A millennial column (so to speak)

I’ve been writing op-ed columns for the Catholic press since 1979. In its present form, “The Catholic Difference,” I began this column in 1993 at the invitation of the late Kay Lagreid, then-editor of the now-deceased Catholic Northwest Progress in Seattle; the column went into national syndication shortly thereafter, with the Denver Catholic Register eventually succeeding the Progress as syndicator. This is the 1,000th column in that series, which prompts some thoughts of a confessional nature.

A thousand columns in this format comes to something over 700,000 words. In all that columnizing, I’ve tried to remain true to several principles I adopted at the outset of my writing for the Catholic press.

I take seriously the truth of faith that “Catholic” means “universal,” so my columns have touched on a lot of things that defy the stereotype of a “Catholic press column.” Thus in addition to obvious Church topics and the occasional excursion into theology, I’ve felt free to range over politics, sports, science, literature, pop culture, high culture, history, the visual and plastic arts – whatever seemed interesting at the moment, so long as it could be illuminated in one way or another by the light of Catholicism. (A puzzled editor once asked me why I had written a column about the great thoroughbred Secretariat; as a sports fan, he liked the column, but he didn’t run it because he didn’t see how it fit in a Catholic paper. My reply was that anything or anyone – or any horse – that displayed the beauty of creation, and that embodied the excellence that Peter Berger would call a “rumor of angels,” ought to have some place in the Catholic press, even if the theological point wasn’t hammered home with a sledge.)

I’ve written for adults. My conviction in 1978, when I was getting started, was that the people for who are the column’s primary audience are the best-educated Catholics in history (if not necessarily the best-catechized Catholics in history). And it seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that they ought to be treated as intelligent adults who can follow an argument and wrestle with it. Too much of the Catholic press, I fear, thinks low when it imagines its readership. I determined at the outset to think high, and to write columns for the Catholic press that were crafted at the same level of argument and language as the columns I’ve written for papers like the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.

I also decided, way back when, that my columns would not avoid controversy (which is, in any event, unavoidable). I don’t deliberately seek controversy, a bad habit in some corners of the Catholic blogosphere. But because I believe that the entire Church, including the hierarchy, benefits from honest challenge and critique, I have not avoided what might be deemed “controversial” when I thought it important: during political campaigns, when grave moral issues were at stake; during the Long Lent of 2002; in the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq War; in response to challenges to religious freedom in America that couldn’t have been imagined in 1978, when “work for religious freedom” meant “work for prisoners of conscience behind the iron curtain.” The bishop-publishers who have grasped the importance of an open airing of challenging, if controversial, opinion in their diocesan papers have my admiration and my thanks.

Yet one more conviction links the 1,000 columns, and in fact dates back to the earlier series of Catholic press columns I wrote from 1979 until 1986: the conviction that the Catholic Church in the United States, for all its difficulties, is more likely to be the “Church in the modern world” envisioned by the Second Vatican Council than any other local Church. To be sure, my understanding of what that might mean has evolved over time; I’d be a dolt if it hadn’t. But the conviction was there in the beginning, and it remains in force today.

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.