Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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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)
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
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
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).
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
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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