George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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George Weigel and John Allen, Jr. at the November 2010 Faith Angle Forum

The Faith Angle Forum is a semi-annual conference which brings together a select group of 20 nationally respected journalists with 3-5 distinguished scholars on areas of religion, politics & public life.

“Sex Abuse, the Catholic Church, & the Media”

South Beach, Florida


George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center


John L. Allen, Jr., Senior Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter


Michael Cromartie, Vice-President, Ethics & Public Policy Center


George Weigel and Michael Cromartie

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Welcome. For those of you who are new, you may want to know how we select our topics. You’ll see in that little brochure in your pamphlet on the Faith Angle Forum we have eight advisors to this program. They are: E.J. Dionne, Carl Cannon, Frank Foer, Michael Gerson, Ross Douthat, David Brooks, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

We meet twice a year, and we talk about topics that would be of interest to you at the intersection of religion and public life and that is something that is in the news that you’re wanting to know more about. We try to get the best speakers on those topics. That’s how we arrived at this.

This is all being recorded. Everything will be on the record except when someone asks for it to be off the record. But we do like to transcribe these and put them up on our Website. People do read them, and they’re wonderfully rich conversations.

Now, our first topic. We have two of the best people on this subject in the world. They have written books about it, but also when we asked around who would be the best people to speak on this subject, the first two people I went to are these two right here. They said yes, and we’re delighted.

As you know, George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and a colleague of mine at Ethics and Public Policy Center. He’s written a definitive book on John Paul II, but now he’s got a new book out, brand new, literally out a month, called The End and the Beginning: John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

So, George, we’re delighted to have you here, and thank you.

After George is finished, I’ll introduce John Allen, and then we’ll hear from John and then have the Q&A.

George Weigel

GEORGE WEIGEL: Thank you, Mike, and good morning, everyone. It was lovely to see so many of you last night. Some of you I haven’t seen since Rome in April 2005, which was a long time ago.

I want to thank Mike for inviting me to do this, and my friend John Allen for agreeing to share the slot. With all due respects to E.J. and others who have spent significant time in Rome, I wrote some years ago that John Allen is the best Anglophone Vatican reporter in history, and that’s a judgment I am sure I am not going to have to retract any time soon.

In the mid-1990s, I think it was, perhaps early 1990s, John Paul II got wind that a distinguished Polish actor by the name of Jerzy Stuhr was in Rome. So he invited Stuhr to dinner. Stuhr was properly impressed by the invitation, came to the papal apartment. The Pope said his usual rapid-fire Latin grace and immediately started in and said, “So, Pan Jerzy, tell me what brings you to Rome?”

And Stuhr replies, “Your Holiness, I am playing in Forefathers’ Eve.”

Forefathers’ Eve, for those of you whose Polish literature is a little rusty is the most important play in the history of the Polish theater. It’s such a powerful evocation of the Polish national spirit that its production was banned publicly in the Russian and Prussian sectors of partitioned Poland in the 19th Century. Stuhr is doing Forefathers’ Eve.

The Pope said, “Ah, Forefathers’ Eve,” talks about how important a play this is in keeping alive the idea of the Polish nation, recites large chunks of the play by memory, and then says to Stuhr, “So, Pan Jerzy, tell me what role do you take?”

And Stuhr looks across the table at the Pope and says, “Your Holiness, I regret to report that I am Satan,” at which point and when I usually tell this story most people laugh.


MR. WEIGEL: And the Pope scratches his head for a minute and then says, “Well, none of us gets to choose our roles, do we?” which often provokes another laugh.


My role today, perhaps unchosen, is to raise questions about the way in which sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy was and is covered and to suggest some possible new angles of exploration for the future.

This is, of course, a complicated story, and I want to complicate it a little further by doing that awful thing that authors occasionally do, and that is quote myself. Eight years ago in this little book that Mike has provided for all of you, during the Long Lent of 2002, I insisted that “it was a serious mistake for some Catholic leaders and some Catholic traditionalists to argue that the crisis of sexual abuse was created by a media frenzy. It was not. The crisis was and is,” I wrote, “the Church’s crisis.” That’s on page 52, if you want to see if I’m quoting myself accurately.

Moreover, I said, I think, on page 53, the Church owed the press a debt of gratitude for “forcing to the surface issues that have for far too long been ignored or downplayed by the Church’s American leadership.”

I meant that then and I would mean it now with reference to eight years ago. To be sure that praise in 2002 was not unqualified, some things were gotten wrong. Other things were misinterpreted or skewed. There was perhaps most significantly little or no attempt to locate the problem of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, which involved a very small percentage of priests in the broader cultural context of an epic of sexual abuse of the young, which takes place primarily in families and in which there were far higher incidences of abuse in certain professional groups, like public school teachers, whose crimes went virtually unexamined.

Still, on balance, I would strongly defend the claim I made in 2002 that this was not the media’s crisis and that the Church owed responsible reporters and editors, many of whom are in this room, a great debt of gratitude.

I think, however, it would be difficult to say that in quite so unambiguous a way about Scandal Time II, as some of us came to call this past spring. But rather than go through a point by point identification of what seemed to me to be specific errors in reporting or specific errors of demonstrable editorial bias, I would rather look forward. The difference, it seems to me, between Scandal Time I in 2002 and Scandal Time II in 2010 is explained in part by a set of assumptions that skewed the most recent reporting and analysis sometimes rather badly.

Left in place, these assumptions will continue to distort coverage of the Catholic Church across the full spectrum of questions in which the Church is engaged, and that would be bad for both journalism and for the Church.

So in good biblical style, let me identify here telegraphically seven problematic assumptions that seem to me to be at work not all the time, but certainly more than once in this latest round of coverage and commentary earlier this year. The first of these is the assumption of the omnicompetence of the papacy or the notion that the Pope is an absolute monarch such that if anything goes wrong in the Catholic Church, the Pope is ultimately responsible.

This is not true in either theory or in practice. During the third period of the Second Vatican Council, when the Council Fathers were completing work on the theological centerpiece of Vatican II’s work, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Paul VI proposed that a sentence be inserted in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church that would read, “The Pope is answerable to the Lord alone,” or, “The Pope is responsible to the Lord alone.”

That papal suggestion was rather sharply rejected by the Council’s Theological Commission which said that the Pope is responsible to any number of things which constrain his ability or capacity to do whatever he might wish to do. He’s constrained by the tradition of the Church. He’s constrained by the sacramental system of the Church. He’s constrained by the rules of logic. He is constrained by the canon law that governs his office, and so forth and so on. So that suggestion by Paul VI did not make it into the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

The Pope, in other words, is the servant of an authoritative tradition. He is not the tradition’s master.

This notion of papal omnicompetence is also not true in practice for no matter how competent, insightful, prophetic in the real sense of the term, ability to see things that others don’t see, a given pope may be, his exercise of the office of Peter is circumscribed by any number of human realities.

The first of these, of course, is the competence of his subordinates. A Pope may have a genuinely prophetic capacity to see around corners and look through walls, as John Paul II seemed to have had an intuition of the vulnerability of the Communist system in central and eastern Europe that many of his diplomats were completely oblivious to, as I try to demonstrate in The End and the Beginning. But the competence of those subordinates nonetheless circumscribes what the Pope can do.

The Pope’s ability to affect the life of the Church is also shaped considerably by the prerogatives of local bishops. It’s quite striking that as the Catholic Church has tried to move away in its own theology and self-understanding from the notion that bishops are simply local branch managers of RC, Inc., and the Catholic Church, you know, the CEO is in Rome, many of us have hung onto that notion that bishops are essentially branch managers or, if you like, platoon leaders in the Marine Corps who, when the Commandant says X, everybody staples a salute to their forehead and proceeds to do what they’re told. This is not the case as, of course, many of you did report this year.

The Pope’s practical capacity to affect the life of the Church is also shaped by his own shrewdness in judging people and in making appointments, and of course, this connects to the first two points, the point about the competence of subordinates and the prerogatives of local bishops. This is — I think John will discuss this perhaps. I know I will a bit later — one of the most interesting dynamics of the present pontificate where you have an indisputably world class theological mind operating in the office of Peter, and yet real questions can be raised about Pope Benedict’s shrewdness in the appointment of subordinates, as well as about John Paul II.

So this assumption that the Pope is a kind of absolute monarch or Marine Commandant is problematic in itself. It’s also particularly problematic, it seems to me, because it tended this past spring to deflect attention from where attention needs to be paid, and that is to the functioning of local bishops who in, I would say, the overwhelming majority of cases that have come to the light of public attention since 2002 are where the source of the genuine problem, the problem of malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetence, et cetera, lies.

The second assumption that seems to be at work and needs to be cleared out is the assumption that the higher altitudes of the Roman Curia are led by men of world class competence, including the assumption, the sub-assumption within Assumption No. 2, if you will, that the Vatican runs what’s often called “the world’s best intelligence service” through its Nunciature system. This is simply not true.

The quality of heads of decasteries in the Roman Curia over the past 20, 30, 40 years that I’ve been paying any attention to this does not seem to me necessarily higher than in other countries to which I pay attention or other systems in which I pay attention, like the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom, and in some notable instances that competence is quite lower.

One of the major problems in addressing forcefully and quickly the problems that came to the surface in 2002 was the absolute incompetence of Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos to wrap his mind around these problems, which among other things led to what is arguably the worst curial press conference in modern history until several of Father Lombardi’s efforts earlier this year.

As for the information flow, this notion of the great intelligence service, I can tell you from personal experience, which I have described in this little book and which I describe at greater length in The End and the Beginning, that John Paul II was literally four months behind the curve of information in the period January to April 2002 because of grossly inadequate reporting from the apostolic nunciature, the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C. We were in the middle of April. He was in early January.

This sounds incredible. I assure you it is true. I lived through this during two extremely difficult and challenging weeks in Rome. It seems unimaginable under present communication circumstances, and yet that was the situation.

So throughout all that year, while there was some closing of the gap, there was a serious, serious disengagement between what was happening on the ground in America and the structure of understanding of what was happening there that prevailed not only in the Roman Curia, but in the papal apartment.

These two false assumptions that these guys really know what they’re doing and that they have a fantastic flow of information often lead to a further problematic assumption, namely, they must have a crisis management strategy, which then leads to a determination, sometimes bordering on an obsession to try to figure that out. But there wasn’t any crisis management strategy in 2010, at least in the March, April, May period, as there wasn’t in 2002.

That may also seem incredible, but those of you who have more experience than others of the Italian age character of the institution with which we’re concerned here and its Roman headquarters will not be surprised by that.

It’s also wrong to assume that the senior officials of the Roman Curia, say the 20 people at the most — and 20 would be an outside figure — who have real weight and real decision making capacity in issues like the ones we’re discussing, it’s a very serious mistake to assume that those 20 people live in the same 24-7 communications universe we do. They don’t, and if we assume that they do, then we’re going to make further false assumptions about alleged indifference, or worse, alleged dissembling.

I might add that in his new book, which will be published, I believe, next week, a lengthy interview with the German journalist Peter Savov, Benedict XVI rather frankly admits that this is a real problem with specific reference to both the abuse crisis and to simply not knowing that Richard Williamson, this Lefebvrist bishop, was a world class lunatic. Whether those admissions will lead to significant change remains to be seen, but at least the recognition that there is a serious problem there, and I want to come back to that at the end.

The third difficult or problematic assumption it seems to me to have been in play most recently, although to some degree in 2002 as well, is what I might call a general hermeneutic of suspicion, or in this case the assumption that there is a well formed and institutionalized will to deceive at the highest levels of the Vatican. This assumption which is the product of both centuries of history and recent polemics is often reinforced by the sometimes breathlessly incompetent activities of the current Holy See press office with which I’m sure all of you have had to deal in one way or another.

Back in the day, ten years ago, people would say of Joaquin Navarro Valls, John Paul II’s long time portavoce, or press spokesman, Joaquin has brought the press office into the 20th Century, to which I would reply: yes, the first quarter of the 20th Century.

And since the change of regime in 2005, I fear we have had a reversion to what remains, I think, the institutionalized default position that is somehow transmitted in the institutional DNA of the Roman Curia. That default position was once given quite striking formulation by the late Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, John Paul II’s Secretary of State, the architect of the “Ost Politik” of Pope Paul VI, probably the most competent curialist of his generation, a man firmly on the liberal end of the Catholic spectrum, who nonetheless famously said once, I believe at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, where they train the Vatican diplomats, “We don’t care what they write as long as we can do what we want to do.”

Now, I said at the time this is perhaps an attitude appropriate to the Congress of Vienna when the diplomats meet under the chandeliers at Schoenborn Palace and clink glasses and get the deals done that way. But it is not an appropriate attitude in the present environment, and yet I think it remains very much present in the Roman Curia where the notion that no story is a good story, where the notion that one could actually go out and engage men and women of the media and try to frame stories in a sensible way is very, very difficult to come by.

Now, to be sure, that in itself is affected by the media environment immediately surrounding the Roman Curia, namely, Italy, where as I have noted on more than one occasion, the borderline between fact and fiction is permeable, and when people don’t have a story, they are given to making up stories.

Clare may remember that when we all got to Rome right after John Paul II died in April 2005, I said to our whole NBC gang, “Remember what I’ve been telling you for six years. Don’t read the Italian papers. I’ll read the Italian papers, and I’ll be the filter on that because I, frankly, have a better bullshit detector than you guys do on this stuff.”

But nonetheless that remains. That notion that, you know, we don’t really care as long as we can do what we want to do is still in place there. Now, it’s a completely dumb idea because as they ought to have learned by now, what they write, print, broadcast, narrow-cast, podcast, stream live over the Internet, et cetera, has a lot to do with how the Church’s message is perceived and received.

But there it is, and it’s very much part of the situation with which we deal in this crisis of abuse question and with other issues as well. All of this, I think, leads in turn to frequently missing the simplest, truest explanation of what appears to be dissembling, indifference, et cetera, and that is simply that these people were blindsided and scrambled to respond.

Fourth, closely related to the assumption that there is somewhere lurking in all of this a will to deceive in the Vatican is an inarticulate but perhaps not altogether difficult to discern assumption of institutionalized hypocrisy. It is no secret that the Catholic Church’s sexual ethic and the Catholic Church’s position on a wide range of controverted public policy issues are signs of contradiction to many in the Western world, including many in the Western media. Violations of that sexual ethic, as in the abuse crisis that are not immediately met by draconian public penalties are then assumed to necessarily imply hypocrisy among Church leaders and lead to a kind of “gotcha” reporting and commentary.

Thus, in both 2002 and 2010, it seems to me, there were other explanations of the facts, truer explanations of the facts that were often missed. For example, the fact that the new 1982 Code of Canon Law was crafted to protect priests from the arbitrary abuses of power by bishops, a real problem in some parts of the world Church in the 20th Century, and that this good intention went awry when bishops concluded that they did not have the canonical or legal means to discipline abusive clergy.

Now, whether that was, in fact, true or not remains very much a controverted point, but that’s what they thought. And they thought that because the system had been set up to be more fair, more judicially responsible in the 1982 code.

Another fact that was missed is that reducing a man, an abuser, to the lay state persistently and, if you will permit me, mindlessly dubbed “defrocking,” a word which has absolutely no meaning in any known Catholic vocabulary, is often worse for both the Church and society. It’s worse for the Church because the Church has no way to control the man who has been laicized or reduced to the lay state, and it’s worse for society because that man cut loose from any possibility of institutional control by the institution in which he had spent some considerable part of his life might, therefore, pose a future risk because of what we know to be a high rate of recidivism in some of these cases.

This missing of the facts, I think, also leads, has led to the repetitive and repetitively unimpressive, if I may be candid, questions about the relationship of the abuse problem in the Catholic Church to celibacy, despite the absolutely well established sociological fact that somewhere around 50 to 60 percent of the sexual abuse of the young takes place in families.

This brings us bumping up against the fifth problematic assumption, and that is the assumption that the sexual abuse of the young is a distinctively Catholic problem and, indeed, an institutionalized Catholic problem. Now, that may be true in Ireland. We don’t know that, but there’s an awful lot of smoke indicating a fair amount of fire there. Unfortunately, according to David Quinn and other reliable sources in Dublin and around Ireland, there is no reliable comparative data in Ireland at least David was aware of comparing the incidence of abuse between clergy and other religious professionals and other similarly situated professional groups.

So it may be true in Ireland that this is a distinctively Catholic problem and an institutionalized Catholic problem. Indeed, the Pope’s letter to the Church in Ireland suggested something of the latter.

But it’s certainly not true in the United States. It’s not a distinctively Catholic problem, and that frequently did not get said. The result was a kind of overkill perhaps more prevalent in 2002 than 2010, but echoes of that overkill were certainly heard this past spring.

In the peak months of coverage of the abuse scandal in 2002, the Catholic Church’s problems with the crime of sexual abuse got 500 percent more coverage than the Martha Stewart scandal and almost twice as much coverage as the D.C. sniper story in a comparable six-month period. There were 44 stories in U.S. newspapers on the abuse of children in Hari Krishna schools from October 2001 to April 2002, and 17,310 stories on Catholic scandals in a comparable six-month period from January 2002 to June 2002.

Perhaps most disturbingly, from the point of view of those of us who are parents and grandparents, the extensive focus on Catholic abuse, crimes and scandals sucks the air out of the much larger story of patterns of child and adolescent sexual abuse throughout society, which is an ongoing and heart rending scandal throughout our country, as indeed it is throughout the world.

The Catholic Church in 2010 is arguably the safest environment for young people and adolescents in the country, but there are many non-safe environments where the reach of public attention that can only be brought by an alert and responsible media has not reached. When these unsafe environments are marginalized or ignored or minimized, it’s not a wonder that some Catholics say, “What’s going on here?” in terms of bias.

Six, the sixth assumption, bad assumption is a kind of lack of skill in reading Church statements and documents that leads to missing real stories. A chief example of this, this past year was what I just mentioned a moment ago, Benedict XVI’s letter to the Church in Ireland, which was, in fact, very tough and began to dig into the real problems of ecclesiastical culture that in the Irish case, at least, abetted an awful pattern of the abuse of the young by both priests and nuns.

What was the response to this? In my hometown paper it was to afford an extraordinary amount of space to Sinead O’Connor who befouled the Outlook section of the Washington Post with calumnies and falsehoods running to several thousands of words.

Why was Benedict XVI’s really tough statement to Irish Catholicism so underplayed or distorted? Is it any wonder that when Sinead O’Connor is considered a reliable and thoughtful commentator on a Church she admits having abandoned, serious Catholics seemingly including those most seriously determined to face the real problems that exist and to root them out wonder what is going on and suspect that what is going on may be a filtering out of data that doesn’t fit a predetermined script or, as I am calling them here, a predetermined set of assumptions.

Finally, in the seventh place, let me say just a word about what seemed to me to be some not very helpful assumptions about who constitutes a reliable source in all of this. Rarely in my reading of the coverage were those most bitterly attacking Benedict XVI this past spring identified accurately and their own agendas acknowledged.

I recognize the problem of dealing with so-called Vatican insiders in a kind of media environment of the sort I described where we don’t care what they write as long as we can do what we want to do. But as I think John knows, being as accomplished at this as he is, E.J. certainly has some sense of this, Laurie and others, a lot of people who present themselves as Vatican insiders are really low level munchkins who have absolutely no idea of what’s going on, but living in the not altogether, shall we say, Puritanical work environment over there, are happy to spend hours over free cappuccini or Campari and Sodas telling you what they think is going on. This is a constant problem.

At a much higher and more serious level, Alberto Melloni was frequently cited in stories this past spring as a credible source on understanding Benedict XVI. Now, Melloni is a very serious guy, particularly quoted at great length in a Time cover story that rather had the juvenile title “Why Being Pope Means Never to Have to Say You’re Sorry.” What was unacknowledged in that story is that Melloni is the leader of a school of interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, the so-called Bologna School, that has been flatly and publicly rejected by Benedict XVI.

So Alberto Melloni is hardly the man to provide dispassionate commentary on the current Catholic situation or on the present Pope, or at least if you wish to take that commentary and report it, it ought to be identified as coming from the kind of source from which it comes.

As I wrote at the time, Melloni on Ratzinger is like Paul Krugman on Reaganomics, caveat lector.

Worse still was the rather regular use throughout the American media of Jeff Anderson, an attorney with a direct financial interest in abuse cases, as a source, and indeed as an authoritative source, without the caveats that would, one expects, be applied in any other comparable situation.

So while there is an ongoing and serious work of reform to do in the Church and many of us are grateful for what our friends in the media did in 2002, there is also a case to be made that serious reform is also required in press coverage of the Catholic Church if the coverage of Scandal Time II is representative. And that reform within the house of the fourth estate requires a rigorous questioning of that structure of assumptions that guides coverage of Catholicism, the Vatican, and the Pope.

Let me conclude with two very brief further thoughts, this time on reform within the Church. The first is, and I would hope John will pick up on this and perhaps flesh it out, is that the Vatican communications debacle has to end. You can’t be a church of a new evangelization, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called the Catholic Church to be, a Church for whom mission is not one function among many. Mission is the whole raison d’etre of the institution, of the community. You can’t do that with a 19th Century communications apparatus.

In addition to what John might want to say about how that could work in this or a future pontificate or, indeed, in American dioceses, let me suggest that one key to this at least at the Roman level is a papal press spokesman who has regular contact with the Pope, the kind of contact that gave Navarro Valls a certain authority and a certain ability to coordinate the response of various Vatican organs to a complex set of issues like those in the abuse crisis.

The lack of that relationship between Father Lombardi and Pope Benedict XVI was a significant part of the problem of communications that was driving many of you and, indeed, me somewhat mad this past spring, and this really had to be addressed, if not now, because it’s not terribly easy to imagine an 83 year old man changing his mode of life dramatically, then it has to be addressed in the next conclave, and it has to be addressed by all of us in the run-up to that event.

The second point that I would make is that if you are interested in doing real reporting among serious Catholics throughout the world, I think you will find something quite striking, and that is while there remains enormous, strong, emotional, and affective and personal support for priests, there are real questions about the competence of bishops throughout the Church.

No matter where I go in the world Church, North America, Europe, Latin America, the single biggest complaint I hear from engaged and intelligent Catholics is about the competence of the local bishop. Some of that is unfair, but a lot of it isn’t, and it speaks to a serious problem that the abuse crisis has brought to the fore.

Let me put that problem in historical terms. In the early 19th Century when the first Catholic bishops were being appointed in the then nascent United States of America, Pope Pius VII had a free right of appointment in perhaps 50 of the then some 600 dioceses in the world. The rest were controlled by governments, by cathedral chapters or other ecclesiastical organizations, but the Church did not have — the Church as embodied by its leadership in Rome — simply did not have control over the most crucial appointments in its ordained leadership.

One of the great untold stories of the success of Vatican diplomacy over the past 200 years has been to change that situation such that now with what is it, more than 5,000 bishops in the world —

JOHN L. ALLEN, JR.: Five thousand and twelve.

MR. WEIGEL: This is very good. This is like John Paul getting off the plane in Azerbaijan and Navarro saying, “Holy Father, there are only 123 Catholics in this country.”

And the Pope turns around and says, “No, it’s 120.” So five —

MR. ALLEN: If I did the math, it would have been four times less expensive to fly all of them to Rome. That tends to bring the Pope down.

MR. WEIGEL: There you go.

Five thousand and twelve bishops in the world, and with the sole exceptions of Vietnam and China, the Church has essentially a free right of appointment. So the Church has gathered back to itself after what some of us would consider this period of Babylonian captivity to state power in the appointment of bishops. It has regained the capacity to order its own house according to its own criteria.

And, in fact, this has been imbedded in the new code of cannon law, which says that no rights of appointment are to be given in the future to state authorities.

However, if you were going to claim the right to appoint, then you must also in my view own the right to dismiss, and this is perhaps the single biggest management problem in the Catholic Church today, is that we

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