UN committee’s scolding of the Church falls flat

When the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a Feb. 5 report criticizing the Church for her beliefs on abortion, contraception and homosexuality and suggested that changing them would help children, it became clear that it has a bigger agenda than protecting kids.

The Vatican does not frequently issue strongly-worded statements, but spokesman Father Federico Lombardi reacted to the committee’s report without mincing words. He charged that the committee not only glossed over the efforts the Church has made to protect children and reform its prosecution system, but it also failed to understand the fundamental differences between the Holy See and other states.

If it was truly listening, the Committee on the Rights of the Child would have heard about the Vatican’s progress during a detailed briefing Church officials gave them almost three weeks before the report was released. However, when the committee published its findings, it displayed either an inability to listen to what was said, or an unwillingness to understand.

Father Lombardi concluded that the report “was practically already written, or at least already in large part blocked out before the hearing.”

I think that Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s reaction to the findings and the media blitz that followed captured what happened quite well. “It is very easy to get the headlines when you criticize the Church, however, I do not think the commission’s report has been either fair or particularly helpful.”

This activism by the U.N. committee presents a bizarre internal conflict, since the United Nations has spoken up on other occasions in defense of religious freedom and the right of churches to live out their faith.

It is certainly true that the Church must continue to improve its efforts to prevent child abuse. But the U.N. panel went way beyond offering advice on child abuse and used its influence to preach a secular “gospel” to the Church.

Secular values, like all claims to truth, are based on beliefs about what it means to be human, what it means to be free, what is good and what is true. Often, those who call on the Church to adopt secular values propose these beliefs as morally neutral or even as beneficial, branding them with slogans that make them appear in a positive light.

In the case of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child report, one could see the same methodology at work. But rather than accept the committee’s beliefs as they are being marketed, it is necessary to ask deeper questions about their implications.

The panel recommended, for example, that the Church change its teaching on abortion as a way to protect children. But how does this lead to anyone’s happiness or growth in goodness, let alone protect children, especially those in the womb? The U.N. seems to forget that every one of us was lived within our mother’s womb as unborn children.

In the case of contraception, the committee urged the Church to facilitate adolescents’ access to contraception. How would this in any way promote the moral health, mental health or growth in virtue of teens? The U.N. appears to be unaware of the studies that demonstrate the unhealthiness of early sexual intimacy for adolescents and the damage it does to them.

Aside from being misguided, the U.N. panel has shown how out of its depth it is. Their solutions are short-sighted because they fail to address the underlying moral issues raised by the complex problems they are trying to solve.

They are focused on preventing sexually transmitted diseases and preventing teen pregnancy but the committee’s response is insufficient. Instead of promoting virtue, the U.N. panel and many others in the medical community try to remedy moral shortcomings with condoms or drugs. In medical terms, they are treating the symptom but not the illness.

All of us, me included, need to routinely commit to examining the values we are living our lives by and ask if they lead to the greatest good anyone can hope to attain – eternal life.
Jesus came to this earth to “fully reveal man” to himself, the Vatican II document “Gaudium et Spes” said, and left to our own devices, we will always come up short.

Our society needs Catholics who share the transformative power of a relationship of love with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and who express how that experience leads to a life of true satisfaction, how it reorients us to a life built on the true, good and beautiful.

Do not be afraid to speak up for the faith and the divinely revealed truths God has entrusted to us through his Son. The world needs this gift more than ever.

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.