I never took a class from the historian Frank Orlando, but the motto he placed in the faculty section of my college yearbook—“History is an antidote for despair”—has stuck with me for 45 years. It also seems quite appropriate at this disturbing moment in the life of the Church, so perhaps a history lesson is in order.
Forty years ago this week, the Catholic Church was in serious trouble. The last years of Pope Paul VI had witnessed an endless sequence of controversies, of which mass dissent from the encyclical Humanae Vitae—dissent that would have devastating effects on clerical discipline and erode episcopal authority—was but one. The pope seemed dispirited toward the end of his reign, publicly berating God for having not heard his prayer that the life of his friend Aldo Moro be spared (Moro had been murdered by terrorists). The promise of evangelical Catholic renewal that had animated John XXIII’s opening address to the Second Vatican Council in 1962 seemed falsified by the trauma of the post-conciliar years.
Then came a brief moment of exuberance, as Catholic spirits were lifted by the election of Cardinal Albino Luciani to the papacy. The new John Paul I smiled. He gave brilliant little catechetical lessons during his Wednesday general audiences. A book of his “letters” to characters ranging from Dickens and Chesterton to Pinocchio and Figaro the Barber charmed the world. The Good News seemed, well, good again.
Then, 33 days into what seemed a promising pontificate, Pope John Paul I was found dead in his bed on the morning of September 28, 1978.
And the Church was plunged back into Bunyan’s Slough of Despond.
The shock of the pope’s death was perhaps most intense among the men who had just put Luciani on the Chair of Peter. Twenty years later, an American cardinal-elector, William Baum, told me that this latest blow to the Church had been “a message from the Lord, quite out of the ordinary. … This was an intervention from the Lord to teach us something.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told me that he had been similarly stunned: “We were convinced that the election [of John Paul I] was made in accordance with the will of God, not simply in a human way … and if one month after being elected in accordance with the will of God, he died, God had something to say to us.”
What God was saying, some cardinal-electors concluded, was that it was a time for courage.
So when the two principal Italian contenders in the second conclave of 1978 deadlocked and essentially cancelled each other out as candidates, several cardinals summoned up the courage to propose what then seemed virtually unthinkable: looking outside Italy for a pope. Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna was the leader of this party of dramatic change. But he was not alone. And those who rallied to Koenig and his courageous suggestion that the conclave elect a young man, 58-year-old Karol Wojtyła of Cracow, should also be remembered: men like the Polish primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski; the archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal John Krol; and one of the youngest and newest members of the conclave, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich and Freising.
It also took courage for Karol Wojtyła to accept election, knowing that he would have to leave the rich Cracovian culture from which he drew strength and inspiration. But it’s the courage of the cardinal-electors on which we might well focus our attention now, when the Catholic Church seems bogged down in another Slough of Despond.
The Wojtyła electors were men accustomed to a certain order of things, who had themselves benefited from that order. But in a moment of crisis they had the courage to think outside the conventional norms and imagine what once seemed unimaginable. They were prepared to face the skeptical, even hostile, reaction of fellow cardinals who could not wrap their minds around such a dramatic innovation, and whose instinctive reaction to crisis was to find a safe pair of hands who would calm things down. They were willing to try the unprecedented.
The story of their courage forty years ago should be an antidote to the despair some Catholics feel today. It should also inspire the bishops to get to grips with this crisis and think outside the conventions in resolving it. And it should inspire the authorities in Rome, including the highest authority.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
This article was originally published on George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference