George Weigel is one of the pre-eminent commentators on Catholicism today, and author of, among others, a bestselling biography of Pope John Paul II. Weigel recently published Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century.
Weigel discusses the future of the church and the challenges facing a new pope with author, journalist, commentator and Catholic scholar Michael Novak, author of more than 25 books, including The Open Church.
MICHAEL NOVAK: George, your new book could not have come at a better time–these days it is being quoted daily in television interviews with cardinals who are streaming into Rome. I like its implicit image that the church through its long history seems to live in a cocoon for a century or so, and then break forth like a newly resplendent butterfly, reborn and fresh for new challenges. You show how long this new rebirth has been generating in the church, some 150 years. Pope John Paul II invited you into his friendship as you interviewed him for his biography over many months–and you know now much he cherished the Second Vatican Council (1961-65) and wanted to rescue its main lessons from systematic distortion. Now you have found new words to get to the heart of this long-gestating rebirth.
And one other thing I notice: From so many quarters today we hear a super-aggressive hatred for the Catholic church, not least for its Pope. Yet here many of the major media so often contemptuous of the Pope are utterly fascinated by yet another conclave, summoned in an orderly way to choose a new Pope. What do you think your book is saying to the bitter critics of the church, first of all?
GEORGE WEIGEL: I hope it’s saying that the church is alive, that the liveliest parts of the church are those parts that have embraced the symphony of Catholic truth in full–and I even cherish the hope that some who are caught in the postmodern sandbox of self-absorption faintly recognize in Catholicism the possibility of a nobler, more humanly fulfilling path than living according to the mantra of “me, myself, and I.”
Evangelical Catholicism is aborning for two reasons: the internal dynamics you described, which touch the church’s understanding that she must always be purified so that the Gospel she preaches is mirrored in her own life, and the external environment, which is now so hostile to biblical religion throughout the Western world that only an affirmative orthodoxy, lived in mission, can meet its challenge–and perhaps invite secularists to think again about the possibility of friendship with Jesus Christ.
Here in Rome, the basic division is between those who get this–who understand with Vatican II, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI that the Church is a communion of disciples in mission and that everything and everyone in the Church must be measured by mission-effectiveness–and those who want to retreat into institutional-maintenance Catholicism (in either its starboard or portside variants). If my books helps put all of this in a broader historical context, so that we aren’t going through one more tedious round in the Vatican II Wars, then I’ll be gratified.
NOVAK: On your side is that Catholics now number 1.2 billion human beings on earth–one out of six–and are growing rapidly, faster than Muslims.The atheist part of the earth is shrinking, as more and more persons lose meaning, purpose, and even the heart to defend themselves–and fewer couples have children. But your central point is how Evangelical Catholicism will change the people in the pews, say, in America.
Do you expect that, quietly and one by one, more and more Catholics will seek opportunities to speak openly about the love and might of the Son of God within them? And during their lifetimes bring into our growing communion, say, three or four converts? In a generation that might mean 100 million new U.S. Catholics.
WEIGEL: Evangelical Catholic pastors, like my friend Father Scott Newman in Greenville, South Carolina (to whom, with Russ Hittinger, Evangelical Catholicism is dedicated), give their people a new conviction about their baptismal dignity, a conviction that leads them into a richer experience of the sacraments and a more intense, daily encounter with the Bible. And the results are remarkable: at every Easter Vigil, 30, 40, or 50 new Catholics are either baptized as adults or received into the full communion of the church. They’ve often been invited to consider Catholicism by their neighbors, the parishioners of St. Mary’s; they’ve been well-instructed by the parish’s permanent deacons and Father Newman; and when they come into the community of St. Mary’s, Greenville, they know that they, too, are taking on an evangelical, or missionary obligation. It takes years to build up this sort of momentum, but once it reaches what you might call ecclesial critical mass, it snowballs. And it has staying power, because the conversions involved are not merely emotional, but have real content.
This pattern replicates itself throughout the liveliest sectors of the church: among youth groups like FOCUS (which work on campuses); among the growing communities of religious women; in various renewal movements and new forms of Catholic community. There’s a hunger in the West for something more substantial than the thin gruel of solipsism. That hunger can be met by Catholic clergy and laity who have been deeply formed by the Gospel, are transparent to the love of Jesus Christ at work in their own lives, and understand that inviting others into the fellowship of faith, and who, with John Paul II, know that the paradox of faith is that it increases the more it is given to others.
NOVAK: Our mutual friend Mary Eberstadt has written in her upcoming book, How the West Lost God, that family life is the natural language in which Christian life is first learned and comes alive. So I liked what you said about the “family church” as the living cell of faith. And I’m grateful for what you write about in “The Reform of Catholic Marriage.” It’s past due. The distortions that have arisen since the false readings of Vatican II have been ugly.
WEIGEL: The marriage crisis throughout the western world seems to me both an impediment to the New Evangelization and a spur to it. The terrible social effects of the sexual revolution and the reduction of sexual love to just another contact sport have now become undeniable: women who can’t find husbands; spouses who look on children as a lifestyle accessory; men who’ve been told by culture and society that sexual predation is a kind of right; internet pornography addiction wreaking havoc in young and old lives alike.
In the face of all this ugliness and unhappiness, the Catholic sexual ethic begins to look, not like some dreary laundry list of “No’s,” but as a very great “Yes” to human dignity, fidelity, promise-making and promise-keeping, and a badly-needed reaffirmation of the built-into-the-human-condition linkage between sexual love and procreation.
In an Evangelical Catholic context, these truths are often best conveyed by married couples who see their marriages as instruments for the evangelization of other married couples, especially those who may be struggling with the afterburn of the marriage culture breakdown. Marriage preparation programs in parishes–again, often best conducted by married couples with assistance from priests and deacons–are a great opportunity to invite engaged couples into a more integral and intense practice of Catholicism and the embrace of a robust faith that is an enormous help in navigating the rocks and shoals of postmodern culture, where solipsism is one of the biggest challenges to happy and fruitful marriages.
NOVAK: Looks like we’ve run out of space, George. A lot more I’d like to ask you. Can’t wait to be able to talk to you in person, when you get back from Rome. Enjoy a good pasta for me at our regular haunts. Give my best to our friends.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.