The Blame Game

Book cover
The Courage to Be Catholicby By George WeigelBasic Books. 246p $22.

From late January to June, as the sexual abuse scandal raged across the nation and ravaged the church, Catholics looking for a silver lining noted that the crisis had united erstwhile opponents in the Catholic culture wars. With the bishops serving as convenient whipping boys for liberals and conservatives alike, Crossfire Catholicism (and on the Right, George Weigel...and on the Left, Garry Wills) gave way, momentarily, to a Catholicism of the Broad and Deep Middle.

Momentarily. Alas.


Seizing the moment of relative calm before the next storm, both Wills and Weigel have produced, within a few weeks of each other, their respective interpretations of the crisis. They differ dramatically on its causes and therefore on the appropriate reforms. For Wills and other Catholics of like mind, the scandal is a result of an authoritarian, power-obsessed papacy attempting, tragically, to roll back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The council, according to this reading, restored the church to its biblical and Apostolic origins as the people of God and promised to liberate Catholics from their preconciliar dependency on Vatican structures of deceit. Genuine reform cannot proceed under John Paul II’s program for church renewal, predicated as it is upon a reinvigoration of the all-male, celibate priesthood and a reduction of the laity to what Wills sees as an outmoded and hopelessly un-Christian state of subordination to the clergy.

In The Courage to Be Catholic, stitched together from themes first explored in his syndicated column, Weigel, the pope’s biographer, labels such thinking a manifestation of a culture of dissent that is largely responsible for the current crisis. The priests who sinned sexually and the bishops who failed to prevent or contain the contamination of the priesthood suffered from a lack of fidelity to Christ and to the church. The remedy therefore lies in the eradication of all opposition to the implementation of John Paul II’s vision of a church that will be renewed by a morally robust clergy who understand themselves to be living icons of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. Genuine reform lies in fidelity to the teaching of Vatican II as authoritatively interpreted by Pope John Paul II. Contra Wills, it was the dissenters who hijacked the council; the pope is its greatest exponent and defender.

The culture of dissent plays a central role in Weigel’s account of what went wrong in American Catholicism during what he calls the silly season in U.S. Catholic catechetics and religious education that went virtually unchallenged for more than 20 years after Vatican II. Inspired by the church’s decision to open its windows to the modern world, many Catholic leaders failed to notice that the Catholic Church opened its windows just as the modern, western world was barreling into a dark tunnel full of poisonous fumes, among them irrationality, self-indulgence, fashionable despair, and contempt for any traditional authority.

So-called faithful dissent within the U.S. church became acceptableand fashionablewith the Truce of 1968, Weigel contends. In this episode, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, with Pope Paul VI’s backing, minimized the public dissent from Humanae Vitae led by 19 Washington, D.C., priests. Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle subsequently lifted the sanctions on the priests, including those whom he had suspended from active ministry. The offending priests were not required to repudiate their previous dissent or to make an explicit affirmation of the moral truths taught by Humanae Vitae.

The lesson for dissenters, Weigel notes, was that there would be no serious penalties for fundamental breakdowns in ecclesiastical discipline. Catholic bishops learned that the Vatican would not support them in maintaining discipline among priests and doctrinal integrity among theologians. The result was a generation of U.S. Catholic bishops who came to think of themselves less as authoritative teachers than as moderators of an ongoing dialogue whose primary responsibility was to keep everyone in conversation and in play.

Much of Weigel’s analysis is compelling, and his prescriptions for reform are part of what the church clearly needs. Who would deny that the postconciliar period has been a time of theological experimentation and pastoral confusiona time when, for example, the Rev. Henri Nouwen’s insightful image of the priest as a wounded healer, distorted by an excessively therapeutic and narcissistic culture, gave some priests license to indulge their inner child and give themselves a pass on moral misconduct? Who can reasonably disagree with Weigel’s expectation that teachers in the seminary or novitiate should proceed from the presumption that the teaching of the church is true and binding, not one alternative among many for the priest to embrace?

Who would not applaud his assertion that candidates for the seminary, before gaining admission, should demonstrate at least initial progress on the path toward Christian discipleship, as evidenced in prayer, service and a chaste life, among other signs of spiritual maturity?

Who can fail to admire the many sound and strong proposals for reform in these pages, not least the calls for bishops to be selected after broader consultation, for the Vatican to address its woeful communications gap and for laity to assume at least some of the burdens of the intense bureaucratization that has turned some priests into religious bureaucrat[s] who conduct certain kinds of churchly business?

And yet Weigel’s argument from the Rightlike Wills’s from the Leftis weakened by its polemical bent. The two authors have more in common than either would care to admit. Both believe that the true meaning of Vatican II is the underlying and enduring issue, and both see John Paul II as the decisive figure in either upholding the council (Weigel) or undermining it (Wills). Both crusaders for their respective camps are highly selective in their narration of what went wrong, and in their use of evidence. Both sometimes exaggerate or misrepresent the facts. (Wills has been accused of tendentious reading of sources, while Weigel, in this book at least, doesn’t bother with external evidence. This is unfortunate, given that several contested issues central to his discussion, such as the timing, depth and success of seminary reform in the 1990’s, have actually been researched by reputable scholars, and not only by dissenters.)

Both find it necessary to play the blame gameto isolate one enemy and to taunt, demean or demonize those Catholics who see things differently. Thus Weigel refers to his opponents, sophomorically, as promoters of Catholic Lite or as members of The Lite Brigade, whose days are numbered. And both authors get part of the story right, while giving no quarter to the other part.

’Tis a pity. But we who prefer to make our ecclesiastical home in the broad and deep middle will not be seduced into either of these sometimes appealing camps. We have learned to operate the cut and paste button on our word processors. Alongside Weigel’s stirring defense of the priesthood as the epicenter of Catholic ministry to the world for the sake of the world, we paste Wills’s eloquent celebration of the laity’s newfound theological sophistication, pastoral presence and social justice. Alongside Wills’s criticism of the papacy’s dishonest and repressive sexual ethic, we paste Weigel’s warning of the perils of a culture saturated in sex and given over to shallow self-expression and self-construction. And so on.

These days it does require courage to be Catholic, not only because the season of scandal has been humiliating. One also fears that the tellers of half-truths have been given a new lease on life.

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