Fackenheim’s Law and the Current Catholic Crisis

George Weigel

The medieval Jewish sage Maimonides counted 613 commandments, or mitzvot, in the Law that God gave his people, Israel. The 20th-century Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, who escaped the Nazis’ genocidal clutches and devoted part of his scholarly life to pondering the moral meaning of the Holocaust, formulated what he called the 614th commandment: Give Hitler no posthumous victories. And how would Jews violate that “commandment?” By religious Jews denying the providential role of Israel’s God in Jewish life; by secular Jews abandoning the notion of Israel as a unique people with a distinctive historical destiny; by Jews acting toward other Jews in ways that tore at the spiritual and moral bonds that bound the people of Israel together.

Don’t give Hitler what he wanted, the utter destruction of the Jewish people, for that would be giving him a posthumous victory: This was one great lesson Emil Fackenheim drew from his reflections on the profound evil of his time and its effects on his people. Catholics filled with righteous anger over the vile behavior of the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, and Catholics determined to help reform the Church in order to cleanse the Church and prevent similar wickedness in the future, have something to learn from Rabbi Fackenheim. In our case the lesson must be: Don’t give the Evil One victories.

Long before the McCarrick story broke, it was clear that the Church in the United States faced many challenges. It was also clear to those familiar with the international Catholic scene that the Church in the United States had a better chance of living the New Evangelization than any other local Church in the developed world. That may well be why the Evil One has focused such attention on the Church in America: There is something living here, something to be wounded — even killed.

The depth of the challenges facing U.S. Catholicism are coming into painfully clear focus; but in facing those challenges, we must not give Satan cheap victories by denying how we think and who we are as a Church.

Sixteen years ago, in The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, I argued that clerical sexual abuse had been facilitated in part by the breakdown of doctrinal discipline following Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on responsible family planning, Humanae Vitae. That breakdown involved rejecting what Paul VI taught about the reality of intrinsically evil acts: Acts wrong in themselves, which can’t be justified by a calculus of intentions and consequences. That rejection is now ricocheting around the world Church again and those involved should be asked a straightforward question: Is the attempted seduction of an eleven-year old boy by a trusted priest and family friend an intrinsically evil act? Yes or no?

Denying the reality of intrinsically evil acts helped create a dynamic of license in which abusive clergy gave themselves passes on other issues. Authentic reform now means restoring the moral foundations of Catholicism. Thus it is imperative that both Rome and the U.S. bishops reaffirm the reality of intrinsically evil acts as taught by the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

More than five years ago, in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, I wrote that authentic Catholic reform is always “re-form:” it’s not rupture; it’s not paradigm shifts; it’s reaching back and reclaiming a part of the Church’s Christ-given constitution that got misplaced because of historical contingency. The governance of the Church by bishops is part of that Christ-given Catholic “form,” so the serious reform of clerical life at all levels of Holy Orders must be accomplished with the bishops. That will almost certainly mean responsible laity helping good bishops call their less-than-effective or less-than-honest brother-bishops to their duty when necessary. Bishops should welcome such help, not resist it; lay Catholics must understand that bishops are the bottom line of Church governance.

Responding responsibly to today’s crisis also means not fouling our own nest by denying all the good things that are underway in U.S. Catholicism, the living parts of which have embraced the New Evangelization and rejected Catholic Lite as an evangelical strategy. Shrill voices venting ideological spleen by decrying the entire American Catholic scene are demoralizing; they may unwittingly give the Evil One cheap victories. Truly righteous anger is focused anger, not online click-bait.

COMING UP: The current crisis

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The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war caused the premature suspension of the First Vatican Council on October 20, 1870 and left the Church’s theological self-understanding somewhat imbalanced. In its first session, Vatican I defined the nature of papal authority with a carefully crafted affirmation of papal infallibility under certain clearly defined circumstances; the intention was to complete that reflection on authority in the Church by a parallel statement on the authority of bishops. But Vatican I was never reconvened. And the result, over time, was that bishops were too often thought of as mere branch managers of Catholic Church, Inc., whose all-powerful CEO was in Rome.

The Second Vatican Council intended to redress that imbalance and misunderstanding through its primary document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and its Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church. There, the Council fathers taught that local bishops were true overseers (the Greek meaning of episkopos) of the local churches for which they were responsible; moreover, bishops shared in the governance of the entire Church, with and under the Pope. This notion of episcopal “collegiality” was then extended to clusters of local churches, as the Council mandated the formation of national bishops’ conferences.

Implicit in this developed theology of the episcopate was the idea of mutual responsibility among bishops. Their “collegiality” was not that typical of privileged castes, but of mutually-responsible stewards. And implicit in that idea was a practice that had been virtually abandoned through disuse: fraternal correction among bishops, which was widespread and often quite robust in the mid-first millennium. Christ willed that his Church be governed episcopally, Vatican II taught. But that teaching laid a heavy responsibility on bishops for being a self-correcting, as well as mutually supportive, collegial body.

That responsibility was manifestly not met in the case of the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, revelations of whose sexual predations have caused a wave of righteous anger throughout the Church in the United States.

Nor was the initial response to those revelations the response that was needed — or that could be expected from true shepherds with an understanding of their sheep. Senior leaders of the Church spoke of “protocols” and “processes” when those they claimed to lead wanted to hear words of revulsion, indignation at the abuse of the episcopal office, and determination to fix what had gone terribly wrong. Lawyers and public relations consultants seemed to be writing the script. And it seemed that a primary lesson from the Long Lent of 2002, when too many bishops appeared immune to the Yuck Factor that was driving their people to exasperated rage over clerical sexual abuse, had not been learned.

A first step in a better direction was taken on August 1 in a statement by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who decried the McCarrick affair as a “grievous moral failure in the Church” that had caused “anger, sadness and shame” among his brother bishops. Cardinal DiNardo also made an important pledge that has not gotten sufficient attention in the continuing firestorm surrounding this reprehensible business:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will pursue the many questions surrounding…McCarrick’s conduct to the full extent of its authority; and where that authority finds its limits, the Conference will advocate with those who do have the authority. One way or the other, we are determined to find the truth in this matter.

Which means that the bishops are determined to face down any roadblocks to a full accounting “in this matter,” including roadblocks in Rome.

That important first step must now be followed by credible action. Various proposals have been floated about this, that, or the other kind of investigative commission; some bishops have proposed that any such commission must be lay-led to have any credibility. That may well be true, but for a lay-led investigation to be successful, it must get full buy-in and continual cooperation from the bishops. And that suggests to me that a lay-led investigation should have an ecclesiastical adviser, in the person of a bishop whose reputation with both the people of the Church and his brother bishops is unimpeachable.

And despite the tsunami of innuendo and guilt-by-association that has fouled the blogosphere in this matter, such bishops exist.

Featured image by Daniel Ibanez | CNA