Cleansed and conformed to God’s will

George Weigel

“Father, We Thank Thee, Who Hast Planted” has long been one of my favorite hymns. Its tune, taken from the 16th century Genevan Psalter, is eminently singable. The hymn text — when not corrupted by that politically-correct scoundrel, “alt.,” — is even better. For Francis Bland Tucker’s lyrics put 21st-century congregations in touch with the second generation of Christians, and perhaps even the first, by combining various phrases from an ancient Christian prayer book and catechism, the Didache.

Scholars continue to debate whether the Didache, more formally known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, comes to us from the second or first Christian centuries, but the weight of academic opinion now favors the earlier date. Thus, the Teaching (“Didache” in Greek) links us to what biblical scholar Raymond Brown called “the churches the apostles left behind:” the Christians who were taught by those who were taught by the Lord himself. Singing “Father, We Thank Thee, Who Hast Planted,” we are praying as second-generation Christians, formed by those who had known the Lord Jesus and were witnesses to his resurrection, prayed.

That should be both a consolation and a challenge as the Church prepares to begin a new liturgical year in this season of Catholic grief and anger. Why? Because the primitive Eucharistic Prayer found in the Didache, and the hymn that Father Tucker wrote from it, remind us that the Church is always in need of purification: “Watch o’er Thy Church, O Lord, in mercy/save it from evil, guard it still/Perfect it in Thy Love, unite it/cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.”

That the Church needs cleansing is not much in doubt as Advent 2018 dawns. And that cleansing will necessarily involve everyone in the Church. All of us are called to live chastity as the integrity of love. All of us are called to support each other in meeting that lifelong challenge — by prayer, counsel, example, and fraternal correction when necessary. No one should doubt that, in this matter of the integrity of love, living “cleansed and conformed” to the divine will can be difficult, especially in today’s cultural circumstances. That is all the more reason for intensified prayer and penance in Advent and throughout the Church year, asking the Lord to watch over his Church in mercy, saving it from evil and guarding it from the Evil One.

Reaching too easily for “Satan” as the explanation of a Church crisis or a historical disaster should be avoided. Ignoring Satan is just as dangerous, however. And the Evil One is surely a factor in sowing the evil with which the Catholic Church is contending today. Sexual predation has as many causes as there are sexual predators, but each act of sexual abuse is a manifestation of evil and of a victory for the Evil One. Malfeasance among bishops — whether it be rooted in cowardice, a false notion of the imperatives of institutional maintenance, or personal corruption — is not just a matter of managerial mistakes; the failures of the shepherds touch the mysterium iniquitatis, the “mystery of evil,” and that should be recognized at every level of the Church’s life. The people who wrote the Didache knew that, it seems. So should we.

At the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of a new year of grace, the Church reads from the apocalyptic literature of the Old and New Testaments. Whether the seer is Daniel in Babylon or John on Patmos, the message is similar: do not flee from difficult, even horrific, situations, but live responsibly even when things seem to fall apart — perhaps especially in those moments when the foundations seem to be crumbling. Here, too, is a lesson for this season, in which so many Catholics are saying, “I have to do something.”

That’s true; we all do. We must all intensify prayer and penance. We should all be inviting to church those who have left out of boredom, anger, confusion, or disgust. We should all support the good priests and bishops we know, and we should firmly call clergy who are wayward to a change of heart and a change of life. It may seem as if Jesus is asleep in the storm-tossed boat, and we should call to him for help. But he also expects us to do something, and “something” will always be close at hand.

COMING UP: Vatican autocracy and the U.S. bishops

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As the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore on the weekend of Nov. 10-11, it seemed certain that, after a day of prayer, penance, and reflection on the Church’s sexual abuse crisis, they would take two important steps toward reform. An episcopal code of conduct, holding bishops accountable to the standards applied to priests in the 2002 Dallas Charter, would be adopted. And the bishops would authorize a lay-led mechanism to receive complaints about episcopal misbehavior, malfeasance, or corruption; allegations found credible would be sent to the appropriate authorities, including those in Rome.

Then, at the last minute, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), received an instruction from Rome stating that the Vatican did not want the U.S. bishops to vote on these two measures. The lame rationale given with the instruction was that any such decisions should be made after the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences meet in Rome in February, to discuss the abuse crisis in its global dimensions.

What happened to the “synodality” and “collegiality” that were supposed to characterize the Church under Pope Francis? What conceivable meaning of “synodality” or “collegiality” includes an autocratic Roman intervention in the affairs of a national bishops’ conference that knows its own situation far better than the Roman authorities? And spare me the further excuses about Roman concerns over canon law. If there were canonical problems with the U.S. proposals, they could have been ironed out after the bishops had done what they had to do and what Rome effectively prevented them from doing — demonstrating to furious U.S. Catholics that the bishops are firmly committed to addressing the episcopal dimensions of the abuse crisis and the meltdown of episcopal credibility it had created in its wake.

(And while we’re on the subject of Church law: By what legal authority did Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, instruct the USCCB not to vote on matters the conference membership thought of the gravest importance? A sliver of justification for that intervention might be extracted from Canon 455.1, on the authority of bishops’ conferences. But given the insouciance about canon law demonstrated by Rome in recent years, not to mention a seemingly endless series of strictures against “legalism,” such concerns over canon law ring hollow. In any event, and according to Canon 455.2, any legal fine tuning could have taken place after the U.S. bishops had done what they deemed essential to restoring trust in this critical situation.)

I recently spent almost five weeks in Rome, during which I found an anti-American atmosphere worse than anything I’d experienced in 30 years of work in and around the Vatican. A false picture of the Church’s life in the United States, in which wealthy Catholics in league with extreme right-wing bishops have hijacked the Church and are leading an embittered resistance to the present pontificate, has been successfully sold. And in another offense against collegiality, this grossly distorted depiction of American Catholicism has not been effectively challenged or corrected by American bishops enjoying Roman favor these days.

Honest disagreements — about, say, Amoris Laetitia and its implications for doctrine and pastoral practice — are one thing. A systematic distortion of reality, which tramples on the presumption of an opponent’s good will that should guide any internal Catholic debate, is quite another. Those involved in this anti-American-bishops calumny might also reflect on its disturbing genealogy. For one of those who injected this toxin into the Roman bloodstream was a serial sexual predator specializing in the abuse of seminarians under his authority — Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington.

Mainstream media reporting on the bishops’ recent Baltimore meeting generally got it right: the U.S. bishops tried to do the right thing and got bushwhacked by Rome, which Just Doesn’t Get It on sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance. But the story cannot be allowed to end there. Nor can the Church afford to “wait until after February.”

Cardinal DiNardo and the majority of the bishops are determined to get to grips with the awfulness that has come to light, for the sake of the Church’s evangelical future. The bishops’ challenge now is to temper their ingrained deference to “Rome” and get on with devising responses to this crisis that are within their authority, and that address the legitimate demands of the Catholic people of the United States for reform.

Featured image: CNS photo/Bob Roller