Lessons from an era of confusion

George Weigel
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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.

COMING UP: Sensitive locations, not ‘sanctuary’

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DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 11: Msgr. Bernie Schmitz preaches the homily during the announcement of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish as a diocesan shrine on December 11, 2016, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

With the election of President Donald Trump, many immigrants are uncertain of their future in America. The situation has ignited a national conversation about immigrants and their legal status.

The term “sanctuary” has been making waves in the headlines recently after Denver immigrant Jeanette Vizguerra sought assistance at a local Unitarian church for fear of being deported. The term itself has largely been adopted by the media to describe cities where immigrants cannot be questioned about their immigration status and locations where immigrants can seek refuge and be safe from arrest.

While the so-called “Muslim ban” has been garnering a lot of media attention, there’s another piece of the conversation that’s equally as pertinent; that of the immigrants who are already living in the U.S.; those who have fled their home country in search of something better, established their lives here — and many of which are of Latino descent.

The fear among many Latinos is still prevalent, as many wonder what will become of their residence here in the U.S. under a Trump presidency.

“For those here today illegally who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and only one route: to return home and apply for re-entry,” President Trump said in an Aug. 31 speech in Phoenix, Ariz.

The law doesn’t give definition to “sanctuary” but instead describes places where immigrants are safe from any sort of enforcement action by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as “sensitive locations.” A 2011 memorandum distributed by ICE outlines that sensitive locations include, but are not limited to: schools, hospitals, churches, synagogues, mosques or other institutions of worship, the site of a funeral, wedding or other public religious ceremony and public demonstrations, such as a rally or march.

The memo states that enforcement actions are prohibited from taking place in any of these locations without prior approval by an ICE supervisor. In this event, supervisors are to “take extra care when assessing whether a planned enforcement action could reasonably be viewed as causing significant disruption to the normal operations of the sensitive location.”

The policy does, however, call for exigent circumstances in which enforcement actions can be carried out without prior approval. These include: matters of national security or terrorism, an imminent risk of death, violence or physical harm to any person or property, the immediate arrest of individual(s) that present an imminent danger to public safety, or an imminent risk of destruction of evidence material to an ongoing criminal case.

Should any of these situations arise, the memo instructs ICE agents to “conduct themselves as discretely as possible, consistency with office and public safety, and make every effort to lift the time at or focused on the sensitive location.”