Interview: George Weigel on The Future of the Church

Published October 2, 2020


George Weigel is the Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. The author of many books, his latest is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (Ignatius 2020).

Recently National Review Institute and Ignatius Press held a webinar to discuss this book. RJ Carr corresponded with Mr. Weigel to ask several questions on his words in the book and remarks in the webinar.

Mr. Weigel’s responses are in bold.

RJC: What do you hope are the fruits of your book? Do you see it used in seminaries? Would you welcome parish discussion groups with your book? How about discussions in secular environments?

GW: My book is really about the future of the entire Church, viewed through the prism of that unique institution, the papacy. So I’d certainly welcome discussion of The Next Pope in as wide a variety of Catholic venues as possible. As the book discusses the future of various states of life in the Church — the episcopate, the priesthood and religious life, the lay vocation in the world — many different Catholic forums would, I hope, find it helpful for common reflection.

RJC: Pope Benedict XV in Humanis Generis Redemptionem, in a similar theme to what you say in your book and in the seminar, called for a return to preaching with the passion and message of the first century Christians. He believed that the violence the world was suffering at that time (WW1) was a result of a lack of this preaching.

Understanding your call to return to this Christ centered preaching again similar to the first century, is our current situation in the country and the Western World caused by a similar reality in the church to what Pope Benedict XV lamented in 1917?

GW: A lack of effective preaching is certainly one part of the cultural meltdown of the moment. Expository preaching that breaks open the Word of God helps the people of the Church “see” themselves, the world, and our responsibilities in the Church and the world through a biblical lens. That kind of “vision” helps cure the myopia of self-centeredness and the astigmatisms that lead us to misread the signs of the times.

RJC: You remind the bishop that his first role is to be an evangelist and not a manager, where do you see the model of this form of evangelist first church leadership happening most powerfully. I am not asking you to name bishops but maybe areas and the signs of this type of leadership.

GW: I know two metropolitan archbishops, one of Canada and one in the United States, who have reconfigured their entire archdiocesan machinery so that every part of the machinery serves the purpose of evangelization. As for specific examples, I have no hesitation in saying (as I did in an article published on his retirement) that Archbishop Charles Chaput was the best bishop of our time, in large part because of the combination of a rock-solid faith and a collaborative approach to leadership. As for other bishops, I think more of them in the West are trying to figure out how to turn the institutional machinery they inherited — the patrimony of generations — into launch platforms for mission.

RJC: You make it clear that the Catholic Lite approach leads to Catholic Zero and during the seminar you specifically mentioned Germany as exhibit A. What do you see in Germany that you suggest should not be imitated?

GW: What should not be imitated is the apostasy from what the Letter of Jude describes as the faith once delivered to the saints. Too much of German Catholicism seems to want to become a second Protestant Church in Germany. This is apostasy.

RJC: Cardinal Robert Sarah in his book The Day Is Now Far Spent writes: “Nowadays Christians see their bishops as nothing more than seeking power.”

What he says is tame compared to what Bishop Athanasius Schneider says in regard to bishops not fulfilling their evangelical duty. Meanwhile, you point out that currently we have a situation where bishops are choosing bishops. You suggest that this must change and that even laity must be part of the process of choosing bishops. Do you see this happening and how might it come about, especially when there is a a bishop choosing bishops system in place?

GW: I don’t think bishops should be elected by popular plebiscite. But I do think a Nuncio who knows his business would make inquiries of knowledgeable, orthodox, and discreet lay Catholics about candidates for the office of bishop. This happens rarely now, although it does happen from time to time; but it should be a normal part of the process. Moreover, before bishops gather in a provincial meeting to identify candidates for the episcopate (whose names are then forwarded to the nunciature), they should consult knowledgeable and discreet lay people about priests they think might make good bishops. No process is going to be perfect, but expanding the consultation would likely be helpful.

RJC: You call the laity to understand that they also are participants of the great commission. I too try to convince people that the idea that only the priest counts is false. However, the laity have also been fed an idea that they must have degrees and proper education and even be paid to do any good work in any form for the Church. What would you suggest is a way to set the laity on fire as Christians, to help them understand that they also received the great commission and how do you prevent them from turning into professional religious that must have degrees and education and be professionally paid at a level that literally breaks parish budgets. (I have seen it happen)?

GW: The key is getting people to own their baptism. Baptism is not a family initiation rite or an ethnic ritual. It is the sacrament that configures us to Christ the Lord and makes us friends of the Lord Jesus — who then gives each of the baptized the Great Commission. A few months of preaching and teaching on the full meaning of baptism might be very helpful in empowering people to own their missionary discipleship.

RJC: You talk about the power of the faith happening in Sub Saharan Africa What do you see there that those of us in the west need to embrace? An openness to the life-transforming power of the Gospel is the human pre-condition for conversion.

GW: The remarkable growth of the Church in sub-Saharan Africa has a lot to do with the fact that so many Africans experience the Gospel and its affirmation of human dignity as a liberation. Perhaps that’s because Africans are more aware of the evils at work in the world around them than comfortable people in the West, where those evils are often masked. Moreover, our contemporary Western culture insists that faith in Christ and the Gospel is a restraint. We have to show by the nobility of our lives that the Gospel is liberating, not confining. And we have to proclaim in our preaching and evangelization that, in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, we see both the face of the merciful Father and the truth about our humanity and its extraordinary God-given destiny.

The book: The Next Pope The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission by George Weigel is available via Ignatius Press.

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