Why we stay, and the Vigano Testimony

George Weigel

The Sunday Mass scriptures during this summer of horrors have often been eerily appropriate, beginning with Jeremiah’s polemic against malfeasant shepherds who mislead the Lord’s flock (July 25) and continuing through the story of many disciples’ defection after the “hard words” of the Bread of Life discourse (Aug. 26). And it’s entirely understandable that more than a few Catholics have choked on the word “holy” these past few months, when asked to affirm it of the Church during the Creed and the Offertory. But while understandable, that still bespeaks a misunderstanding. The reason why is given immediately after the defection story in John 6: 60-66, when the Lord asks the Twelve if they, too, are going to bail on him and Peter answers, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Everlasting life is offered to us sacramentally at every Mass. That is what we believe; that is why we remain in the Church; and that is why we must all bend every effort, from our distinct states of life in the Mystical Body of Christ, to reform what must be reformed so that others may know and love the Lord Jesus and experience the life-giving fruits of friendship with him. The Church’s current crisis is a crisis of fidelity and a crisis of holiness, a crisis of infidelity and a crisis of sin. It is also a crisis of evangelization, for shepherds without credibility impede the proclamation of the Gospel – which, as the other headlines of the day suggest, the world badly needs.

In the immediate aftermath of Archbishop Carlo-Maria Vigano’s “Testimony,” and its statement that Pope Francis knew of the dereliction of Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington and lifted the sanctions against McCarrick that had been imposed (but never seriously enforced) by Pope Benedict XVI, the polemics within the Church immediately intensified and ricocheted through the media. In this febrile atmosphere, it is virtually impossible for anyone to say anything without arousing suspicions and accusations. But as I knew Archbishop Vigano well during his service as papal representative in Washington, I feel obliged to speak about him, which I hope will help others consider his very, very serious claims thoughtfully.

First, Archbishop Vigano is a courageous reformer, who was moved out of the Vatican by his immediate superiors because he was determined to confront financial corruption in the Governatorato, the administration of Vatican City State.

Second, Archbishop Vigano is, in my experience, an honest man. We spoke often about many things, large and small, and I never had the impression that I was being given anything other than what he believed in his conscience to be the truth. That does not mean that he got everything right; a man of humility and prayer, he would be the first to concede that. But it does suggest that attempts to portray him as someone deliberately making false accusations, someone other than an honest witness to what he believes to be the truth, are unpersuasive. When he writes in his Testimony that he is “…ready to affirm [these allegations] on oath calling on God as my witness,” he means it. And he means it absolutely. Archbishop Vigano knows that, in swearing such an oath, he would be taking his soul into his hands; which means he knows that if he were to speak falsely, he would be unlikely to find his soul again.

Third, Archbishop Vigano is a loyal churchman of a certain generation and formation, bred to a genuine piety about the papacy. His training in the papal diplomatic service would instinctively lead him to make the defense of the Pope his first, second, third, and hundredth priority. If he believes that what he has now said is true, and that the Church needs to learn that truth in order to cleanse itself of what is impeding its evangelical mission, then he is overriding his engrained instincts for the gravest of reasons.

What Archbishop Vigano testifies to knowing on the basis of direct, personal, and in many cases documentable experiences in Rome and Washington deserves to be taken seriously, not peremptorily dismissed or ignored. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the U.S. bishops’ conference president, evidently agrees, as his Aug. 27 statement makes clear. That is another step toward the purification and reform we need.

COMING UP: Fackenheim’s Law and the Current Catholic Crisis

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The medieval Jewish sage Maimonides counted 613 commandments, or mitzvot, in the Law that God gave his people, Israel. The 20th-century Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, who escaped the Nazis’ genocidal clutches and devoted part of his scholarly life to pondering the moral meaning of the Holocaust, formulated what he called the 614th commandment: Give Hitler no posthumous victories. And how would Jews violate that “commandment?” By religious Jews denying the providential role of Israel’s God in Jewish life; by secular Jews abandoning the notion of Israel as a unique people with a distinctive historical destiny; by Jews acting toward other Jews in ways that tore at the spiritual and moral bonds that bound the people of Israel together.

Don’t give Hitler what he wanted, the utter destruction of the Jewish people, for that would be giving him a posthumous victory: This was one great lesson Emil Fackenheim drew from his reflections on the profound evil of his time and its effects on his people. Catholics filled with righteous anger over the vile behavior of the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, and Catholics determined to help reform the Church in order to cleanse the Church and prevent similar wickedness in the future, have something to learn from Rabbi Fackenheim. In our case the lesson must be: Don’t give the Evil One victories.

Long before the McCarrick story broke, it was clear that the Church in the United States faced many challenges. It was also clear to those familiar with the international Catholic scene that the Church in the United States had a better chance of living the New Evangelization than any other local Church in the developed world. That may well be why the Evil One has focused such attention on the Church in America: There is something living here, something to be wounded — even killed.

The depth of the challenges facing U.S. Catholicism are coming into painfully clear focus; but in facing those challenges, we must not give Satan cheap victories by denying how we think and who we are as a Church.

Sixteen years ago, in The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, I argued that clerical sexual abuse had been facilitated in part by the breakdown of doctrinal discipline following Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on responsible family planning, Humanae Vitae. That breakdown involved rejecting what Paul VI taught about the reality of intrinsically evil acts: Acts wrong in themselves, which can’t be justified by a calculus of intentions and consequences. That rejection is now ricocheting around the world Church again and those involved should be asked a straightforward question: Is the attempted seduction of an eleven-year old boy by a trusted priest and family friend an intrinsically evil act? Yes or no?

Denying the reality of intrinsically evil acts helped create a dynamic of license in which abusive clergy gave themselves passes on other issues. Authentic reform now means restoring the moral foundations of Catholicism. Thus it is imperative that both Rome and the U.S. bishops reaffirm the reality of intrinsically evil acts as taught by the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

More than five years ago, in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, I wrote that authentic Catholic reform is always “re-form:” it’s not rupture; it’s not paradigm shifts; it’s reaching back and reclaiming a part of the Church’s Christ-given constitution that got misplaced because of historical contingency. The governance of the Church by bishops is part of that Christ-given Catholic “form,” so the serious reform of clerical life at all levels of Holy Orders must be accomplished with the bishops. That will almost certainly mean responsible laity helping good bishops call their less-than-effective or less-than-honest brother-bishops to their duty when necessary. Bishops should welcome such help, not resist it; lay Catholics must understand that bishops are the bottom line of Church governance.

Responding responsibly to today’s crisis also means not fouling our own nest by denying all the good things that are underway in U.S. Catholicism, the living parts of which have embraced the New Evangelization and rejected Catholic Lite as an evangelical strategy. Shrill voices venting ideological spleen by decrying the entire American Catholic scene are demoralizing; they may unwittingly give the Evil One cheap victories. Truly righteous anger is focused anger, not online click-bait.