Published October 8, 2004
The Catholic Difference
I’ve only met Father Frank Brennan, a prominent Australian Jesuit, once. But I was glad of his company that day.
It was May 1991, and both Father Brennan and I had been invited to an academic conference in Rome, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to mark the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which launched the modern papal tradition of Catholic social teaching. It was a rather trying experience, as various left-leaning Catholic academics tried to pretend that Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II’s landmark social encyclical (which had been issued a few weeks before) didn’t exist. I well remember a heated exchange with one Colombian Jesuit who told me that the free economy praised by the Pope in Centesimus Annus, “doesn’t exist.” Beyond murmuring that this would doubtless come as news to the Supreme Pontiff, I didn’t know what else to say. And so it went.
The conference concluded in time for all of us to participate in the solemn centenary commemoration of Rerum Novarum, held in the Synod aula atop the Paul VI Audience Hall: a perfect echo chamber, soon rendered painful by the exertions of the Sistine Choir (known to some in Rome, not uncharitably, as the “Sistine Screamers”). Father Brennan, sitting beside me in the nosebleed seats reserved for such small fry as we, seemed fraternally uncomfortable with the choir’s baroque warblings; and he, too, fidgeted during the hurricane of Italianate ecclesiastical rhetoric that followed. In the interstices, we had a nice talk about his work on aboriginal rights in Australia, and continued an interesting conversation at the reception that followed. So I was, as I say, grateful for his presence and his cordiality.
Thus it came as an unpleasant shock when I read in The Australian that Father Brennan had recently said something quite remarkably silly. “All of us need to accept,” he opined, “that the revolution in sexuality has left many people, especially young people, completely uninterested in the views of an all-male, unmarried clergy.” The Australian went on to note that Father Brennan had charged that (as the paper put it) “young people are being turned off to the priesthood by an increasingly autocratic and doctrinaire Catholic Church that is out of touch with the 21st century.”
Let me suggest to Father Brennan that he spend a week at World Youth Day 2005, scheduled for next August in Cologne. There, I think he’ll find that the Gospel without compromise – the Gospel preached by John Paul II to millions of young people who have voluntarily come to hear just that – is immensely attractive to teenagers and young adults who find today’s sexual free-fire zone far more a trial than Father Brennan seems to imagine. Then I’d suggest that Father Brennan come down to Rome and visit the Pontifical North American College, where he’ll find a hundred and fifty or so young men, very much the products of their time, who are preparing to stake their lives on the truths – not the “views” – being proposed by “an all-male, unmarried clergy,” whose numbers include a distinguished teacher of the beauty of sexual love and the value of celibacy who is not only male and unmarried, but (gasp!) old and (further gasp!) Polish.
The Church is dying in places where the Gospel is preached as a lifestyle option in a global supermarket of spiritualities. The Church is thriving, or being reborn with the vigor anticipated by Vatican II, where the full Gospel is preached: in charity, but in its full integrity. That’s a matter of empirical fact, confirmed time and again in Europe, North America, and Australia. Catholic Lite leads to Catholic Dead. The adventure of orthodoxy is what attracts young people today. In a world that constantly panders to the young, a Church of challenge, which combines the truth with love and pastoral care, is a very attractive proposition indeed. That’s what I find on campuses, in seminaries, in parishes, and at World Youth Days.
I hope Father Brennan, and those who share his views, take the opportunity to discover the truth about the John Paul II Generation. They’re the future, and they’re refreshingly unimpressed by shibboleths from the Sixties.
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.