The current crisis

George Weigel

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war caused the premature suspension of the First Vatican Council on October 20, 1870 and left the Church’s theological self-understanding somewhat imbalanced. In its first session, Vatican I defined the nature of papal authority with a carefully crafted affirmation of papal infallibility under certain clearly defined circumstances; the intention was to complete that reflection on authority in the Church by a parallel statement on the authority of bishops. But Vatican I was never reconvened. And the result, over time, was that bishops were too often thought of as mere branch managers of Catholic Church, Inc., whose all-powerful CEO was in Rome.

The Second Vatican Council intended to redress that imbalance and misunderstanding through its primary document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and its Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church. There, the Council fathers taught that local bishops were true overseers (the Greek meaning of episkopos) of the local churches for which they were responsible; moreover, bishops shared in the governance of the entire Church, with and under the Pope. This notion of episcopal “collegiality” was then extended to clusters of local churches, as the Council mandated the formation of national bishops’ conferences.

Implicit in this developed theology of the episcopate was the idea of mutual responsibility among bishops. Their “collegiality” was not that typical of privileged castes, but of mutually-responsible stewards. And implicit in that idea was a practice that had been virtually abandoned through disuse: fraternal correction among bishops, which was widespread and often quite robust in the mid-first millennium. Christ willed that his Church be governed episcopally, Vatican II taught. But that teaching laid a heavy responsibility on bishops for being a self-correcting, as well as mutually supportive, collegial body.

That responsibility was manifestly not met in the case of the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, revelations of whose sexual predations have caused a wave of righteous anger throughout the Church in the United States.

Nor was the initial response to those revelations the response that was needed — or that could be expected from true shepherds with an understanding of their sheep. Senior leaders of the Church spoke of “protocols” and “processes” when those they claimed to lead wanted to hear words of revulsion, indignation at the abuse of the episcopal office, and determination to fix what had gone terribly wrong. Lawyers and public relations consultants seemed to be writing the script. And it seemed that a primary lesson from the Long Lent of 2002, when too many bishops appeared immune to the Yuck Factor that was driving their people to exasperated rage over clerical sexual abuse, had not been learned.

A first step in a better direction was taken on August 1 in a statement by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who decried the McCarrick affair as a “grievous moral failure in the Church” that had caused “anger, sadness and shame” among his brother bishops. Cardinal DiNardo also made an important pledge that has not gotten sufficient attention in the continuing firestorm surrounding this reprehensible business:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will pursue the many questions surrounding…McCarrick’s conduct to the full extent of its authority; and where that authority finds its limits, the Conference will advocate with those who do have the authority. One way or the other, we are determined to find the truth in this matter.

Which means that the bishops are determined to face down any roadblocks to a full accounting “in this matter,” including roadblocks in Rome.

That important first step must now be followed by credible action. Various proposals have been floated about this, that, or the other kind of investigative commission; some bishops have proposed that any such commission must be lay-led to have any credibility. That may well be true, but for a lay-led investigation to be successful, it must get full buy-in and continual cooperation from the bishops. And that suggests to me that a lay-led investigation should have an ecclesiastical adviser, in the person of a bishop whose reputation with both the people of the Church and his brother bishops is unimpeachable.

And despite the tsunami of innuendo and guilt-by-association that has fouled the blogosphere in this matter, such bishops exist.

Featured image by Daniel Ibanez | CNA

COMING UP: WYD 1993: The Turning Point

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On this 25th anniversary of World Youth Day in Denver, I can’t help sharing one of my favorite personal memories of John Paul II.

It was December 15, 2004, and as had become our custom during the years when I was preparing Witness to Hope, I was having a pre-Christmas dinner with John Paul, who loved the Christmas season — and believed in opening his Christmas presents when he got them. That year, I had brought him a very large photo album, National Parks of the United States, which the pope proceeded to unwrap as soon as I gave it to him, with some help from then-Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko. The 263rd successor of St. Peter then looked at the table of contents — and immediately turned to Rocky Mountain National Park.

After a few minutes of quietly browsing through the pictures, John Paul got that look in his eye, and said across the table, “Hmm. Rocky Mountain National Park. Hmm. Denver. World Youth Day. 1993. Hmm. Bishops of America said it couldn’t be done. I… proved… them… wrong!” The last sentence was spoken through a big smile, with as much force as the Parkinson’s-ridden pope could muster, and he punctuated it by stabbing his finger down on the page with each dramatically drawn-out word.

The memory of those remarkable days in August 1993 obviously meant a lot to him, and he wasn’t exaggerating the opposition he faced in bringing World Youth Day to the Mile High City. Despite its successes elsewhere, a lot of American bishops thought that a Catholic youth festival just wouldn’t work in the United States. But the pope insisted that he wanted a World Youth Day in America; Archbishop J. Francis Stafford wanted World Youth Day as a kick-start to the re-evangelization of the Denver archdiocese; and after some efforts were made to hold the event in Buffalo (where it was thought it might attract Canadian pilgrims) or Chicago, Denver got the nod and Archbishop Stafford and his team set to work preparing WYD 1993.

It was a colossal undertaking that exhausted everyone involved in it (except, perhaps, for the ebullient John Paul II), and it succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations (except, again, for the pope). The event itself was a marvel. The helicopter pilot who flew John Paul into the old Mile High Stadium said the noise from the cheering crowd created air turbulence the likes of which he hadn’t experienced since being under fire when flying in Vietnam. The chief of police later noted that there hadn’t been a single felony arrest in the city during the entire time World Youth day was underway — right after Denver had been experiencing a serious crime wave. Skeptical people who hadn’t seen the inside of a church in years found themselves giving water and candy to young pilgrims as they walked 15 miles through and out of the city they’d transformed, to the closing Vigil and Mass at Cherry Creek State Park.

And during that Mass, the pope brought it all to a fine, dramatic conclusion with this challenge: “Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first apostles who preached Christ and the good news of salvation in the squares of cities, towns, and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel…It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.”

WYD 1993 was not just a triumph for John Paul II, and for now-Cardinal Stafford and his team; it was a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, and its effects are still being felt on this silver jubilee. Before WYD 1993, too much of Catholicism in America was in a defensive crouch, like too much of the Church in western Europe today. After WYD 1993, the New Evangelization in the United States got going in earnest, as Catholics who had participated in it brought home the word that the Gospel was still the most transformative force in the world. Before WYD 1993, U.S. Catholicism was largely an institutional-maintenance Church. With WYD 1993, Catholicism in America discovered the adventure of the New Evangelization, and the living parts of the Church in the U.S. today are the parts that have embraced that evangelical way of being Catholic.

That crucial turning point on the road to a Catholicism of missionary disciples should be remembered with gratitude.