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 The Word From Rome

October 22, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 9

global perspective


Cardinal Martino writes in; How the Vatican views the American church; the purported "excommunication" of John Kerry


Two weeks ago, I wrote about Vatican attitudes regarding the Bush/Kerry election in the United States, and speculated that if a secret ballot were to be held in the Vatican, Kery would win by a 60-40 margin. This, I wrote, is not because the Holy See is soft on abortion, but because of what some Vatican officials perceive as the negative consequences of Bush's foreign policy.

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In somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, I listed a series of "red" and "blue" dicasteries, meaning departments of the Vatican that tend to lean towards positions associated with Bush or Kerry, depending largely on their areas of responsibility. Among the "blue," or Kerry-friendly, dicasteries, I listed the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

This apparently caused some readers to conclude that I was suggesting that Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Council for Justice and Peace, favors Kerry. For the record, Martino has never expressed a preference to me or anyone else on the American presidential election. I am certain he would regard doing so as inappropriate. Further, while Martino spoke in critical terms of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, anyone familiar with the titanic battles he led at the United Nations on family and life issues during his 16 years as the Holy See's permanent observer, often in opposition to the Clinton administration, cannot question his pro-life credentials. Frankly, if someone asked me to speculate how Martino might vote in the American election, I wouldn't know what to say.

I noted in the article that I was speaking of general tendencies, and that individuals within each dicastery may well hold different views (indeed, I know many who do). Further, I noted that at the level of the most senior officials, there is greater emphasis on the cultural issues associated with Bush's agenda.

In general, the point I was trying to make is that judgments on specific political choices are always a complex business, and even officials of the Holy See will sometimes reach differing conclusions. I did not intend to ascribe partisan stances to any specific individuals. That my piece may have created difficulties for Martino, or anyone else, is something I regret.

* * *

Martino contacted me to express concern over my piece, and I responded explaining its background and offering to publish any response he wished to provide, whole and entire. He sent along the following:

Your e-mail message, received here on 15 October, left me as confused as the original article, published on 8 October. You wrote that your "analysis was based on wide conversations with people at all levels, along with a reading of the public record." And I have to wonder, "To whom did you speak, and what did you glean from that 'public record?"

While I have made statements against the war in Iraq it would be inappropriate for me, any member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace or any other official of the curia to make statements in favor or against any particular political candidate.

I believe that your article did grave damage to the understanding of your readers. They have been led to believe that certain offices and officials within the Roman Curia have actually committed themselves to support one candidate over the other. While I am certain that many have personal opinions about particular candidates, these could never be an official reflection of or interpreted as the position of all those who work within a certain congregation, pontifical council or the Secretariat of State nor that of the offices themselves.

To say that a particular office was more supportive of President Bush or Senator Kerry is a sort of accusation that those working within an office have taken sides in the partisan politics of the democratic process. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least as far as this pontifical council is concerned. At the same time, this pontifical council cannot and will not remain silent in the face of positions taken or policies espoused by any politician or political candidate, especially when those issues touch upon subjects that fall within the competencies and responsibilities of the Council for Justice and Peace.

As far as public statements are concerned, some issues may indeed outweigh others. However, it must go without saying that the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace will never shrink from its responsibility to preach the message of the Gospel or call attention to those situations in the world where the tenants of justice and peace are violated.

* * *

I'm in the United States this week, where among other things I spoke twice in the Boston area, once for the Voice of the Faithful in Winchester and again at Boston College as part of their "Church in the 21st Century" project. I jokingly suggested that Boston groups should have me in whenever the Red Sox play the Yankees, since my talks coincided with two dramatic extra-inning victories in the American League Championship Series.

Here's a tip for anyone invited to speak in Boston: Begin by acknowledging the legitimacy of popular anger and disillusionment with church authorities. At Boston College, where I had been asked to talk about "Rome's View of the American Church," I neglected to follow my own advice, and I heard about it from some in the audience.

Boston was the epicenter of the sexual abuse crisis, and it has been rocked anew by one of the largest parish closings in American Catholic history. The frustration Catholics there feel is a fact, however one explains it. My experience, for what it's worth, is that any attempt to explain the complexities facing church officials without conceding the good reasons people have for feeling riled up courts misunderstanding.

Having said that, I tried to lay out some of what Rome sees when it looks at the United States and American Catholicism. I don't pretend that I was able to offer anything other than a few random impressions, but I do think reflection on these points might suggest some fruitful possibilities for dialogue.

* * *

I laid out five premises.

First, and this will be a familiar point to regular "Word from Rome" readers, there is no such thing as "the Vatican" in the sense in which journalists and activists often use the term, i.e., an organism with a unified intellect and will and therefore a single view on every subject. Instead, the Vatican is a complex bureaucracy in which different officials hold different ideas. Of course, officials in the Holy See are unified by their commitment to the content of the Catechism and by their participation in the ministry of the Successor of Peter, but that leaves ample room for differing styles, personalities and outlooks.

Second, it's worth recalling that American Catholics are six percent of the global Catholic population. There are 65 million Catholics in the United States, out of a global total of 1.1 billion Catholics. Necessarily, this means that American issues are not always, or even normally, what Vatican officials think about when they get out of bed in the morning or go to bed at night. The truth is that Vatican officials spend much less time thinking about Americans than Americans often suspect.

Third, despite the Catholic church's image as rigidly hierarchical and ultra-centralized, it actually is one of the most decentralized institutions on earth. A staff of some 2,700 people in the Roman Curia oversees the affairs of some 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide. Management guru Peter Drucker once calculated that if the same ratio were to be applied to the U.S. government, exactly 500 people would be on the federal payroll. The point is that even if Rome wanted to follow American affairs closely, it would lack the infrastructure to do so.

Fourth, there is a cultural gap between Main Street USA and the world of the Holy See that often skews perceptions. The example I gave in Boston concerned time. America, as I have said before, is a microwave culture. We want things done immediately, and any failure to spring into action is usually construed as delay. The Vatican, on the other hand, is a crockpot culture. Food takes a long time to simmer, but the belief is that it tastes better at the end. Taking one's time is usually understood not as fecklessness, but as leaving room for mature reflection. The point is that trying to understand Rome's perceptions of America without appreciating the impact of the cultural gap leads to misimpressions.

Finally, I believe in what a friend of mine in Rome calls the "hermeneutics of charity," meaning that in trying to understand what someone else is saying, it's usually not helpful to begin by imputing ill will. It's more productive, and usually more accurate, to assume that the other party has good reasons for the convictions they hold, and seek to grasp what those reasons might be.

With that background, I tried to lay out some schematic and incomplete impressions of Roman attitudes towards America.

* * *

To begin with, some positive impressions.

First, there is tremendous respect in the Holy See for the technical competence and the can-do spirit of Americans. It was an American, now Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, who as a monsignor in the Secretariat of State brought that office into the computer age. It was also an American, Cardinal Edmund Szoka of Detroit, who was brought over to Rome to straighten out the Vatican's budget. More broadly, Romans are often struck by the remarkable ecclesiastical infrastructure that the American church has built over the years -- a network of schools, hospitals, and social service agencies that is the envy of the Catholic world.

Second, there is awareness that parish life in the United States is remarkably dynamic. In Europe and other parts of the world, parishes are often sacramental filling stations -- people come for the Eucharist, baptisms, marriages and funerals, but little else. The American model of the parish as a ministerial beehive, with youth ministries, Bible study groups, RCIA programs, Marriage Encounter, and so on, is striking in comparison. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles tells the story of a meeting with John Paul II on one of his ad limina visits, when Mahony asked the pope why he favored the new movements. John Paul responded that in Europe, parishes too often don't evangelize effectively, especially with the young, while the movements do. The pope went on to say that he believed the United States was among a handful of countries where the vision of the Second Vatican Council for parish life was fully realized.

Third, there is appreciation in Rome for the underlying religiosity of American culture. In Europe these days, it is problematic even to mention the name of God in public discourse. While Americans fret over whether John Kerry is Catholic enough, Europeans are at the same time blackballing Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione as a candidate for the European Commission because he's too Catholic. Buttiglione has said that he supports the church on abortion, gay marriage and the role of women within families, which has been enough for a number of European governments to oppose him. All this has provoked Italian journalist Vittorio Messori to remark that today there are three classes of people one can oppress with impunity: hunters, smokers and Catholics. The high level of religious belief and practice in the United States, plus the very public use of religious vocabulary, stands out against that backdrop.

Fourth, there is a lively sense of the generosity and good-heartedness of Americans. Vatican officials routinely point out that whatever one makes of American foreign policy, it should not be forgotten that whenever there is a war, famine or natural disaster, it is typically the Americans who rush in with aid. American Catholics are also generous on the home front. In 2002, for example, Catholic schools in America educated 2.7 million children, many from low-income families; Catholic Charities assisted 10 million people; and Catholic hospitals provided $2.8 billion worth of uncompensated care for poor and low income Americans. Finally, American Catholics are also generous with Rome. The Vatican's annual operating budget is $260 million, of which Americans contribute perhaps 25 percent (The United States and Germany are always the largest donor nations, but Americans make voluntary contributions while the Germans rely largely on the church tax).

Fifth, there is a growing appreciation in the Holy See for the special challenges facing the American church, created by the press, the legal system, the size and diversity of the country, and its unique cultural tradition. One focal point for this appreciation has been the sex abuse crisis. Examples of how the Vatican has responded differently include the rejection and then approval of the American sex abuse norms in record time in 2002, the decision to convene a unique scientific panel on pedophilia in April 2003, and the assignment of Sean O'Malley to Boston after just a year in Palm Beach. All were departures from business as usual.

* * *

Now for some negative impressions.

First, the Holy See is a European institution, which means that general European prejudices about the United States find echoes in the Vatican. Many would regard Americans, for example, as often arrogant, insisting on doing things their way. Many would see the United States as reckless, a kind of "cowboy culture," shooting first and asking questions later. Many also believe that to explain anything about the United States, the key is to "follow the money," whether it's the invasion of Iraq or the sexual abuse crisis.

Second, some in the Holy See, including some of the deepest thinkers, believe there is something profoundly un-Catholic about American culture that too often finds it way into the church. It's not just that the editorial writers at The New York Times and elsewhere don't like the church's stands on abortion or gay marriage, but that at a much deeper level, American culture has been shaped by forces hostile to Catholic anthropology and social ethics: for example, radical individualism, pragmatism, and capitalism. Observers in the Vatican, though certainly not just there, sometimes wonder if American Catholics fully appreciate the tension that sometimes exists between those two affiliations.

Third, there is a sense in the Vatican, again one that reflects broader European attitudes, that Americans sometimes have a messianic self-understanding, and a dualistic way of dividing the world into "us and them" that reflects the country's Calvinist heritage. This impulse can give rise, among other phenomena, to a kind of puritanical hysteria about sin that is foreign to the Mediterranean instinct of tolerance for human weakness. During the sex abuse crisis, many Vatican officials thought they detected this hysteria at work in the demand that every priest who even once had committed an act of abuse, no matter how distant in the past, be removed from ministry.

Fourth, some in the Vatican believe that American Catholicism sometimes suffers from a weak ecclesiology that reflects the country's Congregationalist tradition. As Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has put it, "American Catholics are denominationally Catholic but culturally Protestant." Among other things, this means that American Catholics often identify much more strongly with their local parish or national church than they do with the universal church, a kind of reduction of Catholicism to the local church that many in Rome find troubling.

Finally, there is a fear that America's youthfulness, and the dizzying pace of change in the culture, produce a certain lack of historical memory. To take one concrete example, some American Catholics have suggested that in response to the sexual abuse crisis, church structures should be reformed to compel bishops to share authority with the laity. Vatican officials, and again not just them, point out that over the course of church history, crises have tended to flare up precisely when the bishop's authority has been weakened. Hostile states have long seen undercutting bishops and distancing them from Rome as the key to subverting the Catholic church; this was the strategy of Soviet satellite states, as it is of the Chinese government today. Hence they are wary of reform proposals in response to specific crises that may not reflect broader historical cautions.

* * *

Finally, I ended with a few reflections on what to do with all this. Given that some Vatican officials think in these terms, what should that suggest to American Catholics?

First, it indicates that communication is always translation. Americans cannot make statements that carry a certain meaning in their culture and assume they will be understood on a one-to-one basis in Rome. Communication across cultures is always a difficult business, and it is no different in this case. The same point, with equal force, applies when Rome is attempting to communicate to Americans.

Second, all this suggests that dialogue between Rome and America has never been more important. One current example: Many American Catholics have concluded in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis that a reform of the episcopal office is needed in the direction of more shared responsibility, collegiality, and lay empowerment. They believe that one root of the crisis was the tendency of bishops to make decisions in isolation, cut off from all but a small circle of advisors. Finanical payoffs, decisions to transfer troubled priests, and so on too often happened in secret, the antidote to which would be greater transparency and consultation. In the Vatican, meanwhile the reading is often exactly the opposite, that what happened in the United States was a failure of episcopal nerve. Bishops were too likely to be influenced by therapists, lawyers and spin doctors, rather than having the courage to do what was in the pastoral best interests of their people. The solution is a different kind of bishop, stronger and bolder, less afraid to make tough decisions. Hence while many Americans are pushing for one model of episcopal leadership, several recent appointments in the United States seem to cut in a different direction. If we can't find a way to name this phenomenon, and to talk about it constructively, the risk is greater conflict and division - and surely all parties can concede that this is troubling.

Finally, I think all this suggests the need for patience. The Catholic church, both in the United States and around the world, faces a cluster of complex challenges about which people of deep faith and good will may reach different conclusions. That complexity, coupled with the difficulties of communication across the cultural gap, mean that easy or swift solutions are improbable. Finding a way forward is a long-term project, and Catholics will increasingly need to draw comfort and sustenance from their common faith that ultimately the Spirit will not desert the church.

* * *

Usually at the end of every year, I draw up a list of the biggest Vatican stories of the year. This time I'm tempted to compile a list of the year's biggest non-stories, and this week we got a new candidate: the purported "excommunication" of American presidential candidate John Kerry.

Here's what happened. An American Catholic named Marc Balestrieri sent a letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concerning whether Kerry's stand on abortion constituted heresy. (He put two questions to the CDF in Latin, in the style of formal dubia: one as to whether the teaching on abortion is part of the "divine and Catholic faith," thus in effect infallible, the other whether supporting laws favoring abortion is heresy.) The CDF, having never heard of Balestrieri, thought he was a college student working on a research project. Dominican Fr. Augustine DiNoia, the number three official at the CDF, asked a fellow Dominican theologian in Washington, D.C., Fr. Basil Cole, to respond -- not as an officer of the CDF, but simply as a courtesy to the correspondent.

At the outset of his letter to Balestrieri, Cole states that it is an unofficial response. After detailing the various reasons he believes denying the grave immorality of abortion would be heresy, the heart of his four-page reply is the following:

"For anyone to maintain a right to an abortion piggybacks on the heresy and becomes part of its darkness. Consequently, if a Catholic publicly and obstinately supports the civil right to abortion, knowing that the church teaches officially against that legislation, he or she commits that heresy envisioned by Can. 751 of the Code. Provided that presumptions of knowledge of the law and penalty (Can. 15, 2) and imputability (Can. 1321, 3) are not rebutted in the external forum, one is automatically excommunicated according to Can. 1364, 1."

Despite Cole's caution that the letter was "unofficial," Balestrieri went on the Catholic television network EWTN and left the impression that "the Vatican" had declared Kerry excommunicated. Word spread rapidly on the Internet, and ended up in The New York Times and other secular news outlets.

Quickly, both Cole and the Vatican tried to stamp out the story. From the CDF, DiNoia released a two-line statement, which said that the Vatican had no contact with Balestrieri, and that claims of an official Vatican statement on Kerry were without foundation.

For his part, Cole gave the following reply to a query from NCR's Joe Feuerherd: "Neither Fr. DiNoia nor I had any knowledge that [Balestrieri] was going to 'go after' Kerry or any other Catholic figure for their public stance concerning the evil of abortion. I began by mentioning that my letter is a personal and private opinion to him about anyone who would publicly and persistently teach that abortion is not morally prohibited. It in no way is authoritative from the Congregation, nor was I representing the congregation. Its only weight is that of a priest and a theologian who appeals to sacred sources. I was helping out Fr. DiNoia who asked me to do this for him."

Whatever one makes of the issues raised by Balestrieri's original questions, the saga of Cole's response makes an important point. The Vatican has a serious communications problem, because the outside world finds it impossible to distinguish between a formal response and what someone says in an unofficial capacity. If this were the American government, and a response to a letter to the White House came from a deputy insurance commissioner in North Dakota, most people would instinctively understand that it's not terribly authoritative; the same sensitivity does not apply to the Holy See, where somebody can chat up a Swiss Guard and then run around claiming to have a "Vatican response." This is an especially volatile problem in campaign season, where every utterance is presumed to have partisan political significance.

Balestrieri issued a statement Oct. 20 asserting that "although 'formaliter' the response is unofficial, 'materialiter' its contents can never be denied." He has also told reporters that many Vatican officials agree with him. There may be some degree of truth to that -- certainly there are officials in the Holy See who believe the church has to be tougher with public officials who dissent from magisterial teaching. On the specific issue of excommunication in such a circumstance, however, my experience is that there is a wide spread of opinion in the Vatican, and nothing like a consensus.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

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