Rome's Cassandra: On George Weigel
In line with these priorities, Weigel’s oeuvre possesses an impeccable neoconservative pedigree. Among his books are polemical pamphlets like The Truth of Catholicism (2001) and The Courage to Be Catholic (2002), where he first rehearsed much of the reform program set out in Evangelical Catholicism. He writes a weekly column, “The Catholic Difference,” syndicated to more than fifty diocesan newspapers; is a regular contributor to National Review Online and the religious journal First Things; and has long been associated with the neoconservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. His first book, Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (1987), was a lengthy explication of traditional Christian “just war” thinking, which he argued was being misrepresented and corrupted by Catholic pacifists and others opposed to the Cold War nuclear deterrence policies of the United States. The book was, in essence, a lengthy rebuttal of the Catholic bishops’ widely praised 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” which to Weigel’s irritation had criticized the Reagan administration’s military buildup and, by implication, its “secret” wars in Central America. The bishops raised doubts about the morality of nuclear deterrence, noting that Catholic teaching absolutely forbids the direct targeting of noncombatants. Given the certainty of massive noncombatant deaths in any nuclear exchange, the document urged that the US-Soviet standoff be managed with a “presumption against war,” and it extended that presumption to smaller conflicts with the potential to escalate into superpower confrontations. Weigel rejected those claims, dismissing what he viewed as the bishops’ knee-jerk anti-anticommunism and utopian moralizing, and asserting that the Soviet Union’s imperialist ambitions and moral bankruptcy, not the US nuclear deterrent, were the real threat to peace.
Weigel celebrated the end of the Soviet Union not only as a vindication of Reagan’s military policy but also as a triumph of Polish Catholic resistance to communist totalitarianism, and he assigned a large role to Pope John Paul II for that startling denouement. In his view, John Paul understood—unlike liberals in the West who championed co-existence with the USSR—that a system based on a purely materialistic understanding of reality and a false conception of human nature was doomed from the start. In denying mankind’s God-given freedoms, the first and most important being religious freedom, communism condemned itself to extinction.
For Weigel, a similar fate hangs over our own society today. He has contempt for what he calls America’s “toxic cultural environment” and blames the hubris of liberal elites for that culture’s antinomianism. Like most neocons, he views the 1960s as a source of moral chaos. But he has even more disdain for Catholics who think the church might benefit from a measure of democratic reform. Catholicism, he likes to say, is not a discussion group. The same fate that history visited on atheistic communism, Weigel warns, will befall the “soft totalitarianism” of the secular, liberal West if it continues to turn away from the truths of Catholicism. Indeed, as “nihilism, skepticism, and moral relativism erode the very foundations of the democratic project,” the Catholic Church, Weigel insists, represents nothing less than the “last institutional obstacle to the revolution of debonair nihilism” that is insidiously destroying American democracy.
It’s not easy to reconcile these Cassandra-like pronouncements with Weigel’s fervently evangelical faith in the United States’ ability to spread democracy around the world at gunpoint. A strong proponent of the first Gulf War, he became an enthusiastic advocate and then an unrepentant defender of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In a now notorious 2003 article in First Things, “Moral Clarity in a Time of War,” Weigel disparaged religious leaders who questioned the morality of pre-emptive war, which had been long condemned by “just war” teaching. In a novel rhetorical move, he urged readers to place their trust in what he called the “charism of responsibility” and the “charism of political discernment” bestowed on “duly constituted public authorities”—namely, the Bush administration. While you and I might consider those authorities spectacularly arrogant and ill-informed, Weigel assured us not only that they are “more fully informed about the relevant facts,” but that they “bear the weight of responsible decision-making and governance”—a responsibility that dithering religious intellectuals could hardly fathom. “Moral clarity in a time of war demands moral seriousness from public officials. It also demands a measure of political modesty from religious leaders and public intellectuals.”
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Modesty is not a charism Weigel is unduly burdened by. He thinks of himself as a player at the center of political and ecclesiastical power, and he appears in fact to have had the ear of at least some close to the born-again George W. Bush. In The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (2006), Damon Linker recounts how Weigel excitedly phoned Richard John Neuhaus, founding editor of First Things, with the news that he had gotten a few lines into Bush’s second inaugural address. Linker observes that thanks to Weigel’s dogged industry, the “most important contribution of the Catholic ‘just war’ tradition to contemporary American politics” has been “providing moral and theological imprimatur for the foreign policies of successive Republican presidents.”
Such “contributions” from Weigel have not been limited to foreign policy. In 1986, three years after “The Challenge of Peace,” the USCCB released a pastoral letter about economic policy that Weigel and his fellow neocons also found objectionable. “Economic Justice for All” tackled the failures and disparities of modern capitalism. While recognizing the dynamism of that system, the bishops insisted that the American economy be judged not by the wealth it produces but by how it treats the poorest among us. Conservative Catholic critics complained that bishops simply don’t have the expertise to make sophisticated statements about economics; Weigel, for his part, later pronounced gleefully that “Economic Justice for All” was “run over and left on the side of the road by John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus,” a document often (and inaccurately) cited by Catholic neocons as a full-throated endorsement of modern market economies.