George Weigel is one of the leading authorities on
the Catholic Church in the world. He is the author of more than 15 books,
including Witness to Hope and The End and
the Beginning, the two-part biography of Blessed Pope John Paul II,
and most recently, Evangelical Catholicism:
Deep Reform in the 21st Century Catholic Church. Weigel has just returned from Rome, where he
covered the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope
Francis. Catholic World Report contributor
Christopher White recently caught up with Weigel to discuss these events and
what they mean for the future of “Evangelical Catholicism.”
CWR: What is Evangelical
Catholicism? Is it not just an attempt to rebrand the Church to make it more
attractive to Evangelical Protestants who are suspicious of Catholics?
Weigel: Evangelical Catholicism is the form of Catholicism
that is being born from a process of deep Catholic reform that began with Pope
Leo XIII, that continued in the great Catholic renewal movements of the
mid-20th century, and that reached a high point of ecclesiastical drama at
Vatican II, which has now been given an authoritative interpretation by John
Paul II and Benedict XVIthe Church is to understand itself as a communion (communio) of disciples in mission, formed
by friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ and by an ongoing immersion in both
Word and Sacrament. As the distinctive “form” of patristic Catholicism
succeeded primitive Christianity, and the distinctive “form” of medieval
Christianity succeeded patristic Christianity, to be succeeded in turn by the
distinctive “form” of Counter-Reformation Catholicism after the fracture of
western Christendom, so, now the distinctive “form” of Counter-Reformation
Christianity is being succeeded by the distinctive “form” of Evangelical
Catholicism. This movement is both internally driven (the Church seeking to be
a more perfect witness to her divine Spouse) and a response to the ambient
culture in which the Gospel must be preached (a culture now increasingly
hostile to the faith).
CWR: You state that Dei Verbum is the key Vatican II
document for the deep reform of the Catholic Church. What do we learn from Dei Verbum that is essential for the
future of the Church?
Weigel: Dei Verbum asserts that what the Church proclaims is true:
not just true-for-Catholics, but true, period. That is, the Catholic claim is
not just one “narrative” in a supermarket of religious storylines or
worldviews; the Catholic claim is the truth of the world, because it is the
revelation of the one true God. That is a profoundly challenging and
countercultural claim. But it is the claim on which Catholicism stands or fallsand
embracing it is the beginning of Catholic mission.
CWR: In addressing some of
the hard questions on life issues, sexual ethics, and the celibate priesthood,
you note that we should adjust our language. Rather than beginning with
statements like “the Church teaches...”, you suggest we begin first with the Gospel,
stating that “the Gospel reveals...” What is the advantage of this? And to a
secular audience, won’t such statements still fall on deaf ears?
Weigel: Arguments from religious authority (like arguments
from virtually all other forms of authority) fall on deaf ears in a post-modern
culture. “The Gospel reveals...” is a game-changer; it’s a startling claim that
can shake cynical post-moderns out of the sandbox of self-absorption in which
authority-claims fall on deaf ears.
CWR: You’ve just returned
from a long month in Rome covering the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the
election of Pope Francis. What is the mood like on the ground in Rome, both
from those within and outside of the Church?
Weigel: Closer to six weeks, actually. The Church was clearly
in crisis with the unprecedented decision of Pope Benedict to renounce the
Chair of Peter, but the crisis has been weathered and Pope Francis will
continue to accelerate the Church’s drive into an evangelical future, while
reforming the engine room of the Barque of Peter so that it becomes a
contributor to that mission, not an impediment to it.
CWR: With the election of
Pope Francis, the entire world was given a taste of Catholicism as a result of
the nonstop media coverage. With the Catholic Church now on everyone’s radar,
how can the Church build on this momentum?
Weigel: I wouldn’t count too much on fickle media momentum;
if Queen Elizabeth II or Nelson Mandela had died during the papal interregnum,
attention would have quickly shifted to England or South Africa. The momentum
on which the Church of the 21st century can build is the revelation during
these past six weeks of its own remarkable vitality, manifest in the crowds
that came to Rome to say goodbye to Benedict XVI and that welcomed his successor
with such enthusiasm, as well as in the oceans of prayer that supported the
College of Cardinals in their work.
CWR: You spent some time
last year with Cardinal Bergoglio in his home diocese of Buenos Aires. What did
you learn from your time down there that will give us some indication of what
we can expect from his as bishop of Rome?
Weigel: We discussed a wide range of topics in an hour-long
conversation. What struck me most powerfully was his evangelical commitment:
his understanding that the Church had to go on the evangelical offensive in
Latin Americaand, by extension, throughout the world. I was also interested
that he thanked me for writing The Courage to
Be Catholic, which I take as a sign that he intends to reform the
Church by a process of evangelical purification.
CWR: In Evangelical Catholicism, you write that “the
Office of Peter, then, is both an office of vigilance over the symphony of
truth the Catholic Church teaches and an office of supreme pastoral charity in
which the symphony of truth is poured out in love.” By even secular accounts,
Pope Francis will have no problem carrying out the duties that go along with
the latter role. What in your view will be the greatest challenges for him in
protecting the teachings of the Church?
Weigel: Figuring out a way to make the Catholic proposal
amidst the regnant cultural Gnosticismthe widespread conviction that
everything in the human condition is plastic and malleableand doing so without
taking the edge off those Catholic convictions that challenge Gnosticism at its
core (such as our convictions about men, women, and their right relationship)
is a huge challenge, not only for Pope Francis but for every teacher in the
CWR: Perhaps one of Pope
Francis’s most important decisions in the weeks ahead will be picking a
Secretary of State (presumably replacing Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone). What
qualities should he look for when considering potential replacements for
Bertone, as well as the rest of the Curia?
Weigel: What the Curia needs above all is a change of
institutional culture, so that it becomes a place where talented men and women
serve the universal Church for a time before returning to their local Churches,
not a place where career-tickets are punched. The men chosen to be Secretary of
State and Sostituto (the papal chief-of-staff) should be men committed to that
change of institutional culture and to the deep and broad personnel changes
that implementing it will require.
CWR: How will Pope Francis’
papacy differ from his predecessor’s and in what ways will it be similar?
Weigel: I think we’ll see a pope who goes out to the
Diocese of Rome far more frequently, and I hope we’ll have a pontificate that
allows us to digest the rich magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI,
without piling on more magisterial material.
CWR: Besides the sacred
Scriptures (and your new book!), what is some essential reading for Evangelical
Catholics to add to their arsenal that will contribute to a compelling and
attractive witness to Catholicism in the 21st century?
Father Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” seriesthe DVDs and the bookis the
best introduction to the Church of the future that I know. Every Catholic
parish in America should junk its RCIA and adult education programs for a year
and adopt “Catholicism” instead. The results would be, I think, remarkable.