Vatican expert covers crucial church issues

COLUMBIA — Catholicism’s relationship to Islam, the quest to maintain and restore true “Catholic identity” and the spiritual crisis in Europe are the issues most crucial to the faith right now, according to John L. Allen Jr.

The journalist and author, considered one of the world’s foremost experts on the Vatican, was in South Carolina Nov. 8-9 for the eighth annual Joseph Cardinal Bernardin lecture at the University of South Carolina. Allen presented a lecture, “Live from the Vatican: Current Issues in the Church,” at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on Nov. 8, and took part in a symposium on religion and the media at USC’s Rutledge Chapel Nov. 9. He is the Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter and a senior analyst for CNN.

In a telephone interview with The Miscellany, Allen said that events this year have pushed the relationship between the church and the Muslim world to the forefront of discussion among Vatican officials.

He said there is a key difference between Pope Benedict’s attitude toward Islam and that of his predecessor. Pope John Paul II was noted for opening up a dialogue with Islam, and he became the first pope ever to enter a mosque. Pope Benedict now wants to take the dialogue to the next level by asking Muslims to consider difficult issues, such as the use of violence by terrorists who claim Islam as their faith, he said.

“John Paul II always tried to accent the positive,” Allen said. “Benedict says that now those bridges have been built, we have to walk across them … he is profoundly committed to frank and sincere dialogue.”

Allen said the pope’s concern about the rise of secularism in the world is prompted by the steep decline of Christianity in Western Europe. He said this is reflected in everything from a profound drop in Mass attendance and vocations, to the lack of reference to a Christian heritage in the constitution of the European Union.

Allen describes Pope Benedict as a realist when it comes to this issue.

“He realizes that Christianity as a mass phenomena is probably over in Europe,” Allen said.

He said the pope likely views the future of Catholicism in Europe as being carried on by what he calls a “creative minority” — not a “downsized church of the elect” but rather devoted believers who want to share Christ’s message of hope with today’s world.

“The instinct in much of the world is to view the Catholic Church as the great doctrinaire who says ‘no’ to things … We have to rediscover the capacity to say ‘yes,’ to show the world that behind those ‘nos’ is a vision of true human happiness, that ultimately Christianity is a message of love and liberation,” Allen said.

Allen said one of the greatest challenges facing Catholics around the world, not just in America, is the emerging movement toward recovering a true “Catholic identity.”

“By the Catholic identity movement in the church today, I mean the effort built during the pontificate of John Paul II and now Benedict to try to restore some of the traditional markers of our identity that many people felt were too hastily set aside in Vatican II,” he said.

These markers can range from the most recent papal instruction against laity being allowed to purify sacred vessels to allowing more Latin responses during Mass, more frequent celebration of the Tridentine Mass, or rediscovering the observance of traditional feasts such as Corpus Christi.

Allen told the crowd of about 100 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral that American Catholics must try to avoid splintering into specific groups that reflect only a certain aspect or perspective on the faith.

“There are neo-conservative Catholics, charismatic Catholics, social justice Catholics, others … They all read their own journals, go to their own conferences, have their own heroes, and rarely do they rub shoulders,” he said. “We need to relearn the culture of conversation in the church. There’s almost a tribalism that we find in the Catholic community, and there needs to be some kind of alternative to that. It’s an acute problem in the U.S. and it needs some creative thinking to solve it.”