Getting ready for Synod-2018

George Weigel

The headline on the March 3 story at the CRUX website was certainly arresting — “Cardinal on charges of rigged synods: ‘There was no maneuvering!’” The cardinal in question was Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, and not only were his voluble comments striking, they were also a bit disconcerting. Did I simply imagine the uproar on the floor of the Synod on October 16, 2014, as bishop after bishop protested an interim report generated by Baldisseri and his colleague, Archbishop Bruno Forte, that did not reflect the discussions of the previous two weeks? Were the complaints about the suffocating Synod procedures Cardinal Baldisseri outlined prior to Synod-2015 an illusion? Didn’t thirteen cardinals write Pope Francis in the most respectful terms, suggesting alterations in those procedures to ensure the open discussion the Pope insisted he wanted?

But, hey, memory is a tricky thing, and this is the season of mercy, so let’s let bygones be bygones and concentrate now on Synod-2018, which will discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment. Those are very important topics. The Church in the United States has had some success addressing them, despite challenging cultural circumstances; so perhaps some American leaders in youth ministry and vocational discernment could be invited to Synod-2018 to enrich its discussion, on the Synod floor and off it (where is where most of the interesting conversations at these affairs take place).

Curtis Martin is the founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which is arguably the most creative campus ministry initiative in the post-Vatican II Church. FOCUS sends recent college graduates back to campuses as missionaries and has had such success in the U.S. that FOCUS missionaries are now working in Europe. There’s a lot the bishops at Synod-2018 could learn from Mr. Martin’s experience.

Then there’s Anna Halpine, president of the World Youth Alliance: a network of pro-life young people all over the world, who witness to the joy of the Gospel and the Gospel of life in an extraordinary variety of social and cultural settings. WYA has also designed and deployed innovative educational programs and women’s health centers that, building out from the Church’s teaching on the inalienable dignity of the human person, offer life-affirming alternatives to the moral emptiness of too many elementary school curricula and the death-dealing work of Planned Parenthood on campuses. Surely there’s something to be shared at the Synod from this remarkable enterprise.

Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa was the director of campus ministry at Texas A&M for eleven years, where St. Mary’s Catholic Center has set the gold standard in traditional campus ministry and created a model for others to emulate. Over the past twenty years, Konderla and his predecessors have fostered more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than that school with the golden dome in northwest Indiana, while helping many Aggie men and women prepare for fruitful and faithful Catholic marriages. Bishop Konderla would make a very apt papal nominee to Synod-2018.

Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, has taken up the mantle of the late Dr. Don Briel in creating a robust, integrated Catholic Studies program on his growing campus. Shea’s goal, like Briel’s, is to form mature young men and women intellectually, spiritually, and liturgically, so that they can be, in the twenty-first century, Pope Francis’s “Church permanently in mission.” He has things to say about how to do this, and Synod-2018 should hear them.

Then there is Father Thomas Joseph White, OP, a banjo-playing, bourbon-appreciating theologian of distinction who (with his Dominican brother, Father Dominic Legge) has created the Thomistic Institute, to bring serious Catholic ideas to prestigious universities across the U.S. The Institute’s lectures and seminars fill the intellectual vacuum evident on so many campuses today — the vacuum where thought about the deep truths inscribed in the world and in us used to be. Father White is being redeployed by his community to Rome this Fall, so he’ll be a #64 bus ride away from the Vatican. The Synod fathers should meet him, and perhaps he and Cardinal Baldisseri, an accomplished pianist, could jam.  

So by all means, let’s have “no maneuvering” at Synod-2018. But let’s also have some American expertise there, for the good of the whole Church. 

COMING UP: Learning from the White Rose

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Seventy-five years ago last month, Sophie and Hans Scholl and their friend Christian Probst were executed by guillotine at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison for high treason. Their crime? They were the leaders of an anti-Nazi student organization, the White Rose, and had been caught distributing leaflets at their university in the Bavarian capital; the leaflets condemned the Third Reich, its genocide of the Jews, and its futile war.

How did young people once active in the Hitler Youth come to recognize the evil of the Nazi regime and risk their lives to oppose it?

The 2005 Oscar-nominated film, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, offers a part of the answer. The garish brutality of the Nazis, not least at its Nuremberg party rallies, was a first hint to serious young people that something was wrong here. The White Rose youngsters were also thinkers, and studied Socrates, Plato, and Pascal under the tutelage of Kurt Huber, a philosophy professor who despised the Hitler regime. The leaflets that were their primary resistance tool included references to Goethe, Aristotle, Schiller, and Lao Tzu – further signs of deep and broad reading.

What you won’t learn from the film, however, is that the triggering inspiration for their activism was the “Lion of Muenster,” Archbishop Clemens von Galen, whose anti-Nazi preaching convinced the members of the White Rose that thought and discussion must give way to action. So, between June 1942 and February 1943, the White Rose produced and distributed six leaflets urging others to nonviolent resistance against the Nazi regime. To stand by silently, they claimed, was to be complicit in “the most horrible of crimes – crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure.” To do nothing was to truckle to Hitler; and “every word that comes out of Hitler’s mouth is a lie.”

The fourth pamphlet made a promise: “We will not be silent. We are your bad consciences. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.” And therein lies a clue to another inspiration for the Scholls and their friends: John Henry Newman and his writings on conscience.

In Britain’s Catholic Herald, Paul Shrimpton notes that the youngsters of the White Rose were deeply influenced by Augustine’s Confessions and George Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest. But it was Newman’s sermons, recommended to the White Rose students by a philosopher who had converted to Catholicism after reading Newman’s Grammar of Assent, which prompted that fourth pamphlet with its call to heed the demanding voice of conscience.

Shrimpton reports that when Sophie Scholl’s boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, was assigned to the Russian front in 1942, Sophie gave him two volumes of Newman’s sermons. He later wrote her that “we know by whom we are created, and that we stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our creator. Conscience gives us the capacity to distinguished between good and evil” – words, Shrimpton notes, that “were taken almost verbatim from a famous sermon of Newman’s called ‘The Testimony of Conscience.’” On the witness stand before the notorious Nazi “People’s Court” judge Rudolph Freisler, 21-year old Sophie Scholl testified that it was her conscience, and her Christian conviction, that had led her to nonviolent resistance against Hitler and his gangsters. That Christian conscience, we now know, was formed in part by a serious intellectual and spiritual encounter with Blessed John Henry Newman.

There is a lot of talk in the Church these days about “conscience,” and Newman is invoked by many prominent personalities in those debates. So it might be useful for all concerned, including Church leaders in the Munich where the White Rose youngsters gave their lives for the truth, to ponder Newman’s influence on these contemporary martyrs.

What did the members of the White Rose learn from Newman about conscience? They learned that conscience could not be ignored or manipulated. They learned that the voice of God speaking through our consciences sets before us what is life-giving and what is death-dealing. They learned that conscience can be stern, but that in submitting to the truths it conveys, we are liberated in the deepest meaning of human freedom.

They learned that obedience to conscience can make us courageous, and that to strive to live an ideal with the help of grace is to live a truly noble life with an undivided heart.