Impoverished spirits

Certain ritual encounters have now become standard operating procedure for a new pope. In each of these meetings, Pope Francis has done something surprising, in his low-key, gentle way.

In a Mass celebrated in the Sistine Chapel with the College of Cardinals on the day after his election, the Holy Father raised cautions about clerical ambition—a yellow warning flag that reflected the concerns he had expressed during the papal interregnum about “spiritual worldliness” corrupting the Church, and an unmistakable call to a more energetically evangelical exercise of the priesthood and the episcopate.

In a meeting a few days later with thousands of journalists, the pope reminded his rapt audience that the Church cannot be understood, or reported, as if it were simply another political agency; the Church has to be understood from the inside out, as “the holy People of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ,” without whom “Peter and the Church would not exist or have reason to exist.” And then came a subtle but unmistakable challenge: journalism, Francis insisted, “demands a particular concern for what is true, good and beautiful.” It can’t be all buzz all the time, and if journalism vulgarizes itself and becomes buzz only, it loses its soul.

And then came the meeting with the representatives of power, the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See. Here, the Holy Father took the opportunity to explain, once again, his choice of papal name, while using that exercise to make two important points.

Stressing the Church’s care for, and work with, the poor throughout the world, the pope reminded his audience in the Vatican’s Sala Regia that Francis of Assisi knew that there were various forms of poverty. There was the Franciscan work, which belongs to all Christians, to serve “the sick, orphans the homeless and all the marginalized;” that work is a Gospel imperative that also helps “to make society more humane and more just.” And then there was a different form of poverty: the “spiritual poverty of our time”; that poverty is most evident in wealthier societies and manifests itself in what Benedict XVI often called the “dictatorship of relativism”—the worship of the false god of me, myself and I, imposed by state power, often in the name of a misguided and coercive concept of tolerance.

This second form of poverty had to be challenged by a second Franciscan imperative, the responsibility “to build peace.” Yet, as the pope immediately continued: “there is no true peace without the truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.”

The last phrase—“the nature that unites every human being on this earth”—was the money quote here. For that is precisely what so much of the spiritually impoverished world of radical secularism and lifestyle libertinism now denies: that there is any “human nature” which public policy and law must respect. That’s what those who continue to support “abortion rights” deny. That’s what those who insist that “marriage” can mean any configuration of consenting adults deny. That’s what those who regard children as an optional lifestyle accessory deny. And that’s what those who insist that maleness and femaleness are “cultural constructs,” not givens that disclose deep truths about the human condition, deny.

Those denials, Pope Francis suggested, lead to a spiritual impoverishment that can be as devastating as material poverty. And those denials can lead to conflicts within societies that shatter peace just as much as conflicts between societies.

Pope Francis is no “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” romantic. As an experienced pastor and a man of keen intelligence, he knows that reality-contact is as important for societies as it is for personal mental health. He’ll make the case in a different way than Benedict XVI. But you can count on this pontificate to challenge the dictatorship of relativism in the name of authentic humanism.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.