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Courage in the Slough of Despond

The story of the courage of certain cardinal-electors 40 years ago should be an antidote to the despair some Catholics feel today.

Krakow Auxiliary Bishop Karol Jozef Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, is pictured with priests in an undated photo. He was ordained a bishop in 1958 at age 38, then Poland's youngest bishop. (CNS photo)

I never took a class from historian Frank Orlando, but the motto he placed in the faculty section of my college yearbook — “History is an antidote for despair” —has stuck with me for 45 years. It also seems quite appropriate at this disturbing moment in the life of the Church, so perhaps a history lesson is in order.

Forty years ago this week, the Catholic Church was in serious trouble. The last years of Pope Paul VI had witnessed an endless sequence of controversies, of which mass dissent from the encyclical Humanae Vitae —dissent that would have devastating effects on clerical discipline and erode episcopal authority —was but one. The pope seemed dispirited toward the end of his reign, publicly berating God for having not heard his prayer that the life of his friend Aldo Moro be spared (Moro had been murdered by terrorists). The promise of evangelical Catholic renewal that had animated John XXIII’s opening address to the Second Vatican Council in 1962 seemed falsified by the trauma of the post-conciliar years.

Then came a brief moment of exuberance, as Catholic spirits were lifted by the election of Cardinal Albino Luciani to the papacy. The new John Paul I smiled. He gave brilliant little catechetical lessons during his Wednesday general audiences. A book of his “letters” to characters ranging from Dickens and Chesterton to Pinocchio and Figaro the Barber charmed the world. The Good News seemed, well, good again.

Then, 33 days into what seemed a promising pontificate, Pope John Paul I was found dead in his bed on the morning of September 28, 1978.

And the Church was plunged back into Bunyan’s Slough of Despond.

The shock of the pope’s death was perhaps most intense among the men who had just put Luciani on the Chair of Peter. Twenty years later, an American cardinal-elector, William Baum, told me that this latest blow to the Church had been “a message from the Lord, quite out of the ordinary….This was an intervention from the Lord to teach us something.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told me that he had been similarly stunned: “We were convinced that the election [of John Paul I] was made in accordance with the will of God, not simply in a human way….and if one month after being elected in accordance with the will of God, he died, God had something to say to us.”

What God was saying, some cardinal-electors concluded, was that it was a time for courage.

So when the two principal Italian contenders in the second conclave of 1978 deadlocked and essentially cancelled each other out as candidates, several cardinals summoned up the courage to propose what then seemed virtually unthinkable: looking outside Italy for a pope. Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna was the leader of this party of dramatic change. But he was not alone. And those who rallied to Koenig and his courageous suggestion that the conclave elect a young man, 58-year old Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, should also be remembered: men like the Polish primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski; the archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal John Krol; and one of the youngest and newest members of the conclave, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich and Freising.

It also took courage for Karol Wojtyla to accept election, knowing that he would have to leave the rich Cracovian culture from which he drew strength and inspiration. But it’s the courage of the cardinal-electors on which we might well focus our attention now, when the Catholic Church seems bogged down in another Slough of Despond.

The Wojtyla electors were men accustomed to a certain order of things, who had themselves benefited from that order. But in a moment of crisis they had the courage to think outside the conventional norms and imagine what once seemed unimaginable. They were prepared to face the skeptical, even hostile, reaction of fellow-cardinals who could not wrap their minds around such a dramatic innovation, and whose instinctive reaction to crisis was to find a safe pair of hands who would calm things down. They were willing to try the unprecedented.

The story of their courage 40 years ago should be an antidote to the despair some Catholics feel today. It should also inspire the bishops to get to grips with this crisis and think outside the conventions in resolving it. And it should inspire the authorities in Rome, including the highest authority.


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About George Weigel 204 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. 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). Mr. Weigel received a B.A. from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and an M.A. from the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto. He is the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates in fields including divinity, philosophy, law, and social science.

6 Comments

  1. I’m sorry but Weigel is actually incomprehensible to me unless he is promoting his St. John Paul II books in which that Pope’s non performance against the sex abuse clergy is whitewashed…as in Witness to Hope wherein it is barely mentioned. We needed a Pope in 1979 who would issue a simple manly order… “ In beneficent countries, involve law enforcement immediately in sex abuse cases”. That is what we needed. We did not need an author…we needed an administrator…we got an author who made Biblical mistakes against the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae which will get people killed wherever it is influential….as in Mexico where it hardens their secular law against execution in a country that is a murderers’ paradise with a murder rate 20 times that of China which also has millions of poor. In Splendor of the Truth, he called slavery and torture intrinsic evils in section 80. They are not intrinsic evils. Slavery is a context evil in modern times but a real need amongst non contacted tribes as in the Amazon who need slavery in lieu of having no prisons…otherwise a culture with no prisons will execute for burglary and non payment of loans etc. That’s why God gave perpetual chattel slavery to the Jews over foreigners in Leviticus 25:44 on… “ “`Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.
    45
    You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.
    46
    You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”
    Torture also is not an intrinsic evil. Proverbs 20:30… “ Evil is driven out by bloody lashes and a scourging to the inmost being”…Proverbs 26:3 “ a rod for the backs of fools”…Proverbs 10:13 and Proverbs 19:29 same words. St. John Paul II loved the politically correct more than Scripture when Scripture refuted the politically correct world of the genteel over educated.
    Your daughter is kidnapped. The kidnapper is arrested but he won’t tell police where she is locked away and dying from hunger. Get a dentist in to drill his teeth roots without anesthesia…and give him a pad and a pen. Nerve pain…not blunt force trauma…nerve pain. Mission accomplished.

    • Some second thoughts on two criticisms…first, in Evangelium Vitae, an important part of St. Pope John Paul II’s (only) prudential judgment on capital punishment n. 56) shows up in the follow-up and more central paragraph. Much of his audience, we recall, was the membership of the European Union (EU)—for which membership-status already required a ban on capital punishment. We then read “If such great care must be taken to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors, the commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute (italics in original) value when it refers to the innocent person. And the more so in the case of weak and defenceless human beings…” Member states of the EU all permit abortion. Message delivered.
      On a second point, it might be that Weigel’s sequel to WITNESS TO HOPE offers a clue to John Paul II’s failure to act on sexual abuse reports—his failure to get it. Tucked away in THE END OF THE BEGINNING (pp. 152-3) we find that a common tactic of the KGB to neutralize prominent Church leaders was also contrived against the new Pope John Paul II, before he could repeat his explosive 1979 visit to Poland. This tactic involved a fabricated diary of a deceased prostitute, designed to document that she had been Wojtyla’s lover (before he became pope). But the KGB operative got drunk, crashed his car, and bragged to the police of his cleverness in planting the diary. Perhaps John Paul II erred in reading this common practice into the early–and actually-different–stories of sexual abuse that he was hearing from out of the West?
      No excuses here, but history will probably remember Pope St. John Paul II more for his courageous and astute roll in reversing curial Ostpolitik and dismantling the entire Soviet Empire (remember them?) in barely a few years and with barely a dozen casualties, and how he upstaged the Roman bureaucracy by getting out of the office and personally evangelizing over a hundred countries across the globe. How soon we forget—the young audience addressed by the Youth Synod has probably heard none of this.

      • I think you should look into the economics of the weapons spending contest that America brought to bear on Russia to complete your reasons for Russia falling apart…a USA administration that was in constant touch with that Pope during the troop movement tensions.
        In EV the Pope spent much time on God protecting Cain from being killed for his murder of Abel. But in section 39, he cites Gen.9:5-6 but only after removing the death penalty part from view which would disturb his narrative on Cain. But you can’t do that since the part he really liked was the words…”for man is made in the image of God”. But that was God’s reason (the victim was made in the image of God) for the new death penalty God was giving on the eve of His Providence starting the first kingdom in the very next chapter 10 of Genesis. So the pattern was really: Cain kills Abel/ God protects Cain from vigilante revenge/ God then creates state execution on the eve of Nimrod being the first king…the classic view of Catholicism…private actors cannot execute murderers but only legitimate governments can…Christ to Pilate…” you would have no power over me at all were it not given you from above” ie…in Gen.9:5-6. That Pope expressed dislike for parts of scripture. You can see that in section 40 of EV as he refers to the Pentateuchal death penalties as though the unevolved Jews not God created them. You can see that in two documents he did on women in marriage wherein he only likes Ephesians on the matter of wifely obedience and refers to several other NT references to wives obeying as “the old way”. Yet Vatican II held that “both testaments in all their parts have God as their author”. Neither he nor Benedict really believed that in the way that Aquinas, Augustine and Jerome did (see Verbum Domini 42 for the latter of the two Popes).

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