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Fackenheim’s Law and the current Catholic crisis

The depth of the challenges facing U.S. Catholicism are coming into painfully clear focus.

(Image: Bence ▲ Boros | Unsplash.com)

The medieval Jewish sage Maimonides counted 613 commandments, or mitzvot, in the Law that God gave his people, Israel. The 20th-century Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, who escaped the Nazis’ genocidal clutches and devoted part of his scholarly life to pondering the moral meaning of the Holocaust, formulated what he called the 614th commandment: Give Hitler no posthumous victories. And how would Jews violate that “commandment?” By religious Jews denying the providential role of Israel’s God in Jewish life; by secular Jews abandoning the notion of Israel as a unique people with a distinctive historical destiny; by Jews acting toward other Jews in ways that tore at the spiritual and moral bonds that bound the people of Israel together.

Don’t give Hitler what he wanted, the utter destruction of the Jewish people, for that would be giving him a posthumous victory: This was one great lesson Emil Fackenheim drew from his reflections on the profound evil of his time and its effects on his people. Catholics filled with righteous anger over the vile behavior of the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, and Catholics determined to help reform the Church in order to cleanse the Church and prevent similar wickedness in the future, have something to learn from Rabbi Fackenheim. In our case the lesson must be: Don’t give the Evil One victories.

Long before the McCarrick story broke, it was clear that the Church in the United States faced many challenges. It was also clear to those familiar with the international  Catholic scene that the Church in the United States had a better chance of living the New Evangelization than any other local Church in the developed world. That may well be why the Evil One has focused such attention on the Church in America: There is something living here, something to be wounded — even killed.

The depth of the challenges facing U.S. Catholicism are coming into painfully clear focus; but in facing those challenges, we must not give Satan cheap victories by denying how we think and who we are as a Church.

Sixteen years ago, in The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, I argued that clerical sexual abuse had been facilitated in part by the breakdown of doctrinal discipline following Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on responsible family planning, Humanae Vitae. That breakdown involved rejecting what Paul VI taught about the reality of intrinsically evil acts: Acts wrong in themselves, which can’t be justified by a calculus of intentions and consequences. That rejection is now ricocheting around the world Church again and those involved should be asked a straightforward question: Is the attempted seduction of an eleven-year old boy by a trusted priest and family friend an intrinsically evil act? Yes or no?

Denying the reality of intrinsically evil acts helped create a dynamic of license in which abusive clergy gave themselves passes on other issues. Authentic reform now means restoring the moral foundations of Catholicism. Thus it is imperative that both Rome and the U.S. bishops reaffirm the reality of intrinsically evil acts as taught by the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

More than five years ago, in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, I wrote that authentic Catholic reform is always “re-form:” it’s not rupture; it’s not paradigm shifts; it’s reaching back and reclaiming a part of the Church’s Christ-given constitution that got misplaced because of historical contingency.  The governance of the Church by bishops is part of that Christ-given Catholic “form,” so the serious reform of clerical life at all levels of Holy Orders must be accomplished with the bishops. That will almost certainly mean responsible laity helping good bishops call their less-than-effective or less-than-honest brother-bishops to their duty when necessary. Bishops should welcome such help, not resist it; lay Catholics must understand that bishops are the bottom line of Church governance.

Responding responsibly to today’s crisis also means not fouling our own nest by denying all the good things that are underway in U.S. Catholicism, the living parts of which have embraced the New Evangelization and rejected Catholic Lite as an evangelical strategy. Shrill voices venting ideological spleen by decrying the entire American Catholic scene are demoralizing; they may unwittingly give the Evil One cheap victories. Truly righteous anger is focused anger, not online click-bait.


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About George Weigel 238 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His new book The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform was published by Basic Books on September 17.

11 Comments

  1. Absent the hygiene of 100% financial audit and law enforcement investigation of all living Bishops and seminary directors who had responsibility for governing dioceses and seminaries implicated in the 2002-04 caseload, as well as other cases like those disclosed in PA, there can be no basis for knowing which Bishops are unfit, negligent, criminally negligent, or criminally culpable.

    The Bishops of the US and the world, including the Bishop of Rome (who is personally encumbered by power relationships with proven and suspected abusers and coverup artists) brought this on themselves by knowingly failing to submit to laws of both God and man.

    • I would suggest that the available public information, especially over the past week or two, already demonstrates that 100% of bishops and seminary directors are “unfit, negligent, criminally negligent or criminally culpable”.

  2. I’m so confused. Is this George Weigel, or is this George Weigel’s evil twin brother? The George Weigel I know has written books, pamphlets, speeches, and articles beyond counting that have vociferously proclaimed year after year for several decades that the Church, especially in America, is engaging in a gloriously successful New Evangelization while basking in a New Springtime brought about by St. John Paul the Great. Now, all of a sudden, I’m hearing somebody calling himself “George Weigel” saying that there is a “current Catholic crisis” that, horror of horrors, is especially apparent in the Church in the United States. I’m so confused. Am I supposed to believe George Weigel or “George Weigel”?

    • This essay elicited a somewhat similar response in me, but it could be phrased more briefly. “My God, is he beginning to wake up?”
      We’ll see.
      I had not taken note of the author until I ran into a Weigel title. Shock and awe!

    • Aug. 24th: I agree. Weigel has become a pompous, self-referential know it all who brags about his friendship with people in power and then writes some trivial nonsense like this…how he has fallen from the wonderful things he has written in the past. Time to hang up your pen George…

  3. How many people has George Weigel converted during the new evangelization? I think few or none and thankfully that’s good because it’s not the time for that. I evangelized ten muslims last week toward the Bible and ten Hindus the week prior towards the Bible not toward the Church because “everything has a season” and this is not the season for evangelizing into a Church which has no idea how many deeply inclined gays are amongst its priests. In hundreds of pages of his “Witness to Hope”, you need a private investigator to find any mention by Weigel of the sex abuse administrative responsibility of St.John Paul II who was Pope in 1979 when his CDF office received an audio tape of Fr. Shanley’s pro gay speech at I think the Man Boy Love Association. Six years later, Fr.Shanley was promoted to pastor in Massachusetts…and molested. A Pope and a Rottweiler missed that chance to stop several molestations and lawsuits. Mid 1980’s the Father Gauthe molestation case was on USA tv as news countrywide and then as a 60 Minutes spot later. John Paul was very involved with Poland and TOB. Ironic. In his second book on that Pope, Weigel only faults him for not believing people concerning Fr. Maciel DeGollado. Somehow from 1979 to 2002, a Pope was not responsible for halting molestations in multiple countries by ordering all such men to be handed to police but only responsible for stopping one man at the head of the Legion of Christ. But the dissenters from HV are to blame for gay molesters not the Saint… and I do believe he was a saint because I volunteer every Sunday with the disabled elderly and everyone of them who perseveres until death is a saint. One died this past week at 103…her body very curled up and punishing in itself.

  4. This article is itself cause for despair. In the Catholic Church that I know the Pope, a substantial number of bishops and many priests are actively promoting gay-friendly modernism and heretical practices. “Authentic reform now means restoring the moral foundations of Catholicism. Thus it is imperative that both Rome and the U.S. bishops reaffirm the reality of intrinsically evil acts as taught by the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor.” Agreed, but what is the chance of this happening in this Pontificate? We all know the answer: Zero. I’m not holding my breath for the next Pontificate. The disease is far too wide-spread to be combatted from within. I am convinced that “authenticate reform” will not happen until new Mass Catholicism collapses. While I have for some time expected that it would happen at some point in the future, I had thought that I would not live to see it. Recent events have accelerated the process however such that maybe, just maybe, I will.

  5. Ok, but how about flipping this view and looking at this another way. God through His divine providence has lifted the veil of secrecy and has exposed the sinful rot that has infested His Sons church. That the revelations we have all seen, heard, read is to cleanse this church. Those of us who are still scandalized by the initial revelation of the abuses and coverup have been praying for God to end this horror. Every time, before this recent episode, we read and listened to those abused, their stories, their sufferings, knowing some could not bear the heavy load inflicted on them found the only recourse to end their pain to be suicide. To read how the clergy and the church treated them I and others cried out to God to end this for it is out of our hands and only his righteous judgement could provide justice. We have already been waiting for this to end, waiting years/decades. Like the slaves of Egypt cried out for their deliverer, we too have cried out for ours.

    Did it ever occur to anyone, like the author here, that our righteous rebuke of the clergy, our demand that abusers and their enablers are removed, is not the work of the evil one, but is workings of God to reclaim those who have vowed themselves to Him, to His Son, and to the Holy Spirit? This is a painful time, but only those who are afraid of what will come next are the ones doing the evil one’s bidding. Any one who loves God, who loves what He has given us to prepare us for life everlasting, those who want to live as God has told us, will want the clergy to live and love as God wants too. This is a moment when if we let God do as He desires to resurrect this church we should allow Him to do as He sees fit. We should stop telling people, like this author has, to just calm down so this can just resettle into a comfortable place where there is no change but the status quo. No I will still pray for God to end this, for Him to cleanse this church, for those who have made a mockery of their vows, the faith, the sacraments to be removed. Anything less, and we are accomplices to evil.

  6. Mr. Wiegel’s essay gets worse every time I re-read it.

    He is apparently content to allow grossly negligent or criminally negligent or even criminally culpable Cardinals and Bishops to remain in office, spiritually eviscerating the souls of our children.

    He seems utterly cold, and detached from any sense of outrage.

    It is astonishing: he is essentially doing Cardinal Mahony’s work for him.

  7. I count two plugs for his own books in this column. Par for the course with GW. But for once, incredibly, zero mention from him of JPII, at a point in time where everyone else has been asking just where the cabal of gay clerics came from. All these institutional mainstays would be better off simply saying nothing for a while, and getting others figure out how to clean up the mess. Rod Dreher may be shrill but he’s also on track:

    “I don’t know George Weigel — I met him once, but that’s it — but I find it impossible to believe that he had no knowledge of McCarrick’s corruption. What did he do with that knowledge? Is there any American Catholic layman who could more easily have doors opened for him in the Vatican than the biographer of John Paul II? Assuming that he knew about McCarrick, did he ever try to pressure Rome on the McCarrick case? If not, why not? If he knew about McCarrick, and knew that Rome was not going to act against him, why did he stay silent?

    People like Neuhaus and Weigel were and are institutionalists to the core. I get that, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be. Any reform movement needs both insiders and outsiders working together for the common good. It’s certainly fair to ask, though: what good has the “focused anger” that George Weigel demands of the Catholic laity done to reform the sexual corruption within the Catholic clergy and episcopate? I’m not asking in a trolling way. Again, in our time, it’s hard to think of a more influential American layman within the institutions of Catholic power than George Weigel. Whatever he was doing quietly to clean up the mess was not working.”

    Right. Just from the Internet I couldn’t miss the McCarrick accusations back when I was investigating the Church in 2006, and a player like Weigel had heard nothing? If that IS the case, he is in such a bubble he should be embarrassed. Like so many others, the current scandal as it plays out against clergy cronyism has smudged his credibility.

  8. The question I pose to George Weigel is not rhetorical but fact. Who is today’s Hitler? Jews have given up the faith for the most part because of the Holocaust and the searing question why did a good God allow this for his chosen people, which is why Israel is more a secular state. Am Jews are largely agnostic or atheist. Conservative Judaism focuses on social justice rather than heavenly reward because there is no after life. Catholics are becoming much closer to modern Am Judaism. PA Att Gen Shapiro who exposed our own lack of faith has become a kind of anti hero among Catholics. Sephardic Jews I knew in NYC were highly moral and some of the kindest persons. What we have is a remnant of what preexisted. But what keeps Judaism intact is a long history of ethnic identity largely due to the Abramic promise and persistent persecution. A people with a cause for existence. Catholicism has no such identity except faith in Christ. How then do you explain the apostasy we’ve experienced of late and who provides a cause for resurgence? This is where our focus really must be. We urgently require a Saint Athanasius of Alexandria and there is none in sight.

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