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 The Word From Rome

November 26, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 14

John L. Allen Jr.


“Even how the tables are arranged is different,” she said. “This time, we’re sitting in small groups, around tables, so we can talk with each other. Before it was like a classroom. When the Vatican organizes a congress, sometimes the impression is that they’re not serious about the outcome.”

Mercedarian Sr. Filo Hirota of Japan,
explaining the participative style of the World Congress on Consecrated Life

The World Congress on Consecrated Life; Debate over norms governing cases of priest sexual abuse reopens; Personnel changes and coming changes; Spanish cultural wars; Comments on decentralization


The World Congress on Consecrated Life; Debate over norms governing cases of priest sexual abuse reopens; Personnel changes and coming changes; Spanish cultural wars; Comments on decentralization

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A remarkable gathering is unfolding this week at Rome’s Hotel Ergife, as almost 900 women and men religious from around the world try to shape a vision for the future of consecrated life. Titled “Passion for Christ, Passion for Humanity,” the 2004 World Congress on Consecrated Life marks the first truly global joint assembly of men and women’s communities.

Of the 850 participants, 91 are from Africa, 248 from the Americas, 95 from Asia, 17 from Oceania and 399 from Europe. Women’s congregations are represented by 323 superiors general, the men’s congregations by 160. One hundred-thirteen delegates represent the Conferences of Religious; there are 17 directors of publications on the consecrated life, and 60 religious representing “young people.” There are also 114 theologians.

I sat down Nov. 23 with Benedictine Sr. Christine Vladimiroff, prioress of Mount St. Benedict Monastery in Erie, Penn., and Mercedarian Sr. Filo Hirota, coordinator for her order in Japan. I spoke separately Nov. 24 with Franciscan Sr. Vilma Speranza Quintanilla Moràn, who comes from El Salvador and serves as president of CLAR, the Confederation of Latin American Religious (representing both women and men).

“Because of the international nature of the meeting, you get a more global view of world, the church, and the place of religious life,” Vladimiroff said. She said that new friendships and possibilities for collaboration across international borders are among the fruits.

Hirota said that the mix of women and men is especially interesting.

“We do things in such a different way,” she said. “If only the men were here, the meeting would not have dance, symbols, stuff like that. We’re different, and there’s richness in our diversity.”

Hirota also applauded the collaborative, participative style of the meeting, contrasting it with another world congress she recently attended at the Ergife Hotel organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

“Even how the tables are arranged is different,” she said. “This time, we’re sitting in small groups, around tables, so we can talk with each other. Before it was like a classroom. When the Vatican organizes a congress, sometimes the impression is that they’re not serious about the outcome.”

Quintanilla Moràn said she believes one aim of the conference is “finding paths that help us to reach justice at every level -- social, political, ecclesial.”

Asked to unpack what “ecclesial justice” means, she replied that the church must be ever more “humanized, where everyone is recognized as having human rights, where everyone has a place at the table and where no one is greater or lesser, all are brothers and sisters.”

Among other things, she said, the church must tackle inequality between men and women in its internal life -- not referring, she said, to the issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood, but to the “much deeper” problem of patriarchal and chauvinistic attitudes and styles of life.

The mission of religious life today, Quintanilla Moràn said, is to be “mystically prophetic, and prophetically mystical.”

Vladimiroff challenged a couple of frequently held notions about the state of religious life today. First was the impression that consecrated life, especially in North America and Europe, is moribund.

“What I see across the United States as I travel with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is great vigor and energy,” she said. “You find congregations engaged in new ministries, not ones that require buildings and structures, but where the people are.”

As a case in point, Vladimiroff pointed to a middle school for inner-city girls in Baltimore recently opened by three women’s congregations working in collaboration. The logic, she said, is that girls in this age range are most in danger of “getting lost.”

Hirota added that the same phenomenon exists in Japan, where, for example, the Visitation Sisters near Yokohama have recently founded an “eco-house,” using wind and solar power and growing its own produce. The idea is to model environment-friendly modes of life.

Vladimiroff also said she’s not yet convinced of the frequently-cited claim that it’s more traditional communities that tend to be growing.

“I don’t have any data to say that’s the picture,” she said. “We’re given that idea by people who would not accept the way we live religious life.”

Hirota said that in Japan, there is some evidence that international communities that tend to be more progressive are struggling, while native Japanese congregations that tend to be a bit more traditional are experiencing some growth. Quintanilla Moràn said she sees the same phenomenon in Latin America.

Finally, Vladimiroff said that the sign value of this world congress might extend beyond the boundaries of consecrated life itself.

“At a time when nations aren’t getting along together, perhaps the insights and friendships between religious who operate across borders can add to our desire to live as one human family,” she said.

* * *

Two important deadlines suggest that debate over the American norms governing cases of priest sexual abuse could soon be reopened. One has already passed; Nov. 22 was the last date on which bishops could postmark case files to be sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for review, as required under the May 8, 2001, Vatican document Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, “Defense of the Most Holy Sacraments.”

Cases not submitted as of Nov. 22 will have to be handled using an administrative procedure rather than the penal sections of the Code of Canon Law, which means that their ability to impose permanent penalties, most prominently laicization, will be limited. (The deadline affects only cases already reported to bishops; cases that come to light in the future can still be sent to Rome).

Currently, two American canonists are in Rome assisting the congregation for a term of 18 months.

To date, estimates among canonists are that some 750 cases have been submitted to the congregation, and more than 500 of them have already been returned, the majority authorizing immediate action against the accused priest. In a more limited number of cases, the congregation has asked for a canonical trial, and in a few cases the congregation has ordered the priest reinstated.

All this means that the bulk of cases have already been processed on the Roman end, and hence the time for a summing-up and evaluation is approaching.

The second deadline arrives March 5, when the recognitio, or formal Vatican approval, for the American sex abuse norms expires. (It was originally given for a two-year period). Sources in the U.S. bishops’ conference told NCR that the American members of the “mixed commission,” a body composed of four U.S. bishops and four Vatican officials that originally worked out the norms, has been meeting in preparation for a new round of discussions. Vatican sources told NCR in October that the Vatican officials had also scheduled meetings. As of this writing, no date had yet been set for a meeting of the entire body.

The Vatican members of the mixed commission were Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, Colombian, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy; then-Archbishop, now Cardinal, Julian Herranz, a Spaniard, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts; then-Archbishop, now Cardinal, Tarcisio Bertone, an Italian, at the time secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, another Italian, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops. For the Americans, members were Cardinal Francis George of Chicago; Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco; Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Illinois; and Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Presumably, at least Bertone will not take part this time around, since in the interim he was named archbishop of Genoa.

It is well known that the Vatican officials who approved the American “one-strike” policy, along with provisions such as waiving the statute of limitations in canon law known as “prescription,” did so with some reluctance. Some of those officials hope the March 5 deadline will be an occasion to revisit these issues. Others in the Holy See, however, believe that by and large the American norms are working, even if they amount to imperfect law. Moreover, they argue, it would be unjust to process some cases under these standards and then change the rules. The looming discussions, therefore, promise to be interesting.

A further wrinkle is that, according to sources both in the United States and in Rome, there are a handful of instances in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has ordered a priest reinstated, but his bishop has not acted. Often, sources say, these bishops fear adverse public reaction if they return a priest to ministry who has been accused of sexual abuse. Under present policy, the congregation does not inform the priest directly of its decision, but leaves it in the hands of the bishop. Based on these cases of inaction, however, some canonists say the congregation may end up also informing the priest, so that he would at least be in a position to ask the bishop why he has not been reinstated.

American sources told NCR that in at least some cases, the congregation’s letter says the priest should be reinstated, but if this is not pastorally beneficial or could be the cause of scandal, the bishop can decide otherwise.

At a time when some Vatican officials already resent the fact that the American norms are difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the church, a perception that a few American bishops are not even playing by their own rules does not help matters. On the other hand, one can also appreciate the agonizing situation facing these bishops, trapped between the pressures of civil litigation, adverse media coverage, and, most importantly, the overriding desire to protect children and young people. Hence if the Vatican does decide to light a fire under the bishops, it will no doubt be done with more than the normal caution.

* * *

On Sunday, Nov. 21, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, received the “International Prize for Peace 2004” awarded by the Giuseppe Donati Center of Studies.

“If peace is almost synonymous with the universal common good, collective violence and war undoubtedly constitute a common evil, and, normally, an evil infinitely graver than the eventual goods and particular advantages that war can procure for the victors,” Martino said on the occasion.

War, Martino said, “has become ever more absurd and intolerable with the growth of the destructive power of arms, and the human and economic costs it imposes on the entire international community, beyond the costs for the peoples directly involved in the conflict.”

In that light, “the moment has come for humanity to bring an end once and for all to this common evil; the exigency to overcome this phase, in many ways pre-human, in our history is ever more a fundamental ethical imperative,” Martino said.

* * *

Sunday, Nov. 21, marked the installation of Paulist Fr. Gregory Apparcel as the 11th rector of Santa Susanna, the American parish in Rome. Fr. John Duffy, the president of the Paulist Fathers, celebrated the installation Mass. (Duffy was also taking part in the World Congress on Consecrated Life).

Apparcel served as the Vice Rector of Santa Susanna, a position now held by Paulist Fr. Jerry Tully, from 1996 to 2002. Afterwards, Apparcel returned to Los Angeles as Vice President of Paulist Productions, where he assisted in the research, selling and making of religious films and documentaries for television.

I asked Duffy about the Paulists’ recent summit in New Mexico, where the community made strategic plans. He told me they are committed to Santa Susanna, which is certainly good news for English-speakers in Rome. By traditional standards, Santa Susanna would probably be on the list of commitments any order these days would want to reevaluate. It has few resident families, it’s expensive, and it ties down two priests far away from the rest of the community’s apostolates. Yet as a member of the Parish Council, I know how important Santa Susanna is for English-speakers here. More broadly, Santa Susanna is a model American parish in Rome, and for anyone who believes the American experience of parish ministry has something to teach the universal church, that’s a matter of no small importance.

While I’m doling out kudos, a word of thanks is in order to Fr. Paul Robichaud, who has completed his term as rector at Santa Susanna. Much of a pastor’s work is private, and only the members of the Santa Susanna community know how much Robichaud’s wisdom and pastoral concern has meant. More visibly, however, Robichaud has been a leader on the Roman scene, offering a point of reference for churchmen, journalists, diplomats and many others. He blends a deep love for Rome and the traditions of the church with a dynamic pastoral style, thus offering a living example of how fidelity and creativity should be a both/and deal.

Robichaud will remain in Rome for the next several months for a course offered by the Congregation for Saints for promoters of causes for canonization. The Paulists may be launching a cause for their founder, Fr. Isaac Hecker, and under Robichaud’s direction it will be handled well.

* * *

Speaking of Santa Susanna, Apparcel asked me to speak to a group of parents Nov. 20 about the church’s response to HIV/AIDS, based on my travels over the summer in Kenya and Uganda.

The basic message I wanted to deliver was two-fold.

First, HIV/AIDS is one of the towering humanitarian crises of our time, and it is not going away, despite the fact that anti-retroviral treatment means that in the First World it is now a manageable illness. To cite two relevant United Nations statistics, 35.7 million adults and 2.1 million children were living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2003, and 2.9 million died from AIDS in the same year, the highest annual total ever recorded.

Second, in the public mind, about the only thing associated with the Catholic church on the subject of AIDS is its ban on condoms. Whatever one makes of that position, it is a mere footnote to the phenomenal engagement of Catholic dioceses, movements and individuals on the AIDS issue at all levels, from hospices and clinics to advocacy efforts. The Pontifical Council for Health Care estimates that 27 percent of all HIV/AIDS care in the world is administered in some way, shape or form by the Catholic church. Accusations that the church is indifferent to AIDS, or even complicit in the epidemic, are difficult to sustain given this reality.

As cases in point, I mentioned:

• A program of the South African Bishops’ Conference, drawing on support from the U.S. AIDS fund and a Danish AIDS fund called Cordaid, to provide anti-retroviral medications to some of the most highly devastated regions in the country. The plan calls for 22 points of distribution to be erected by February, serving up to 12,000 patients. The Catholic church in South Africa right now runs 118 hospices, clinics and centers for HIV/AIDS.

• Sant’Egidio’s DREAM project in Mozambique, launched in March 2002. Through a combination of volunteers and donations, and relying on low-cost generic medications, some 95 percent of more than 4,000 Mozambiquan patients under the program's care (1,700 taking the retroviral therapy) are still alive with a good quality of life after two years. Some 97 percent of children born from HIV-positive mothers do not have the disease. DREAM has had 95 percent compliance from its patients with the prescribed regime of treatment. Sant'Egidio's experience using generic drugs is that they can treat an AIDS patient with the complete antiretroviral therapy for about $800 a year, far lower than most commercial medicines.

• Nyumbani Children of God Relief Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, an orphanage for 94 HIV-positive Kenyan children founded by an American Jesuit, and run by an Irish Sister of Loreto and five Adoration Sisters of Kerala, India, along with a rotation of lay volunteers. The orphanage supplies the anti-retroviral treatment that keeps these children alive.

* * *

On Saturday, Nov. 20, my wife and I attended a dinner party at the Villa Richardson, the home of Ambassador James Nichsolon and his wife Suzanne. The occasion was a visit by Mr. and Mrs. Tom Collamore, friends of the Nicholsons. Collamore is a longtime aide to President George Bush, Senior.

I had the good fortune of being seated next to Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo, Spain’s new ambassador to the Holy See. It turns out that Dezcallar’s last job was as head of Spanish intelligence, which means that he was the man at the center of Spain’s response to the March 11 Madrid bombings, widely regarded as a critical factor in tipping the Spanish elections three days later to Socialist challenger (now Prime Minister) Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Dezcallar de Mazarredo jokingly said he thought that after such a pressure-cooker job, serving as ambassador to the Vatican would be comparatively relaxing. Instead, he arrived just as Zapatero’s government began pushing a series of social measures on divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage and funding of Catholic education that have collectively created a crisis in church/state relations in Spain.

Though no formal announcement has been made, it’s widely known that the Nicholsons will shortly be returning to the United States, and several people at the dinner party expressed thanks to the couple for their service and their generosity since arriving in 2001. Probably no ambassador ever served during a more dramatic time in U.S./Vatican relations, since Nicholson’s term coincided with the sexual abuse crisis, the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and an American presidential election in which both the Catholic vote and the Catholic status of one of the candidates loomed large. Word about a successor is expected sometime soon.

* * *

Some observers believe the trouble in Spain began, like many conflicts, almost by accident. Just as World War I grew out of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, so the battle between Spanish Catholics and Socialists grew from another seemingly localized act of violence, in this case, the March 11 bombings in Madrid. That act propelled Zapatero and the Socialists to an unexpected victory. Lacking a fully developed blueprint for economic or structural reforms, some Spanish observers say, the Socialists fell back on that time-honored principle: “Do something from the left.” Tinkering with social policy is, in one sense, relatively cheap, and so Zapatero decided to move quickly on abortion, divorce, gay marriage, and the legal status of confessional schools, in order to satisfy the core constituencies who elected him.

Hence, these observers believe, there was no calculated strategy to enrage Spanish Catholicism; it just sort of happened.

Now, Spain is in the grip of a church/state showdown. One Spanish colleague told me Spain today is in the same place it was in 1936; that is, a battle zone where a looming world war is taking shape, with both sides trying out their armaments. In this case, however, it’s a cultural rather than military war, where the weapons are ideological and political.

A recent flash point in the European culture wars has been the case of Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian politician blackballed as the new European minister of justice after voicing traditional Catholic views on abortion, gay marriage and the role of women. Buttiglione commented this week on his experience.

“On the European left,” Buttiglione said, “there is a tendency to affirm a new civil religion according to which it’s not permitted to have ethical convictions. Democracy [according to this view] is based on relativism, without any distinction between good and evil. … My case seems to signal that Catholics now are prohibited from the exercise of public offices in the European Union for the mere fact of being Catholics.”

* * *

I had the chance to have coffee this week with Mary Ann Glendon, who was in town for a meeting of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard, is a well-known Catholic writer and a frequent participant in Vatican events; she led the Holy See’s delegation, for example, at the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing. She was also the respondent to my “Common Ground” lecture last June at the Catholic University of America.

Glendon was recently named the President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and given her dynamism, is already gearing up for the 2006 plenary assembly, which will be dedicated to “inter-generational solidarity,” a fancy way of saying the focus will be on young people. She hopes the 2006 session might offer elements for an eventual papal encyclical on the subject.

Glendon wants to cast a wide net in terms of expertise, inside and outside the Catholic Church, and is also interested in generating a conversation that will range far beyond the membership of her academy. Given that few questions these days trouble the average Catholic more than how to transmit the faith to young generations, this will definitely be a fascinating project to watch take shape.

* * *

Last week I wrote about “who’s in charge” in the Vatican, and said that despite the pope’s ill health, the decentralized nature of the Catholic Church means that a papal slow-down does not automatically generate the need for a “vice-pope.”

That column triggered a number of responses from readers who feel that John Paul’s pontificate has been strongly centralizing. One of the most thoughful came from Richard Gaillardetz, a theologian at the University of Toledo whose ground-breaking work in ecclesiology and the theology of the magisterium has earned him a reputation as his generation’s Francis Sullivan.

Gaillardetz wrote:

I wish to respond to an observation you made in your recent column that the Catholic church is, in fact, remarkably decentralized and that "the vast majority of decisions that shape the daily lives of Catholics are made at the local level, from parish budgets to school curricula."

In terms of organizational structure there may be some truth to this observation, but in important areas of church life this papacy has in fact encouraged a re-centralization of authority unprecedented since Pope Pius XII. For example, your reference to "school curricula" is accurate only if your comparison is to the 1940's when the Index was still alive and well, imprimaturs were commonly required of many theological and catechetical texts and the Baltimore Catechism reigned. On the other hand, we are experiencing at the local level much more control over catechetical materials from the higher levels of the hierarchy than during the pontificate of Paul VI and the first decade or so of this pontificate.

Just recently I spoke to faculty members of a Catholic high school who were complaining about the local bishop's intrusion into their decisions about theology textbooks. The bishop's intervention was, in turn, a direct consequence of the more aggressive criticism of high school theology textbooks being made by the USCCB committee on the implementation of the catechism. The concern of the bishops' committee, in turn, reflects the agenda of a number of Vatican officials.

Recent Vatican interventions regarding the liturgical life of the church provide an even more significant example of increased centralization of ecclesiastical authority affecting ‘the daily lives of Catholics.’ Here in the U.S. there is a widespread frustration over the recent crackdown on liturgical practice and a perception of either Vatican ignorance or arrogant disregard concerning the pastoral implications of the new norms and the defective liturgical theology that some of them presuppose.

I have no doubt that these instances of intrusion into the life of the local church by "higher authority" are welcomed by some as a necessary corrective to abuse. However, many local church leaders (including not a few bishops) believe that any abuses in the liturgy and purported defects in catechetical materials that do exist are not sufficiently widespread nor sufficiently threatening to "the unity of faith and communion" to have merited such heavy handed interventions.

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

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