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Catholic progressives and the culture war

There is the culture war and you can’t escape it, except by willful acts of denial, culpable ignorance, or sheer mendacity.

(Photo: Gayatri Malhotra/

Among those in the ultramundane pantheon of communist mega-monsters, Lev Davidovich Bronstein (better known by his Bolshevik nom de guerre, Leon Trotsky) is a more interesting human personality than Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (Joseph Stalin or, in the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence, “Uncle Joe”). Trotsky actually had ideas, however misshapen, and something vaguely resembling a conscience. Stalin was pathologically power-mad and had no discernible conscience whatsoever. Trotsky was also clever with words, as in the quote about the class struggle often attributed to him: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Whether or not Trotsky put it that pithily — opinions differ — there is an analogous truth that many self-identified progressive Catholics miss. So to my progressive Catholic friends I say: You may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is interested in you — and everyone else.

The culture war defining much of contemporary public life throughout the western world comes in two forms. One group of cultural aggressors, well-entrenched in the Biden Administration, insists that human beings are infinitely plastic and malleable, that there are no “givens” in the human condition (including the givens inscribed in our chromosomes), and that acts of will, aided by technology, can, for example, correct “gender assignments” misapplied at birth.

Another group of cultural aggressors takes a sharply different tack, insisting that our race, sex, ethnicity or some combination thereof indelibly marks us as either victims or oppressors. The LGBTQ+ movement is one expression of the former. Critical race theory and such exercises in historical fantasy as the New York Times “1619 Project” (through which school children are now taught that the real American founding happened when the first slavers brought their human cargo to Virginia) is a good example of the latter.

I won’t play Trotsky and engage in a dialectical argument to resolve the obvious question: How can we be both utterly undefined and forever defined at the same time? I’ll simply note that both these aggressors are at war with the biblical and Catholic view of the human person. That is the culture war and you can’t escape it, except by willful acts of denial, culpable ignorance, or sheer mendacity.

The development of a refined Catholic theological anthropology — a distinctive and ennobling Catholic view of the human person — has been one of the Church’s signal accomplishments over the past century. That development made possible two striking affirmations in Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. First, the Council fathers taught that Jesus Christ reveals both the face of the merciful Father and the truth about us, such that we learn the full glory of human nature by contemplating the person of Christ. Then they taught that the fulfillment of human desire and human destiny comes through self-giving, not willful self-assertion. These teachings have profound implications for cultural renewal today.

According to the authoritative teaching of the Second Vatican Council, Catholics must not pigeon-hole human beings by race, ethnicity, chromosomal identity, or object of sexual attraction. Catholics who take the texts of Vatican II seriously refuse to truckle to, and in fact resist, those cultural aggressors who think of human beings as mere twitching bundles of morally-equal desires, the fulfillment of which exhausts the meaning of “human rights.” Catholics who take the Council seriously work to give legal effect to Vatican II’s teaching that “abortion, euthanasia… [and] mutilation” (think of 13-year-old girls getting double mastectomies in the name of “trans” rights) “poison civilization,” “debase the perpetrators” as well as the victims, and “militate against the honor of the Creator.”

In a recent video address to a Spanish conference on Catholics in public life, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, courageously challenged self-styled “social justice” movements based on thoroughly un-Catholic concepts of the human person. He was instantly attacked by the usual progressive trolls of the Catholic Twitterverse and blogosphere, who found the archbishop’s truth-telling to be insensitive culture-warring.

That indictment, like so much other progressive Catholic hysteria in recent months, was risible. It also smacked of the kind of bullying that failed to make Archbishop Gomez cower when he released a thoughtful public letter to President Biden this past January. The archbishop is a quiet man, not especially fond of controversy. But he is also a pastor who believes that there is no escaping the culture war when the aggressors deny essential truths of Catholic faith about our humanity. More power to him.

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About George Weigel 468 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. The “reforms” of Vatican 2 have done exactly nothing to improve the culture of the modern world, while gutting the Church itself. Maybe it’s time to re-think the question : What is the mission of the church in the world? Are we really supposed to be trying to make the world a better place?

  2. Gosh that was a fabulous article! I have never understood this anti culture warrior position in some Catholic writers. I’ve certainly tried to understand it, to understand where it is coming from, and it doesn’t seem to come from Scripture (“our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, powers”, etc.), and it certainly does not come from the great popes of the past. Do we really believe that a kind of spiritual pacifism will work? Is everyone really open to negotiating and discussing? That’s not the world I live in–I wish it were, however. But the irony is that these very progressive writers are quite combative themselves. A true shepherd must have the guts to speak, to shine the light on cultural trends that are ultimately destructive. Ezekiel: “If I say to the wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ but you do not warn him or speak out to warn him from his wicked way to save his life, that wicked man will die in his iniquity, and I will hold you responsible for his blood.” What part of this do most of our bishops fail to grasp? Great writing, Mr. Weigel.

  3. Culpable ignorance (Weigel). Right out of Aquinas’ responsibility for what we should have known. Example, the guy who excessively tips the sauce drives home and has an accident. A moral truth I’ve rarely seen, heard hide nor hair of lately. It helps to be well read to appear the sage with pithy wisdom [war interested in you], even when you do possess wisdom. Archbishop Gomez deserves all the credit that Weigel gives him and more. He’s aware we’re in a fight within our own clerical, political ranks [the Catholic liberal who justifies murder of the innocent simply because they’re not alloted justice and no voice to complain] and responded to the call.
    Abortion is not a right in context of a Catholic theological anthropology. To his credit George Weigel didn’t mention John Paul II once; John Paul who we know was instrumental in its development. Abortion is widely agreed by jurists not to have been correctly adjudicated. There’s no historical justification found in precedent either in Am or Britain [see the Common Law of England]. It’s not confined to a religious issue. It’s primarily a Justice issue.
    I might add a cultural war is not won by negotiation and dialogue on an inviolable principle, the right to life of the innocent. It’s won by convicting that such a right is indeed inviolable and can never under any circumstances be negotiated to reach a compromise [although it’s recognized a Catholic politician may vote for a lesser abortion bill to avoid passage of a greater].

  4. The focus on the ‘authoritative teaching’ of VCII suggests tunnel vision. The idea of person and his essential dignity arose as early as (or earlier than) the Roman empire which considered citizens as persons distinct from slaves. From Scripture, from the Incarnation arose the ideas of distinct persons in within the Godhead and of distinct natures within the Son Himself. Genesis explained our individual decision-making and the push-pull nature toward and away from God as inherent in every flawed individual human person. God created individual persons in Adam and Eve; he called them by name. God summed his material creation with one man and one woman; He did not begin with a conglomerate species of mankind.

    VCII documents are not the be-all-end-all of the Catholic understanding of personhood.

    A focus on the ‘authoritative’ teaching of nebulous VCII documents disingenuously signals a muddled middle stance. It calls to mind the fable of the bat in the world of bird and beast. Of whom are we afraid? Surely not a progressive Vatican which relies on VCII as the genesis of modern man?

    • Especially not those VII documents with an occasional consession to the wrong side of the culture war where its possible to be confused if one has picked up a copy of Gregory Baum’s notoriously silly book: “Man Becoming: God in the Secular Experience” by mistake.

  5. VATICAN II Decrees are allowances, providing openings for the initiatives they are inviting. The initiatives are free, they are not the effects of things definitively imposed, or utterly obliging, or exhaustively framed, in the Decrees.

    Similarly, the Declarations are meant to serve the advance of the positive moments concerning their subject matter. You can not take them out of context or use them to guide the Church on a future not for her, nor wrongly tie her in the present.

    All the non-dogmatic documents are instances of giving example of the dogmatic documents. In this case, it is Paul VI’s example.

    There are many things that still oblige nonetheless and Paul VI made witness to it in Humanae Vitae. It came after VATICAN II and shows that VATICAN II was not the kind of liberalization others had been professing about it.

    In our own time, another example of obliging matter would be the rejection of abortion. And the rejection of false teaching. In fact Paul VI himself had declared false teaching and teaching turned on its head, anathemas.

  6. Mr. Weigel is caught up in the “word” game, as in referring to atheist and enemies of our Lord’s church as “progressives”. How can such a seeming astute man as Mr. Weigel be fooled by such clever name games that Satan uses to lead others down the road of perdition. The Democrat Party in American (and it’s similar parties in other countries) that support and promote the slaughtering of innocent children in the womb, is a tool of Satan, just as Fr. Altman has courageously pointed out. NO sincere Catholic, in a good conscious, could ever align his or herself with such a diabolical group of people. If they do, then their just useful idiots for Satan and fasting and prayers are need to extricate these blind souls from such evil affiliation. And don’t get me wrong, the Republican Party has it’s own ugliness as well, however, at least as a party, they do not believe in the wholesale slaughtering of innocent babies in the womb.

    The point for Mr. Weigel is simply, stop playing the word games with the Evil that is confronting us, within and outside the Catholic Church walls. It’s pointless to do so. St. Paul’s brief time in Athens provides the perfect example for the Mr. Weigel’s of the world. We all know that St. Paul, when waxing eloquently to the erudite Athenian Philosophers about life and the virtue of the Good Life, didn’t make one convert among those men of clay. And in fact, when he left he resolved to “HENCE FORTH I WILL PREACH CHRIST CRUCIFIED!” And because of that fact, St. Paul brought about a great conversion of souls and harvest for the Lord. It’s as simple as that!

  7. I have a simple litmus test for Catholics who support Pro-Choice and the LGBTQ agenda, would Jesus approve of the murder of children by their own mother or adultry outside the marriage between a man and a woman who are to come together in union of new life? These Catholics in name only always try present some obtuse argument of their own non-biblical version of Christ or shift the question to immigration or protecting the environment. This is a great country of indidual freedoms and liberty where you can call yourself a woman even if you have the genitals of a man or have the reproductive organs of a woman, dress like “Joe Dirt” and call yourself gender ‘x’. And there are many people that I know personally that call themselves Catholics and do not believe that Jesus Christ is God, (Some don’t even believe in God). Joe Biden is a good example of how you can be a Catholic without being a follower of Jesus Christ – easy to do that when many of the Catholic leadership set the same example. Matt.24:37-39. This flood of new pagansim in the name of science and progress is engulfing the entire planet. I pray that the faithful not abandon the good ship Catholic Church – still lots of work to do before the final deluge. I’m not a theologian, philosopher or of any significance to the direction of the Catholic Church other than supporting my parish, our Catholic Schools and trying my best to be a husband and father that is worthy to be called a follower of Jesus Christ. Holy Spirit I trust in you.

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