When in Rome, one should first try to see it as a city like any other. Easier written than done when one’s hotel is just behind the Pantheon and in its walls there are plaques commemorating that General San Martin, Bolivar’s fellow liberator, lived there, and that Stendhal worked on his Memoires in one of the rooms. Rome’s greatness is that it is never oppressive, that it always appears as the mother of beauty and time. Coming in at late afternoon from a congress on biogenetics held in Frascati, we have dinner in the Campo di Fiori where Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. One of the surrounding palaces appropriately housed the Inquisition. The debris of the day’s market have not been cleared away yet; we learn there is a garbage strike. The prices are atrociously high.
Whiling away until my second congress, I call the Vatican the next day, although according to news from home a letter had come canceling my expected audience with Cardinal Ratzinger, who would be at Lourdes. But when in Rome, don’t take “no” (or “yes”) for granted, so I call again. I learn that the Cardinal will not go to Lourdes but will give lectures in Germany. “Call back again, we shall see,” say his extremely helpful secretaries, a lady and a young priest.
So it happened last summer that on a morning of furnace-like heat, I was sipping coffee facing the massive building where Cardinal Ratzinger’s offices are located, the Sacred Congregation of Faith and Doctrine. Coffee at one dollar is the drinkable beverage reasonably priced; I have two cups. The Cardinal, his trip having now been canceled, would receive me at 10:30. So here I sit, listening to all the languages of the world passing by. Around the Vatican, in fact in Rome itself, one always feels that something important will happen. I enter the building ten minutes before my appointment. It is in rather bad repair, but the elevator works.
One after the other, the gentle secretaries appear. We chat for a moment in German but agree that the Cardinal and I will speak French. In a few more minutes, he appears and ushers me into another room. I reveal no secret when I say that for the next forty minutes Cardinal Ratzinger was at his best Vatican-diplomatic behavior. He knew that I was no newcomer to the Church’s troubled era, that I was no leftist Utopian (we had met fifteen years ago at a Salzburg conference, on the topic of utopianism) but a not-too-happy critic of Vatican II. There on the table was my latest book, The Church, Pilgrim of Centuries.
What can the second man after the Pope say on a bright Roman morning to a keenly attentive but critical visitor? First, that John Paul II was studying Magyar in preparation of his August visit to Hungary, and that he finds the language enormously difficult! Then the Cardinal wishes me well on my appointment to the University of Budapest as a professor of the philosophy of religion. We both know Eastern Europe, the new site of the Church there, and the task of teachers of postcommunist generations. The Cardinal stresses, in these hard times, the necessity of full obedience to the bishops, and returns several times to this theme, as expected. I interject: but take bishops like the French Gaillot (raised fist at communist meetings), the Brazilian Arns (praise of Castro), the America Hunthausen and Weakland. Obedience, of course; yet what about the masses of Catholics—confused, humiliated, reduced to pariahs—spiritually roughened?
The Cardinal knows it well; he is aware that I was there in New York when he was heckled by homosexuals throughout his lecture and three dozen policemen did nothing to stop them. How can he answer my question? He speaks instead of arrogant priests following their own path, of sectarianism, of Father Bulanyi in Hungary and his base communities, of the Church’s losses in South America, the absurd super-mundanities of the American Church. I try to link all these phenomena of desertion from orthodoxy with Rome’s relaxed notion of authority, while I think of the words, uttered the day before, of a good priest, for decades in Rome, whose principal grievance was the Vatican’s rigidity in ecumenical matters! I disagreed, having different views on ecumenism, but that was my interlocutor’s chief worry. It would be hard to be in the Cardinal’s position, and to weigh and balance all the many concerns.
Hard also because we are in Italy, where the classical mixes with the baroque, the severe Pantheon with the Jesuitical Gesii, where Catholicism is hammered into the subconscious. Sitting next to the Cardinal, I change the subject without getting off it. Two days before, at audience with Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo—the Pope’s man in South America, now president of the Pontifical Commission on the Family and successor to Cardinal Gagnon—I said admiring words about J.P. McFadden’s Human Life Review; to Cardinal Ratzinger I praise now the review Catholica (Paris), perhaps the most intellectually stimulating Catholic publication. Ratzinger reads it regularly, praises it highly—and this means quite a bit because we make it certain that the review has its sic or non right. The Cardinal’s acknowledgment may also mean—in the Vatican where words are carefully weighed—that the Church has gotten over the worst (not the light fever but the bad influenza, as Maritain concluded), that many are coming back to her (see Dom Gerard’s glorious Benedictine monastery in Provence), that the obstinate opponents are out of breath. It has taken a generation, and it will take more. I clearly experienced it in Rome: the Church is divided, in higher and lower ranks, just like the rest of Western society, along the same lines and for the same reasons. The windows were opened too wide by John XXIII. Yet, the positive thing today over our timid yesterday is that the conflict is almost out in the open; almost because the Vatican is ever discreet, no blunt statements. Let time do its work.
Hungary is sufficiently small and remote enough to serve as a test case in our conversation. What struck me in Ratzinger’s words was the accent on continuity. The Church weathered through terrible times, yet it needs no “reorganization”—only some replacements of persons, the orthodoxy of new Catholic universities, and resettled religious orders. The Church produced, as she usually does, firmness and flexibility, resistance and accommodation, Mindszenty and Lekai. The Pope’s visit to Hungary was appropriately scheduled to signal continuity and a new start. What Rome knows and we forget is the immense resilience-of people, their return from the horrible and the scandalous at the first sign of authority and faith. Yet I insisted that the Church ought to give the sign, not wait until it is convenient.
The Church’s apparent drawback in these times of demagogue nuns and of condom-cum-cucumber curriculum, is her official silence and dignity. When Weakland insists on saving the Church through the marriage of priests (what about, next time, the marriage of gay priests?), Rome cannot, like a washerwoman, gossip back tit for tat. There are other ways, less spectacular. The congress at Frascati in the Alban hills was about biogenetics, a critique of the “new medicine” where the curing of the sick takes a backseat behind the idea of the human body as a manipulated and modified object of depersonalization. A general reaction to the century’s insanities emerges slowly, as men of good will join a low-toned crusade.
Rome itself offers the right frame for such countermoves. You turn a corner and find new eye-caressing sites, unexpected angles, and a gamut of colors played out by a vivid luminosity on walls of ochre, red, golden stones. The quiet contemplation on the Pincio, the vividness of the Trastevere, the twilight on the Tiber and its bridges. The marvelous cocktail of eternity and time. One asks, how can work be accomplished—and the faith rescued—behind these sun-beaten windows, facing the fountains, strolling under Trajan’s Column, looking out on the Forum from the Campidoglio? Is Rome the place from where the world may be put right? Yet it has happened, many times.