2016-06-30
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.

What's your opinion of groups like Voice of the Faithful--groups calling for lay-led reform?

I don't know that much about VOTF, but from what I see it's the culture of dissent coming back for a last hurrah. It's not a proposal that holds out the prospect of genuinely Catholic reform.

Even though they're not challenging particular doctrines?

It is manifestly clear from the history of such movements that the people who are most deeply involved in such groups do not accept the Church's teaching on several crucial issues related to this crisis. It's difficult to see how people who are part of the culture of dissent can fix what has been broken in part by the culture of dissent.

So your impression is that some of the people leading VOTF are in favor of married priests, etc.?

I am thinking specifically of the church's sexual ethic. If the leadership of VOTF would say unambiguously, "We accept the Catholic Church's teaching on human sexuality, including the church's teaching on contraception, homosexuality, the indissolubility of marriage, and the good of celibacy," then VOTF would have a real place at the table in helping lead a genuinely Catholic reform of the Catholic Church. But I don't hear any of that at all.

It is necessary for everyone now who wishes to be part of genuinely Catholic reform to make unambiguously clear that they accept the definitive teaching of the Catholic Church on these issues. Not to is not an option. Not for bishops, for priests, for laypeople. You can't simply say, "That's a whole bunch of other stuff to be settled later and what we're talking about is who's in charge here." That's not adequate.

Let's move to on to the view from the Vatican. Your book talks about how Church leaders in Rome came to know of the crisis--how it sank in and why it took a while.

There's a difference in the media culture between the Vatican and the United States. The Vatican is, frankly, not part of the Internet culture. It simply takes longer than we're used to in the U.S. for information--particularly fast-moving information--to get into the bloodstream of the Vatican as an institution. I think once that info flow accelerated, as it did in early April, things began to move. Americans are used to living in a real-time information environment. That's not the way it works yet in the Holy See.

You speak of the Vatican's initial wariness about media hype--that perhaps they thought the U.S. press was exaggerating the seriousness of the crisis. Does Rome view Americans as more susceptible to the media, more excitable in general?

I think there's great confidence in the Vatican in the vitality of the Catholic Church in the U.S. and that is well deserved. The fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is the most vibrant national church in the developed world. So if there was a problem in getting clear on the magnitude of this crisis, it was not a problem caused by a deprecatory view of the American church. I think now the relevant authorities are quite clear that while there has been media exaggeration and distortion of this crisis, that the crisis is a genuine crisis of fidelity, and the only way to fix what's broken is through genuinely Catholic reform of church. The answer is deeper fidelity.

It's clergy sexual abuse compounded by failures of leadership by bishops to take these problems in hand, not only in individual cases, but to address the deeper roots of the crisis. This is not a crisis that came from nowhere.

In the book you raise one issue when you describe bishops as "clubmen."

It's an image I've used before. In an article about a book by Fr. Thomas Reese, I said one of the dynamics not discussed in the book is the way in which the bishops' conference has some of the ambience of a men's club. That's a problem when it prevents bishops from calling each other to account. No one in the church should deny the genuine fraternity that exists among bishops. That's what collegiality means in one sense of the term-bishops form a college and have a special care for each other. But that care must include a capacity to call each other to accountability when that's necessary. I think the inclination to do that is muted given the way the [U.S.] Conference [of Catholic Bishops] functions presently. That, clearly, has been a problem, particularly over the past ten years, in getting agreement on personnel norms to address problems of clerical sexual malfeasance.

There are no signs that any bishops not implicated themselves in a scandal will resign over their handling of the scandal. If a bishop were to resign over this, would the Holy Father accept the resignation?

My book takes up this very complex question. The Catholic Church has spent the past 200 years disentangling the appointment of bishops from the power of the state. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were something like 450 bishops in the world, and the Vatican had the capacity to appoint something like 75. The rest were appointed either by governments or by governments in consultation with the Vatican.

It took until the middle of the 20th century for the church to be able to appoint its own leaders. Having spent 200 years disentangling from the state in the matter of who's a bishop, the church cannot suddenly submit itself to media plebiscites. So that's one side.

But there are obviously situations where a local bishop has manifestly lost the capacity to govern. The question is criteria, not personalities. You don't start a serious process of reflection by picking targets. You start by saying, "How would we know when the capacity for governance for leadership has been lost, and what steps can we put in place to ensure that a local church has real governance?" That's going to mean looking at circumstances in which either a resignation is accepted because a bishop has come to this judgment on his own and the Vatican comes to agree with that, or the Vatican itself comes to the judgment, independent of the local bishop, that it's just impossible.

And you think that might happen.

I do. It's not a question of the pope moving people around a chessboard. It's a question of the whole institution and its relevant offices making a reasonable and prayerful judgment that a change in leadership is required. This has happened in the past, primarily when a bishop has simply lost control of a situation financially. What's frequently done is those circumstance is to put in a coadjutor bishop. The idea is to get someone in place who can fix a certain set of problems.

There is a reasonable hope that what I call for in the book-namely, a serious discussion of "How will we judge that a situation requires a change of leadership?"-is under way. That's the responsibility of the Congregation for Bishops.

In determining if there's an inability to exercise effective leadership, these are always going to be judgement calls, not a question of algebra. It has to be done in a process of genuine dialogue with the local bishop, who has his appropriate authority too. But the question of "how do we know?" has to be raised, and I'm quite confident that that is being discussed seriously.

Unfounded accusations against priests--and bishops themselves--are certainly going to be an issue. The case in Australia of Archbishop Pell seems dubious.

I've known George Pell for 36 years. No one who knows him has the slightest doubt that this is a concoction.

This is a real problem, one where the media is going to have to learn to discipline itself. Every accusation is not equal. At the same time, saying that cannot be an excuse for not forthrightly dealing with the manifest problems of clerical indiscipline that exist. The whole business is a matter of holding about 15 things together at once, and cannot be reduced to bumper sticker sloganeering. It's going to be a great challenge to the church and to people who report on the church to look at the crisis in full. What it is, what it isn't, how it happened.

To the extent that U.S. bishops bring up financial settlements, and the impact of lawsuits on the Church's fiscal health, how does Rome respond? Is this a factor in their decision-making?

I don't think it's a factor in decision-making. But anyone who cares about the future of the Catholic Church--not the institutional church, but the church in its people and its presence to society--the church which runs the largest private social service network in the country, the largest independent health care service in the country, the largest and most effective independent educational system in the country--anyone who cares about all of that should care about the possibility that predatory liability lawyers, for their own purposes, wish to take this all apart financially.

The problems of American liability law long antedate this crisis. People who get millions of dollars because they were silly enough to spill coffee on themselves--we've got a real problem here legally. I think this is part of the problem between the situation we're facing here in the U.S. and the authorities in Rome. Europeans in general find American liability law completely beyond comprehension. But most Americans do too.

Aside from the obvious and more general goals of preventing abuse and resanctifying the church, what are a few specific things you hope will happen in the U.S. church because of the scandal?

The most urgent matters are a reexamination of the criteria by which bishops are selected, an ongoing and further reform of seminaries, and a renewed and reformed relationship between priests and their bishops in both directions.

Could you talk more about this "reformed relationship"?

Priests have a responsibility to other priests when they know that a man is in trouble, to go to him and say, "You know you're in trouble, I know you're in trouble, how can I help you fix what's broken in your life?" The same responsibility falls, in an even greater way, on bishops. Bishops have a responsibility to be fathers to their priests. Just as any good father asks his children, "Are you OK? Is your life in order?" and then helps fix what's broken, bishops have to deal with their priests in precisely those terms.

This is nothing new. This is retrieving the ancient and genuine tradition of the church. Bishops and priests form a special community within every diocese. The nature is not that of employer-employee. There has to be a deeper, richer spiritual conversation.

Yet some might say that in treating their priests like sons, in protecting them, bishops have neglected actual children.

That would be a misinterpretation of what I'm saying. Genuine fatherhood involves confrontation. Men confront their children when something is manifestly broken in their lives, and try to help them fix that. A bishop's responsibility is not only to his priests. When he accepts the leadership of diocese, he accepts responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of everyone in that local church.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the role of the Holy Spirit as the Church moves through the crisis?

Finally, what are your thoughts on the role of the Holy Spirit as the Church moves through the crisis?

If we ask ourselves, as Christians must ask themselves, "What are God's purposes in all of this? What in the divine purpose for the Church and the world is being worked out here?" --the answer has to be this is a call to a more intense and genuinely Catholic reform of the church. A call to a thorough implementation of the great vision of the Second Vatican Council as interpreted by this pontificate, which is the authoritative interpretation of the Council, in the pope's own teaching and the teaching of the synod of bishops. All this pain, this humiliation, this suffering is a summons to renew the Church.

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