Rome's Cassandra: On George Weigel
Despite Weigel’s outspoken objections to the USCCB’s public policy positions, his influence among American bishops has only grown, especially as younger and more conservative prelates, such as current USCCB president Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City, have won favor in Rome and come to dominate the national conference, as was the case at the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore this past November. (Dolan recently hired one of Sarah Palin’s former domestic policy advisers as a spokesperson.) Central to the meeting’s agenda was a proposed statement, “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times,” on the suffering caused by the Great Recession. A draft version of the document largely ignored traditional Catholic concerns with economic inequality, the rights of workers to unionize and the moral imperative of a family wage, instead situating the economic crisis in the context of the nation’s moral failings—especially the high incidence of divorce and abortion and the threat to the family posed by same-sex marriage. As for pastoral advice, the draft implored the faithful to return to the study of the catechism, noting that it is “not within our power finally to fix the world of all its ills.”
As one former president of the USCCB complained, the draft statement failed to consider most of the church’s traditional teachings on economic questions and conspicuously avoided any reference to “Economic Justice for All.” Barely mentioned were public policies that might bring about a greater degree of economic justice; instead, the document seemed implicitly to question the very usefulness of the bishops’ contributing to the larger public discourse. “Some matters before our Catholic conscience are bedrock principles of human dignity and the common good, the protection of human life, and the nature of marriage as given to us by God,” the draft concluded. “Some things are of a more prudential nature, such as how to regulate banking and lending institutions, or how best to allocate public funds to assist those who are in need of assistance.”
The proposed document represented a profound shift in the USCCB’s outlook. Many older bishops objected, and the draft failed to receive the two-thirds majority required for approval. But the tally fell short by only a few votes, a clear indication of where the increasingly conservative conference is headed. In the future, it looks like the bishops will be speaking out on “bedrock principles of human dignity” and lying low when it comes to questions of tax fairness, unemployment, the rights of workers, the plight of the uninsured or American military adventurism.
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Surely Weigel is pleased by this development, but I doubt he’s surprised. The content of the bishops’ draft statement bears a striking resemblance to recommendations he makes in Evangelical Catholicism. The church’s expertise, he insists, lies with its command of first principles, namely life issues and marriage; policy statements by the bishops on economics, welfare, immigration or nuclear weapons are not only likely to be errant but counterproductive, damaging the church’s credibility and betraying its mission. Such overreaching efforts show a “lack of discipline,” according to Weigel, and “inevitably suggest that all issues are equal.”
But all issues are not equal in Weigel’s church. Abortion, marriage and religious liberty are the bedrock issues, and the bishops must speak out unapologetically—and uncompromisingly—about them. Cooperating with advocates of abortion rights or same-sex marriage to reduce the number of abortions or repair the marriage culture, for example, is simply out of the question: in preserving free and virtuous societies, the church “does not seek to ‘get along’; it seeks to convert.” Weigel has lamented the fate of “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times,” and says that those bishops who voted against it “haven’t quite caught on to the New Evangelization, in which the Church measures everything in light of ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus (our) Lord.” The situation is dire, and time short. Led by evangelical bishops, Catholics must be “capable of bringing real pressure to bear on political leaders: political pressure and financial pressure.”
According to Weigel, the evangelical Catholicism of his book’s title represents a necessary departure from the “Counter-reformation” or so-called tribal Catholicism of recent centuries. In his view, a Catholicism held together by ethnic affinities possesses neither the fervor nor the missionary commitment needed to meet the challenges of postmodernity. In place of the bricklayer bishops who built a Catholic subculture of schools, hospitals and civic associations across America, what’s needed today are bishops like the late John Paul II, men who speak of their faith in compelling, adamantine and fearless ways. These bishops will be disciplinarians, unabashed in demanding doctrinal obedience from priests, women in religious orders and those in the pews. Theologians and politicians who publicly dissent from church teaching must be told that they are no longer Catholic in “any meaningful sense.” Catholics who do not believe everything the church teaches should leave. (It will be interesting to see how this “new breed” of priests and bishops responds to the leadership of the recently elected Pope Francis, who seems to take a less confrontational approach to secular culture than Weigel does.)
Those who stay, meanwhile, will come to understand and speak of their faith in an evangelical idiom once considered Protestant. Catholics must not merely know about Jesus, but actually know Jesus himself in a personal way; and so “friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ” will become as integral to Catholic identity and piety as Sunday Mass and the sacraments. The task before the new breed of priests and bishops is essentially missionary work, and much of it will be directed at the many Catholics whom Weigel and his acolytes view at best as nominal believers—and, at worst, as baptized pagans.
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Why would Weigel assume that the “deep reform” of the Catholic Church is relevant to the political and cultural life of most Americans? Because he thinks that, as with Poland under communist domination, America’s fate is now intimately linked to that of Catholicism. “The Catholic Church is now the world’s premier institutional proponent of human rights and democracy,” he claims—by which he means that the church’s “social doctrine offers a principled framework” for the preservation of the West’s failing democracies. As far as Weigel is concerned, no other options are available.
What to make of these grandiose claims? In one sense, Weigel is repeating what the Catholic Church has always taught. Conversion is what Christianity is about, and so Catholicism, often married to Aristotelian and Thomist notions of natural law and natural rights, remains a vital force in the American political tradition. But the resources of that tradition are broader than the abstract and self-evident truths, invoked by the Declaration of Independence, on which Weigel places such emphasis. The tradition has made use of a variety of philosophical resources, including Enlightenment rationalism, civic republicanism, secular liberal rights theory and pragmatism. It is unlikely we will succeed in forging a more perfect union if we do not make use of all the political resources at our disposal. “During the last century the United States has become a multicultural society, and it will continue to become more rather than less diverse,” writes the historian James Kloppenberg in The Virtues of Liberalism. (The voter demographics of Obama’s re-election reinforce this point.) Our central challenge, Kloppenberg argues, is how to accommodate our differences, not how to minimize or ignore them: “The more we focus attention on such either/or formulations as the right to choose or the right to life, the presence or absence of prayer in school, affirmative action or meritocracy, the more rigidly we lock ourselves into a politics of false choices.”