Rome’s Cassandra: On George Weigel

Rome’s Cassandra: On George Weigel

The neoconservative leading the fight over the legacy of Vatican II in the American Church.


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.

* * *

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.

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.”

* * *

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.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

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.”

* * *

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.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy