'A Crisis of Fidelity': George Weigel
on Renewing the U.S. Catholic Church
Dissent got American Catholicism into this mess. Only fidelity (and a few new saints) can get us out.
BY: Interview by Laura Sheahen
Catholic commentator George Weigel is widely known for his seminal biography of John Paul II, "Witness to Hope." In his new book on the scandals rocking the Church, Weigel says the roots of the crisis can be traced in part back to American Catholicism's "culture of dissent," in which neither laypeople or clergy fully embrace Catholic doctrines on sexuality and other matters. Weigel spoke with Beliefnet recently about the impact of 35 years of "Catholic Lite," the Vatican's response to the crisis, and an agenda for reform that includes everyone from bishops to regular Catholics.
Your book indicates that the crisis should impel Catholics to dissent less, to be less inclined to pick and choose the doctrines they'll follow.
I think the crisis should impel everyone to look more seriously at the fullness of Catholic truth. Let's put this positively: rather than dissent less, people should believe more. People should more thoroughly make the rhythm of their lives the truths which the church teaches. The way out of this is not Catholic Lite. The way out of this is not to turn the church into another politically correct American denomination. That is the proposal from the aging culture of dissent, and it doesn't work. It never has worked, historically, and it's not going to work now. It's a particularly bizarre proposal at this point, since it's so clear to me and many others that a climate in which people could publicly say, "The Church is teaching falsely on XYZ"--that climate has contributed to the present crisis. People's beliefs affect the way they behave. This is obvious. If people are living lives out of full communion with the Church in their hearts and souls and minds, why are we surprised if they're behaving badly?
Yet some might say that if the Church has been corrupt, has shown itself to be so imperfect in the past 30 years, that it's less deserving of complete fidelity.
It's not a question of fidelity to institutional structures. It's a question of fidelity to the truth. The Church is an earthen vessel carrying transcendent and eternal truths. It is certainly true that when the cracks in the vessel become so obvious, it's harder for the truths to be heard. But that's simply an invitation to go back to the Bible, to go back to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to relearn what are the truths on which the Church rests. The Catholic Church is not something that Catholics make up. It's an institution whose constitution is a body of truth which we're given by Christ. We do not make that up or change that. The question is how deeply have we absorbed that, how deeply have we made it our own.
You outline a plan whereby priests and bishops can reidentify themselves as icons of Christ and as pastors, and reassert their God-ordained roles. What is the laity's true identity and how should it realign itself with its God-ordained role?
Every Christian is baptized into Christ, which means that every Christian is to manifest Christ, to show Christ to the world. The current crisis is a crisis for everybody. It is particularly acute in the priesthood and the episcopate, but it's a crisis for everyone. Whenever there is a crisis in the church--and there have been many crises in the history of its 2,000 years--it's always for the same reason: an insufficiency of holiness, an inadequate number of saints. And that means that every crisis has been and always will be a call to everyone in the church to live a holier life. That's how genuinely Catholic reform takes place--by all of the people of the church leading more intentionally, integrally Catholic lives. God always raises up saints to meet the need of the church and that's what we need to be praying for right now.
Any people who seem to be taking the lead in that sense?
It's quite striking that the past 8 months have not resulted in a mass disaffection of Catholics from the church by any measure: attendance, finances, their rallying to the defense of the more than 95% of the American priesthood who are leading lives of heroic virtue. There has been no mass exodus. I hope what this book does is help everyone understand that the next step is for everyone to live lives of greater fidelity because this crisis has emerged from infidelity. The crisis is in part the product of a culture of dissent in the church, in part a product of cafeteria Catholicism, and it's everybody's responsibility to put that behind us.