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Journalist offers insight to American-Catholic, Vatican relations

| Friday, March 22, 2019

When describing relations between the Catholic Church in America and the Vatican, John L. Allen Jr. compared the climate to a game where two men take turns kicking each other until one of them gives up.

“We are not actually engaged in a patient search for understanding,” he said in a lecture at Holy Cross College Thursday evening. “We are looking to score rhetorical cheap shots against people who we perceive to be our cultural, theological and political enemies.”

The Vatican journalist and current editor of Crux, a Catholic news website, addressed the audience at the Pfeil Center as well as those watching the event online through a livestream. Allen offered wisdom about Vatican-American relations gained from decades of reporting on the subject under three popes.

Jack Lyons | The Observer

John Allen Jr. speaks on the American Catholic Church and the Vatican at the Pfeil Center on Holy Cross Campus Thursday.

Allen focused on three perennial misunderstandings of perspective, law and time, which fray relationships between the Vatican and America, but also discussed misunderstandings which have appeared more recently during the Francis papacy.

Allen emphasized the imbalanced perspective which some American Catholics have about their place in the world, citing statistics that the Church in the U.S. comprises only 6 percent of the global Catholic population.

“Catholicism in our time is not a Western religion,” he said.  

Referencing concerns about a decline of Catholicism among some American Catholics, Allen pointed to sub-saharan Africa, where the Catholic population has grown from 29 million to 130 million since 1975.

Allen then proposed that American Catholics are also misled by the assumption that cooperation with civil authorities is the best response to the clerical sex abuse crisis across the world. While Allen agreed that such an approach makes sense in an American context, he argued that the approach could be dangerous for the Church to pursue in other parts of the world, citing regions dominated by Islamic radicalism.

Americans Catholics and the Vatican also harbor misunderstandings about time and efficiency, Allen said. He employed a culinary metaphor to illustrate his message.

“The United States is a microwave culture, and Rome is a Crock-Pot culture,” he said.

However, Allen emphasized that the Vatican’s slowness is not a result of laziness or denial, but rather the product of a more methodical culture.

“They simply have different instincts about when the right moment to rush in with the response is,” he said.  

Allen also offered his thoughts about misunderstandings which have formed under the leadership of Pope Francis. Allen called the pontiff a typical Latin American pastor and said that while this archetype signifies great qualities in the leader of the global Church, it also signifies a skepticism of the United States.

Looking at the recent example of Francis’ decision to halt the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from voting to implement new standards of accountability for bishops at their general assembly meeting in November, Allen suggested that the Pope does not always appreciate the American urgency for action.

“I don’t think he likes being told what to do,” Allen said. “The pushier we get in insisting, ‘You must do x,’ the more likely he is to get his back up and say, ‘Hey, I don’t have to do this.’”

Allen referenced the divisions in both the American Church and the global Church in an interview after the lecture.

“It’s unfortunate. There’s great wisdom and truth in all sides of these conversations,” he said, before recalling his comparison at the beginning of the lecture. “The more you can seek that out rather than playing the three-kick rule, the better.”

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