Maintenance vs. mission

George Weigel

Just when the Long Lent of 2002 was coming to a boil in March of that year, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, took things from “boil” to “nuclear meltdown” during a press conference presenting John Paul II’s Holy Thursday letter to the priests of the world. Peppered with questions about the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the U.S., Castrillon peremptorily dismissed reporters’ queries, saying that the Pope had other things to worry about, like Middle East peace.

Sound familiar?

There have certainly been ham-handed (and worse) responses to the current crisis from some American bishops, including prominent figures who seem, incredibly, to be taking their cues from the Castrillon playbook. But this is not 2002. And while it isn’t often stressed in mainstream media reporting on the crisis, those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and no click-bait to concoct understand that there is a new resolve among a critical mass of U.S. bishops: a resolve to air out the McCarrick scandal; a resolve to see that bishops are held accountable for failures of pastoral and disciplinary leadership with wayward clergy; and a resolve to be seen to have “gotten it.”

Why? Because those bishops are disgusted with what has come to light in the past two months. And because they know that, unless the bishops get it right this time, and are perceived to be getting it right, their credibility is shot for the next generation and the New Evangelization will be severely damaged.

An example of this resolve may be found in a letter Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford addressed to his archdiocesan brothers in the episcopate and the priesthood, and to his seminarians, which also sets the current crisis in its proper historical context:

“The anger and disillusionment of our Catholic people is only matched by my own, and no doubt yours as well. After all the massive effort that has been made since 2002 to rid the Church of this evil and to try to bring healing to victim survivors, how is it possible that we find ourselves confronting the same perception of the Church, and of us as priests and bishops, as if nothing has changed?

“The Pennsylvania grand jury report, as devastating as it is, ostensibly covers a seventy year period, and is largely about a past that we have striven mightily to remedy. However, the allegations against [McCarrick] have to do with seeming indifference to repulsive conduct not only before, but also after, the great reforms and commitments that followed 2002. Whether before or after, it must be asked how he could possibly remain in ministry, and once the answer is known, steps must be taken to ensure that it will not happen again with any bishop.

“….what is most essential is our spiritual vigilance over ourselves and one another when it comes to any conduct that is a betrayal of the priesthood entrusted to us for the care of Christ’s flock. To live a ‘double’ or secret life sexually in serious sin with or against another, is to betray not only the priesthood but the people who have trust that we, on becoming clerics at diaconal ordination, ‘believe what we read, teach what we believe, and practice what we teach’….

“My brothers, these words are meant for myself as well as for you. Indeed, they are even more dire a warning for me as a bishop. Like you, I feel shame and spiritual dejection, as well as anger, at what has happened to victims and to all the faithful as a result of sexual abuse and depredation and the failure of some bishops to definitively remove clerical predators….”

In pondering the reform of the episcopate for the future, the distinction between maintenance and mission should be at the center of the discussion. Bishops who imagined their role primarily as one of keep-the-lid-on institutional maintenance – whether in relation to their clergy, their brother-bishops, or both – are one of the primary causes of the McCarrick and Pennsylvania scandals. Bishops who think of their role as teaching and sanctifying a communion of missionary disciples are far more likely to build a presbyterate that is not a caste – and far more likely to call out brother-bishops who are failing in their responsibilities.

Institutional-maintenance Catholicism is finished. Purified, mission-driven Catholicism is the Church with a vital future.

COMING UP: Saving Synod-2018 from itself

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Anyone looking for a remedy for insomnia might try working through the Instrumentum Laboris, or “working document,” for the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, to be held in Rome next month on the theme “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” The IL is a 30,000+ word brick: a bloated, tedious door stop full of sociologese but woefully lacking in spiritual or theological insight. Moreover, and more sadly, the IL has little to say about “the faith” except to hint on numerous occasions that its authors are somewhat embarrassed by Catholic teaching – and not because that teaching has been betrayed by churchmen of various ranks, but because that teaching challenges the world’s smug sureties about, and its fanatical commitment to, the sexual revolution in all its expressions.

A gargantuan text like this can’t seriously be considered as a basis for discussion at the Synod. No text of more than 30,000 words, even if written in a scintillating and compelling style, can be a discussion guide. The IL for Synod-2018 reads, rather, like a draft of a Synod Final Report. And that is a prescription for a failed Synod.

So what might the participants in Synod-2018 do to salvage a useful discussion in October?

They might challenge the IL’s oft-repeated claim that young people want a “Church that listens.” That is so obvious as to be a thumping banality: no one, young or old, wants a Church that’s a nagging, unsympathetic nanny. And yes, young people (and the rest of us) want a “Church that listens” in spiritual direction and confession to the difficulties we all experience in living and sharing the Gospel and in obeying God’s law. But above all, and perhaps especially in this time of grave troubles, what young people want (and what the rest of us want, at least in the living parts of the Church) is a Church that lives joyfully, teaches clearly, manifests holiness, offers comfort and support to the needy – and answers our questions clearly and honestly. Young people (and the rest of us) do not want a pandering Church, but an evangelically-vibrant Church that manifests and offers friendship with Jesus Christ.

Synod participants might also emphasize that the clarity of Catholic teaching on life issues attracts many young people today, precisely because that clarity is in sharp contrast to the incoherence about what makes for human happiness that people of all ages increasingly detect in the lifestyle libertinism of contemporary Western culture. Someone at Synod-2018 should, for example, talk about the experience of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., which, for years now, has become both larger and younger.

Success stories in youth ministry should be persistently, even relentlessly, lifted up at Synod-2018. The IL betrays a soured sense of incapacity, even failure. Yet the past 30 years or so have seen a renaissance in young adult ministry. So let someone at Synod-2018 talk about the impressive record of Christian formation compiled by campus ministries like that at Texas A&M University. Let someone at the Synod tell the world Church about the intellectual and spiritual achievements of orthodox, academically vibrant Catholic liberal arts colleges and universities in the United States. Let someone bear witness to the great work being done on over a hundred campuses by FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, which singularly embodies the “Church permanently in mission” of which the Pope speaks. And let’s hope there’s room at Synod-2018 for churchmen to learn about the work of the World Youth Alliance, an international network of pro-life young adults on all continents, whose work is explicitly based on the Church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person.

Synod-2018’s IL contains no reflection on why St. John Paul II was a magnet for millions of young people, which surely had something to do with both his compassion and his clarity about the truth. Father Karol Wojtyla, who later became John Paul II, led a young adult ministry of challenging spiritual accompaniment a half-century before “accompaniment” became code in some Catholic circles for “This [hard teaching] is really a goal or ideal.” So let Synod-2018 rescue “accompaniment” and link it to the truth that liberates.

That’s the least the Church deserves in this time of purification.

Featured image by Daniel Ibanez/CNA