George Weigel on the Papal Visit to the United States

Published April 15, 2008

Tygodnik Powszechny

The following interview with EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies George Weigel appeared in the Cracow newspaper, Tygodnik Powszechny [Universal Weekly]. 

1. What are the biggest challenges that the Catholic Church faces in the US at the moment? 

Episcopal leadership, high school catechetics, assimilating a large-scale Hispanic immigration, and keeping inner-city Catholic schools financially viable.

2. What are most difficult issues in the relationship between Catholic bishops in the US and the Vatican? 

I don’t really think there are any grave issues, if by “issues” you mean “disputes.” The Pope will challenge the bishops to be better teachers, an injunction which many of us in the laity will welcome.

3. It seems that a lot of US Catholics have serious problems accepting/conforming to Vatican’s teaching. Is this a salad bar approach?  Prof Alan Wolfe, whom I interviewed for this story, observed that the American Catholic church is much more American than Catholic these days. Would you agree? What are your thoughts when you see these statistics? Do you believe the Catholic Church can survive/overcome such strong individualism?

Alan Wolfe is a partisan liberal whose views on these matters are not to be taken very seriously, and “cafeteria Catholicism” is one of the most tired of journalistic cliches. Wolfe also lives in Boston, which some of us call the capital of the Decadent Catholic Corridor. The fact is that the future of the Church in this country — measured by everything from those with high levels of Catholic practice to topics on which doctoral dissertations in theology are being written — lies with the dynamic orthodoxy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This is not only true here; it’s true everywhere. People like Alan Wolfe who think that the world is “forever 1968” don’t get that, but then they never understood John Paul, did they?

4. Despite the influx of new immigrants, the Catholic church in the US is losing a lot of members (some 30% of people who were christened as RC left their church later in life, according to the recent Pew study). What are the reasons? What can/should be done about it?

This is a serious problem, but it may not be as serious as the Pew numbers suggest. In many parts of the world, people take a vacation from Catholicism and eventually return. We’ll see if that happens here. The Pew numbers do suggest, however, that we’ve got a real problem with high school-level religious education, as I indicated above. That’s where a lot of this “leakage” occurs, I expect.

5. Several theologians/sociologists  and even priests I spoke to use the word “market” or “competition” when discussing church or religion in the US. Many priests feel they need to attract customers. How valid is such approach? How far, do you believe, can or should the church go in order to “attract” or “retain” customers?

The Church best attracts “customers” by being itself, not by trying to be something else. All over the world, it’s the religious communities which have watered down their doctrinal and moral identity that are dying, while those who have maintained visible doctrinal and moral boundaries are growing. That should tell us something about “marketing.”

6. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Catholic Church in the US?

It’s the most vital and vibrant Catholicism in the developed world. The weaknesses are noted in #1 above.

7. What has been the impact of the pedophile scandals on the Catholic church in the US? Has something changed as a result?

It’s not a “pedophile” scandal; look at the numbers. The overwhelming majority of cases of abuse were not of children, but of male teenagers. Call this for what it was: a crisis of homosexual predation. Thank God it’s over. Seminaries are reformed, bishops and priests are much more conscious of the problem, and the people of the Church have rallied to the support of the 97-98% of their priests who were not abusers. The remaining angers are with bishops who failed to act to discipline misbehaving clergy.

8. How is Pope Benedict XVI perceived in the US? What awaits him here?

I don’t think he has a very high profile here. There’s a lot of enthusiasm about the visit in the parishes, and I think people are eager to hear what he has to say. He’ll get a warm welcome.

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