Ironies in the fire

George Weigel

The eminent sociologist Peter Rossi was a world-class punster whose scholarly accomplishments fed a sometimes-whimsical view of the human condition — in which, Rossi memorably observed, “there are many ironies in the fire.”

That’s certainly true of the interaction between Catholicism and cultural, social, and political modernity over the last 250 years. The multiple ironies in that complex relationship, and their surprising results, are explored in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books), in which I turn the conventional telling of this tale inside-out and upside-down.

Why the inversion? Because I believe the way the story is typically told — modernity acts, Catholicism simply reacts — is wrong. Things were much more complicated and much more interesting than that. So were the outcomes.

It is certainly true that, at the beginnings of what we think of as the “modern world,” thinkers like Voltaire declared Catholicism am “infamy” that must be “crushed” — a demolition project taken up with relish by the French Revolution, the German Kulturkampf, the Italian Risorgimento, and other quintessential expressions of political modernity. That assault provoked a sharp reaction, with Popes Gregory XVI (1832-1846) and Pius IX (1846-1878) lambasting the modern project in its various expressions.

But then came the pivot of my story: the election of Pope Leo XIII, who at the beginning of his pontificate in 1878 took a bold, grand-strategic decision — the Church would engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic intellectual tools in order to convert it. That decision set in motion what I call the “Leonine Revolution”: the search for appropriate Catholic methods to engage and convert the new world being built by science and technology, post-monarchical politics, and skepticism about the Bible and Christian doctrine. Had Leo made the right decision? If he had, how should it be implemented? Those questions were hotly contested in the Church for 80 years, not without a fair amount of ecclesiastical elbow-throwing.

Then, in 1959, the newly-elected Pope John XXIII took another bold, grand-strategic decision: he would gather the energies set loose by the Leonine Revolution and focus them through the prism of an ecumenical council. And as he made clear in his magisterial opening address to what we know as Vatican II, the council’s purpose would be conversion: The Church would engage the modern world in order to offer it truths essential to satisfying the modern quest for freedom, solidarity, and prosperity.

That Johannine intention got lost in the 20-year brawl that followed Vatican II, as some Catholics interpreted the council as a call to embrace the modern world unreservedly, just as the late-modern world was slipping into incoherence: freedom misconstrued as license, and human beings considered as nothing more than twitching bundles of desires. Beginning with Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi [Proclaiming the Gospel], however, the Church’s teaching authority began to reclaim the evangelical, missionary imperative that had animated Leo XIII and John XXIII. That recentering on the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 was given depth and breadth by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, two men of Vatican II whose authoritative interpretation of the council summoned the Church to a springtime of evangelism, sharing with the world the gift of friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ that every Christian is given in baptism.

So what were the ironies in this particular fire? The first and most important is that, through the twists and turns of its encounter with modernity (which began with both sides hurling condemnations and anathemas), the Catholic Church rediscovered the basic truth about itself: that we are a community of disciples in mission, whose purpose is to convert the world. The second, related irony is that, in the course of that rediscovery, the Catholic Church developed a social doctrine — a way of thinking about freedom, solidarity and prosperity — that could help save the post-modern, 21st-century world from self-destructing.

And today’s crisis of Catholic self-confidence? Viewed through this interpretive lens, the abuse-and-leadership crisis comes into focus as a time of essential purification, so that the Church can be a persuasive evangelist and a compelling advocate for the truths that make us truly free.

There are, indeed, many ironies in the fire. Grasping their providential character, as I try to do in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, suggests grounds for hope in this wintry Catholic season.

Featured Photo by Courtnie Tosana on Unsplash

COMING UP: Australian justice in the dock

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Consider this sequence of events, familiar to some but evidently not to others:

March 2013: Prior to any credible reports of misbehavior being made against Cardinal George Pell, police in Australia’s state of Victoria launch “Operation Tethering,” a sting aimed at the former archbishop of Melbourne (who by this time is prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the economy. “Tethering” includes newspaper ads seeking information on previously unreported, untoward goings-on at the Melbourne cathedral in the past.

Early 2017: The office of Public Prosecutions in Melbourne twice returns a brief to those who mounted “Operation Tethering,” criticizing the Victoria Police brief as inadequate for a prosecution.

June 2017: Charges of “historic sexual abuse” from 20 years prior are announced by the Director of Public Prosecutions and Pell is ordered home. The cardinal vehemently denies any misconduct and, despite his Vatican diplomatic immunity, immediately returns to Australia to defend his honor and that of the Church.

May 2018:  At the “committal hearing,” a magistrate dismisses several charges against Pell but sends others to trial, saying that, whatever their arguable plausibility, they should be aired publicly in a criminal court. Meanwhile, a vicious, lynch-mob atmosphere continues to surround Cardinal Pell, in public and in much of the Australian media.

September 2018: At the trial, the prosecution presents no corroborating evidence that the alleged crimes ever took place; the prosecution’s case is the tale told by the complainant, who only appears on videotape. Numerous witnesses for the defense testify that the alleged acts of abuse could not have happened in a secured area of a busy cathedral immediately after Sunday Mass, with then-Archbishop Pell fully vested and surrounded by liturgical ministers, in the time-frame alleged.  After several days of deliberation, the trial judge tells the jury that he will accept an 11-1 verdict, if one juror is blocking unanimity. The jury then returns a hung verdict — 10-2 for acquittal — the jury foreman weeping when announcing the jury’s inability to reach a legal conclusion; other jurors are also reported in tears.

December 2018: At Cardinal Pell’s retrial, his defense team further demolishes the prosecution case, for which, again, no corroborating evidence is presented. The jury then returns a 12-0 verdict of guilty, shocking virtually everyone in attendance at the trial (and, according to some present, the trial judge).

March 2019:  While sentencing the cardinal to six years in prison, the trial judge never indicates that he agrees with the second jury’s verdict, stating only that he is doing what the law requires under the circumstances.

June 2019: At an appeal hearing before a three-member panel of the Victoria Supreme Court, the judges sharply criticize the flimsiness of the prosecution’s case.

August 21, 2019: The appellate panel rejects Cardinal Pell’s appeal by a 2-1 vote. The dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, is Australia’s most prominent criminal-law jurist; the two judges rejecting the appeal have little or no criminal-law experience. Judge Weinberg’s 202-page dissent eviscerates his colleagues’ position, which raises the gravest questions as to whether “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” remains the standard necessary for conviction in Victoria — not least on a completely uncorroborated charge.

In the wake of last month’s incomprehensible and (as measured by Judge Weinberg’s dissent) dangerous rejection of Cardinal Pell’s appeal, Catholic voices were heard expressing (or demanding) respect for the justice system in Australia. Perhaps the Vatican press spokesman must say such things for diplomatic purposes, although the reason why diplomatic concerns trump truth and justice in the Holy See Press Office is unclear. But as this chronology indicates, there is no reason to respect a process that reeks of system-failure at every point, from the dubious and perhaps corrupt police investigation through the committal hearing, the two trials, and the appeal. There are guilty parties here. But Cardinal George Pell is not one of them.

As this scandalous process approaches the High Court of Australia, friends of Australia, both Down Under and throughout the world, must send a simple message, repeatedly: George Pell is an innocent man who was falsely accused and has been unjustly convicted of crimes he did not commit. It is not George Pell who is in the dock, now, but the administration of justice in Australia. And the only way to restore justice is for Cardinal Pell to be vindicated by the highest court in the land.

Those who cannot bring themselves to say that, in Australia or elsewhere, necessarily share in the ignominy that Australian criminal justice has, thus far, brought upon itself.

Featured image by Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA