Rome's Cassandra: On George Weigel
Both theologically and ecclesiastically, Weigel is the avatar of a rigid and reactionary approach to American diversity. Addressing social issues, he can be histrionic and even hysterical. He warns that abortion and same-sex marriage represent a “totalitarian temptation” grounded in an “attempt to remake human nature and accelerate humanity’s march toward an ultramundane and hypersecular utopia.” What he calls “the ‘gay marriage’ insurgency” turns out to be “nothing less than an effort to redefine human nature through the use of state power, coercively if necessary.” If the state can enforce its redefinition of marriage, Weigel warns, “it can do so with the doctor-patient relationship, the lawyer-client relationship, the parent-child relationship, the confessor-penitent relationship, and virtually every other relationship that is woven into the texture of civil society.”
Really? I’m not denying that the prospect of compelling religious communities to sanction practices they have long condemned is not without problems. If we value diversity, we must also value a diversity of communities, no matter how much one might object to their principles. The challenge, of course, lies in how to manage the interaction between these various groups and the larger culture, and especially between communities of conscience and the state. Have we always gotten this right? No. But to invoke the specter of totalitarian coercion is either disingenuous or wildly alarmist.
I suspect, in Weigel’s case, it is the latter. In Evangelical Catholicism—a repetitious diatribe that advances its case by assertion rather than by argument or analysis—he is convinced that the United States is teetering on the edge of a moral and political precipice, and that only a revival of Catholic belief and virtue can pull the nation back. Yet how likely is it that such a revival will occur? Weigel looks to the vitality and growth of Evangelical Protestantism for inspiration, but in the United States, those churches are in decline. And younger Americans are fleeing organized religion in droves: fully one-third of those under 30 describe themselves as having no religion, an unprecedented development. According to the sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, younger Americans have rejected institutional religion precisely because it is too highly politicized. The uncompromising stance of conservative Christians like Weigel on abortion, homosexuality and sexual morality has not converted a generation of Americans, but rather deeply alienated them.
Nor is it possible to police the boundaries of the Catholic Church in the way Weigel imagines. As with all voluntary associations, those boundaries are too porous and the tools available for border enforcement too weak. Discipline could be enforced in “tribal” Catholicism because it was tribal, its profound sense of solidarity forged on multiple personal, social and economic levels. Most Catholics in this country have long departed those ethnic enclaves to become fully assimilated Americans. In an essay published forty years ago in The New York Review of Books, the critic and novelist Wilfrid Sheed assessed the disarray that swept over the American Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. “The one kind of society that the church cannot adjust to,” Sheed wrote, “is no society at all, i.e., a setup where community has become so fragmented that a communal religion is a fiction, sustained only by talk and make-news items in the press and television.”
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That materialistic, mobile and highly individualistic society is precisely where most Americans live. Weigel sees the problem—a collapse of institutional confidence has shaped his theology and neoconservative views as much as his passionate faith has—but ignores the cause; he refuses to recognize that when it comes to the preservation of communities of faith and tradition, the great disaggregating force is not the permissive morality of liberal elites but our economic system. “A religion is simply a society in one of its aspects,” Sheed wrote; “and if the American Catholic Church is scattered and confused right now (and even its best friends don’t deny it), consider the rest of America.” And: “The cure, if it comes, would include a cultural revolution affecting many things besides the Catholic Church.”
Sheed was the son of two of the greatest Catholic evangelists of the last century, but I’m sure his longed-for revolution would not look anything like the one sketched in Evangelical Catholicism. Weigel proposes almost nothing but the kind of false choices we can no longer afford. Either you believe everything the church teaches or none of it; either you are against abortion or you’re for it; either you know marriage was created by God or you think it’s infinitely malleable; either Americans are decadent, fuzzy-thinking liberals or strait-laced, right-thinking conservatives. Weigel’s sensibility is Manichean, which is ironic in someone so boastful of his orthodox Christian credentials; moreover, his Manicheanism can be traced to his misreading of the Second Vatican Council. It is true that the council was evangelical and missionary in character, and that it did not shy from making universalist claims. But the council fathers also recognized, crucially, that the church’s universalism will prove credible in the modern world only if its doors open both ways—letting modernity in as well as engaging with it critically—and that this openness will have implications not only for the church’s culture, but also for its theology. Though Weigel would deny the charge, it is impossible to read Evangelical Catholicism and not think that he is determined to close as many doors as possible.
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, a fitful Catholic who knew a thing or two about totalitarianism, had a better sense of where salvation might lie. “For me the religious dimension is extremely important,” he once said in an interview. “I feel that everything depends on whether people are pious or not pious. Reverence toward being, which can be formulated in strictly religious terms or more general terms, that is the basic value. Piety protects us against nihilism.”
Weigel would judge harshly Milosz’s belief that even nonbelievers can hold life sacred. But Milosz was right. Catholicism teaches that God’s presence is not confined to his church. He is also busy at work among pious liberals and secularists, although you would be hard-pressed to learn that religious truth from reading Weigel’s supposedly evangelical book. Like most Catholics, I don’t believe that the liberals in the Obama administration are out to marginalize the Catholic Church or religious people generally. I suspect, in fact, that if the church is marginalized, it will mostly have itself to blame—and also, to some extent, ardent defenders of the faith like George Weigel.