Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit to the U.S. as pontiff comes amid a turbulent election year. He has planned stops at the White House, the U.N. and the Sept. 11 “Ground Zero” site. How should we assess the first three years of Pope Benedict’s papacy? How has the global role and influence of the papacy changed under this pope? How has the Vatican’s relationship with the U.S. Catholic Church changed over the years, and what is its current state? What are the political implications of this trip?
To discuss these issues, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life invited John Allen, Vatican correspondent at National Catholic Reporter and Vatican analyst for CNN and NPR, and George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow with expertise in Vatican issues at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Vatican analyst for NBC News.
John Allen, Vatican Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter
George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center
Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
Navigate this Transcript:
Pope’s visit: three audiences, three messages
Need for a global moral consensus
Religious vitality of American society
Defense of traditional Catholic practice
Implications for ’08 elections?
An ability to simplify Catholic doctrine
Impact of the Regensburg speech
Q&A with journalists
, Vatican Correspondent, , Distinguished Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Director, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
LUIS LUGO: Well, good afternoon to all of you, and thank you for joining us today. I’m Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which is a project of the Pew Research Center. The center is a nonpartisan organization and does not take positions on issues or policy debates.
This luncheon is part of an ongoing Forum series that brings together journalists and policy leaders to discuss timely topics at the intersection of religion and public affairs. I am pleased to welcome you today to a discussion on Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit to the United States.
If the interest you folks have shown in this is any indication, then the pope’s visit is sure to attract considerable attention. Now in this roundtable, we want to discuss where things stand with Pope Benedict three years into his pontificate, as well of course as what his visit might mean for Catholics and other Americans. To help us explore these issues, we are delighted to have with us two very distinguished experts. You have a copy of their bios in front of you, so I will not take too much time with the introductions.
George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center here in Washington, D.C., in fact just a couple of blocks away, where he serves as the chair of the center’s Catholic Studies Project. George is also a Vatican analyst for NBC News and a regular contributor to Newsweek.
John Allen is a senior correspondent for National Catholic Reporter and a Vatican analyst for CNN and NPR. He is the author of Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith, about the future pope’s years as a cardinal.
Now this is meant to be a conversation, so we always ask our presenters to keep their remarks brief, 12, 15 minutes max, so that we have plenty of time for your questions and comments.
Before I turn things over to our guests, I would like to bring a couple of things to your attention. First, on your table you will find information packets that include a portrait of Catholics in the United States drawn from our recent research here at the Pew Forum. We hope you find that helpful. I should say also that on Thursday, we will be coming out with the results of a poll that has just come in from the field that seeks to gage Americans’ knowledge of the pope, their views of the pope, etc., and we think you will find that helpful as well.
I’d also like to mention that this meeting is on the record and is being taped. We will post a transcript on our website soon after this event, in fact, hopefully by Thursday or so, so others have a chance to listen in on the conversation. John Allen, we’ll have you go first.
JOHN ALLEN: I thought what I would do first is just give you a couple of basic facts and figures about the pope’s trip, which may be helpful for those transition graphs in the pieces you have to do, or the set-up comments on your broadcasts. Then I’d like to say a little bit something about what we might expect to hear from Benedict XVI when he is in the States. And then I’ll touch on a couple of questions that, in my experience of doing media about the pope, repeatedly surface, and I’ll try to engage those. One would be what we might expect to hear and not hear from the pope on the sex abuse crisis, and then also some comments about the pope and politics, looking ahead to the ’08 elections.
But, first, some just basic data. This is the ninth visit of a pope to the United States. The first was Paul VI on Oct. 4 of 1965. There were then seven visits by John Paul II, that is, assuming that you want to count two refueling stopovers in Alaska. But the Vatican counts them, and so I suppose we have to too. And then this of course is the first by Benedict XVI.
This trip actually will pull the United States into a tie with Poland for the most-visited country outside of Italy by popes in the modern era. It is also – and here is a bit of trivia that, if you’re blogging on this or if you have to do a box on, a kind of cover about the pope in America, this may be a good nugget – Benedict XVI will be the third pope to visit the United States, that is, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But he will actually be the fourth pope to set foot onto American territory. And the way that works is this: In 1849, Pius IX was taking refuge in Naples because he had been kicked out of Rome by Garibaldi and the revolutionaries. And one bright spring day, King Ferdinand of Naples, who was his host, was invited to tour the USS Constitution, which happened to be anchored in a port near Naples.
Pius IX tagged along. It was actually a breech of protocol for the captain of the ship, a guy by the name of John Gwinn, to allow the pope on board because the United States was officially neutral on the contest between the pope and the Italian revolutionaries. The captain was actually submitted to a court martial for allowing Pius IX onto the ship, but he actually died of a cerebral hemorrhage before the trial could reach conclusion. One other footnote: Pius IX is reported to have become seasick while he was aboard the Constitution and actually had to take a nap in the captain’s quarters before he left. So the fourth pope to be in American airspace.
One other point is that there are only seven countries that have received at least five visits by popes in the modern era. The United States is the only one that is not a majority Catholic nation. I think that and the fact that it will now become, again, tied with Poland for the most-visited nation clearly is a recognition of the importance that the Holy See, the Vatican, attaches both to the political and cultural role of the United States on the global stage, and also to the importance of the Catholic Church in this country. Seventy million Catholics, representing one-quarter of the national population, the United States is the third-largest Catholic country in the world after Brazil and Mexico, and just ahead of the Philippines. So clearly, all of this suggests to us this is an important moment for the Vatican and for Benedict XVI.
Now just a couple of words about what we might expect. Typically speaking, when the pope travels, he has two audiences in mind. He has the audience of the country he is visiting – that is, the broad public, Catholic and not – and he would have sort of social, cultural, political messages for that broad audience. And then he will have something to say of course also to the Catholic community in that place, so a kind of insider Catholic message.
Now, on this trip, there are actually three audiences in mind because Benedict XVI is also addressing the United Nations on the morning of April 18, which means that in a sense he’s also talking to the whole world. And, by the way, this will be the fourth time a pope has spoken to the U.N. Paul VI did it in 1965. John Paul II did it in 1979 and again in ’95.
So just a quick word about each of these levels – first of all, his message to the world. I think in the U.N. address you will get the kind of standard checklist of Vatican diplomatic concerns, so things like peace in the Middle East, responsible transition in Iraq, concern for religious freedom around the world – the kind of standard, global concerns that we’ve come to expect when popes speak on global policy.
But I think the heart of his pitch before the U.N. probably will cut a little bit deeper. It will be Benedict’s argument that what the world desperately needs today is a global moral consensus – that is, a consensus on fundamental moral truths that are universal and unchanging that can serve as a basis for things like protection of human rights and human dignity. I think his analysis is that in an era in which you have several important players on the world stage – China and Iran come to mind – arguing that the whole concept of human rights is a sort of Western cultural artifact, I think the pope believes that the construction of a kind of moral consensus that we can all agree upon based on truths about human nature and open to the wisdom of spiritual traditions and religious traditions is a critical priority. And I think that probably will be the heart of that speech.
In terms of his American message, again, this standard checklist of concerns I would expect. You will hear the Holy Father talk about the defense of human life, beginning with unborn life. I suspect there will be references to the defense of marriage based on union between a man and a woman. I think there will also be references to the Vatican’s concern about the ongoing carnage in Iraq and elsewhere, and the desire to see peace restored to Iraq and to other parts of the world. Probably there will be at least veiled references to the Vatican’s desire to see the United States operate in a somewhat more multilateral fashion in its approach to global policy, foreign affairs.
But I think the dominant note probably – and this may be a surprise for some people – I suspect the dominant note will be deep appreciation for the religious vitality of American society. And this reflects something of a sea change that I have witnessed in Vatican attitudes toward the United States over the last decade. When I first started reporting on the Vatican 10 years ago or so, at that stage I think the mainstream view of the United States was still a bit ambivalent in the Vatican. A lot of people over there would regard the United States as basically a Protestant culture – that is, one shaped under the impress of Protestantism and particularly Calvinism – would see it as sort of a cowboy culture with a certain recklessness and so on. And also some concerns about what was seen as the rambunctiousness and independent-mindedness of the Catholic Church in this country.
While all of those concerns, in a way, are still there, I think what has come to be the much more dominant note in terms of what Vatican people see when they look across the water these days is a real fondness and appreciation for what they see as the religious health of American culture in comparison with contemporary Europe. And I think the critical ingredient here is not that anything particularly has changed in the United States; it’s more what has happened in Europe in the last 10 years.
The well-known battle over the God clause in the preamble to the new European constitution, a battle the Vatican lost despite vigorous diplomatic efforts and exhortations by two popes; the fact that a very prominent Italian Catholic politician was blackballed as the European commissioner of justice because of his private views on abortion and homosexuality; with the election and now the reelection of the fairly ferocious anti-clerical regime in Spain, and on and on. I think the impression in the Vatican these days is that in many ways Europe is in the grip of a kind of exaggerated secularism that is eroding traditional religious faith and practice.
When they look across the water at the United States, for all of the problems that American society has, this is still an intensely religious culture. Of course the findings of the recent Pew Forum study of religion in America bear that out. It is a very competitive religious marketplace in the United States. Peter Berger, the well-known sociologist, often says that America is a country of Indians, by which he means Asian-Indians, that is governed by Swedes. That is, we kind of have a secularized elite, but at the grassroots what we have is intense religious vibrancy. And I think that has registered in the Holy See.
And finally what we might expect for the American Catholic Church. Again, a lot of things we could say here, which we can unpack in Q&A, but I think the dominant note of the pope’s message will be various versions of what I have come to see as the interpretive key to his papacy, which is what I call affirmative orthodoxy. And what I mean by that is a strong defense of traditional Catholic faith and practice – that is, a kind of recalling people to those traditional markers of Catholic thought, speech, practice, but phrasing all that in the most relentlessly positive fashion possible.
So I think Benedict’s diagnosis is that people are far too familiar with what the Catholic Church is against rather than what it’s for. People know far more about what the Catholic Church says no to rather than what it says yes to, and so I think his effort is to try to present a positive vision of what the Catholic Church represents. And we’ve seen that in his two encyclicals on love and hope. I suspect we will see it in various mutations when he’s here in the States. That’s all by way of saying that the people who were expecting him to come in and go negative in one form or another, I suspect, are going to be disappointed. I’ve covered all of Benedict’s foreign trips; I have yet to see him go negative in one of these settings. I suspect people will be surprised by and large by the overall positive tone of his presentation.
Finally, just a couple of very brief comments on two hot-button issues: one, the sex abuse crisis, the other being politics. Clearly, Benedict XVI is aware he can’t come to the United States and not engage the sex abuse crisis. This is the deepest trauma in the life of the Catholic Church in the United States in its more than 200 years of history. You all know the fallout, five dioceses bankrupt to date, more than $2 billion in payouts is the conventional estimate, and so on. So I think he will engage it at some length in his address to the bishops at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. I expect there will be briefer references to it in his public homilies both at National Stadium and also in Yankee Stadium. By and large, I think what he’s going to say is, first of all, an expression of deep regret for what has happened, a determination to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
I think also he wants to try to offer a shot in the arm to the American Catholic Church, probably a note of appreciation for Catholics who have stuck with the church despite everything that has happened, who are the vast majority of the American church. All of that, I would predict, is not going to be satisfying to those who have been most scarred by this crisis. You probably know at the early stages of planning for this trip, there was some talk that Benedict might go to Boston, which was sort of the epicenter of the crisis, and address it head-on. In the end, of course, he’s not doing that. Nor at this stage does it look like he will be meeting with victims while he’s in the States, although there were some proposals that that happen. And so my prediction would be that victims groups, their advocates and others, will probably come away somewhat disappointed from what they see and hear from the pope on that score.
Finally, politically, look, Benedict XVI is not a superdelegate. He’s not riding into the United States to deliver a long-sought endorsement to somebody. His spokespersons, both publicly and privately, have repeatedly said that he is not coming here to talk about the ’08 elections. In fact, it’s worth noting that the three previous papal addresses to the U.N. have all come in October because that’s the period of the General Assembly’s open debate. It’s when heads of state typically address the U.N. Part of the reason he’s not coming in October is because it’s too close to November, and so there is a deliberate desire to try to keep him above the fray.
On the other hand, to some extent what the pope says and does is not the only variable in this equation because certainly the Catholic vote in American politics is an important chunk of the electorate. If you don’t believe that, consider the fact that had a few heavily Catholic counties in Ohio voted the other way in 2004, we would all be sitting around pondering the reelection of President John Kerry rather than handicapping McCain versus Obama or McCain versus Hillary.
I suspect there will be aggressive spin operations from various quarters to try to take whatever the pope says or does and feed it through the sausage grinder of American electoral politics. I frankly think the pope’s message, if you take it in its totality, is going to be a net wash, and that is, he’s going to hit the pro-life issues and of course he’s also visiting “Ground Zero,” which is an indirect acknowledgement of the reality of the terrorist threat. In some ways, that could be seen to help the conservatives in American politics.
On the other hand, he is likely also to talk about the need to combat terrorism, not just militarily but also through economic development and through peace building. He will give a strong thumbs-up to the role of the U.N. He will talk about multilateralism and foreign policy. All of those things net-net probably help the liberals in some sense. So the real drama, it seems to me, is not so much what the pope is going to say but how it is going to be spun. I think that’s where the action is going to be in terms of bringing the political lens to this story.
Final thought, and I will end with this, is if I can express a pious wish for the pope’s trip, it would be that in addition to all the substantive stuff we just talked about, we also see a flash or two of the pope’s personality because I do think there is to some extent a disconnect between the public impression of this man and the private personality. You will never meet a more gracious figure. He is infinitely kind and in some ways kind of shy, and he also has a surprisingly sharp sense of humor. Just 30 seconds to illustrate that and then I’ll shut up.
There is a custom in the Vatican press corps that when one of us publishes a book about the pope, we typically inscribe a copy to him and then give it either to his private secretary or to his spokesperson. Now I’ve always assumed the pope never actually sees these things. I assumed they ended up in a box in the apostolic palace someplace. But when the Holy Father was elected, I published one of these insta-books about the conclave and the new pope. And I dutifully inscribed it to the pope, and I gave it to his spokesperson at the time, a guy by the name of Joaquin Navarro-Valls, this was in June.
In August, I got a call on my cell phone from Navarro-Valls – actually, my wife and I were in the States at the time. And Navarro-Valls said, look John, I want you to know that I’m on vacation with the Holy Father, and the pope came down to breakfast this morning with your book in his hands. Now you’ve got to understand the structure of this book was, it was one-third the last days of John Paul, one-third the inside story of the conclave, and one-third where Benedict’s papacy is going to go. So Navarro says to me, and the pope has a message for you, and his message is, would you please thank Herr Allen for having written this book, particularly the last part about the future of my pontificate because it has saved me the trouble of thinking about it for myself. (Laughter.) I like to think he was kidding. (Laughter.) Okay, that’s it.
LUGO: Thank you, John, that was terrific. George Weigel.
GEORGE WEIGEL: Thanks, Luis. I noted to several of you coming in that this is a historic moment in the Pew Forum and maybe in the history of Washington, D.C., in that you have sitting right beside each other Luis Lugo and myself, two lifelong and long-suffering Baltimore Orioles fans in the same place. Misery loves company.
Well, now you know why I was not exaggerating some years ago when I said that John Allen is the best English-language Vatican reporter in history. I come at this from a slightly different angle. I’ve known Joseph Ratzinger for almost 20 years. He was immensely helpful to me when I was preparing the biography of John Paul II during which I, too, got to know that impish sense of humor that he has. So let me talk a little bit, if you will, op-ed page rather than news hole in trying to frame what we all may be coping with two weeks from now.
I think the first thing, just to note as a starting point, since the question how does this pope differ from his predecessor comes up constantly, is to underscore that changes of popes are not to be understood in any sense by analogy to changes of presidential administrations or changes of governments in parliamentary systems. Popes are the servants and custodians of what they understand to be an authoritative tradition, all of which is to say that they don’t make it up on their own. And in that sense, policy means something different in this context than it would in the political context with which we’re all familiar in our various countries.
Still, different popes have different personalities. They will stress different questions. They bring different personal histories, spiritual histories, intellectual formation to their papacy. I was happy that John mentioned that wonderful story about Pius IX on Old Ironsides. You can buy a picture of that actually at the Old Ironsides Museum in Boston. We might also note that Benedict XVI is the first pope to have been an American prisoner of war, an interesting first.
So let’s talk about what have been some of, at least from my point of view, the surprises of the past three years. First of all, there is this pope’s striking popularity, which I don’t believe has registered well on certainly North American radar screens. His weekly general audience on Wednesdays consistently draws crowds larger than or as large as John Paul II drew at the height of the Great Jubilee of 2000. Last December when I was in Rome for a work period, I walked through the parcheggio, the parking lot where the tourist buses are coming, to see if this was still overwhelmingly from Germany and Austria. And that’s not the case; in fact, it’s overwhelmingly Italian and from all over the country.
This pope has touched something in the people of Italy, perhaps a hunger to be fed by a master teacher. And that brings us to the second surprise, that this man so widely regarded as a kind of enforcer, a kind of heavy, turns out in this role to be the gentle and brilliant grandfather who knows how to explain things and make the most complex parts of Catholic doctrine and practice make sense to ordinary people, which means all of us in this room.
If you’d like to find a link to this, what I’m about to mention, speak to my assistant Steve White here over on the side at the end. But to give you an example of this at work, in the fall of 2005, shortly after he was thanking John Allen for his book, the pope met with some thousands of Italian 8-, 9- and 10-year-old kids who had all just made their first holy communions. And his Q&A with these kids is as masterful a presentation of some complex ideas in Catholic belief and practice to kids in a language that obviously resonated with them that you’ll ever see.
So you have this remarkable combination of a walking encyclopedia of theological, philosophical and historical knowledge, but with a dramatic capacity to simplify in the best sense of the term. It’s the kind of simplicity that only comes on the far side of complexity. It’s the kind of simplicity that only comes from having worked through the arguments and debates in a very detailed way and yet coming to a point of articulation that is accessible and that has proven remarkably popular, not only in Rome but wherever the pope has traveled.
I’ve spent now probably close to two and a half years of my life in Poland at various moments, and I have never quite seen anything like the pope’s reception in Krakow. What was that, John – a year ago?
ALLEN: May 2007.
WEIGEL: May 2007. So that’s something to watch for. I think people are going to warm to this man in a surprising way. The second thing I would put in the category of surprises is boldness. This is a man who came to this office at age 78. He’s not about to have a change of mode of life or mode of thinking. He was known to be a man who thought very carefully before he spoke, a kind of master synthesist of opinions at meetings. But he’s now displayed a kind of boldness, a lack of concern about making the bold move when he deems it necessary, no matter what the contrary advice might be within his own bureaucracy, which tends to operate like other bureaucracies in the world, namely keep the lid on and the excitement to a minimum.
The premier example of this was his Regensburg lecture of September 2006 in Germany, widely criticized at the time as offensive to Islamic sensibilities. That lecture, in fact, has shifted both the course of inter-religious dialogue and the internal dynamics of the intra-Islamic debate, precisely as I believe Benedict XVI intended it to do. It has shifted the course of the dialogue by setting in motion a process that has now led to the formation of a Catholic-Muslim forum that will meet twice a year, once in Amman, Jordan, once in Rome, and that will focus its attention on the issues that Benedict XVI has put on the agenda – namely, religious freedom as the first of human rights and a right that can be known by reason, and secondly, the imperative of separating spiritual and political authority in a justly governed state.
There have been attempts from parts of the Islamic world to deflect the conversation off of these two issues, which Benedict regards as at the very heart of inter-religious dialogue, and indeed the Islamic encounter with the modern world, and he refuses to budge. He very calmly and quietly brings the conversation back to these two points, which obviously have a great resonance here in the United States.
In terms of shifting the dialogue, I would also point to the recent initiative by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who proposes to gather in his country a new forum of dialogue among the monotheistic religions, and the Vatican’s reported negotiations, about which John might have some more to say later, with the Saudi government over the unthinkable, or the hitherto unthinkable, namely the building of a Catholic church in Saudi Arabia.
Now, those with vested interests in the status quo of inter-religious dialogue have missed virtually all of this, just as many people missed the impact of John Paul II when he went to Poland for the first time in June 1979. We all get it wrong sometimes; few have gotten it as comprehensively wrong as the editors of The New York Times in June ’79, who famously wrote on that last day of the pope’s visit: However wonderful this may have been for the people of Poland, if there is one thing certain, it is that this will have no political impact on the future of Central and Eastern Europe. Wrong, wrong, manifestly wrong.
I think we may, 20 years from now, 25 years from now, look back on the Regensburg lecture as a similar kind of moment that many missed because we were stuck in the grooves of conventional thinking about how inter-religious dialogue ought to operate and could not see the point of a direct, if respectful, challenge that reshuffled the variables and created the possibility of a new and deeper conversation. I believe the pope is going to come back at the U.N. to the themes of Regensburg, namely the relationship of faith and reason in the 21st century world, perhaps stressing at the U.N., again, the two substantive points at Regensburg – namely, that faith detached from reason is a danger, both to people of faith and to the world, and that a loss of faith in reason, a belief that we are incapable of knowing the truth of anything, is equally dangerous for the world.
I would be surprised – and here I would add a mild demure on what John said – I would be surprised if there were a lot of global tour d’horizon by Benedict the XVI at the U.N. I know that’s what his diplomats would like him to do. That’s what John Paul II’s diplomats wanted him to do in 1995 and he didn’t do it. He talked about the universality of human rights. I think the pope knows that this is a unique moment in what is likely to be a fairly short pontificate ,and I don’t think he’s going to spend at least an inordinate amount of time in saying we like this, we don’t like that; we’re nervous about this, we’re encouraged about that. I think he will take the high ground of challenging the world to see the moral truths that we can know by reason – that all people can know, whatever their religious circumstance or lack of religious circumstance – that those moral truths can be a kind of grammar turning noise into conversation, turning cacophony into real dialogue.
The third thing on the surprise front after popularity and boldness is his failure to follow both John Allen’s advice and mine in the books we both wrote about the events of April 2005 and undertake a systematic reform of the Roman Curia. In terms of internal Vatican stuff, one thing that now seems quite clear almost three years into this pontificate is that this pope, who many of us expected to turn the place upside down and inside out, is not going to do any of that, but will leave whatever bureaucratic rearrangements there are to be to his successor.
On the pope and the church in the United States and on American society and culture, very briefly. As you read the works of Joseph Ratzinger, particularly in the last 10 to 15 years as he has become more and more concerned with the corrosive impacts of an aggressive secularism in Europe, you have to be struck by the fact that he comes on several occasions in his writing to the point that it was in the United States that the problem of church and state was first resolved. And when he says problem of church and state, he doesn’t simply mean institutional relationships, questions of establishment and non-establishment, legal relationships; he means more broadly the problem of religion and modernity. How is the modern world at the same time a world of profound, deep, churning religious searching and conviction?
That that problem has been solved, in a sense, in the United States first seems to him, I think, another difference between the U.S. and his own native cultural universe of discourse, which is of course Europe. I would simply underscore what John said, both for this pope and for an increasing number of senior people in the Vatican, the biggest difference is that the U.S. is not a post-Christian society, whereas Europe, Western Europe at least, they perceive as being thoroughly caught in the net of post-Christian depression, if you will. And however they may regard the confusions and diversity and wild plurality – the market character of religion in the United States, to pick up John’s phrase – they know that there’s something different in the culture here. And this pope knows that that makes a difference in both society and politics.
Religious communities in America have a capacity to shape our cultural life, our social life and our political life in a way that can only be dreamt about now in virtually all of Western Europe, with the possible exception of Italy. You don’t think Italy is the exception, do you?
ALLEN: No, I don’t.
WEIGEL: Okay. Well, we can talk about that at some point.
I think he will challenge the bishops of the United States to be teachers first and managers second. This is a scholar pope, a scholar bishop. That’s not a tradition of kinds of bishops that you find frequently in the history of the church in the United States. So I think there’s going to be a stress placed on bishops as teachers. I think John is exactly right in what he said about the sex abuse crisis. There is no point in my getting into that.
Finally, I think on the question of Catholic higher education, on which there’s been some speculation, at least in the papers here locally, what’s he going to say to these schools? I think it’s not going to be a bludgeoning by any matter of means, but rather I think the pope is going to make the argument that heightening the distinctive Catholic character – both in terms of curriculum, mode of life, vocational seriousness, service to the poor, etc. – that the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions of higher education serves both the church and the wider culture. It’s not good for the church if its institutions of higher learning are indistinguishable from others in American higher education. But it’s also not good for the wider culture. Vanilla institutions are not useful in a robustly diverse society like our own. In fact, it’s lifting up the distinctiveness of Catholic higher education that those schools make their best contribution to the ongoing building of a genuine pluralism in the United States. So I think that will be the theme there.
Finally, I expect that the pope, as he did in his remarks to Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon when she presented her credentials on Feb. 29, the pope will thank the people of the United States, not only the Catholic people of the United States, but the entire people of the United States for their generosity. The pope is very aware that much of what supports health care, education, development assistance in the Third World comes from the voluntary generosity of the American people, which dwarfs what happens in government aid programs. And I think he’s going to thank us for that. I think he’s very grateful for that and knows that it bespeaks something good about our culture and our society that people feel a sense of obligation to share their prosperity with others, particularly women and children in the Third World. Thank you.LUGO: Well, two terrific presentations to get us going here. I’m sure you agree. So let’s get to your questions and comments and let the discussion begin.
OREN DORELL, USATODAY: I’d like to hear a little bit more about the issues that we are likely to hear about in his speech to Catholic educators.
WEIGEL: Well, this was originally announced as an address to presidents of Catholic colleges and universities. I think there was some squawking from down the educational food chain, and now there will be representatives of elementary and secondary education and diocesan catechetics directors, religious education directors, as well. I don’t know specifically what he’s going to say to them, and it would be false to suggest that I do. I know judging from his past concerns that this question of the distinctiveness of these schools-. If I can put it in local terms, if Georgetown is simply Amherst on the Potomac, what’s the point? It ought to bring – and I think he will affirm that it does bring – something distinctive to the mix of higher learning.
This is a man who loves the university. His natural milieu is the university world, the exchange of opinion. One of the things that I think both John and I commented on in our books on the conclave of 2005, that I believe really did play a role in his rapid election, was his dialogue, January before John Paul II died, with the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas on national television in Germany. Habermas is a secular man, a non-believer, probably the most influential philosopher in Europe. And they had this remarkable hour, 90-minute conversation on what are the moral foundations necessary for democratic self-governance. He loves that kind of stuff. He loves mixing it up with people in that sort of an academic environment.
So the idea that the pope would come here and tell Catholic colleges and universities that they ought to become essentially catechetics factories, churning out people who have not learned the tools of critical thinking, is just ludicrous by his own history. On the other hand, he wants these schools to smell and taste and feel different, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of the wider intellectual conversation.
ALLEN: Well, I think everything George said is right. I’ll just try to add two notes that might be useful. One, I will return to something I said at the top of my presentation, which is I think the lens through which Benedict approaches internal church questions, and the role of Catholic colleges and universities is such a question -. The point of departure is, again, this concept of affirmative orthodoxy that is certainly [unintelligible] Catholic colleges and universities in this case to a defense and a bold public proclamation of traditional Catholic identity, as George suggested, but not beating them around the head and shoulders for their failure to do so.
And so if anybody is expecting him to take these people to the woodshed – that is, he is going to go in there and read them the Riot Act – I predict they’re going to be disappointed. I think he is going to offer a positive vision of the role of a Catholic college and university as a forum for critical reflection upon the Catholic tradition and for fostering an authentic sense of Catholic service both to the church and to the wider society. So basically speaking, I think the pitch is going to be positive rather than defensive or negative.
And then just very quickly by way of background to this whole discussion, it might be worth saying for those of you who don’t spend your days and nights following the vicissitudes of Vatican politics, that this discussion, in some ways, about the role of Catholic colleges and universities dates at least to 1990. It was in that year that Pope John Paul II put out a document called Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which means from the heart of the church. And it was his statement specifically about the role of Catholic colleges and universities, and the purpose of that document was to call Catholic colleges and universities to reflect upon how they could be more authentically Catholic.
Now that discussion in a way got bogged down very quickly because part of that document had to do with a new legal instrument called a mandatum, which basically means that theologians at a Catholic college and university are supposed to have a license from their local bishop to teach Catholic theology. Basically the notion is that you have to be empowered by the bishop. And theologians got upset. University presidents got upset. The U.S. bishops were divided on the question. We spent essentially 10 years debating this question. And then of course in 2001, this little thing you may have heard of called the sex abuse crisis came along, and so it blotted everything else out of the sky for about five years.
So I think the consensus really is that we are only now in a position to return to the deeper conversation that this document 18 years ago was supposed to stimulate, which is not really what piece of paper does a theologian have, but it’s rather how does the Catholic identity of a Catholic college affect everything that it does? In other words, how is recruitment different because you’re Catholic? How is student life different because you’re Catholic? How is your physics department different because this is a Catholic university? How is faculty development different? And on and on. It’s supposed to be a very deep examination of how the Catholicity of the place acts as a leaven in everything that you do. And I think by near-universal agreement, this conversation didn’t really ever happen. I think the pope is coming to try to stimulate it.
TERRY MATTINGLY, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE: The standard profile of Benedict always includes some phrase that his predecessor had a flair for the dramatic with his background as an actor, etc., and that somehow Benedict doesn’t. Yet, that baptism the other night at Easter was a very dramatic scene. And now he’s coming to the U.N. Do you expect the pope to specifically refer to the U.N. Charter and the right to convert?
ALLEN: Yes. I would agree with George that probably one of the top notes in that U.N. address is going to be religious freedom. This is a leitmotif of his thought whenever he’s in a setting in which he’s talking to the world. So I think he will deal with that. He will specifically invoke the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as a sort of font, if you like, for reflection on these questions. So I do think that will be at the heart of it.
Now, it’s interesting you talk about this contrast between John Paul and Benedict, and it is true at a certain level that John Paul was the master of the gesture and the sound bite. My kind of handy-dandy formula for that is that if John Paul weren’t a pope, he would have been a movie star; if Benedict weren’t a pope, he would have been a university professor, and that’s one way of capturing the difference between the two men. But on the other hand, I think it would also be a mistake to believe that Benedict is simply incapable of talking in pictures when he has a point he wants to make or that kind of flair for the just right dramatic gesture.
You’re right. The baptism last Saturday – and for those of you who haven’t been following this story – during the Easter Vigil Mass last Saturday in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope – well, it’s traditional for the pope to baptize personally a group of new Catholics every year in the Easter Vigil. This year there were seven. One of them happens to be a convert from Islam and a very prominent Italian journalist by the name of Magdi Allam, who is in some ways known as the successor to Oriana Fallaci as the kind of voice of ferocious protest against Islamic fundamentalism, and so on. And you know, clearly that has rung bells.
I think another example that in a way cuts in the other direction -. I remember when we were with Benedict XVI in Turkey, which of course was the trip – Regensburg was September, it was Sept. 12. The Turkey trip was November, so just a couple months later. It was at the end of November and the first day of December. And he was to visit Hagia Sophia, which is the ancient Christian basilica in Istanbul, which has subsequently become – well, it was a mosque, and now it’s sort of a secular place, a museum, so to speak. And then afterwards he was going to go to the Blue Mosque.
We all believed going in that the drama was going to be in Hagia Sophia. I mean, was Benedict going to try to stake, plant his crosier in the earth and reclaim this space for Christendom? In fact, he was very hands-off. Meanwhile, when he got to the Blue Mosque, this was supposed to be a walk-through. We were not expecting anything dramatic out of this setting. And instead, we have that iconic image of the pope standing alongside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, a guy by the name of Mustafa Cagrici, before this niche in the mosque in the direction of Mecca in a shared moment of silent prayer, which became the defining image of that trip. It was something that was not planned or programmed. It was something that Benedict himself decided to do.
So my point here is this, that while at a general level it is true that this is a pope who speaks in paragraphs not in sound bites, and therefore he is something of an acquired taste for the mass market, nevertheless, he also does have the capacity to surprise you. And so my advice there for those of you who will be following the trip is stay on your toes because you never know when one of these moments is going to come down the pike.
WEIGEL: Just a brief note on something else to listen for. If you get hold of the exchange of remarks between the pope and Ambassador Glendon on Feb. 29, you will be struck by the theme of religious freedom and the notion that there is something notable about this being the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which both for Benedict XVI and for the permanent diplomatic bureaucracy of the Holy See represents a kind of moral constitution for the world. We all would have many different answers to the question, what was the most significant international public event of the 20th century? High on the Vatican’s list would be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they see that as a place where the world came together around a common moral consensus.
That consensus, of course, requires a word that Benedict XVI has brought into the Vatican’s inter-religious dialogue in a powerful way, reciprocity. If there is a great mosque in Rome welcomed by the leadership of the Catholic Church, why not a church in Saudi Arabia? If we recognize the freedom of others to change their religious location as conscience dictates, that needs to be recognized by dialogue partners as well. So reciprocity in the conceding that religious freedom is the first of human rights and the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration I suspect will be leitmotifs of this trip.
EVE CONANT, NEWSWEEK: I just wanted to return to the educator question just for a moment and ask two questions. What power does the pope have specifically, or does this come up in any way, if there were an educator at a university who wasn’t adhering to guidelines? What exactly are the steps in place to do something about that educator? How would that work, and what power does the pope have specifically?
And you said, John, back in the early ’90s that the discussion about this change had a big reaction among bishops and educators. It was put aside because of the sex scandals, but now it’s back. So what do we know about the reaction now? Has it died down? Are people embracing it and saying, okay, we’ve had enough time to digest this? Or is there the same sort of backlash it seemed you were saying there was in the early ’90s.
ALLEN: Well, to take the last part of that first, my reading – and George may have a different sense of this. But I speak at a lot of Catholic colleges and universities, so I’m talking to people about this a lot. My reading is that most people by and large are not only willing to engage the conversation, this deep conversation about what does it mean to be a Catholic university, but many of them actually welcome it, I mean, are kind of excited about it. And you see this development.
A lot of Catholic colleges and universities in the last 20 years, for example, have launched Catholic studies programs. I think that’s one index of the idea that we need to be doing something more somehow. That is, there ought to be something distinctive about us, as George was saying. We ought to look and smell more Catholic. So I think at that deep level, by and large, there is openness to it. But when you translate this into the language of power politics – that is, who gets to decide whether we’re Catholic enough, and will there be punitive consequences if we’re not Catholic enough – then I think things get a little bit more dicey and people get nervous.
So to give one example that just came down the pike in recent days, Hillary Clinton was recently in San Antonio, and she spoke at a Catholic college there, St. Mary’s. And the archbishop of San Antonio, a guy by the name of José Gomez, was very critical of that decision to allow Hillary to speak there without providing some kind of forum for a Catholic view of life issues. In other words, his concern was, this is, in effect, suggesting that her position on the life issues is okay.
I think that’s the question: Who gets to decide who can speak here? Who has the power to decide those sorts of things? I think that’s where you get controversy and you get division. At the deep level that there ought to be something distinctively Catholic about what we do, I think there is a pretty good consensus on that question.
To take the first question, what power does the pope have? Well, first of all, canon law specifies – Canon 332 – that the pope has full, supreme, ordinary and universal jurisdiction in the church. So in theory, the buck on every question stops on the pope’s desk. But in reality, things are more complicated than that.
The typical thing that will happen if somebody has an issue with what a Catholic theologian is teaching, then one thing that might happen is that that theologian’s work might come under review by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the Vatican’s doctrinal agency. And over a period of some months, if not years, that might end in a formal public notification from the CDF that there is something wrong with what this person is teaching.
Another thing that could happen is that this person could lose his job at a Catholic university. Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, most of them are incorporated under civil law, so it’s not clear the pope directly has the authority to fire somebody. But typically speaking, if the Vatican makes a full-court press to get rid of someone, then ultimately that person is probably not long for this world. But the tendency, I would say, in recent years, has been to avoid that sort of disciplinary process, in other words, to try to draw a distinction between the person and the content of that person’s work.
So for example, the Vatican, under this Holy Father, has produced critical notifications on five theologians so far. But in not one of those cases were there any disciplinary measures decreed – that is, the person wasn’t silenced; the person wasn’t kicked out of their religious community; the person was not prevented from publishing; the person was not prevented from teaching. And I think this is, to some extent – I think George is right about this – this pope is setting a tone where his interest is in teaching; his interest is not so much in kind of grinding the levers of power inside the church.
So I think there is a kind of informal decision these days that when there is an issue with the content of a theologian’s work, then we will address the work rather than trying to bring the hammer down on the person. Not everyone is happy with that approach; some would see that as a prescription for allowing a lot of things to fester. But nevertheless, I think that’s the consensus that’s operating.
LUGO: Do you want to add anything, George?
WEIGEL: Just a couple of notes. In a sense, this process of intensification of Catholic identity is happening on its own state. Notre Dame, by all these romantic reckonings the flagship university in the Catholic higher education world, is a much more Catholic place today than it was 20 years ago. That has something to do with generational change on the theological faculty. It has something to do with changes in the religious community that runs the place. But it primarily has to do with the kids. The students are saying, we came here for a reason. We came here for a distinctively Catholic experience, which includes worship and service as well as intellectual life. So this is in some sense a kid-driven phenomenon, which is interesting.
The other thing that I have become very aware of in recent years – I’m sure John runs into this constantly as well – is the vitality of Catholic chaplaincies on non-Catholic campuses, three of the most extraordinary of which are at Columbia in New York, at Princeton – a chaplaincy which has just produced two out of Princeton’s three Rhodes scholars this year – and out of all places, Texas A&M. One-quarter of the student body of Texas A&M is Catholic. The Texas A&M Catholic chaplaincy has produced more priests and nuns than Notre Dame in the last 20 years. It’s an absolutely astonishing business, and it has to do with this vibrant Catholic chaplaincy. So when we’re talking about Catholic higher education, we’re not just talking about Georgetown and Catholic U. and whatnot. We’re talking about a Catholic leavening in the broader world of American higher learning, including the elite world of American higher learning.
LAUREN GREEN, FOX NEWS CHANNEL: I want to return to Ex Corde, the hot topic, I think. I’m not quite sure how big a topic it will be once the fallout after his visit comes into play, but you mentioned the idea that when he speaks to the Catholic educators, will he actually say the words “ex corde ecclesiae”? Will he just build that up affirmatively? And then, what would the fallout be? Dialogue is one thing, but what will the effect be? One of the complaints of these Catholic universities is that many of them are made up with many professors who are not Catholic, who do not profess any Catholic doctrine. And so, will there be a backlash of saying that if you’re not Catholic enough, maybe you won’t get tenure, maybe you won’t get hired.
Certainly that might apply to the theological aspects of it, the seminaries and things like that. But what about a physics professor or something like that? And does it mean that a crucifix has to be in the labs or something? How far will they take it if he actually mentions it?
LUGO: Because wasn’t it the case, John, that there was a numerical standard set within Ex Corde that at least half the faculty be Catholic, which gets at that question? Or was that not correctly reported?
ALLEN: No, there was a reference in Ex Corde to the desirability that a significant chunk of your faculty had to be Catholic. But there was no establishing of a kind of fixed numerical cutoff point.
Let me answer your question, first of all, by making a general point, and this might be a good rule of thumb in terms of tracking this visit. Benedict XVI is not the kind of guy who thinks in terms of immediate results. So, if you’re expecting him to talk to the educators on Tuesday and something will be different on Wednesday, that’s just not how he operates.
I do think this is one stylistic difference between Benedict and John Paul. I covered 40 of John Paul’s foreign trips. My sense of John Paul is usually when he traveled, he did expect in some way to change history in the here and now. I mean, he expected something to be different palpably and tangibly. And that had been his experience because so often it had been.
I think Benedict, just constitutionally, thinks against a much longer arc of time. I remember once – this was well before his election as pope – I was at a reception that Cardinal Ratzinger was at, and it eventually narrowed down after people left of just being a few of us. I had some private time with the cardinal, and I said, I want to ask you a question, just personally. This is not journalist-to-source, but I mean, just personally, I’m interested in knowing. You’re a theologian yourself; you come out of the theological world. Does it bother you that so many of your colleagues in Catholic theology don’t agree? I don’t mean does it bother you professionally; of course it has to be a concern. But I mean, personally, does it ever just grind on you that so many of the people that you used to go to faculty meetings with and so on have so publicly disagreed with things that you have said and done?
And his answer was, well, in the 16th and 17th century, the Vatican intervened against Jansenism. Now I’m not sure how many Jansenists’ minds were changed right away, but 300 years later Jansenism is not a living force in the church. I mean, this is what he’s thinking, not what’s going to be different on Thursday, but what will be different 100 years from now or 200 years from now.
So my point is that if you’re expecting something to be magically transformed either in Catholic higher education or any other setting, that’s just not what he’s trying to do. But I will answer your question. Is there going to be some kind of backlash from this press on sort of tightening up Catholic specificity? Yeah, I expect there will be. But again, I don’t think he’s coming in to read the Riot Act to people. So I don’t think people are going to come out of this meeting feeling like they have been taken to task. I expect him to try to phrase this very, very positively about the mission of Catholic colleges and universities that service to the church and to the broader society. At that very abstract level, there’s not going to be any objection.
But the question really is application. I mean, what does this mean in practice. I think there, people will be waiting to see, not even in the first place what might come from the Vatican, but maybe what will come from U.S. bishops on these questions and what the follow-through will look like, because certainly there is some concern. If you define Catholic identity too narrowly, then that might actually get in the way of the other mission of a university, which is to engage the broader culture, because a Catholic university should do two things.
It ought to foster the faith life of the church, but it also ought to be vitally engaged with the whole rest of the world, which means that you want some non-Catholics to be on your faculty; you want some non-Catholics to be among your student body; you want students to be exposed to pluralism and all of the stuff that’s out there. You don’t want to educate them in a Catholic ghetto and then shoot them out unprepared for the supermarket of ideas that’s out there.
So I think there will be some concern about what this – (off mike) – and how you flesh it out. One focal point for that might be that the Vatican in recent years has been trying to encourage Catholic colleges and universities in the United States to develop some instrument for self-assessment about Catholic identity. You know how colleges and universities assess themselves all the time for whether students are learning anything and whether faculty are developing and so on. They’d like to see some kind of tool that would be reasonably quantitative and reasonably applicable across the board that would help Catholic colleges and universities assess how Catholic they really are.
Some leaders in American Catholic higher education have been a little nervous about that because they’re worried that it might end up with the kinds of scenarios that you mentioned – that is, resistance against hiring non-Catholic faculty or resisting against giving tenure and so on. I don’t think that’s what the Vatican has in mind. But I do think that’s where the flashpoints or the tension will be.
Again, to sum all this up, I think in the culture of Catholic higher education in America, there is, basically speaking, a pretty universal consensus that talking about what makes us Catholic and how do we show that to the outside world, I think most people basically buy into that. It’s when you start talking about power questions: Who gets oversight over that? Who gets to decide? That’s where I think the flashpoints will come.
LUGO: George, a short intervention?
WEIGEL: It’s worth underscoring, I think, that these are not issues unique to Catholic institutions of higher learning. If by accident or design 10 years from now the trustees of Brandeis, looking at the faculty list, discover that 60 percent of the Brandeis faculty were Irish Catholics, you can be sure some questions would be raised. If the trustees of Wheaton College 20 years from now – a big evangelical school – were to look up and discover that 60 percent of the faculty were Buddhists, yeah, there would be some questions asked. So these are not Catholic-specific things. What’s distinctive about the Catholic reality is that there is this institutional authority structure that gives you the kind of possibilities and the kind of limitations that John is describing.
I think what Benedict also intuits about all this, though, is that the real divide is between institutions of higher education in which the notion of the truth has a big question mark after it, namely is it possible for human beings to come to know the truth of anything with certainty? There are some schools where the answer to that is no. If you read the report of the Harvard committee on redoing the core curriculum at Harvard, it’s premised on a post-modern notion that there are only narratives and stories. There’s your narrative and my narrative and whatnot, but there’s no thing called the truth, except that you should contribute to the Harvard alumni fund once you graduate, obviously.
That’s the real problem that this pope sees because a Western world, and the university as we know it throughout the world is a product of Western civilization, and specifically Western Christian civilization -. If the Western world cannot make arguments with conviction that religious freedom is superior to religious coercion, that persuasion is better than violence in politics, that tolerance and civility are superior to prejudice and bias, if we can’t make rational arguments for that, then we are in a very, very sad shape in defending and promoting the core values of our civilization as they have evolved in the interaction of Jerusalem and Athens and Rome for the past 3,000 years.
SALLY QUINN, ON FAITH: I want to go back to Regensburg because you all have talked about how that was really an opening for dialogue. But a lot of Muslims don’t see it that way, and there is a lot of contention about Regensburg. I was at a conference at Georgetown recently between Catholics and Muslims, and the Muslims were universally upset by this and essentially saying that Regensburg set dialogue back years. How do you all feel about that?
WEIGEL: Well, it set the dialogue in which those people have been engaged back. But that dialogue was going nowhere and the pope knew it. An inter-religious dialogue that is an exchange of pleasantries – aren’t we all wonderful; wouldn’t it be nice if everyone else was as wonderful as we are – there are no real issues here. That’s not dialogue and that’s not tolerance.
Tolerance doesn’t mean ignoring difference as if difference didn’t make a difference. Tolerance comes from the Latin, tolerare, to bear with. Tolerance means to engage differences with civility and respect. So I’m not surprised that those people who have in a sense owned the inter-religious dialogue franchise for the past 30 years are a little bit bent out of shape that somebody came along and rearranged the pieces on the chessboard.
If you’re looking at this in 100-, 200-, 300-year terms, as John correctly suggests this pope thinks, what’s really of interest is not what those people think, but what King Abdullah has done. What is of interest is not that certain people complained about the Magdi Allam baptism, but that the guy who raised the loudest complaints is still coming to the Catholic-Muslim Forum meeting in Rome because he knows that’s where the action is.
So I think that’s what has to be said, Sally, on that front, that this conversation had gotten into a set of grooves that were leading really nowhere. And a new set of grooves had to be created in which these two questions – come back to this again – religious freedom as a human right that can be known by moral reason, whether you’re religious or not, and the separation of religious and political authority in the state. Two issues that have tended to be back-burnered, pushed to the side of the plate in inter-religious dialogue precisely because they’re neuralgic, have now been put in play and in a way that serious people have responded to in a serious way. And I suspect those who are of the old school, if you will, will catch up with the program eventually when they see that’s where the bus is moving over time.
QUINN: Although these were mostly younger –
WEIGEL: All right. It doesn’t make any –
ALLEN: Without disagreeing, George, with anything you just said, I do think that we need to do justice to the edge of your question. I’ve traveled fairly extensively in the Middle East. There is no question that Pope Benedict XVI has an image problem in the Muslim world, not just the artisans and the professional practitioners of inter-religious dialogue, but I’m talking about average, the 20- and 30-something Muslims who work in the markets and who want to sell you oranges out in front of your hotel, I mean, these kinds of people.
There is a clear sense of ambivalence about and concern about this pope, particularly in contrast with the one who came before him, who was widely perceived as a friend of the Islamic world. And so I do think that Benedict XVI, precisely to advance the kind of important conversation George is talking about, has to find a new vocabulary. I think insiders get what he’s doing; I’m not sure the outside world, including the vast majority of the Muslim world, does.
But I do think, just to try to put this in a sound bite, at the end of the day, Benedict XVI does not understand himself to be launching a new crusade. He understands himself to be trying to stimulate a reform within Islam because – take this to the bank – in Benedict XVI’s world view, the real threat today is not Islam. The real threat is what he’s referred to as a “dictatorship of relativism,” that is, exaggerated secularism and a collapse of confidence in the truth, exactly what George talked about. In that struggle, Benedict believes that a more moderate, reformed form of Islam ought to be Christianity’s natural ally. In other words, that Christians and Muslims – both of whom can agree about the necessary relationship between reason and faith – the serious religious believers in the world ought to be the ones who hold the line against the dictatorship of relativism.
So, at the end of the day, that’s how I think you put these two things together, because it’s hard for people on the outside to understand. How can he be doing what he did at Regensburg and doing what he did with the baptism of Magdi Allam and at the same time creating new forms of dialogue? It seems like schizophrenia. Well, at the deep level, the pope understands himself to be trying to stimulate this conversation within Islam because until Islam gets its own act together in terms of the relationship between reason and faith, it’s going to be difficult for Christians and Muslims to work together on this much larger struggle that he sees, okay? So all of that makes perfect sense to him, but I would agree with the edge of your question that he’s struggling to communicate that, particularly to the Islamic street.
QUINN: How much of the problem do you think is because there is no one leader of Islam the way there is a leader of the Catholic Church? There is no Islamic pope.
ALLEN: Well, that’s true, but I’m not sure that’s the heart of this problem. My own sense is that in the Islamic world, by and large – granted we’re talking about 1.3 billion people so generalizations are dangerous – but my sense is that most people look at the pope as the CEO of Christianity, Incorporated. They don’t know about distinctions between Catholics and – they think the pope speaks for Western Christendom, okay?
So I would really say, on this particular issue, the problem is not with the Islamic street. The problem really is that Benedict XVI has yet to find a vocabulary so that he can get this message across as he has put it together in his own mind.
WEIGEL: The other part of the problem, Sally, and everyone else, is that Vatican communications – Joaquin Navarro sort of dragged the Vatican into the 20th century, but into the first half of the 20th century. Now, if we can get to 1980, we’d be in better shape. Regensburg had some of the effect that it did because of an inept communications strategy. So if the pope is going to play in an al Jazeera world, he needs means to do that in order to reach not just the street, but the people in leadership capacity who have to pay attention to that Muslim street. The really down side of this pope not shaking up the Roman bureaucratic scene is precisely on the communications front, it seems to me.
BARBARA BRADLEY-HAGERTY, NPR: You made a perfect transition to my next question although I’d like to actually stay on Regensburg. I have a mini-question and then I’m going to attach my real one. Do you think Pope John Paul II would have made that kind of statement that Benedict made in Regensburg? Wasn’t that kind of a gaff that is so deep – that reflects his thinking and how different it is from Pope John Paul II.
Before you answer that, I want to ask you, the day before this pope was elected pope, he gave a talk about, a homily about the dictatorship of relativism. I’m wondering if that continues to be his kind of early legacy in much the same way that the fall of communism or attack on communism was Pope John Paul II’s. And, if so, that’s a pretty amorphous goal, so what are the concrete steps or actions that we see him taking to attack the dictatorship of relativism?
WEIGEL: Very briefly, John Paul II was the master of not only the public gesture, but the personal gesture. So when he goes to the mosque in Damascus in 2000 or 2001 –
ALLEN: May 2001.
WEIGEL: – and kisses the Koran, he’s not making a statement about the religious authority of the Koran. He’s expressing his personal esteem for the piety of Muslims. By the same token, if you read Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II’s most personal statement, he says things about his theological reading of Islam there – that the anthropology and theology of Islam are very distant from us – that are far more critical than anything Benedict XVI said at Regensburg. So, again, I think there’s a communications issue here at work.
ALLEN: Yeah, quickly, Barbara, on that, I think he would have said, and in fact did say on many different occasions, the substance of the Regensburg address. John Paul met with Muslims more than 60 times. We don’t have to speculate about what his message would have been. All of his addresses to Muslims have actually been published, and so on. And he said the substance of this idea of the relationship between reason and faith, but I think he would have found a more artful way of trying to shoot the message out there and, again, it’s a communications problem.
Look, the dictatorship of relativism – you’re right, it’s amorphous; it’s hard to understand, hard to get your teeth into. But in a just quick bite about the pope’s legacy there, I think affirmative orthodoxy is his legacy. I think rather than worrying about approaching this in a kind of disciplinary fashion – that is, beating people around the head and shoulders for their failures to be orthodox – I think he is clearly calling Catholics to a stronger sense of what makes them Catholic, but understood and phrased in a relentlessly positive fashion to try to present the Christian message as the key that unlocks the mysteries of the human heart and, again, thinking against a long arc of time. I think he believes that over time that will create a culture, first inside the church and then in the broader world, that will somehow change history.
ADRIENNE WOLTERSDORF, DIE TAGESZEITUNG: Thank you. You both spoke more specifically about the groups who were probably not going to be so excited about the pope, like the victims – .My question would be, do you really think this pope can be exciting here in this surrounding, especially the now heightened state of alert? And, also, maybe you have good advice for a first-timer covering the pope visit? (Chuckles.) What is very important?
WEIGEL: Bring lots of water bottles and go to the bathroom as often as possible – (laughter) – would be my practical advice. Granola bars also help.
In fact, if you get out into the parishes around the archdiocese of Washington, at least, there’s intense interest in this. I think the crowd at Nationals Park will be very vibrant and lively. Whether this is going to create a city-wide buzz, given the security cordon that’s going to be around him the whole time, remains to be seen, and probably there will be less of that than in previous papal events.
At least among Catholics that I run into, I mean, ordinary people in my parish, there’s enormous interest in this, and pastors all over the archdiocese are going crazy trying to meet ticket requests for the mass, even though people are going to have to get there at about 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning in order to clear the security and be in there in time for the beginning. But the security situation, which I think it has to be stressed, is not the Vatican’s idea – this is the insistence of the Secret Service – is going to be a factor in measuring the buzz of this event.
LUGO: John, any tips for first-time reporters covering this event?
ALLEN: Yeah, well, yes. Basically, you have to think of yourself not just as a reporter, but as a translator. He’s going to be speaking English, of course, so I mean he’ll be speaking the language of the people, and I think he’ll probably also throw in a couple of sound bites in Spanish for the burgeoning Hispanic percentage of the U.S. church. But, the thing is, popes generally often speak a kind of Catholic argot that has to be unpacked, and particularly with this guy.
I have a specialized Catholic audience, and I also work for the mass-market press. One of the things I’ve noticed about Benedict XVI is there’s a big gap between insider reactions and outsider reactions. The insider Catholic world loves this pope. And left, right and center, by the way. He gets high numbers, which is kind of a big surprise because he was sort of the Darth Vader for the Catholic liberals. But even that world has given him pretty high marks over the first three years.
There is intense interest in that insider, Catholic audience. But for people who don’t hang on Catholic stuff, I would say after three years, he’s still pretty much an enigma. If you stop the average person out in the street and ask them what do they know about Benedict XVI, I suspect they could tell you, well, he seems nicer than what some people said when he was elected; two, he had a problem with Muslims a while back, I think; and, three, I heard that he wears Prada shoes. (Laughter.) And beyond that, he’s pretty much a big question mark, you know?
My tip is this, there’s going to be a lot of the meat and the bone to what he says; this isn’t just a kind of blow-dried figure coming in for a photo op. He’s going to have some serious challenges to put on the table. But you’re going to have to do the work of unpacking that and putting it in language that average people can understand because the pope is not going to do it for you.
Another way to put this is, it’s not going to be enough just to roll the audio or the video of what the pope said at Yankee Stadium or whatever and sell the story. It’s going to be the art of unpacking that and explaining what its political and social and cultural consequences are. So, therefore, what I always tell people who are making their first trip, you’ve got to think that your job here is translation. You are translating from Vaticanese into the language of your readers or viewers.
SIMONE MIR HASCHEMI, GERMAN BROADCASTING, ARD:I have a question considering the abuse scandal. Do you have any insight on why the decision has been made against the pope addressing victims directly, against the pope going to Boston? If it was in the discussion, what influenced the discussion at all?
ALLEN: Well, first of all, this wasn’t just a hypothesis. I know at least two American cardinals that actually proposed formally to the Holy See that the pope go to Boston. And, ultimately, the decision was made that he wouldn’t. I think on Boston there are three things you’ve got to understand. One, when this pope travels, even when he travels vast distances, he doesn’t go to a lot of places. This is not a John Paul barnstorming operation from the early years of John Paul’s papacy.
When John Paul came to the United States in 1979, he was here for seven days. He visited seven cities and he gave 63 speeches. Benedict XVI is going to be here for six days. He’s visiting two cities and he’s giving 11 speeches. Okay, that gives you some sense of just the quantitative contrast.
When we were with him in Brazil, he flew 14 hours to get to Brazil. He went to Sao Paolo, he went 40 kilometers away to speak to the Latin American bishops and that was it; then we went home. So the notion that Benedict was going to be city-hopping in the United States was always kind of nonsense.
The trip started with the desire to speak to the General Assembly of the U.N.; therefore, he was always going to New York. He would obviously have to visit the country’s capital; therefore, he was coming to Washington. And, to some extent, that probably was always going to be the show. The idea that he was going to go someplace else I don’t think was probably ever a realistic hypothesis. But there is, of course, another ingredient as to why not Boston, and that is, as this conversation played itself out, I think there was a desire among the people who are responsible for putting the pope’s trip together, both in terms of the American bishops and also in the Holy See, not to make the sex abuse crisis the whole story.
If the pope goes to Boston, then, in a way, that’s like waving a red flag in front of the media inviting us to do nothing other than rehashing the debris of the crisis. I can more than speculate; I can tell you that that certainly was a factor in the decision. In terms of why not meeting with victims, I think it’s much the same thing, plus, then of course there’s the logistical question of which victims and how do you decide and all of that.
So I think the decision that has been made is that the Holy Father will address the crisis in his comments both behind closed doors with the bishops and also in public, speaking to the entire American public and to the American Catholic Church. He will say what needs to be said from their point of view. He will do that in those fora. And from their point of view, that will be enough. Again, my prediction is that if you’re talking to victims groups and so on, you will find that they come away disappointed.
LUGO: George, a final word?
WEIGEL: I think there is another factor in this of which I must say, despite having written a book on this subject a few years ago, I was completely unaware. There are now two cases at the appellate level of the U.S. federal court system that are attempting to tie the pope and the Holy See into – as liable for damages in these cases on the theory that there’s this Marine Corps-like chain of command, and if the gunnery sergeant makes a mess, the commandant is responsible. This is, of course, not how the Catholic Church works. These are both challenges to what I am told is called the Foreign Sovereign’s Immunity Act –
ALLEN: Of 1976.
WEIGEL: – about which some of you may know more than I. But I think that’s on people’s minds as well. There are, to be candid, predatory tort lawyers out there who are going to be going through these texts with a fine-toothed comb looking for something either in these two cases or for future cases, and I think that is, frankly, a factor in this as well. And that probably ought to be noted, I mean, that this is part of the mix right now.
This written transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling, grammar and accuracy by Amy Stern.