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The oldest cathedral and the newest challenge

In stark contrast to Vatican II’s teaching on the authority of bishops in chapter three of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Catholicism in the U.S. is being defined by President Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Jen Psaki.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also called the Baltimore Basilica. (Image: Euelbenul/Commons Wikipedia)

It’s now the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but for native Baltimoreans of a certain vintage (like me) it is, was, and always will be “the Old Cathedral:” the first of its kind in the United States. The genius of its architect, Benjamin Latrobe, was long muted by ill-conceived mid-20th century alterations; a restoration completed in 2006 recovered the extraordinary play of light within the building, by which Latrobe and Archbishop John Carroll sought to express the Catholic commitment to religious freedom in the new American Republic. As it marked the bicentenary of its dedication on May 31, the Baltimore Basilica is far more than a splendid example of Federal-period architecture, however. It’s also home to a lively (and largely young) parish and an innovative urban ministry, “Source of All Hope,” that conducts a mission to the homeless in a deeply troubled city.

By an order of magnitude, the Baltimore Basilica is America’s most historic Catholic building, for it was there that the bishops of the United States met 10 times in the 19th century to design the pastoral, liturgical, and catechetical life of the Church in the United States. Those seven provincial and three plenary councils of Baltimore were the Catholic Church’s most extensive and consequential exercises in what the Second Vatican Council would call “collegiality” between the 16th-century Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council in 1869-70. And their effects are still felt among us today.

It was at the Old Cathedral that the U.S. bishops established the legal structure for American Catholicism, preventing the lay trustee movement from remaking the Church in the U.S. on a congregationalist model. It was in the Baltimore Basilica that the bishops named Our Lady the patroness of the United States under the title of the Immaculate Conception; it was there that they mandated the parochial school system, once a powerful engine for assimilating immigrants and now the Church’s most successful anti-poverty program; it was there that the bishops agreed to create the Catholic University of America; it was there that they authorized the Baltimore Catechism, which shaped religious education in the country for generations; and it was there that they defended the American arrangement on Church and state, thereby opening a door to the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom.

So a lot of history was made in the masterpiece created by Archbishop Carroll’s vision and Benjamin Latrobe’s design. I drank in that history early, when, as a wide-eyed and crewcut six-year old, I entered the first grade of the Old Cathedral’s school and made my first holy communion there a year later. Decades after that, I learned that the bishops hadn’t come to their decisions easily, in those 19th-century provincial and plenary councils. There was contention, as there has been in the Church since Acts 15. But since the bishops put an end to “trusteeism” and established themselves as the bottom line of ecclesiastical authority in America, there has never been any disagreement that the bishops are in charge.

Until today.

In stark contrast to Vatican II’s teaching on the authority of bishops in chapter three of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Catholicism in the United States is being defined today by President Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki (who frequently assures the country that the president is a devout and serious Catholic, as Mrs. Pelosi often says of herself). That is the issue beneath the many other issues the U.S. bishops will discuss when, as successors of the bishops who held those 10 councils of Baltimore, they meet “virtually” in June: Who defines integral Catholicism in the United States? The bishops, proclaiming the settled teaching of the Church on the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death and the implications of those Gospel truths for living in full communion with the Church? Or politicians who reject those truths, and then make that deviance unmistakably clear by facilitating the grave moral evil of abortion and supporting an “Equality Act” that criminalizes the Bible’s teaching on the human person?

Who’s in charge here?

In Lumen Gentium 27, Vatican II taught that bishops are to exercise “the authority and sacred power” invested in them for the “spiritual development of their flock in truth and holiness.” That, I take it, means defining truth and holiness in an integrally Catholic way. Mr. Biden, Mrs. Pelosi, and Catholic public officials of both parties are defining Catholicism according to the woke spirit of the age. John Carroll’s episcopal heirs should call them out on that.

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About George Weigel 478 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. The groinal values of Western culture cry out like a like a thief caught in the act “Don’t look at me. I’m invisible”. The long, slow. steady decline of moral behavior from the trauma of the many wars of the 20th century to the immoral presidency of Donald Trump has confused and numbed our our nation. The lack of moral conscience of the 1960’s and 70’s gave way to a pleasure with out consequences “me” centered culture. I‘ve given my life in the service of Our Lord and His Church,and have been very happy to do so. But now that I come to the latter years of my life, I am saddened for those who do not know Jesus. They may claim a personalized Catholism that is self centered but deny any authority but themselves.

  2. We should also call out that, contrary to the teaching of the popes of the time, John Carroll and his family were slaveholders ( albeit Bishop Carroll owned only one slave that he inherited rather than bought himself. He didn’t free him in his lifetime, though.)

  3. Thank you for publicly defending our faith. I will go one step further and beg our Bishops to take is opportunity that Our Lord has given them to defend the Catholic faith right now through their words, publicly. The world is watching, for God’s sake, don’t be lukewarm.

  4. And 60 bishops don’t want to talk about it, among them three cardinals, who were given “the red” to signify their willingness to shed blood for the faith. They can’t even stand the possibility of criticism from the very people who are undermining the faith. Martyrdom? Yeah, right. They should trade in their red for yellow.

  5. Let’s have more articles by George Weigel! Of all the voices in today’s church, his seems to me among the most reliable. In controversial issues in today’s church, I always look forward to his balanced evaluation.

  6. Weigel writes that “Mr. Biden, Mrs. Pelosi, and Catholic public officials of both parties are defining Catholicism according to the woke spirit of the age.”

    We are reminded of G.K. Chesterton: “The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age” (The Catholic Church and Conversion). And, of the apostles and the unbroken line of successor bishops, Chesterton writes: “Those runners gather impetus as they run. Ages afterwards they still speak as if something had just happened….We might sometimes fancy that the Church grows younger as the world grows old” (The Everlasting Man).

    Not so young is the complicit obstructionism of old-hat Cupich, Gregory, and McElroy and the (only) sixty other signatory and sycophant pseudo-bishops.

  7. America Erwache! George Weigel pins it down, “Mr. Biden, Mrs. Pelosi, and Catholic public officials of both parties are defining Catholicism according to the woke spirit of the age”. Ironically Wokism was Adolf’s favorite catch line prior to the foreboding 1933 election. Deutschland Erwache! Far to the Right Nazism is today extremely far to the Left Liberalism. What both Nazism and America’s Woke Left have in deadly common is iron fisted oppression. Liberty, the reality is strident conformism. Roped in are the giant corporations, the media. A powerful bulwark. We the Right are awakening to the disastrous reality of the Biden election, a tottering aged opportunist devoid of intellectual perspicacity or morals imposing a diabolic vision of New Age morality upon the Nation. Permitting six year olds to surgically transgender, [an impossibility because we remain what we were created biologically. Just ask famed athlete Bruce Jenner now Ms Caitlyn] and taught masturbation in public schoolrooms. A Woke Catholic. What does our Church do? Sixty Erwachen bishops. All swept up to giddy heights of moral dementia. If some stalwarts are leaving the Church in angry despondency like Steve Skojec [hopefully he’ll regain himself and realize that the moment is permitted to expose the reprobate for judgment] many are blanketing themselves under cover of the Gospels and quiet faith. Others must fight the good fight to the End. Remember we were warned.

  8. The reaility of the Catholic Church in the US is that it is run by “The McCarrick Establishment.”

    These are the Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals and presidents of “Catholic” universities of the McCarrick-cult, who are of one mind with their life-long friend and colleague, the sociopath sex-abusing fraud McCarrick.

    2000 years ago, St. Paul declared that Christians have “the mind of Christ.”

    Quite clearly, many of the key US Cardinal Archbishops and Bishops have “the mind of McCarrick.”

  9. Having visited the old basilica, I saw psomething of note in the crypts, where the Bishops of Baltimore are buried. Ring

    At the crypt of Cardinal Gibbons, there is photo of him standing with President Teddy Roosevelt, and an associated letter (if memory serves), where the President praises Cardinal Gibbons for being “one of the most useful emen in America.”

    I am fairly certain that the letter was posted by the curators of the Basilica as something laudable about the Cardinal.

    From the point of view of Jesus and his Gospel, I do not think that such praise for a Cardinal is indicative of the Kingdom of Heaven, of the vocation of a Bishop as shepherd.

  10. This is what comes of moral legalism or the ERROR that morality is defined by human laws.

    It is a scandal that any politician who claims to be Catholic, and supports the MURDER of unborn children is not censured for it.

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