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October 14, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 7

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

Latin Mass a non-issue; Interview with Bishop Skylstad; Scola's 17 questions to guide the synod; Bioethics and public policy; Anit-Nazi prelate beatified; A correction


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Today and tomorrow at the Synod of Bishops, which runs Oct. 2-23 and is dedicated to the Eucharist, small groups organized by language are working on propositions to be submitted to the pope.

Because a bewildering welter of specific concerns have surfaced, from the placement of the tabernacle to the location of the sign of peace, one risk in analysis is missing the forest for the trees.

So, here's one big-picture observation: One of the most fractious liturgical debates in Catholicism over the last 40 years, at least in the West, has pivoted on the status and use of the pre-Vatican II rite of Mass. Yet to date, not a single participant in the synod has risen either to advocate, or to oppose, wider application of the 1988 indult from John Paul II that allowed celebration of the old Mass with permission from the local bishop.

Quite simply, the old Mass has been a non-issue.

In his Wednesday address summing up the discussion so far, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the relator, reported that the synod fathers seem largely satisfied with the liturgical reforms that followed the council.

"Not a few fathers have remembered with gratitude the beneficial influence the liturgical reform, which takes it origin from Vatican II, has had for the life of the church," Scola said. "In particular, the richness of the Roman Missal was recalled."

If there were to be a serious push for a return to the pre-Vatican II Mass under Benedict XVI, one would have expected it to arise here, at the synod dedicated to the Eucharist.

For the moment, therefore, it would seem that this project does not have the momentum some might have expected after decades of wrenching debate, the election of a pope sympathetic to some critiques of the liturgical reform, and that pope's Aug. 29 meeting with Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the breakaway St. Pius X Society dedicated to the old Latin Mass.

At an Oct. 13 Vatican news conference, a reporter asked Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, about the old Mass.

"No synod father brought up that point," Arinze said. "They're concerned that the Mass be celebrated with faith, devotion, and fidelity to the liturgical books already approved by the Holy Father. [The pre-Vatican II Mass] is not a priority for synod, because no one spoke about it."

Arinze explained that John Paul had already provided for celebration of the old Mass in 1988.

"The real problem we face is that many don't go to Mass, that often those who go don't understand, that too many receive Communion but never confess, as if they're immaculate, and so on. These are the real problems, not what you're talking about."

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One bit of breaking news: Today Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family and widely seen as a strong conservative force on cultural issues, proposed in one of the Spanish-language groups a proposition on the question of Communion for Catholic politicians who do not follow the moral teaching of the church.

After an invitation from Archbishop William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the opening of the synod for discussion on this topic, Lopez Trujillo was one of only two participants to take it up.

Lopez Trujillo's draft proposition, sources told NCR, calls for Catholic politicians to "be aware" of the grave responsibility they hold when dealing with legislative proposals that are not consistent with Catholic moral teaching. Lopez Trujillo linked this admonition to a citation from 1 Corinthians 11: "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord …"

The proposition does not, sources said, directly call upon bishops or priests to turn away such politicians if they come forward for Communion.

Lopez Trujillo's proposal received a large majority when put up for a vote in the Spanish group, sources said, enhancing its likelihood of finishing in the eventual set of propositions submitted to the pope.

The latest report from the synod on the Eucharist and links to all the coverage can be found here: Daily synod coverage.

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Thursday afternoon, I met Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to discuss the synod. Immediately after the synod ends, Skylstad will be joined in Rome by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, vice-president of the American conference, to make an annual round of visits to offices of the Roman Curia by the top two officers of the U.S. bishops.

The following are excerpts from my interview with Skylstad:

Is it fair to say the synod is unlikely to support married priests?
I think that's right. I've not heard a strong call supporting it. Even Eastern churches that have married priests have expressed caution.

Yet the synod has also bluntly acknowledged the problems created by the priest shortage. If a married priesthood is not the answer, what is?
In Washington, D.C., on Friday, there will be a press conference to present a project called "Fishers of Men," which reflects an increased effort on the part of the bishops to look at vocational recruitment. When there is a sensitivity to vocations, and a strong effort on calling people to ministry in the church, the results can be surprising. In Spokane, for example, over the next three years we'll ordain eight men. In a diocese with 45 priests total, that's a considerable percentage. Some dioceses are experiencing the same thing, others are not. In Spokane, we have a good vocations director who works well with the other diocesan priests. We also have our own college preparatory program, which has worked well for us since the 1960s. Right now, for example, we have four guys here at the North American College in the third year.

So the key is basic pastoral "elbow grease"?
It's a lot of that. It's about helping people appreciate the need for well-integrated priests in the church. Sometimes people can be intimidated by the heavy demands put on priests these days. He's got to be a liturgist, a preacher, an administrator, a person who knows how to relate, how to collaborate, and so on. It's demanding, although surveys show that satisfaction levels are very high. Yet there's no sense hiding the challenges. In rural parishes, for example, priests have to have a well-integrated personality, often living alone, relating to people in a healthy and appropriate way. There's also the problem of hesitancy about commitment, which affects not just the priesthood, but also marriage and so on. Still, I'm convinced that we're entering a new phase today, a kind of new frontier.

Some bishops have spoken about a "redistribution" of priests from regions with many vocations to those with few.
The American conference has looked at that in the past, but to be honest there wasn't a lot of interest and it didn't go very far. Many of our dioceses do have sister diocese relationships, which have sometimes led to an exchange of clergy. In Spokane, for example, our sister diocese is Soloa in Guatemala, and we used to send priests there to serve in priestless areas. Now, however, they've had significant growth in vocations.

The bottom line is that we can't count on an infusion of priests from the Third World to solve our problems.
I think the development of a native clergy in a given area is always the ideal. That's not to say that some exchange of priests isn't a healthy thing. We are becoming a truly global community in the church, through the migration of peoples and other factors. Spokane, for example, is still fairly white, and it's good to have a cultural mix among the priests themselves as a witness to the diversity of the universal church. Some countries are providing priests to other parts of the world, such as Nigeria. But in general, we need native clergy from every area.

Has the sexual abuse crisis in the United States taken a toll on vocations to the priesthood?
My impression is that it hasn't. Times of challenge do not necessarily produce a negative atmosphere in terms of people's response to the gospel and to the church. I think people tend to look at the church and what it can become. Many experience the pain and suffering, but some also ask, how can I help God's people as an instrument of God? Beyond that, I also think people tend to identify very strongly with their local parish priest. If they see him working hard, but happy and fulfilled, that has a lot of impact.

Is it also fair to say that the synod does not seem likely to propose changing the rules on admission of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to communion?
I don't see a move in that direction. We don't want to trivialize the marriage bond. We have to take that bond seriously as something sacred, permanent. At the same time, we have to be realistic about where people are.

It seems the most popular solution floated at the synod is greater emphasis on marriage tribunals.
That's right. In the United States, we have a much more developed sense of the tribunal system. I can remember as a young priest when a tribunal would take months, even years, to work, and very few people bothered. But we've realized that we need to help people come forward. Sometimes people complain about the tribunals being expensive and complicated, but I know people who went through the process who found it helpful and healing. It helped them take stock of what had happened and where they are now. We've worked hard at this. Sometimes it has made people in Rome nervous.

As an American bishop, you must feel some vindication to hear the much-vilified American tribunal system, sometimes criticized as factory for churning out annulments, now held up at the synod as a model of pastoral sensitivity?
Sure, there's some of that. Obviously we have to take the permanence of marriage seriously, but when that marriage, which is supposed to be a community of life, has become destructive, then something's not right. I think we've become more realistic. It's not just a matter of the tribunals, but also our approach to marriage preparation. We want people to go into it with their eyes open. But there are ways we can tell people that when a community of life hasn't developed, there are things we can do to make it possible for them to enter into another relationship. We spend a lot of money on the tribunal process. It's not that we take the canons lightly, but we also have to be realistic about trying to help people.

Is it fair to say that the synod is unlikely to recommend changing the rules on admission of non-Catholics to the Eucharist?
Yes, I think there's a sense that inter-communion is not the way to go. I'm not picking up [a desire for change] from the fathers, and I don't see that happening. But there are lots of creative things we can do together. When I get home, I'll preach at an ecumenical service. There's a lot of that going on.

One of the fraternal delegates said that if the synod reaffirms the ban on inter-communion, it will be in denial about what's actually happening on the ground in the Catholic church. He said that in his experience, inter-communion is already a reality in many places. What do you make of that?
Some of that may be happening, but I think the numbers are relatively small. Perhaps some decades ago there was more experimentation. The point is, we don't want to trivialize our identities by opening Communion. That muddies the waters in a hurry. I realize that our Protestant brothers and sisters generally have an open table, and we don't, which is a source of pain for some. This is an honest and realistic tension. … I have the sense that the synod does, however, feel some urgency to move to greater unity about who we are as faith believers.

Are you struck by the fact that no one in the synod has discussed wider use of the old Mass?
It just hasn't come up. What we've heard is a very strong affirmation of what happened after Vatican II in the reform of the liturgy. A couple of people even said, "Thank God for the reforms." There has been some indirect mention of issues such as greater use of the organ, of Latin, and of Gregorian chant, but there's certainly no desire to go back on the reforms. Overwhelmingly, the fathers seem to be concerned with how to implement well what we have now. Some bishops have expressed concern with abuses, but I have the sense that the guys in general don't feel that way.

There has also been little discussion of Communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians.
No, not much. I've heard some discussion that it seems to be less of a concern in other parts of the world than in the United States, so some may see it as a bit of an American problem. The rest of the world is not seeing it as a high priority to have a common statement about denying Communion to politicians who don't follow the moral teaching of the church. I think the vast majority would like to approach this from the point of view of catechesis and dialogue rather than coming down in a harsh way. It's a very difficult question, of how you make your personal belief and the teaching of the church consistent with your public role. We need to dialogue about that, and address it.

In general, what do you hope the results of the synod will be?
There's a collective wisdom that occurs when a group comes together. There have been many different observations and insights, and one doesn't know what's going to happen in the propositions. We recently had [Oblate Fr.] Ron Rolheiser in Spokane, who pointed out that the Holy Spirit actually came for the first time in a meeting, meaning the gathering of the disciples in the upper room, so I'm hopeful. … I hope the synod will offer guidance about how to help people be more appreciative of the Eucharist, be better acquainted with the tradition of the church, on how to do better catechesis and faith formation. I said just today that we've got to get over the hump in many people's attitudes that they finished their faith formation in high school. We have to be life-long learners, people of conversion and renewal in our own lives. … I pick up strong interest among Catholics about this synod, in part because the Eucharist is so central to who we are. There are real questions: If the Eucharist is the precious gift we say, why aren't people coming to Mass? What do we do to address this reality? We need answers.

Another benefit of the synod is simply bringing together 260 bishops from around the world for three weeks, six days a week. In some ways, the process is as important as the finished product. It's a chance to understand what it means to be part of a universal church, and it comes at a very important moment in world history. No other organization pulls together people with a significant presence in every part of the world like this. The church can be a paradigm of what the world community can become, in terms of respect for individual nations and interest in the other. There's a strong sense of brotherhood in the synod hall, that we're all brothers and sisters in Christ.

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Wednesday evening, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the relator for the synod, presented the relatio post disceptationem, meaning the "speech after the discussion," intended to summarize the 200-plus speeches and provide direction for the circoli minori, the small groups whose job it is to generate propositions to submit to the pope.

It's worth pointing out that the relator is an important role, not least because the last two popes were relators at synods prior to their election. (Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was the relator at the 1974 synod on evangelization, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Munich played the same role at the 1980 synod on the family).

In the end, Scola offered 17 questions to guide the synod's work, which I summarize as follows:

  1. How to educate people in the various dimensions of the Eucharist?
  2. How to link the liturgy to life?
  3. How to offer the Eucharist in a regular way to all the faithful, and how to structure the assembly on Sunday for communities awaiting a priest?
  4. How to promote Eucharistic adoration that leads back to a liturgical celebration?
  5. How to fashion an ecclesiology that sees the Eucharist as the principle and form for organizing the church?
  6. How to recover the integrity of Christian initiation -- baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist? How to foster the connection between Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation?
  7. How to promote a welcoming pastoral stance for those who live in irregular situations?
  8. How to educate people about the centrality of the Sunday Eucharistic celebration?
  9. What are the criteria for organizing multiple Eucharistic celebrations for small communities within larger parish communities?
  10. How can the Eucharistic celebration be brought to the sick and the old? How can psychologically ill people best participate in the Eucharist?
  11. How to foster the missionary dimension of the Eucharist?
  12. How does the Eucharistic celebration educate for social responsibility?
  13. How to educate people about the cosmological dimension of the Eucharist?
  14. How to foster "full, conscious, active and fruitful" participation in the Eucharist?
  15. What are the criteria for art and architecture in service to the beauty of the liturgy?
  16. Is it opportune to revisit certain aspects of the Roman Rite (such as the location of the kiss of peace)?
  17. What are the criteria for correct inculturation of the single Eucharistic mystery?
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The Centro per Orientamento Politico, founded by a distinguished Italian Catholic layman named Gaetano Rebecchini, has emerged as a leading forum in Rome on the center-right for reflection on how ethical principles can be brought to bear on public policy.

This Monday, the Centro sponsored a high-profile colloquium on bioethics. Speakers were Giuliano Ferrara, editor of the conservative Italian newspaper Il Foglio; Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University; and Francis Fukuyama, the Johns Hopkins professor of international political economy who coined the phrase "the end of history," and who serves on the U.S. President's Council of Bioethics.

All three agreed that new genetic technologies, if not held in check by ethical criteria, threaten dehumanization and social chaos.

"Genetic creativity has a negative potential much greater than the atomic bomb," Ferrara said, "in part because it is an arm that presents itself under the guise of benevolence, as a means of curing illness and making us better."

Genetic technology promises greater well-being, Ferrara argued, only at the expense of the ultimate good.

"You can have the son you want, for example, but only at the price of destroying your brothers and sisters who are embryos," Ferrara said.

Ferrara illustrates an important trend in European politics, which is for secular thinkers on the right, many of whom come out of historically anti-clerical circles, to ally themselves with the Catholic church on issues of cultural identity.

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Fisichella's most forceful point came in responding to complaints that bishops should stay out of this sort of political debate.

"That's a form of secular arrogance," Fisichella bristled.

Imposing a gag order on Christians, Fisichella said, "who have always shown loyalty to the authorities," is tantamount to an "act of violence."

Christianity, he argued, has always maintained a "healthy distinction between church and state," but it "cannot be a simple matter of private sentiments. It has to have public consequences."

Fisichella argued that Western culture must return to the concept of "natural law," meaning that the human person has a fixed nature and a determined end.

"Man can't create progress by destroying himself," Fisichella warned.

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In dealing with secular circles, Fukuyama said, religious arguments often fail to persuade. He said there are good arguments based on reason alone why the "infinite manipulation of nature" is a bad idea.

Fukuyama pointed to the "terrible politics" of the 20th century, National Socialism and Soviet Marxism, which he said "crashed against the rocks of human nature."

"In the course of seeking to create certain social ends, these ideologies created death camps and labor camps that killed millions as part of utopian social engineering," he said.

Fukuyama warned that in the 21st century the tools of science may be used for the same end.

"It will be neural science, not agitprop, that in the 21st century justifies what C.S. Lewis called the dominion of some men over others," he said.

Fukuyama pointed to problematic results of already-existing forms of genetic engineering, such as abortion.

For example, he said, in Korea in the 1990s, 20 percent more boys than girls were born. In China, 117 boys are born for every 100 girls, meaning that one-fifth of today's newborns will eventually be unable to find a wife and start a family.

"There's no better formula for crime and civil unrest," he said.

Fukuyama then sketched out three areas in which he believes scientific advances will challenge our moral capacity.

First, he cited drugs and neuropharmacology. Prozac, for example, can enhance feelings of self-esteem by increasing serotonin in the brain. Yet normally we think of self-esteem as the byproduct of moral accomplishment. What happens when instead of doing moral things, we can just take a pill?

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"All this undermines our notion of where moral character comes from," Fukuyama warned.

Second, Fukuyama referred to expanding life expectancy, with some biologists today arguing that there is no necessary limit to the human lifespan.

If people remain productive into age 90 or 100, Fukuyama said, they will end up competing with their great-grandchildren for jobs, producing "inter-generational competition never seen before."

Finally, Fukuyama invoked genetic engineering. He noted some recent experiments that have successfully combined human DNA with genetic materials from other species.

"If technology can create a human/animal hybrid," he asked, "what's its moral status? For example, can you enslave it?"

"Blurring the line between the human and non-human makes our entire system of rights more fragile," Fukuyama said.

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Among the first beati under the new German pope is one of the most famous German Catholics of the 20th century, Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, who preached a series of fiery sermons against the Nazis in the summer of 1941. A Nazi official, Walter Tiessler, proposed in a letter to Martin Bormann that they hang the bishop. He told Bormann he had discussed this issue with Joseph Göbbels, who said only Hitler could order such an action. Von Galen survived, but Tiessler's proposal demonstrates the risk some outspoken Catholic leaders took.

In keeping with his new policy, Benedict XVI did not celebrate the beatification Mass on Sunday, but he did pray near the remains of von Galen, and later spoke about him in his Sunday Angelus address.

Recent years have witnessed a painful debate over the extent to which Christians helped create the basis for the Holocaust through theological anti-Judaism, and more specifically, whether church leaders did enough to defend Jews.

Pope Benedict's remarks suggest there is at least one aspect of this debate where he does not intend to yield ground. While the pope is prepared to acknowledge the individual failures of Christians, he is not willing to see National Socialism as an "outgrowth" or "reflection" of German Christianity.

The pope underlined the point by praising von Galen for denouncing "the neo-pagan ideology of National Socialism." Benedict also lauded him for "defending the freedom of the church and gravely violated human rights, protecting Jews and the most vulnerable people, who the regime considered as rejects to be eliminated."

It may be worth noting that Joseph Ratzinger had personal experience of the Nazi approach to "rejects." A cousin with Down's Syndrome, who in 1941 was 14 years old, just a few months younger than Ratzinger himself, was taken away by the Nazi authorities for "therapy." Not long afterwards, the family received word that he was dead, presumably one of the "undesirables" eliminated during that time. Ratzinger revealed the episode on Nov. 28, 1996, at a Vatican conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Health Care.

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Last week, I reported new information regarding the forthcoming Vatican document on homosexuals in seminaries. That report contained a factual error.

I wrote:

"The pope gave his final approval … in a Sept. 15 audience at Castel Gandolfo with Archbishop William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Archbishop Angelo Amato, the secretary of that office; and Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education."

In fact, a joint meeting with Levada, Amato, Grocholewski and the pope did not take place. All three officials appear on the Vatican bulletin for audiences that day, but Grocholewski's session with the pope was separate. Sources say the document did not come up in Benedict's meeting with Levada and Amato.

This does not change the substance of the report, but it's important that the record be accurate.

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

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