Fearlessness and the American bishops in Rome

George Weigel

I once knew a Congregationalist minister — Yale Divinity School graduate, decorated World War II chaplain, veteran campaigner for then-unpopular liberal causes — of whom it was said (sometimes by himself) that “David Colwell so fears God that he fears no one else.” It was a striking statement, redolent, perhaps, of the Jonathan Edwards (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) School of American Protestant Homiletics. But the source of this man’s fearlessness was rather different than that of a man I was just coming to know when David Colwell and I were friendly jousting partners on questions theological and political.

That man was Pope John Paul II.

The dissident Yugoslav Marxist, Milovan Djilas, who had seen a lot in his life, once said that the Polish pope impressed him as a man utterly without fear. As I wrote in Witness to Hope, however, John Paul’s fearlessness was neither stoic nor driven by concerns about post-mortem divine retribution. Rather, it was a fearlessness rooted in John Paul’s rock-solid faith that God’s Kingdom had broken into history in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Because of that, those who became friends of the Lord Jesus and entered the communion of his Church could live beyond fear, here and now, because they had been empowered to live the life of the Kingdom, here and now.

That faith-based fearlessness might well inspire the bishops of the United States on their upcoming ad limina visits to Rome and the “thresholds of the Apostles:” the pilgrimage that every bishop is required to make on a regular basis, during which the Americans will meet in regional groups with Pope Francis and officials of the Roman Curia. Why ought the bishops display fearlessness in Rome? Because their task during the ad limina cycle that begins this month and concludes in February 2020 will be to correct the cartoon view of the Church in the United States that is widespread in the Vatican these days.

According to the cartoon, U.S. Catholicism is dominated by a rigid, legalistic cast of mind, more eager to condemn than to convert, warped by imports from the evangelical Protestant “prosperity Gospel” and beholden to wealthy Catholics with a hard-right political agenda. As any serious student of U.S. Catholicism knows, this is a vicious lie. But it has been successfully sold in the Vatican (and then broadcast by the more hard-edged mouthpieces of the present pontificate), despite the fact that an early version of the cartoon was propagated in Rome in 2013 by the now-disgraced Theodore McCarrick. The developed cartoon was then used to bully Third World bishops at Synod-2018, where warnings were issued against forming alliances with the Americans, who were “against the Pope.”

That, too, was a lie. With the possible exception of the Italian conference, no bishops’ conference in the world has been more deferential to the Holy See than the U.S. conference. But then the people propagating that lie are over-the-top ultramontanists — papal absolutists — whose idea of the range of the Pope’s teaching authority, and the deference due it, might make even Pius IX blush, at least a little (and on his better days). To such minds, even respectful challenge is infidelity.

The cartoon view of the U.S. Church was most ludicrously limned in a 2017 article, co-authored by a close papal adviser, Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, in the Rome-based Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica. Had I been given that article as a paper by a college freshman in American Religion 101, I would have returned it with an offer to the poor student-author: try again and do much better, or take an “F” for your paper. Yet a few weeks ago, while speaking with Jesuits in Africa, the Holy Father commended that very article; and while I would like to think that he commended it as a cautionary tale against publishing nonsense, I fear otherwise.

For all its faults — and they are many — the Catholic Church in the United States lives the New Evangelization better than any other local Church in the developed world.  More acute minds in Rome know that, though many are afraid to say it lest they be labeled “enemies of the pope.” All the more reason, then, for the U.S. bishops to correct the cartoon, respectfully but firmly, so that a serious conversation between Rome and America about the Catholic future in the United States can begin.

Featured image:  © L’Osservatore Romano

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ROME. Even the greatest enthusiasts of the present pontificate might not assert that Pope Francis has an inspiring liturgical style. Like the old-school Jesuit he resembles in many ways, the Holy Father is rather flat liturgically: typically expressionless, sometimes downright dour, he gets through the business at hand in a workmanlike way. Yet at the consistory for the creation of new cardinals on October 5, Francis showed real emotion when, after bestowing the red biretta and cardinalatial ring on the emeritus archbishop of Kaunus, Lithuania, Sigitas Tamkevicius, SJ, the Pope seemed to shed a tear or two as he drew the new prince of the Church into a prolonged embrace and shared a few words with him. 

I, too, was also deeply moved. And in my mind’s eye, I was taken back to 1985, to a different kind of Washington and a different kind of Congress, where men and women of good will, committed to the defense of the powerless, could work together on great causes. 

In November 1984, my friend John Miller was elected to the House of Representatives from Washington State’s first congressional district. John was a Republican and the House was controlled by Democrats, so as a freshman member from the minority party, his committee assignments were not scintillating. But he had come to Congress with the firm conviction that a robust defense of human rights behind the iron curtain would hasten the nonviolent collapse of communism, so he asked me what he might do to advance that cause while laboring away on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee (known on the Hill as “Fish”). 

I suggested that this Jewish congressman take up a cause in which no one else was involved: the cause of persecuted Catholics in what was then the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. John immediately agreed and started looking for a Democratic cosponsor for the work. A brief study of electoral demographics disclosed a significant Lithuanian-American population on the shores of Lake Erie. So Congressman Miller rang up Congressman Edward Feighan of Cleveland, proposing that Mr. Feighan co-chair the Lithuanian Catholic Religious Freedom Caucus. Feighan agreed and asked that Miller have me talk to one of his staffers – a then-obscure Democratic operative named George Stephanopoulos. Thus was born a bipartisan effort to promote the cause of religious freedom in Soviet-occupied Lithuania: an effort that meant, among other things, trying to spring three leaders of the Lithuanian Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights from the Gulag prison camps – Father Alfonsas Svarinskas, Sister Nijole Sadunaite, and Father Sigitas Tamkevicius, SJ. 

Our efforts in pressuring Congress and the Reagan administration to demand the release of these prisoners of conscience bore fruit, and amidst the Gorbachev thaw in the Soviet Union, all three contemporary Catholic martyr-confessors were sprung. After his release, Father Tamkevicius was brought to Washington for medical and dental treatment, after which a lunch was arranged for him at the U.S. bishops conference. I was invited and the man whom I had played a modest role in helping regain his freedom gave me a long and firm embrace before turning to several brother-Jesuits who were present (all of whom, unlike their Lithuanian colleague, were dressed as laymen). “You are Jesuits,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye; “are you also Catholics?”  

Sigitas Tamkevicius’s enrollment in the College of Cardinals was a papal tribute to a brave man who exemplifies the best the Society of Jesus offers the Church and the world. It was also a de facto tribute to the fidelity and courage of hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian Catholics during the Soviet occupation of their country. Their bravery produced, among a great host of martyr-confessors, the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania – the longest-running, uninterrupted resistance journal in the history of the Soviet Union. Month after month, the Chronicle – a precise record of the communist repression of religious belief and practice – was manually typed, copied by carbon paper, distributed throughout Lithuania, and smuggled out to the West. In 2013, while visiting one of the (literally) underground bunkers near Vilnius where the Lithuanian Catholic human rights resistance printed its materials (on a printing press that was “liberated,” one piece at a time, from a communist publishing house,) I had the sense of being in the 20th-century equivalent of a Roman catacomb.  

From such experiences, hope is sustained in a wintry ecclesiastical season.