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Courageous Catholicism

This past May, after four months of full immersion in the Catholic Crisis of 2002, it struck me that a book was in order: a book that described what the crisis is, what it isn’t, why it happened, and what could be done to turn the crisis into an opportunity for genuinely Catholic reform. Happily, the good people at Basic Books agreed. The result has just been published — The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church.

There are competitors on the market, but I’d like to think that Courage is a different kind of book. I tried to write it from the “inside” — not just the “inside” story of what happened, in the Church in the U.S. and in Rome (although the book includes a lot of information about that), but from “inside” the Church’s convictions about the unique character of the priesthood and the episcopate. Unlike other books, which propose resolving the crisis through various “Catholic Lite” schemes, The Courage To Be Catholic argues that there is no reform without form. Only deepened fidelity to the unique “form” Christ gave the Church will lead to genuine reform.

Then I take up the question of causality: how on earth did this mess happen? It didn’t happen because of celibacy. It didn’t happen because of the Church’s sexual ethic.  It didn’t happen because the Catholic Church is “authoritarian” (it isn’t). It didn’t happen because of media bias (although there has been quite enough of that). It happened because of infidelity, because of failures in discipleship and headship in the Church.

The current crisis can’t be understood unless it’s located quite precisely in the history of the past thirty-five years — and specifically in the context of a “culture of dissent” that has eroded Catholic identity and caused the gravest confusions about what priests and bishops are, and about what priests and bishops are for. The Catholic “Lite Brigade” has made today’s crisis the occasion for another assault on settled Church teaching; I argue that, while the crisis has many causes, the agitations of the Lite Brigade are one of them.

All of which means that the path to genuine reform involves the Church becoming more Catholic, not less. That has been the pattern throughout Catholic history. Genuinely Catholic reform always means going back to roots: to those truths that Christ gave the Church as a permanent constitution. Retrieving those roots — renewing our commitment to those truths — is how genuinely Catholic reform always happens. Genuinely Catholic reform doesn’t involve turning the Catholic Church into another American “denomination.” Genuine reform means rediscovering the courage to be Catholic.

The book also includes three chapters of specific suggestions: an agenda for genuinely Catholic reform in seminaries and novitiates, in the priesthood, in the selection of bishops, in the exercise of the bishop’s office, and in the Vatican. These chapters are, frankly, an attempt to get the public discussion beyond bumper-sticker slogans like “zero tolerance” and “one strike and you’re out.” I hope that my recommendations will help others formulate even more comprehensive proposals for the genuinely Catholic reform of the Church according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the magisterium of Pope John Paul II.

The Courage To Be Catholic closes with a quotation from Pope Pius XI, which happened to be a favorite of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Facing an onslaught from the two paganisms embodied by Stalin and Hitler, Pius XI wrote, “Let us thank God that he makes us live among the present problems. It is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre.” That kind of bracing, unsparing challenge, not the psychobabble of “listening sessions,” is what U.S. Catholics want and need today.

All the suffering and humiliation of these past eight months must have been for a reason; it must have some purpose in God’s scheme of things. I suggest that that purpose is the genuinely Catholic reform of the Church in the United States. “Catholic Lite” helped create the crisis. Retrieving and renewing classic Catholicism — a Catholicism with the courage to be countercultural — is the way, under God’s grace, for the Church to turn crisis into opportunity.

George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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