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 The Word From Rome

December 3, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 15

John L. Allen Jr.


"The great gift of the Catholic church to ecumenism is its understanding and experience of being church. We receive gifts, but that gift is absolutely crucial to the future of Christianity in the world today. For many of our fellow Christians it can be quite difficult, but more and more in this global village they are seeing very important aspects [of Catholic ecclesiology] which offer something that they need."

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
on ecumenism

Note from John L. Allen Jr.
For the rest of December, I will be on a writing retreat trying to finish the manuscript for my Opus Dei book. Hence this will be the last "Word from Rome" for 2004. A hearty "Merry Christmas" and best wishes for good beginnings in 2005.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor on ecumenism; Mega-trends in global Catholicism; Revising sex abuse norms; The Holy See and the Legionaries of Christ; Diplomacy in the cause of religious freedom


Over the weekend of Nov. 26-27, I was in London doing research for my forthcoming book on Opus Dei. The Archdiocese of Westminster is important, since it was here in 1981 that the late Cardinal Basil Hume issued guidelines for Opus Dei reflecting what he called "the traditional instincts and spirituality of our people" - requiring that members be 18, that parents be notified when young people join, that members be free to leave and to choose spiritual directors outside Opus Dei, and that Opus Dei activities carry clear indications of their sponsorship. Many took the guidelines as a rebuff, although Hume wrote that they "must not be seen as a criticism of the integrity of the members of Opus Dei or of their zeal in promoting their apostolate."

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Among other things, I wanted to talk with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Hume's successor, to see how things stand with the 500-some members of Opus Dei in England today. To make a long story short, Murphy-O'Connor's response was this: "I'm very content to have Opus Dei in the diocese."

I also took advantage of my time with Murphy-O'Connor, 72, to talk about one of the great passions of his career - ecumenism, the effort to reunite the divided Christian family. It's long been a special concern of the small English Catholic minority, living cheek-by-jowl with a preponderant Anglican majority. Murphy-O'Connor recently gave a major address in Rome at a conference marking the 40th anniversary of Unitatis redintegratio, the document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on ecumenism.

In that address, Murphy-O'Connor named as enemies of ecumenism"suspicion, inertia, and impatience." In our interview, Murphy-O'Connor was adamant about the Catholic church's commitment to Christian unity.

"As I have often said, ecumenism is a road with no exit," he said.

At the same time, Murphy-O'Connor was not na´ve about the frustrations and disappointments that have marked the ecumenical landscape in recent years.

"There was great hope after the council that we'd be united soon with the Anglicans and with the Orthodox," he said. "That obviously has not happened. The latter especially has been, I imagine, a great disappointment for the pope."

Today, "there is a certain blockage, a kind of landing stage, from which we have to dive off again."

Interestingly, Murphy-O'Connor suggested that an overly swift realization of full, structural unity might not have been an unmixed blessing.

"If we'd gone too quickly towards full communion with the Anglicans, we'd almost certainly be in greater difficulty now," he said. "There would probably be groups seceding over women's ordination and now the question of homosexuality."

Where does ecumenism go from here?

"We are not going back on the aim of full communion, but we never know when it will be achieved," he said. In the interim, "The challenge is to recognize the partial communion we have. There's a need for conversion of heart, not only by them but also by us."

What does Murphy-O'Connor make of the Holy See's contribution?

"In the ecumenical field under Cardinals Bea, Willebrands, Cassidy and Kasper [presidents of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity], we've had exceptional leadership. Most bishops would not be as far along without the encouragement and guidance of that council. We should be very grateful."

Playing the devil's advocate, I pressed Murphy-O'Connor to explain what the Catholic church "gets" from ecumenism. I was in Russia, I said, for the return of the icon of the Madonna of Kazan, the latest in a long line of magnanimous gestures from John Paul II that didn't seem to elicit much reciprocity from the Orthodox. Meanwhile parts of the Anglican Communion are moving away from Roman Catholicism on moral questions, and the church is losing ground to Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians in many parts of the world. Shouldn't we be emphasizing apologetics and evangelization, I asked provocatively, rather than ecumenism?

"I think there's simply no going back," Murphy-O'Connor said.

"We have got to equip our people to defend themselves, but if you are formed as a Catholic, you recognize the unique gifts of the Catholic church without denying that other Christians have gifts to share with us."

From a faith perspective, in other words, one must take the high road.

"If I didn't think the Holy Spirit was in this," he said reflectively, "I would probably go the other way."

Moreover, Murphy-O'Connor argued, a Catholic retreat from ecumenism would impoverish the conversation.

"The great gift of the Catholic church to ecumenism is its understanding and experience of being church," he said. "We receive gifts, but that gift is absolutely crucial to the future of Christianity in the world today. For many of our fellow Christians it can be quite difficult, but more and more in this global village they are seeing very important aspects [of Catholic ecclesiology] which offer something that they need."

"The Windsor Report said precisely this, that the Anglican Communion needs new instruments of authority," Murphy-O'Connor said, referring to the recent Anglican report on the crisis created by the consecration of an openly gay Episcopalian bishop in the United States.

"Are our partners listening?" Murphy-O'Connor asked rhetorically. "Sometimes not overtly, but they are."

"Thirty to forty years," he smiled, "is not much in the life of the church."

Murphy-O'Connor argued that the choice for ecumenism is about more than tactics or cost/benefit analyses.

"The purpose is to deepen the partial communion that we share. We cannot not do that if we want to respond to the will of the Lord."

I asked Murphy-O'Connor about a debate that has been unfolding recently in "Word from Rome" about whether it's ecumenically helpful to call Evangelical and Pentecostal movements in Latin America "sects."

"Whether it's helpful or unhelpful," he said, "it's a pity the Catholic church didn't take a leaf out of their books. We could form small communities in these villages where there's no priest, as has been done in Africa. There could be a chief catechist to form these people. It would have been a counter-action."

As for the nomenclature itself, Murphy-O'Connor said he was fairly indifferent, noting that in England the more politically correct term is "house church."

He said he detected a slightly greater ecumenical openness among these groups.

"Slowly some of them are coming around," he said. "The Baptists, for example, are better than they used to be."

Finally, I asked Murphy-O'Connor about Anglican/Catholic relations, especially in light of the recent crisis, which has generated soul-searching over authority.

"The Anglicans are showing that they need to go outwards inwards," he said. "They are fantastic on consultation, but within this consultation, how do you eventually define things?"

"The Catholic church, on the other hand, has got to go inwards outwards. We need to work on collegiality, the pope together with the bishops cum et sub Petro."

In that regard, Murphy-O'Connor said, the Catholic church may have something to learn.

"Consultation is not done just by meetings, but by really listening. That's a very important exercise, particularly in today's world. It's got to be reflected at the parish, diocesan, and universal levels."

* * *

Murphy-O'Connor is generally regarded as one of the more charming members of the College of Cardinals, in part because he belies the image of a "Prince of the Church" lacking the common touch. As one case in point, our appointment had originally been schedule for 4:00 pm on Saturday afternoon, but I was notified when I got to the UK that it had to be bumped back slightly. The reason? The cardinal wanted to watch the England and Australia rugby match that afternoon.

As proof of his graciousness, he was in good spirits for our hour-and-a-half conversation despite the fact that England lost a hard-fought match, 21-19, to its archrivals from Down Under.

* * *

I was in Baltimore on Monday, Nov. 29, at the invitation of both Catholic Relief Services, the official international relief and development agency of the U.S. Catholic community, and the staff of the Social Development and World Peace Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to give a series of talks.

For the Social Development and World Peace Committee, I outlined three mega-trends in global Catholicism that might merit reflection.

o The Rise of the South: Today almost three-quarters of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics live in the developing world, one-half of them in Latin America alone. Numbers alone, however, are not the whole story. The south is where Catholicism is growing, and there is a remarkable vitality and self-confidence about the church in the developing world. Increasingly, Manila and Lagos will be centers of theological energy to rival Rome and Paris. Further, priests from the developing world will be arriving in growing numbers in Europe and the United States in an inversion of the old donum fidei process. Much of this is described in Philip Jenkins' valuable book The Next Christendom.

What will this mean?

For one thing, it may push social issues higher on the church's radar screen, since underdevelopment, HIV/AIDS, systemic corruption and the development of civil society are pastoral urgencies facing bishops from the south. It could also mean greater pressure for "inculturation," meaning allowing the church in different parts of the world to express itself through the local culture.

On the other hand, it could mean that some long-standing concerns in the West will increasingly occupy a back burner, such as gender equity in the church, the deconstruction of clericalism and debates over sexual morality. Further, the tendency is towards conservative stances on issues such as homosexuality, as witnessed by the current crisis in the Anglican Communion.

o Identity Pressures: The phrase "the politics of identity" comes out of secular political science, and it describes a strategy adopted by minority groups when facing a hostile majority. The minority resists assimilation by accenting traditional dress, language, and ritual. Today an increasing number of Christians feel that secularity itself represents a hostile majority vis-Ó-vis Christianity, and are drawn to an unapologetic assertion of identity. This reality means, among other things, that devotional practices such as the rosary and Eucharistic adoration, doctrines such as limbo and papal primacy, and the sacrament of individual confession - all matters that distinguish Catholicism from other branches of Christianity, from other religions, and from secular modernity - are likely to draw increasing interest. People who work on justice issues in the church, therefore, could face growing pressure to articulate why and how work on the death penalty, or Darfur, or the environment does not detract from the traditional mission of the church, which is spiritual and evangelical.

o Commodification of spirituality: Today spiritual offerings are increasingly tailored to the consumer preferences of niche groups. Liturgical traditionalists, charismatics, peace-and-justice activists and liberal reformers all have their own publications, conferences, even movements and parishes in most dioceses. Catholics who move in one circle can sometimes go through life never interacting with someone from another. In light of an ecclesiology of communion, this is problematic. All sectors of life in the church, including those in the social apostolate, will have to strive to carve out spaces where conversation can happen.

* * *

Vatican approval for the American sex abuse norms, granted for a two-year period, expires in March, and plans are taking shape for talks between the U.S. bishops and the Holy See around their renewal.

When a mixed commission was formed in October 2002, to revise the norms the bishops had adopted at Dallas, its members from the Vatican were: Cardinal Dario Castrillˇn Hoyos, a Colombian and 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.

Bishops' conference sources tell NCR that Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, who serves as chair of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, has been added to the U.S. group. Sulpician Fr. Ron Witherup, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the major umbrella group in America for men's religious communities, will accompany them as a consultant.

On the Vatican side, the expectation is that Archbishop Angelo Amata, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, will take Bertone's place. An official from the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life is also expected to take part, in order that the conversation will also encompass religious orders. No date has yet been set for a meeting, which does not seem likely before January.

* * *

Several readers have written asking about recent signs of approval from the Holy See for the Legionaries of Christ and their founder, Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. Among other things, the pope recently entrusted to the Legionaries the administration of an important church institution in the Holy Land, Jerusalem's Notre Dame Center. He approved the statutes the Regnum Christi movement, a lay branch of the Legionaries. A top Vatican official ordained 59 new Legionaries of Christ priests from 10 countries in a Rome ceremony. By letter, John Paul II also congratulated Maciel for 60 years of "intense, generous and fruitful priestly ministry." The pope said he wanted to join in the "canticle of praise and thanksgiving" for the great things he has accomplished and said Maciel has always been concerned with the "integral promotion of the person."

What should one make of all this, readers have asked, in light of charges from several former members of the Legionaries of Christ that they were sexually abused by Maciel, charges documented in the book Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II by American journalists Jason Berry and Gerry Renner?

I think the only honest answer is that the pope and his senior aides obviously do not believe the charges.

I've discussed the case with people in the Holy See, and not everyone is prepared to dismiss out of hand the claims documented in the Berry and Renner book. Most Vatican officials, however, believe the evidence is old and ambiguous, and in any event they say it would not surpass the burden of reasonable doubt in a court of law. Absent a "smoking gun," and given what they regard as the fruits of Maciel's priestly career and the community he founded, they don't see a basis for action.

It's not for me to say whether these conclusions are justified. But from a descriptive point of view, it's not a matter of the pope or the Vatican being ill-informed. They are well aware of the material Berry and Renner have collected, and support Maciel and the Legionaries despite it.

The Legionaries are present in 20 countries, counting 500 priests and 2,500 seminarians.

* * *

On Friday, Dec. 3, the United States Embassy to the Holy See hosted the last in a series of conferences marking the 20th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See. The topic was "Religious Freedom: The Cornerstone of Human Dignity," and the highest profile speaker from the Vatican side was Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, secretary for relations with states, in effect the Vatican's foreign minister.

Lajolo offered an overview of the Vatican's diplomatic activity around issues of religious freedom.

He noted that this diplomacy unfolds first of all in bilateral relations with specific states, one motive of which is to ensure the freedom of the Catholic church in those states. Concordats with states, he said, have two aims: 1) to ensure freedom of cult, jurisdiction and association for the Catholic church; 2) to open areas of cooperation with civil authorities in education and charity. Lajolo argued that these concordats often set precedents for subsequent agreements with other confessions. This happened in Italy after the 1984 revision of the concordat, when the Waldensians later signed a similar deal.

Lajolo then turned to multilateral diplomacy, meaning activity in organizations such as the United Nations, and through international legal conventions. In this context, Lajolo made two interesting revelations about recent Vatican interventions.

In the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Philippines proposed a draft resolution this year on cooperation between the U.N. and world religions. The Holy See signaled openness to the idea, Lajolo said, as long as the U.N. doesn't get involved in inter-religious dialogue, as this must remain "the exclusive competence of the religious authorities."

Lajolo also said that at a recent meeting in Geneva of the implementation commission for the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Tolerance, the Vatican pressed for "Christianophobia" to be condemned alongside Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

"In fact, it should be recognized that the war against terrorism, even though necessary, had as one of its side-effects the spread of "Christianophobia" in vast areas of the globe, where, wrongly, Western civilization or certain political strategies of Western countries, are considered to be determined by Christianity, or at least not separated from it," Lajolo said.

John Hanford, the State Department's Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, offered an overview of the international situation, focusing on the State Department's list of "Countries of Particular Concern" for violations of religious freedom. Hanford said it's known informally as the "bad boys list."

Hanford cited some areas of progress in the world. He cited a standing joke that "the only countries that come off the CPC list are ones we invade," citing gains on religious freedom in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He also said, however, that Turkmenistan recently overhauled a restrictive scheme that recognized only Sunni Islam and Orthodox Christianity. Soon, he said, the Catholic church will be legally recognized. Further, he said, the new coalition government in India has taken strong stands against anti-Muslim and anti-Christian extremism.

Hanford then focused on abuses in the eight "bad boy" countries currently on the State Department list: Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudia Arabia and Vietnam.

Hanford said that China has given him three reasons for refusing to move forward on diplomatic relations with the Vatican: objections to the canonizations of Chinese martyrs in 2000 on Oct. 1, the Chinese national day; the fact that the Holy See has diplomatic relations with Taiwan; and that China is awaiting a "gesture" from the church.

Hanford said the situation in Eritrea is "going downhill faster than almost anywhere else in the world." Some 200 Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, are currently imprisoned, some held in metal shipping containers in the desert. In this regard, Hanford said, he appreciated a pastoral letter of 2001from the Eritrean Catholic bishops calling for social justice and human dignity.

In Burma, Hanford said, Christian children from the Chin ethnic minority are sometimes kidnapped and forced into Buddhist monasteries, held away from their parents.

Saudi Arabia legally recognizes only Wahabi Islam, which means Hanford said, that "the first victims of the lack of religious liberty are other Muslims." Hanford said he has pressed the Saudi government for greater access to priests for the some half-million Catholics in the country, mostly migrant workers from places such as the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam. Currently there is not a single church in the country, and priests cannot operate openly. The government "turns a blind eye" to their presence, Hanford said, "but this is not real religious freedom."

Hanford said the message of the American government to victims of religious persecution is, "We will not forget them, and we will never abandon their cause."

Other speakers included Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, director of the AsiaNews agency; Kevin Hasson, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger, negotiator for the Holy See in relations with the Israeli government; Jesuit Fr. Daniel Madigan of the Gregorian University; and Deal Hudson, the outgoing publisher of Crisis magazine.

* * *

I had the chance to speak with Hanford, a Presbyterian from North Carolina, after the conference ended. I wanted to press him on Iraq, since despite legal recognition of religious liberty, many Christians say the situation on the ground is worse today than under Saddam Hussein.

"Right now, while there is a certain degree of chaos as the country adjusts to a new status, moving towards democracy and a much greater degree of freedom, there are a number of serious problems," Hanford said. "Individual agents are able to target certain segments of society, including certain religious groups." This violence, he stressed, is not just anti-Christian, but also Muslim-on-Muslim.

Hanford said that anti-Christian pressures arise from a variety of factors. In the south, Shi'ite radicals have attacked Christians, forcing them to close businesses the radicals find objectionable such as liquor stores and video rental services; in the center, Sunni insurgents have kidnapped and killed Christians, and are believed to be responsible for a string of church bombings; in zones of the north, Kurds have intimidated Christians and forced them to leave.

Ultimately, Hanford argued, solving the problem of anti-Christian outbreaks in Iraq is tied to the larger challenge of restoring security.

I also asked him exactly what "gesture" the Chinese government is expecting from the Vatican. He said this was unclear, but there are indications it might involve an apology for the canonizations.

He noted that John Paul II has already offered the Chinese an apology for historical errors of members of the church, and said he had told Chinese authorities that this was "an extraordinary gesture that should be appreciated for the magnanimousness it represented."

Given the fact that China is still arresting religious dissidents, I asked, is the Western policy of "constructive engagement," focused especially on trade, morally coherent?

"We ultimately will advance the human rights of Chinese citizens by working with China to liberalize its policies wherever it is willing," he said. While acknowledging that there is no "pure position," Hanford added that, "Many beleaguered and persecuted Chinese passionately believe it is in the interests of their communities for the world to establish better relations with China."

* * *

For the rest of December, I will be on a writing retreat trying to finish the manuscript for my Opus Dei book. Hence this will be the last "Word from Rome" for 2004. A hearty "Merry Christmas" and best wishes for good beginnings in 2005.

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

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