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 The Word From Rome

November 21, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 13

global perspective


"If it's true that a church without theology is impoverished, theology without a church dissolves into arbitrariness. Theology is truly a science when, in the development of its subjects, the church is not something extraneous, but rather the foundation of its existence, the condition of its possibility."

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

The Top Ten papal candidates; John Paul on Israel's security wall; Ordaining women deacons; Pastoral care of migrants and refugees; Thinking about theology


A famous saying about conclaves holds, “He who goes in as pope comes out a cardinal.” The suggestion is that someone who’s widely tipped as a candidate is ipso facto doomed. Like so many bits of conventional wisdom, it contains a grain of truth but becomes nonsense if it’s pushed too far.

Considering the last five papal elections, the clear favorite won twice: Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was the frontrunner in 1939, and became Pius XII. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini was the man to beat in 1963, and became Paul VI. Twice a middle-of-the-pack candidate prevailed: Cardinal Angelo Roncalli as John XXIII in 1958, and Cardinal Albino Luciani as John Paul I in 1978. Only once did a complete bolt out of the blue occur – Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in 1978 as John Paul II, and that was because everyone assumed the next pope would be Italian. The fact that someone is widely mentioned, in other words, hardly guarantees election, but it’s not meaningless.

Hence the fine art of papal prognostication falls somewhere between scientific rigor and the use of a ouija board.

With that in mind, I have been working since the October consistory, in which 30 new cardinals were created, on revisions to my book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election.  The main task was to reconsider the list of top 20 candidates I put together in the summer of 2001. Since that time, one of my candidates died, another turned 80, and the fortunes of others have waxed and waned.

What I opted to do this time is to offer a “Top Ten” list, along with a second tier of “Fifteen to Watch,” which I believe better reflects what cardinals today are thinking. These lists are based on my interviews with cardinals (some 50 as of this writing) about the kind of leadership the church needs, study of the cardinals both in person and through published materials and the observations of other church-watchers.

This is not my own list of favorites, but the men I believe stand the most realistic chance of being elected.

Here is the new Top Ten list (in alphabetical order, not in order of electability):

• Francis Arinze (Nigeria, 71), prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship
• Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Argentina, 66), archbishop of Buenos Aires
• Godfried Danneels (Belgium, 70), archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels
• Ivan Dias (India, 67), archbishop of Mumbai (Bombay)
• Cláudio Hummes (Brazil, 69), archbishop of Săo Paolo
• Walter Kasper (Germany, 70), president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity
• Norberto Rivera Carrera (México, 61): archbishop of México City
• Oscar Andrés Rodriguez Maradiaga (Honduras, 60): archbishop of Tegucigalpa
• Christoph Schönborn (Austria, 58), archbishop of Vienna
• Dionigi Tettamanzi (Italy, 69), archbishop of Milan

* * *

Normally, popes do not pronounce on specific political questions. The idea is that a pope is a voice of conscience supra partes, meaning above the political fray. Even when he disagrees with a particular government’s choices, he will usually voice that dissent in oblique fashion, leaving it to his aides to fill in the blanks. For the most part, for example, that was how John Paul expressed his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Every now and then, however, the papal gloves come off. Such was the case last weekend, with John Paul’s comments on Israel’s security fence.

Here are the pope’s exact words in his Sunday Nov. 16th Angelus address:

“I renew my firm condemnation for every terrorist action carried out in recent days in the Holy Land. At the same time I have to observe, unfortunately, that in these places the dynamism of peace seems to be stopped. The construction of a wall between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people is seen by many as a new obstacle on the path towards peaceful coexistence. In reality, the Holy Land does not need walls, but bridges! Without reconciliation of souls, there can be no peace.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon testily rejected the pope's intervention in an interview with Corriere della Sera, Italy's leading newspaper, noting that "the Vatican itself is surrounded by high walls."

I had the chance to ask Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., for a reaction to the pope’s words during a break at a Rome conference this week on migrants and refugees.

“I think he sees more Israelis being killed, more Palestinians being killed and thrown out of their homes, and I think he feels he has to say something about that,” McCarrick said.

McCarrick said he feels great sympathy for Israel, based in part on a long personal record of outreach to the Jewish community.

“At the same time, I think the present policies of the Israeli government have to be reviewed,” he said.

McCarrick was critical of the wall.

“It has in many circumstances caused people to lose their livelihoods,” he said. “They live on one side but work on the other, and they can’t get there. We have to come back to the table and really talk, really dialogue.”

Does McCarrick think the pope stepped across the line that separates religious leaders from politicians?

“I don’t think so,” he said. “If there is a policy that is not promoting the inherent dignity of the human person, then it’s our job to speak out.”

I asked Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See Oded Ben-Hur for comment on Nov. 19. He declined to respond to the pope’s statement, saying he has “great respect” for John Paul. He was willing, however, to talk about the way Israel sees the problem.

Bottom line: “This wall saves lives,” Ben-Hur said.

Ben-Hur argued that along the one-third of Israeli territory now covered by the wall, there have been no terrorist attacks for the last four to five months. He also said a recent suicide bombing in Jerusalem that resulted in the deaths of 22 children was carried out by a terrorist from a Palestinian village located precisely where the wall stops.

“The barrier was built to make sure that our children return from school alive and sound every day, that young and old can go on with their lives without the fear of being exploded on the bus or in the marketplace,” Ben-Hur said.

“Israel understands that this creates human discomfort and difficulties,” Ben-Hur said. “We had no other option.”

Ben-Hur said the wall would be removed as soon as a peace plan was agreed upon and the “terrorist infrastructure” in the Palestinian territories dismantled. Then, he said, the Middle East could return to its ancient vocation as a “fountain of peace and tolerance.”

* * *

I also asked McCarrick about Iraq. Does he think setting mid-2004 as a target for a U.S. pullout is a positive step?

“Oh, I think so,” he said.

“I’ve said from the very beginning that our troops are not policemen. When they’re used as policemen, they’re going to suffer casualties and they’re going to become frustrated. It’s not what they’re trained to do. The sooner we can pass that responsibility over to the Iraqi people, we’ll make progress. That’s basically what Ambassador Bremmer seems to be saying.”

I asked McCarrick what his international contacts are telling him about how American policy in Iraq is viewed overseas.

“It seems to me that we have not really explained as well as we need to why we’re there,” McCarrick said. “There is frustration in Europe over why we continue to want to be there. Of course, we don’t want to walk out and let the whole thing collapse … Maybe now we’re looking more realistically at that.”

“The post-war situation seems to be ever more threatening and worrying to people,” McCarrick said. “The sooner we can get the Iraqi people in charge of building a new nation, a new economy, a new future, the better it will be.”

* * *

One way to express the cultural gap between Rome and the Anglo-Saxon world might be to say that Anglo-Saxons cook with a microwave, Rome a crockpot. That is to say, Anglo-Saxons want immediate results, while Romans are more content to let things simmer.

This tends to make meetings in Rome especially interesting for the Anglo-Saxon contingent.

A conference on depression sponsored last week by the Pontifical Council for the Health Care Pastoral offered a case in point. The Anglo-Saxon style is to move from identification of a problem, to consideration of possible responses, to consensus on a strategy, all in one setting. Anything else feels like wasting time. The Roman approach is to talk one’s way around a problem, to consider it from all angles, and then to go home and think about it. Eventually a response will “mature.” Romans tend to smile at Anglo-Saxon impatience, and at the hubris of demanding quick solutions to long-term challenges.

An Anglo-Saxon evaluation of the Nov. 13-15 depression conference, therefore, might focus on the fact that it produced no discernible “result.” From the Roman perspective, on the other hand, that was never the point.

I sat down towards the end of the conference with Dominican Sr. Donna Markham, special assistant to the president at Georgetown University and the former director of the Southdown Institute outside Toronto, a psychiatric center for priests and nuns. Markham is a talented, energetic administrator — very much a “microwave” type — yet savvy enough to appreciate the crockpot approach. She delivered an insightful presentation about relations with the media.

Markham said that for her, the most important element of the conference was the fact that it “opened a conversation” between the Holy See and the behavioral sciences, such as psychology. This is especially important in a moment in which some church leaders have reservations about whether secular psychology rests on assumptions that may ultimately prove incompatible with Catholic theology and anthropology.

Markham identified two additional questions that seemed to run through the conference:

• Granted that depression has been around since the dawn of time, is there a greater problem today? Is it the case, as Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán suggested, that post-modern culture is itself depressing?
• How can the church give hope to this culture? Where are the building blocks of dialogue and communion?

Cardinal Ivan Dias of Mumbai (Bombay), India, delivered the conference’s final talk. Careful readers will have noted that he is on the list of “top 10” papal candidates above.

Dias’ paper was titled, “Towards a Pastoral Care of Christian Faith and Trust in Life.” He emphasized use of the Bible, openness to the movements of the Holy Spirit, and the sacraments as keys to a pastoral strategy for depressed persons.

Dias offered examples of this pastoral care, which also help illustrate his attitude towards the hot-button issues of abortion and homosexuality.

“It is an open secret that hidden and unforgiven sins easily lead a person to be depressed,” Dias said. He told the story of a priest who was counseling a depressed woman. The priest bluntly asked if she had had an abortion. After initial anger, she said yes.

“The priest led her step by step to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” Dias said. “Then he helped her to accept the child she had rejected, to love it and even to give it a name. At every step the lady became calmer and at the end was all smiles at the thought of meeting her baby one day.”

Similarly, Dias said he knew a priest who had worked with three homosexual and lesbian couples.

“For many years they had been trying to get rid of their inordinate attachments through professional counseling and through the confessional, but in vain,” Dias said. “Their problem was leading them not to death of the body, but more seriously to that of the soul. You will be glad to learn that all three cases were cured completely of their unnatural tendencies.”

Dias urged greater effort in helping those who suffer from depression.

“Pastoral care for the depressed is a must today. It must enter every home, parish, community, diocese and society at large,” he said.

* * *

The Belgian bishops are in Rome this week for their ad limina visit, and one of them brought a rather unusual subject to put on the table: the ordination of women to the diaconate.

In 2002, the International Theological Commission, the body that advises the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, examined the question of women deacons. While it did not reach a definitive conclusion, it seemed to lean heavily against the possibility. First, it held that deaconesses in the ancient Church “cannot be compared to the sacramental diaconate” today, since there is no clarity about the rite of institution that was used or what functions they exercised. Second, it said, “the unity of the sacrament of orders” is “strongly imprinted by ecclesiastical tradition, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium,” despite differences between the episcopacy and priesthood, and the diaconate.

That result built on a September 2001 notice from three Vatican offices rejecting lay-led programs ostensibly preparing women for future admission to the diaconate. “The church does not forsee such ordination,” the notice said.

Despite that, however, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, Belgium, is carrying the issue to Rome.

Vangheluwe  has long been concerned with women’s issues. In his diocesan newspaper Ministrando in October 2002, Vangheluwe appealed to priests and faithful of his diocese “to include more women in the administration, the organization and the basic movements inside the Church.” He asked parishes and church institutions to hold an “internal audit,” and offered a questionnaire. He noted that while Pope John Paul II has ruled out women priests, that leaves open the possibility of women deacons. He asked for comments to be sent to him.

By the beginning of March 2003, Vangheluwe said he got 500 responses from individuals and groups, and even from other dioceses. Some 86 percent were in favor of the diaconate for women.

Vangheluwe vowed to relay this sentiment during his meetings this week. I sat down with him at the Belgian College on Nov. 20 to talk about why he supports female deacons.

First, Vangheluwe said, is the pastoral desire to incorporate women more fully into the life of the church. Second is a theological need to focus the diaconate more on service.

“At the Last Supper, Jesus said ‘do this in memory of me’ twice,” Vangheluwe said. “The first was with the bread and wine, which became the sacrament of the Eucharist. The second was with the washing of the feet. We have forgotten somewhat about the second.”

In his diocese, Vangheluwe said, he has 80 deacons, who function as “little priests,” absorbed in liturgical roles. He would like to emphasize the service dimension, and said there’s no reason a woman can’t play that role.

In fact, Vangheluwe said he would favor a separation between the priesthood and the diaconate, so that in the ordinary course of things priests would not first be ordained deacons. Thus the distinction between the sacramental and service roles would be clear. The bishop would be both priest and deacon.

Vangheluwe, who was a pastor and seminary professor in Brugge before becoming bishop 19 years ago, said some Vatican officials with whom he’s spoken this week have been cool to his proposal, but others have encouraged him, telling him, “you have to go on.”

“I am not a rebel,” Vangheluwe said. “The pope has said no to women priests, and I agree. But for the moment [the diaconate] is a free question in the church, and all I am saying is that I want more study on this question.”

Vangheluwe said the International Theological Commission document is “not the last word.”

“As bishops, we have to say what we think,” Vangheluwe said.

Vangheluwe is not the only bishop to have raised the issue. In 1994, for example, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan said that the moment had arrived for “serious consideration” of the question of whether women could be admitted to the diaconate.

* * *

 Reflecting what he called the Catholic church’s duty to defend the world’s 175 million migrants and 40 million refugees, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has called upon Pope John Paul II to issue an encyclical letter on the subject.

He spoke at a Nov. 17-22 Rome conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees.

The proposal for an encyclical won support from participants at the conference, including the head of the migration committee for the German bishops, and Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit, a member of the pontifical council. The Vatican official in charge of migrant and refugee issues also signaled cautious backing.

“We must never be accused of being silent when refugees seek a place of haven,” McCarrick told the crowd of 300 people representing over 100 nations gathered for six days at Rome’s Augustinianum, just off St. Peter’s Square.

“May we not hope that this might be a moment to ask our Holy Father to give the church and the nations an encyclical on refugees and migrants,” McCarrick said, “so that the clarity and strength of his teaching might give light and challenge to the world at what is surely a critical time?”

Auxiliary Bishop Josef Voss of Münster, Germany, head of the German bishops’ committee on migration, seconded the idea.

“An encyclical would give us a new impulse to address the phenomenon of migration in terms of both pastoral care and political advocacy, and on a universal level,” Voss told NCR Nov. 19.

Maida likewise endorsed McCarrick’s proposal.

“I think they’re ahead of the curve in the Vatican on these issues,” Maida said. “In the U.S. we have our own experience, but it’s localized. Here they’ve got a global view. I think the Holy See could offer some very significant guidance in this area, given the wealth of experience they have to draw upon.”

As NCR went to press, the Australian bishops’ conference was also set to consider recommending the drafting of an encyclical on migrants and refugees.

Japanese Cardinal Stephen Hamao, president of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, told NCR Nov. 18 he too supports the idea.

“On migrants and refugees, the Holy Father has written many messages and apostolic letters for pastoral care, but he never wrote about the larger issues in an encyclical,” Hamao said. “We of the council, not all of us but many of us, want to have an encyclical in the future.”

Hamao told NCR that his office is currently working on a revised edition of a 1969 Vatican document, Pastoralis Migratorum Cura, which set out basic guidelines for the pastoral care of migrants and refugees. The work should be finished next year, Hamao said, and that could be the occasion for formally requesting that the pope begin work on an encyclical.

Privately, several conference participants said that it is an “open question” whether John Paul’s declining health renders such a project unrealistic, although several noted that the pope issued an encyclical letter on the Eucharist just last April. In any event, participants said, work begun in the current papacy could always be carried over into a new one.

* * *

Some of the most powerful figures in the Vatican aren’t on the payroll. They are consultors, outside experts called upon to offer opinions of particular theologians, issues or ecclesiastical situations. A trusted consultor can sometimes carry more weight than a room full of bishops.

Jesuit Fr. Karl Josef Becker of Rome’s Gregorian University, a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since Sept. 15, 1977, offers a classic example.

Becker enjoys the respect and trust of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the doctrinal congregation. More than one theologian in trouble has been advised to “go see Fr. Becker.” It is widely believed, for example, that Becker was involved in the Vatican’s investigation of fellow Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis and his work on religious pluralism.

Becker gave a rare public address on Nov. 14, when a book of essays in honor of his 75th birthday was presented at the Gregorian. The volume’s title is To Think with the Church, and Becker’s fidelity to that idea could be gauged from the fact that Ratzinger gave a talk, and sitting in the front row was Ratzinger’s chief deputy, Archbishop Angelo Amato.

In his remarks, Becker praised Ratzinger’s office.

“I wish that in the Catholic church many people could see the climate we have in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Christian and human together,” he said.

Becker then laid out six challenges facing theology.

First, Catholic theology must pick up on the great themes of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), including the relationship between pope and council, between the priesthood and the laity, between the universal church and the particular churches, as well as the grades of authority enjoyed by various church documents.

Second, theology must reflect on the universality and exclusivity of revelation, and on the descent of the Holy Spirit. Becker offered this formula on revelation: “Everything God wanted to say to the world, he said through Jesus Christ.”

Third, theology must develop as a multidisciplinary science, drawing upon exegesis, patristics, history and philosophy. Becker said careful attention must be paid to “theology of the religions.” In many cases, he said, “it does not follow the method of our Catholic theology, but is based on the study of the religions and a very emotional esteem for them.”

Fourth, Becker said, theology must move from being multidisciplinary to being interdisciplinary. At the same time, Becker said, the autonomy of theology must be preserved.

Fifth is the unity of Catholic theology. Just as the Catholic faith has one center, which is the incarnation, death and resurrection of the son of God, Becker said, so there must be one theology to explain this to the world.

Sixth, Becker said, is the problem of academic theology. Its development must be based on the exigencies of theology, he said, not those of the structures themselves.

Ratzinger thanked Becker for his “indefatigable and precious work.” He also praised his service as a teacher.

“Students need a teacher who has the courage of the truth without shadows, without wrinkles, without that constant doubt and uncertainty that is contrary to the Catholic faith,” Ratzinger said.

Finally, Ratzinger summarized his view of a theologian’s mission.

“He is never a navigator detached from the community of the Church, almost indifferent to the beating of the heart of the entire ecclesial organism,” Ratzinger said. “If it’s true that a church without theology is impoverished, theology without a church dissolves into arbitrariness. Theology is truly a science when, in the development of its subjects, the church is not something extraneous, but rather the foundation of its existence, the condition of its possibility.”

* * *

I never had the chance to reconsider Cardinal Thomas Winning of Glasgow, Scotland, as a possible papal candidate, because he died on June 17, 2001. I met him only briefly, during the October 1999 Synod on Europe. He struck me as plain-spoken and accessible, unusually so for a prince of the church. For example, one day I left him a note saying I would like to interview him; later that afternoon, he actually popped by my hotel. Sadly I was out, and missed the chance.

Now, however, there is an excellent biography of Winning that fills in the gaps. The book is This Turbulent Priest: The Life of Cardinal Winning, written by Stephen McGinty, a journalist for The Scotsman newspaper. McGinty, whose work I know to be first-rate, covered Winning and interviewed him for the biography before the cardinal’s unexpected death. It’s a compelling warts-and-all portrait.

This Turbulent Priest can be ordered on-line at

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

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