Courage in the Slough of Despond

George Weigel

I never took a class from historian Frank Orlando, but the motto he placed in the faculty section of my college yearbook — “History is an antidote for despair” —has stuck with me for 45 years. It also seems quite appropriate at this disturbing moment in the life of the Church, so perhaps a history lesson is in order.

Forty years ago this week, the Catholic Church was in serious trouble. The last years of Pope Paul VI had witnessed an endless sequence of controversies, of which mass dissent from the encyclical Humanae Vitae —dissent that would have devastating effects on clerical discipline and erode episcopal authority —was but one. The pope seemed dispirited toward the end of his reign, publicly berating God for having not heard his prayer that the life of his friend Aldo Moro be spared (Moro had been murdered by terrorists). The promise of evangelical Catholic renewal that had animated John XXIII’s opening address to the Second Vatican Council in 1962 seemed falsified by the trauma of the post-conciliar years.

Then came a brief moment of exuberance, as Catholic spirits were lifted by the election of Cardinal Albino Luciani to the papacy. The new John Paul I smiled. He gave brilliant little catechetical lessons during his Wednesday general audiences. A book of his “letters” to characters ranging from Dickens and Chesterton to Pinocchio and Figaro the Barber charmed the world. The Good News seemed, well, good again.

Then, 33 days into what seemed a promising pontificate, Pope John Paul I was found dead in his bed on the morning of September 28, 1978.

And the Church was plunged back into Bunyan’s Slough of Despond.

The shock of the pope’s death was perhaps most intense among the men who had just put Luciani on the Chair of Peter. Twenty years later, an American cardinal-elector, William Baum, told me that this latest blow to the Church had been “a message from the Lord, quite out of the ordinary….This was an intervention from the Lord to teach us something.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told me that he had been similarly stunned: “We were convinced that the election [of John Paul I] was made in accordance with the will of God, not simply in a human way….and if one month after being elected in accordance with the will of God, he died, God had something to say to us.”

What God was saying, some cardinal-electors concluded, was that it was a time for courage.

So when the two principal Italian contenders in the second conclave of 1978 deadlocked and essentially cancelled each other out as candidates, several cardinals summoned up the courage to propose what then seemed virtually unthinkable: looking outside Italy for a pope. Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna was the leader of this party of dramatic change. But he was not alone. And those who rallied to Koenig and his courageous suggestion that the conclave elect a young man, 58-year old Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, should also be remembered: men like the Polish primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski; the archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal John Krol; and one of the youngest and newest members of the conclave, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich and Freising.

It also took courage for Karol Wojtyla to accept election, knowing that he would have to leave the rich Cracovian culture from which he drew strength and inspiration. But it’s the courage of the cardinal-electors on which we might well focus our attention now, when the Catholic Church seems bogged down in another Slough of Despond.

The Wojtyla electors were men accustomed to a certain order of things, who had themselves benefited from that order. But in a moment of crisis they had the courage to think outside the conventional norms and imagine what once seemed unimaginable. They were prepared to face the skeptical, even hostile, reaction of fellow-cardinals who could not wrap their minds around such a dramatic innovation, and whose instinctive reaction to crisis was to find a safe pair of hands who would calm things down. They were willing to try the unprecedented.

The story of their courage 40 years ago should be an antidote to the despair some Catholics feel today. It should also inspire the bishops to get to grips with this crisis and think outside the conventions in resolving it. And it should inspire the authorities in Rome, including the highest authority.

Featured image by Matt Atherton | Unsplash

COMING UP: An Orthodox fracture with serious consequences

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

While Catholicism has been embroiled in a crisis of sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance reaching to the highest levels of the Church, Eastern Orthodoxy may be on the verge of an epic crack-up with major ecumenical and geopolitical consequences.

There are three competing Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine today. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate is in full communion with, and subordinate to, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. Then there are two breakaways from Moscow: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. This tripartite fracture is a scandal, an obstacle to re-evangelizing a broken culture, and an impediment to ecumenism.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople has indicated that it is considering a proposal to recognize the autocephaly, or independence from Moscow, of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, should the contending Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine restore unity. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has responded with fury, dropping references to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople from its liturgy. And its international mouthpiece, Metropolitan Hilarion, issued an overwrought statement contending that “the war of the Patriarchate of Constantinople against Moscow [has continued] for almost a hundred years.” Hilarion also charged that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is first-among-equals in Orthodox Christianity, didn’t support the Moscow Patriarchate during decades of Soviet persecution — an ironic allegation, given that the man to whom Hilarion reports, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, was an old KGB hand back in the day.

What’s going on here? Several things.

First, the Moscow Patriarchate is terrified. Should a reunited Ukrainian Orthodoxy be recognized by Constantinople as “autocephalous” and therefore not subordinate to Russian Orthodoxy, Moscow’s claim to be the “third Rome” would be gravely imperiled. Russian Orthodoxy would shrink drastically by the loss of the large Orthodox population in Ukraine, and the Moscow Patriarchate’s claim to a kind of de facto hegemony in the Orthodox world would be badly damaged.

Second, Russian Orthodoxy, continuing a long, unhappy tradition of playing chaplain-to-the-czar (whatever form he takes), has provided putatively religious buttressing for Vladimir Putin’s claim that there is a single Russkiy mir (“Russian world” or “Russian space”), which includes Ukraine and Belarus. And in that “space,” Ukrainians and Belarussians are little brothers of the Russians, the true inheritors of the baptism of the eastern Slavs in 988. That is a falsification of history. Yet it has underwritten Russian imperial claims for centuries, and it continues to do so today.

A reunited and independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy centered on Kyiv (site in 988 of the baptism of Prince Vladimir and the tribes that eventually became Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarussians) would empirically falsify what serious historians have long known is a dishonest narrative. Moscow and Russia are not the sole inheritors of the baptism of the eastern Slavs, and Russian imperial claims (like those that have underwritten the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the Russian-sponsored war in eastern Ukraine) rest on a false story. Thus both Russian Orthodoxy and President Putin would be major losers, should Ukrainian Orthodoxy reunite and be recognized as independent by Constantinople. That is why Metropolitan Hilarion is taking a harsh line with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. That is also why Putin is likely encouraging his new friend, President Erdogan of Turkey, to turns the screws on Bartholomew, whose presence in Istanbul (the former Constantinople) depends on Turkish governmental goodwill. For Putin knows that his attempt to recreate something like the old Soviet Union, which has battened on the “Russian world” ideology,” could implode.

Russian Orthodox clergy have charged that efforts to reunite Ukrainian Orthodoxy and grant it autocephaly are a Roman plot. That should concentrate some minds at the Vatican. The 2016 Havana Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill was supposed to inaugurate a new era of ecumenical cooperation between Rome and Moscow. Yet as soon as Moscow feels pressured, the Vatican bogeyman is trotted out and vilified. Those of us who judged the Moscow Declaration ill-advised two years ago ought not take any satisfaction from having been right; but those who wouldn’t listen then should think again about making deals with agents of Russian state power.

Nothing is certain in this Ukrainian drama, given Ukrainian Orthodox fractiousness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s relatively weak position, and the unhelpful involvement of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. The stakes, however, are high indeed.