The National Catholic Op-Ed Page
Allen's on in today's New York Times, reinforcing the point that Roman law is, well, Roman law.
Although this is a difficult point for many Anglo-Saxons to grasp, when the Vatican makes statements like "no gays in the priesthood," it doesn't actually mean "no gays in the priesthood." It means, "As a general rule, this is not a good idea, but we all know there will be exceptions."
Understanding this distinction requires an appreciation of Italian concepts of law, which hold sway throughout the thought world of the Vatican. The law, according to such thinking, expresses an ideal. It describes a perfect state of affairs from which many people will inevitably fall short. This view is far removed from the typical Anglo-Saxon approach, which expects the law to dictate what people actually do.
While Italians grumble about lawlessness, fundamentally they believe in subjectivity. Anyone who's tried to negotiate the traffic in Italian cities will appreciate the point. No law, most Italians believe, can capture the infinite complexity of human situations, and it's more important for the law to describe a vision of the ideal community than for it to be rigidly obeyed. Italians have tough laws, but their enforcement is enormously forgiving. Not for nothing was their equivalent of the attorney general's office once known as the Ministry of Justice and Grace.
The British historian Christopher Dawson has described this as the "erotic" spirit of cultures shaped by Roman Catholicism. Catholic cultures are based on the passionate quest for spiritual perfection, Dawson writes, unlike the "bourgeois" culture of the United States, which, shaped by Protestantism and based on practical reason, gives priority to economic concerns. As one senior Vatican official put it to me some time ago, "Law describes the way things would work if men were angels."
So much for the vaunted "nuclear option."