George Weigel explains it all.
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.
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." AS FOR THE CRISIS ITSELF, Weigel's analysis of what it is (a crisis of fidelity, demanding in response greater fidelity from everyone) and what it is not (a pedophilia scandal or a cause for liberal reforms such as married or women priests), seems definitive. He doesn't dwell on the clear connection between abuse and the presence of homosexuals in the priesthood, but simply notes the obvious: that the majority of cases involved abuse of boys or young men by homosexual priests. In fact, drawing on settled Catholic teaching, he strikes a nuanced distinction between priests with a homosexual orientation who nonetheless commit themselves to chastity and fidelity, and gay priests who place their urges at the center of their being. This distinction will likely win him no fans from either extreme of the vicious debate on this issue: those who loudly deny clear evidence of the centrality of homosexual sexual abuse to this crisis, and those ready to drive out any homosexual priest. But Weigel is at his best when he describes the many connections between the crisis of 2002 and the old culture of Catholic dissent, born in the 1960s and 1970s. To be sure, dissent did not cause the abuse; sexual predators, unchecked by fearful bishops, did. But the culture of dissent and its leading lights--the media-darling theologians and activist nuns who work ceaselessly to rescue the Church from its authoritarian roots--helped to drive deep divisions into American Catholicism and into the hearts and minds of individual Catholics, including priests. And it is these internal divisions we have had to watch playing themselves out in public this year. Weigel points to the "truce of 1968" as a key turning point, when bishops were cowed into tolerating open dissent from settled Catholic teaching. That year, nineteen priests in the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., were disciplined by Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle after publicly declaring their dissent from "Humanae Vitae," the papal encyclical that reiterated the Church's prohibition on birth control. Pope Paul VI--whose uncertain leadership in the 1960s and 1970s is partially to blame for thirty years of commotion--forced O'Boyle to back down, fearing a full-blown schism. Many of the priests returned to duty, several at Catholic University. Paul VI got his wish; there was no schism. But a pattern had been set, whereby dissenters knew that they usually would not be called to account by local bishops who feared Rome would not back them up. Thus began what Weigel calls "the silly season" in American Catholicism. Priests (those who were left, anyway: an estimated 45,000 American priests left their ministry in the years after 1968) started wearing khakis and sweaters and began to function as glorified psychotherapists. Children in Catholic schools were taught to regard the Bible's miracle stories as pious fictions, and couldn't name a sacrament if their soul depended on it--which, after all, it does, if Catholicism is right. Parishes and diocesan chanceries were swarmed by bureaucrats whose every instinct was to soothe division and mediate conflict, usually at the expense of doctrinal orthodoxy. Catholic liturgy and music--under the watchful eye of liturgical directors who threw out the old hymnals as soon as possible--were quickly rendered insipid. "Let There Be Peace on Earth" haunts millions of Catholic school children to this day. An enormous gulf opened up between Catholic teaching and Catholic practice at every level of the Church, from the laity to the bishops, especially on sexual matters. As Weigel notes, media perceptions to the contrary, most Catholics rarely hear a sermon on sexual morality--priests are loath to bring the matter up. And many bishops, facing a severe priest shortage, have been unwilling to delve into the sexual lives of their priests, or take back the seminaries from vocation directors (who frequently are not priests) and psychologists. Weigel is clear: The bishops failed to act like bishops--like men with a grave moral responsibility for the souls of the priests who labor in their dioceses and the spiritual well-being of the flocks they guide. The crisis, he insists, is a crisis of fidelity, and he demands a return to fidelity from everyone in the Church, starting at the top. Bishops must reassert their authority over the spiritual life of their dioceses. It is not enough that the diocesan books be balanced or all the warring factions kept reasonably happy. Rather, bishops must take control of their seminaries and reinstill intellectual and spiritual rigor into the process of priestly formation. Seminary reform has been under way in many dioceses for the past fifteen years; it is notable, actually, that few of the abuse cases dated after 1990--a clear sign that something had changed in the seminaries. But Weigel would have bishops go further, especially in the recruitment of future priests. Stunningly, a major weakness in the vetting of potential seminarians is an assessment of their faith life and religious beliefs. Many are subjected to a battery of psychological tests, but few are asked whether they pray regularly or are familiar with basic Church doctrine. Further, Weigel would have ordained priests continue their theological education, with regular sabbaticals for study--in a spirit of receptivity to Church tradition rather than knee-jerk suspicion, as is too often the case in seminaries and university theology departments today. Especially welcome is Weigel's call for scraping off the layers of bureaucracy that have encrusted Catholic life at all levels. In parishes, the existence of numerous lay "ministers"--he notes ruefully how many parishes now have "ministers of hospitality," who used to be called "ushers"--has blurred the lines between the priest who acts as alter Christus, another Christ, and the laity. This has led to a general confusion about the nature and role of the hierarchy in the Church. At the diocesan and national level, religious bureaucrats are often a font of doctrinal foolishness, frequently absorbing resources and blocking needed reforms. Especially as the crisis of 2002 unfolded, many bishops delegated the responsibility to proclaim the truth forthrightly to spokesmen and attorneys whose knowledge of, and devotion to, Catholic teaching was suspect. Weigel would jettison these ecclesiastical hangers-on, and amen to that. But is his agenda realistic? Before the crisis, the answer would have been a resounding "no," but the past nine months have been so unsettling that everything is now on the table. The Courage to Be Catholic is the first shot in what will be a protracted war over the legacy of the crisis of 2002. Everyone understands that the crisis is a turning point in American Catholic life. The question is, a turning point on the road to where? Justin Torres is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.
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