A blessed loss

ROME. During Synod-2015, I’ve been reading John Martin Robinson’s Cardinal Consalvi: 1757-1824, a biography of Pope Pius VII’s secretary of state, one of the most impressive churchmen of his day, or indeed any day.

Ercole Consalvi, born into the Roman nobility as the winds of Enlightenment-driven change were about to transform Europe, was educated for a career in law and administration, which in his case meant life as an official of the Papal States: that broad swath of central Italy that constituted the pope’s “temporal power.” A favorite of Pope Pius VI, Consalvi followed that pope into exile when the forces of revolutionary France seized the Papal States and Rome. Then, when Pius VI died under house arrest, Consalvi organized the conclave that, after three and a half months, elected the Benedictine monk, Barnaba Luigi Chiaramonti, as Pius VII. It was an inspired choice, for the integrity and open-mindedness of Pius VII restored the prestige of the papacy, while his quiet acceptance of suffering when Napoleon turned against him confirmed the esteem in which he was held and helped bring about the downfall of the auto-crowned Emperor of France.

One of Pius VII’s wisest decisions was to name Ercole Consalvi his secretary of state, creating this layman a cardinal – Consalvi was ordained a deacon at the time – and putting him in charge of virtually the entire apparatus of papal governance. Reading the story of Consalvi as de facto prime minister of the Papal States is a step back into a long-vanished world with striking parallels to our own time.

Against the entrenched opposition of those who had long profited from the cronyism of economic life in the Papal States, Consalvi worked hard to reform and rationalize Vatican finance, and instituted a program of free trade in the Papal States. It’s a story of hard work against recalcitrant local interests that Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’s deputy for the reform of 21st-century Vatican finance, might find eerily familiar.

Then there was Consalvi’s decades-long effort to gain local churches and the papacy as much breathing room as possible, clear of the stifling embrace of state power. State by state, concordat by concordat, Consalvi worked to create the legal conditions in which the Church could be itself and govern itself, and in which the pope could communicate freely with his flock. It was no easy business then, any more than it is today, and the parallels between the attempts by various regimes, both reactionary and liberal, to get control of the Catholic Church suggest that today’s battles for religious freedom in full are not without their 19th-century precedents. (HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell may seem, at first blush, a curious contemporary analogue to the Austrian foreign minister, Prince Clemens von Metternich; but both tried to use the Church for state purposes, and both had to be resisted.)

Cardinal Consalvi also reminds us that the world owes the Roman pontiff an enormous debt of gratitude for preserving so much of its classical heritage. To take one striking example: When Pius VII and Consalvi returned to Rome from exile, only the top halves of the arches of Septimus Severus and Constantine were visible, the rest being buried under centuries of rubble. It was Consalvi who had these two great artifacts and much of the rest of the Roman Forum excavated, as it was Consalvi who built a new wing onto the Vatican museums in order to display the art recovered from French looters.

Yet for all that is admirable in the life and work of Pius VII and Ercole Consalvi, it strikes me that the Church and the popes are well rid of the Papal States these two remarkable men tried to preserve and defend. The temporal power  was a ball-and-chain for the papacy, impeding its essentially spiritual character and work. And it’s no accident that the dramatic rise in the moral prestige of the papacy – which gives popes a unique form of power in international public life – was preceded by the collapse of the pope’s role as autocrat of a C-league European power.

Loss, in this case, was manifest and blessed gain.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.