Full-immersion Catholicism

George Weigel

As this Catholic annus horibilis continues to unfold, perhaps some good news is in order; first, a little background.

In late 1991, Italy’s Rocco Buttiglione and America’s Michael Novak had an idea: create a summer seminar in which young Catholic adults with leadership potential could immerse themselves in the social doctrine of the Church, and especially the social magisterium of Pope John Paul II. Rocco and Michael recruited Father Richard John Neuhaus, the Polish Dominican Maciej Zieba, and me to the faculty team, and in July 1992 we went to Liechtenstein (where Rocco then taught) for several intensive weeks of intellectual work with some 40 graduate students from Europe and North America.

We repeated the experiment the following July. But after two weeks during which the resonant cowbells of some lovely Liechtensteiner bovines woke me every day at 4 a.m., as they meandered beneath my hotel window, I made a suggestion to my colleagues at evening prayer one night (First Vespers being celebrated from the Liturgy of the Hours and Second Vespers with W.L. Weller Special Reserve): Were we to continue this initiative, we should head east, planting our flag in one of the new democracies of east central Europe. The brethren agreed; we considered the possibilities of Prague and Cracow; John Paul II made it quite clear that he favored the latter; so the “Centesimus Annus Seminar on the Free Society” began meeting in Poland’s cultural and spiritual capital in July 1994 — and has met there every summer since. Renamed the “Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society” in 2000, the seminar has graduated some 900 students; its 27th annual assembly this past July included young adults from the United States, Canada, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Russia.

When Mike Novak handed me the leadership reins in 1999, I was asked by one sponsoring donor how I measured the seminar’s success. My reply was probably frustrating, but it was accurate: “Ask me in 25 years.” The seminar’s purpose was, and is, to help prepare Catholic leaders of the free and virtuous society of the 21st century; it takes time for that leadership to express itself and leadership impact is difficult to quantify. Now, my faculty colleagues and I can look back on more than a quarter-century of work that has helped form great priests and religious; parliamentarians and civil servants; journalists and academics; doctors and lawyers; successful businessmen and philanthropists; impressive marriages and families; and, most importantly, Catholics who live the joy of the Gospel as missionary disciples in many walks of life.

Over two and a half decades, TMS (the seminar’s shorthand moniker) has evolved programmatically. Intellectual immersion in Catholic social doctrine remains the program’s substantive core. But my colleagues and I have come to understand that TMS becomes a life-transforming experience for many because study is embedded in an experience of Christian community (the students and faculty live, dine, and pray together) that also includes rich cultural encounters and, above all, the liturgy. Our daily TMS Mass is celebrated with simplicity and reverence. We sing various ancient and modern chants, and our priest faculty provide excellent, expository preaching that helps our students see the world through biblical lenses. A lot of learning — philosophical, theological, historical, and cultural — happens during TMS. What ties it all together is our shared experience of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the life of faith.

Our curriculum has changed over time to meet the new pressures on missionary discipleship in the early 21st century. Centesimus Annus and Catholic social doctrine remain the seminar’s framework. But we now spend more time on a Catholic analysis of the sexual and biotech revolutions than we did in the early 1990s, more time on the question of what Benedict XVI called “human ecology,” and more time on understanding the New Evangelization and what it means to live out the meaning of one’s baptism.

This year’s TMS XXVII — we’re now so venerable that we date ourselves like the Super Bowl — was full of impressive young men and women who have met and embraced Jesus Christ, who have zero interest in Catholic Lite, and who want to explore everything that vibrant Catholicism means, personally and in their civic and professional lives. Their eagerness to know and live the faith fully is encouraging in this time of trial and purification — and something October’s Synod on youth ministry should take seriously.

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA