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 The Word From Rome

October 10, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 7

global perspective


The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, came to Rome in early October in an ideal moment to probe the strength of the bonds between Catholics and Anglicans, since the Anglican Communion is in the middle of an ecclesiastical "perfect storm."

No Nobel of John Paul; Catholics, Anglicans determined to keep talking; An interview with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; Personnel changes in the curia


Although John Paul II was widely tipped as a frontrunner for the Nobel Peace Prize announced Oct. 10, in the end he lost out to Iranian judge and pro-democracy activist Shirin Ebadi.

I was standing by on the CNN rooftop in Rome for the announcement at 11 a.m. local time, ready to comment had the Pope been selected. There was quite a build-up around John Paul’s candidacy in Rome, and in many ways the stars did seem to be in alignment.  It’s his 25th anniversary, Lutheran Bishop Gunnar Staalseth (who had attacked the Pope’s stance on condoms) is no longer on the Peace Prize Committee, and above all, this was a chance for the Norwegians to indirectly criticize the Bush administration, given the Pope’s strong stance on Iraq.

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Obviously, the fundamental basis for awarding the Peace Prize to John Paul would have been his role in the bloodless collapse of communism. But there are other examples of his peace-making effectiveness, from his success in avoiding a war between Chile and Argentina in 1979 over the Beagle Islands, up to his moral opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The pope did not stop that war, but he played a role in preventing the broader Muslim-Christian conflagration many feared.

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson told me in an Oct. 8 interview that John Paul’s interventions carry real political weight. “Because of his credibility as a person and the respect he commands as a central moral figure, governments take heed of his views in the development of their positions,” Nicholson said.

He added that although President George Bush ultimately chose to proceed with the Iraq war, that doesn’t mean he ignored the pope’s objections. “The president struggled with this decision and prayed about it,” Nicholson said, saying Bush had listened with “great interest” to what the pope and his emissaries had to say.

On the other hand, if one function of the Nobel Prize can be to spotlight someone whose work is not well known internationally, John Paul II is perhaps the last person on earth in need of such assistance. By that logic, one could argue that Ebadi stood to benefit far more.

One footnote, which will not be widely reported since the pope did not win. Vatican sources told NCR earlier in the week that they had been contacted by the Nobel Prize organization, to ask if the pope would accept the prize should it be offered to him, and if he would come to Oslo on Dec. 10 to receive it. The answer came back “yes” on both counts. This is another sign that despite the recent flurry of concern over the pope’s health, his aides do not believe he is “winding down.”

* * *

Relationships are tested in moments of crisis. Thus the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, came to Rome in early October in an ideal moment to probe the strength of the bonds between Catholics and Anglicans, since the Anglican Communion is in the middle of an ecclesiastical “perfect storm.”

The first visit of an Archbishop of Canterbury to a pope in modern times came on Dec. 2, 1960, when Geoffrey Fisher paid his respects to Pope John XXIII. (Prior to that, the last Archbishop of Canterbury to come to Rome had been Arundel in 1397). In all, there have been 12 such visits, a sign of a budding ecumenical friendship. Observers consider it significant that Williams is the first Archbishop of Canterbury to come to Rome at the beginning of his mandate, almost as if to acknowledge that his ministry and that of the successor of Peter are somehow connected.

These are troubled times in the Anglican world.

On Aug. 5, the American branch of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion approved the election of Bishop Gene Robinson, who acknowledges a same-sex partnership, triggering threats of schism from more conservative factions, especially in Africa and Asia. Meanwhile, the Canadian diocese of New Westminster has approved a rite for same-sex blessings. The leaders of Anglicanism’s 38 provinces will hold an emergency summit in Canterbury Oct. 15-16 to try to defuse the crisis.

If there is no clear rejection of the decisions of the American province and the Canadian diocese, this could put the Anglican/Catholic dialogue in serious jeopardy, since it would mark a major difference between the two traditions on a matter of moral doctrine.

One hint of Catholic/Anglican fallout came in early October in Florida, where Bishop Victor Galeone of St. Augustine withdrew an invitation to allow an Episcopalian bishop to be consecrated in a Catholic church in Jacksonville, Fla. Galeone acted after the Episcopalian bishop who was to preside at the ceremony defended Robinson’s appointment and denied that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

Yet both the symbolism and the content of William’s visit seemed calculated to say: This too will pass. The dialogue will survive, just as it did a previous crisis generated when the Anglican Communion decided to ordain women.

On Oct. 4, for example, Williams and English Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor jointly delivered the final blessing at an Anglican service, tracing the sign of the cross together. The same day, John Paul II presented Williams and his fellow Anglican prelates with a pectoral cross commemorating the pope’s 25th anniversary, the same gift Catholic bishops will receive for the occasion.  During his Rome visit, Williams wore the episcopal ring that Paul VI gave to his predecessor Michael Ramsey in March 1966 (see accompanying story).

All these gestures seemed to underline a determination to keep talking, even when what the two sides have to talk about is not always pleasant.

* * *

One of the stumbling blocks in the Anglican/Catholic relationship has long been the 1896 bull of Pope Leo XIII, Apostolicae Curae, which declared the ordinations of Anglican clergy invalid. In 1998, a commentary from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the 1998 Vatican document Ad Tuendam Fidem listed the invalidity of Anglican ordinations as a de facto infallible teaching.

Yet the various gifts given by modern popes to the Archbishops of Canterbury, from Paul VI’s episcopal ring to the pectoral crosses given by John Paul, seem to suggest a different understanding. These are the insignia of the bishop’s office, and popes do not simply give them away to laymen dressed up in clerical dress. In some sense, they seem to imply recognition of fellow members of the episcopal fraternity.

I approached Murphy-O’Connor about this after the Oct. 4 press conference at the Venerable English College in Rome, asking him what he thought the theological significance of these gifts might be.

“It’s more than nothing,” he said, smiling.

I completed his thought for him: “Even if it’s hard to say exactly what that ‘more than nothing’ is?”

“Exactly,” he replied.

Murphy-O’Connor said that however one interprets the meaning of these gestures, they clearly imply that in some sense the Catholic church is already beyond the position expressed in Apostolicae Curae.

During the news conference, Cardinal Walter Kasper fielded a question about Apostolicae Curae. He made the argument that to the extent Catholics and Anglicans grow together in faith, the question of ordinations can be examined in a fresh light.

* * *

Speaking of Murphy-O’Connor, he was gracious enough to mention after the news conference that he had recently read my book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election. As I always do when a cardinal says that, I immediately tried to recall what I had written about him in chapter five, where I provide brief profiles of each member of the College of Cardinals.

I drew a blank, until I remembered that I had actually made a rather embarrassing mistake with Murphy-O’Connor. I had written that his cousin Jerome, a famed Dominican Biblical scholar, was his brother.

At the reception I pulled the cardinal aside and assured him the mistake had been corrected in subsequent printings.

“I shall have to read the revised edition,” he said with a smile. Not for nothing has Murphy-O’Connor been described by the British press as “everybody’s favorite uncle.”

 Murphy-O’Connor’s commitment to ecumenism is genuine and deep. Before becoming archbishop of Westminster he was co-chair of the official Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission. His outreach is so well known and appreciated that in January 2002 he was invited by Queen Elizabeth to preach at the royal retreat in Sandringham. It was the first time since the English Reformation that a Catholic prelate preached to the royal family.

Murphy-O’Connor was so determined to bolster the Anglican/Catholic relationship despite the present crisis that he cleared his calendar to accompany Williams to Rome, and he appeared at every public event. At a commissioning ceremony for William’s new emissary to the Holy See, Bishop John Flack, Murphy-O’Connor wasn’t even scheduled to speak, but he grabbed the mike and spoke in warm terms about the relationship. At the Oct. 4 news conference, he characterized the Anglican/Catholic dialogue as a “road with no exits.”

Murphy-O’Connor also insisted that Flack’s installation take place in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, his titular church. It was yet another way of saying, “We’re in this together.”

* * *

When Paul VI famously gave his ring to the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, on March 24, 1966, there were no TV cameras to record the event, no photographers standing by. That’s a pity, because the exchange marked one of the most moving chapters in the modern ecumenical drama.

Anglican Fr. John Andrew, however, was one of two witnesses to the exchange, and on Oct. 4 he told NCR the full story.

The night before, on March 23, Paul VI had dispatched a member of the papal household to the English College on Via Monserrato to find Andrew, who was then Ramsey’s private secretary. The pope wanted to give the ring he had worn as cardinal-archbishop of Milan to Ramsey, the messenger said. He wanted to know if the archbishop should be forewarned, or should it be a surprise?

Andrew consulted another aide, and both agreed: let it be a surprise.

The next morning, Pope Paul and Archbishop Ramsey led an ecumenical liturgy in Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul’s-outside-the Walls. In telling symbolism, they entered side-by-side and sat on the same level, close to each other. They also signed a “Common Declaration,” affirming their desire that “all those Christians who belong to these two communions may be animated by these same sentiments of respect, esteem and fraternal love.”

After the ceremony was over, Paul VI pulled Ramsey aside to show him some frescoes on an interior wall of the basilica. As Ramsey gazed up, Paul asked him, in his rather accented English, to remove his ring. Ramsey didn’t understand, so he turned to Andrew, who said: “Take off your ring.”

Ramsey did, handing it to Andrew.

Paul VI then took Ramsey’s right hand and placed the green-and-gold ring, with a cross in the center and four diamonds around it, on his finger. Ramsey paused a moment, allowing the significance of the gesture to sink in: the Bishop of Rome was, in effect, recognizing him as a fellow member of the episcopate, and in some sense the church he led as a “sister” to the church of Rome.

Ramsey burst into tears. Paul reached out and embraced him, and for a moment, the two men stood in one another’s arms, almost alone within the immense basilica.

Ramsey then said his tearful farewell to Paul. Andrew suddenly realized that he had a protocol problem, because he too had to take his leave of the pope, who now had no ring to kiss. Andrew knelt, gathered both papal hands, and kissed them. Paul then put his hands on Andrew’s cheeks, gently lifting him to a standing position, and bade him goodbye.

Ramsey wore Paul’s ring for the rest of his life. It subsequently became the property of Lambeth Palace in Canterbury, and it is the custom of archbishops of Canterbury to wear the ring when they visit the pope.

Two footnotes to the story.

First, on the night of the 24th, Paul VI’s messenger once again appeared at Andrew’s door at the English College. “The pope found the box for his ring,” the messenger said, “and asked that I bring it to you.”

Andrew’s response was unhesitating.

“I know my archbishop will wear that ring until the day he dies,” Andrew said. “He’ll never need this box, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to keep it.”

The messenger smiled.

“That’s what the pope thought,” he said. “That’s why he had me bring it to you.”

Second, Andrew, who is now retired after serving as rector of St. Thomas Anglican Church in New York, had never met Rowan Williams, the current archbishop of Canterbury, prior to his Oct. 3-5 visit to Rome. They two men greeted each other at a reception at Doria Pamphili Palace, where Andrew recounted this story for Williams. He then asked to see the ring, which Williams had put on for the first time for his visit to John Paul II.

Andrew kissed the ring.

“That’s for my dear Michael,” he told Williams.

* * *

On Oct. 9, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., sat down for an exclusive interview at the North American College, where he had attended the diaconate ordinations. He’ll be back next week for the 25th anniversary of John Paul’s pontificate Oct. 16, and for the consistory in which 31 new cardinals will be created Oct. 21.

We spoke about John Paul II’s life and legacy.

McCarrick said that he distinguishes between the pope’s impact ad intra and ad extra. Inside the church, he said, John Paul “captured the real spirit of Vatican II,” on issues such as collegiality, dialogue with the modern world and the proper role of the laity as agents of transformation in the world. Outside the church, McCarrick said, John Paul has been a relentless champion of the dignity of the human person, which has made him an advocate of human rights, of religious freedom, of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue.

McCarrick, who is fluent in Spanish, has long been interested in the developing world. He praised the pope’s track record on social justice issues.

“On labor, on third world debt, on migration, on war and peace, the pope has been right there,” he said. “He has insisted that every human being has basic rights, some of which are not yet recognized by our society.” As a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, McCarrick said he has watched the pope “demand that organs of the church face these problems.”

In this context, I asked about Latin America, where many remember John Paul’s crackdown on liberation theology, which was itself an effort to align the Catholic church with popular struggles for justice.

“The main thrust of liberation theology was to empower the poor, and the Holy Father not only supports that, but he has galvanized the church to support it,” McCarrick said. “He drew the line at Marxism, but he has been so strong in favor of the poor.”

McCarrick agreed that had breaking liberation theology been John Paul’s only aim, he never would have promoted Latin American prelates such as Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Sao Paolo, Brazil, or Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras — moderates who sympathized with the aims of liberation theology, if not always its means.

Give John Paul’s passion for justice, I asked McCarrick how he explains the alienation of some Catholic women, especially in the developed world, from this pope — despite his efforts to reach out, from his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem to naming women to head his delegations to international events.

“It may be the frustration of over-expectations,” McCarrick said, referring to the question of women priests. “These expectations were really based only on dreams and hopes, not on basic premises of what the Holy Father believes, what we believe, is the theology of the church.”

McCarrick, who named a woman chancellor in Washington and has appointed women to significant positions of responsibility in every diocese he’s led, said he wouldn’t be surprised if John Paul II, in his heart, would like to have women priests.

“He’s never said, ‘I don’t want women priests,’” McCarrick said. “He’s said, ‘I can’t do it.’ He’s prayed, studied, and concluded that he can’t call women to the priesthood.”

I asked about another group that sometimes seems alienated from this pontificate: theologians who complain about a “chilling effect.”

“I don’t have statistics, but I suspect there may be as many theologians who feel the Holy Father has done the right thing as those who feel he has acted brusquely,” McCarrick said. “The latter may simply have more access to the media.”

I noted that while John Paul has achieved much of what he set out to accomplish, from the bloodless fall of Communism to reawakening the evangelical dimension of the papacy, one area where his record is much more mixed in the struggle against what he calls a “Culture of Death.” Despite the pope’s vocal opposition, polls show substantial majorities of Western Catholics support birth control and divorce, and 12 European nations now have some form of civil registration for same-sex partnerships. How does McCarrick explain John Paul’s failure to be persuasive on these issues?

“We are living in a world that since the 1960s has moved away from moral absolutes,” he said. “When that happens, it effects the most intimate, personal things we do.”

Unavoidably, I asked McCarrick if the recent sexual abuse scandals in the United States and elsewhere will mar the legacy of John Paul II.

“It puts a mar on the world in which the papacy of John Paul II governed the church,” said McCarrick, who emerged as one of the most credible and effective spokespersons for the American church during the crisis of 2002.

“Some 40 million Americans will have suffered some form of sexual abuse in their lives,” McCarrick said. “Obviously if that’s true, this is a deep societal problem, and we are not alone.”

“The fact that it has infested the church and its priests is scary and agonizing for all of us,” McCarrick said. “But the church is human and divine, and part of it has to find its life in the culture that is around us.”

Finally, I reminded McCarrick that when he was made a cardinal in February 2001, at the age of 70, he told us in the press that he never expected to participate in a conclave, meaning the election of a pope. He was suggesting that John Paul could live until McCarrick turned 80 in 2011.

Does he still feel that way?

“There’s always the possibility,” he said. He noted that the pope has ups and downs in his illness, and that sometimes he appears to be rejuvenated.

“I’m praying for the Holy Father to have the strength and wisdom to guide the church,” he said.

* * *

Recent days have witnessed a number of important appointments within the Vatican power structure.

American Cardinal James Francis Stafford has relocated from the Council for Laity to the Apostolic Penitentiary, where he replaces Italian Archbishop Luigi De Magistris. Observers were puzzled when De Magistris, who started his curial service as a protégé of famed Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani of the Holy Office, was left off John Paul’s list of new cardinals on Sept. 28. The other shoe dropped with news of his exit at the Penitentiary. Some speculated that his fall was a consequence of De Magistris’ outspokenness; although he doesn’t give interviews, he is known within the Holy See for privately expressing candid views. In one example, when De Magistris was a judge for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, he voted against the beatification of Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei.

Another key move came Oct. 8, when Giovanni Lajolo, currently the nuncio in Germany, was named Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Jean-Louis Tauran’s successor as the Vatican’s foreign minister. (The formal title is Secretary for Relations with States).

The appointment is striking on several levels. For one thing, Lajolo is 68, much older than has been the norm for this post. Tauran was 47 when he was made foreign minister; Achille Silvestrini was 53. The job is considered one of the Vatican’s more demanding posts, especially in moments of international crisis such as the Iraq war.

Lajolo comes from the Piedmont, the region of northern Italy that’s home to Secretary of State Angelo Sodano. His ascent means that all five top spots in the power structure in the Secretariat of State are now held by Italians (the sostituto is Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, who is Argentinian by birth, but Italian by ancestry and culture). Beyond Sodano, Sandri and Lajolo, those officials include the assessore, Gabriele Giordano Caccia, and Piero Parolin, Lajolo’s deputy.

Since Paul VI began the internationalization of the Roman Curia in the 1960s, there has never been such a concentration of power in the hands of Italians atop the Vatican’s most important dicastery. Since Sodano is past the age of 75, some believe the new lineup reflects his attempt to influence the succession; others conclude that Sodano simply wants to have his own team in place for whatever time he has left.

* * *

The complaints journalists get typically cluster into two categories. The first is errors of fact; misspelled names, inaccurate dates, etc. The second is accusations of bias, that by the way we assemble information, the way we manipulate language, and so on, we “stack the deck” in favor of particular conclusions or points of view.

Like anyone, I find both frustrating. Between the two, however, I always churn more over instances in which I open myself to charges of bias. I want “The Word from Rome” to be a source of information that people of all points of view and all backgrounds can trust, where they feel themselves respected and their views taken seriously.

Which brings me to this week’s mea culpa.

Last week I featured biographical notes on the new cardinals announced by John Paul II on Sept. 28. Regarding Archbishop Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, I wrote: “He has earned a reputation as humble, approachable, and intelligent, if also staunchly traditional.”  On Archbishop Marc Ouellet of Quebec City, I wrote: “In some ways he is a traditionalist, and has advocated a return to Eucharistic adoration and Gregorian chant ... Yet people who have worked with Ouellet describe him as friendly, humble, and flexible.”

Several readers pointed out that I was seemingly opposing traditionalism to positive qualities such as intelligence, openness, friendliness, humility and flexibility, as if someone who is traditional is somehow less likely to be these things. This was the furthest thing from my mind; all I meant to say was that although both Herranz and Ouelette have strong personal views, they are neither closed nor arrogant. Yet I see how my language could not help but create the impression of bias, and I apologize.

If it helps, I was widely quoted last week in the Canadian media that with time and a positive track record, Ouellet may have the “right stuff” to be considered a papal candidate.

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

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