I once knew a Congregationalist minister—Yale Divinity School graduate, decorated World War II chaplain, veteran campaigner for then-unpopular liberal causes—of whom it was said (sometimes by himself) that “David Colwell so fears God that he fears no one else.” It was a striking statement, redolent, perhaps, of the Jonathan Edwards (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) School of American Protestant Homiletics. But the source of this man’s fearlessness was rather different than that of a man I was just coming to know when David Colwell and I were friendly jousting partners on questions theological and political.
That man was Pope John Paul II.
The dissident Yugoslav Marxist, Milovan Djilas, who had seen a lot in his life, once said that the Polish pope impressed him as a man utterly without fear. As I wrote in Witness to Hope, however, John Paul’s fearlessness was neither stoic nor driven by concerns about postmortem divine retribution. Rather, it was a fearlessness rooted in John Paul’s rock-solid faith that God’s Kingdom had broken into history in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Because of that, those who became friends of the Lord Jesus and entered the communion of his Church could live beyond fear, here and now, because they had been empowered to live the life of the Kingdom, here and now.
That faith-based fearlessness might well inspire the bishops of the United States on their upcoming ad limina visits to Rome and the “thresholds of the Apostles”: the pilgrimage that every bishop is required to make on a regular basis, during which the Americans will meet in regional groups with Pope Francis and officials of the Roman Curia. Why ought the bishops display fearlessness in Rome? Because their task during the ad limina cycle that begins this month and concludes in February 2020 will be to correct the cartoon view of the Church in the United States that is widespread in the Vatican these days.
According to the cartoon, U.S. Catholicism is dominated by a rigid, legalistic cast of mind, more eager to condemn than to convert, warped by imports from the evangelical Protestant “prosperity Gospel” and beholden to wealthy Catholics with a hard-right political agenda. As any serious student of U.S. Catholicism knows, this is a vicious lie. But it has been successfully sold in the Vatican (and then broadcast by the more hard-edged mouthpieces of the present pontificate), despite the fact that an early version of the cartoon was propagated in Rome in 2013 by the now-disgraced Theodore McCarrick. The developed cartoon was then used to bully Third World bishops at Synod-2018, where warnings were issued against forming alliances with the Americans, who were “against the Pope.”
That, too, was a lie. With the possible exception of the Italian conference, no bishops’ conference in the world has been more deferential to the Holy See than the U.S. conference. But then the people propagating that lie are over-the-top ultramontanists—papal absolutists—whose idea of the range of the pope’s teaching authority, and the deference due it, might make even Pius IX blush, at least a little (and on his better days). To such minds, even respectful challenge is infidelity.
The cartoon view of the U.S. Church was most ludicrously limned in a 2017 article, co-authored by a close papal adviser, Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, in the Rome-based Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica. Had I been given that article as a paper by a college freshman in American Religion 101, I would have returned it with an offer to the poor student author: Try again and do much better, or take an “F” for your paper. Yet a few weeks ago, while speaking with Jesuits in Africa, the Holy Father commended that very article; and while I would like to think that he commended it as a cautionary tale against publishing nonsense, I fear otherwise.
For all its faults—and they are many—the Catholic Church in the United States lives the New Evangelization better than any other local Church in the developed world. More acute minds in Rome know that, though many are afraid to say it lest they be labeled “enemies of the pope.” All the more reason, then, for the U.S. bishops to correct the cartoon, respectfully but firmly, so that a serious conversation between Rome and America about the Catholic future in the United States can begin.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.