Courage in Scandal


An interview with George Weigel followed by an excerpt from his new book "The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church". "In the first months of 2002, the Catholic Church in the United States entered the greatest crisis in its history. When Lent began on February 13, the penitential ashes imposed that day on millions of Catholics felt leaden. Something had gone desperately wrong. Something was broken. Something had to be fixed."

Does it take courage to be a Catholic today?

I chose the title The Courage to Be Catholic because that's the way genuine reform always works in the Church — through men and women with the conviction and the courage to be countercultural, to be genuinely, fully, joyfully Catholic.

The Church has never been reformed by "Catholic lite." Reform always means a deeper, more thorough appropriation of the truths that Christ bequeathed the Church — the truths that are its "constitution," if you will.

And to do that requires courage?

Sure. But it's also exhilarating. One of the things Catholics need to recover is a sense of the great adventure of orthodoxy. Christian orthodoxy is the most exciting proposal on offer in the world today. It's far, far more exciting than "Catholic lite."

"Catholic lite" is an image that recurs throughout The Courage to Be Catholic. What does it mean?

We can't understand the crisis of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal leadership failure outside the context of the past three and a half decades.

During that time, a culture of dissent took root in the Church in the United States. And by "culture of dissent," I don't mean simply men and women who were confused or who thought the Church should express its teaching more clearly.

By "culture of dissent" I mean men and women — including priests, women religious, bishops, theologians, catechists, Church bureaucrats and activists — who believed that what the Church proposed as true was actually false. If you really think that — if you really believe that the highest teaching authority of the Church is teaching falsehoods and is leading the Church into error — you're not in full communion with the Church. And that has consequences, including behavioral consequences.

Are you suggesting that the "culture of dissent" is primarily responsible for the current crisis in the United States?

The "culture of dissent" doesn't explain everything about the Catholic crisis of 2002. It's a very important part of the puzzle, though, because what people think has a lot to do with how they behave.

Is it surprising that some men who learned to live lives of intellectual deception and deceit in the seminary — men who were told that they could take a pass on authoritative teaching — eventually led lives of behavioral deceit, becoming sexually abusive? It shouldn't have been surprising, given our sex-saturated culture.

Is it a surprise that bishops who were unwilling to fix what was manifestly broken in seminaries and Catholic universities in the 1970s and 1980s — in part, because they were unwilling to confront the culture of dissent, often for fear of fracturing the unity of a local Church — also failed to come to grips with the scandal of clergy sexual abuse? It shouldn't have been.

That's one thing I try to demonstrate in The Courage to Be Catholic: The Church in the United States has to learn to connect the dots, historically, if it's going to come to grips effectively with this crisis — and if the crisis is to become an opportunity for genuinely Catholic reform.

How would you describe the crisis itself?

There are three parts of the crisis. There is the crisis of clergy sexual abuse, of which the most prevalent form is the homosexual abuse of teen-age boys and young men. There is the crisis of failed episcopal leadership. And, at the bottom of the bottom line, there is the crisis of discipleship. Sexually abusive priests and timid or malfeasant bishops are, first and foremost, inadequately converted Christian disciples.

That's why the crisis is a call to everyone in the Church to live lives of more radical discipleship. As Father Richard Neuhaus and others have pointed out for months, the primary answer to a crisis of infidelity is fidelity. Period.

The Courage to Be Catholic also describes what the crisis is not. Why did you do that?

Because confusions about what the crisis is and isn't get in the way of genuinely Catholic reform. This is not a crisis of celibacy; it's a crisis of men failing to live the celibate vows they pledged to Christ and the Church.

It's not a crisis caused by the Church's sexual ethic, which flatly condemns all forms of sexual abuse. It's not a crisis caused by "authoritarianism," because the Church isn't an authoritarian institution — it's a community formed by an authoritative tradition, which is something very different. And it's not a mediacreated crisis. Yes, the media have distorted things on occasion, and yes, there's been something of a feeding frenzy atmosphere; but a feeding frenzy needs something to feed on. It's a very serous mistake not to realize this is a crisis Catholics created and only Catholics can fix.


The first step toward fixing what's broken is to recognize the spiritual roots of the crisis. Like every other crisis in 2,000 years of Catholic history, the current crisis is caused by an insufficiency of saints. That's a call to everyone to lead holier, more thoroughly Catholic lives. Whenever the Church is bottoming out, the response adequate to the crisis of the moment is always the same — everyone in the Church has to live the call to holiness more radically. Everyone.

The Courage to be Catholic includes three chapters of recommendations on specific reforms: in vocation recruitment, in seminaries, in the priesthood, in the way bishops are chosen, in the exercise of the episcopal office and in the way the Vatican gathers its information and relates to local Churches in crisis. Those recommendations are based on my own experience, on extensive discussions with some of the most effective reformers in the Church today and on intense conversations I had in Rome last February and April.

The Courage to Be Catholichas a chapter titled "Why Bishops Failed." Many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, have been asking: How could they let this happen? What's your answer?

The fact that so many people are asking that question itself testifies to the central place that bishops have in the life of the Church.

Contrary to the claims made by the advocates of "Catholic lite," most Catholics aren't interested in bishops who mortgage even more of their authority to various committees and boards. Most Catholics want bishops who will effectively exercise the authority that is theirs, and do so in a way that challenges everyone in the Church to a holier way of life.

I think the episcopal failures of recent decades have been similar to the failures of priests: It's fundamentally a failure in self-understanding. If a priest thinks of himself as simply another "minister," facilitating the "ministry" of others, he isn't going to think of himself as what the Church teaches he is — an icon, a living re-presentation of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. And if he doesn't think of himself as an icon of Christ, he's going to be tempted to act in ways that contradict the commitment he's made to Christ and the Church.

The same dynamic applies with bishops. Bishops who think of themselves primarily as managers — or worse, bishops who think of themselves as discussion-group moderators whose primary responsibility is to keep everyone "in play" — are going to be unlikely to act like apostles when the crunch comes.

That means part of genuinely Catholic reform today means asking a very tough question: Has the internal culture of the U.S. bishops' conference made it more difficult for the bishops, as individuals, to be the apostles they've been ordained to be? And has the conference culture made it even more difficult for the bishops to think and act apostolically as a group?

Yours is, finally, a hopeful book. Why?

I can think of three reasons. First, because "crisis," in the Bible, has two meanings: catastrophe and opportunity — and the opportunity the current catastrophe offers us is the opportunity to complete the reforms of Vatican II as they've been authentically interpreted by the pontificate of John Paul II.

The second reason I'm hopeful is because this crisis marks the last hurrah of the aging, intellectually sterile champions of "Catholic lite," who can't even describe accurately the crisis they helped create.

And finally, I'm hopeful because that's what Christians are: men and women of hope, who know that God's purposes are being worked out in history, in what often strike us as strange ways. That's why I believe, with Dorothy Day, the truth of what Pope Pius XI meant when he said, "Let us thank God that he makes us live among the present problems; it is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre."




ZENIT is an International News Agency based in Rome whose mission is to provide objective and professional coverage of events, documents and issues emanating from or concerning the Catholic Church for a worldwide audience, especially the media.

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Copyright © 2002 Zenit

The Courage to Be Catholic:
Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church - An Excerpt

In the first months of 2002, the Catholic Church in the United States entered the greatest crisis in its history. When Lent began on February 13, the penitential ashes imposed that day on millions of Catholics felt leaden. Something had gone desperately wrong. Something was broken. Something had to be fixed.

Like every Christian community, the Catholic Church is a Church of sinners. Its spiritual rhythms regularly repeat the ancient biblical cycle of failure, repentance, penance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Yet even in a Church that knows a lot about sin, some acts of wickedness still retain their capacity to shock. The sexual abuse of minors by priests — men traditionally called "Father" — is one such kind of wickedness. So is the failure of bishops — shepherds, in the ancient image — to guard the flock against predators, especially predators from within the household of faith. The shock of seemingly wide-spread clerical sexual misconduct, reported on an almost daily basis in the first months of 2002, was immeasurably intensified by what even sympathetic Catholics had to regard as some bishops' inept and irresponsible response to grave sins and crimes. In this instance, one plus one yielded something more than two: one plus one equaled an unprecedented crisis.

In the language and thought-world of the Bible, "crisis" has two meanings. The first is the familiar sense of the word: the venerable Webster's Seventh Collegiate Dictionary defines a "crisis" as "the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever... a paroxysmal attack of pain, distress, or disordered functions... an emotionally significant event or radical change of status in a person's life." Throughout the first half of 2002, the Catholic Church in the United States certainly seemed to be in "crisis," according to those definitions. The second meaning of "crisis" in the Biblical world is instructive, however: a "crisis" is also a great time of opportunity, an invitation to deeper faith, a summons to a more thorough conversion.

The premise of this small book is that we best understand the current crisis in Catholic life in this second sense — as a tremendous opportunity. An opportunity for what? An opportunity to deepen the reforms of the Catholic Church begun by the Second Vatican Council in 1962-1965, which are precisely the reforms urged by Pope John Paul II through-out his entire pontificate.

Like virtually everything else in Catholic life, the very word "reform" has been bitterly contested since Vatican II. Those usually identified as Catholic "reformers" would, in at least some instances, be more accurately described as a wrecking crew for whom nothing short of Catholicism's transformation into a kind of high-church, politically correct American "denomination" — Catholic Lite — will suffice. At the other end of the spectrum, Catholics of a more traditional bent have shied away from the word "reform" and its powerful connotations of the Protestant Reformation, preferring a word like "renewal" to describe what they think Vatican II intended and John Paul II intends. In light of the two-edged scandal of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance, perhaps everyone in the Catholic Church — including that broad group of faithful Catholics for whom the ecclesiastical tong wars are of far less interest than the sacraments and the local parish — can now agree that what the Church needs is reform.

What, then, is genuinely Catholic reform?

A Church with almost two thousand years of history behind it has inevitably passed through many moments of crisis and many moments of reform. In each instance when crisis-as-cataclysm has been transformed into crisis-as-opportunity, "reform" has meant a return to the Church's roots in order to better engage the spirit and the needs of a given time and place. "Reform," in the history of the Catholic Church, has meant retrieving, renewing, and developing often-forgotten elements of the Church's tradition. It has not meant rejecting the past, or severing the present and the future from the past. Genuine "reform" in the Catholic Church has always meant returning to the past — to roots — in such a way as to create the possibility of a genuinely new future.

That is what happened in what we now know as the Dark Ages, when the collapse of the Roman Empire threatened the very survival of the Christian West: The reform led by great monks and nuns such as Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica created new forms of Christian discipleship and, in doing so, saved the Church's memory — and Western civilization. That is what happened in the early Middle Ages, when a decadent clergy threatened the Church's mission: The reforms launched by Pope Gregory VII revived early penitential practices and reached back to such ancient traditions as priestly celibacy in order to prepare the Church for a nobler future. That is what happened in the sixteenth century, when the Protestant Reformation fractured western Christianity: The Council of Trent (1545-1563) unblushingly examined the Church's corruptions and failures, restated the fullness of Catholic truth, and made that tradition the basis of a thoroughgoing reform of seminaries, the priesthood, the episcopate, the Church's worship, and indeed almost every facet of Catholic life.

And that is precisely what Vatican II proposed: to "update" Catholicism for the twenty-first century by retrieving the deepest taproots of Catholic faith in the Bible, the great Church Fathers of the first millennium, and the medieval theological masters. By returning to these sources of Catholic faith, the bishops of Vatican II hoped, the Catholic Church would be able to preach more effectively the passionate love of God for all humanity, made visible in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. By rediscovering its roots, the Catholic Church would better offer Jesus Christ to the world — Jesus Christ, the answer to the question that is every human life, as John Paul II has described the Church's Master.

Every great period of reform in Catholic history has involved a thorough reform of the priesthood and the episcopate. That is one of the things that is self-evidently required today if the promise of Vatican II is to be fulfilled. To grasp what is at stake, as well as the meaning of genuine reform, Catholics need only look back about five hundred years. In 1512-1517, the Fifth Lateran Council met in Rome. It was intended to be a great reforming Council. It failed. Why? Because its analysis of the Catholic crisis at that moment was shallow; because the reforms it proposed were either inadequate in themselves or inadequately implemented; and because the Church's bishops, including the reigning pope, lacked the will and the courage necessary to do the needed job. The failure of Lateran V was the prelude to the Reformation, which shattered the unity of the Christian West and set in motion the dynamics that eventually led to the European wars of religion. Failures of reform carry a high cost.

No one knows whether, in the twenty-fifth century, Vatican II will be remembered as another Lateran V — a reforming Council that failed — or another Trent, a reforming Council that was so successful that it set the course of Catholic life for more than four hundred years. The pontificate of John Paul II has been a heroic effort to ensure that Vatican II — which made a profoundly Christian analysis of the crisis of human civilization at the turn of a new century and a new millennium — becomes a second Trent, not a second Lateran V. The question is not whether Vatican II adequately analyzed the Church's situation. The question is whether that analysis has been correctly understood and vigorously implemented. The current crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States has made unmistakably clear just how much work even so dynamic and effective a pope as John Paul II has left the rest of the Church to do.

Individual Christians fail when we avert our gaze from Christ and start looking elsewhere for security. Like Peter in the gospels, we, too, can "walk on water" — but only so long as we keep our eyes fixed on the Christ who beckons us to do what we imagine to be beyond our capacities. The same applies to the Church. At the bottom of the bottom line, every crisis in the Church is a crisis of fidelity. And the answer to a crisis of fidelity is fidelity: a deeper conversion to Christ, a more thoroughly Catholic reform of Catholicism. Amid the many complexities of the Catholic crisis of 2002, which will be explored in what follows, a great simplicity stands out: This is a crisis of fidelity.

Crisis means trauma; crisis also means opportunity. The trauma of the Catholic Church in the United States in 2002 will become an opportunity to deepen and extend the reforms of Vatican II if the Church becomes more Catholic, not less — if the Church rediscovers the courage to be Catholic. The answer to the present crisis will not be found in deconstructing Catholic faith or further loosening Catholic discipline. The answer to the present crisis will most certainly not involve the Catholic Church surrendering to the decadence of the sexual revolution, as so many other Christian communities have. Such surrenders, and the tremendous human suffering they cause, are one of the sources of the crisis, not a solution to it. The answer to the current crisis will not be found in Catholic Lite. It will only be found in a classic Catholicism — a Catholicism with the courage to be countercultural, a Catholicism that has reclaimed the wisdom of the past in order to face the corruptions of the present and create a renewed future, a Catholicism that risks the high adventure of fidelity.

The Catholic Church learned the truth about reform from its parent, Judaism, for the pattern of authentic Catholic reform first took shape in the Hebrew Bible. There, the prophets insisted that the answer to Israel's whoring after other gods was neither greater subtlety in the worship of false gods (Idolatry Lite), nor more clever ways to cover one's theological bets (Syncretism Lite), but rather radical fidelity to the one true God and His commandments. Similarly, crises of fidelity in the Catholic Church are never remedied by Catholic Lite, but only by more radical fidelity to the fullness of Catholic faith. That is the truth the current crisis is compelling the Catholic Church to remember — and to act upon.

What today's Catholic crisis is, how it came about, and how the crisis might become a great moment of reform is the business of this book.




Excerpted from The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church by George Weigel with permission of Perseus Books.

Published by Basic Books, a division of Perseus Books, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.


George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of Evangelical Catholicism, The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explore.

George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.

Copyright © 2002 by George Weigel