From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch: ‘The Courage to be Catholic,’ ‘About Schmidt’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 6, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Review

Thirty years ago I used to enjoy reading the weekly columns of George Weigel when he lived in Seattle and wrote for the Seattle Archdiocese’s newspaper.

A few years ago he published a biography of Pope John Paul II. Now Weigel has come out with his assessment of the crisis in the Church. The book is titled The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform and the Future of the Church.

Early on, in what becomes a polemic, Weigel speaks of “reformers” of Vatican II as “a wrecking crew for whom nothing short of Catholicism’s transformation into a kind of high-church, politically correct American ‘denomination’ — Catholic Lite — will suffice.”

The Courage to Be Catholic is not designed to be a bridge-building book in discussing the serious problems the Church is facing in 2002-2003. It is designed to be a clear-cut, strongly stated point of view that says the crisis in the Church is caused by a failure to teach the truth. The author especially emphasizes the teaching of Pope Paul II on sexual morality issues. He does not emphasize the pope’s teachings on such issues as war and peace, capital punishment, and ecumenical outreach.

Weigel traces the key moment of the rise of dissidents who oppose the truth to the Congregation of the Clergy’s response in April of 1971. At that time the Congregation asked Cardinal O’Boyle to lift sanctions against priests in his archdiocese who had publicly not supported the papal document Humane Vitae, issued in 1968. This led to “Cafeteria Catholics,” because there was no longer strict discipline of priests.

The “Truce of 1968” led to dissent among theologians, laxity in seminaries, and an eventual failure to teach the truth.

Also, priests in the 1960s through the 1980s were influenced by Henri Nouwen’s book The Wounded Healer. Clerical sexual misconduct was now seen as a wound that was more properly addressed by a therapist. The clerical culture then began to promote deception and defensiveness.

The answer to this failure is continued reform in the seminaries, a rededication of priests to teaching the truth and living a strict regimen of spiritual exercises, structural reforms on how bishops are appointed, and how the Vatican receives information and appoints bishops.

Some will find Weigel’s arguments convincing. Others will find them less than satisfying. For example, he is very hard on bishops and the U.S. Bishops’ Conference. And yet it is his heroic John Paul II that appointed almost all of the bishops involved in the present crisis. Does not the person at the top bear some of the responsibility?

Weigel is rightfully angry at the sexual abuse crisis. He does not blame the media. He is deeply concerned about victims. He obviously has many close Vatican sources. His description of how the pope came to be aware of the seriousness of the crisis, through the first April 2002 visit of Bishops Gregory and Skylstad, is fascinating. According to Wiegel, three American cardinals speaking to the pope before he met with Bishops Gregory and Skylstad, the president and vice president of the U.S. Bishops Conference, did not get across the seriousness of what was taking place in the United States. When the pope met with the two Bishops he asked, “What is the situation in the United States?” It was then that Bishop Gregory clearly laid out the seriousness of the crisis and the pope understood. The pope, according to Weigel, told the bishops that Rome would support the U. S. Bishops upcoming attempt to adopt national personnel norms in June.

Weigel also clearly takes on the question of how the Vatican gathers information. He argues the Vatican did not take initial reports from the United States seriously for a number of reasons. The result was they were three months behind the curve until the important luncheon of Pope John Paul II with Bishops Gregory and Skylstad.

George Weigel writes clearly. At times his writing is truly impassioned. One may disagree with his causes of the sexual misconduct crisis and still join him in his evident concern for victims, seeking ways to prevent any kind of sexual abuse of minors from happening in the future.

His introductory dedication does draw lines. He writes: “For all those who will contribute to the genuinely Catholic reform of the Church in the United States. You know who you are. Be not afraid.”

I would hope all of us in the Church, no matter what our philosophical, theological and ideological stances, would reach out to work together to heal a seriously wounded Church. I fear it will take 50 years or more to heal. I hope I am wrong.

The Courage to Be Catholic by George Weigel (2002) is published by Basic Books of New York (hardcover, $22).

Movie Review

The theater was packed for an opening day showing of Jack Nicholson’s new film About Schmidt. The interesting reality was that the late afternoon movie was filled with people mostly over age 50.

I must admit that About Schmidt, directed and written by Alexander Payne, is the kind of contemporary search-for-meaning film that I thoroughly enjoy. Jack Nicholson gives the performance of his life as the quiet, introverted insurance “number counter” who retires at the beginning of the film.

As he retires from the Woodman Insurance Company in Omaha, the retirement party is filled with sorrow and a sense of failure. Nicholson’s character, Warren Schmidt, even sneaks into the bar for a few minutes to get away from the depressing party. His best friend goes on and on about the value of work. The important thing is to be productive.

One night, watching TV alone, Warren happens upon an ad for a mission project in Tanzania. He decides in his depressed state to send in $22 a month and become a foster parent to an African child. He receives a letter from the children’s group telling him that his orphan is six years old and named Ndugu. Warren is told that it is appropriate to write to the boy and tell him something about his life in Omaha. The result is a voice-over during much of the movie where Warren opens up more to Ndugu than he has to his wife and daughter.

When his wife Helen (June Squibb) dies tragically, Warren begs his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) not to return to Denver and take care of him at least for a few weeks. Jeannie puts limits on her response and says she must return to Denver to plan for her wedding to Randall Hertzel (Dearmot Mulroney). Warren can’t stand his daughter’s beloved. The young man is straight out of the 1960s in hair style and wears all of his emotions on his sleeve. Warren even lies to Jeanne that his wife did not want Jeanne to marry Randall. Lots of anger appears as Jeanne speaks with much hurt about the low-price casket that Warren purchased for his wife’s funeral. It becomes clear that Warren has not spent much time with Jeanne during her growing-up years. Now he wants to control her choices and she is not a happy camper.

About Schmidt continues with Warren trying to work through the loss of his wife, who he grows to appreciate more each day. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when Warren looks into the mirror and puts his wife’s white face cream all over his face, like a crying clown. And yet his wife’s human failure will come to Warren’s attention. The pain and eventual reconciliation become extraordinary.

He decides to hit the road to Denver in the luxurious camper that his wife had pushed him to buy. She even told Jeanne she spent much of her money to force Warren to buy the nice model. But Jeanne doesn’t want him to come until the day before the actual wedding. So Warren with hurt feelings travels Nebraska and Kansas in search of finding himself.

When he finally gets to Denver and meet Randall’s Mom (Kathy Bates) the humor increases. A scene involving a hot tub is priceless. Warren’s first-time attempt to negotiate a waterbed is pure comedy.

And yet the movie always has a sadness just beneath the surface. It is an enjoyable film that forces us to face the emptiness and pain in our own lives. Warren is, in a sense, a hallow man, but in another sense he is Everyman.

There is no question Jack Nicholson deserves an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor of the year. Kathy Bates definitely deserves a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the year.

Alexander Payne presents the Fargo-like strength of Mid-America. But he brilliantly show the sometimes dark humor of the faithful, responsible citizen always trying to do the right thing. He gives us the pain and some of the joy of being a human being. Hey, if this isn’t one of the best pictures of the year, I don’t know what is.

About Schmidt is rated R because of some salty language and very brief nudity. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates About Schmidt as A-III – for adults.

(Father Caswell is Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane and pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press.)


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