Looking into the Future Through His Eyes: John Paul II, the Catholic Church, and the Crisis of the West

Published November 5, 2020

The Catholic World Report

The following lecture was given by George Weigel on November 5, 2020, as part of the annual “John Paul II Days” lecture series. This year’s conference was held virtually and organized around the theme “The Next Hundred Years.”

Thank you for the invitation to participate once again in this annual conference.

I appreciate the theme you have chosen for John Paul II’s centenary: looking into the next hundred years. For as a friend of Poland I have long been concerned that there is far too much looking back over one’s shoulder at John Paul II in Poland, and not enough looking forward through his eyes.

I understand the sentiments that cause so many Poles to look back at John Paul II with such affection and even nostalgia. The enormous place he holds in the Polish national imagination is entirely understandable. And yet I believe he would want us to do precisely what this conference intends to do, which is to look forward, through his eyes, into the future. So I hope the conversations generated by the 2020 John Paul II Days in Kraków accelerates the transition in Poland from looking backward at John Paul II to looking forward with a vision shaped by his example and teaching.

In this brief paper, I want to look forward through the eyes of John Paul II at two futures: the future of the Catholic Church, and the future of the Western civilizational project, or more narrowly, the future of Western democracy. These two futures intersect, as I will suggest at the end. For the moment, however, permit me to treat each future individually.

Let is begin with the future of the Church, seen through the eyes of John Paul II. How would he have us think about the Catholic Church of the next hundred years?

As a matter of fact, he told us quite clearly how he would have us think about the Catholicism of the future. He told us in the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio; he told us again throughout the Great Jubilee of 2000; and he told us quite specifically in the apostolic letter closing the Great Jubilee, Novo Millennio Ineunte.

In Redemptoris Missio, throughout the Great Jubilee, and in Novo Millennio Ineunte, John Paul II summed up the teaching of his pontificate and his vision of the Catholic future under the rubric, “The Church of the New Evangelization.” As I tried to demonstrate in my book, The Irony of Modern Catholic Historythis central idea in John Paul II’s teaching is the culmination of a complex and often contentious development that began with Pope Leo XIII, who in 1878 took the bold, strategic decision that the Catholic Church would no longer simply resist the modern world, but would engage the modern world in order to convert the modern world.

The energies created by that Leonine decision rippled through the world Church for some 80 years, and it was to gather and focus those energies that Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII called Vatican II so that the Catholic Church might have a new experience of Pentecost, an experience of that fire of the Holy Spirit that led the early Church to go out and convert so much of the Mediterranean world. As a young auxiliary bishop in Kraków and then as the city’s archbishop, Karol Wojtyła experienced the Second Vatican Council as what John XXIII intended it to be: an event in which the Catholic Church gathered itself for new evangelical and missionary energy, as it entered its twenty-first century and third millennium.

By giving the Second Vatican Council an authoritative interpretation – which I understand to be the major achievement of the magisterium of John Paul II – and by pointing that interpretation toward the Church of the New Evangelization, John Paul II fulfilled the intention for Vatican II that John XXIII expressed in his opening address to the Council. At the same time, John Paul II gave all Catholics their marching orders – their commission for the future.

What is this Church of the New Evangelization, as John Paul II understood it?

First, the Church of the New Evangelization is a Church in which every Catholic understands himself or herself as a missionary disciple. In the Counter-Reformation Catholicism in which I grew up, the model of the missionary was St. Francis Xavier – someone who went into an exotic, previously unexplored, and perhaps even dangerous part of the world to bring the Gospel to a place where the Gospel has never been proclaimed. The Church still needs that kind of missionary today, and much to its credit, Poland supplies many of them.

John Paul II, however, asked all Catholics to think of themselves as missionary disciples. He asked every Catholic to understand that on the day of his or her baptism, each Catholic was given the Great Commission of Matthew 28.19: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Thus every Catholic, John Paul II proposed, should measure the quality of his or her discipleship by his or her effectiveness as a missionary: as one who offers others the gift of faith and friendship with the Son of God that Catholics have been given.

Secondly, the Church of the New Evangelization is a Church that thinks of everywhere as “mission territory.” Catholics must no longer to think of mission territory as exotic places far away. Mission territory is all around us, not least in the Western world. It is no exaggeration to say that the Netherlands are mission territory. It is no exaggeration to say that Belgium is mission territory today. Switzerland is mission territory. Germany is most certainly mission territory. The United States is mission territory.

And it is imperative that Polish Catholicism understand that Poland is missionary territory.

In John Paul II’s vision of the Church of the New Evangelization, “mission territory” is every Catholic’s home and neighborhood. Mission territory is every Catholic’s workplace. Mission territory is every Catholic’s life as a consumer, and mission territory is every Catholic’s life as a citizen. It’s all mission territory.

This profound and challenging vision of a Catholic future in which every Catholic is a missionary and every place is mission territory is taking some time for Catholics to grasp, especially in what have been comfortably Catholic societies and cultures for centuries. And yet Catholics must understand that we are living in apostolic times, not Christendom times. Christendom in the West is over. Twenty years from now it will no longer be possible for anyone in the United States to answer the question “Why are you a Catholic?” by saying, “I’m a Catholic because my great-grandmother came from Ireland (or Mexico, or Belgium, or Bavaria, or Italy, or Lithuania, or Ukraine, or Poland).” That answer is not going to suffice, because Catholicism as an ethnic inheritance can no longer flourish in the United States. The culture simply will not permit it.

And this situation is not unique to the United States.

As every parent and grandparent knows, the culture that surrounds us in the West today does not help transmit Catholic faith; worse, it’s often actively hostile to the faith. Thus the confidence that Polish ethnic or national identity will transmit Catholic faith long into the future is misplaced. Indeed, I doubt that Catholicism-by-ethnic-or-national-inheritance is working very well among Polish young people today. Where Catholicism is living and vital among young adults in Poland today, it’s because the faith has been proposed, celebrated, and lived, as I’ve seen for decades at the university ministry led from the Dominican Basilica of the Holy Trinity in Kraków, and at Dominican campus ministries elsewhere.

The age of the ethnic or national transmission of Catholic faith – the age of Catholicism transmitted by a kind of genetic inheritance or osmosis – is over everywhere in the Western world, including Poland. Every Catholic in the West must recognize this. John Paul II certainly recognized it, and that is why he called the Church to reclaim its primary identity as a missionary enterprise.

In order to be the Church of the New Evangelization, Catholicism must renew and reform itself. Let me indicate very briefly two such lines of reform that seem to me especially urgent in Poland.

To be the Church of the New Evangelization requires a deep reform of Polish seminaries and Polish theological education. The priests of the future in Poland are all going to have to be missionaries, whether they’re priests living in and working from religious communities, or priests living and working as diocesan clergy in parishes. Every man who imagines that he has a priestly vocation in the Polish Catholicism of the 21st century must understand that he will, of necessity, be living a missionary vocation. That means that priestly formation in diocesan seminaries and religious houses must be formation for mission. The notion of the priesthood as a privileged career of providing sacramental services can no longer be the dominant notion of the priesthood in the West; it cannot be the driving image of the priesthood of the future in the United States, and I do not think it can be the idea that shapes the Polish Catholic priesthood of the future. Priests of the twenty-first century who think that their primary task is to maintain the Church’s institutional life – priests who do not think of themselves as missionary apostles – will eventually find themselves being museum-keepers.

Secondly, this Church of the New Evangelization in Poland must be a public church, but not a partisan church. It must be a Catholicism fully engaged in culture and in society, offering the truths that it is privileged bear to the public conversation about public goods. But the Catholic Church of the future in Poland, or elsewhere, cannot be a partisan church identified with any particular political party, political faction, political tendency, or political philosophy. Whenever the Church has done this in modern history, serious trouble for the Church’s primary evangelical mission follows.

This is a complex matter, because it’s obvious that some political parties, some political tendencies, and some political philosophies are more adequate than others in reflecting the Catholic understanding of the human person and the moral truths that the Church believes are essential for righteous living, both individually and in society. Nonetheless, the temptation to align the Church with worldly power comes from the source of all temptation, as Christ himself made clear in Matthew 4.8-10. And therefore the temptation to identify the Catholic Church with a particular political party at a particular moment in history is a temptation that must be resisted, in itself and if the Church of the New Evangelization is to be the Church that John Paul II envisioned. The only power that will convert the late-modern and post-modern world is the power of the Gospel.

Let us look now at the future of the Western civilizational project, or Western democracy, through the eyes of John Paul II.

Through those eyes, we can see that this civilizational project – this democratic project – is in crisis. It’s a crisis of incoherence, and if we read carefully John Paul II’s greatest social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, and his apostolic letter, Ecclesia in Europa, the roots of that incoherence come into focus. Let me describe this crisis of incoherence through the image of a stool, a small piece of furniture on which to sit.

So let us imagine Western civilization as a stool with three legs. One of those legs is labeled “Jerusalem,” the second leg is labeled “Athens,” and the third leg is labeled “Rome.” Together, those three legs support what we know as “the West.” How do they do this? Or to put the question another way, what have “Jerusalem,” “Athens,” and “Rome” taught the West?

“Jerusalem,” or biblical religion, taught the West that the history is going somewhere, that humanity’s story is linear. Which is to say that history is neither cyclical, nor repetitive, nor simply random – one thing happening after another to no discernable purpose and in no discernable pattern. No. The biblical message is that history has a direction. And the root of this idea so fundamental to the culture of the West – that humanity is going somewhere, that life is journey, adventure, pilgrimage – is the experience and story of the Exodus: the foundational image of liberation in the Western world.

The idea that history is purposeful, that history has a direction, a telos, has been absolutely crucial to the distinctive civilization of the West. And it was biblical religion that taught that foundational lesson and created that foundational, cultural “support:” first, through God’s self-revelation to the people of Israel and, definitively, in God’s self-revelation through the second person of the Blessed Trinity, born into history from Mary of Nazareth.

What about “Athens?” Classical philosophy, beginning with the pre-Socratics in the seventh century before Christ, taught the West that there are truths (including moral truths) built into the world and into us; that we can know those truths by the arts of reason; and that knowing those truths, we learn our duties and obligations as individuals and citizens.

In March 2000, John Paul II reflected on this when his biblical pilgrimage during the Great Jubilee of 2000 took him to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. There, the Pope said that the moral law — the law that leads humanity to righteous living, to happiness, and ultimately to beatitude – was inscribed on the human heart before it was inscribed on tablets of stone. The fundamentals of the moral law we know from revelation are also accessible to reason. It is not a moral law that is “true for believers.” It is a moral law that is true for everyone, because it is inscribed in reality.

“Athens” gave the West confidence in reason’s capacity to get to the truth of things – and not only the moral truth of things, but the scientific truth of things and the philosophical truth of things. That conviction that human beings have the capacity to grasp the truth of things has been crucial to the civilization of the West. Without it, there would have been no development of ethics, no development of science, no development of technology, and no development of a humane politics.

What about “Rome?” The Roman Republic gave the Western civilizational project the crucial idea that the rule of law is superior to mere brute force in ordering public life. Think of Cicero, who was both a serious political philosopher and a practicing politician – arguably a greater philosopher than a successful politician. In any event, Cicero symbolizes the most important Roman contribution to the Western civilizational project: the idea that the rule of law is superior to coercion as human beings structure their common life in society.

Thus the Western civilization project and its modern political expression, which we call democracy, is built on these three legs, these three foundations: (1) biblical religion – life is journey, adventure, and pilgrimage because history is going somewhere; (2) Greek philosophy – there are truths embedded in the world and in us and we can know them; and (3) Roman law – the rule of law is superior to coercion in human affairs.

What do we see today, however? Are those foundations still holding firm? I think not.

In the nineteenth century, European high culture, embodied in such figures as Comte, Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche, said: “No. We don’t need the ‘Jerusalem’ leg on the civilizational stool, because the God of the Bible is the enemy of human maturation and human liberation.” This false idea (which John Paul II’s friend, Fr. Henri de Lubac, SJ, analyzed in an important book called The Drama of Atheistic Humanism) ejected the God of the Bible from the Western civilizational story and thus from the public culture of the West. So, with the “Jerusalem” leg kicked out, there were only two legs left on the stool, which, not surprisingly, became unstable.

What happened then? Well, it seems that when you take the God of the Bible out of the picture, reason begins to doubt itself. For if you remove the notion (found in both Genesis and the gospel of St. John) that God the Creator impressed truths into the world and into his human creation – that God impressed the divine rationality, if you will, into the world and into us – you begin to lose the conviction that there is rationality in the created order; that there are truths and patterns of truths to be discovered in the world; and that reasons can grasp those truths and patterns. When the idea of a rational Creator is lost, it seems that confidence in the human capacity to get at the truth of things follows. And that helps explain the sorry condition of much of Western culture today: a culture in which it is often said that there’s no such thing as “The Truth” – there is only “your truth” and “my truth.”

This loss of “Athens,” due in part to the loss of “Jerusalem,” has serious consequences for “Rome.”

For as Joseph Ratzinger prophetically noted in April 2005, skepticism about The Truth is a prescription for the demise of the rule of law. For if there is only “your truth” and “my truth,” and neither of us can appeal to The Truth to settle our disagreements, then one of two things will happen: you will impose your power on me, or I will impose my power on you. That is what Ratzinger meant by that striking phrase, the “dictatorship of relativism” – the use of coercive state power to impose a relativistic public ethic on all of society. This danger is found everywhere in the West today. And it is one reason why the Western democratic project is in such a state of turmoil.

That turmoil reflects the hard fact that the cultural foundations of democracy, and indeed of the entire Western project, have decayed into incoherence. The West is in turmoil because the West has largely lost “Jerusalem” and is quickly losing “Athens.” And because of those erosions and losses, the West is in grave danger of losing “Rome” – the idea that the rule of law, achieved by rational debate leading to a consensus reflecting the judgment of self-governing citizens, is superior to coercion in ordering our common life.

Let me now bring these two “futures,” seen through the eyes of John Paul II, together.

If the root of the cultural incoherence of the West is a loss of faith in the God of the Bible (the Jerusalemic foundation of the Western civilizational project), then the Church of the New Evangelization – the Church of the future, according to John Paul II – is critically important to the rescue of the Western civilizational project. For it is the Church of the New Evangelization, in its work of proclaiming the Gospel and in its public witness, that will help Western civilization recover “Jerusalem,” and thereby recover “Athens” and the cultural confidence that reason can grasp the truth of things – which is essential to defending the rule of law against coercion in the name of skepticism and relativism.

By being a Church converting the world to the truths of biblical faith, the Catholic Church is also reconverting the world to reason and reason’s capacity to order human affairs. The two go together. By being a Church permanently in mission – the Church John Paul II envisioned during the Great Jubilee of 2000, the Church that he described in Redemptoris Missio, and Novo Millennio Ineunte – Catholicism will both fulfill the Great Commission and offer Western civilization a path beyond this crisis of incoherence.

If we look into the present and the future with the eyes of John Paul II, we see a great challenge. Yet looking into the present and future through the prism of his teaching and his thought, we also see a template for ecclesial renewal and civic reform that gives us hope of bringing to fruition the grand vision he proposed to the United Nations twenty-five years ago: the vision of a new “springtime of human spirit.”

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

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