Fake history

George Weigel

Speaking of public policy debates, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that, while everyone had a right to his opinion, no one had a right to his own facts. Something similar might be said about today’s debates within the Church: everyone has a right to their opinion about the state of Catholicism in 2017, but no one has a right to invent their own Church history.

I thought of Moynihan’s Rule when reading British writer Paul Vallely’s December 17 op-ed article in the Guardian. There, the author of an important biography of Pope Francis argued that the Pope is “steadily filling the College of Cardinals with moderate pastors rather than doctrinal ideologues.” This is, of course, a standard journalistic trope. It’s also fake history.

Which fact can easily be established by consulting the Annuario Pontificio, the official Vatican yearbook. There, in the pages devoted to the College of Cardinals, we find these names, in order of their cardinalatial seniority: Roger Etchegaray, Godfried Danneels, Thomas Stafford Williams, Paul Poupard, Achille Silvestrini, Angelo Sodano, Roger Mahony, Jaime Ortega, William Keeler, Darío Castrillón Hoyos, Dionigi Tettamanzi, Christoph Schönborn, Giovanni Battista Re, Walter Kasper, Theodore McCarrick, Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, Cláudio Hummes, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Karl Lehmann, Renato Martino, Tarcisio Bertone, Peter Turkson, Franc Rodé, Leonardo Sandri, Giovanni Lajolo, Seán Brady, Oswald Gracias, Odilo Scherer, Francesco Monterisi, Kurt Koch, Gianfranco Ravasi, Reinhard Marx, Francesco Coccopalmerio, João Braz de Aviz, Domenico Calcagno, Rainer Maria Woelki, Béchara Boutros Raï, and Luis Antonio Tagle.

Now I don’t wish to be harsh, but anyone who imagines that any of those men is a “doctrinal ideologue” has forfeited his claim to be a credible Vaticanista. And every single one of them was named a cardinal by John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Every. Single. One.

Moreover, Cardinals Danneels, Kasper, Lehmann, and Murphy-O’Connor were among the chief promoters of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in the conclave of 2013. After that conclave elected Bergoglio as Pope Francis, the new pontiff immediately named Cardinals Rodríguez Maradiaga, Gracias, and Marx to his Council of Cardinals, a papal kitchen-cabinet for curial reform. Cardinals Braz de Aviz, Calcagno, Coccopalmerio, Hummes, Koch, and Schönborn have played significant roles in the pontificate to date, and Cardinal Tagle is on every Great Mentioner’s list of papabile for the future.

And to repeat, appassionato e fortissimo: each of these men was created cardinal by John Paul II or Benedict XVI.

Dividing history into two sharply contrasting periods occasionally makes sense. The United States before and after the Civil War comes to mind: prior to that great cataclysm, people said “the United States are….”; afterwards, the usage became “the United States is.” Japan before and after World War II is another instance where straightforward bifurcation doesn’t involve simplistic periodizing. But such examples are rare. Poland today is living through a period of domestic political contention that seems remarkably similar to that country’s debates about its identity in the 1920s and 1930s. France is to some extent still fighting internal battles that began in 1789. History is far more organic and developmental, and much less linear, than the artificial division of the human story into binary, opposed periods suggests.

That’s particularly true of the Church. We’ve become far too accustomed to thinking of the Second Vatican Council as a kind of ecclesiastical Grand Canyon separating two utterly different periods of Church history. Yet the second-most cited source in the footnotes of the documents of Vatican II, after the Bible, is the magisterium of Pope Pius XII, whose reforming encyclicals in the mid-1940s accelerated the dynamics that shaped the Council between 1962 and 1965. Indeed, Vatican II is inconceivable without Popes Leo XIII (1878-1903), Pius X (1903-1914), Benedict XV (1914-1922), Pius XI (1922-1939), and Pius XII (1939-1958).

Furthermore, the suggestion that the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were intellectually sterile is simply ridiculous. These were the years of the Theology of the Body, the great encyclicals Redemptor Hominis, Dives in Misericordia, Veritatis Splendor, Redemptoris Missio, and Centesimus Annus, and the remarkable “September Addresses” of Benedict XVI in Regensburg, New York, London, and Berlin. Between 1978 and 2013, a rich body of papal teaching – intellectually bold and evangelically fertile – was given to the Church.

It does Pope Francis no good service to demean his two predecessors as rigid ideologues. It’s also fake history.

COMING UP: Lessons from an era of confusion

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In the introduction to Aggiornamento on the Hill of Janus: The American College in Rome, 1955-1979, Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni warns readers that his book will be most easily understood by students and alumni of the Pontifical North American College. With respect to my old college classmate and friend, I hope Msgr. DiGiovanni is wrong about that. For amidst all the inside baseball about Roman seminary life over two and a half turbulent decades, Aggiornamento on the Hill of Janus offers a snapshot of a once-stable institution caught in the maelstrom of ecclesiastical confusion and crisis. And from that picture, much can be learned for today.

Like any sensible student of these years, DiGiovanni understands that reform and renewal were imperative as the North American College entered its second century in 1959. The severe regimentation of student life undercut the house rule’s intention to prepare men for lives of service in parish ministry, where they wouldn’t have dozens of bells telling them what to do every time something was to be done. The pedagogy at the Pontifical Gregorian University was ill-suited to the American temper (or to any form of intellectual curiosity), as lecturers repeated every year the same (Latin) lecture they’d given on that day the previous year. NAC was understaffed, not least in terms of spiritual direction. Student morale was a problem because of nit-picking rules and chronic health problems caused by inadequate (and sometimes literally poisonous) food. Change was imperative.

What followed Vatican II, however, was not so much change as confusion and even chaos.

One of the many strengths of DiGiovanni’s book is its demonstration that attitudes among American seminarians in Rome closely paralleled the dynamics in the drama being played out in St. Peter’s basilica, just down the Janiculum Hill from NAC, where the Second Vatican Council was meeting. At the Council’s halfway mark, Father Henri de Lubac, SJ – a reformer once silenced by the Roman authorities who was a key theological advisor at the Council – sensed that the reformist party at Vatican II was dividing: one camp sought an organic theological development of the Church’s self-understanding, while another seemed more interested in kicking over the traces and reimagining everything anew. As DiGiovanni’s painstaking examination of contemporary diaries, committee meeting minutes, and various NAC publications shows, that division began to express itself among NAC students at the same time.

So even before that cataclysmic year, 1968, a fissure was opening in Catholicism between those who believed that Christ had given the Church a certain form, reference to which was essential to true reform, and those who argued that the “Spirit of the Council” called for a root-and-branch rethinking of Catholic doctrine, mission, ministry, and morality. This fissure led, in short order, to confusion about the nature of the priesthood and its role in the post-conciliar Church. And out of that confusion, seven devils worse than the first were set loose, as the ministerial priesthood in the Catholic Church took a nose-dive unlike anything the Church had experienced since the 16th-century Reformation.

It should have been no surprise that this confusion was catastrophic for both vocation recruitment and priestly formation; as one of the rectors who turned NAC around in the 1990s, now-Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, once put it, “A man will give his life for a mystery, but not for a question mark.” During the last fifteen years of Msgr. DiGiovanni’s story, NAC was a house of question marks – and worse-than-question-marks. The Catholic Church in America paid, and is paying, a heavy price for that season of deep confusion.

The North American College today is as solid a seminary as can be found in the world Church: a happy house, filled with impressive young men and led by an outstanding faculty. NAC’s transformation from the confusions of the immediate two post-conciliar decades is due to a re-centering on first principles: a clarity about what the Church teaches and why that teaching is a prescription for beatitude, for happiness. The mystery – of Christ, the Church, and the priesthood – has replaced the question marks.

Some imagine that a return to the free-for-all of the 1970s is the evangelical path forward for 21st-century Catholicism; others think a return to the 1950s is what’s needed. Msgr. DiGiovanni’s important book not only raises grave questions about both these prescriptions; by pointing at the end toward the reform that NAC underwent in the 1990s, he reminds us of the imperative, and effectiveness, of an authentic conciliar Catholicism dedicated to the New Evangelization.