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Weigel, World Youth Day, and a Conservative Catholicism that Doesn’t Exist

Today, someone sent me the latest column at First Things by American Catholic writer and papal biographer George Weigel, entitled “WYD-1993: The Turning Point.”

I am not, in general, a fan of Weigel’s work, which I find by turns dull and frustrating – often both. This column is no exception, and yet it serves as a potent illustration of something very much worth talking about: that so-called “Conservative Catholicism” is illusory – a self-imposed, often starkly tone-deaf deception designed to maintain an incredibly destructive lie: that the Catholicism you’ve been given your whole life is the real thing, and therefore, worth conserving.

The obviousness of how threadbare this illusion has become makes itself clear when Weigel suggests – in August of 2018! – that the American Catholic Church entered a halcyon period following World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. While the rest of the American Church is currently reeling over changes to its catechisms and another horrifying round of sexual abuse allegations – including those made in solidly “conservative” dioceses like Lincoln – Weigel dons his rose-colored glasses while he cheerfully writes:

WYD 1993 was not just a triumph for John Paul II, and for now-Cardinal Stafford and his team; it was a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, and its effects are still being felt on this silver jubilee. Before WYD 1993, too much of Catholicism in America was in a defensive crouch, like too much of the Church in Western Europe today. After WYD 1993, the New Evangelization in the United States got going in earnest, as Catholics who had participated in it brought home the word that the Gospel was still the most transformative force in the world. Before WYD 1993, U.S. Catholicism was largely an institutional-maintenance Church. With WYD 1993, Catholicism in America discovered the adventure of the New Evangelization, and the living parts of the Church in the U.S. today are the parts that have embraced that evangelical way of being Catholic.

Really, Mr. Weigel? Have you checked the news?

Are we not in a “defensive crouch” today? Has Catholicism, which has been in steady decline in the United States for decades, seen a resurgence nobody has bothered telling us about? Is the clerical CYA racket evidenced by the McCarrick case (and others) not precisely the worst kind of example of U.S. Catholicism as “institutional-maintenance Church”?

And yet, Weigel is not entirely wrong about World Youth Day. He’s just wrong about why it mattered. As I’ve written before, I was a participant in that very same World Youth Day in 1993. I was fifteen years old, and had begun falling in love with the Church I had grown up in as my adolescent sense of truth being something worth pursuing deepened. Even now, 25 years later, I remember standing in my grandmother’s living room, taking the call from my pastor on her yellow rotary phone, hearing the news that I was one of two people from the parish selected to go to Denver.

But as I wrote in 2016, World Youth Day represented a turning point for me, too.

It was at World Youth Day that I first realized how deeply unwell the Catholic Church had really become. From the priest on the pre-trip retreat who questioned Our Lord’s gender and asked everyone to stand for the consecration to the crass behavior of my fellow pilgrims to the first glimpse I had of priests engaging in scandalous, sexually-suggestive behavior, I saw one example after another of a Catholicism in deep distress. And I know I wasn’t alone.

And then there was the big debacle: a woman asked to play Christ at the Stations of the Cross during one of the official World Youth Day events. It was an occurrence that inspired one of the most iconic television moments of all time: an infuriated nun who threw open the windows and yelled that she was mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore. This was a turning point, too, for her – for Mother Angelica and her fledgling Eternal Word Television Network.

But while her anger was justifiable, even she missed the point. As Hilary White wrote two years ago:

This is the speech that really alerted the bishops to the fact that there were still Catholics out there, that their Revolution hadn’t worked. She gave it after what she saw as the last straw: World Youth Day in Denver they gave us a woman acting the part of Christ in the Stations of the Cross. After that she went to war.

But she lost. And do we know why? Because she started with an error. At the beginning of this speech she recites the creed of the American Novusordoist conservatives: Vatican II was wonderful, but those wicked “liberals” highjacked it for their own evil purposes. It is a position that tried to create the compromise space that many American Catholics have tried to live in ever since.

It was this reasonable, nice, friendly, ecumenical position that made it possible for the Catholic leaders of the original pro-life movement of the 70s and 80s to draw in the conservative Protestants; all on the mutual unspoken agreement that we would set aside and never mention the irreconcilable breach between us. It is this false position, this “conservative” middle ground, founded on the new pseudo-doctrine of papal positivism that is now being closed with a resounding clang by the current regime. The old nostrum, the central conservative Novusordoist error of papal positivism: “I’m with the pope and whatever the pope says goes,” is being shown to be a false turn now.

As Ross Douthat said recently, there are roughly three positions in the American Catholic Church (and this spreads up into Canada – though much less in Britain, Australia, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia than most Americans understand). There are “liberals” of the Mahoney/Danneels/Bernardin ilk; the whole spectrum of Traditionalists from the SSPX to the Remnant followers (sedes are in a class of their own); and the conservatives, represented by the George Weigel/First Things/EWTN variety. Among these last have fallen the little group of what we have come to call Papal Apologists – the self-appointed priesthood who have tasked themselves with interpreting and explaining away Pope Francis’ every incomprehensible Pythian utterance.

But this third group, the ones who offered such a pleasing compromise, are the ones who are currently suffering the most. They are the ones who, having adopted the Conservative Novusordoist Creed recited by Mother Angelica at the start of that speech, are now thrown into confusion, frantically denying what is unfolding before their eyes because it fails to fit into their parameters.

As Hilary correctly noted, this error, Weigel’s error, Conservative Catholicism‘s error, is a refusal to recognize that the problems they think they need to fight are baked into the institutions and ideas they seek to defend. This is why so many faithful Catholics in the pews of even the best suburban parishes are at a complete loss as to how to grapple with all that is currently transpiring in the Church. It’s why they are perplexed by the debate over divorce and “remarriage” and Amoris Laetitia; why they struggle with so many utterances of Pope Francis; why they can’t understand how anyone could have a problem with their liturgies.

It is the reason people are so shocked to discover that the Lincoln Diocese – known for as long as I can remember as the home of the fabled Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz and the American vocations boom and that particular breed of Midwestern American conservative orthodoxy – has some terrifying skeletons in its closet.

They can’t make sense of it because their entire paradigm is built on sand. It isn’t even their fault.

All I can tell them, if they’re willing to listen, is something that’s going to be as hard for them to process as it was for me: there is no such thing as Conservative Catholicism. 

There is, in fact, only one type of Catholicism. Catholicism as it always was: a Church founded by Christ and anchored by the apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit in an unbroken chain of succession for nearly 2,000 years in which doctrine and dogma remained consistent and undisturbed, even though heresies great and small threatened to overturn them; a liturgy and devotional life that developed organically, as imperceptibly as a giant oak; a Church Militant nurtured by all these things and in turn nurturing the culture and the civilization that sprung from it.

There is something else, too: an ersatz Catholicism. Catholicism as it has been since 1965: a revolution of novelty that leaves no aspect of the Church’s life untouched, that has created conflicts and contradictions that cannot simply be papered over through fantasy terms like “the hermeneutic of continuity” and has made the experience of the average parish-going Catholic something that would be unrecognizable to his counterpart from a hundred – or a thousand – years earlier.

Conservative Catholicism is false because it seeks to conserve something that is not real: a forcibly orthodox interpretation of a fundamentally heterodox epoch in salvation history. Conservative Catholicism is the theological equivalent – not to put too fine a point on it – of a man who pees on your leg and tells you it’s raining.

For the first time in a long time, an increasing number of people are suddenly realizing that their legs are wet, but the sky is clear.

I wrote earlier this week about how maybe, just like in a movie I recently watched, this is a time where we have to watch everything appear to be destroyed for it to actually be saved. A winnowing, as it were, that will separate wheat from chaff. My friend Hilary has said from the beginning of the Bergoglian disaster that she is thankful, because the Church couldn’t have survived the deception that everything is fine under another a “conservative pontificate.”

The post-conciliar Church is replete with the hallmark legalisms of the devil: things kept just this side of technically valid while riddled with falsity and artifice that lead the believer astray. This new Church was crafted from whole cloth, made as a mask designed to cover the beauty of the real Church, to hide it from our view, to keep us distracted with the concerns of men, and not of God (Mt. 16:23).

What we will all see when we eventually make it to the other side of this disaster is what a growing minority of Catholics have already discovered: there is the Catholicism that always was, and there is the pseudo-Catholicism that seeks to subvert and replace it.

There is nothing else.

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