Rome Diary 42

Robert Blair Kaiser
The following is the text of a private email newsletter that has been circulating on the internet from veteran Rome correspondent, Robert Blair Kaiser. It was previously posted on the Catholic Telecommunications Discussion Board but we have now received permission from the author to include it as an opinion piece in the news. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily the views of Catholic Telecommunications News but we believe, given the position that Mr Kaiser holds in the world of media, they will garner attention and they give important insights into what is happening at the highest levels in the Church. This is particularly so when read in conjunction with other commenators such as the conservative commentator, George Weigel. There is a growing consensus amongst commentators that the world has not understood the "political" position of Pope John Paul II at all well. Weigel argues in his biography of Pope John Paul, Witness to Hope, and other places that part of the problem in understanding this Pope is that we keep viewing him through the "political lense" or paradigm within which we do most of our thinking in the West today. Everything has a "political" tinge to it. Pope John Paul is trying to move the world out of this "political" paradigm. There are some things that simply cannot be properly evaluated within the constraints of the "left-right", French Chamber of Deputies political paradigm. The views Robert Kaiser is expressing in this newsletter are of significant interest when evaluated outside a "political" context also. What is of additional interest in this article is the observation that the Pope is conscious of the inability of the Church to penetrate the communication difficulties being experienced in the affluent, educated, socially sophisticated sectors of the world.

Robert Blair Kaiser covered Vatican II for Time Magazine, worked on the religion beat for The New York Times, and served as journalism chairman at the University of Nevada Reno. Two of his ten published books deal with Vatican II: Pope, Council and World and The Politics of Sex and Religion. Kaiser won the Overseas Press Club Award in 1963 for the "best magazine reporting of foreign affairs" -- for his reporting on the Vatican Council. Editors at three newspapers have nominated him for Pulitzer Prizes. Since the fall of 1999, Kaiser has been a contributing editor in Rome for Newsweek magazine. Under contract with Alfred A. Knopf, he is writing a book there on the future of the Church. He is also under contract with CBS Television News (in the U.S.) to provide color commentary for that network's coverage of the next conclave.

Robert Kaiser is presently undertaking a lecture tour -- "An Agenda for the New Papacy: Two Views" -- in the United States with fellow Vatican correspondent, John Allen, who covers the Vatican for The National Catholic Reporter. Details of the lecture tour and further biographical informaton about Mr Kaiser can be found at:

The currents blowing in the Vatican

Well, the pope seems to be getting it. Even better, he is not loath to share his new perception with members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This is Cardinal Josef Ratzinger's office at the Vatican, formerly known as The Holy Office, and, before that The Holy Office of the Inquisition.

What do I mean by "getting it?"

In remarks on Friday, Jan. 18 that were addressed to a meeting of the CDF, the pope told its members that they haven't been doing a very good job of getting their message across. And he asked them to try doing better in this regard. This is a fairly novel idea. In the past, the CDF has leaned strongly on "pronouncements." The Faith, in its purest, most univocal formulations. Believe what we say or be damned.

Pope John Paul II
What did the pope actually say? He observed that the CDF's work had encountered "difficulties of reception." You have to have a little background to unpack this remark. In fact, you'd better have a lotta background to understand the pope's entire, 1,000-word address. What the Holy Father was driving at was this: that too many folks out there are simply disagreeing with the CDF's take on reality, and that members of the CDF would do better if they paid more attention to their audience. As delicately and as diplomatically as he could, he also said members the CDF didn't understand the mass media, didn't act as if they knew what century they were living in, and didn't know how to translate the Gospel in terms that contemporaries can comprehend.

How did the pope suggest they do that? By leaning more on the world's bishops. In his speech, the pope used the word "collaboration" five times. i.e., the CDF had to work together with the world's bishops.

If the pope wrote this talk, or even if he only read it carefully before he delivered it, I believe it represents a radical shift in his papacy. For most of his almost 23 years in office, John Paul II has rubber-stamped the centralizing moves of his own Roman Curia, and downplayed the role of his own bishops. During the worldwide synod of bishops in October 2001, however, the pope heard dozens of bishops urging, in one way or another, that the pope had to encourage that collaboration. (Many of the bishops used a word made popular at Vatican II: "collegiality.") Now, at last, during the waning moments of his stewardship over the Church, the pope seems to be giving signs that he understands what the Fathers of Vatican II (and his now-bishops) mean when they say that the Church has to engage all Christians (and this includes the bishops who are Christians) in the work of translating the Gospel to the 21st century.

But why was the pope doing this now, in January 2002? God only knows who the pope is most listening to these days. The Holy Spirit? Of course. But normally the Holy Spirit works through the agency of others. My guess: that Cardinal Walter Kasper has succeeded in explaining to the Holy Father that people are paying less and less attention to whatever comes out of the Vatican, and, correspondingly, as little attention to what is coming from the Holy Father's own lips. I suspect that Kasper knows the people have become deafened to the Church's teachings, largely because the CDF keeps making power moves that are ill-suited to the age, and not very much in keeping with the laws of love laid down in the Gospel.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
In its issue of April 19, 2001, America magazine published an editorial, "Due Process in the Church," came that close to calling for an end to the CDF. The editorial said, "The inquisitorial methods of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are out of date and do not respect human rights. They should be dismantled without delay. There is enough intelligence in the Catholic community, created and sustained by God's Spirit, to find better ways to safeguard the faith." Cardinal Ratzinger, my spies tell me, was offended, and said so. For their candor, the editors of America magazine were sent to the woodshed, and told to go easy on the CDF.

Last week, after the CDF held its annual meeting with all its members and consultors, Cardinal Ratzinger bragged to the Holy Father on the recent work of the CDF. He cited investigations of theologians Jacques Dupuis, Marcel Vidal and Reinhard Messner as examples of "a fertile collaboration between the magisterium of the church and theologians." But if you ask the men who came under the eye of the modern Inquisition (Dupuis, Vidal and Messner) how "fertile" the "collaboration" was during their ordeals, I think they would hold their noses in loathing. But maybe fertile was exactly the right word: horse manure is fertile. But it stinks. (There are a number of yet-unnamed theologians who are now facing similar secret, stinking star-chamber proceedings by the CDF.)

My guess is that Kasper, the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity since he got his Red Hat last February, is the one man most likely to be getting through to the pope. I should talk to Kasper (and will when I get back to Rome after some medical ordeals in the U.S.). But I have two clues: 1) Kasper has been virtually the only cardinal who has publicly argued with Cardinal Ratzinger's position that the papacy (read "the Roman Curia") takes precedence over the world's bishops, even though, as Kasper has pointed out, the Church had bishops before it had a papacy, 2) a curious recent interview with Kasper in the monthly Inside the Vatican by its editor, Robert Moynihan, one of orthodoxy's self-appointed pit bulls. In this particular piece, Moynihan was playing the role of Inquisitor General, chivvying Kasper into declaring that he is loyal to the Church's teaching (despite Moynihan's suspicions to the contrary). Read Inside the Vatican every month, and you will be convinced that Kasper is walking on thin theological ice.

Cardinal Walter Kasper
More likely, I think, Kasper is walking on a glacier that is two hundred feet thick. (I like this metaphor, because glaciers are generally on the move, aren't they, as I think Church teaching has to be.) In fact, I have heard rumors from more than one sector in Rome that Kasper has been given encouragement to go after Ratzinger by none other than the pope himself. A veteran Vatican watcher has to pour a lot of salt on rumors like this, which are too good to be true. And, as my Nannie used to caution me, "When something is good to be true, then it probably isn't." But if that rule always applied, then what would Catholics do about the doctrine of the Real Presence? At this point, I would have to say that I doubt very much that Walter Kasper would write so publicly as he has in an effort to rein in Ratzinger without the encouragement of the pope himself.

On the other hand, Ratzinger and his reactionary bunch inside the Vatican are going about many things in their usual, dunderheaded way. In other words, in the winter of 2002, the right wing prelates in the Roman Curia do not look like they are reined in. Rather, they seem to have the pope reined in.

Last week, to cite one example, the Vatican "solved" the problem of a traditionalist group in Brazil by simply giving them what amounts to their own independent diocese. This group, called the Society of St. John Vianney -- 28 priests in Campos, Brazil, who are followers of the schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefevbre, and their 15,000-plus congregation -- insist that the vernacular liturgy, and, indeed, most of the settlements of Vatican II, were grave errors that are destroying the Church, and they have been going it on their own for at least a decade. What was the Curia's solution? To send Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Vatican's congregation for the clergy, to the cathedral in Campos on Jan.18 to lift the ex-communication of this rebel group and give them their own apostolic administrator, a man who was consecrated a bishop by four schismatic Lefevbrite bishops in 1991, but who now enjoys the rights and powers of a diocesan bishop. Leading members of the hierarchy in Brazil told the National Catholic Reporter that they weren't consulted about the deal.

To cite another example, this week, in Assisi, the pope will host more than 300 leaders from all the major world religions to pray for peace. Trouble is, they won't be asked to pray together. Members of each of the world's faiths will go off on Jan. 24 to their own assigned nooks in the city of St. Francis (who once prayed for peace together with the Moslem leader, Saladin, during the Third Crusade (or was it the Fourth?) to pray to their own gods. (I am not making this up.)

There's a history here. The reactionaries in the Vatican have groused for over a decade about a similar inter-faith prayer meeting held in Assisi under the sponsorship of Pope Wojtyla. Their reason: that members of other religions do not have "the fullness of the faith." Is that a good reason? You decide.

The Assembly in Assisi last week
Photo courtesy:
CNS by Max Rossi,
Catholic Press Photo
And why should you decide? Because I believe that you, my estimated 10,000 readers, represent a pretty good cross section of the Church. So, if most of you think Ratzinger and his bunch are wrong on this, then you may be right. I am not saying Church teachings are now determined by a popular vote. I will go way back in ancient and modern history, however, to remind you about the doctrine of reception.

There's a common misperception among many members of the secular press (and even among some Catholics), that the pope and his priests (often called "the hierarchy") tell the faithful what to believe and that the faithful gulp and say, "Okay, if you say so."

Theologically and historically, the reality is (or ought to be) just the opposite: the hierarchy's role is to confirm what the people believe. There are numerous examples of this down through the history of the Church. We can go all the way back to the Arian heresy of the fourth century (a pope was on the heretical side of that controversy and the people on the side of orthodoxy).

Or we can recall how, in 1950, when Pius XII was considering a rare, ex-cathedra statement on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, he first polled all the bishops in the world and asked them what their people believed regarding Mary's "ascension into heaven, body and soul." Only after he got the results of that poll did he go ahead and declare that the Assumption was "of faith." He didn't say Christians had to believe it. He said this is what Christians believe.

Or we can cite the birth control controversy of the 1960s, when a majority of Catholics did not receive Pope Paul VI's ban on contraception. The pope had just turned his back on his 75-person commission of experts to re-assert the intrinsic evil of making love without making babies. And the people weren't buying the pope's reasons. Neither were roughly a third of the world's bishops, according to a meticulous study by Joseph Selling, an American moral theologian from Louvain. (It was his doctoral dissertation.) Another third of the bishops felt they had to re-interpret the pope's remarks. Well, they weren't just "remarks," I guess. They were contained in a encyclical called Humanae Vitae. A third of the world's bishops, as far as Selling could tell, accepted the pope's reasoning. (His batting average with the bishops ­ only .333 ­ depressed him; he would never write another encylical.)

John Paul II has chosen to push that teaching, and even made his position on birth control a litmus test for any appointments to the episcopacy. Even so, the vast majority of Catholic couples, according to polls in the western world at least, have made a conscientious decision in this regard and dissented from the pope's position. Some conservative commentators charge that these couples are simply disobedient. Others disagree. They say this provides us with a good contemporary example of a papal teaching that has not been "received" by the people of God. In which case, some commentators say, this is not a "teaching" at all. A bell is no bell 'til you ring it. A song is no song 'til you sing it.

And so, I am frankly puzzled about John Paul II's use last week of the term "reception". It's a term that I have often heard from theologians of different schools of thought, but never from this pope. As a born optimist, I'd like to think the pope has come to a sudden insight about the intent of Vatican II ­ to give the Church back to the people.

I do not think John Paul II wants to go that far. The Church is not a democracy, you know. Tee hee.

But get this: he was telling members of the CDF last week that they have been pushing doctrine that isn't being received. And why not received? The pope said the CDF's style left something to be desired. But the pope's talk itself was hardly a model of clarity. It was couched in Vatican-speak, with an over-use of nouns, and few active verbs, so that no one can tell who's doing what to whom. See if you can understand this: "There is a problem of assimilation of the contents of the [CDF] documents and of collaboration in diffusion and in the application of the consequences that arise from them." We read these quotes from an official Vatican source, but I cannot believe the pope said this, in these words. I think that some longtime Curia wordsmith was simply trying to take the edge off the pope's real meaning: that John Paul II is (at last) uncomfortable with bullshit.

I wonder what he would say if he had the time and the energy to read the news releases coming out of his own shop?

Robert Blair Kaiser
January 21, 2002

Republished with permission of the author.