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Discovering America


The Vatican view of the United States incorporates respect, indifference, fear, and gratitude. All are reasonable responses, says America's foremost vaticanista

Mass in Washington, D.C., on October 7, 1979, during John Paul II's first U.S. visit. Photo by Wally McNamee/Corbis

Mass in Washington, D.C., on October 7, 1979, during John Paul II's first U.S. visit. Photo by Wally McNamee/Corbis

By John L. Allen, Jr.

I AM WHAT THE ITALIANS CALL A VATICANISTA. MY FULL-TIME work is to track proceedings on the 108-acre island of ecclesiastical life in the heart of Rome. This means that when in Rome I spend time almost every day in one Vatican office or another. I also take Vatican officials and others to lunch and dinner. The great amount of Roman work that gets done over meals is one of the blessings of my job.

When the pope moves, I move. I fly on the papal airplane as part of the Vatican press corps. In the five years or so I've been doing this work, I've been to some 25 countries, including Greece, Syria, Malta, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Slovakia. And six to eight times a year I go up to the fourth floor of the Apostolic Palace, where the pope lives and works, and watch him receive a visiting dignitary. I've been there each of the three times that President George W. Bush has visited; but I've also been there for the visits by the prime ministers of Singapore, Hungary, and Romania. The pope does not give interviews or hold press conferences. Because of his physical condition, access to him is limited. These ceremonies are an opportunity to take his temperature, in a sense.

In addition, I attend a round of congresses and plenary assemblies and symposia and book presentations and embassy parties. These sometimes are interesting and many times are not, but they afford the opportunity to form the personal contacts that are the lifeblood of the Vatican beat.

My job is to translate what I discover about the Vatican into words that will make sense to a primarily American audience. Given how the Vatican sees America and how we view the Vatican, this isn't always easy.

BEFORE I describe how the Vatican sees America, I want to set out five premises about Vatican culture.

First, at a literal level, to talk about "what the Vatican thinks" is almost meaningless, because the Vatican does not have a unified intellect and will. It is a complex bureaucracy, housing many different points of view, hopes, dreams, and temperaments.

A brief story will illustrate: Whenever the pope arrives in a foreign country, he is typically greeted twice—once by the president or prime minister (the Vatican enjoys diplomatic relations with 172 nations and international organizations), and then, usually in a less formal way, by the head of the local church. In some cases, that means the papal nuncio, the Vatican's ambassador to the host country. On a recent trip to a country I will not name, the pope was welcomed by a nuncio, a kindly old Italian monsignor with a reputation as something of a windbag.

Being in the press pool, I was seated in a row of seats across the aisle from the Vatican entourage. I could tell that the cardinal nearest me was growing increasingly frustrated as the nuncio's oration rolled on. The veins were throbbing on his forehead.

I leaned toward him and said, "Cardinal, what do you think?" There was a nanosecond of hesitation on his part. Then looking up at our monsignor friend, the cardinal leaned closer to me and sotto voce said, "You realize that some Italian village is missing its idiot."

Only from afar does the Vatican look like a Stepford environment. Officials in the Holy See are united by their commitment to the doctrinal teachings of the Church and to the pope's ministry; but there are multiple ways to understand, realize, and apply those commitments.

A second premise is that although we Americans naturally assume that the rest of the world spends most of its time entertaining the same concerns we do, the truth is otherwise. American Catholics, all 67 million, represent six percent of the global Catholic population. That means that of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, 94 percent are not American, and that means that American issues are not what Vatican officials are usually thinking about when they rise in the morning. They have a bigger, broader, more complex universal Church in mind.

In September 2000, for instance, the Vatican issued Dominus Jesus, a document on religious pluralism that prompted headlines in the United States because it reaffirmed the ontological superiority of Roman Catholicism vis-à-vis other world religions. I attended a conference of seminary rectors in Rome immediately afterward. A rector from India stood up and said, "You know, this document is a disaster. It has destroyed our dialogue with the Hindus. They don't understand what they perceive to be the intolerant thrust of it." Another rector, from Russia, leapt up and said, "No, no, this document has saved our dialogue with the Russian Orthodox—they have an even higher Christology than we do, and this is the first Vatican document in 40 years that they can get excited about." Officials in the Holy See have to think about how something will play in Peru and Peoria. It is a maddeningly complex, difficult business.

Third premise: There is a serious cultural gap between mainstream America and the Holy See. For one example, each possesses a different sense of time. The United States is a microwave culture. When we have a problem, anything less than immediate action smacks to us of delay and denial. The Holy See, on the other hand, is a crockpot culture, with a working assumption that something that simmers for a long period of time is often going to taste better, and the right response to a problem is to spend considerable time thinking it through.

I'm not suggesting that one response is right and the other wrong. But I think that if Americans don't appreciate this difference, we will misread the Holy See. That has been the case in much of our public discourse about the way the Vatican responded, or didn't respond, to the clerical sex abuse crises.

May 23, 2004, Holy Cross Cathedral, Boston: protest over a parish closing. Photo by Chitose Suzuki/AP photo

May 23, 2004, Holy Cross Cathedral, Boston: protest over a parish closing. Photo by Chitose Suzuki/AP photo

From January 6, 2002, when the first abuse stories appeared in the Boston Globe, to March 22, the Vatican made no statement. And I think many Americans drew the conclusion that Church officials in Rome either weren't paying attention or were in denial. What I heard from Vatican officials, however, was, "This is a very complex problem, and we're simply not ready to say anything." Whether that approach was helpful or not, I leave to others to judge, but it is important for Americans to understand the Vatican perspective.

My fourth premise is that, image to the contrary, the Catholic Church is one of the most decentralized institutions on earth. Ninety-nine percent of decisions that matter in the Church are not made in Rome. Whenever an American bishop says something controversial, there is a tendency in the United States to immediately try to figure out who in Rome pulled his strings. The truth is that Rome probably heard about it after we did.

About 20 years ago, Peter Drucker, the management consultant, concluded that the three most efficient organizations in history were General Motors, the 19th-century Prussian Army, and the Catholic Church. He put the Church on his list because it manages to hold a worldwide organization together with an exceptionally small central headquarters. For the 1.1 billion Catholics, there are about 1,700 people working in the Roman Curiae. As Drucker pointed out, if the same ratio were applied to our government in Washington, D.C., there would be 500 federal employees working in the capital, as opposed to roughly 500,000.

The final premise I'd like to set out has to do with the Vatican atmosphere. To be honest, I did not go to Rome with many illusions about what I might find there. The Italians say that Rome is such a spiritual city because so many people have lost their faith in it. But as I've come to know Vatican officials, what has struck me repeatedly is that, along with the very human sorts of power politics and careerist maneuvers that one finds in any institution, there is genuine idealism and a strong sense of service. Most officials in the Holy See most of the time are acting on behalf of what they perceive to be the good of the Church.

SO, HOW DOES the Vatican view America? I'll start by repeating some positive expressions that I often hear.

First, there is enormous respect in the Holy See for the administrative and managerial competence of the United States, of Americans generally, and perforce, of American Catholics. It's a running joke in the Vatican that whenever a dicastery—a department—is bogged down, whether due to personnel problems or financial challenges, the default solution is to bring in an American to fix it.

The secretariat of state was one of the first offices to get computers because an American, Cardinal Justin Regale (then a monsignor), arranged it. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Vatican experienced consecutive years of serious deficits, another American, Cardinal Edmund Szoka, then of Detroit, was brought in to be chief financial officer. Cardinal Szoka turned the situation around, and the Vatican remained in the black for several years, until the world economy created new problems.

In a way, the strong respect that Rome has for American competence was one of the problems in getting the Vatican to understand the seriousness of the sex abuse crisis. Time and again, I heard officials say, "I can't believe this is happening in the United States." Rome simply assumed that the reports it was hearing were exaggerated.

There is also great respect in the Holy See for what Vatican observers regard as the vitality and dynamism of American Catholicism, especially parish life. With Europeans occupying about half the places in the College of Cardinals, the Holy See is still a European institution, and its frame of reference is European Catholicism. And generally speaking, European parishes are simply sacramental filling stations. They are where Catholics go for Mass, weddings, baptisms, and burials; but they don't reflect the larger sense of parish life as it has been developed in the United States. It is rare to find a parish youth group, or young adult ministry, or soup kitchen, or Bible study group—all activities that seem second nature in American Catholicism.

Cardinal Roger Mahoney, of Los Angeles, tells of asking Pope John Paul II years ago why he was so supportive of evangelical movements like the Focolarini and Sant'Egidio and Opus Dei. And the pope told Mahoney that in Europe and many other parts of the world, parishes did not evangelize, and these groups filled the gap. In America, the pope said, it is different. He was convinced that the only country in the world that had fully realized the Second Vatican Council's vision for revitalizing parish life was the United States. And that view is common throughout the Holy See.

There is also great respect in the Holy See for what is perceived to be the enduring religiosity of American culture—the fact that one can mention God freely in public conversation; that, indeed, it seems obligatory in U.S. political discourse to invoke the name of God.

By contrast, Europeans proved incapable of acknowledging Christianity as one of the roots of their culture in the recent draft of a constitution for the European Union. At one stage in the framing, the draft cited the Greco-Roman period and the Enlightenment, but not Christianity. As it now stands, the constitution's preamble refers only to Europe's "cultural, religious, and humanist inheritance."

What the E.U.'s constitutional debate reflected, of course, is the deep current of anticlericalism in Europe, and the climate of weak religious practice that has resulted. When many Vatican officials view American culture's underlying religiosity and the continuing high levels of religious practice, it is with admiration.

There is also much appreciation for the basic good-heartedness of Americans. Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's foreign minister, was recently briefed by Latin American ambassadors to the Vatican on what they saw as a rising tide of anti-American opinion in their countries, owing in part to the Iraq war. Lajolo took the occasion to remind them that while they may have policy differences with the United States, it is also true that in times of famine, war, or other mass human suffering, it is most often the United States that rushes in with aid.

And the Vatican is quite conscious of American financial generosity toward the Holy See. Contrary to popular impression, the Vatican is a spartan operation. Its annual operating budget is about $277 million. The University of Notre Dame's annual operating budget, by comparison, is $700 million. The Vatican's endowment ("patrimony" is the term of art) is about $770 million. By contrast, the University of Notre Dame's endowment is $3.1 billion.

Most readers are now thinking: What about the artwork—the Pietà, the Raphael frescoes, and so on? These treasures are literally priceless, but they appear on the Vatican books with a value of one euro. According to the statutes of the Vatican City State, they may never be sold or borrowed against.

The Holy See is indeed in need of financial support from the Catholic world, and American Catholics usually supply about 25 percent of the annual operating budget. It did not escape the attention of people in the Vatican that in 2002, during the white-hot period of the sex abuse crisis in the United States, American Catholic giving to the Holy See rose, as sectors of the Catholic community stepped up to help a Church they perceived to be in crisis.

ALONG WITH THESE, the Vatican also holds strong negative impressions of the United States. As do other Europeans, Vatican officials see Americans as on the whole arrogant, pushy, and given to making their nation's way without asking permission of the rest of the world, a reckless, shoot-first-ask-questions-later culture. These perceptions have ramifications at the ecclesiastical level. I know many officials in the Holy See who would say that the American bishops brought themselves trouble by quickly sitting down in Dallas in 2002 to work out a new policy for handling accusations of clerical sexual abuse—a policy that Rome would turn down and recraft.

Another stock European assumption is that "Show me the money" is the American credo. And so, in the initial stages of the sex abuse crisis, when Vatican officials learned of the costly legal settlements and jury awards, they assumed that, in some cases, this was a shakedown of the Church.

World Youth Day, 1993, Denver: a carnival mood pervaded at the pope's visit. Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis

World Youth Day, 1993, Denver: a carnival mood pervaded at the pope's visit. Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis

Many in the Vatican also believe that American culture, shaped by pragmatism, scientific positivism, and capitalism, is at its core hostile to Roman Catholicism. They believe that the radical individualism that is inherent in our culture is antithetical to Catholic anthropology and social ethics—especially the appreciation of community.

Sometimes, over a third glass of wine at dinner, I hear Vatican officials wonder aloud whether American Catholics fully understand the tension that is implied in their two affiliations. Echoing Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who once said "American Catholics are denominationally Catholic but culturally Protestant," a common assumption in the Holy See is that American Catholics are, at heart, congregationalists. And it is true that the Protestant stamp on American culture does tend to give U.S. Catholics a stronger sense of their affiliation with the local church and a weaker sense of their affiliation with the universal Church.

This translates into a certain American resentment when the universal Church, or its organ of government, the Holy See, "interferes" on the American scene. Yet from an ecclesiological point of view, when Rome steps into a dispute, that's not interference, but Rome playing its proper role.

Rome also perceives a dualistic streak in the American psyche that derives from Calvinism, a messianic notion of the elect, of us and them. Many in the Vatican see this manifested not only in the way America conducts itself in the world—there aren't many fans of current U.S. foreign policy in the Vatican—but also in the way American Catholics have addressed the clerical sex abuse crisis.

Vatican officials have asked me rhetorically, Where does this punitive impulse in the American Church—this desire to drive every last abuser priest out of ministry—come from? Isn't there a possibility of compassion? Isn't there a prospect of rehabilitation for a man who, having done something wrong 30 years ago, has expressed his regret and has not offended since? Complex issues are entangled in these questions, of course. But those observers do perceive an element of puritanical hysteria in American culture, and that is troubling to a Church whose central doctrines include the idea of conversion—the path that is possible from sin through forgiveness to redemption.

And finally, Vatican officials fear that American Catholics lack historical memory and are therefore blind to the potential effects of their actions and impulses. This concern surfaced in the context of the sexual abuse crisis and proposals from America for the kind of democratization of authority in the Church that would, at least in the imaginations of some in the Vatican, weaken the power of bishops. In response, officials of the Holy See, whose perspective is deeply historical, observe that the health of the Church has depended upon the strength of its episcopacy.

For example, the ninth and 10th centuries saw infamous clerical sexual abuse scandals. And much of the reason was that large chunks of episcopal authority had been assumed by monastic communities and lay lords, depriving bishops of their ability to manage clerics.

In the 16th century, when the Church appointed a large number of absentee bishops, largely as a way of collecting diocesan revenues, a result, again, was an unsupervised clergy and a burgeoning of abuses, including the sale of indulgences, which led, by a fairly short route, to the Reformation.

But Vatican officials don't have to look that far back. In Soviet satellite states, it was a stock government strategy to disable the connection between the local church and Rome. Governments did this by fostering lay councils and clergy councils and assigning them authority for Church administration, finance, and personnel. And the councils, of course, reported to the state. In China today, lay councils remain an important part of the government's strategy for exercising authority over the Church, and some Chinese bishops have been imprisoned for 30 years for refusing to acquiesce to the state's plan.

I'm not saying that a strengthened lay role in the American Church is a bad idea. I'm simply trying to explain the instinctive ambivalence of some Vatican officials as they think their way through this issue. These officials will ask, Do Americans fully appreciate history's lessons?


John L. Allen, Jr., is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of All the Pope's Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks (2004). His essay is drawn from a talk, sponsored by the Church in the 21st Century Initiative, that he delivered in Gasson 100 on October 18.


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