George Weigel’s new book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books), seems destined to be a reference point in the papal interregnum that begins at 2 p.m., New York time on February 28, and well into the new pontificate. I caught up with Weigel, who has been in Rome since Ash Wednesday, to pose some questions about the conclave, the state of the Church, and the analysis of Evangelical Catholicism:
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: By Pope Benedict XVI publicly acknowledging problems inside the Vatican is he giving guidance to the cardinals gathering in Rome this week?
GEORGE WEIGEL: The pope has mentioned these problems more than once, although no one seems to have noticed until the world’s attention suddenly became riveted on Rome and the Vatican. Benedict XVI has no intention of “giving guidance” to the men who will elect his successor; he is too good a churchman, too humble a man, and too much a respecter of the conclave process to even think of doing something like that. But there is no doubt, here in Rome, that the dysfunction in the Vatican bureaucracy will be a major topic of the cardinals’ conversations before the conclave is enclosed. Benedict XVI was ill-served by men in whom he reposed trust and to whom he gave great authority, and everyone knows it — except, alas, those who ill-served him.
LOPEZ: Not to be Pollyannaish, but how do Church institutions become worldly and even corrupt? Ought there to be a sanctification there? Can there be?
WEIGEL: The Church is a human institution and at certain moments in time the darker aspects of that humanity come into the glare of publicity. As for the situation right now, a distinguished Italian historian said to me, shortly after I arrived in Rome, that Italy had become a “corrupt society and culture” and that, with the deep and broad Italianization of the Roman Curia over the past half-decade, similar patterns of incompetence and malfeasance had penetrated the Leonine Wall. That strikes me as true, and it needs to be said. What also needs to be said is that there are many good and faithful servants in the Roman Curia, men and women for whom service in Rome is a real sacrifice which they undertake out of love for the Church and obedience to the call of their superiors. These people, who don’t imagine the Curia as a career-boosting ticket-punch but who look forward to returning to their local Churches, are the human model of the curial reform I lay out in Evangelical Catholicism — for that reform will begin with a change of attitude, not merely a change of structures, important as the latter is.
LOPEZ: Why is the Vatican a state? Doesn’t that bring with it all kinds of opportunities for distraction from her mission?
WEIGEL: It’s long been understood that the pope, as Universal Pastor of the Church, cannot be the subject of any worldly sovereignty. Thus the sovereignty of the Vatican City micro-state is protection for the pope’s evangelical and pastoral mission. That mission can and must include a critical challenge to the world of affairs, as in Benedict XVI’s remarkable “September Addresses” in Regensburg, Paris, New York, and Berlin (which I describe in the March 11 print issue of NR). What that mission ought not to include is fooling around in the circus of Italian politics, which has been a weakness of the present cardinal secretary of state and his predecessor.
LOPEZ: What might the priorities of the next pope be?
WEIGEL: He’s got to have trifocals: meeting the challenge of an aggressive secularism in the West with the dynamic, affirmative orthodoxy of evangelical Catholicism; encouraging the burgeoning “new churches” of the global South, purifying and deepening their experience of Jesus as Lord and savior and their integration into the rhythms and practices of Catholic life; and defending religious freedom for all, especially against the challenge of jihadist Islam, which exemplifies what Benedict XVI has described as religion unpurified by reason.
LOPEZ: Will he be an Evangelical Catholic? What does that mean? How will we know?
WEIGEL: The Evangelical Catholicism I describe in that eponymous book isn’t the product of any one man; it’s the result of a lengthy, complex, and difficult process of development in the Catholic Church since the late 19th century. Vatican II brought that process to a high moment of ecclesiastical drama. John Paul II and Benedict XVI focused the Council’s many-layered teaching and gave it a sharp focus by teaching, with the Council, that to be a Catholic is to be a radically converted disciple in a communion of disciples that lives for mission — for offering others the possibility of friendship with Jesus Christ. And thus with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the door has been thrust open to Evangelical Catholicism in its first maturity. That maturation process will continue, because a robustly orthodox Catholicism impassioned about mission is the only Catholicism that has a future. Why? Because it’s the Catholicism that is answering Christ’s call to mission in the Great Commission, and it’s the only Catholicism that can meet the challenge of aggressive secularism, jihadism — and limp discipleship.
LOPEZ: What are the kinds of questions cardinals must be asking themselves and one another as they prepare for the conclave?
WEIGEL: As they measure a man for the shoes of the fisherman, the first and obvious question cardinals should ask is: Is this a man of God, who lives out of a depth of faith that can sustain him in an impossible task? And can he communicate that faith, enticing others to consider sharing it, through who he is, not just by what he says? Another urgent question is: Does this man have good judgment in people? That is, can he draw to himself the collaborators who will give his mission real effect? And is he willing to correct errors in judgment about people when they become clear?
I describe in some detail other qualities one would like to see in a pope in the last chapter of Evangelical Catholicism.
LOPEZ: Choosing the next pope is no small thing. How does one even begin to deliberate?
WEIGEL: The first thing the cardinals (including the non-voting cardinals over 80) will do is assess the state of the world Church during what are called “General Congregations.” In that process, men can begin to be measured for those aforementioned shoes. I would also hope that the General Congregations become a kind of retreat. The elders of the Church need to take stock, in conscience and in prayer, of the ways in which they and others have failed in their own leadership responsibilities. That kind of purification seems even more essential today than before. The General Congregations, and the conclave, ought to be far more like a religious community or order discerning its next leadership than like a court choosing its next king or queen.
LOPEZ: Can the conclave itself act as a renewing force for bishops and the priesthood?
WEIGEL: It can do so by choosing a pope who will take the reform of the episcopate seriously (and there’s a whole chapter on that in Evangelical Catholicism) and who will continue the reform of the priesthood that began with John Paul II and has been accelerated by Benedict XVI. It would also be helpful if the new pope could become, by the vigor and magnetism of his own priestly witness, what Cardinal William Baum once called John Paul II: the “world’s greatest vocation director” (or what the military would call a “great recruiter”).
LOPEZ: How can — and must — a pope convey “sacramental seriousness” at a time when holiness is being pushed to the sidelines by a secularism that all too many within the Church have bought into? Can the cardinals convey it in their choice?
WEIGEL: I think a pope does that in two ways. If he celebrates the liturgy in a dignified and reverent way, he offers the jaded world an experience of beauty which just might open up a discussion about truth and goodness. And in his magisterium, he can challenge the soul-withering insularity of secularism by explaining that the world really does have doors, windows, and skylights, and that life is much more noble — and much more fun — if we recognize that rather than hunkering down in enclosed bunkers of self-absorption.
LOPEZ: These are men in the conclave. What if they don’t listen to what He says?
WEIGEL: Well, it’s been known to happen before. Cardinal Ratzinger himself once said that the role of the Holy Spirit in a conclave is to prevent the cardinals from electing a pope who would completely wreck the Church. That’s a kind of negative boundary, but, looking back over the relevant history, it has the ring of realism to it.
In the apostolic constitution that will govern this conclave, John Paul II suppressed the methods of electing a pope by “inspiration” ( a cardinal or cardinals gets up in the Sistine Chapel and proclaims his belief that Cardinal X has already been chosen by God, and at least two-thirds of the others agree — the scenario in Morris West’s novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman) and by “delegation” (the cardinals agree to choose a committee who will choose the new pope). John Paul’s view, I think, was that the conclave is a drama of discernment in which every elector ought to feel the full weight of his religious and moral responsibility. That they will do this under the gaze of the Christ of the Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel, rather underscores that point.
LOPEZ: Can the Church — from the pope to her priests and all the faithful — reintroduce itself and what Christ proposes through her to a world that has seen much unseriousness and disappointment and even evil from those who call themselves Catholic?
WEIGEL: It has to, and that begins both by acknowledging the failures of the people of the Church (and its leaders) and refusing to be cowed into evangelical silence by those sins and failures. If the Church models a more humane way of life than what’s on offer from others, it will draw the curious and the wounded and all those looking for the Good Shepherd, whether they consciously know that’s what they’re seeking at this moment or not.
LOPEZ: Has Pope Benedict set some markers in terms of liturgical reform the next pope can build on?
WEIGEL: As I explain in Evangelical Catholicism, he’s accelerated the reform of the reform of the liturgy, and with what seem to me to be notable results. There are exceptions, of course, but the liturgical silly season is over.
LOPEZ: Are the reforms that have not been implemented by this pope an indicator of a failed pontificate? Many, as you know, have said his is a failed papacy in recent days.
WEIGEL: I don’t think it’s a failed pontificate, but the full agenda imagined for it in April 2005 certainly hasn’t been completed. Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered as the greatest papal preacher since Gregory the Great in the sixth century, and his sermons and homilies will be read for centuries for spiritual nourishment. Ditto for his catechetical talks at the Wednesday general audiences. Ditto for the “September Addresses,” when it comes to world affairs and the discontents of contemporary democracy. What hasn’t been begun, much less completed, is the reform of the Vatican bureaucratic machinery so that it becomes an instrument of, not an impediment to, the pope’s mission as an evangelical pastor and missionary.
LOPEZ: At this time of transition, what are you praying for? What ought Catholics be praying for? Can Evangelical Catholicism be a handbook for this moment?
WEIGEL: I hope Evangelical Catholicism encourages those who read it to imagine a robust and dynamic, if also challenging, future for the Church. And that’s what we should all be praying for, all the time: the courage to be Catholic, which is the prerequisite to living our lives, in a virtual infinity of ways, as disciples in mission.
LOPEZ: You talk a great deal about Leo XIII in your book. What might be his advice to the cardinals and to Catholics of this moment?
WEIGEL: I think he’d ask the cardinals, and all of us, to see in postmodernity and its discontents a challenge that can be turned to evangelical advantage, if we have the wit, will, spiritual strength, and intellectual formation for it. I also think he’d be asking us to pray for the protection of St. Michael the Archangel, for we are surely in battle and the Evil One is having what cricketers would call “good innings” these days.
LOPEZ: Everyone else must be asking you these questions: Who do you think the next pope will be and what are the odds he hails from North America?
WEIGEL: I don’t do names; I don’t do odds; but I will say that geography will have little or nothing to do with the selection of the next pope.
Much more discussion of Evangelical Catholicism with Weigel here.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.