The Magazine

The Church in Crisis

George Weigel explains it all.

Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By JUSTIN TORRES
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The Courage to Be Catholic
Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church
by George Weigel
Basic, 208 pp., $22

FOR NOW, at least, the media seem to consider that the June meeting of America's Catholic bishops in Dallas largely brought the priestly abuse scandals to a close--which, for the bishops, was more than fine: The whole point of Dallas was to take the fire out of the story. Save for a few pieces--such as the New York Times's lamenting the effects of a zero-tolerance policy it had vigorously advocated--the press has moved on.

But inside American Catholicism, the crisis remains alive. The abuse scandals were a long time coming, and neither the causes nor the effects were settled at Dallas. George Weigel's "The Courage to Be Catholic" is the first attempt to make sense of it all. Weigel is hardly a prophet crying in the wilderness. One of the best-connected lay Catholics around, he is a prolific author--his credits include the authoritative biography of Pope John Paul II, "Witness to Hope"--newspaper columnist, and theologian. Weigel probably knows more about the mysterious workings of the worldwide Church than any other American. Back home, his wide network of associates includes leading American bishops and cardinals.

Yet Weigel is not afraid, in "The Courage to Be Catholic," to harrow the American episcopate. He draws together the strands of the crisis of 2002--lack of leadership, a fetish for secrecy, continued indulgence of dissent from Catholic moral teaching, and the homosexualization of the priesthood--and assigns considerable blame for them to the American bishops. The "grave failures of too many bishops," he writes, turned a correctable problem of clergy sexual abuse into a full-blown crisis that has seriously damaged the Catholic church's moral standing in American society.

LONG-FESTERING sexual misconduct and theological laxity in seminaries under the bishops' control exploded into the crisis of this year. The problem was compounded by naive bishops who transferred priests from diocese to diocese, assured by psychologists--many of whom had little respect for Catholic teaching on sexual morality--that they were cured. A culture of "loyal dissent" that, in the end, proved not to be all that loyal, was indulged by bishops who preferred to keep all sides "in the conversation" rather than take definitive action. And once the scandal erupted, too many bishops, shackled by what Weigel calls the "iron cage" of diocesan bureaucracies, retreated behind their (often grossly incompetent) lawyers and spoke in contemporary therapeutic language rather than the "bracing, demanding language of the Gospel of sin, penance, and redemption."

The most engrossing portion of the book is Weigel's chapter on Rome's response, which includes previously unknown information. For quite some time, as the media uncovered instance after instance of abuse, the Vatican remained unresponsive, to the irritation of Americans accustomed to instant comment from their leaders. But the Vatican is different--cautious, secretive, and unmoved by media frenzy. Moreover, what seemed like a whirlwind in the United States was barely a whisper in Europe. The scandals were little noted in the Italian and European papers read by the curia.

The turn, Weigel writes, came on April 9, when several American bishops, including U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president Wilton Gregory, had lunch with the pope and impressed upon him and other officials the severity of the crisis. Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law made a trip to Rome on April 13 to discuss the crisis, and on April 22-25, a major meeting took place with high Vatican officials and several American cardinals. Out of it came a six-point personnel policy draft, with the Vatican promising an expedited review after adoption at the bishops' meeting.

For an ancient institution that prides itself on deliberate proceedings, this was a remarkably quick response--but the attempt to communicate it was a disaster. Canonical lawyers had insisted on using the word "notorious," which has a specific canonical meaning: Sins that are known only to perpetrator and victim are "occult," or hidden, while those that are known publicly are "notorious." But this was easily missed by the public, which concluded that the Church would remove abusive priests only once their cover was blown. The press conference was worse yet. It started two hours late and a number of cardinals didn't attend. There was no opening statement by Gregory, which made it impossible to shape a clear storyline about what had been accomplished. After forty-five minutes of questions, says Weigel, "no one watching on television had any idea of what the cardinals had agreed to."