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Craving approval isn’t evangelization

Doesn’t all of the pandering and pathetic grasping for approval by certain Catholic leaders signal that, hey, we’re not really serious about the stuff you cultural elites find objectionable?

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich-Freising, president of the German bishops' conference. (CNS photo/Sascha Steinbach, EPA)

The bizarre comment and the weird gesture have not, until recently, been associated with high-ranking churchmen. Both, alas, were on vivid display last month when Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Gianfranco Ravasi had more than a few of us scratching our heads in wonderment.

Cardinal Marx is the archbishop of Munich and Freising, a local church suffering from severe deficits in Sunday Mass attendance and vocations. The cardinal has many opinions on many subjects, and on the 200th birthday of that other Marx, Karl, Reinhard Marx opined that, without the author of the Communist Manifesto, “there would not be any Catholic social doctrine.” That curious judgment was repeated in the pages of the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano – and therein expanded to include the auxiliary claim that you can’t blame Stalin on Marx.


Surely a credentialed German theologian like Cardinal Marx knows that one of the intellectual founders of modern Catholic social thought was the 19th-century Bishop of Mainz, Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler – the man whom Pope Leo XIII, father of Catholic social doctrine in its papal form, called “my great predecessor.”

But perhaps, it will be replied, Cardinal Marx was suggesting that Karl Marx’s work impelled von Ketteler and Leo XIII to develop Catholic social doctrine. There’s perhaps a flyspeck of causality visible under the historical microscope here, in that those two great Catholic thinkers certainly knew what the Communist Manifesto taught (and both rejected it, vigorously). But are 21st-century Catholics so desperate for the approval of the left-leaning western intelligentsia that we should think of Catholic social doctrine as merely reactive to Marxism? Will Cardinal Marx next suggest that Lord North, not John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the rest, was the author of the American Revolution?

As for Marx and Stalin, perhaps Cardinal Marx could dedicate a portion of his vacation reading this summer to the works of Friedrich Hayek and Anne Applebaum. Hayek explained decades ago that state-run economies necessarily imply tyranny; more recently, Applebaum demonstrated how the GULAG slave-labor system was an integral part of Stalin’s Marxist economy.

Then there is Cardinal Ravasi. I’ve learned a lot from his biblical exegesis, drawing on it in several books. But his work at the Pontifical Council for Culture has been less edifying. The “Courtyard of the Gentiles” project he led under Pope Benedict XVI – promoted as an effort to dialogue with open-minded non-believers – frequently featured the media-savvy philosopher Julia Kristeva. A recent article, however, suggested that Ms. Kristeva was not always the champion of freedom she long claimed to be: she was quite likely an informer for the odious Bulgarian secret intelligence service during the Cold War, and she had a nasty habit of providing pseudo-intellectual cover for some of the twentieth century’s worst regimes.

Then there was the recent loan of Vatican-owned copes, tiaras, pectoral crosses, papal rings, and other vestments to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – another brainstorm of Ravasi’s Pontifical Council for Culture. Was the cardinal really surprised that the opening of an exhibit devoted to the impact of liturgical vestments and Catholic art on contemporary fashion turned into an exercise in louche camp and vulgarity that bordered on the blasphemous? If not, what precisely does Cardinal Ravasi know about contemporary culture, presumably the remit of his Vatican office?

Beneath all this weirdness may lurk the assumption that the Church has to get with it if we’re to sow the leaven of the Gospel in the postmodern world. But how does pandering to the glitterati evangelize? Doesn’t this pathetic grasping for approval – from people whose lives manifest their disdain for the Catholic idea of the sacred and the Church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person – signal that, hey, we’re not really serious about the stuff you cultural elites find objectionable? For a decade and a half, I’ve been criticizing “Catholic Lite” for its evangelical flaccidity. The shenanigans of Cardinal Marx and Cardinal Ravasi suggest that Catholic Lite has decomposed into Catholic weightlessness: with apologies to Milan Kundera, the unbearable lightness of chic.

Toadying to the talking heads of postmodern intellectual confusion and to the tastemakers of decadent postmodern culture is not the way to be the Church of the New Evangelization, or the “Church permanently in mission” that Pope Francis calls us to be. It’s the way to become a laughingstock, en route to the boneyard of irrelevance.

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About George Weigel 500 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. “… all of the pandering and pathetic grasping for approval by certain Catholic leaders…”
    Succinct. Unapologetic.
    Panderer-in-chief? Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
    I’d say when and if he gets his act together this nonsense will stop. Knowing that will not happen before he goes to his eternal consequence I will wait patiently for the crew ecclesiastics and groundling clerics to man-up and begin to behave and lead their dioceses and parishes like adult Catholic males.
    With great regret I have not been terribly appreciative of many contributions by Mr. Weigel during the few years this – this commentary was refreshing and most welcome.

  2. Weigel whether willingly or unconsciously became sort of a Catholic George Will, a bit too much starch in the collar so to speak, bordering on an elitism. In other words, there are the people with opinions that mattter…and mine is one of them…and then there are the lessers.

    This was seen in Weigel’s (and George Will’s) utter contempt and disdain (nose upturned) for Trump….they both gave off the tone of “Trump is clearly not a member of the ruling class…doesn’t belong to the right golf clubs”.

    So this article is part of Weigel’s learning, reconciling what he knows to be true with what is becoming truer by the minute regarding the current papacy.

    Intellectuals have some occasional role in Catholicism, but not as much as they believe or hope for.

    We need men with chests.

    As Lewis said: “Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”

  3. That this secular socialist Church [as distinguished from the true Apostolic Church] leads to “the boneyard of irrelevance” is not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That because Cardinals Marx Cupich Tucho Fernandez and entourage have an eminent Leader and a vast devoted following of idolaters. They must be taken seriously and called out unless we end in the boneyard.

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