Published April 17, 2002
The Catholic Difference
One of the reasons the Catholic Church in America finds itself embroiled in scandal and spiritual crisis is that we have not taken the O’Sullivan Principle seriously.
Named for its creator, former National Review editor John O’Sullivan, the original, political form of the O’Sullivan Principle goes like this: in our liberal culture, any institution that is not self-consciously and deliberately conservative will inevitably become liberal. Since “liberal” and “conservative” are inappropriate categories for thinking about the Church, what is needed is a Catholic variant on the O’Sullivan Principle. Here is my variant: in today’s libertine culture, any religious institution that does not self-consciously, deliberately, and unceasingly work to maintain its orthodoxy will inevitably become corrupted, doctrinally and behaviorally.
That has happened in the mainline Protestant communities since World War II. And that, I suggest, is part of what has happened in the Catholic Church in the United States since the late 1960s.
A culture of dissent has been a staple feature of Catholic life — sometimes blatantly overt, sometimes less obvious — since the birth control controversy of 1968. In recent years the culture of dissent has been more subtle, as reforms of seminaries and diocesan offices have been undertaken with some success. But the habit of dissent has been hard to break. Indeed, one of the stranger features of contemporary Catholicism in America is the branding of self-consciously orthodox younger clergy and scholars as “ideologues” who are to be consigned to the margins of Church life.
I’ve met my share of sometimes overly-zealous younger priests, academics, and activists, and I understand that orthodoxy has to be combined with pastoral sensitivity, intellectual openness, and prudence. But I also understand that these younger Catholics, committed whole-heartedly (if sometimes clumsily) to the Church’s teaching in its fullness, are not part of the problem that has been made painfully manifest in recent months. Their commitment to the fullness and liberating beauty of orthodoxy is part of the solution.
How would applying a Catholic variant of the O’Sullivan Principle work itself out in the reform of the priesthood that is now clearly imperative?
One place to start is with vocation offices. A few years ago, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire on a prospective candidate for the seminary. If memory serves, approximately one-eighth of the questionnaire dealt with the man’s faith: his commitment to Christ, the depth of his conversion, his sacramental and spiritual life, his ability to communicate radical and joyful discipleship to others. The rest of it was, frankly, psychobabble.
I do not doubt that the Church needs well-balanced individuals, capable of working well with bishops, other priests, and the laity, in its candidates for the priesthood. I also suggest that these are not the first questions to ask. The first questions to ask have to do with conversion. What we put first tells us what we think is most important.
Then there are the seminaries. It seems clear from the current crisis that formation in chastity and teaching about chastity is woefully inadequate in some seminaries. This part of the problem will not be fixed if issues of sexual maturation continue to be deemed primarily matters for the seminary psychologist. They are, in the first instance, issues of moral theology, spiritual direction, and spiritual formation. And that kind of spiritual formation can only be done by holy, mature priests who can teach others how to live chaste celibate lives. We can no longer farm out these crucial issues of priestly formation to the therapists. A deeper remedy — a spiritual and theological remedy — is imperative.
Finally, dissent must be confronted far more vigorously. When seminarians and priests are sent subtle signals that a less-than-enthusiastic acceptance of the Church’s teaching on marital ethics, or on homosexuality, or on the impossibility of ordaining women to the ministerial priesthood can be tolerated, corruption inevitably follows. It does not follow universally. It may not even follow in the majority of cases. But that it does follow, and with lethal results, is now self-evident from the evidence with which we have all been bludgeoned these past three months or so. This must change, now.
Orthodoxy is not a problem. Orthodoxy is the key to the solution.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.