From Scandal to Reform: The Imperative of Orthodoxy

George Weigel

One of the reasons the Catholic Church in America finds itself embroiled in scandal and spiritual crisis is that we have not taken the O’Sullivan Principle seriously.

Named for its creator, former National Review editor John O’Sullivan, the original, political form of the O’Sullivan Principle goes like this: in our liberal culture, any institution that is not self-consciously and deliberately conservative will inevitably become liberal. Since “liberal” and “conservative” are inappropriate categories for thinking about the Church, what is needed is a Catholic variant on the O’Sullivan Principle. Here is my variant: in today’s libertine culture, any religious institution that does not self-consciously, deliberately, and unceasingly work to maintain its orthodoxy will inevitably become corrupted, doctrinally and behaviorally.

That has happened in the mainline Protestant communities since World War II. And that, I suggest, is part of what has happened in the Catholic Church in the United States since the late 1960s.

A culture of dissent has been a staple feature of Catholic life — sometimes blatantly overt, sometimes less obvious — since the birth control controversy of 1968. In recent years the culture of dissent has been more subtle, as reforms of seminaries and diocesan offices have been undertaken with some success. But the habit of dissent has been hard to break. Indeed, one of the stranger features of contemporary Catholicism in America is the branding of self-consciously orthodox younger clergy and scholars as “ideologues” who are to be consigned to the margins of Church life.


I’ve met my share of sometimes overly-zealous younger priests, academics, and activists, and I understand that orthodoxy has to be combined with pastoral sensitivity, intellectual openness, and prudence. But I also understand that these younger Catholics, committed whole-heartedly (if sometimes clumsily) to the Church’s teaching in its fullness, are not part of the problem that has been made painfully manifest in recent months. Their commitment to the fullness and liberating beauty of orthodoxy is part of the solution.

How would applying a Catholic variant of the O’Sullivan Principle work itself out in the reform of the priesthood that is now clearly imperative?

One place to start is with vocation offices. A few years ago, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire on a prospective candidate for the seminary. If memory serves, approximately one-eighth of the questionnaire dealt with the man’s faith: his commitment to Christ, the depth of his conversion, his sacramental and spiritual life, his ability to communicate radical and joyful discipleship to others. The rest of it was, frankly, psychobabble.

I do not doubt that the Church needs well-balanced individuals, capable of working well with bishops, other priests, and the laity, in its candidates for the priesthood. I also suggest that these are not the first questions to ask. The first questions to ask have to do with conversion. What we put first tells us what we think is most important.

Then there are the seminaries. It seems clear from the current crisis that formation in chastity and teaching about chastity is woefully inadequate in some seminaries. This part of the problem will not be fixed if issues of sexual maturation continue to be deemed primarily matters for the seminary psychologist. They are, in the first instance, issues of moral theology, spiritual direction, and spiritual formation. And that kind of spiritual formation can only be done by holy, mature priests who can teach others how to live chaste celibate lives. We can no longer farm out these crucial issues of priestly formation to the therapists. A deeper remedy — a spiritual and theological remedy — is imperative.

Finally, dissent must be confronted far more vigorously. When seminarians and priests are sent subtle signals that a less-than-enthusiastic acceptance of the Church’s teaching on marital ethics, or on homosexuality, or on the impossibility of ordaining women to the ministerial priesthood can be tolerated, corruption inevitably follows. It does not follow universally. It may not even follow in the majority of cases. But that it does follow, and with lethal results, is now self-evident from the evidence with which we have all been bludgeoned these past three months or so. This must change, now.

Orthodoxy is not a problem. Orthodoxy is the key to the solution.

COMING UP: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

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When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!