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Fearlessness and the American bishops in Rome

The task of the U.S. bishops during the ad limina cycle that begins this month will be to correct the cartoon view of the Church in the United States that is widespread in the Vatican these days.

U.S. bishops from the New England States pray at the tomb of St. Paul after concelebrating Mass at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome Nov. 5, 2019. The bishops were making their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican to report on the status of their dioceses to Pope Francis and Vatican officials. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

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 post-mortem 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.

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About George Weigel 458 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 Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. I am sorry to say (yet again) that this GW essay misses the mark, by a country mile.

    It is unwise for any Catholic, and much more for a Bishop, to subordinate their duties to the impoverished McCarrick narrative about “friends-and-enemies-of-the-Pope.”

    This is unwise and impoverished thinking, and unworthy of the duties falling to those who are given the dignity of exercising their obligations to Jesus Christ.

    The Pontiff Francis has just presided over the worship of the pagan idol Pachamama in Rome. The issue at hand is idolatry, and not “the Pontiff popularity contest.”

  2. I have often felt that Pope Francis may end up with a legacy similar to that of King George III of Great Britain: King George lost the American colonies and Pope Francis will lose the American Catholic Church.

    • There is no such ‘thing’ as the ‘American Catholic Church.’ This left-wing obfuscation and plain baloney dates at least to Vatican II and the turmoil of the 1960s. Our church is the Roman Catholic Church, as in the Roman Catholic Church in America.

  3. “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.”

    Not only a vicious lie, but so utterly untrue as to be laughable if it weren’t so serious.

  4. For a Pope that who divorced/remarried Catholics to Communion and imports pagan idols into churches, any bishop with a minimal attachment to orthodoxy will appear “too rigid.” The answer isn’t to pander to this Pope’s modernist outlook by assuring him American bishops are no more orthodox than he is, but to recall the Pope to the Gospel as proclaimed by the Church over its long history. We need bishops who are worried about how God perceives them, not how the Pope perceives them.

    • Still, the bishops need to put on their big-boy pants and confront slander with truth. Even more than ecclesial jousting or ersatz theology, gut-level self-respect demands it.

      My only real snit with Weigel’s article is that rather than returning the student paper with a grade-F, he might still put it to some use by wrapping it around discarded coffee grounds, or maybe a dead fish. The slogan out of the Central Europe of better days–as before Spadaro or the upcoming Germania synod–is that “a fish rots at the head first.”

  5. ‘Prayer without ceasing’ is what is needed now. Sacrifices, large and small, done with great love and sincerity of heart can and will move the unfathomable mercy of God to correct the hearts and minds of those who would and have so misrepresented and misled those many faithful Catholics in America. Pray for our Holy Father and those who surround him.

  6. It is amazing that the pope holds these views. It has been said many times before that the USCCB is the democrat party at prayer.

  7. The main problem with this essay is that its opening thesis (John Paul II was fearless) took a wrong turn. It would have been better to assert what Saint Pope John Paul II would have to say to this pope on an imaginary ad limina visit or what he would have advised the U.S. bishops to say who are attending (as to my own regional bishops group: the visit seems so far to be no more than a friendly Facebook picture show; selfies over substance). C+ – please try again.

  8. All I know is that “If anyone LOVES ME, he will keep my commandments and my Father and I will come and abide with him.” What joy and peace. If that is being rigid, I’m all for it. Is loving God with your whole heart being rigid?? Wish all the Bishops and the Pope knew this GOSPEL.

  9. Pope Francis and his friends, to quote (Christine Keeler?) ‘would say that, wouldn’t they’! Those who are seizing power in the Vatican (and it is a massive institution of 1.3 million people and a lot of power), do not want orthodox Catholicism- they want murky lines by which they can stretch doctrine to be whatever oleaginous shape they choose. Hence, Spadaro, who can speak for the Pope without responsibility being taken by the Pope. Hence, yes, Pachamama, the watering down of doctrine so that the truth of the Word is obscured by idols. It is a power-grab and the US bishops who resist it will be persecuted because there is a lot at stake. Many of the bishops are part of the same hierarchy, so we will not see them defending orthodox Catholic doctrine or liturgy- it is the liturgy that these people must destroy in order to get their grip on the Church.
    So, in that respect, the fact that the US is portrayed in Rome in ‘cartoon’ version is expected and rather irrelevant. The real Catholic US bishops have to do the work themselves. The real Catholic faithful have to do the work themselves. The sexual abuse will be dealt with by the secular authorities-you will not find those bishops who failed to prosecute for thirty years, suddenly turning round and prosecuting. And those true Catholics and bishops will not find any support from Rome. In fact, if a bishop is supported by Rome, it might be a sign that he is part of the problem – perhaps quite a useful light revealing the wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    • “If a bishop is supported by Rome, it might be a sign that he is part of the problem.” Cupich, for example? My own estimate, which is probably too optimistic, is that about 60 percent of the American bishops have no trouble with the current occupant of the Chair of Peter–and not because of doctrinal agreement, but merely because of a habitual disposition of get-along, get-ahead opportunism, no matter who’s in charge.

  10. The Pachamamarian Pagan Judas Synod exposed Pope Francis and his “hitman” Spadaro as what they are: traitors to the One True Faith. How they try to cover up and justify such crass, gross, heinous, brazen, public treason? By using the very same, IDENTICAL strategy as all rabid anti-Catholic liberal enemies have now used successfully for decades against all society: V.A.A.S., vicious-accusing-and-shaming (like Satan himself does) and putting you on the fearful defensive with cartoonish false charges, so these evil ones can get the higher ground and moral authority right out of your own hands and look like “angels of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14) that “should” be obeyed.

    The American Bishops SHOULD NOT play defense as that is playing right into their hands and what has made V.A.A.S. so effective. Jesus Christ, our Lord and God demonstrated this brilliantly when He was constantly and viciously accused by His enemies and He never ever wasted a minute on defense or apologizing but always went on the offensive, revealing His enemies as the Satanic cartoons that they were. Same here and now, to follow Jesus and not the self-justifying, accusing Judases. Before Satan, when you excuse and apologize, you declare yourself totally guilty of his invented defamation. Always. Time to stop falling for such an old, evil, recycled trick.

    Pray hard that the American Bishops don’t cooperate by walking right into the kill zone of defending themselves, but bravely attacking the idolatry encroaching the Church from the top. Sound impossible? sure! The True Catholic Church of 2,000 years IS the Church of the Impossible!! Our God’s specialty IS the Impossible (Luke 1:37). If the American Catholic Church has to stand alone against the Pachamamarian Pope, then we should. We totally owe that to Jesus, who died for us, come whatever may come. The world will follow that True Church and not the idolatrous cartoon sitting at the Vatican.

  11. “[T]he Catholic Church in the United States lives the New Evangelization better than any other local Church in the developed world.” Thanks a lot George. You made me spit out my morning coffee all over my keyboard. But it was worth the laugh, I guess…

    • USA Catholic Church living the New Evangelization better than anywhere else? Sure, I guess that’s why all over this land Catholic parishes are merging and/or the bishops are closing parishes and selling the properties to the highest bidders. And there are no vocations.

      • Timothy J Williams & Sparkletina, no, no, no. The New Evangelization is exactly quite alive and well entrenched in the American Catholic experience/paradigm. Parishes closing, properties being sold and the dearth of vocations are all Vatican II success stories and prime examples of the New Evangelization. Things are progressing exactly as planned. Add to that, try to get your local bishop to support the Latin Mass and see how far that you get. Worse yet, look into his eyes when you mention it and see the evil. New Evangelization indeed.

  12. The US Catholic Church leadership has been thoroughly corrupted by a destructive sixty year campaign by a self-perpetuating to select, promote, and place homosexuals and socialists in many, if not most, positions of authority. McCarrick was exposed, but he is merely the tip of the iceberg. JP2 didn’t see it. Francis is part of it. If Rome thinks the US Church is a cartoon, then it is only because we are resisting the evil we see. In response, Rome is aggressively appointing bishops who are barely discrete regarding their disordered lifestyles. Cupich. Tobin. McElroy. Gregory. It’s indefensible.

  13. Thank you for this article by George Weigel. I’m afraid that if His Holiness holds this view as to His U.S. bishops, he is mistaking who his enemies are. Those bishops, rather than being the fearless defenders of truth that Wiegel calls for, are, alas, as craven a group of yes-men and bureaucratic social workers as might be found in any modern non-profit NGO. It was they, along with the Sankt Gallen Group, who elected Him. Perhaps the less said regarding both the St. Gallen group’s and U.S. Bishops’ penchant toward buggering altar boys and young seminarians, and their taste for mansions and rich living, the better.

    But yes, there are many in the States who are “dominated by a rigid, legalistic cast of mind, more eager to condemn than to convert,” They are the many of us lay folk who have looked on, while those bishops indulged in their decadent style of life, and who have led their dioceses into scandal, bankruptcy, and ruin. But I would say that when those bishops have led such a lawless and corrupt way of life, the best corrective is a legalism that condemns such sons of Eli, and such sons of Belial.

    Forgive my cynicism, but as to the Novus Ordo mess now present in most Latin Catholic parishes, I suspect that the real reason for the present ‘Praise and Worship’ music, art and architecture, and the abandonment of Gregorian Chant, Sacred Polyphony, and the treasures of painting, sculpture, and architecture, is that all of the latter are out of copyright and in the public domain, while the former are all subject to pay royalty fees to ICEL, which fees help to finance the above mentioned lifestyle of the US hierarchy.

  14. We pray that God will use the US bishops to let the Pope understand that even the nones have known the deceit and betrayal of Jesus in the spirit of the Amazonian synod.- the Pachamama spirit, which they labored to defend

  15. Two items bother me about the USA Bishops: 1. democrats who wash their hands of the abortion issue by saying they cannot force people to accept their ideas. If my neighbor becomes a murderer and kills people in my neighborhood, I cannot ignore the situation, it would be a sin of omission. When Bishops do not speak about the obligation to combat abortion, they themselves are committing a grave sin of of omission. 2. Priest who committed pedophilia should have been defrocked immediately. Bishops have completely lost their moral authority.

  16. Let us encourage and pray for the US Bishops to stand up for the truth and never to become willful collaborators in the evils of modernism. Pray for God to give them the courage and steadfastness to defend the true church rather than dig out their weaknesses. Those who love the Lord are waiting to rally around fearless men who would faithfully continue with the truth. Pray also for the holy father Pope Francis that the devil will not sift him as he wanted to do to Pope St Peter, the first Pope. Remember the Lord prayed for him .(Lk 23:31-34)

    • Robert Cardinal Sarah’s “The Day Is Now Far Spent” deals with most’ if not all of the issues and comments posted. The book is a surprisingly brilliant commentary with one realistic remedy. I won’t spoil the possibility of a surprise for all of you. However, I believe that God would agree since the guidance was initially stated by Christ.

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