The Catholic crisis, in perspective

George Weigel

Perspective is at least as important when reading the signs of the times as it is in landscape painting. And so, in this autumn of our Catholic discontent, I was particularly grateful to hear from an old friend, Nina-Sophie Heereman, who offered some needed perspective on the Catholic circumstance in the United States.

I first got to know Nina Heereman in Rome some 10 years ago, when she was doing Christian formation and spiritual direction with women from the University of St. Thomas, who were in the Eternal City as part of the late, great Don Briel’s Catholic Studies Program. Her story was so striking that I recounted it briefly in The End and the Beginning (the second volume of my John Paul II biography), to illustrate the late pope’s transformative impact on men and women from a variety of backgrounds. And Nina’s background was certainly intriguing.

A German baroness by birth, she had grown up in what she described as a “Catholicism hollowed out…a shell with no serious sin and therefore no state of grace [and] no encounter with Christ.” Then, after a powerful experience of the eucharistic Christ at World Youth Day-1997 in Paris, and after pondering John Paul II’s own vocational discernment after seeing him in Rome in 1998, Nina Heereman became a committed missionary disciple, taking vows as a consecrated laywoman in radical dedication to the New Evangelization.

After earning one of the world’s toughest doctoral degrees, in Sacred Scripture, she is now assistant professor of theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California, and it was from there that she recently wrote me:

“Against the black foil of so many negative headlines, haunting us for more than three months now, I am delighted to share the good news that for me — a German — moving to [the] San Francisco [archdiocese] feels like having fumbled through my mom’s fur coats only to find myself in Catholic Narnia! I lack the words to describe my joy at serving a truly Catholic bishop with such a clear vision for the renewal of the Church. Honestly, I had not a clue what I was signing up for. I always knew that the American Church was in much better shape than any Church in Europe, but I did not have the slightest idea that it was so much more alive. Now, granted, I might have unwittingly stumbled upon a particularly Catholic pocket of the country, but that is rather unlikely for I am in the heart of Silicon Valley, which is not…famous for its devotion to Catholic doctrine.

“….Never before — and I have lived in six important Catholic institutions so far — have I encountered a faculty that in its entirety embraces the teachings of the Catholic Church and is fully committed to teaching the same. On my first day the rector of the seminary, Father George Schutlze, said ‘We are celebrating ‘Humanae Vitae’ and then proposed a reflection on it for our faculty retreat…Archbishop Cordileone [then] came and addressed the faculty with the same words, adding that the connection between the dissent from ‘Humanae Vitae’ and the current crisis was evident. I was…hardly able to believe my own ears, that I actually heard a shepherd of the Church speak up for the truth of ‘Humanae Vitae.’ ‘I must be in Narnia and Aslan is back,’ was my only thought. As you know, being European I had never heard such clear, courageous, and prophetic words out of the mouth of a local bishop…

“In brief, I thank the Lord for having brought me here…It is so liberating to live my faith ‘out in the open.’ In spite of everything the newspapers say, the future of the [Latin-rite] Church belongs to the U.S.!”

Baroness Doctor Heereman is no naif. Multilingual, experienced in the ways of the world she is eager to help convert, an adult rescued from shallow Euro-secularism by personal friendship with Jesus Christ and now holding one of Catholicism’s most distinguished academic degrees, Nina is very much worth listening to. Especially when she bids those dispirited by today’s Catholic crisis not to fear the future, and to get on with living the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19.

That doesn’t mean backing off from essential and painful reforms in American Catholicism. Not at all. It does mean designing and implementing those reforms with evangelical intent.

Featured image by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

COMING UP: Courage in the Slough of Despond

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I never took a class from historian Frank Orlando, but the motto he placed in the faculty section of my college yearbook — “History is an antidote for despair” —has stuck with me for 45 years. It also seems quite appropriate at this disturbing moment in the life of the Church, so perhaps a history lesson is in order.

Forty years ago this week, the Catholic Church was in serious trouble. The last years of Pope Paul VI had witnessed an endless sequence of controversies, of which mass dissent from the encyclical Humanae Vitae —dissent that would have devastating effects on clerical discipline and erode episcopal authority —was but one. The pope seemed dispirited toward the end of his reign, publicly berating God for having not heard his prayer that the life of his friend Aldo Moro be spared (Moro had been murdered by terrorists). The promise of evangelical Catholic renewal that had animated John XXIII’s opening address to the Second Vatican Council in 1962 seemed falsified by the trauma of the post-conciliar years.

Then came a brief moment of exuberance, as Catholic spirits were lifted by the election of Cardinal Albino Luciani to the papacy. The new John Paul I smiled. He gave brilliant little catechetical lessons during his Wednesday general audiences. A book of his “letters” to characters ranging from Dickens and Chesterton to Pinocchio and Figaro the Barber charmed the world. The Good News seemed, well, good again.

Then, 33 days into what seemed a promising pontificate, Pope John Paul I was found dead in his bed on the morning of September 28, 1978.

And the Church was plunged back into Bunyan’s Slough of Despond.

The shock of the pope’s death was perhaps most intense among the men who had just put Luciani on the Chair of Peter. Twenty years later, an American cardinal-elector, William Baum, told me that this latest blow to the Church had been “a message from the Lord, quite out of the ordinary….This was an intervention from the Lord to teach us something.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told me that he had been similarly stunned: “We were convinced that the election [of John Paul I] was made in accordance with the will of God, not simply in a human way….and if one month after being elected in accordance with the will of God, he died, God had something to say to us.”

What God was saying, some cardinal-electors concluded, was that it was a time for courage.

So when the two principal Italian contenders in the second conclave of 1978 deadlocked and essentially cancelled each other out as candidates, several cardinals summoned up the courage to propose what then seemed virtually unthinkable: looking outside Italy for a pope. Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna was the leader of this party of dramatic change. But he was not alone. And those who rallied to Koenig and his courageous suggestion that the conclave elect a young man, 58-year old Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, should also be remembered: men like the Polish primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski; the archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal John Krol; and one of the youngest and newest members of the conclave, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich and Freising.

It also took courage for Karol Wojtyla to accept election, knowing that he would have to leave the rich Cracovian culture from which he drew strength and inspiration. But it’s the courage of the cardinal-electors on which we might well focus our attention now, when the Catholic Church seems bogged down in another Slough of Despond.

The Wojtyla electors were men accustomed to a certain order of things, who had themselves benefited from that order. But in a moment of crisis they had the courage to think outside the conventional norms and imagine what once seemed unimaginable. They were prepared to face the skeptical, even hostile, reaction of fellow-cardinals who could not wrap their minds around such a dramatic innovation, and whose instinctive reaction to crisis was to find a safe pair of hands who would calm things down. They were willing to try the unprecedented.

The story of their courage 40 years ago should be an antidote to the despair some Catholics feel today. It should also inspire the bishops to get to grips with this crisis and think outside the conventions in resolving it. And it should inspire the authorities in Rome, including the highest authority.

Featured image by Matt Atherton | Unsplash