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: The priesthood is more than just a job

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In October, the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region will be held at the Vatican. On the agenda: a discussion on the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood in that region, due to a particularly dire lack of vocations. The news has reawakened discussion on priestly celibacy in general, and whether the time has come to relax the requirement on a wider level. And so, I figured it was time to revisit the subject here, as well.

To set the tone, I’d like to begin my discussion with a very short quiz:

Q: Why does the Roman Catholic Church require lifelong celibacy for ordained priests?

  1. Because sex is bad, dirty and evil, and our priests should not defile themselves;
  2. Because we don’t want to have to support priests’ families out of collection funds;
  3. None of the above; or
  4. Both of the above.

The correct answer would be C, none of the above.

So why, then? Why on earth would these men have to give up the possibility of marriage and children, just because they want to serve God as priests?

Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine. It could change. The rule has already been relaxed in relation to married Episcopalian priests who convert to Catholicism. In this era of widespread priest shortages, and even wider-spread scandals, should we consider expanding that exemption, and remove the requirement of priestly celibacy entirely? Wouldn’t a married priesthood encourage more men, and perhaps healthier men, to respond to the call of God?

Perhaps. But at what cost?

Discussions about the elimination of priestly celibacy are not new. They’ve been around as long as priestly celibacy itself. One of the periods of particularly spirited discussion on the subject was in the late 1960’s. In response, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical entitled Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. In it, he explained the reasons for the Church’s long history of priestly celibacy, and he enumerated three “significances,” or reasons, for the tradition:

Christological: The priesthood isn’t just a job. It is a state of being. It encompasses his entire existence. It places a mark on his soul — a mark that will follow him into eternity. The priest is ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by another bishop, in an unbroken chain that goes clear back to the apostles. And through that sacramental ordination, and the power and grace it conveys, the priest stands in persona Christi —  in the person of Christ. He has the power to consecrate the Eucharist — to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He can forgive sins.  And so, standing in the person of Christ, the priest seeks to be like him in all things. He imitates Christ’s life, which includes Christ’s celibacy.

But, you say, Christ also had a beard. Does the priest have to imitate that, too? How far do we have to take this whole imitation thing? Well, the question we must ask is: What was integral to Christ’s ministry? Was celibacy integral? What would it look like if Christ had married and had children? He would have had to work to support them. He would have had to provide them a home.  No iterate preaching, moving from town to town. Jesus was not going to be an absentee husband and father. It was the freedom of celibacy that allowed him to give himself totally to the service of the Father and the Father’s children. So yes, I’d say it was integral. The beard, not so much.

Ecclesiological:  This basically means it is about the Church. Our understanding of a priest is not that he’s a single guy, a bachelor. He, like Christ, is in fact “married” to the Church. You’ve heard all that talk about how the Church is the “bride of Christ.” We really believe that. And the priest, standing in persona Christi, likewise becomes the Bridegroom, giving his life for the Church, and especially for the part of the Church he serves. He doesn’t just offer his “workday” to us, the flock.  He offers his life. He serves us as a husband serves his wife. (And we the faithful, as good “wives”, should likewise be going out of our way to love and care for our priests.)  His attention and affections are not divided between his bride, the Church, and an earthly bride and family. He has far greater freedom than a married man — freedom to not only serve his flock, but to pray and meditate and to grow closer to the Christ whom he represents on this earth. Which then prepares him for further service to the flock.

Eschatological: This means it’s about the next life. Remember my last column, about the Poor Clare Sisters who make the radical choice to live this life as if were already eternal life, focusing only on Christ? Well, priests participate in that too. Scripture says that, in Heaven, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. (Mt 22:30) Priests and consecrated religious foreshadow that here, reminding us that everything that happens in this life is just a prelude to the life to come.

And so, for all of these reasons, I oppose the wholesale elimination of the requirement of priestly celibacy. I realize that we already have exceptions. I know several of those “exceptions,” and I think they are wonderful people and wonderful priests. But I think they would acknowledge the difference between the exception and the rule, and that the loss of priestly celibacy would change our understanding of the character and charism of the priesthood. The priesthood would be increasingly perceived as just another career choice — one to be entered and left at will.

And whatever the priesthood may be, it is definitely not just another job.

Featured image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash