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From the May, 2003 issue of Touchstone


The Courage to Be Christian by Graeme Hunter

The Courage to Be Christian

The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Renewal of the Church
by George Weigel
New York: Basic Books, 2002
(208 pages; $22.00, hardcover)

reviewed by Graeme Hunter

If you think that sexual abuse is what is wrong with the Roman Catholic Church in America, you are only partly right, according to George Weigel. His new book, The Courage to Be Catholic, opens with a relentless chronicle of the scandals involving the sexual abuse of minors that exploded in the public media during the first half of 2002.

Weigel then goes deeper, however, leading the reader to see these scandals in a less familiar light—not as the source of the church’s corruption but as its fruit. The sordid revelations of 2002 were symptoms of a disease, and Weigel uncovers its underlying causes. Some smug churchmen may believe that their wing of the house of God does not require such scrutiny, but they will be mistaken. Happy the church that has a Weigel to undertake the necessary examination.

Weigel spends a good number of pages steering the reader clear of false diagnoses of the church’s current condition. The scandals are not due to pedophilia, for example. Only a tiny minority of priests are pedophiles, and only a correspondingly small number of charges against priests involve pedophilia. This point cannot be overemphasized, because the media takes it to be the key to understanding the problem.

Clerical celibacy is not the cause, either. To think that it is, as Weigel points out, is like thinking that marriage vows are the cause of adultery. In both cases, it is not the vows, but the failure to keep them, that is the real problem. Why were the clerical vows not respected? That is what ordinary Catholics want to know.

The immediate cause of the clerical abuse scandal, says Weigel, is the toleration of homosexual practices among the clergy, a view that Leon J. Podles has memorably argued in these pages also. But Weigel recognizes that incongruous tolerance itself as something that needs to be accounted for. It is a mystery, since the Magisterium of the Catholic Church pronounces the practice sinful and even the orientation towards homosexuality to be a “disordered affection.” How, then, can the church have grown so tolerant of homosexuals that some of its seminaries have acquired the reputation of being theological bathhouses? This is what really requires explanation.

Weigel traces the Catholic Church’s present malaise back to a particular year of unhallowed memory—1968, when the scent of anarchy was everywhere in the air. It was unfortunate, Weigel says, that Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the traditional Catholic teaching on birth control, had to appear in just that year. Liberal Catholics had hoped the encyclical would approve the contraceptive pill and noisily vented their disappointment when it did not.

In themselves, the protests were neither surprising nor unparalleled. What was new was the Vatican’s indecision in meeting such dissent. The so-called “Truce of 1968” allowed a generation to grow up believing that it was perfectly acceptable to be a square circle, a “dissenting Catholic.”

Church inaction produced a domino effect. Dissent came to be seen as ever more legitimate. Bishops, fearing that firm action on their part would not meet with strong support from the Vatican, avoided being firm. They recycled themselves as mere facilitators of conversation, charged with keeping people happy and jollying them along. Ordinary Catholics became sheep without a shepherd, turning more and more to the “cafeteria Catholicism” that works its dispiriting mischief in a great many parishes to this day.

Against this background, it is easy to see why Weigel understands Humanae Vitae as part of the “terrible timing” of the Second Vatican Council. The world onto which Vatican II meant to open its windows was the modern world of the 1950s. The council’s architects could never have guessed that, just as they pushed open their creaking casements, a post-modern world would burst into being before them in the big bang of 1968.

Now, if Weigel is insightful in analyzing the causes of the debacle of 2002, he is also prophetic in suggesting remedies. Reform is, of course, what we need, but of what kind? Not the abandonment of doctrine, not a rush to occupy the middle ground. The Catholic Church needs instead to occupy the firm and high ground of its authentic teachings and traditions. It needs to recover its faith and, through faith, its historic courage—the courage to be Catholic. Only so will the church be able to offer the homosexual parishioner a “tough love” consistent with recognizing his disordered condition.

But to remove the surface defilement of sexual abuse will require deeper reform. Ordinary Catholics must be prepared to commit themselves to personal and corporate holiness, to faithfulness to Christ in all things. This is a book that all Christians will profit from reading. It is a call for all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic, to count the costs of discipleship.

Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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