Rome's Cassandra: On George Weigel
Tutored by a fierce little platoon of tireless, ambitious and well-connected neoconservative intellectuals, many of the most influential Catholic hierarchs in the United States did everything in their power to obstruct Barack Obama’s first-term agenda. Fevered opposition to Obama was evident at the bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore, one week after the 2008 election, when one bishop after another warned, often in apocalyptic terms, of the grave danger that the new president posed to the nation and to the sanctity of life. First among the bishops’ fears was that Obama would shepherd into law the Freedom of Choice Act, securing the right to abortion by statute and eliminating state and federal restrictions on the procedure.
Obama, a moderate politician with little interest in inflaming the public on the abortion issue, did no such thing. Yet the episcopacy’s fears were not allayed, and in 2010 the relationship between the hierarchy and the administration flared into confrontation. After decades of advocating for universal healthcare, the bishops opposed the president’s Affordable Care Act, alleging that it would open the door to federal funding of elective abortions—a judgment rejected by other anti-abortion Catholic groups, including the Catholic Health Association. Tensions escalated in 2011, when the Department of Health and Human Services determined that free contraception must be included in every healthcare insurance plan. Exemptions were given to certain religious institutions, such as parishes, but not to Catholic universities or hospitals. When the bishops objected vociferously (and rightly, in my opinion), the administration backtracked, proposing an accommodation that spares such institutions direct involvement in the funding of contraceptives while making free contraception available to employees through third parties. Accusing Obama of waging a “war on religion,” the bishops and their allies scoffed at this compromise and proceeded to mount an even more aggressive political and legal campaign of resistance. (In February, the Obama administration issued a revised set of guidelines concerning the accommodation. So far, the bishops and their allies have rejected the proposal.)
In April 2012, as part of its effort to overturn the mandate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” a broadside condemning the contraception mandate and other alleged threats to religious freedom. The document invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight against legal segregation, characterizing the mandate as an “unjust law” that “cannot be obeyed” and calling for a national protest movement to resist “totalitarian incursions against religious liberty.” A number of bishops went further, making it clear that no “faithful” Catholic could vote for Obama. One prelate in Illinois compared the president to Attila the Hun, Hitler and Stalin, a paranoid vision worthy of Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.
This was not a view widely shared by Americans, or ultimately by most American Catholics, who voted to re-elect the president by a margin of 50 to 48 percent. The election results, a triumph for Obama and for pro-choice Democratic Senate candidates, also included the approval of same-sex marriage in three states over the church’s voluble opposition. Mark Silk, a columnist and blogger for Religion News Service, observed that the bishops “got their butts kicked from coast to coast.” Yet they remain obdurate. Many are convinced that the United States is moving inexorably toward a regime of religious intolerance, where those who hold to traditional biblical notions of sexual morality will not only be ostracized but discriminated against and even persecuted by the government. Stirring such fears, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, former president of the USCCB, has warned that while he expects to die in his bed, his successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr.
The Catholic right is rife with aspirational talk of martyrdom at the hands of a secular liberalism run amok. Legal access to abortion remains at the center of what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death” that threatens the moral basis of modern democracy, while the legal recognition of same-sex marriage is seen as an attack on the God-given nature of sexual difference and of the family. Pope Benedict XVI denounced these developments, along with the push for assisted suicide, as the inevitable result of “the dictatorship of relativism.” Having rejected any metaphysical basis for sexual morality, the sanctity of life or the protection of human rights, modern liberal society in this view is destined to pose an ever greater threat to human dignity and freedom.
While the bishops are not wrong in objecting to the government forcing Catholic institutions to provide coverage for what the church has long (if mistakenly) judged immoral, no one in the Obama administration who promotes access to contraception is demanding that Catholics abjure the Apostles’ Creed or acknowledge an earthly authority over that of God. If that were the case, I believe Americans would rally to the bishops’ side. Most Americans, however, including most Catholics, do not appear to see either the Affordable Care Act or same-sex marriage as an existential threat to the church’s freedom.
Such Catholics wonder why the bishops find the trajectory of American culture so ominous—and why they have taken such a confrontational approach to this administration. When Obama was invited to give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in 2009, more than eighty bishops condemned the university. That a duly elected president of the United States should be regarded as a moral monster unworthy of being given a hearing—especially at a school as steeped in American patriotism as Notre Dame—is bizarre. The uproar and the bitter recrimination that followed Obama’s speech revealed how deeply divided and directionless the once formidably cohesive American Catholic Church has become. And if George Weigel’s new book is any indication of where the church’s hierarchy is headed, the divisions promise to grow deeper. Indeed, a good deal of the blame for the bishops’ belligerent public posture can be laid directly on the desk of the author of Evangelical Catholicism.
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Weigel is best-known as the author of Witness to Hope (1999), a bestselling biography of Pope John Paul II. The tome was frankly hagiographic, and Weigel directed much of his considerable energy then and since into promoting what he characterizes as John Paul’s “authoritative interpretation” of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). (Weigel played a prominent role as an expert commentator for NBC during much of the recent papal conclave.) After two centuries of striking a defiant tone of resistance to modernity and liberalism, the church at Vatican II embraced a more conciliatory attitude toward modernity, particularly the idea of democracy. Catholics have been arguing ever since about how accommodating the church should be to democratic values, including when it comes to governing decisions within the church. John Paul’s interpretation, as championed by Weigel, emphasizes obedience to papal authority, suppression of theological dissent, and an unyielding defense of the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church—especially the exclusively male priesthood.