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An opportunity for purification

by George Weigel
Basic Books, 235 pages, $22

by Author
Houghton Mifflin, 130 pages, $8.95


“In the first months of 2002, the Catholic church in the United States entered the greatest crisis in its history.” So begins George Weigel’s analysis of clergy sexual abuse and his trenchant plea for reform. Weigel’s description is accurate. “No Catholic in the United States today, however old,” he writes, “has gone through such an experience before.” Accurate, too, is his contention that the crisis is “a tremendous opportunity.”

Vatican II called the church “at once holy and always in need of purification.” The crisis will become an opportunity if we see it as part of the church’s ongoing need for purification. Then it will produce a church that is more vibrant, more dynamic and more filled with missionary zeal.

Weigel sees the roots of the crisis in the misunderstanding of Vatican II that produced what he calls “Catholic Lite”: erosion of priestly identity; abandonment of interest in the lay apostolate (which the council explicitly said was the laity’s primary vocation) in favor of a plethora of lay ministries, with the priest as coordinator; loss of the vertical dimension in worship and of faith in the Real Presence; widespread acceptance of the bitter fruits of the sexual revolution.

Primarily responsible for this insipid brew, Weigel charges, are the bishops. “Too many bishops in the United States have traded the rich evangelical, pastoral and sacramental patrimony that is theirs for the mess of pottage that is contemporary management theory.” Weigel catalogs episcopal malfeasance: a cavalier attitude toward sexual abuse; knowingly shuffling abusers from parish to parish and then denying doing so; misleading other bishops about known offenders; viewing the crisis primarily in legal and financial terms; bishops deflecting attention from their own culpability and seeking media favor by questioning celibacy and Catholic sexual ethics; blaming the media (Weigel agrees with Andrew Greeley that the media have done us a favor); lack of pastoral concern for victims; failing to supervise the seminaries; and finally, bishops who, when finally forced to address the scandals, “spoke the stilted language of law and the psychobabble of the therapeutic culture rather than the bracing, demanding language of the gospel of sin, penance and redemption.”

Weigel is no less critical of theologians who propagated dissent and taught students to regard Catholic sexual ethics with contempt. He also indicts the Roman curia. When the storm broke this year, they proved clueless.

Weigel’s proposed remedy: deeper discipleship at all levels, from seminarians to bishops. Bishops must be qualified to teach, their primary duty according to Vatican II. Weigel regrets the absence in the United States of the scholar-bishops common in Europe. And bishops must be able to “sanctify and govern.” The present selection process is too closed and self-perpetuating. Weigel favors consulting qualified laypeople.

Seminary studies must be made more rigorous. And seminary professors must teach classic Catholic doctrine, especially sexual ethics. Ideas have consequences. “Priests who believe themselves to be living icons of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ,” Weigel writes, “simply do not behave the way sexual predators behave.” This is overly optimistic. It is like saying that spouses who believe in the sanctity of marriage do not have affairs.

John R. Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco, is more realistic when he writes: “We must dispose of the illusion that there was a time when these behaviors did not occur and that there will be some future time when they will cease to occur. As long as there is human nature these problems will occur.” That we must strive to the utmost, however, to reduce them to a minimum, goes without saying.

Weigel is right in saying that the answer is not lowering standards, but raising them. Every church renewal in 20 centuries has involved not less sacrifice, but more.

James Carroll disagrees. A product of the seminary education that Weigel deplores, Carroll revealed his ignorance of Catholic doctrine when he wrote in the New Yorker that Pius XII’s “silence” during the Holocaust (he was not silent, but that is another story) disproves papal infallibility.

His new book, Toward a New Catholic Church, says comparatively little about sexual abuse by clergy. It is largely a recycling of Carroll’s indictment of Cathol-icism’s allegedly foun-dational anti-Semitism in Constantine’s Sword. In that book, as in this, he proposes such a radical deconstruction of Catholic belief that calling it Catholic Lite would be unfair to Weigel’s Lite Brigade. In my own review of Constantine’s Sword, I suggested that what Carroll was seeking could be found in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. He now confirms this hypothesis by dedicating his new book to the Episcopalian dean responsible for transforming that vast pile from an American version of York Minster or Canterbury Cathedral (Anglicanism at its best) into what it is today: a Temple of World Religions.

“Catholic Lite fails,” Weigel writes, “because it is wrong. Catholic Lite also fails because it is boring.” Carroll’s book is a thundering bore. Weigel’s is riveting. Disagree with him if you will. I question some points myself. But boring the man is not.

Fr. John Jay Hughes, a church historian and priest of the St. Louis archdiocese, is the author of Stories Jesus Told: Modern Meditations on the Parables.

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002