Published July 20, 2020
Editor’s note: The latest book from George Weigel—biographer of Pope John Paul II and author of over twenty books—has caused a bit of stir, in part because of the book’s title. Is The Next Pope, published by Ignatius Press, meant to be a politicking guide to the next papal conclave? A vetting of possible papal candidates? Or is it something altogether different?
[Carl E. Olson of the Catholic World Report] corresponded with Weigel recently about the book, the papacy, Vatican II, and current challenges within and outside the Church.
CWR: While some readers might initially think your book is about who the next pope might be, isn’t it more accurate to say (as the subtitle indicates) that it’s about what the papacy is, especially within a proper understanding of the nature of the Church and her evangelical mission?
Weigel: That’s right. My book is an agenda-for-the-future book, not a book about personalities. Drawing on my personal experiences with Pope Francis and his two predecessors, as well as contacts with Catholics all over the world, I try to suggest what the next pontificate might do to advance what Pope Francis has called a “Church permanently in mission.” So while the book is about the Office of Peter and its unique role in the Church—which is biblically defined in Luke 22:32—it’s also about the responsibility of everyone in the Church for the work of evangelization, viewed through the prism of what the papacy might do to support that work.
CWR: A foundational point for this book is your contention that we are living through the “turbulence of [a] transitional moment” as part of what you identify as the fifth major historical transition in the life of the Church. What is that transition? And how does the papacy fit, if you will, into that transition?
Weigel: As I note in very telegraphic form in The Next Pope, we’re in the fifth great transitional epoch in the two thousand year history of the Church. The first was the transition from the Jesus Movement (or, if you prefer, the primitive Church described in Acts and the New Testament epistles) to the “Early Church,” a transition that accelerated by the First Jewish-Roman War (c. 70 A.D.); that Early Church converted somewhere between one-third and one-half of the Mediterranean world in 250 years or so.
The “Early Church” then gave birth to, even as it gave way to, Patristic Christianity, which was shaped by the Church’s encounter with classical culture; that way of being Catholic supported crucial ecumenical Councils like Nicaea I, Ephesus, and Chalcedon, and nourished such great thinkers as Ambrose, Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Maximos the Confessor. Then, toward the end of the first millennium, Patristic Christianity gave birth to—even as it gave way to—Medieval Christendom: perhaps the closest synthesis of Church, society, and culture ever achieved. Medieval Christendom shattered in the 16th century, and from the cataclysms of that era came the Catholicism that every Catholic over 55 or 60 years old grew up in: Counter-Reformation Catholicism.
We’re now in a transition from Counter-Reformation Catholicism to the Church of the New Evangelization, a transition in which the institutions painstakingly built, defended, and rebuilt between the late 16th century and the late 20th century must now be transformed into platforms for mission. These transitional moments always create turbulence, and the present one—which began with the pontificate of Leo XIII in the late 19th century—is no exception.
CWR: Early on, you touch on a theme developed in more detail in your book The Irony of Modern Catholic History, namely that since 1878 and the papacy of Leo XIII, the Church has sought to “engage the modern world in order to convert the modern world.” What have been some of the key challenges and obstacles to that work, and how will that shape or affect the next papacy?
Weigel: The basic challenge for the Church in the West is to understand that we’re no longer living in “Christendom times,” times when the culture helps transmit the faith, but in apostolic times: times in which the Gospel must be actively proclaimed and proposed. You don’t have to explain that to the vibrant young Churches of sub-Saharan Africa; they’re living it. It does have to be explained in Europe, Latin America, and a lot of North America. Every Church leader, clerical or lay, but especially the Successor of Peter, has to recognize this basic fact about our situation. There are many other challenges and obstacles, of course, including the insistence of some that Catholic Lite is the path to “relevance,” which it clearly isn’t.
And then there’s the challenge of widespread cynicism born of a kind of nihilistic spiritual boredom throughout much of elite Western culture. Still, the basic challenge is to grasp that we’re living in apostolic times and draw the appropriate conclusions from that fact.
CWR: You strongly criticize “Catholic Lite” throughout the book. What are the essential features of Catholic Lite? And what, in your view, should the next pope do to address it?
Weigel: Catholic Lite is the dumbing down of Catholic belief and practice in conformity to prevailing cultural trends and shibboleths. And as experience should have taught us, Catholic Lite leads inexorably to Catholic Zero, which is what’s going on in, say, Germany. Much of German Catholicism today is a massive, well-funded institutional shell without evangelical power or serious impact on society; that’s what fifty years of Catholic Lite will do to a local Church, no matter how venerable or well-heeled.
I used to think that Catholic Lite was a form of psychological schism: “Look, we’re smarter than you orthodox/conservative types.” I don’t think that any more. Catholic Lite is a form of apostasy, a tacit denial that Jesus Christ is the unique savior of humanity and the center of history and the cosmos.
The living parts of the world Church are those that embrace Catholicism in full. The next pope can point that out, encourage living Catholicism in its work of evangelization, and call those parts of the world Church caught in the quicksand of Catholic Lite to rediscover the adventure of orthodoxy before they decompose into Catholic Zero.
CWR: You write that there are some Catholics today who “deny that God’s revelation judges history and suggest that the flow of history and our present experience judges the truths of revelation…” What are some examples of this Hegelian-influenced approach of divine revelation? And what sort of problems result from it?
Weigel: We saw these problems in the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the family, when prominent churchmen insisted that our experience of the challenges of marriage and family life today allows us to “adjust” the teaching of Jesus himself—revelation—on such matters.
Where this leads, of course, is precisely where it has led liberal Protestantism since the 19th century: to a rudderless Christianity that eventually becomes indistinguishable from the surrounding society and culture, and therefore becomes comatose, evangelically and in its impact on society. The Second Vatican Council made a robust affirmation of the fact and binding authority of divine revelation, and every pope should regularly remind the Church of that. We are not rudderless, thanks to Scripture and Tradition, which, as the Council teaches, form one deposit of the Word of God.
CWR: The most important debate in the Church today, you argue, is over whether or not Vatican II is “in continuity with revelation and tradition” or is a “council of rupture and discontinuity”. This seems to have reached something of a crisis point today. What might the next pope do to address this debate?
Weigel: In my view he should address it by settling it. He would settle it, first, by forcefully reminding the Church of John XXIII’s intention for the Council, which was to transmit the whole of divine revelation in a manner understandable by the people of the day, so that they might be converted to Christ; thus the documents of Vatican II can only be properly understood and interpreted within the horizon of the Church’s settled tradition.
That robust affirmation would address the criticism of Vatican II as a sad mistake, which is coming from certain ultra-Traditionalist quarters these days, even as it reminds the “progressive” winglet of the Church that John XXIII was not looking to deconstruct Catholicism according to some sort of amorphous conciliar “spirit.” And, in the second place, the next pope should forcefully remind the Church that Catholicism doesn’t do “paradigm shifts,” because Jesus Christ, “the same yesterday and today and always” (Hebrews 13:8) is always the center of the Church. The Church develops its understanding of Christ and of its mission; it doesn’t do paradigm shifts. The paradigm is and always will be “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
CWR: The next pope, you write, must work to strengthen the unity of the Church. But what if the next pope fails to do so? What if, for example, the next pope seems more focused on scoring political points and ignoring essential disputes over theological, moral, and liturgical matters? What then?
Weigel: I don’t think that’s likely, but should it happen, then the bishops, priests, religious, and lay faithful will have to carry on with the New Evangelization, which only flourishes through the fulness of Christian truth. No one needs permission to be an evangelist; everyone was given the Great Commission of Matthew 28.19 at baptism. The papacy is critically important in the Church; but the pope isn’t the Church and Catholicism doesn’t reduce to the papacy.
CWR: The current crisis “of world civilization is a crisis in the idea of the human person” and, you state, the answer to that is “the revitalization of Christian humanism.” Is it fair to say that far too many Catholic leaders, even those wishing to address this crisis, do not comprehend deeply enough the profound nature of this crisis? And how to practically go about address it? To that end, how should the next pope seek to revitalize Christian humanism?
Weigel: Here in the United States, it’s impossible to deny the nature of the crisis anymore, thanks to the recent Bostock decision by the Supreme Court. Bostock said, in so many words, that the biblical idea of the human person is contrary to U.S. civil rights law. According to that civil rights law as construed by the majority in Bostock, we are all simply bundles of morally equivalent desires, the satisfaction of which is the purpose of civil rights law; and any challenge to that view of the human person is by definition an act of discrimination or bigotry. That’s how bad things have gotten.
So what’s the answer? Legal strategies for playing good defense until the legal landscape changes and is brought back into conformity with reality are essential. Over the long haul, though, the only answer to this degradation of the human person is the lifting up of a nobler vision of who we human beings are. Christians believe that the truth of who we are, and what our noble destiny is, was definitively displayed in Jesus Christ, who reveals both the face of the Father of mercies and the truth about us. Jesus is not some avatar of human decency or “spirituality.” He is what he said he was: “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14.6). Thus a radically Christocentric renewal of evangelization is imperative for both the Church’s sake and society’s sake.
How can the next pope support what will have to be a massive effort at cultural conversion and renewal by the entire Church? He can do that by being thoroughly, even relentlessly, Christocentric in his own preaching and teaching. And in this, he can take a cue from John Paul II. When people think about John Paul’s great inaugural homily on October 22, 1978, they remember the phrase, “Be not afraid!” The homily began, however, with Peter’s confession of Christological faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16.16). John Paul II could live beyond fear, and he could persuasively challenge others to do the same, because of his radical, Christocentric faith. That’s a powerful model for the papacy of the future, in these apostolic times.
CWR: One of the book’s later chapters talks about the need to reform the Holy See. Many Catholics, it is safe to say, have become rather cynical about this topic, as it is continually mentioned but never seems to really happen. What are the main obstacles? And what can the next pope really do to make it happen?
Weigel: A senior member of the College of Cardinals asked me two years ago what I thought “we should be looking for in the next pope.” I replied, “First, we need a man of luminous faith who can make Christian orthodoxy attractive and compelling. And second, we need a man willing to fire fifty people during his first month in office.” The cardinal agreed. As all heads of Vatican dicasteries lose their positions at the sede vacante (i.e., when the pope dies or abdicates), the new pope has an opportunity at serious reform from the very beginning of his pontificate: he simply doesn’t reappoint certain people.
Beyond that, things get a little more difficult, which is why I suggest in the book that the next pope needs a trusted, tough-minded second-in-command who can do the necessary housecleaning. But even when that’s done, long-term Vatican reform is only going to result from a profound change in the institutional culture of the Holy See. That means, among other things, appointing to decision-making curial office (the so-called “superiors”) only those who have already demonstrated financial competence and probity. Audits, transparency in budgeting and accounting, and other structural reforms are imperative, and Pope Francis has made some headway on that front. But personnel is policy, and the key to Vatican reform is the character of those called to work there.
CWR: Any final thoughts?
Weigel: The Next Pope draws lessons from the life and work of each of the popes with whom I’ve had the privilege of being in personal conversation: John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. None of them got everything right, and there are things to be learned from what went right and not-so-right in those pontificates.
The Next Pope also reflects my experiences of Catholic life in a wide variety of venues throughout the world Church, which have helped me see both the complexity of the Catholic reality and a great simplicity: all-in Catholicism is attractive and transformative, and Catholic Lite isn’t. The book is not a polemic; I ‘d like it to be read as a call to hope. I also wrote it to try to elevate and deepen the conversation about the papacy and its future, which like too much else in the Church today is being conducted in increasingly shrill and partisan tones. Enough shrieking is enough. Let’s get serious.
George Weigel is EPPC’s Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight.