Archive for July, 2008

Interview With Father Vincent Twomey

MAYNOOTH, Ireland, JUNE 25, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The modern conception of conscience reduces it to an excuse mechanism, that it cannot err and that what one thinks is right is in fact right, said author Father Vincent Twomey.

Father Twomey, retired professor of moral theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick’s College, in Maynooth, is the author of “Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age,” published this year by Ignatius Press.

In this interview with ZENIT, he comments on the Holy Father’s role in providing a way to return to a deeper understanding of conscience.

Q: You were a doctoral student of Father Joseph Ratzinger. How has that experience uniquely prepared you to write this book?

Father Twomey: I joined professor Ratzinger’s doctoral colloquium in the spring of 1971, and studied under his supervision for the doctorate, which I was awarded in 1979.

Since his election as archbishop of Munich in 1977, he has met with his former doctoral and postdoctoral students each year for a weekend colloquium, a practice that continued even after his election as Benedict XVI.

I think that, as a result, I have a personal knowledge of the Pope that is, perhaps, unique.
Sitting at his feet as a student, studying his writings, and participating in discussions with him over some 36 years has also given me a certain insight into his thought, which in turn has influenced my own theology profoundly.

Q: What do you think are the most defining characteristics of the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI?

Father Twomey: The most defining formal characteristics of his writings are originality, clarity and a superb literary style that is not easy to render in translation.

Ratzinger is more than a world-class scholar and academic: He is an original thinker.

He has the Midas touch, in the positive sense that whatever he touches, he turns to gold, in other words, whatever subject he examines, he has something new and exciting to say about it, be it the dogmas of the Church or a mosaic in an ancient Roman church or bioethics. And he writes with amazing clarity.

With regard to his style, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne is reported as commenting that Ratzinger is the Mozart of theology — he writes masterpieces effortlessly.

With regard to its content, as Ratzinger once said himself, “God is the real central theme of my endeavors.”

There is hardly an area of theology — dogma, moral, political life, bioethics, liturgy, exegesis, music, art — that he has not examined in-depth. And everything he examines, he does so from God’s viewpoint, as it were, namely trying to discover what light revelation — Scripture and Tradition — can shine on a particular issue.

On the other hand, his theological reflection is firmly rooted in contemporary experience: the questions and existential issues posed by modernity and post-modernity, by contemporary thinkers and the epoch-making events of our times.

However, his pastoral and administrative duties as archbishop and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were such that he had little time to write extensive monographs, with the result that most of his writings are of a fragmentary nature. But what fragments!

Each has the capacity to convey that insight into truth that touches the mind and heart of the reader — and can effect in many a change of heart.

Q: You describe Benedict XVI as unafraid of making mistakes, and as “having the courage to be imperfect.” Can you explain this further?

Father Twomey: Having the courage to be imperfect is more than being afraid of making mistakes, though it may include it.

Basic to his whole attitude to life and to theology is the assumption that only God is perfect, that human effort is always imperfect.

Perfectionism of any kind is inimical to man, but above all in the political sphere. Most political ideologies aim to create a perfect world, a perfect society and usually end up making hell on earth.

That is a frequent theme of his writings on political life. But also with regard to the human effort to do theology, as it were. That, too, will always be unfinished business, always capable of improvement, of correction and deepening.

We cannot know everything, least of all God and his design for man. I have described his writings as “fragmentary.” Most of his writings are unfinished — like his classic book, “Introduction to Christianity,” and, more recently, his “Jesus of Nazareth.” And yet he has the courage to publish them in their unfinished state.

This attitude gave Joseph Ratzinger that inner calm and detachment which the world is now experiencing in Benedict XVI. But it also is, perhaps, the secret of his gentle humor and wit.

Q: You suggest that there has been a distortion of the word conscience. What is this distortion and how has it affected the Church?

Father Twomey: The starting point is the traditional notion of an erroneous conscience, which in the wake of the turbulence that followed “Humanae Vitae,” was falsely interpreted to mean, in effect for many, that it does not matter what one does, provided that one is sincerely convinced that it is right.

Sincerity now becomes the criterion of morality and, taken to its logical conclusion, it would be impossible to condemn a Hitler or a Stalin, since it could be claimed that they too acted according to their “lights,” according to their sincere convictions.

The traditional insistence on the primacy of following your conscience, even if erroneous, led to a new notion, that of the “infallible conscience.” This amounts to the claim that conscience cannot err, that what you think is right is in fact right.

This is to reduce conscience to an excuse mechanism. This notion receives its persuasiveness, if not its inspiration, from the prevailing relativism of modernity.

It is sometimes claimed today that each one can adopt whatever moral principles he or she decides best for them. These are the fruit of their conscientious choice, after having looked at the options.

This is indeed a very attractive theory. But it amounts to the claim that each person can determine for himself what is right or wrong, the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden.

Often, it is given the title “a la carte” Catholicism, picking and choosing what suits us. Morality is reduced to an ultimately irrational personal preference.

This prevailing notion of conscience has had a devastating effect on the Church and Christian living.

Q: You describe Benedict XVI as a guide for the conscience in today’s age. In what ways do you believe this to be true?

Father Twomey: First of all, as theologian and later as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger has been the voice of the Church’s conscience in affirming the objective truth when it was denied either theoretically or in practice.

It is astonishing that secular thinkers, those outside the Church, as it were, seem to recognize this more than those inside. Thus, for example, the French Academy honored him as the apt successor to Andrey Sacharov, the dissident atom physicist during the tyranny of the Soviet Union.

It was their recognition of a courageous thinker who was in effect the great “dissident” under the “dictatorship of relativism” that has swamped Europe and America over the past half-century.

Secondly, conscience is not only a central theme of his writings, he has also made a major contribution to correcting the false understanding of conscience outlined above, to which I devote a whole chapter in my book.

Q: How did the experience of growing up in Nazi Germany helped to prepare Joseph Ratzinger for the papacy? What particular lessons did he learn then that he still puts into practice today?

Father Twomey: The answer to this question is to be found in a comment he made in an interview in 1999: “As a result [of living through the Nazi period], I learned to have a certain reserve with regard to the reigning ideologies.”

Evidently, he meant “ideologies” also to cover those found within the Church, which are fashionable since they reflect current ideological trends in society.

His experience of living under a political ideology and its bureaucracy made him sensitive to the need for the exercise of moral responsibility on the part of each one, but in particular on the part of those who hold public office in the Church or in the state. Moral responsibility is but another word for conscience.

His skepticism regarding episcopal conferences is rooted in the experience of how, as a collective, the German bishops, to put it mildly, had not quite matched up to the witness given by individual bishops such as Bishop Clemens von Galen of Muenster and Archbishop Michael Faulhaber of Munich.

He calls on all bishops to give personal witness and not wait for the collective conference to rubber-stamp some document prepared by an anonymous commission.

Likewise, his theology has been marked by a personal search for the truth, urged on by his conscience. All his life, he has exercised his personal moral responsibility, even when it earned for him the negative title of “rottweiler” or “grand inquisitor” — or, indeed, “the enemy of humanity,” as one journalist put it.

To speak the truth in love is to be in opposition, very often, to the prevailing fashions and so to make oneself unpopular.

Now, as Benedict XVI, he continues to exercise that moral responsibility, not least in the way he writes most of his own speeches, which speak to the heart of his audience because they are spoken from his own heart and not from a prepared schema.

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Babies Eliminated as New Eugenics Gains Force

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, JUNE 25, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The desire for perfect babies combined with the possibilities of biotechnology is taking an ever-higher toll. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and other forms of screening enable the detection of genetic defects, leading either to embryos being eliminated before implantation when combined with in vitro fecundation, or to abortion in the case of pregnancies already in progress.

Philosopher Michael J. Sandel considered some of the ethical questions involved in this practice in the book “The Case Against Perfection,” published in May by Belknap Press. A professor of government at Harvard University, Sandel starts his brief book by asking if, even when no harm is involved, there is something troubling about parents “ordering up a child” with certain genetic traits.

Sandel’s approach is nonreligious and does not fully embrace the position of the Church. For example, he defends embryonic stem cell research. Nevertheless, the book provides a useful series of reflections which invite the reader to consider the implications of both eliminating individuals with genetic defects and also efforts to “improve” physical or mental capabilities.

This “drive to mastery,” as Sandel terms it, runs the risk of destroying our appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements. In other words, “that not everything in the world is open to any use we may desire or devise.”

When it comes to parenthood, Sandel comments that unlike our friends, we do not choose our children. “To appreciate children as gifts is to accept them as they come, not as objects of our design, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition.”

Thus, he continues, the problem with wanting to choose children with or without certain genetic characteristics is in the hubris of the parents. Such a parental disposition, he adverts, “disfigures the relation between parent and child.” As a result the unconditional love that a parent should have toward a child is placed at risk.

Sandel also warns that if we erode the sense of the gifted character of human powers and achievements we will damage three important elements in society: humility, responsibility and solidarity.

A school for humility

Parenthood is a school for humility, according to Sandel, in which we care deeply about our children, and also live with the unexpected. When it comes to responsibility, the more we become involved in determining our genetic qualities, the greater the burden we will bear for the talents we have and how we perform.

For example, once giving birth to a child with Down syndrome was considered a matter of chance. Today parents who of children with Down syndrome or other disabilities feel blamed for not having eliminated the child before birth.

In turn, this growth in responsibility could well damage solidarity, Sandel continues, because there is a very real risk that those who are less fortunate will come to be seen not as disadvantaged, but as simply unfit.

Sandel is not the only one to be worried over what happens to those who are less fortunate in the genetic stakes. A number of press articles over the last few months have taken up the matter of the elimination of embryos detected with Down syndrome.

On May 9 the New York Times published an article reporting that, following a new recommendation by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, doctors have begun to offer a screening procedure to all pregnant women, regardless of age, for Down syndrome. About 90% of pregnant women who are given a Down syndrome diagnosis normally choose to have an abortion, the article reported.

The article then went on to describe the efforts by some parents to educate the medical profession about the fulfilling lives that children suffering from disabilities can lead. Advances in medical treatment and appropriate attention means that, despite not inconsiderable difficulties, Down syndrome children can achieve much in their lives.

Morally wrong

The New York Times returned to the argument on May 13 with another article. Among other testimonies was that of Sarah Lynn Lester, a supporter of abortion rights, who nevertheless continued her pregnancy after learning her child had Down syndrome. “I thought it would be morally wrong to have an abortion for a child that had a genetic disability,” she told the newspaper.

Earlier this year the Canadian Down Syndrome Society launched a public awareness campaign to counter the trend toward genetic testing, reported the National Post newspaper Jan. 10.

The campaign came just as the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada released a recommendation that all expectant mothers undergo screening for Down syndrome.

The article also quoted Dr. Will Johnston, president of the Vancouver-based organization Physicians for Life, who said his members find the move toward more fetal screening to be troubling.

“I think it shows our inability as a culture to be as inclusive and accepting of diversity as we would like to think we are,” he said.

Italy is another country where genetic screening is increasing. According to a March 11 report in the national daily newspaper La Repubblica, by 2005 no less than 79% of Italian women were having three or more ultrasound examinations during pregnancy.

The tests, however, can sometimes have a tragic outcome. On March 7 the Italian news agency ANSA reported on the case of a 22 week-old fetus aborted because of a mistaken diagnosis of a defective esophagus.

After the ultrasound examination, which erroneously seemed to reveal a problem, the mother decided to abort. The baby survived the abortion, but the following day ANSA reported that it had died.

Cosmetic screening

As biotechnology develops, genetic screening seems destined to expand even further, with ominous consequences for babies. On May 6 the London-based Sunday Times reported that the Bridge Center Fertility clinic had received the go ahead from the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority to screen a couple’s embryos in order to create a baby without eyes affected with cross-eye, also known as a squint.

The article also noted that screening has now started for some forms of cancer and early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“We will increasingly see the use of embryo screening for severe cosmetic conditions,” Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director of the clinic, told the Sunday Times.

David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, was critical of the decision to allow such screening. “We moved from preventing children who will die young to those who might become ill in middle age,” he noted. “Now we discard those who will live as long as the rest of us but are cosmetically imperfect.”

Concern over such trends was also expressed by Benedict XVI in an address given Feb. 24 to members of the Pontifical Academy for Life. “A new wave of discriminatory eugenics finds consensus in the name of the presumed well-being of the individual, and laws are promoted especially in the economically progressive world for the legalization of euthanasia,” the Pontiff warned.

In today’s increasingly secularized world our consciences face increasing obstacles in distinguishing the correct path to take on these and other issues, the Pope added. This is due both to a growing rejection of the Christian tradition and also to a distrust of the capacity of our reason to perceive the truth, he explained.

“Life is the first good received from God and is fundamental to all others; to guarantee the right to life for all and in an equal manner for all is the duty upon which the future of humanity depends,” the Holy Father concluded. A duty made increasingly urgent in the face of increased pressures to manipulate life.

Pope Offers Guidelines

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, JUNE 24, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Confrontations over globalization no longer make headlines, but many concerns remain over the future of the world economy. In past months the question of growing economic inequality has come under increasing attention.

Globalization has delivered many benefits, argued a front-page article published May 24 by the Wall Street Journal. The article did concede, however: “As trade, foreign investment and technology have spread, the gap between economic haves and have-nots has frequently widened, not only in wealthy countries like the United States, but in poorer ones like Mexico, Argentina, India and China as well.”

The experience of the last few years is showing that those with education and skills benefit from globalization. Others, without these advantages, are not so fortunate. While not forgetting the benefits of globalization for many millions of people, the Wall Street Journal also expressed concern that the growing inequalities could provoke a backlash that would damage trade and investment.

Earlier this year, U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke also warned of problems stemming from economic inequality. In a speech given Feb. 6 to the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce in Nebraska, Bernanke defended the idea that the free market does not guarantee an equality of economic outcomes, allowing as it does the possibility for unequal rewards due to differences in effort and skill.

Slipping down the ladder

“That said, we also believe that no one should be allowed to slip too far down the economic ladder, especially for reasons beyond his or her control,” he added in the text posted on the Federal Reserve Board site.

Outlining evidence from a variety of sources, the Federal Reserve chairman pointed out that over the last few decades economic well-being in the United States has increased considerably. At the same time, he observed that “the degree of inequality in economic outcomes has increased as well.”

Bernanke admitted the difficulty of resolving the question of how to maintain a balance between a market system that uses economic incentives and stimulates growth, and the need to protect individuals against adverse economic outcomes.

Proposing solutions to this problem involves value judgments beyond the realm of economic theory, Bernanke concluded. He did, however, suggest a range of possible measures, ranging from education and job training, to helping individuals and families bear the cost of economic change, as ways to affront the problem of inequality.

A similar position was expressed in an opinion article by Danny Leipziger and Michael Spence, published in the Financial Times on May 15. The authors, respectively a vice president at the World Bank and a 2001 Nobel laureate in economics, argued that in the globalization debate the most important issue is “who benefits and who loses.”

“Globalization is a positive sum game in the aggregate but one that produces both winners and losers,” they also observed.

Leipziger and Spence supported improvements in education to help workers affront the current situation. In addition, they called for better safety nets, more investment in infrastructure and assured access to services such as health care.

Dignity of the person

Amid the ongoing debate over issues of economics and ethics, Benedict XVI has addressed these issues on several occasions in recent months. On May 26 he spoke to a group of young people from Confindustria, the General Confederation of Italian Industry.

Every business, the Pope noted, should be considered first and foremost as a group of people, whose rights and dignity should be respected. Human life and its values, the Pontiff continued, should always be the guiding principle and end of the economy.

In this context, Benedict XVI acknowledged that for business, making a profit is a value that they can rightly put as an objective of their activity. At the same time the social teaching of the Church insists that businesses must also safeguard the dignity of the human person, and that even in moments of economic difficulties, business decisions must not be guided exclusively by considerations of profit.

The Pope also dealt briefly with the theme of globalization. This is a phenomenon, he commented, that gives hope of a wider participation in economic development and riches. It is a process not without its risks, however, leading in some cases to worsening economic inequality. Echoing the words of Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI called for a globalization characterized by solidarity and without marginalization of people.

Other principles that need to guide the economy are justice and charity, Benedict XVI explained in a message, dated April 28, to the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Mary Ann Glendon. The letter was sent on the occasion of the plenary session of the academy, held April 27-May 1.

The pursuit of justice and the promotion of the civilization of love, the message stated, are essential aspects of the Church’s mission in its proclamation of the Gospel. Justice and love cannot be separated, the Pope observed, because of the Church’s experience of how the two were united in “the revelation of God’s infinite justice and mercy in Jesus Christ.”

Justice, he continued, must be “corrected” by love, a love which inspires justice and purifies our efforts to build a better society. “Only charity can encourage us to place the human person once more at the center of life in society and at the center of a globalized world governed by justice,” the Pope stated.

Labor market

The Pope took a closer look at some of the problems facing workers in a couple of speeches earlier this year. In a message dated March 28, sent to participants in the 9th International Youth Forum organized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Benedict XVI commented that in recent years economic and technological changes have radically changed the labor market.

This has given hope to young people, the Pontiff conceded, but it also brings with it the need for greater skills and education, and the demand that workers be prepared to travel, even to other countries, in searching for jobs.

Work, he explained, is part of God’s plan for humanity and through it we participate in the work of creation and redemption. We will live this better, the Pope urged, if we remain united to Christ through prayer and sacramental life.

Then, on March 31, Benedict XVI spoke to a gathering of Confartigianato, an association of Italian artisans. Work is part of God’s plan for man, even if because of original sin it has become more of a burden, the Pope explained.

It is important, he exhorted, to proclaim the primacy of the human person and the common good over capital, science, technology and even private ownership. As Christians, we can testify to the “Gospel of work,” in our daily lives, the Pope reminded them.

The Pontiff also had words for those directing workers, in an address to a group from the Italian group, the Christian Union of Business Executives on March 4. Justice and charity, the Pope said, are inseparable elements in the social commitment of Christians.

“It is incumbent on lay faithful in particular to work for a just order in society, taking part in public life in the first person, cooperating with other citizens and fulfilling their own responsibility,” said the Pope.

“Unfortunately, partly because of current economic difficulties, these values often run the risk of not being followed by those business persons who lack a sound moral inspiration,” he also noted. Values which, together with sound economic policies, could go a long way in finding solutions to the ethical challenges in a globalized world.

Interview With President of Council for Christian Unity

VATICAN CITY, JUNE 22, 2007 (Zenit.org).- There are signs of new hope that relations with the Assyrian Church of the East are advancing, says Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Cardinal Kasper met Thursday with Catholicos Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV, head of the Assyrian Church of the East. The patriarch had met earlier with Benedict XVI.

On that occasion, the cardinal granted this interview with ZENIT, in which he summarizes the situation of relations between the Vatican and the Assyrian Church of the East.

Q: We seldom hear of the Assyrian Church of the East. Could you say some words on the past and present situation of this particular Church?

Cardinal Kasper: The Assyrian Church of the East is one of the smaller Wastern Churches, at least in the number of the faithful. Its historical roots are in the missionary activity of the early Church, when it moved eastward, in the direction of Mesopotamia and former Babylonia, outside the Roman Empire.

In present day geography, we can say that Iraq is the original homeland of most Assyrian faithful. More recently, due to successive periods of persecution and hardship, a large majority of Assyrian faithful migrated to the West. Nowadays the Assyrian Church has dioceses in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. The patriarch himself has his residence in Chicago.

Like other Churches in and from the Middle East, the Assyrian Church of the East faces many challenges. There is the dramatic situation in Iraq, where Christians belonging to various Churches have their very existence seriously threatened. Assyrian faithful are also scattered in different parts of the world, and this does not allow for pastoral service to be assured everywhere by their own priests.

Benedict XVI has mentioned some of these challenges in his address to Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV. He also insisted on the need for and the possibility of further cooperation between Catholic and Assyrian faithful, wherever they live together.

Q: In his address to Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV, Benedict XVI also referred to the positive results of the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. How did the relations between the Assyrian Church of the East and the Catholic Church develop?

Cardinal Kasper: In 1994, an important Common Christological Declaration was signed by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV. This declaration clarified some doctrinal controversies between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, controversies which go back to the Council of Ephesus (431). At that time, the Church of the East could not accept the Catholic concept of incarnation, and therefore also rejected the title which calls the Virgin Mary “Theotokos,” “Mother of God.”

Indeed, in this early period of doctrinal development, Syriac and Greek terminology did not articulate the same concepts with the same terminology. Nowadays, however, Catholics and Assyrians mutually recognise that they share the same faith in Jesus Christ “true God and true man, perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity.”

The signing of this Christological Declaration resulted in the creation of a Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. This commission has met every year between 1994 and 2004 and has done remarkable work.

In this period the commission mainly dealt with issues related to the celebration of the sacraments. Among the most prominent results of this dialogue, I wish to mention the recognition by the Catholic Church of the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, and the preparation of a comprehensive document on sacramental life, a document which is ready for official endorsement.

In my opinion, however, these important results have not yet received the attention and response they deserve. It is not a matter of signing documents; it is a question that what is endorsed is genuinely accepted in the community.

Q: What happened to the dialogue after 2004? What fears and obstacles does Benedict XVI refer to in his address to the patriarch?

Cardinal Kasper: In 2005, the Assyrian Church unexpectedly decided to suspend the dialogue and not to sign the document which had been prepared on sacramental life. During a meeting in November 2005, moreover, the Synod of the Assyrian Church decided to suspend one of its members, a bishop, who had been among the architects of the dialogue with the Catholic Church and had contributed significantly to its successful progress.

The Catholic Church cannot intervene in the internal affairs of another Church, but deeply regrets this unfortunate development. Nobody is helped by further divisions in a community which already faces so many challenges, as I mentioned before.

These further divisions also cause difficulties for our ecumenical dialogue, since they are improperly used by some Assyrian media to cast doubt on the Catholic Church and its true intentions toward the Assyrian Church; such polemics should be brought to an end. We hope and pray that it will be possible to overcome these problems. Serenity should return and eventually allow the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue to resume its activities.

This is the sense of the appeal Benedict XVI addressed to Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV and to all concerned, so that together we may find the best solution.

Q: What do you expect from the visit of Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV for the future of relations between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church?

Cardinal Kasper: Immediately after the election of Benedict XVI, Catholicos Mar Dinkha IV expressed the wish to come and greet the new Pope. This may be a hopeful sign for the future of our relations.

Beyond this, I have three expectations. First, that more attention may be given by Catholic and Assyrian faithful worldwide to the difficulties met by their brothers and sisters in the Middle East and particularly in Iraq; these difficulties directly touch the lives of individual Christians and their families, and call for the attention and good will of everyone.

Second, that the results of our dialogue may be further explained and received, so as to allow Catholic and Assyrian faithful to better understand and help one another. Finally, that more effective forms of common witness and joint pastoral activities may be developed between Catholic and Assyrian faithful, particularly in the West, where Christians of all denominations are facing the same pastoral challenges.

What can we do together so that the young generations will be glad to belong to the Church and to give witness to their faith in Christ? These are the kind of questions I would like to see at the center of our future meetings, also with the Assyrian Church of the East.

Q: You also had a working meeting with the patriarch and the bishops who accompanied him. Have any further commitments or projects been made?

Cardinal Kasper: During our meeting, I insisted on the necessity of nurturing a serious and honest relationship. I also expressed the hope that through just and prudent decisions it would be possible to avert further division in the Assyrian Church. It became clear that more frequent contact between the patriarch and Synod of the Assyrian Church and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity would be helpful.

We therefore decided to prepare a third phase of our joint theological dialogue. In this way, I hope, a fresh impetus could be given to relations between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.

And More Confusion Regarding the Hereafter

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 21, 2007 (Zenit.org).- A couple of months ago I was standing in the Sistine Chapel when I overheard an odd exchange in front of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.” A woman asked her husband which part of the painting was purgatory, to which her husband answered that it didn’t matter because the Church had abolished purgatory anyway. (Yes, you really do hear it all in there!)

Now, looking for purgatory in an image of the “Last Judgment” is not a sign of great theological acumen, so I thought nothing of it, but as the months wore on, more and more pilgrims in Rome — often devout people well-versed in their faith — were asking whether it was true that the Church had rid itself of purgatory.

The question can be solved, of course, by a quick glance at the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which provides authoritative answers for this sort of thing.

In it we are taught: “All those who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of Heaven” (No. 1030). It also explains that “the Church gives the name “purgatory to this final purification of the elect” (No. 1031). So, purgatory is up and running just as much as ever.

The question remains, where did this confusion come from? Last October, the International Theological Commission convened to discuss limbo, and found that the theory of an eternal middle ground between heaven and hell — where souls could enjoy a “natural happiness” — was no longer useful for the faithful.

Many newspapers, often at a loss when covering the Vatican, saw an opportunity for a catchy headline: “Pope Abolishes Limbo.” Here began the confusion.

The London-based Times newspaper didn’t report the exact words of the commission, but printed: “A Times source said that the theologians’ finding basically says ‘that all children who die go to heaven'” — a misleading statement that was repeated by many other sources.

Unlike purgatory, the existence of limbo has never been part of official Catholic doctrine. It was, as Benedict XVI said, a theological construct.

The idea of limbo served as a way for the faithful to understand the fate of unbaptized souls. Not having been washed of the guilt of original sin, the argument went, they could not enter heaven, but innocent of personal sin, nor did they deserve hell. In the “Divine Comedy,” Dante fashioned an unforgettable impression of limbo. When he enters, the poet exclaims: “No laments could we hear — except for sighs that trembled the timeless air.”

And Virgil — Dante’s mentor who is also excluded from heaven — replies: “They did not sin; If they have merit, it can’t suffice without baptism, portal to the faith you maintain” (Inferno IV, 20-25). These beautiful words, tinged with sadness and regret, remind the faithful of the beauty and importance of baptism, as well as our responsibility as being marked among the elect. Questioning the existence of limbo does not cancel the teaching that salvation ordinarily comes to us through the sacraments.

But in our modern age, give an inch and the rest will go with it. A wonderful family of pilgrims told me that their parish bulletin in Atlanta had declared that purgatory no longer existed. The logical follow-up is that hell, too, will soon be consigned to the dustbin of theology.

This series of misunderstandings, however, underscores the importance of pilgrimage. Here in Rome, we are still given penances to pray for the souls in purgatory. One can visit the Purgatory Museum and a plenary indulgence for the living or dead can be obtained at any of the major basilicas.

Coming to Rome, the home of the Church, walking in the footsteps of hundreds of great saints that passed through these streets, one revitalizes one’s faith, and finds answers to questions and doubts.

* * *

Masterpieces of Devotion

Last Friday, those who had to forgo the beach and stay in the city were given a delightful treat. The former Palazzo Montoro, now the Argentine Embassy, threw open its doors for three days allowing all passers-by to visit the “piano nobile,” or reception hall, of the 17th-century palace. Up the main stair, past a tiny chapel tucked into a corner of the first floor, curious visitors entered the grand hall, where three stunning paintings by the Baroque painter Guercino were on display — a large image of a penitent St. Jerome, flanked by a sorrowful Virgin and a little oil-on-copper painting of St. Francis.

This initiative is the second of a series of three special openings that will take place over the next month. The last will be on June 22, 23 and 24, when visitors will be able to visit Guercino and Guido Reni at the Palazzo Colonna in Piazza SS. Apostoli.

People filtered in and out, studying the three works in silence, many transfixed by the small panel of the Blessed Virgin, her eyes red-rimmed as large tears flow from her eyes. Guercino focused solely on her face, and the Bolognese artist’s handling of the oil paint produced such a realistic rendering of the grieving Madonna, that it transmitted solemnity to the visitors in the room.

Opposite the painting of Mary, the small St. Francis painting shimmered due to the copper backing, a technique imported from Northern Europe in the late 16th century and employed in small devotional paintings for personal use. These beautiful little objects, precious for their fine detail, rendering of color and shiny surfaces, were treasured by the nobility of Rome like an investment-level holy card.

But the central canvas was the star of the show. St. Jerome, nude except for a red drape billowing around his body, occupies the whole space of the painting and threatens to enter ours as well. His legs are bent in a tour de force of foreshortening, his toes seeming to brush the edge of the picture plane. As St. Jerome affixes a seal to a document, his sinewy arm bends high over his head in a display of outstanding draftsmanship.

The brilliant lapis lazuli of the sky behind him, as well as the complexity of the positioning, leave no doubt that this was a very fine work of art, by one of the Baroque era’s greatest masters.

The St. Jerome of Palazzo Montoro resides across the street from San Luigi dei Francesi, where Caravaggio’s “Stories of St. Matthew” can still be seen today. Next door is the Palazzo Giustiniani, home of the great patrons of Caravaggio, and the Palazzo Madama, where the Lombard painter lived in the house of Cardinal del Monte.

The thought of how many masterpieces were painted and displayed in that single corner of Rome gives one pause. But these patrons, cardinals and wealthy laypeople alike, commissioned works that not only delighted the eye, but also inspired the spirit. Guercino’s St. Jerome, with his emaciated body of the penitent, stirred its owners to ponder how they would spend their final days.

The sorrowful Virgin cast a sobering light on their rounds of entertainments by recalling Christ’s sacrifice, while the ecstatic St. Francis presents an example of having renounced everything to follow Christ, rejoicing in the abandonment of material wealth.

These glimpses into the intimate world of private devotional art offer a moment of reflection on how the privileged of 17th-century Rome pursued the pleasures of collecting art, but also maintained a strong spiritual heading.

The modern age, with its Jeff Koons and Jenny Holtzers as the paradigm of artistic genius, strikes an unfortunate comparison with a world where collectors searched not for titillation, but rather inspiration, in art.