Vatican autocracy and the U.S. bishops

George Weigel

As the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore on the weekend of Nov. 10-11, it seemed certain that, after a day of prayer, penance, and reflection on the Church’s sexual abuse crisis, they would take two important steps toward reform. An episcopal code of conduct, holding bishops accountable to the standards applied to priests in the 2002 Dallas Charter, would be adopted. And the bishops would authorize a lay-led mechanism to receive complaints about episcopal misbehavior, malfeasance, or corruption; allegations found credible would be sent to the appropriate authorities, including those in Rome.

Then, at the last minute, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), received an instruction from Rome stating that the Vatican did not want the U.S. bishops to vote on these two measures. The lame rationale given with the instruction was that any such decisions should be made after the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences meet in Rome in February, to discuss the abuse crisis in its global dimensions.

What happened to the “synodality” and “collegiality” that were supposed to characterize the Church under Pope Francis? What conceivable meaning of “synodality” or “collegiality” includes an autocratic Roman intervention in the affairs of a national bishops’ conference that knows its own situation far better than the Roman authorities? And spare me the further excuses about Roman concerns over canon law. If there were canonical problems with the U.S. proposals, they could have been ironed out after the bishops had done what they had to do and what Rome effectively prevented them from doing — demonstrating to furious U.S. Catholics that the bishops are firmly committed to addressing the episcopal dimensions of the abuse crisis and the meltdown of episcopal credibility it had created in its wake.

(And while we’re on the subject of Church law: By what legal authority did Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, instruct the USCCB not to vote on matters the conference membership thought of the gravest importance? A sliver of justification for that intervention might be extracted from Canon 455.1, on the authority of bishops’ conferences. But given the insouciance about canon law demonstrated by Rome in recent years, not to mention a seemingly endless series of strictures against “legalism,” such concerns over canon law ring hollow. In any event, and according to Canon 455.2, any legal fine tuning could have taken place after the U.S. bishops had done what they deemed essential to restoring trust in this critical situation.)

I recently spent almost five weeks in Rome, during which I found an anti-American atmosphere worse than anything I’d experienced in 30 years of work in and around the Vatican. A false picture of the Church’s life in the United States, in which wealthy Catholics in league with extreme right-wing bishops have hijacked the Church and are leading an embittered resistance to the present pontificate, has been successfully sold. And in another offense against collegiality, this grossly distorted depiction of American Catholicism has not been effectively challenged or corrected by American bishops enjoying Roman favor these days.

Honest disagreements — about, say, Amoris Laetitia and its implications for doctrine and pastoral practice — are one thing. A systematic distortion of reality, which tramples on the presumption of an opponent’s good will that should guide any internal Catholic debate, is quite another. Those involved in this anti-American-bishops calumny might also reflect on its disturbing genealogy. For one of those who injected this toxin into the Roman bloodstream was a serial sexual predator specializing in the abuse of seminarians under his authority — Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington.

Mainstream media reporting on the bishops’ recent Baltimore meeting generally got it right: the U.S. bishops tried to do the right thing and got bushwhacked by Rome, which Just Doesn’t Get It on sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance. But the story cannot be allowed to end there. Nor can the Church afford to “wait until after February.”

Cardinal DiNardo and the majority of the bishops are determined to get to grips with the awfulness that has come to light, for the sake of the Church’s evangelical future. The bishops’ challenge now is to temper their ingrained deference to “Rome” and get on with devising responses to this crisis that are within their authority, and that address the legitimate demands of the Catholic people of the United States for reform.

Featured image: CNS photo/Bob Roller

COMING UP: A century after the Armistice

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I’m just old enough to remember when my elders still called November 11 “Armistice Day:” the armistice in question that which stopped the shooting in the Great War. As a military matter, World War I may have ended a century ago, on November 11, 1918, allowing my Grandfather Weigel and millions of other doughboys to be demobilized. The devastating cultural effects of the Great War are still being felt today, though.

Different nationalities remember World War I differently. Nostalgics mourn the fall the Romanov, Hohenzollern, and Hapsburg empires; Poles remember those as the imperial crack-ups that permitted them to regain independent statehood. France is, in some respects, still paralyzed by the memory of the Great War. (Look online at images of the inside of the Douaumont Ossuary near Verdun to understand why.) Canadians wear red poppies in their lapels to honor the dead at Vimy Ridge and elsewhere. Australians remember Gallipoli as the crucible in which their nation was formed. Satisfaction in the U.K. over a hard-won victory is severely tempered by the knowledge that virtually an entire generation of future British leaders was killed between 1914 and 1918.

No one has ever assayed the primary cause and long-term effects of the Great War better than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did in his 1983 Templeton Prize Lecture, “Men Have Forgotten God.” There, he argued that the 1914-18 war was the result of a collapse of moral imagination rooted in a practical atheism:

“The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. That war…took place when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power over them.”

In a 2014 essay, “The Great War Revisited: Why It Began, Why It Continued, and What That Means for Today” (reprinted in my book, The Fragility of Order), I surveyed the extensive literature on why World War I started, then asked an even more urgent question: Why did it continue, after it was clear that there would be no quick victory for anyone, only more industrial-strength slaughter? I ended that reflection on a note similar to Solzhenitsyn’s: there is no explaining this act of civilizational self-destruction absent a reckoning with the demise of biblical religion in the West. By 1914, Western high culture had come to think that it could organize the world without God: which was, in a sense, true. But what the Great War should have taught the West was that, without the God of the Bible, the only way the peoples of the West could organize things was against each other — and in the most sanguinary terms.

Three enduring impacts of World War I are worth flagging on this centenary.

The Great War destroyed Western confidence in traditional authorities and bred a deep skepticism of, and even contempt for, “the great and the good” that remains a factor in our public life.

The Great War eviscerated traditional cultural norms and boundaries, accelerated the development of the avant-garde, and stripped art in the West of its moral ballast; “art” became, in the main, a vehicle for expressing subjective feelings and passions, rather than an exploration of truths.

The Great War also deepened and intensified the secularization of the West, as one religious leader after another joined the parade of homicidal nationalists, jingoes, and social Darwinists whose bombastic appeals to base (and often racist) emotions helped preclude a negotiated settlement before the collapse of Romanov Russia and the exhaustion of imperial Germany made the Armistice inevitable.

One notable exception to this massive default in religious leadership was Pope Benedict XV, the most understudied and underrated pontiff of the 20th century. Had he been listened to by the great powers of the day, things might have been different. But Benedict was dismissed as an irrelevance, the carnage continued, and the question posed by Solzhenitsyn 35 years ago — Did World War I terminally sap the strength of Europe? — remains an open one today.