The episcopal opportunity

George Weigel

The late Ronald Knox was thought to have a sterling wit, but I’ve never found anything of his as funny as a proposal attributed to his brother, Wilfred: like Ronald, before the latter’s conversion, an Anglican clergyman. Wilfred Knox was also a theologian and, as the story goes, once proposed a two-volume study of Christian ethics. The first volume would be entitled, Respect for the Clergy. The second volume would be styled more simply: Other Virtues.  I laugh, or at least smile, every time I run across that tale, and I expect most Catholics would, too. Which is a good thing, because our amusement reflects that distinctive Catholic combination of a profound respect for the ordained ministry of the Church and a cheerful skepticism about the sillier aspects of clerical culture. That instinct – reverence without sycophancy – has stood the Church in America in good stead ever since what Father Richard Neuhaus called the “Long Lent of 2002″ brought the Church’s ordained ministry under the microscope of public scrutiny. Some of that scrutiny was biased and unfair; some of it was even vicious. But if the intent of the biased, the unfair, and the vicious was to promote a contempt for their priests among the people of the Catholic Church, that intention fizzled. The overwhelming majority of Catholics in America know that the overwhelming majority of their priests are men living virtuous lives of self-sacrifice.

At the same time, however, the Long Lent of 2002 has left a residue of deep, and in some cases, smoldering, lay discontent with the Church’s episcopal leadership. Catholics have understood that a scandal of clerical sexual misconduct became a crisis of enormous (and, in financial terms, still untold) proportions because of the failures of bishops: failures that were theological as well as managerial. Some, perhaps many, bishops believe that this reaction is unfair, that the entire episcopate is being maligned for the malfeasance of a few. There is perhaps some truth in that complaint, but until the bishops of the United States show a far greater capacity for self-correction than they’ve shown to date, lay discontent will continue. And it will likely grow.

That discontent, which often focuses on inept administration, has already taken some unhelpful forms. The Boston-based Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, while identifying some real problems in Church governance, has addressed those problems with proposals that would, in effect, turn the Catholic Church in America into another liberal Protestant denomination. And even the most well-intentioned initiatives toward the reform of diocesan governance (and there are some out there) must contend with the fact that changes in management structures and processes will only take the Church so far. Indeed, any such reforms must clearly protect the bishop’s authority as governor of his local Church while freeing him to be the apostle – the evangelical witness – he was ordained to be. That’s a tall order, but not an impossible one.

Whether that tall order will be filled is one of the great questions of U.S. Catholic life today. The actuarial tables dictate that the episcopal leadership of American Catholicism will change, dramatically, over the next several years. Two American cardinals are already beyond the retirement age of 75; one cardinal will turn 75 this month, and another will turn 75 next year. In addition, two more metropolitan archbishops will reach 75 in 2006. Five dioceses currently have no bishop; six have a bishop who is past 75; and in five more, the bishop will turn 75 this year. A major transition is, clearly, at hand. The new apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, will play a large role in guiding this transition; so, obviously, will Pope Benedict XVI, who has thus far demonstrated, in the main, a very hands-on approach to episcopal appointments.

There are great possibilities here: the Church in the United States has a greater opportunity to be the “Church in the modern world” that Vatican II envisioned than perhaps any other local church on earth. Seizing that opportunity, however, requires a dramatically different kind of episcopal leadership than the style that helped bring us the Long Lent of 2002.


COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.