Interview: George Weigel on Moral Order, the Current Mess, and a Theological Reading of History

Published May 22, 2018

The Catholic World Report

George Weigel is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals, having written two dozen books on topics ranging from politics to theology to culture. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is well-known for his widely translated and acclaimed two-volume biography of Pope St. John Paul II titled Witness to Hope (1999), and its sequel, The End and the Beginning(2010). Last year, Weigel spoke with the Catholic World Report about Lessons in Hope — My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, his memoir of the experiences that led to his papal biography. He is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Weigel’s latest book is The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times, published by Ignatius Press. He recently answered some questions from Catholic World Report editor Carl E. Olson about the book, which includes chapters on World War I, foreign policy, Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address, American political culture, John Paul II and humanism, and the recent Synods in Rome, among others.


CWR: There are various sorts and shades of “order”. What “order” do you focus on this book?

Weigel: The book is a lightly re-edited collection of essays I’ve written over the past twenty years, and when I looked them over to see if they had some life left in them I was struck by the fact that they all had something to do with “order,” or the lack thereof. And by “order” I don’t mean some static same-old same-old; I mean stable reference points for navigating our way into the future, whether that be the future of world politics, the future of the United States, or the ongoing pilgrimage through history of the Church. Americans tend to think of that kind of orderliness as a birthrate, when in fact it’s an accomplishment that always has to be tended, nurtured, and renewed.

CWR: The opening chapter is on the Great War, or World War I, the origins of which are, as you note, still not fully clear. But you ask the question: why did the Great War continue? What do you mean by that? And what does it indicate about the decades that followed?

Weigel: I think the origins of WWI are fairly clear—lot of stupid mistakes were made by the Great Powers, in large part because of the “mythscapes” within which their leaders thought and decided—like the imperial/religious “mythscape” of Russian responsibility for other Slavic nations (in this case, Serbia), or the racially-driven “mythscape” of an inevitable Slav/Teuton shootout to determine the future of central and eastern Europe. What I wanted to explore was why WWI continued after it was clear (certainly no later than January 1915) that there was going to be no quick win for someone on the model of the Franco-Prussian War of 1869-70. Why did Europe settle in for four years of unprecedented slaughter? When the train was about to go over the cliff, why did no one have the authority to pull the “Stop” cord?

Answering those questions takes us deep into the cultural corruptions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the effects of racial and eugenic theorizing, the moral chaos caused by what Henri de Lubac called “atheistic humanism,” and the theological flaccidity of many European churches.

As to what followed, what followed was everything from 1919 until 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The remaining question, for which there is no settled answer but a lot of concern, is whether WWI so kicked the stuffing out of Europe as a civilizational enterprise that it will never really recover its vigor.

CWR:  There are, you write, many lessons to be learned from the Communist assault on the Church in the 20th century. What are some of those lessons, and why are they still so important?

Weigel: One lesson is that the Church can’t make deals with totalitarian regimes and expect those regimes to honor the deals. That has obvious implications for the current negotiation between the Vatican and China.

CWR: A theme throughout the book is the importance of culture and ideas. Has the role of culture been forgotten or downplayed in recent years? And how do ideas shape the art of statecraft?

Weigel: “Political science” has become a sub-division of statistics, rather than a sub-discipline of philosophy, and so culture has fallen through the floorboards in most political analysis. Much of what I’m doing in these essays revolves around the idea of restoring a culture-based analysis to our thinking about history and politics—which is of course a way of thinking I learned from John Paul II, who was convinced that culture (for good or ill) is the driver of history over the long haul.

CWR: Benedict XVI’s famous address at Regensburg in September 2006 is, you insist, one of the most important papal statements on public matters since the mid-90s. Why was that address so badly misunderstood or misrepresented? And what does the West need to learn from it?

Weigel: It was badly misunderstood because it was very poorly presented by the Vatican press office and the misimpressions created by one passage in the address, left uncorrected, “fit” neatly into a pre-existing media stereotype of Joseph Ratzinger as some sort of theological gangster. And as we all know, once the mainstream media gets locked into an idea—in this case, “The Pope made a gaffe!”—it’s virtually impossible to substitute the truth for that false idea.

What Benedict XVI in fact did at Regensburg was identify the two key issues between Islam and “the rest:” Can Islam find within its own religious and intellectual resources an Islamic case for at least religious tolerance, if not religious freedom in the full sense of the term? And, can Islam find within those same Islamic sources an Islamic warrant for the distinction between religious and political authority in a twenty-first century state? Those are the bottom-line questions, and the Pope was spot on in flagging them—and in suggesting that the Catholic grappling with political modernity between 1789 and 1965 might have some lessons for Muslims seeking a Muslim case for religious tolerance and pluralism that didn’t involve a wholesale surrender to the secular Enlightenment.

CWR: What is “the negation of worship” and what does it have to do with the end of “the secular project”?

Weigel: The worship of false gods is the negation of true worship, and since we are made for true worship and find the truth about ourselves in true worship, the worship of false gods is humanly demeaning. Or in the case of the “secular project” of the moment, we end up demeaning ourselves by misconceiving freedom as sheer willfulness, which is a two-year old’s idea of freedom: I want what I want because I want it, and I want it now. Cal it the worship of “choice.” That’s false worship because it ignores the really important question for human happiness: choose what?

CWR: People today are, in many ways, either cynical or angry about politics and the political realm. What are the core problems? What should or must change?

Weigel: As I explain in several essays in the book, our politics are a mess because our political culture is a mess, and that’s because our public moral culture is a mess. And it will stay a mess until we recover the notion that there are truths built into the world and into us. Absent that kind of moral “order,” there’s only “your truth” and “my truth” and that leads inevitably to the dictatorship of relativism—another prescient Ratzingerian insight, thoroughly vindicated by recent Supreme Court decisions on marriage and by the Obama administration’s determination to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to supply abortifacients to their employees.

CWR: You have chapters on both the 2014 and the 2015 Synods, which were held to address issues facing families and marriages. How successful were those Synods, in your estimation? Why has there been such confusion and conflict over them the past couple of years?

Weigel: I hope the chapters on those two Synods will make clear that there was no consensus whatsoever on changing the Church’s longstanding (and revelation-rooted) understanding of the nature of marriage and the conditions for a worthy reception of the Eucharist. The cacophony that has followed Amoris Laetitia and its seemingly deliberate ambiguity on these matters suggests just how weak a grasp some sectors of the world episcopate have on the givens of Catholic faith, and that is a serious problem.

At bottom, there are two mega-issues here. First, is revelation a reality, such that revelation judges history and historical contingencies? Second, why don’t the proponents of Catholic Lite concede that Catholic Lite has no evangelical or pastoral power, and that the Catholicism that is living and vibrant in the world is the Catholicism that has embraced the magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as the authentic interpretation of Vatican II? The answer to the latter question, at least in a lot of western Europe, has to do with the wrong answer given to the former question.

CWR: What are a couple of the lessons that Catholics today can learn from St. Francis? And do you think persecution of Christians—both violently in some places and more “softly” in other places—will increase in the years to come?

Weigel: As I explained in the essay “Franciscan Churchmanship,” St. Francis teaches us to be sons and daughters of a Church formed by an immersion in the Word of God and in the Eucharist—and in that sense the Poverello anticipated core teachings of Vatican II. As for persecution of Christians, that seems, alas, likely to increase for as long as the civil war within Islam continues and the secularization project continues to see the Catholic Church as the last institutional barrier to the triumph of state-enforced lifestyle libertinism. One part of our answer to the latter has to be the display of a nobler, happier way of life—and that’s a “Franciscan” strategy in both the 13th- and 21st-century senses of the term.

CWR: Final thoughts about the book and what you hope it accomplishes?

Weigel: If the book helps its readers understand that a theological reading of history illuminates things that other approaches to historical analysis tend to miss, it will have done its job.

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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