“Catholicism is a very tangible business — it’s about seeing and hearing, touching and tasting and smelling as much as it’s about texts and arguments and ideas,” George Weigel writes in Letters to a Young Catholic, “The Revised and Expanded Edition of a Modern Spiritual Classic.”
Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of two books on John Paul II, talks about the book and the pope’s visit. — Kathryn Jean Lopez
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You quote your late friend Cardinal Francis George of Chicago commenting to you: “Do you realize that we’re going to have to spend the rest of our lives trying to convince people that suffering and death are good for you?” Has that panned out?
GEORGE WEIGEL: Not very well. The flight from self-mastery, suffering, and death itself has continued, although the latter two now take the form of seeking death through the ersatz compassion of euthanasia.
LOPEZ: Can Pope Francis being here help us any on this and other fronts?
WEIGEL: If he summons the United States to a new level of moral seriousness, and a new depth of spiritual renewal, he will.
LOPEZ: Why do you tell young Catholics that “you’re going to live your Catholic life in a world in which death is increasingly seen as a disease to be cured”? Can young Catholics help us with our public-policy debates about assisted suicide?
WEIGEL: They can if they’re well-formed in the Church’s ancient understanding of the dignity and value of every human life, and if they understand that Catholic moral theology is about the search for happiness, or what the Gospel calls “beatitude.”
LOPEZ: How can you write that “love is the final word” and defend a church that opposes same-sex marriage?
WEIGEL: Because there are many forms of love, some higher, some less well-developed.
LOPEZ: Why is freedom so important, and how can we talk about it in such a way that people know what we mean again?
WEIGEL: The freedom of “I did it my way” is clearly deconstructing our society and turning our politics into what Benedict XVI presciently called the “dictatorship of relativism.” Freedom for excellence, freedom to be the creatures of nobility that God’s grace summons us to be and allows us to strive to be, is a much more compelling vision of human possibility than “if it itches, scratch it.”
LOPEZ: What is the encounter with Jesus Christ that Pope Francis and so many others keep talking about?
WEIGEL: It’s a matter of meeting the risen Lord, in the Bible, in the sacraments (especially the Eucharist), and in service to all, especially the least of his brethren. Mother Teresa said that every one of those broken people she picked up off the hard streets of Calcutta was “Jesus in a disturbing disguise.” That’s worth pondering the next time you meet a beggar on the heating grate at the Farragut North Metro stop — or a friend in difficulties because of a broken relationship.
LOPEZ: What do you encourage people to watch for during Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S.?
WEIGEL: I suggest that people listen to the Holy Father on his own terms, not through the filters that the spin-meisters have already tried to put into place.
LOPEZ: Why is the pope as Peter important?
WEIGEL: Because he’s the center of the Church’s unity — 1.2 billion people need something (in this case, someone) around whom they can rally.
LOPEZ: What about his visit to Cuba? If he doesn’t meet with dissidents, does he fail as the missionary of mercy he described himself as?
WEIGEL: The Ladies in White and many of the other brave freedom-fighters of Cuba are serious Catholics. The pope’s people say that his visit to Cuba is a “pastoral” visit. Well, then, the pastor should be in contact with some of the most hard-pressed of the sheep.
LOPEZ: When some conservatives get annoyed at what sound like policy prescriptions about immigration or the environment, what would you recommend?
WEIGEL: That they “hear” the moral message beneath the policy prescriptions. The Catholic Church’s settled teaching is that prudential judgments on matters of public policy are primarily the vocation of the laity. In forming those judgments, the laity ought to hear the moral message of the pastors. (A good place to start thinking about all of this is with a close reading of the excellent op-ed piece by former ambassador to the Vatican Jim Nicholson and former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich in the September 19 Wall Street Journal.)
LOPEZ: Why the re-issue of Letters to a Young Catholic? Who should read it?
WEIGEL: It’s not just a re-issue, it’s in some sense a whole new book. I’ve revised the chapter of Letters 1.0 and added five new chapters to Letters 2.0. The format is new, and so are some of the themes, including the mystery of evil, the puzzle of secularization, and the imperative of what I call “All-In Catholicism.” And like Letters 1.0, Letters 2.0 is for everyone interested in the life of the spirit, from 18 to 108.
LOPEZ: The Pope comes this week for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. He’s called John Paul II, who started these, the pope of the family. Is there important continuity here, even as people worry about the Synod on the Family in Rome next month? Can the World Meeting of Families really help marriage and family in the U.S. in a particular way?
WEIGEL: The World Meeting of Families is going to lift up and celebrate the Church’s understanding of marriage and the family as the answer to the crisis of chastity, marriage, and the family throughout the world today. So, I hope, will the synod.
LOPEZ: “The moral architecture of freedom in the United States is crumbling. Young Catholics have a real opportunity, and a great responsibility, to do something about that.” What should these young people be praying about this week?
WEIGEL: They should be praying for the courage to be countercultural, but also the wisdom to be countercultural in a way that builds a more humane and noble public culture in the United States.
LOPEZ: What were your favorite Pope John Paul II in the U.S. moments?
WEIGEL: Being a Baltimorean, I rather liked the Mass at Camden Yards in 1995 and his rich evocation of U.S. Catholic history there.
LOPEZ: What has surprised you about Pope Francis? What would you urge people to pay attention to?
WEIGEL: I think everyone’s been surprised by the vibrancy of his public personality, which was not his M.O. in Buenos Aires. I’d urge people to pay attention to what I expect will be a call for the United States to reclaim the great moral aspirations on which the country was founded.
LOPEZ: What’s your prayer for this visit?
WEIGEL: That it be a moment of grace and reflection for all, a moment of relief from a politics that increasingly resembles Unreality TV (and perhaps a summons beyond that) — and that I manage to get more than four hours of sleep a night, given NBC obligations and the logistical nightmare that’s going to be Washington, New York, and Philadelphia in these days.
LOPEZ: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told the New York Times that, in the matter of abortion, “The Church has its position and we have ours.” Any comment?
WEIGEL: Nancy Pelosi and I both grew up in segregated Baltimore. She might remember that, in 1966, when her brother Tommy, the president of the Baltimore City Council, invited Cardinal Lawrence Shehan to testify in favor of an equal housing bill in front of the City Council, the cardinal was publicly jeered by Catholic segregationists. Would Nancy Pelosi say that those people just “had their position,’ and the Church had its position, on a matter of fundamental justice? That she can’t connect the dots here is appalling. So is the idea that some clergy are telling her that this is just fine.
LOPEZ: President Obama has invited to the White House, for the pope’s visit there, a former Catholic high school teacher who was not rehired because she was living with her “wife,” another woman — and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has caught a lot of flak for supporting the decision not to rehire her. Thoughts on that?
WEIGEL: If the president is free to invite to the White House whomever he wants, according to his tastes and his political priorities, why isn’t the Archdiocese of Philadelphia free to establish the standards by which teachers in Catholic schools in the archdiocese will be hired and retained?
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.