“Xavier Rynne,” R.I.P.

George Weigel

No reporter or op-ed columnist ever refers to the Dalai Lama as a “liberal” Buddhist or a “conservative” Buddhist. I suspect that’s because everyone understands that Buddhism is far too complex and subtle a religious tradition to be analyzed in simplistic political categories. What, then, accounts for the near-universal journalistic addiction to parsing every Catholic issue, and every Catholic personality, in these terms?

There are probably lots of explanations, but a considerable amount of the credit, or blame, for this taxonomic convention must go to Father Francis X. Murphy, a Redemptorist priest who wrote a series of reports for the New Yorker on the Second Vatican Council under the pseudonym “Xavier Rynne.” Prior to the Council, virtually no one described the Church or churchmen as “liberal” or “conservative,” despite the fact that there were clear factions, reflecting different theological casts of mind, in pre-Vatican II Catholicism. After the Council, which is to say after Xavier Rynne’s chatty reports on the Council (which were later compiled in four books), everything in the Church was suddenly “liberal” or “conservative.”

This has caused endless mischief. Doctrine isn’t “liberal” or “conservative.” Doctrine is true, or it’s heresy. Theology isn’t “liberal” or “conservative,” either. Theology is thoughtful or dumb, scholarly or shoddy, well-informed or ill-informed. To treat doctrine or theology as essentially political matters distorts the Church’s self-understanding, divides the Church into factions, and promotes the pernicious view that every issue in the Church is, at bottom, a question of power.

I have, admittedly, been beating this drum for years, to little discernible effect. So when I recently re-read the first Xavier Rynne book, Letters from Vatican City, I was struck by its rather measured tone. Unlike the later Rynne books, which neatly divided the Council assembly into good guys (“liberals”) and bad guys (“conservatives”) and happily chose up sides between them (the “liberals” being the open-minded forces of desirable change and the “conservatives” devious reactionaries), the Rynne of Letters from Vatican City went out of his way to explain the seemingly inexplicable Catholic commitment to authority and tradition to New Yorker readers in a sympathetic way, and in terms that a largely unchurched readership could grasp. Rynne even defended, gently, the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, which theologians like Father Richard McBrien have been flagellating for decades as an unmitigated horror and an indefensible assault on theology.

What happened to Rynne between 1962 and 1965? Indeed, what happened to Rynne, protagonist of change, between 1965 and 1985, when he was heard to complain, during John Paul II’s Extraordinary Synod marking the Council’s twentieth anniversary, “Why do we have to change things?”

Father Murphy died this past April 11, so we’ll never know for sure what happened to Xavier Rynne. But I suspect that this engaging man, one of the great clerical raconteurs, fell into a pattern of thinking that was the mirror image of the “conservatives” he lambasted: he came to think of the Church primarily in institutional terms.

That the Church has an institutional structure is both obvious and necessary, for the Church exists in time and space. But the clear intention of Vatican II was to get the Church thinking of itself in something other than institutional categories. Faced with a great civilizational crisis that had already produced two world wars, three totalitarian systems, oceans of blood and mountains of corpses, the Council asked the Church to rediscover Christianity as a great evangelical movement: the Bride of Christ, sent into the world by Christ to tell the world the truth about itself and the truth of God’s passionate love for the world he created, which are the same truth. That, the Council suggested, was the best thing Catholicism could do for the modern world.

Institution-think is a tough habit to break. The habit has by no means been conquered by some Catholic traditionalists. But Catholic “progressives” are the chief proponents of the Church-as-institution model today. This is a great reversal. And it is very sad.

I enjoyed Father Murphy’s company the few times we met and I pray for the repose of his soul, even as I hope that he now finds himself in circumstances where the Church is, manifestly, neither “liberal” nor “conservative.”

COMING UP: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

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When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!