Let’s not make a deal…at least this deal

George Weigel

Helping those who have broken away from the Catholic Church come back into full communion is a noble endeavor. But such reconciliations cannot be conducted as if they were the ecclesiastical equivalent of labor negotiations: you give a bit here, we’ll give a bit there. For the only Church unity worthy of the name is unity within the full symphony of Catholic truth.

Which brings us to the rumored reconciliation between the Church and the followers of the late French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. While the Lefebvrists’ complaints about the post-Vatican II liturgy are often thought to be at the heart of their schism, the more fundamental break-points involve the Council’s teaching on the fundamental human right of religious freedom and the Council’s embrace of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue – including the conciliar affirmation that there are elements of truth and holiness in other Christian communities, and indeed in non-Christian faiths.

Now, according to Archbishop Guido Pozzo, a senior Vatican official involved in discussions with the Lefebvrists, it may be possible to heal the breach Archbishop Lefebvre created by conceding that the teachings of Vatican II do not have the same doctrinal weight. On this scenario, the Lefebvrists would be given a pass on the Council’s affirmation of religious freedom, ecumenism, and interreligious dialogue, and would return to full communion through the mechanism of a “personal prelature,” the same structure that governs Opus Dei.

This is a very, very bad idea.

Vatican II did indeed speak of a “hierarchy of truths” within the one Catholic and apostolic faith. But that does not mean that some of what the Council taught is more-or-less true (which would mean that some of Vatican II is more-or-less false, or at least more-or-less dubious). To speak of a “hierarchy of truths” simply means that some of the truths the Catholic Church teaches are closer to the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ crucified and risen than other truths the Church teaches.

The Church teaches the truth of the Virgin Birth and the truth of Mary’s Immaculate Conception; both doctrines are true, but the Virgin Birth is closer to the Paschal Mystery than the Immaculate Conception. Similarly, Vatican II taught that divine revelation is real and that religious freedom is a fundamental human right. The reality of divine revelation is a truth closer to the center of the faith than the truth that religious freedom is a right of persons that should be recognized in law; but both are true.

Following the lead of Archbishop Lefebvre, the clergy of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) – the ordained members of the Lefebvrist movement – have long claimed that what the Council taught on religious freedom is false because it contradicted settled Catholic teaching – a claim that has more to do with the agitations of post-1789 French politics than with a serious account of the history of Catholic church-state doctrine. The ground of the SSPX’s rejection of religious freedom is of less importance than the fact of it, however. To restore SSPX clergy to full communion with Rome while letting them cross their fingers behind their backs on religious freedom (and ecumenism) when they make the profession of faith and take the oath of fidelity would, by a bizarre ultra-traditionalist route, enshrine a “right to dissent” within the Church.

And that would make for shipwreck. Such a “right” of “faithful dissent” has long been claimed by Catholic progressives, not least with respect to Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical on the appropriate means of regulating fertility, and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul II’s apostolic letter reaffirming that the Church’s authority to ordain extends only to men. Claims to “faithful dissent” have always been rejected by the Church’s highest teaching authority.

To make a deal with the SSPX and the Lefebvrist movement on Archbishop Pozzo’s premise – that this new personal prelature would be conceded a right to reject certain teachings of the Second Vatican Council – would be to make the symphony of Catholic truth discordant rather than melodic. It would validate even more dissent on the Catholic Left. It would reinforce the notion that doctrine is not about truth, but about power.

And in doing all of that, it would immeasurably damage the New Evangelization.

Featured image: By Antonisse, Marcel / Anefo – [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang 2.24.01.05 Bestanddeelnummer 934-7220, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29326511

COMING UP: The importance of Jackie Robinson

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In the history of the modern American civil rights movement, three iconic moments are typically cited.

May 17, 1954: The U.S. Supreme Court hands down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring segregated – “separate but equal” – public schools unconstitutional.

August 28, 1963: Two hundred thousand Americans participate in the March on Washington and hear Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaim his dream of a country in which his children will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; ten months later, Congress enacts the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

March 3, 1965: Civil rights marchers are assaulted by police tear gas and billy clubs on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama; five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs into law the Voting Rights Act, vindicating the Selma marchers’ cause.

These were noble moments, worth remembering; I certainly cherish my memories of encounters with Bayard Rustin, who organized the March that made Dr. King a national eminence. Yet I also believe there was a fourth iconic moment in America’s journey from a land fouled by segregation to the most racially egalitarian nation on the planet. The man at the center of that fourth dramatic moment was an American legend whose accomplishments should rank as high as anyone’s in the pantheon of civil rights heroes.

On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers opened their National League season against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. The Dodger first baseman that day was Jackie Robinson: the first African-American to play in a major league game since the infamous “color line” was drawn in the 1880s. At UCLA in 1939-41, Robinson was perhaps the greatest amateur athlete in the country, a star in track-and-field, football, and basketball. After service as an Army officer in World War II, he was playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League when he was signed to a minor league contract by “The Mahatma,” Branch Rickey, a cigar-chomping Methodist and the Dodgers’ general manager. Rickey was determined to break the color line, and he deliberately chose Jack Roosevelt Robinson to do so.

And not because Jackie Robinson was a mild-mannered wallflower. But precisely because he was a warrior who, in the words of Leo Durocher, “didn’t just come to play, he come to shove the [expletive deleted] bat…” (I’ll leave the rest of the quote to your imagination). Robinson was to be a warrior with a difference, however: Rickey, an adept psychologist who believed in the essential fairness of the American people, wanted a man with the courage not to fight back against the racist slurs, beanballs, and spikings that were sure to come his way – except by giving an unforgettable performance on the field.

Which is what Jackie Robinson, the immortal Number 42, delivered. Grainy black-and-white videos today remind us of a truth the baseball world learned seventy years ago this month: there has never been anything more exciting in baseball, including the majestic home run and the overpowering no-hitter, than 42 stealing a base, especially home. Rather than hollering back at bigots during his rookie year, Robinson beat them with a slashing, attacking style of baseball that helped lift the Dodgers to the National League pennant and brought them within one game of a World Series victory over the lordly Yankees (who didn’t sign an African-American player until Elston Howard in 1955).

It was a performance for the ages. And it changed America.

In this entertainment-saturated twenty-first century, it may be hard to recall the grip baseball had on the national emotions and imagination in 1947. But as the late Columbia University cultural historian Jacques Barzun (an immigrant from France) used to say, whoever wants to understand the heart and mind of America had better understand baseball. On April 14, 1947, that nation-defining pastime still embodied the nation’s original sin. The next day, Jackie Robinson began to accelerate a change in America’s heart and mind. That change made possible Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act.

On the sapphire jubilee of his first game in the majors, America owes 42 an enormous round of applause and a prayer for the repose of a noble soul.