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September 30, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 5

John L. Allen Jr.


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The Word From Rome

John L. Allen Jr.

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Joan Chittister

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Papal Coverage: Read NCR's 25 days of non-stop coverage of the death of John Paul II and the elction of Benedict XVI. This includes Sr. Joan Chittister's essays, An American Catholic in Rome

Preview of the synod on the Eucharist; Homosexuals and the seminaries; Benedict and Küng in cordial confab


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In the wake of Joseph Ratzinger's April 19 election as Benedict XVI, several cardinals offered what many considered a rather surprising explanation for their votes. Among other things, the cardinals said, they elected Ratzinger because they believed he would be a "listening" pope, a pope of real collegiality.

With regard to the Vatican official known for a quarter-century as Herr Panzer Kardinal, it struck some as a rather quixotic notion. The cardinals, however, insisted that while the Ratzinger they knew was indeed tenacious when he believed a point of faith was at stake, on virtually any other bit of business they had always found him gracious, open and flexible.

Here, they believed, would be a pope who would govern in concert with the bishops.

One high-profile public test of Benedict XVI's commitment to collegiality opens this Sunday, when the first Synod of Bishops on his watch begins with a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. Benedict has approved several changes in synod procedures to try to ensure a more open, free-flowing discussion, one that produces less stage-managed advice and fewer pre-determined conclusions.

Concretely, speeches on the synod floor will now be limited to six minutes rather than eight, with an hour set aside each evening for open discussion. (Though hardly the Anglo-Saxon model of open discussion; each synod participant has to fill out a request to speak, and then will be recognized. There won't really be much back-and-forth). The circoli minores, or small groups, will jump into debating the propositions they plan to submit to the pope right away, rather than spending time going over the topic as used to be the case. The overall idea is to make the discussions more substantive.

The synod, which runs from Oct. 2 to 23, is thus of interest for at least two reasons.

First, the subject, "The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church," undeniably touches upon a cornerstone of the life and faith of Roman Catholicism. Benedict XVI has repeatedly identified the Eucharist as a key focal point for his own teaching, as well as the principal foundation for his efforts at Christian unity.

Second, the synod also provides a test case for whether Benedict's changes will indeed result in candid advice from the roughly 275 bishops and other participants -- and what he'll do with it once he has it.

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Speaking with theologians, liturgists and Vatican officials, one senses that the following themes are likely to surface during the synod's debates on the Eucharist.

Priest shortage: The shortage of priests, and the phenomenon of "priestless parishes" in many parts of the world, raises questions about the church's capacity to make the sacraments available to the faithful. The Instrumentum Laboris makes the point: "Because of the vital connection between the celebration of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Orders, attention needs to be given to the increase, from 1978 to 2003, in the number of Catholics in relation to the number of priests, that is, one priest for every 1,797 Catholics in 1978 to one priest for every 2,677 Catholics in 2003."

In some quarters, this reality prompts a discussion about priestly celibacy in the Western church. Some observers believe that the Catholic church could expand its corps of potential priests by opening up to married men. One way this could be done would be through the so-called viri probati, or "tested men," meaning respected laymen in local communities who have a solid formation in doctrine and exemplary personal lives who could potentially be called into priestly service. In a recent piece in America magazine, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., an alternate for the American bishops attending the synod, suggested that some permanent deacons could be ordained to the priesthood.

Some see revising the discipline of celibacy as an urgent matter.

"It seems that we are willing to sacrifice the Eucharist on the altar of priestly celibacy," said Viatorian Fr. Mark Francis, a noted liturgist and a synod delegate elected by the Union of Superiors General, the main umbrella group for male religious orders.

Others, however, argue that the option to marry is not a silver-bullet solution for the shortage of clergy, and that there are powerful spiritual and practical arguments for maintaining the discipline of celibacy. The reality of a priest shortage, they insist, represents instead a summons to renew efforts to promote priestly vocations at all levels of the church, especially by the bishops.

Inculturation: While the Eucharist is the supreme expression of the unity of the church, the mode in which it is celebrated often varies from culture to culture, in order that the rites and language of worship may speak to the people of that culture. Given the historic North/South shift currently underway in global Christianity (by 2050, only one-fifth of the world's Christians will be non-Hispanic Caucasians), liturgies developed in a Western milieu have to be expressed anew in very different cultural settings. In that light, the nature and limits of "inculturation" will be a pressing topic of theological and pastoral reflection. As Asian and African voices come to be heard more and more in the global Catholic conversation, this issue will become steadily more central.

At the same time, some observers worry that greater demands for cultural variety may lead to a disintegration of the unity of the liturgy, which is supposed to provide a common experience and common vocabulary for Catholics worldwide.

The Instrumentum Laboris expresses this tension in terms of "the legitimate demands of inculturation," which must be accommodated "without detracting from the idea of universality."

Real Presence: The heart of Catholic doctrine about the Eucharist is the "real presence" of Christ, meaning that Christ is literally and physically present under the appearance of the consecrated bread and wine at Mass. Many Vatican officials, bishops and liturgical activists believe that in the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which tended to emphasize the role of the worshipping community and the dimension of the Mass as a meal, this core teaching has been to some extent eclipsed. One 1993 Gallup poll, for example, found that only 30 percent of American Catholics believe they are actually receiving the body and blood of Christ when they receive communion.

The Instrumentum Laboris thus devotes considerable attention to the topics of the Eucharist as a "mystery" and to adoration of the Eucharist, both considered a way of restoring popular appreciation for the real presence of Christ.

On the other hand, some liturgists and other experts worry that an over-emphasis on adoration and the "static" presence of Christ may marginalize other dimensions of the Eucharist, including the presence of Christ in the community.

"If the main point of the Eucharist is to consecrate hosts and put them in a tabernacle, why bother celebrating Mass?" Francis asked.

Ecumenism and Inter-Communion: Benedict XVI has emphasized that celebration of the Eucharist should impel Catholics to work for unity among all Christians, and no doubt the ways in which joint prayer and service can promote that unity will be discussed at the synod. At the same time, the Eucharist also represents one of the primary frustrations in ecumenical relations, since the reality is that Christians cannot gather around a common table because of differences in their Eucharistic doctrine. In at least some cases, Orthodox churches do not recognize the validity of the Catholic Eucharist. While the Catholic church recognizes the Orthodox Eucharist as valid, it generally does not do so for Anglican or Protestant services, and Anglicans and Protestants are not allowed to receive Communion from Catholic priests except under special circumstances.

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From the Catholic perspective, the Eucharist is the foremost symbol of the unity of the church, and hence it presupposes unity in faith. Thus it would be a false unity, from this perspective, to administer communion to those who do not share Catholic beliefs about the sacrament, especially the real presence of Christ.

While few expect the synod to propose sweeping revisions to church discipline on inter-communion, the broader question of the possibilities for shared prayer and worship short of full communion will no doubt come in for attention.

A special focus concerns the question of common texts and translations of Scripture readings and prayers used during Sunday services. In the years since Vatican II, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant scholars have developed a common body of readings and prayers for worship, generally using the same translation. Today, for example, when Catholics, Anglicans and many Protestants recite the Gloria, they use the same wording. The overall effect is to establish continuity across the denominational boundaries, as a way of reinforcing common Christian identity.

Some officials, however, worry that this approach can result in the uncritical adoption of Protestant concepts and vocabulary that weaken a proper sense of Catholic identity; this fear was expressed, for example, in the 2001 document Liturgiam Authenticam from the Congregation for Divine Worship. Advocates of ecumenical texts can be expected to push for endorsement and support of these projects from the synod.

Divorced and Remarried Catholics: If the Eucharist is, as Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document on liturgy from Vatican II, put it, the "source and summit" of Catholic life, then the full participation of Catholics in the Eucharist must be a top pastoral priority. The Instrumentum Laboris puts it this way: "The participation of the faithful at liturgical celebrations, particularly the Eucharistic Liturgy, is essentially entering into this spiritual worship where God comes down to the individual and the individual is raised to God."

One especially painful area is the question of Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried without obtaining an annulment, which objectively means that they should not receive the Eucharist. If such a Catholic for whatever reason cannot go through the annulment process, this can in effect amount to a lifetime ban.

Some may press for a reconsideration of this discipline. In the past, for example, Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium has argued that the church may be able to learn from the Orthodox on this score, who talk about the sacraments as "medicine for a sick soul," and hence it is precisely people in situations of sin who are in the greatest need of the healing that the Eucharist offers.

Others, who believe that upholding the church's teaching on the sanctity of marriage is important, may argue that the church needs to emphasize that those Catholics who for whatever reason may not receive communion nevertheless should be encouraged to attend Mass and receive the spiritual support of the community.

"It's not all or nothing," as one Vatican official put it.

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Quality of Celebration: Francis cautions that there's a tendency in the Instrumentum Laboris to emphasize catechesis so much that "it almost suggests that if people have the proper doctrinal formation in their minds, everything will be OK, which is patently absurd." Liturgy, Francis said, is an act of communication. Correct performance of the rites is a necessary but hardly essential condition for ensuring that people draw sustenance from the Eucharist. There's also a pressing need, Francis said, for attention to the fundamentals: preaching, music, how welcoming the community is, to what extent the liturgy fosters active participation, and so on. In that sense, Francis said, there's a risk that the synod could become an exercise in abstraction that doesn't engage the factors that really determine the quality of experience that average Catholics have in the liturgy.

Under the same heading, some observers worry that the quality of celebration is too often compromised by a disregard for the liturgical norms, leading to a kind of "do-it-yourself" approach that both compromises the unity of the liturgy, and denies Catholics their right to have the liturgy celebrated faithfully. On this score, some in the synod may call for greater vigilance to ensure that rites and texts established by the church are correctly implemented.

Liturgy of the Word:A central thrust of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II was to recover the importance of scripture and preaching in the liturgy, and to emphasize the intrinsic connection between the breaking of the bread on the altar and the breaking open of the Word of God. Some liturgical experts are concerned, however, that the Liturgy of the Word comes in for relatively scant attention in the Instrumentum Laboris, and some participants in the synod may call for a more thorough treatment, especially encouraging greater attention to homilies, and communications skills more broadly, in seminary preparation and in priestly life.

Eucharist and Politics: Especially in the United States, one of the more vexed questions about the Eucharist in recent experience has been the question of what to do about Catholic public officials who take positions on issues such as abortion that are at odds with church teaching, yet present themselves for the Eucharist. Some bishops believe these public officials should be denied communion, while others argue that such a policy would "politicize" the Eucharist, rupturing what should be the supreme moment of unity in the life of the church.

The Instrumentum Laboris contains echoes of this debate. "Some receive Communion while denying the teachings of the church or publicly supporting immoral choices in life, such as abortion, without thinking that they are committing an act of grave personal dishonesty and causing scandal," it says. "Some Catholics do not understand why it might be a sin to support a political candidate who is openly in favor of abortion or other serious acts against life, justice and peace. Such attitudes lead to, among other things, a crisis in the meaning of belonging to the church and in a clouding of the distinction between venial and mortal sin."

It will be interesting to see if the synod enters this debate, and what sort of guidance it might offer, especially from non-American participants. Generally speaking, in Europe few bishops have expressed an appetite for turning Catholic politicians away from the communion line because of their policy stances.

The Latin Mass: One of the most high-profile liturgical battles in recent years has been the question of whether the "old Mass," the rite of Mass in use prior to Vatican II, ought to be more widely celebrated. This rite is sometimes loosely called the "Latin Mass," since the post-Vatican II liturgy is generally offered in the vernacular languages. In fact, however, the post-Vatican II liturgy was also originally approved in Latin, and can be celebrated in Latin whenever a celebrant chooses.

Traditionalist Catholics generally believe that the old rite better expresses the church's teaching on the real presence and other points of doctrine, while advocates of the post-Vatican II reforms often object that the old rite is weak on the communal dimension of the Eucharist.

Under the terms of a 1988 indult from John Paul II, the old rite may be used with the permission of the local bishop. The result is that availability of the old rite varies widely from diocese to diocese. Traditionalists want the pope to grant universal permission for celebration of the old rite by any Catholic priest without special authorization. While the Instrumentum Laboris does not engage this question directly, it does in places encourage wider use of Latin, especially in international celebrations and in liturgical music.

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The working document for the synod can be found in the synod section of the Vatican Web site:

Roughly 200 bishops will take part in the synod, along with a number of other delegates (including 10 elected representatives of religious orders) and observers. The bishops elected from the United States Conference of Catholic bishops are: Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia; Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, the immediate past president of the conference; Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., the current president; and Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh. In addition, Benedict has appointed three other Americans to take part: Cardinal Edmund Szoka, president of the Vatican City State; Ukrainian Archbishop Stefan Soroka of Philadelphia; and Melkite Archbishop Cyril S. Bustros of Newton, Mass.

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I'm still in the States this week, and it was helpful to be here when the story about the forthcoming Vatican document on homosexuals in the priesthood began to break in the mass media. Among other things, it underlined how reactions to this sort of document vary widely according to culture. In Italy, at least as measured by press coverage and water cooler conversation, there was little by way of tumult; the story about an unnamed cardinal who allegedly revealed his conclave diary caused a much bigger stir. In the United States, on the other hand, there was a wide public reaction, which will likely be even more intense when the document actually appears.

In part, I suspect this difference is because most Italians instinctively understand that these sweeping edicts will not be applied in quite the draconian fashion their language might suggest. I've published an op/ed piece on this dimension of the story in the Sept. 27 New York Times: At the Vatican, Exceptions Make the Rule.

Perhaps it would be helpful to run down what we know, and what we don't know, about this document.

First, it is coming. Though an exact release date has not been set, all indications are the document will be released some time this fall, probably not long after the Synod of Bishops finishes on Oct. 23. Of course, one should never be too dogmatic on this score. Church history is replete with documents that reached the brink of publication, only to be scuttled for one reason or another. The signals this time, however, seem to suggest that this document will appear.

Second, when it does appear, it will not mark a change in policy.

The Sacred Congregation for Religious issued "Careful Selection and Training of Candidates for the States of Perfection and Sacred Orders" on Feb. 2, 1961. Its key line as far as homosexuality is concerned was the following: "Advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty, since for them the common life and the priestly ministry would constitute serious dangers."

In May 2002, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published a brief response to a dubium, or question, from a bishop in its official publication Notitiae. (The congregation has responsibility for safeguarding the sacraments, including priestly ordination). The key line of that response, developed in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was: "Ordination to the deaconate and the priesthood of homosexual men or men with homosexual tendencies is absolutely inadvisable and imprudent and, from the pastoral point of view, very risky. A homosexual person, or one with a homosexual tendency is not, therefore, fit to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders."

Advocates of the new document argue that a formal instruction issued with the pope's personal approval amounts to a stronger form of teaching than the brief 2002 response, and indicates that the 1961 position has not lapsed.

In some public discussion, especially in the United States, it has been suggested that the document is motivated by the ugly prejudice that homosexuals are more likely to be pedophiles -- in other words, by a form of "scape-goating" of gays for the sexual abuse crisis. While that view is no doubt held by some, in my conversations with Vatican officials and American bishops, the two most common arguments given in favor of the ban on gays in the priesthood are the following:

  • That in an all-male environment, it is naďve to believe that as long as someone is celibate, it doesn't matter whether he's gay or straight. This view holds that men with a sexual attraction to other men are subjected to greater pressures and temptations in the priesthood.
  • Given that the Catholic church sees a homosexual orientation as an "intrinsic disorder" that inclines one to conduct regarded objectively as sin, it is not good policy to admit people with that orientation to the priesthood.

While both are debatable propositions, even taken together they do not add up to "blaming" homosexuals for priestly pedophilia.

Now, for what we don't know.

It's worth stating the obvious, which is that we don't yet have the document, and so far as I know no one who's written about it (myself included) has actually seen it. Since in church texts the precise wording is always critically important, this lacuna leaves many important questions unanswered.

First, we don't yet know the precise level of authority the document will enjoy. While some press coverage has erroneously referred to the pope "signing" the document, in fact it will be a text of the Congregation for Catholic Education, which means that its signatories will be Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, the prefect, and Archbishop Michael Miller, the secretary. Benedict XVI will instead give his approval for its publication, and we don't yet know whether that approval will be in forma communi, meaning that while the pope has reviewed the text, it carries only the authority of the office that issues it, or in forma specifica, meaning that it reflects the pope's own authority. While the document is authoritative in either case, exactly how "irreversible" it is depends to some extent on this nuance.

Second, we don't know the vocabulary that will be used to characterize precisely what sort of candidate is to be excluded. At one stage, modifiers such as "permanent" and "enduring" were discussed, which would mean that someone who had perhaps experimented with same-sex activity, or who was unsettled, might not be ruled out a priori; Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, currently heading the visitations of American seminaries, has instead suggested that anyone who has ever engaged in homosexual activity, even if he's been celibate for a decade or more, should not be admitted. The latter is obviously a more restrictive standard, and we'll have to wait for the document to see if its wording comes closer to one or the other.

Third, we don't know what provisions for enforcement and supervision, if any, will be put in place. Since the church has been formally living with this policy since 1961, it's reasonable to ask whether in the long run this document will make any more difference that the one issued 45 years ago. A great deal depends upon interpretation and implementation in seminaries and religious communities around the country, and around the world.

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The news that Benedict XVI met with his old friend and later nemesis, Hans Küng, on Sept. 24 has by now already made the rounds. My news story was on the NCR Web site Sept. 26: Hans Küng and Pope Benedict, old friends and archrivals have a cordial meeting.

In the last month, Benedict XVI has met with figures who in a sense symbolize alienated groups on both the Catholic right and left: Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Society of St. Pius X, known popularly as the "Lefebvrites," and now Küng.

While John Paul II was a great pope of dialogue ad extra -- with other Christian churches, with other religions, with the worlds of culture and science -- some felt he was not as open ad intra, which amateur psychologists often attributed to his Polish background, with its strong emphasis on the internal unity of the church around its leaders.

To date, Benedict has seemed more willing to sit down with his critics inside the church. One wonders if, in turn, this may reflect something of his German experience. As a Catholic theologian in Germany in the post-Vatican II years, he had plenty of experience dealing with peers whom he liked and respected, who nevertheless held "dissenting" attitudes on this or that point of doctrine. In that sense, he is perhaps more comfortable interacting with Catholics of diverse temperaments and outlooks, realizing that doing so does not have to imply confusion about one's own positions.

To put the point differently, trying to move in Catholic circles in Germany without speaking to anybody who has a gripe with Rome would be … well, I scarcely need to finish that sentence.

Editor's Note: John Allen's reports from the synod on the Eucharist will be posted daily on

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

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