Published August 27, 2020
EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel was interviewed recently by Oliver Maksan, editor-in-chief of the German newspaper Die Tagespost. An English translation of the interview, which was published on August 29 and explores Weigel’s new book, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, follows.
Oliver Maksan: Mr. Weigel, you just published a guidebook for the next pope. Shouldn’t the next pope be guiding us instead?
George Weigel: I like to think of my book as an agenda for the entire Church, viewed through the prism of the Petrine Office and its unique responsibilities. Of course the next pope, like his predecessors, should be guiding us. But there are things to be learned from the experience of the three popes I’ve known personally — John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis — and I’ve discussed those things in my book in a way that I hope elevates a discussion too often conducted in silly Tweets and social media bombast.
OM: At the center of your book is the idea of a pope empowering bishops, clergy and lay people to live as missionaries. Given the polarization within the Church about the Church’s mission in the Western world, how can the next pope convince practicing Catholics of a missionary approach? Neither John Paul nor Benedict nor Francis really could.
GW: The polarization you cite is between the living parts of the Church and the dying or moribund parts of the Church. The living parts of the world Church are those that have embraced the New Evangelization as the Church’s grand strategy for the 21st century: these are the parts of the Church that see everywhere as “mission territory” and in which most Catholics understand themselves as missionary disciples. The dying or moribund parts of the world Church are those that are still living a Catholicism of institutional maintenance, often having lost confidence in the power of the Gospel. What the next pope, like his predecessors, must do is what the Lord instructed Peter to do in Luke 22.32: strengthen the brethren. In these times, that means strengthening Catholics’ conviction that Jesus Christ really is the answer to the question that is every human life. Because that conviction is the beginning of being a missionary disciple.
OM: Aren’t we expecting too much of a modern era pope? He must excel in so many things: Being a leader, governor, inspirator, intellectual, etc.? Isn’t that asking too much?
GW: That’s an important point, and it underscores the imperative of any pope being a good judge of people, so that he can surround himself with able men and women who will help him conduct the Petrine ministry effectively. There are some papal essentials, though, and they came into focus for me when a senior Curial cardinal asked me a while ago what I thought we should be looking for in the next pope. I thought a moment and then replied, “A man of luminous faith who can make orthodoxy interesting and compelling. And a man who is willing to fire fifty people in his first month in office.” There is an urgent work of reform necessary in the Vatican, and the next pope would be wise to appoint someone who can do the house cleaning for him while he undertakes the great work of Christian witness.
OM: Modern media give popes immense attention. Until Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878), popes hardly played any significant role in Catholics’ imagination. Isn’t that media omnipresence ecclesiologically wrong by, for example, belittling the responsibility of the college of bishops?
GW: It’s a real problem and it’s going to have to be addressed by a thorough review of Vatican communications strategy. That review might well begin from the idea that the pope should only address publicly what only the pope can address in his unique “voice.”
OM: You are asking for a pope who is committed to both doctrinal clarity and preaching God’s mercy. Is this a covert criticism of Pope Francis?
GW: The three popes I’ve known have all done both, although each has laid a distinctive stress on one side of the equation or the other. The crucial poitn is the whole Church must grasp is that doctrine is liberating and that the most merciful thing the Church can do pastorally for people is to gently help them understand the truth about themselves.
OM: Pope John Paul lI. whom you knew personally, was a saint. But did he not have some weaknesses as well? For example, his gestures in interreligious dialogue were sometimes ambiguous, kissing the Quran for example. Some also say he neglected the Curia.
GW: John Paul II was a better manager than he was often given credit for, in that he set priorities, stuck to them, and achieved many of his goals. I think he was quite aware of what a shock it had been to an Italianate Roman Curia to have a non-Italian pope, and thus he was likely reluctant to undertake a wholesale reform of the Curia, which to my mind would have meant internationalizing it much more thoroughly. As for John Paul II and Islam, I’d invite anyone interested in his thought (rather than trying to discern his thought from a gesture of respect for Muslim piety) to read his description of the fundamental theological differences between Islam and Christianity in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. As I said a moment ago, no pope gets everything right, and John Paul II was no exception. He was, for example, deceived by two psychopaths, Marcial Maciel and Theodore McCarrick. But that’s what psychopaths do: they deceive people, including highly intelligent and holy people.
OM: Same question about Benedict XVI: a giant theologian, no doubt. But did he have the qualities of governing and reforming the Roman Curia you put so much emphasis on?
GW: Each pope has to set priorities, based on what he knows about himself and his capabilities, and Pope Benedict clearly made the teaching part of the Petrine office his priority. The parts of the Church and the world that were paying attention benefited from that, immensely. On the disciplinary front, it should also be remembered that he moved vigorously on the reform of the priesthood. Perhaps he thought that a deep reform of the Curia could be left to his successor, as that sort of thing was not among his strengths.
OM: Your book has been sent to cardinals by your publisher. Cardinal Dolan from New York recommended your book with a short note. That has stirred controversy. You were accused of trying to influence the election of the next Pope. Are you?
GW: The “controversy” (which was quite helpful in making the book well-known) was “stirred” by people from the party of “openness” and “dialogue,” who seem curiously reluctant to have an open dialogue about the future of the papacy. In his note, Cardinal Dolan simply said that he was grateful to Ignatius Press for making available to the College of Cardinals a book that he was kind enough to call an important reflection on the Church. Ignatius Press often sends complimentary copies of its books to leading churchmen; I was grateful to Cardinal Dolan expressing appreciation to Ignatius Press for doing with my book what it often does. As for influencing anything, I am certainly trying to raise the level of conversation about the contemporary Catholic situation and about the qualities the Church might like to see in a future pope. It’s a shame that some people see that as “politics,” but that’s their problem, not mine.
OM: Where does Pope Francis’s vision of the papacy match with yours, as laid out in the book, and where do you have differences with the current pontificate? Some liberal critics in the U.S. said that, according to your book, the next pope should be completely different from Francis.
GW: It’s fascinating that some of those “liberal critics,” who spent decades bitterly criticizing John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have now become the kind of ultramontanists who would make Pius IX blush! In any event, toward the end of our first conversation after he was elected, I told Pope Francis that the only thing I could possibly do for him, other than pray for him daily, was to tell him things that I thought he ought to know, however uncomfortable those things might seem. He encouraged me to do so, which I appreciated. Pope Francis has said time and again that he yearns for a “Church permanently in mission,” in which every Catholic imagines himself or herself as a “missionary disciple.” I completely agree with that and discussed it with the Holy Father on three occasions, during which we’ve had a robust exchange of views on how the New Evangelization does and doesn’t work. No pope gets everything right, and that is certainly true of the three I’ve known. What I’ve tried to do in my book, in a calm spirit, is to draw appropriate lessons from what went right and what was not-so-right in those three pontificates.
OM: Your book discusses the pope’s role in world affairs. There has been a lot of criticism of the Holy See’s 2018 agreement with China. Any thoughts on that?
GW: Insofar as I understand the 2018 agreement with China — and let’s remember that the protocols have never been published, which is itself strange — it seems to me a violation of the teaching of Vatican II that no concessions should be made to governments in the appointment of bishops. That teaching in Christus Dominus was then codified legally in Canon 377.5. If the agreement with China does indeed concede any form of episcopal nominating capacity to the Chinese state or the Chinese communist party, it should be abrogated. In The Next Pope, I also suggest that the Vatican diplomacy of the future should begin from the premise that the only authority the Holy See has in world politics is moral authority, which is compromised by making secret deals with totalitarians who have no intention of honoring the promises the agreements they make, as China has demonstrated by its ongoing persecution of non-regime-approved Catholics. Such deals severely undermine the Church’s evangelical mission by identifying Catholicism with detested regimes.