The transmigration of theological nonsense

During the Long Lent of 2002, Sister Betsy Conway, who lived in the Bostonian epicenter of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, spoke for many self-identified progressive Catholics when she told syndicated columnist Michael Kelly, “This is our Church, all of us, and we need to take it back.” Mr. Kelly, a thoughtful liberal columnist who died tragically in Iraq a year later, agreed. But they were both mistaken.

The Church is not “ours;” the Church is Christ’s. As I wrote at the time, the Church “was not created by us, or by our Christian ancestors, or by the donors to the diocesan annual fund – a point the Lord made abundantly clear himself in the gospels: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’” [John 15:16]. As a friend put it at the time, “the Church is not ours to take back because it never belonged to us, and the instant we make it ‘our own’ we are damned. No merely human institution, no matter how perfectly pure and gutsy and dutiful to its members, can take away even a venial sin. That’s the point St. Paul takes sixteen chapters to get across to the Romans.”

In a fine example of the maxim that what goes around comes around, this familiar progressive trope of a Church that “we” must “take back” has now migrated to the opposite extreme of the ecclesiastical spectrum, as exemplified in a Remnant TV video, “Catholics Rising” ( announcing a “Catholic Identity Conference” to be held in late October in Pittsburgh.  The call-to-arms is identical to that which the Catholic left was broadcasting in 2002: “Many Catholics have had enough. They want their Church back…. Join us and let’s take our Church back.”

The strange symmetry at the opposite poles of the twenty-first century Church is neatly demonstrated by the messaging tactics of this brief video. The woolier parts of today’s Catholic Left insist, in a false and exaggerated way, that the reform of the liturgy has been hijacked by reactionaries; the Remnant TV video, in a similarly false and exaggerated way, suggests that sacrilegious, goofball liturgy is the norm wherever the Novus Ordo Mass is celebrated. The Catholic left is nostalgic for the days when Catholic Lite ruled the roost, and somehow imagines that the 1970s can be recreated; those who made the Remnant TV video manifest a deep nostalgia for the Catholic 1950s, which they, too, seem to imagine can be recreated, and not just in bunkers and catacombs. The Catholic left has long indulged in the conspiracy-theorizing encoded in secular progressivism’s DNA; the unstated but unmistakable subtheme of “Catholics Rising” is that malign and clandestine conspirators have hijacked “our Church.”

Moreover, both polar extremes in the Church today seem locked into the same meta-narrative of Catholicism and modernity, in which the paramount question is, “How much should the Church concede to modern culture?” The farther reaches of the Catholic left are willing to surrender a lot, to the point where Catholicism fades into the dull incoherence of liberal Protestantism; the farther reaches of the Catholic right aren’t willing to surrender an inch. Neither side seems much interested in the real question, which is, “How does the Church convert the modern world and the post-modern world – like it converted the world of classical antiquity, similarly beset by the collapse of ancient truths and venerable institutions?” 

The Pittsburgh “Catholic Identity Conference” promises that “two bishops and priests from every major traditionalist fraternity in the world” will address the question, “Where do we go from here?” Were I asked (which I won’t be), I’d suggest that “where we go from here” is back to the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel and Paul’s letter to the Romans. No authentic renewal of Catholic life, and no effective response to the untruths that bedevil Catholicism today, will begin from the premise that “this is our Church and we must take it back.” It is Christ’s Church, and if any of us proceeds from any other premise, we are part of the problem, not the solution.

I hope someone among those “two bishops and priests from every major traditionalist fraternity in the world” makes that point in Pittsburgh – and then links it to the imperative of missionary discipleship in the Church of the New Evangelization.

COMING UP: A memoir I never expected to write

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When the second volume of my John Paul II biography, The End and the Beginning, was published in 2010, I thought I was finished with John Paul book-making. I hoped I’d done my best in bringing to a global audience the full story of a rich, complex life that had bent the curve of history in a more humane direction. I had tried to make a modest contribution to contemporary history by using once- classified documents from communist secret police files to illustrate previously-hidden facets of the communist war against the Catholic Church. I had kept the promise I made to John Paul at our last meeting on December 15, 2004: “Holy Father, if you don’t bury me, I promise to finish your story.”

But as I traveled the world speaking about The End and the Beginning and the legacy of John Paul II, I discovered that many people were less interested in the book’s analyses than in stories: stories that would bring a beloved figure alive again; stories that would help keep John Paul II close, rather than having him drift away into the remote intangibility of the canonized. And it struck me, on reflection, that this yearning was the 21st-century equivalent of the love for stories than once inspired the popular medieval lives of the saints. Thus perhaps there was more to be done, in fulfilling my last promise to John Paul II.

And here, too, there was a curious symmetry.

John Paul thought he was finished with poetry when, en route to the conclave that elected him pope in 1978, he wrote “Stanislas,” his poetic valedictory to Cracow. Then, at the end of his life, he discovered there were things he wanted to say that could only be said in a poem; the result was Roman Triptych. So like the man whose life changed my own and to whose story I had already devoted two large books, I am now happy to make a triptych: to publish a third panel in my account of the emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.

Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books) is very different than Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, the first two panels in my portrait of John Paul II. Lessons in Hope is entirely anecdotal; hardy readers of the first two volumes will be relieved to learn that it contains nary an endnote. It’s all stories all the time, and all in bite-size pieces. My intent is that, out of these stories, an even fuller, more deeply-etched portrait of John Paul will emerge, for there is much this exemplary figure still has to teach us.

When he went on pilgrimage to Fatima on May 13, 1982, to give thanks for his life being spared during the assassination attempt a year before, John Paul II said, “In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.” What strikes us as mere happenstance or coincidence is, in fact, an aspect of divine providence that we don’t yet understand. That’s how he thought of his life, and that’s how telling the story of his life taught me to think of my own. Experiences I had, subjects I studied, professional positions I held, people who had a profound impact on my thought: much of this, seemingly random at the time, came into focus as remote preparation for becoming the papal biographer I never intended to be. Thus Lessons in Hope also explores how someone who never set out to write a papal biography ended up doing two volumes of just that, in what I hope is an act of thanksgiving for the providential guidance of my own pilgrimage.

Then there are the stories of getting my biographer’s job done amidst the often-sluggish realities of Vatican life: stories that wouldn’t have fit in Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, but which now retrospectively illuminate, not only my own adventures in Rome (and elsewhere), but the accomplishment of John Paul II in getting the balky machinery around him to work as well as it did under his creative, courageous, firm, and collaborative leadership.

Lessons in Hope was great fun to write. I hope it will be great fun to read.

Photo credit: © L’Osservatore Romano