Between a melodrama's lines, an interfaith battle
By MELINDA HENNEBERGER, The New York Times - 29 Aug 2001 07:03GMT

VATICAN CITY, Aug. 28 -- Emmanuel Milingo would hardly be the first man to want out of a relationship without the fuss of a face-to-face encounter, or to conclude that a well- worded note would do the trick.

Neither, of course, is Maria Sung the first spouse to react to such treatment with dire threats.

But though the language of romance has been used to describe the continuing saga of Archbishop Milingo and Ms. Sung seems less a love story than an interfaith firefight.

The archbishop married Ms. Sung at one of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's multiple weddings in May, left her several weeks ago, reconciled with the pope, then dropped out of sight.

In response, Ms. Sung has staged a hunger strike for 15 days and counting, tearfully threatening to starve herself unless her husband tells her the news in person. (At a news conference today she called the fast "a promise I made to God.")

She has refused to read the letter he sent, or to believe he meant what he said when he read portions of that letter on national television. She has repeatedly said he must have been drugged or brainwashed.

Yet none of the Italian reporters who are covering this tale has come up with much evidence that the ex- couple of the moment ever knew each other very well. And in religious circles, the spectacle is widely seen as a straightforward and highly successful public relations attack on the Vatican by an outfit that the Curia does not even deign to consider its spiritual competition.

William Devlin, the evangelical president of the Urban Family Council in New York, who works with both Catholics and followers of Mr. Moon and his Unification Church, said he feels that the latter have been unfair. "They've been so ready to use this to criticize the Catholic doctrine of celibacy for their priests that it's very disappointing," he said.

Michael Novak, who holds the George Frederick Jewett chair in religion and public policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said he was surprised. "I really didn't anticipate this much animosity in the Unification Church toward the Catholic Church," he said.

A spokesman for Mr. Moon's organization, the Rev. Phillip Schanker, said in an interview at Ms. Sung's hotel here on Monday night that nothing could be further from the truth. "We love this pope to death," he said. "I'm not accusing him of anything the Family Federation" Mr. Moon's group "has been accused of, brainwashing and drugging."

Then Mr. Schanker went on to accuse the Vatican of stonewalling and sexism, and quoted the archbishop as having said that priestly celibacy was the cause of "all the lawsuits and all the pedophilia."

Today, the Catholic camp counterattacked. A close friend of the archbishop, Cardinal Giovanni Cheli, said in an e-mail message in response to written questions, "He recalls as a nightmare the psychological coercion and the continual control to which he was subjected in the period of his being separated from the Church."

Before his marriage in May, the archbishop was a relatively minor church figure who had finally been forced out of his Vatican job last year after decades of inside-the- walls unhappiness over his exorcisms and healings, both in his native Zambia and in Italy.

Still, his defection was more than just a passing embarrassment. Bishops have the right to ordain priests and consecrate other bishops, and the threat of a schism was an especially painful prospect in Africa, where a substantial and growing percentage of new Catholic priests now come from.

There is no question that Ms. Sung has put the Vatican on the defensive. In the weeks since the pope talked Archbishop Milingo back into the fold, Mr. Moon's followers have forced Catholic officials to bargain with them, through diplomatic intermediaries, over the details of the private meeting with the archbishop that Ms. Sung wants.

Each day seems to bring fresh humiliations for the church and new questions about why the archbishop just does not meet with Ms. Sung and end the drama.

When he finally resurfaced on Friday, after what the Vatican had called a two-week retreat, it was on the evening news, in the Italian equivalent of a Connie Chung-Gary Condit post-scandal appearance.

"I love you like a sister," he said to Ms. Sung, reading from the letter he said he had written her, "and I will continue to pray for you all of my life."

He said he wanted to meet with her, but each side has accused the other of setting unreasonable conditions. Though the heat is clearly on the Vatican as Ms. Sung's hunger strike drags on, the Italian press has taken her fast with somewhat less than total seriousness. Corriere della Sera, for example, ran before and after shots of a now noticeably slimmer Ms. Sung. But her rigorous schedule of daily news conferences and interviews has inspired numerous sly suggestions that she might still be nipping out for a gelato at odd hours.

One such report, on the national news agency ANSA, said, "Maria seems to be holding up well after 14 days on hunger strike, and today at noon, in the torrid heat of Rome, she arrived at St. Peter's, crossed the piazza briskly, went around the obelisk, walked up the steps of the basilica and went into the church," in spike heels no less, the report noted.

The Vatican knows it is falling behind in the public-relations war. So churchmen who would presumably rather not dignify the Milingo spectacle with a response have belatedly begun weighing in.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, issued a statement comparing Ms. Sung's efforts to "a woman threatening suicide if the already married man she wants to marry will not leave his lawful wife."

On Monday, Ms. Sung prayed at St. Peter's at 6 a.m. and again at noon, but in the evening, receiving reporters one after the other at her bedside, she did look exhausted, speaking in a faint whisper and apparently drifting in and out of sleep.

When asked to answer those who feel she's been used by Mr. Moon, she came to, though, snorting, "They should check their own consciences before they say that."

She again promised to fast until death, though Mr. Schanker said he would not let it go that far. "The people around her would abandon her at that point," he said.

The New York Times Company.