Interview: George Weigel Discusses The Fragility of Order on CNS News

Published May 9, 2018

CNS News

The following is an interview between EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel and Terence P. Jeffrey of

George Weigel, author of a best-selling two-volume biography of Pope John Paul II, argues in his new book—”The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times“–that for America to maintain a political culture that protects liberty it must first rebuild the moral culture needed to sustain that political culture.

“My point in this book,” Weigel said in an interview with, “is to explain just how deep the problem is, how we got there, and let us understand that while politics can help create the space for cultural renewal, it cannot create cultural renewal itself. That has to be retail work by individuals, by families, by neighbors, reconstituting a country in which freedom is lived nobly and freedom is ordered to goodness not just to willfulness and I did it my way.”

“The first step is to recognize that American political culture is in crisis because our public moral culture is in crisis,” Weigel writes in the book.

“But politics and law cannot resolve the crisis,” he says, “because politics and law of themselves cannot revitalize the cultural subsoil of American democracy from which grow the habits of mind and heart that turn democratic self-governance from an aspiration to a capacity.

“What is needed to resolve the crisis,” he concludes, “is another Great Awakening.”

Here is the full transcript of the interview in which Weigel discusses “The Fragility of Order” with

The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times

Terry Jeffrey:  Hi and welcome to this edition of Online With Terry Jeffrey. Our guest today is George Weigel. He holds the William E. Simon Chair of Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is a New York Times bestselling author. Among his prior books is the highly regarded biography of Pope John Paul II. We are going to talk to him today about his new book, “The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times.” George, thanks for coming.

George Weigel: Thanks, Terry. Good to be here.

Jeffrey: Now, in part of this book, you reflect on how the Catholic Church and its leaders faced off against Soviet Communism and its many satellite states in the years after World War II, leading up through Pope John Paul II. You tell some pretty interesting stories. Is it true that the Soviet Union in fact penetrated the church, and even the Vatican, with spies and agents?

Weigel: It is unfortunately true. Beginning in the early 1960s, Pope John XXIII and later Pope Paul VI tried to find some sort of a way of having a conversation with these communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, and part of the price for that was dialing down the anti-communist rhetoric from the Vatican. But another price for that was the penetration of the Vatican by any number of East Bloc intelligence services. In the second volume of my John Paul II biography, The End of the Beginning, I explored this through documents from the KGB, the East German Stasi, the Polish SB, the Hungarian secret intelligence service, and the then-Czechoslovak secret intelligence service, all of which had assets inside the Vatican. I don’t think this caused an enormous amount of trouble, but the fact that to this day senior Vatican officials, who remember that era, deny that they were concerned about it is a striking fact.

Jeffrey: So, there were literally in some cases priests and bishops who were essentially Soviet agents?

Weigel: Well, there was a very famous case of a German Benedictine named Eugen Brammertz, who it turns out had been recruited by the Stasi early, before he entered the Benedictines. Ended up working in the Vatican in the Secretary of State and was a conduit for reports and probably stole some documents along the way. John Paul II, I think, suspected all of this was going on when he was elected. He had had a rather extensive experience of these people and how they operate. So, it is interesting to me that during the first eleven years of his pontificate, all of the paper involving negotiations with Communist regimes was kept in the pope’s apartment.

Jeffrey: Didn’t go anywhere else.

Weigel: Didn’t go anywhere else. And that was not, as our Marxist friends used to say, by accident.

Jeffrey: Because he literally didn’t trust that there might not be some people in the Vatican, who–

Weigel: Well, that there were moles who would get their hands on stuff that they shouldn’t get their hands on and compromise either individuals or ongoing negotiations. This is interesting in another way in that it demonstrates just how dangerous Communist regimes thought the Catholic Church was. And that fear, which really goes back to Lenin, intensified by orders of magnitude with the election of a Polish pope.

Jeffrey: Let me ask you about that. John Paul II, of course, was the archbishop of Krakow before he was elected pope. And in your book you mention that the Soviets were actually nervous that this guy might get elected pope.

Weigel: Well, it’s interesting to me that at a meeting of all these bad-guy intelligence services, a couple of years before Wojtyla’s election to pope, the Hungarians, I believe it was, identified him as a potential candidate for the papacy and said that this would be serious bad news from their point of view.  Yuri Andropov, who was then running the KGB, immediately ordered up an analysis of the potential impacts of this, within weeks after John Paul II’s election. And an old Polish friend of mine, who was in Rome for John Paul’s inaugural Mass on Oct. 22, 1978, was told by an Italian friend of his who had good contacts in the Italian Communist Party, that the Soviets would prefer Solzhenitsyn as Secretary General of the U.N. than a Pole as pope. They were really scared.

Jeffrey: Obviously, there is a lot in the news in recent months about, quote-unqoute, Russian “meddling” in the U.S. election. In your book you mention an incident where there was an attempt to slander John Paul.

Weigel: Well, look, on the Russian meddling thing, they have been doing this for years, there’s nothing new about this. They do it with everybody.  What is interesting about this present Putinesque phase of this is that they are not forwarding an ideological line. Communist propaganda, Soviet propaganda, during the Cold War was an attempt to sell us that they had a better way. They are just making trouble now. They like chaos. They think it creates opportunities for them. They are not selling a Putin model because there is no Putin model. But, yes, prior to the pope’s second visit to Poland in 1983, which was during martial law in Poland, they concocted a fake diary said to be of his “lady friend” and they were going to attempt to leak this in order to blackmail the pope and reshape the negotiations over the terms of the visit. The whole thing was recognized for utter nonsense at the time. But that tells you something about the level of sleaziness to which these people were prepared to go. And it underscores how much they feared him.

Jeffrey: Now, there really couldn’t be two more greatly opposite philosophies than the materialistic atheist philosophy of the Communist Soviet Union and the Catholic Church. They were fundamental enemies, were they not, on the most basic level.

Weigel: I think Pope John Paul II had a not dissimilar view to Ronald Reagan’s. Remember, President Reagan famously said that his view of the endgame of the Cold War was very simple: We win, they lose. John Paul II would not have put it quite that way. But he understood that there was no 50-yard line at which these two systems could find a modus vivendi precisely for the reason you say. The Communist system was based on a false view of the human person, of human communities, of human origins, of human destiny, and that wasn’t going to budge because that was the foundation of the whole enterprise. And that was basically incompatible with a Biblical, much less Catholic, view of the human condition. So, someone was going to win and someone was going to lose.

Jeffrey: So, John Paul II was not going to act like a politician and try to create some sort of accommodation with Communist leaders to carve out a little bit of space for the church on practical terms within those regions dominated by the Communist Party.

Weigel: That was the tack taken by this predecessor, Pope Paul VI, in what was called the Ostpolitik. And it really didn’t work. It led to the deep penetration of the Catholic Church by the Communist Party state in Hungary. It essentially drove the serious Catholics underground in Czechoslovakia. And it created unnecessary headaches for the church in Poland. John Paul II believed in the power of moral witness and moral argument to bend history in a different direction, and that is what he was prepared to do both as the Archbishop of Krakow and, later, as pope.

Jeffrey: And it is what he did when he took his trips to Poland.

Weigel: Absolutely right. If you look at the 52 speeches of John Paul II between June 2 and June 10, 1979, he doesn’t discuss politics or economics once. It’s all about returning to these people the truth about themselves. The cultural truth.

Jeffrey: Right. Was he appealing to the underlying Christian, Catholic, culture of Poland, and, in fact, the underlying Christian culture of Russia?

Weigel: Well, he was certainly appealing to the former. I think Pope John Paul II had a great respect for Russian Orthodoxy, for the spiritual riches of Eastern Christianity, but he also knew how severely damaged the Russian church had been by Communism and he perfectly well understood that the leadership of Russian Orthodoxy were people who had KGB backgrounds and were not to be regarded primarily as churchmen but as agents of state power.

Jeffrey: And did his strategy of confronting communism with the truth and not cutting any political deals, did it succeed?

Weigel: Well, it certainly succeeded in Poland. Shortly after the martial law was imposed in 1981, the Polish Communist government of General Jaruzelski approached church leaders in Poland and said: Look, we obviously need some sort of national dialogue of the future, why don’t you be the partner. And Pope John Paul II when told of this said: No, we are not going down that road. The church is not going to substitute itself for Solidarity, which had just been declared illegal. The representatives of Polish society are the Solidarity movement. So, he wouldn’t take the bait of substituting the church for a social renewal movement, trade union. And that eventually produced real fruits.

Jeffrey: When the pope was archbishop of Krakow, he clandestinely ordained Czechoslovakian priests?

Weigel: Yes. It was very difficult for real Catholics as opposed to faux Catholics or compromised Catholics to get a seminary education even underground in Communist Czechoslovakia. So, both diocesan priests and priests who were to be ordained for religious orders would slip across the Czech-Polish border and after it had been clarified that these guys were on the level, that they had the authorization of their superiors to be ordained, he would do that.

Jeffrey: So, he was making young men priests who were then putting their lives at risk, they might be killed, they might go to prison. They certainly were not going to be free.

Weigel: But that was true in Poland, too. Every seminarian in Poland got a secret police handler or watcher as soon as he entered the seminary.  The degree to which the Polish Communist government in effect stole billions of dollars from Polish society to maintain this intense surveillance of churchmen throughout Poland is staggering. A lot of those secret police files went up in smoke in mid-1989 when it was clear where things were going. But if you line up all the files of what’s left—I mean, forget about the stuff that went up in smoke–if you line up the files of what’s left it is 120 miles long. That’s a lot of paper.

Jeffrey: So, you not only had Soviet Communists who were coming to penetrate the Vatican with spies and Pope John Paul II was so worried about it that he kept his papers privately in his quarters, but when he was archbishop of Krakow, he would have been more or less permanently under surveillance?

Weigel: Well, the phones were tapped. There were bugs all through his apartment. And, if he wanted to have a serious conversation with someone about a sensitive matter, they would take a walk around what’s called The Planty in Krakow, which is a great park that surrounds the Krakow old town. So, no, he knew exactly what was up and took measures to make sure that he and others were not compromised.

Jeffrey: Today, in China, there is an underground church that recognizes Rome and there is an official church that is recognized by the Chinese government. There’s been a lot of discussion that Pope Francis might in fact cut some sort of deal to normalize relations with the Communist government there. What do you see as the risks of doing that?

Weigel: Well, let me say a couple of things on that. The situation in China is very, very complicated. There is no hard border between the underground church and the Patriotic Catholic Association. It is a porous border. People move back and forth across that. So, it’s a very complex situation. However, the deal that is presently being reported, which would allow the Chinese Communist Party to nominate men for the office of bishop and then the Vatican could say thumbs up or thumbs down is an extremely bad idea. It’s an extremely bad idea both in itself because there is no way that they are going to nominate people who are not under their thumb, there is no way they will take endless rejections of candidates from the Vatican. And it is bad for the future. I think it is silly to expect that the Communist regime in China will last forever. It’s unstable now because of a lot of demographic and social problems, and when that regime crumbles—twenty years, thirty years, fifty years, whenever—China will be the greatest field of Christian mission since the Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere in the 16th Century.

Jeffrey: You believe that day is coming?

Weigel: Oh, yeah. And I think it is coming in this century. And if the Catholic Church is identified with the regime that just crumbled that is going to put it in a serious disadvantage in the Chinese future.

Jeffrey: You saw these absolute attacks on religious liberty in Eastern Europe and throughout the Soviet realm of influence in the last century. But, in recent years, in this country, for example under Obamacare, we were told that individual Catholics and Catholic institutions had to buy abortion-inducing drugs and devices, which clearly was understood to be an attempt to force Catholics to act directly against the teachings of their faith. Are we seeing the development in the United States of an ideology and a threat to religious freedom that is similar if not the same one that we saw under the Soviet Union?

Weigel: Well, I now have to explain to young people but when I first started working on religious freedom issues here in Washington thirty-five years ago that meant trying to pry Lithuanian priests and nuns out of the Gulag. Now, it means trying to keep the Little Sisters of the Poor out of jail in the United States. Freedom is never free. Freedom is never secure. And I explore in this book—The Fragility of Order—some of the deeper cultural reasons, why our country has gotten to a position where the state is claiming the right to impose burdens of conscience on people of faith in a really dangerous way. Now, some very effective work by the Catholic bishops in the United States, by our friends at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and others, we dodged the bullet for seven years under the Obama administration. But the cultural forces that are producing this are pandemic in the Western world and they will be back. So, we need to be prepared to resist this assault again.

Jeffrey: What is the right way to fight them?

Weigel: Well, long term the right way to fight them is to convert the culture. There is no way out of this box that doesn’t involve what I call in this book a new Great Awakening, a return of America to its first moral principles. Short term, I think we are going to be well-served by the judges that the present administration is putting on the federal appellate bench as well as the nomination of Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But we’ve also got to get more active. People have to tell their elected representatives we will not have the Department of Health and Human Services or whomever impose these burdens of conscience on people of religious convictions.

Jeffrey: You write in the book, and you just mentioned, ultimately at the bottom of this is the culture. And America was a nation that was founded with an essentially Christian culture and on an idea and an understanding of the natural law that is wholly consistent with the Catholic point of view, and remained that way for most of 250 years. Are you saying that that cultural tradition of America is now at risk?

Weigel: I think it is crumbling, if not crumbled. When you identify freedom as simply willfulness, the mantra word being “choice,” and you don’t ask the question “choose what?” you’ve essentially abandoned the notion that America is a country founded on self-evident truths that we can know by reason. And you’ve opted for a kind of I-did-it-my-way public ethic that is lethal to democracy. As Pope Benedict XVI said on many occasions, if there is only your truth and my truth and neither one of us recognizes something as the truth, what happens when our truths collide? We have no standard of judgment by which to settle the argument. So either you impose your power on me, or I impose my power on you. That is the dictatorship of relativism.

Jeffrey: And what we have had in recent years is you have a nine-member Supreme Court and five members can decide whether a child in the womb can be deliberately killed, whether or not two men can marry one another, and whether or not a Catholic nun can be ordered to buy an abortifacient for an employee.

Weigel: This is deeply problematic. It is not just our problem though. We just saw in Great Britain in the Alfie Evans case the state determined this kid needs to die and we are going to make sure he does. In Canada right now, religiously affiliated nonprofits are being asked to affirm abortion-on-demand, under the guise of so-called reproductive health, if they want some government funding for workers at summer camps for poor kids. This is epidemic all over the Western world and it requires playing very good defense short-term and reconverting the culture long-term.

Jeffrey: And does that in the United States involve the Catholic Church teaching young Catholics to be willing to be moral and cultural warriors–

Weigel: It involves teaching all of us in the Catholic Church to be counter-cultural not to be different just to be different, but in order to convert the culture. If each of us, as I suggested in my book Evangelical Catholicism, understood ourselves to be missionary disciples, and each of us measured the quality of our own discipleship by how many other people have we brought into the family, we would have a very powerful social movement to deploy for this purpose of reconverting the culture.

Jeffrey: And is there some hope that we can take America back and rebuild a culture that can maintain the tradition of freedom we have enjoyed for so long?

Weigel: Well, there is a lot of resilience in the United States. The last great movement of dramatic social change for the good in the United States—the Civil Rights Movement, in its classic period–was a religiously based movement. People forget that the engine of the Civil Rights Movement was the Christian church in various forms. So, we have living memory of this being possible.

Jeffrey: Well, in fact, it was led by a Baptist clergyman, Martin Luther King, Jr., who expressly argued his case by citing St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas on the meaning of a just law.

Weigel: That often gets forgotten. My old friend, Father Richard John Neuhaus, who of course worked with Dr. King, always used to just shake his head in wonderment at, I don’t whether it was the New York Times or somebody, wrote on the day of King’s funeral, that he was buried from a church which was appropriate since his father had been a Baptist minister. There was nothing about the fact that his whole entry point for his life work was the fact that he was a minister of the Gospel.

Jeffrey: And they probably would not allow you teach his Letter from the Birmingham Jail in many public schools in America today.

Weigel: It is an interesting piece because, as you say, it explicitly cites Thomas Aquinas on what constitutes a just law.

Jeffrey: And ties that directly in to the founding of our country and shows how the vision of Augustine and Aquinas on just law is exactly the same one that is in the Declaration of Independence, which is exactly why segregation and racial discrimination in America is immoral and needs to be eliminated.

Weigel: Right. So, my point is that we have a living memory of Biblical witness, natural-law moral reasoning, reshaping a county that was a very different place 70 years ago, 60 years ago. I grew up in a segregated city. I grew up in Baltimore, which was a very segregated city. I have seen massive social change. I’ve seen people learn that you cannot talk about other people the way you have been accustomed to. So, yeah, I think we can, as Father Neuhaus used to say, turn this around. But my point in this book is to explain just how deep the problem is, how we got there, and let us understand that while politics can help create the space for cultural renewal, it cannot create cultural renewal itself. That has to be retail work by individuals, by families, by neighbors, reconstituting a country in which freedom is lived nobly and freedom is ordered to goodness not just to willfulness and I did it my way.

Jeffrey: George Weigel, author of The Fragility of Order, thank you very much.

Weigel: Thank you, Terry.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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