The Courage to be Catholic, by George Weigel

The Courage to be Catholic, by George Weigel

Michael Novak

Papal biographer George Weigel on the underlying causes of US sex abuse crisis

THE COURAGE TO BE CATHOLIC: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church
by George Weigel

(Basic Books, 2002, 246pp, $44.00. Available from AD Books)

George Weigel, a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on religion and public life, is the author of the highly acclaimed international best-seller Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II and numerous other books, including The Truth of Catholicism and The Final Revolution. He is presently a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington, DC and writes a weekly column that is syndicated to more than forty newspapers around the United States.

As no other commentator or critic has done, George Weigel situates the current crisis of sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance in the context of recent Catholic history. With honesty and critical rigour, he reveals the Church's failure to embrace the true spiritual promise of Vatican II, a failure that has resulted in the gradual but steady surrender to liberal culture that he dubs "Catholic Lite."

Weigel begins by clarifying what the scandal is and is not. As readers of the print media know, but consumers of TV news do not, it was not a "paedophilia" scandal. There were some awful perpetrators of paedophilia, but the vast majority of victims were teenage males being sexually molested or abused.

But Weigel was in Rome for crucial long periods as this scandal broke and gives a marvellous clarifying account of the realities on the ground there. The fabled Vatican Curia numbers some 1,800 persons, a lot fewer to serve a universal Church of one billion souls than the US Government needs in Washington (even in any one department) to govern 280 million citizens. Very few of those live on the "information highway." Most are not of that generation, and even those who are lack the time and habit of living online.

To an extraordinary degree, the Vatican Secretariat of State depends on information from its nuncios (ambassadors) around the world. On this matter, apparently, there was a lot of information - and, more important, commentary on it - that the Vatican was not receiving. Weigel recounts how this lamentable information lag was abruptly overcome.

What Weigel is particularly good at is making real theology accessible to the jargonless lay person. He sets forth the theology of the priesthood in a way simultaneously inspiring, on the one hand, and on the other hand eviscerating to those who have committed treason against it.

Weigel does an especially helpful job in setting forth what theology expects from a Catholic bishop, and measuring the American bishops against this standard. Especially in their role as teachers, the growing ignorance of the American Catholic people under the regime of "catechetics" since about 1968 condemn the bishops of the 1970s-1980s severely. Their carelessness in supervising seminaries condemn them even more.

The sermons Catholics suffer through weekly are so empty of theological content, Weigel surmises, because priests educated in the 1970s and 1980s learned very little theology, and a lot of that was bad theology. They talk about movies and musical comedies and television shows because their minds are empty. Their lack of spiritual discipline and ascetical knowledge is palpable. A deep life of prayer? Communion with God? Few hints of those in their words.

Weigel is unusually hopeful about the new breed of priests - the John Paul II breed, he calls them - serious, orthodox, and able to explain their faith, in love with their vocations and with the Catholic people.

The scandals of the last decades were not caused by priests faithful to Catholic sexual teaching and to their priestly vows, but by infidelity - infidelity in thought, word, and deed. Catholic sexual teaching had not been taught in most American churches since Vatican II, especially after 1968. The theology of the priesthood had been scandalously neglected, despite John Paul II's enormous efforts to bring it into daily reflection.

Meanwhile, the American bishops, tutored by the swollen and bureaucratic, consensus-governed US Catholic Conference, were transforming themselves from conscientious shepherds, teachers and guides of the Catholic people into managers of their own bureaucracies. With the people they conducted themselves like leaders of discussion groups, taking care to keep everyone "in" the dialogue, and keeping everyone happy, particularly those in the progressive wing of the Church, with all their friends in the media.

Successful reform

Weigel not only describes clearly what is wrong. He develops the criteria for any successful reform. They are pretty demanding. Meeting them will take courage. But Catholic faith always has. It has often in recent decades been tested by martyrdom.

But, Weigel reminds us, in the Biblical world a "crisis" is a time of great opportunity, an invitation to deeper faith. Every great crisis of the Church's past, from the Dark Ages to the Reformation, has resulted in a period of reform that returned the Church - and its priesthood - to its roots.

Weigel sets forth an agenda for genuine reform that challenges seminarians, priests, bishops, and the laity to lead more integrally Catholic lives. As he argues so persuasively, the answer to the present crisis will not be found in "Catholic Lite" but in classic Catholicism: a Catholicism that has reclaimed the wisdom of the past in order to face the corruptions of the present and create a strong future.

Michael Novak is the George F. Jewett scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of 'On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding'.

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