glass and protected it from every cultural attack. Many Spanish Catholics are not equipped for the objections of modernity, and today appear confused. In Andalusia, where the Socialists had a strong victory, a few days after the vote, on the occasion of a religious celebration, the popular participation was oceanic; the same people who voted for Zapatero marched together in the procession.

* * *

My new book All the Pope's Men is out from Doubleday. Those interested may find it at:

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

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