The following interview with EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel was conducted by Fr. Mario Conte and ran in The Messenger of Saint Anthony, a magazine published by the Conventual Franciscan friars of the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, Italy.
WHO WAS the most influential person in your religious formation?
My parents introduced me to the Church’s faith in Jesus Christ, along with some very fine religious sisters and priests with whom I studied as a boy. Needless to say, more than a decade of conversation with St. John Paul II had a major influence on my thinking, and helped deepen the formation I was fortunate to receive before I met him.
As far as religion is concerned, do you have more doubts or certainties?
I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant if I say, “more certainties than doubts.” With Bl. John Henry Newman I believe that a thousand questions don’t add up to a doubt, so my questions are fruitful for my theological reflection, not deconstructive of my faith. One of the great things about the Catholic faith is that there is always something more to learn: some new facet of the mystery of God’s providential care for history to bring into our understanding of God’s ways with us.
You wrote two biographies of Saint Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010), which are considered to be the most comprehensive and extensive accounts of the Polish Pope’s life and thought. Why did you feel the necessity of writing a third book, Lessons in Hope, which was recently published?
The End and the Beginning is the sequel to Witness to Hope, and when it was published in 2010 I thought I had kept the promise I made to John Paul at our last meeting in December 2004, when I told him that, if he didn’t bury me, I would finish his story (Witness to Hope, of course, only takes the story up through early 1999).
Then I discovered that what people most wanted were more stories of John Paul II: stories that would make him ‘present’ again in a personal way. And that led to Lessons in Hope, a very different kind of book – an album of memories of my conversations with John Paul and the providential coincidences in my life that led to my becoming his biographer. There’s not a single endnote in it, for which I expect my readers will be grateful!
When did you first meet Pope John Paul II, and how did your friendship develop?
This is of course described at some length in Lessons in Hope. Although we first met in 1991, our first real conversation was over my 1992 book, The Final Revolution, which was the first to make the argument that the Church and the Pope had played significant roles in the collapse of European communism (a thesis, I’m happy to say, that’s now widely accepted). The conversation simply continued after that, and in 1995 it occurred to me that I might write his biography and the history of his pontificate, a project in which he agreed to cooperate. Our conversation obviously intensified after that, and continued until a few months before his holy death.
What factors contributed to making Pope John Paul II such an extraordinary figure?
The absolutely fundamental reality of John Paul’s life was his Christian discipleship: his radical conversion to Christ and the intense interior life that deepened that conversion was the source of his pastoral ministry and his papal action ‘in the world’; it also shaped his intellectual life, for with John Paul faith and reason fed each other. Then there was his ‘Polishness’. Poland lived the human drama of the 20th century in a singular way, and it was that experience of national death and resurrection that gave John Paul II the key to resisting tyranny: the idea that culture, including religious conviction, is the most important dynamic force in history. And it was through returning to his people, the truth about their culture and themselves, on his first papal pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979, that he ignited the revolution of conscience that eventually led to the nonviolent political revolution of 1989.
Are there some lessons from John Paul II which you think are particularly relevant now, in 2018?
If the democratic world is experiencing some serious distress in this second decade of the third millennium, it’s in large part because of a deficit of democratic culture: the habits of mind and heart that empower people to make the machinery of democracy work so that the net result is genuine human flourishing. John Paul explained the crucial importance of a vibrant public moral culture to the democratic project in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, which remains entirely relevant to our 21st century situation.
How would you describe the current situation of the Catholic Church in the States after the sex abuse scandals that rocked it?
The Catholic Church in the United States is the safest institutional environment for children and young people in the country today. The ‘Long Lent’ of 2002 also led to a major reform of American seminaries, many of which are now models that the rest of the world might well emulate. The Church in America has its challenges, but it is also the most vibrant local Church in the developed world. And the most vibrant parts of the Church in the United States are those that have embraced the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as the authoritative interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.
What is the current relationship between America’s Catholic bishops and the White House?
The American bishops are pastors and teachers, not politicians, so their relationship to the Trump administration and to the Congress (an equal part of government in our system) can’t be reduced to a relationship of power. It’s a question of persuasion and advocacy on behalf of certain moral truths and core values. And because the Church’s social doctrine doesn’t fit into convenient ‘left/right’ ideological boxes, there will be agreement on some points and tension on other points. This is the normal situation, and it hasn’t changed materially with the election of President Trump, although the points of agreement and tension have changed a bit.
Are you optimistic about the direction in which Pope Francis is guiding the Church?
When I first met Pope Francis in Buenos Aires in 2012, then-Cardinal Bergoglio and I spoke at some length about the Aparecida document of the Latin American bishops, which he had played a large role in drafting. Aparecida’s vision, and the vision of the Catholic future that I sketched in my book Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st -Century Church, seemed to me entirely congruent. So I was very pleased with the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, and Pope Francis’s description of a “Church permanently in mission,” which is precisely the ecclesiology or theology of the Church I had laid out in Evangelical Catholicism. My concern in 2018 is that the turbulence created by the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitiais impeding the Church’s work in living the vision of Evangelii Gaudium, because I’m convinced that the only Catholicism that can effectively offer friendship with Jesus Christ and the opportunity to live as his disciple is a Catholicism-in-full, not what I’ve called “Catholic Lite.” “Catholic Lite,” the dumbing-down of the faith, has been a complete failure in Western Europe, and that unmistakable fact should shape our way of being a “Church permanently in mission.”
There seems to be an iron law of Christianity’s relationship to modernity: Christian communities that maintain their doctrinal and moral boundaries can survive, and even flourish, amidst the secularizing tendencies of modernity and post-modernity; Christian communities whose doctrinal and moral boundaries become porous, to the point where there really are no such boundaries, wither and die. Those who share the vision of a “Church permanently in mission” must think very carefully about that truth.
What do you think of the astonishing escalation of Christian persecution in the 21st century?
It’s a multifaceted reality. A large part of it involves the civil war within Islam over its relationship to ‘the other’, which has now spilled out to involve minority Christian communities in Islamic societies. Then there is the persecution of Christians by radical secularist forces, for whom the Church’s teaching is the last barrier to the victory of lifestyle libertinism. In both cases, persecuted Christians must know that a strong defense is the best course of action, coupled with effective support of the persecuted by Christians living in more secure environments.
Terrorism frequently makes headlines, threatening or attacking governments, private businesses, and ordinary citizens. How can we live with this ‘enemy within’?
If by ‘terrorism’ you mean ‘jihadist or radical Islamist terrorism’, we can’t live with it; we must help those Muslims who wish to live in peaceful, tolerant, and pluralistic societies to defeat it.
The attack at a country festival in Las Vegas last October that left 59 people dead and around 527 wounded is the deadliest mass shooting in US history. However, data compiled by Gun Violence Archive reveals that there have been 1516 mass shootings in the last 1735 days in the US. Should more gun control laws be enacted in the States?
There are in fact fairly strict gun control laws throughout the United States, but they obviously must be strengthened. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution protects the right to bear arms, but it’s ludicrous to suggest that that right extends to the kind of weapons involved in the Las Vegas shootings.
One of the most used words in all languages is love. What does this word mean to you?
Love is the gift of self to others, by which we model and in some sense participate in the life of the Holy Trinity, which is a divine communion of loving self-gift and loving reception.
All the great religions of the world based upon the one God (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) have the fundamental principle of peace, love, justice and dialogue, and yet the situation in the world is very discouraging. Why do you think this is so?
A strange idea seemed to enter world politics after the collapse of European communism and the ‘third wave’ of democratization: the idea that peace and order are self-maintaining. They aren’t. Peace and order are accomplishments that must be built and sustained, daily. Until enough people – and a critical mass of political leaders – recognize that, the forces of disorder will continue to make things difficult for everyone. In addition, it’s imperative that we build in the 21st century a genuine ‘dialogue’ among Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, based on the tradition of reason. There are deep truths built into the world and into us, and those truths should ‘structure’ the interreligious dialogue
Who is God for you? How would you describe him?
The God I worship is the God who revealed himself to Abraham, gave his law through Moses, and fully entered human history in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ – who shows us both the face of the merciful Father and the truth about our humanity, as Vatican II taught in Gaudium et Spes 22. This God of Abraham, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, is creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, a Trinity of love and communion into whose light and life we are called to participate. The Trinitarian God is the fullness of both truth and mercy, and in Him there is no tension between truth and mercy, for to be possessed by God’s truth is to encounter God’s mercy. The God whom Jesus of Nazareth called ‘Father’ is also the Lord of history, and in Christ’s resurrection he has revealed that his purposes in history will be, finally, vindicated, in what Jesus called the Kingdom come in its fullness. The wonderful thing about being a Christian is that we can participate, now, in an anticipatory way, in the life of that Kingdom, by living the Beatitudes – the Magna Carta, if you will, of the Christian moral life.
What does prayer mean to you?
My prayer is very liturgical: Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours shape my daily prayer. When I was a boy, I was taught that prayer involves adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication; and, I suspect like most people, I’m better at supplication! But I do try to live those other aspects of prayer, and the older I get, the more I find both contrition and thanksgiving shaping my prayer more frequently. Adoration, I think, is an aspect of prayer that we will only ‘perfect’ at the Throne of Grace, in what the Church calls the Beatific Vision. And a good way to prepare for that is to ponder Dante’s Paradiso.
I am a Franciscan friar of the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, Italy. Does St Anthony mean anything to you?
St Anthony is very good at helping me find things I’ve lost, so I’ve been grateful to him on many occasions. There is a special chapel in honor of St Anthony in the Cathedral of St Matthew in Washington, and I often sit just outside of it during daily Mass, so I think of him often. The saints, especially John Paul II and those he canonized, are inner companions of my life, and I am grateful for their company. Devotion to the saints is a crucial part of Christian life, for the canonized saints remind us that we’re all called to be saints – people who can, as C.S. Lewis put it, live comfortably with God forever.
A NATIVE of Baltimore, George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was educated at St. Mary’s Seminary College in his native city, and at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. In 1975 Weigel moved to Seattle where he was Assistant Professor of Theology and Assistant (later Acting) Dean of Studies at the St. Thomas Seminary School of Theology in Kenmore. In 1977 Weigel became Scholar-in-Residence at the World Without War Council of Greater Seattle, a position he held until 1984. In 1984-85 Weigel was a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, where he wrote Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (OUP, 1987).
Weigel is the author or editor of 24 other books, including Letters to a Young Catholic (Basic Books, 2004); God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins, 2005); Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism (Doubleday, 2007); and Roman Pilgrimage: the Station Churches (Basic Books, 2013)
He has recently completed what he refers to as the “John Paul II Triptych.” His newly released memoir Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017), completes the first two best-selling ‘panels’ – Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). He has been awarded eighteen honorary doctorates, the papal cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, and the Gloria Artis Gold Medal by the Republic of Poland.
George Weigel and his wife, Joan, have three children and three grandchildren, and live in North Bethesda, Maryland.