Weigel: The best Nuncio we’ve had thus far

George Weigel

The announcement that Archbishop Christoph Pierre will succeed Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò as Apostolic Nuncio to the United States is an opportunity to pay tribute to a courageous churchman who has served Catholicism, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis in an exemplary way during his tenure in Washington.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with each of the Nuncios in Washington, since full diplomatic relations were established between this country and the Holy See under President Reagan and Pope John Paul II. And at the risk of embarrassing him, I have to say that I consider Archbishop Viganò to have been the best of them all thus far.

He came to Washington under what some in the Vatican thought was a cloud. The truth of the matter is that this scrupulously honest man had seen financial corruption in the Holy See and tried to do something about it – a task now being pursued with vigor by Pope Francis and Cardinal George Pell. But in the last years of Benedict XVI, things were not in good shape managerially in the Vatican; Viganò’s honesty was resented and, I expect, feared by lesser men; and the Washington appointment was arranged to give what amounted to a sacking the appearance of a promotion.

It was a completely one-sided trade: those who exiled Viganò from the Vatican lost, badly, and the Church in the United States won, handsomely. For Carlo Maria Viganò understood this moment in U.S. Catholic history as perhaps few other career Vatican diplomats could have done.

He appreciated the many strengths of the Church in the United States, including the evangelically-centered reconstruction of the hierarchy by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He understood where the vitality was in American Catholicism, and he knew that this vitality had to do with the strength of faith in those living parts of the Church. He knew that Catholic Lite wasn’t going to advance the New Evangelization, and he quickly grasped that the great project of converting a wounded culture in America was being threatened by an unprecedented assault on the Church’s capacity to be itself. And he knew that the threat came,  not from old-fashioned nativist bigots of Protestant persuasion, but from militant secularists  allied with the federal government.

Thus there was complete agreement between the papal representative in Washington and the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the imperative of defending religious freedom in full, and on challenging an administration that seemed determine to reduce that first freedom to a lifestyle choice about weekend leisure activities. The archbishop understood that there was no honorable retreat from what some deplored as “culture wars.” He knew who had declared war on whom; that the Church had not been the aggressor in this struggle; and that the battle had to be engaged, with the tools of reason and persuasion, for the sake of all religious communities and indeed for the sake of American democracy. His support for the bishops was crucial and effective, as was his work in preparing the meeting in Rome between Pope Francis and President Obama, where POTUS got the message that the Bishop of Rome was deeply concerned about the pressures being put on his flock in the United States.

The wonderful reception that Pope Francis received in the United States last September was due to many factors; Archbishop Viganò was surely one of them. As for the idiotic caterwauling in some quarters about the Pope’s spending a few minutes with former Kentucky official Kim Davis, let’s be clear that Kim Davis’s presence in the Nunciature was cleared with Archbishop Viganò’s superiors, Archbishop Giovanni Becciu and Archbishop Paul Gallagher. The obsession in certain quarters with this episode, which was front-loaded in far too many stories about Archbishop Pierre’s appointment, says far more about the passions of the obsessed than it does about Archbishop Viganò.

Carlo Maria Viganò may be seventy-five, but a man of his faith and integrity still has much to give the Church. The further reform of the Roman Curia would be well-served if he were drawn into it, officially or unofficially.

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA