Volume > Issue > The Muscular & Visionary Pope

The Muscular & Visionary Pope


By Edward R.F. Sheehan | September 1990
Edward R.F. Sheehan, former Fellow of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard, is the author of Agony in the Garden: A Stranger in Central America. He has authored several other works of nonfiction, as well as novels and plays, and has contributed articles to The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and Commonweal. A former U.S. diplomat to the Middle East, he is a recipient of the Overseas Press Club Award for distinguished interpretation of foreign affairs.

In the summer of 1976 I visited John Car­dinal Wright, a friend since my youth, at his apartment near the Vatican. I had been a college student and he had been Auxiliary Bishop of Boston when I first knew him in what now seems like another age, when the Church was very imperfect but its norms were respected by the faithful and family life was still largely intact, and when even in secular society the Church as an institution inspired awe. John Wright went on to become Bishop of Worcester and then of Pittsburgh before be­ing made a cardinal and Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Clergy in 1969. As an American bishop he was recognized as the leading intellectual in the U.S. hierarchy, and something of a liberal in social matters. Throughout the 1970s his letters to me made obvious his increasing anger at the doctrinal confusion and collapse of discipline in the Church. During our reunion in Rome in 1976 I found him a deeply unhappy man, and ill.

Cardinal Wright suffered from a degen­erative disease that affected his hands and his ability to walk. Urbane, delightfully witty, highly cultured, kind, compulsively generous, and a bit vain, he had dreamed since youth of the Sacred Purple, but when it was finally conferred it did not bring joy. He told me of how terribly he missed his old diocese, of how he hated playing “second fiddle” to Paul VI’s closest advisers, with whom he quarreled. But most of all, what saddened him (as it sad­dened Paul VI, drove him to fits of weeping) was the state of the Church: the disorder among clergy and laity, the Church’s loss of a clear identity in the wake of the dashed hopes of Vatican II.

As I listened to the Cardinal, I relived my own disillusion. Like so many educated Ro­man Catholics of my generation, I had become theologically “liberal” during and just after Vatican II, in the belief that by accommodating freely to the temper of the modern world the Church might lessen the anguish of humanity in this life and advance her mission of salvation for the next. In the early 1970s a promi­nent American publication sent me to the Netherlands to write an article about the Dutch Church. The experience became a crux. I was horrified.

Generally, I found the Dutch Church so anxious to converge with the modern world that acceptance of artificial contraception, abor­tion, and premarital sex and homosexual mar­riage (so long as “love” and “commitment” were present) was increasingly common among theologians and laity alike. Ageless doctrines, such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, were being explained away by Dutch theologians. The Dutch seemed re­solved to remove all the mysteries and ambi­guities of ultramontane Catholicism, and, with their Nordic fixation on legality, to align the­ory with behavior. They wished to end the classic tension between doctrine and the world.

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