Author of the best-selling papal biography Witness to Hope, his most recent book is about hope in the face of scandal.
The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church is a new release from Basic Books. The 51-year-old theologian, a senior fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, spoke with Zenit news service at his home in North Bethesda, Md.
Does it take courage to be a Catholic today?
I chose the TITLE The Courage to Be Catholic because that's the way genuine reform always works in the Church — through men and women with the conviction and the courage to be countercultural, to be genuinely, fully, joyfully Catholic.
The Church has never been reformed by “Catholic lite.” Reform always means a deeper, more thorough appropriation of the truths that Christ bequeathed the Church — the truths that are its “constitution,” if you will.
And to do that requires courage?
Sure. But it's also exhilarating. One of the things Catholics need to recover is a sense of the great adventure of orthodoxy. Christian orthodoxy is the most exciting proposal on offer in the world today. It's far, far more exciting than “Catholic lite.”
“Catholic lite” is an image that recurs throughout
We can't understand the crisis of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal leadership failure outside the context of the past three and a half decades.
During that time, a culture of dissent took root in the Church in the United States. And by “culture of dissent,” I don't mean simply men and women who were confused or who thought the Church should express its teaching more clearly.
By “culture of dissent” I mean men and women — including priests, women religious, bishops, theologians, catechists, Church bureaucrats and activists — who believed that what the Church proposed as true was actually false. If you really think that — if you really believe that the highest teaching authority of the Church is teaching falsehoods and is leading the Church into error — you're not in full communion with the Church. And that has consequences, including behavioral consequences.
Are you suggesting that the “culture of dissent” is primarily responsible for the current crisis in the United States?
The “culture of dissent” doesn't explain everything about the Catholic crisis of 2002. It's a very important part of the puzzle, though, because what people think has a lot to do with how they behave.
Is it surprising that some men who learned to live lives of intellectual deception and deceit in the seminary — men who were told that they could take a pass on authoritative teaching — eventually led lives of behavioral deceit, becoming sexually abusive? It shouldn't have been surprising, given our sex-saturated culture.
Is it a surprise that bishops who were unwilling to fix what was manifestly broken in seminaries and Catholic universities in the 1970s and 1980s — in part, because they were unwilling to confront the culture of dissent, often for fear of fracturing the unity of a local Church — also failed to come to grips with the scandal of clergy sexual abuse? It shouldn't have been.
That's one thing I try to demonstrate in The Courage to Be Catholic: The Church in the United States has to learn to connect the dots, historically, if it's going to come to grips effectively with this crisis — and if the crisis is to become an opportunity for genuinely Catholic reform.
How would you describe the crisis itself?
There are three parts of the crisis. There is the crisis of clergy sexual abuse, of which the most prevalent form is the homosexual abuse of teen-age boys and young men. There is the crisis of failed episcopal leadership. And, at the bottom of the bottom line, there is the crisis of discipleship. Sexually abusive priests and timid or malfeasant bishops are, first and foremost, inadequately converted Christian disciples.
That's why the crisis is a call to everyone in the Church to live lives of more radical discipleship. As Father Richard Neuhaus and others have pointed out for months, the primary answer to a crisis of infidelity is fidelity. Period.
Because confusions about what the crisis is and isn't get in the way of genuinely Catholic reform. This is not a crisis of celibacy; it's a crisis of men failing to live the celibate vows they pledged to Christ and the Church.
It's not a crisis caused by the Church's sexual ethic, which flatly condemns all forms of sexual abuse. It's not a crisis caused by “authoritarianism,” because the Church isn't an authoritarian institution — it's a community formed by an authoritative tradition, which is something very different. And it's not a media-created crisis. Yes, the media have distorted things on occasion, and yes, there's been something of a feeding frenzy atmosphere; but a feeding frenzy needs something to feed on. It's a very serous mistake not to realize this is a crisis Catholics created and only Catholics can fix.
The first step toward fixing what's broken is to recognize the spiritual roots of the crisis. Like every other crisis in 2,000 years of Catholic history, the current crisis is caused by an insufficiency of saints. That's a call to everyone to lead holier, more thoroughly Catholic lives. Whenever the Church is bottoming out, the response adequate to the crisis of the moment is always the same — everyone in the Church has to live the call to holiness more radically. Everyone.
The Courage to be Catholic includes three chapters of recommendations on specific reforms: in vocation recruitment, in seminaries, in the priesthood, in the way bishops are chosen, in the exercise of the episcopal office and in the way the Vatican gathers its information and relates to local Churches in crisis. Those recommendations are based on my own experience, on extensive discussions with some of the most effective reformers in the Church today and on intense conversations I had in Rome last February and April.
The fact that so many people are asking that question itself testifies to the central place that bishops have in the life of the Church.
Contrary to the claims made by the advocates of “Catholic lite,” most Catholics aren't interested in bishops who mortgage even more of their authority to various committees and boards. Most Catholics want bishops who will effectively exercise the authority that is theirs, and do so in a way that challenges everyone in the Church to a holier way of life.
I think the episcopal failures of recent decades have been similar to the failures of priests: It's fundamentally a failure in self-understanding. If a priest thinks of himself as simply another “minister,” facilitating the “ministry” of others, he isn't going to think of himself as what the Church teaches he is — an icon, a living representation of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. And if he doesn't think of himself as an icon of Christ, he's going to be tempted to act in ways that contradict the commitment he's made to Christ and the Church.
The same dynamic applies with bishops. Bishops who think of themselves primarily as managers — or worse, bishops who think of themselves as discussion-group moderators whose primary responsibility is to keep everyone “in play” — are going to be unlikely to act like apostles when the crunch comes.
That means part of genuinely Catholic reform today means asking a very tough question: Has the internal culture of the U.S. bishops’ conference made it more difficult for the bishops, as individuals, to be the apostles they've been ordained to be? And has the conference culture made it even more difficult for the bishops to think and act apostolically as a group?
Yours is, finally, a hopeful book. Why?
I can think of three reasons. First, because “crisis,” in the Bible, has two meanings: catastrophe and opportunity — and the opportunity the current catastrophe offers us is the opportunity to complete the reforms of Vatican II as they've been authentically interpreted by the pontificate of John Paul II.
The second reason I'm hopeful is because this crisis marks the last hurrah of the aging, intellectually sterile champions of “Catholic lite,” who can't even describe accurately the crisis they helped create.
And finally, I'm hopeful because that's what Christians are: men and women of hope, who know that God's purposes are being worked out in history, in what often strike us as strange ways. That's why I believe, with Dorothy Day, the truth of what Pope Pius XI meant when he said, “Let us thank God that he makes us live among the present problems; it is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre.”