That’s the question I asked Google! And I got several answers. I asked the question because I was reading this most astonishing piece of Roman Catholic bravura, and I wanted to know who the hell its author was, who was both so pretentiously sure of himself, and slightly ridiculous as well. Of course, the pretentiously self-assured just are slightly ridiculous, but there was an unapologetic hyperbole about Weigel’s posturing that was unnerving, and I wanted to know who the hell he was!
I’ll come back to Weigel’s article in a moment, but the Google search was revealing. The first (or almost the first) article that popped up was one by a Jason Berry at the National Catholic Reporter (from 30 December 2010) entitled “George Weigel: Whitewashing History.” The main thrust of the article concerned Weigel’s biographies (or hagiographies) of John Paul II (Pope Karol Józef Wojtyła), and how they airbrush out Pope Wojtyła’s failures in the child sexual abuse scandal that convulsed the church during his ”reign”. (My mind now simply balks at the language Roman Catholics use for the head of their church — the new name to give them “weight” before history, the language of royalty, the obsequious piety of Holy Father, etc.) Suddenly, when it was obvious that “Fr” Marcial Maciel Degollado’s (head of the Legion of Christ) abuse of seminarians, and other sexual scandals, could no longer be denied, Weigel demanded an investigation by the Vatican, but mentions Maciel’s name not at all in his 992 page biography (at least not in a critical way), though it was Wojtyła himself who provided Maciel with cover and credibility at least seven years after canonical charges of Maciel’s sexual misconduct had first been filed against Macile by men – the first complaint against him had been made to Pope Montini (Paul VI) in 1976! — claiming that Maciel had sexually abused them when they were young seminarians.
As Berry says:
[Weigel] continues to go out of his way, as he has for years, to excuse the late Pope John Paul II from any culpability in the Legion scandal. It was John Paul, more than anyone else, who backed Maciel and the Legion and elevated both in church status.
And a bit later:
To say that Weigel, Glendon and Neuhaus [the Lutheran turned ultra-conservative RC who edited the conservative religious First Things until his death in 2009] — who asserted Maciel’s innocence as “a moral certainty” — were duped is to overstate the obvious. Clearly, they were influenced by John Paul’s own personal support for Maciel.
Berry quotes Weigel on John Paul’s role in the scandal:
”Despite the negative implications of John Paul’s reputation that some of [his] critics quickly drew,” Weigel writes, “what was at work in this scandalous affair was deception in the service of the mysterium iniquitatis” — the mystery of evil.
and then comments pointedly:
And so we are left to believe that one of the great moral leaders of the last century was deceived by the “mystery of evil.”
(One has to ask, in thelight of this: Was he a great moral leader?) But if he was taken in by Maciel, he was more than deceived, for, as Berry says, it was ”long after the 1998 canonical filing” of the victims at the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ) that Wojtyła continued to praise Maciel. He obviously did not believe the accusations, but was that for reasons having to do with deception, or was the image of the church and the vast power and wealth of the Legion of Christ central to the pope’s continuing support for someone who turned out to be a monster of abuse, not only abusing children, but his own children!
Why is all this important? Because, in an article just published in Standpoint, “Benedict XVI and the Future of the West“, Weigel makes some extraordinary claims, not only for the authority of the Roman church (lightly concealed under the rubric of rationality), but condemns, without qualification, what he repeatedly calls, throughout the article, the “dictatorship of relativism.” Weigel believes, mirabile dictu, that pope Ratzinger, the man in charge of the CDF for so many years during the pontificate of Wojtyła, represents the high point of “the Leonine Catholic renaissance” (as he calls it), and the birth of a new “evangelical Catholicism.” But he also reveals (unconsciously) why such things as the child abuse scandal, and the failure adequately to investigate the charges against Marcial Maciel, will go on happening, and will not stop until this church begins to think of itself in a suitably modest way, as one way of thinking about life, instead of as the answer to everyone’s questioning, Because, as he says:
Everything the Church does, the Church does to propose Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life.
But, quite simply, this is nonsense, as he himself should know full well, because he simply forgets, when he says it, the mysterium iniquitatis that confounded Wojtyła, and that infects his own writing, as Jason Berry so clearly points out. (Notice by the way, how speaking of the last pope as Wojtyła takes away the mystique, and humanises the man. Weigel, every time he mentions a pope speaks of Blessed Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II, Blessed Benedict, and so on.)
So, what is this new evangelical Catholicism? Basically, the answer is simple, though no doubt somewhat more complicated in the “metaphysical” underpinnings. Of course, it reaches its highpoint of homiletic intensity in perorations such as this:
Evangelical Catholicism … sets sail from the stagnant shallows of institutional maintenance into the deep waters of post-modernity, preaching the Paschal mystery as the central truth of the human condition, building communities of integrity, decency, solidarity, and compassion — Eucharistic communities of supernatural charity capable of nurturing genuine human flourishing.
But this, of course, is only so much pious hand waving. The real meat of evangelical Catholicism lies in what Weigel thinks is rationally demonstrable, in the answer to the ”Is it right?” question, which, “Pontius Pilate and the Guardian notwithstanding, can be known by the arts of reason, properly deployed.” And he means known, in a very strong sense of that word, known for sure, by irrefutable rational demonstration.
It follows, of course, that we have to reinterpret democracy. Democracy, understood as a thin idea, with its emphasis on procedure, rather than being rooted in “its historic moral-cultural foundations in biblical religion and Greek rationality,” as well as Roman law, is simply the dictatorship of relativism, with “a false idea of freedom as personal wilfulness … being imposed by coercive state power.” But now, be it noted, the church itself, after taking two centuries to do it, has found “a Catholic understanding of religious freedom and political modernity that [does] not represent a rupture with, but a development of, classic Catholic understandings of the act of faith and the nature of political society” — without uncritically taking on board the whole Enlightenment project. And the Enlightenment points towards, we are to understand, its final cause in the contemporary flourishing of evangelical Catholicism.
This is an understanding which may, at times, have to assert truth to power, and, while maintaining a strict separation between “sacerdotal and imperial authority”, may have to assert itself politically to ensure that the moral order, which can be known by reason, remember, properly deployed, is maintained without the relativistic toleration for things which are, objectively speaking, morally repugnant. Indeed, he speaks here of pope Ratzinger’s environmentalism, which “will pay equal, if not greater, attention to what [Ratzinger] called “human ecology[,]” the moral-cultural environment of civilisation, which, like rivers and seas, belts of black earth and the jet stream, can be poisoned.”
So what is included in this evangelical Catholicism? Perhaps Weigel’s enumeration of the qualities of the “bold leaders” of this evangelical Catholicism, who will “call the timid to the fullness of conversion” gives a hint of what he has in mind:
It requires disciples and leaders who are unfailingly pro-life, and who are capable of rebutting the spurious charge that to be pro-life is to be anti-woman. It requires disciples and leaders who are prepared to defend religious liberty in full, and who refused to concede that religious liberty can be whittled down to freedom of worship. It requires disciples and leaders who are pro-family and pro-marriage, and who are prepared to defend their advocacy against the charge that they are “homophobic.” It requires disciples and leaders prepared to speak truth to power, especially when coercive state power is deployed to impose the agenda of the dictatorship of relativism.
And so, now we know his party’s platform, and you also know why I asked: Who the hell is George Weigel? For anyone who thinks that this is not a recipe for bringing the church and its priorities into the public sphere, where it can dictate to the rest of us, does not understand the language of incipient religious tyranny. (I don’t know how to pronounce George Weigel’s last name, but he hasn’t allowed himself a lot of “weigel-room”!)