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Famed scholar has never been one for diplomacy


Crossing paths with Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, an American who has taught at the Pontifical Oriental Institute here for more than 30 years, can be something like spotting a bright orange tie or a pair of red Converse sneakers amid a sea of gray suits at a corporate headquarters. Such flashes of sartorial dissent can be a way to express a bit of life, of rage against the machine, amid the numbing sameness of institutional culture.

It’s not that in the hallways of ecclesiastical power, Taft, a famed scholar specializing in the liturgies of Eastern churches, is the guy with the orange tie. (His most daring fashion touch is a slightly whimsical beret.) It’s that in this gray clerical world, Taft is the orange tie -- a colorful, larger-than-life tribute to nonconformism, something like a cross between Fr. Yves Congar and comedian Lenny Bruce. He combines vast erudition (this is a man who scours liturgical texts in Old Slavonic the way some people do the sports pages) with a sailor’s touch for salty language.

Taft is the kind of man who, during a three-block walk to dinner on a wintry Roman night, can move seamlessly from singing bawdy English drinking songs, to explaining why the Orthodox misinterpret the fourth crusade, to praising the Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-’em-up “True Lies.”

Examples of the wit and wisdom of Taft:

On the argument made by some Orthodox polemicists that Eastern Catholics should choose between being Latins or being Orthodox: “That’s like asking the blacks in Georgia to choose between going back to Liberia or Gabon. Maybe they’d like to stay where they are.”

On why a particular cardinal chose to stay in Rome rather than return to the Third World after a curial assignment: “He got used to a toilet that flushes.”

On his decision to wear his clerical cassock and regalia for an appearance last June on CNN to discuss the pope’s trip to Ukraine: “Yeah, I decided to go in full drag.”

Not for nothing did one of Taft’s friends write about him in 1993: “Those of weaker, less assertive character view him with understandable alarm.”

Don’t think, however, that Taft is defined just by brazenness. This is one of the most remarkable and revered scholars in Rome, a man who has purchased the right to speak his mind with hard-won competence.

This week, a number of Taft’s friends and admirers have arranged a series of public events in Rome in conjunction with his 70th birthday. He sat down with NCR for an interview that began in his office-bedroom across the street from the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and then spilled over into dinner at a nearby trattoria.

As a scholar, Taft is best known for careful study of Eastern liturgies in the original languages (Ukranian, Belorussian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Greek, Romanian, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac -- you name it). Though his contributions resist being boiled down to easy formula sentences, one trademark insight is that the Eastern liturgical tradition is no more static than the West. Change, albeit cautious and respectful, is a constant.

Taft has also written some 80 formal decisions, called vota, for the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches. Through his collaboration with the Vatican, he has shaped the post-Cold War direction of Eastern-rite churches in manifold ways. In these circles, Taft is a legend.

As one sign of that status, in 1998 the Ukranian Greek Catholic Patriarch, Myroslav-Ivan Lubochivsky, made Taft a “mitred archimandrite,” the highest honor conferred on celibate religious priests in the Byzantine tradition. He has been awarded pectoral crosses by both the Greek Catholic church of Ukraine and the Orthodox church, a symbol of the respect he enjoys on both sides of the aisle.

Born Jan. 9, 1932, Taft is a scion of the Rhode Island branch of the American political dynasty that produced the country’s 27th president, William Howard Taft, and Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, leader of the Republican Party’s most conservative wing in the 1950s. The Jesuit Taft, however, is not registered with any political faction, and has never made hay of his pedigree.

“I don’t need anybody to paddle my canoe,” he said.

He entered the Jesuits in 1949, and with a young man’s lust for a challenge, Taft wanted to take a whirl at studying the Russian Catholic rite. Ecumenism wasn’t yet on the radar screen, and Taft’s original motives were of a piece with Cold War ferment: He wanted to convert the Russians.

As Taft began to read, however, he discovered that Eastern Catholics had been kicked around and ignored on all sides, and his passion for the underdog drew him in. “The Eastern churches were treated very badly by Western Christianity,” Taft said. “They had been regarded as second-rate citizens. I felt it was a matter of justice to try to do some repair work.”

Taft was ordained a priest in the Byzantine-Slavonic, or Russian, rite on June 7, 1963. He arrived at the Pontifical Oriental Institute during the last session of the Second Vatican Council, and joined the faculty in 1970.

His scholarship is prodigious. His bibliography encompasses some 620 publications, including 14 books, plus seven more edited in collaboration with other authors. His proposed six-volume history of the Byzantine eucharistic liturgy, three volumes of which have appeared, is already considered a classic.

As a Vatican powerbroker, Taft has also played a pivotal role.

In September 1991, he was part of a three-person apostolic investigation of the Syro-Malabar church in India, which led to the Vatican recognizing it as a major archepiscopal church, meaning greater local autonomy. Taft and two other investigators careened up and down India in an old Mercedes with a papal flag and a rare working air-conditioner, overcoming skepticism and protest mobs.

“Our commission was one more bunch of white men coming to tell the locals what to do, and they were sick of it,” he said. “In 1499 the Portuguese arrived, with the Jesuits, and screwed up their lives. These people had been minding their own business, and all of a sudden a bunch of Jesuits parachuted in, who don’t owe allegiance to the local hierarchy but to some bishop 5,000 miles away who claims jurisdiction over the whole world, and started telling them what to do. How would you feel?”

In the end, however, Taft’s team reached a judgment that helped heal a profound liturgical division.

Another proud accomplishment is helping to resurrect the Greek Catholic church in Ukraine from the ashes of the Soviet period, especially through the re-foundation of a theological academy in L’viv (now on its way to becoming a Catholic university).

In light of his achievements, there’s a sort of conventional wisdom that Taft could have moved far up the Vatican ladder if he were less outspoken. Noted theologian Fr. Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame, one of Taft’s fans, makes the point: “Bob … might have been a cardinal by now had he followed the Roman pattern of discretion and curial-speak.”

Taft, however, never was one for diplomacy.

“If you’re a consultor, and you know as much as I do, why should you keep your mouth shut?” he asked.

As they say, the remark is “vintage Taft.”

As for his 20 years of Vatican experience, Taft said most curial problems are not created by the people who work there.

“They used to teach us in catechism that the system was invented by God but because it’s in the hands of sinful men it doesn’t work,” Taft said. “That’s not the problem at all. The people that work in the Roman curia aren’t evil. The problem is the system.”

Taft said that if he were to wake up and find himself pope, there’s a slew of reforms he would try. They would include reactivating priests who left to get married, new methods for choosing bishops, and decentralization of decisions. He would also try to make sure people got a fair shake from church authorities.

“I don’t buy ecclesiastical fascism,” he said. “I think authoritarianism is the refuge of the stupid. It saves you from the obligation of thought.”

Yet a lifetime of dealing with other ecclesiastical bureaucracies has given him this insight on the Catholic church: “As bad as we are, there’s nothing better around.”

After 52 years of service as a Jesuit, and 36 years in Rome at the Oriental Institute, perhaps the bottom line on Bob Taft is that he seems a happy man, living what he calls an integrated life.

“My life and my work are not two different things,” he said. “My work is my hobby, it’s my life, it’s my love.

“What could be better than that?”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2002