Lessons from the Rough Rider for today’s political ruffians

Sitting at a writing-desk in the White House on December 11, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt was an unhappy camper. In previous letters, he addressed his correspondent as “Dear Maria.” Now, it was “Mrs. Storer” who would be on the receiving end of the presidential wrath.

Maria Longworth Storer was a busybody – and a highly placed one at that. Her husband, Bellamy Storer, was close to President William McKinley, and had helped get TR appointed assistant secretary of the Navy. Bellamy Storer then served McKinley as U.S. minister to Belgium and Spain; Roosevelt, succeeding McKinley after the latter’s assassination, appointed Mr. Storer U.S. minister to Austria-Hungary. But what prompted TR’s fury at an old friend’s wife had nothing to do with Washington-Vienna relations but with the Catholic Church: “Dear Maria” had morphed into “Mrs. Storer” because she was playing Vatican politics –

“ I have now seen your letter to me sent through Mrs. Roosevelt. In it you actually propose that I…should authorize you to go to Rome to take part in what I must call an ecclesiastical intrigue, and to drag the United States Government into it. Such a proposal is simply astounding. You say that Cardinal Merry del Val has stated that I have ‘requested that two archbishops,’ one [John] Farley [of New York], be made cardinals. All you had to say was that such a statement was a deliberate untruth, because you knew that I had refused to make such a request even for [John] Ireland [of St. Paul-Minneapolis]. You say in your letter, ‘You can trust me.’ How can you say this, when you write…a letter which if by accident published would absolutely represent, in the most mischievous manner, both me and the American Government?

“You have no right to meddle in these matters…[These activities are] utterly improper for…the wife of an American ambassador, and show a continued course of conduct on your part which is intolerable if your husband is to remain in the diplomatic service…I have always positively and unequivocally refused directly or indirectly …to ask for the appointment of any man as Cardinal; and it would have been a gross impropriety for me to have made such a request, while it is an outrage to represent me as having, in any shape, made it.”

Given the unlikelihood of Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, a diehard conservative, supporting a red hat for Archbishop John Ireland, leader of the liberal party in the U.S. Church, we may reasonably conclude that Mrs. Storer was not only a busybody and an ecclesiastical intriguer, but an inept one. Still, what struck me about this remarkable letter – the closest a gentleman of TR’s breeding could come to reading a distinguished lady the Riot Act – was the president’s rectitude in refusing, as a public official, to be drawn into matters that properly belonged to the Church, and to the Church alone.

That rectitude is a virtue that might well be emulated today, and in the weeks and months following Pope Francis’s pastoral visit to the United States.

Fifty-two years ago, John F. Kennedy, the first president baptized in the Catholic Church, was so nervous about anti-Catholic sentiment among voters that he refused to have his 1963 Roman visit to Pope Paul VI gazetted on the official presidential schedule; the meeting, it was said, was private. Things are different now: very different. Members of Congress think nothing of writing the pope, attempting to recruit him as a trophy chaplain for their particular legislative projects. It’s true that these solons are not, to my knowledge, trying to get this, that, or the other churchman named a cardinal (or denied a red hat). But the question of rectitude remains.

Today’s intrigues touch directly on the imperative of recognizing, and honoring, the uniqueness of the papal office and its integrity. A decent respect for the Bishop of Rome, who is the universal pastor of the Church and not a partisan political chaplain, suggests that all attempts to spin him for partisan point-scoring be regarded, in TR’s pungent phrase, as a “gross impropriety.”

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.