Ethics & Public Policy Center

“Uncle Ted” and Me…

Published in The Catholic World Report on May 29, 2019


The dossier of correspondence between Theodore McCarrick and various officials of the Holy See, including Pope Francis, recently released by Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo, sheds light down the dark alleys of McCarrick’s career, highlighting his relentless self-promotion, even in retirement; his sycophancy with many superiors; his interference in Vatican diplomacy; and his brazen defiance of the orders of Pope Benedict XVI that he cease and desist from public activity. These are matters of considerable gravity, far more so than the cameo appearance I make in the letters.

In order to set the historical record straight, however, and to draw some salient lessons for this Catholic moment from my personal experience of McCarrick’s mendacity, I offer the following.

On my possible nomination by President Trump as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See

My friends at the Crux website report the following in a staff-written article dated May 28:

In a January 27, 2017, letter to [Pope] Francis, McCarrick mentions rumors that the Trump administration might be considering naming George Weigel, a noted Catholic commentator and biographer of St. Pope John Paul II, to the ambassador’s role.

“There were rumors here in Washington that the new U.S. government had submitted a request for an agrement for a new U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See,” McCarrick wrote, using the formal French term in international diplomacy for an understanding between two parties.

“One of the names that was mentioned was that of George Weigel,” McCarrick wrote. “A prominent Catholic voice in the United States and one of the biographers of St. John Paul II. He is very much a leader of the ultra-conservative wing of the Catholic Church in the United States and has been publicly critical of Your Holiness in the past,” he wrote.

“Many of us American bishops would have great concerns about his being named to such a position in which he would have an official voice, in opposition to your teaching,” McCarrick told the pope.

“I would be happy to discuss this with you and also with the high officials of the Curia,” he wrote.

It seems likely that McCarrick picked up this driblet of fake news from an article in the English edition of La Stampa’s “Vatican Insider,” at the tail end of which British journalist Christopher Lamb suggested that, under about-to-be-inaugurated President Donald Trump, I was a “wild card” candidate for the U.S. ambassadorship to the Holy See (along with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill O’Reilly, no less). Having had cordial exchanges with Mr. Lamb prior to this, I sent him this e-mail on January 13, 2017:

Dear Christopher: I could have saved you some trouble with this [article] if you’d called or e-mailed. Not only am I not a “wild card” possibility for the U.S. ambassadorship to the Holy See, I’m not even in the pack. I’m not interested in the job and wouldn’t accept it if offered, as there are better ways for me to serve the country. Moreover, the very idea of such an offer is rather beyond the realm of the plausible, given my public opposition to Mr. Trump’s nomination and the position I took publicly during the election.

Feel free to get in touch in the future. It’s always good to speak with you. GW

A few hours later, Mr. Lamb replied:

Dear George: You are right – I should have contacted you, but I thought you were an obvious possible candidate given your standing as one of the most prominent Catholic commentators in the U.S….also, I’m not sure previous criticism of the president-elect precludes being considered….anyway, let’s keep in touch. Best – Chris

Mr. Lamb’s sense of Mr. Trump’s magnanimity towards critics surely erred on the side of charity here. It was simply not in the cards for the new president to offer anything, save perhaps a tweet-smack, to someone who had begun his post- election column in these terms: “The good news is, she lost. The bad news is, he won.” But was Theodore McCarrick so out of touch with Washington reality that he imagined me a plausible candidate for the Holy See embassy? That seems unlikely – although perhaps not impossible, given the narrow band of (left-wing) “information” and conversation within which McCarrick typically operated. Still, it seems far more likely that he saw in this squib of a story an opportunity to trash me with Pope Francis (with whom I had already met twice in private audience, at the Holy Father’s invitation), and to sow further seeds of disinformation about the state of Catholicism in the United States.

There is more, though. McCarrick’s January 2017 letter not only took fake news seriously, for whatever purpose. McCarrick also lied about my being “publicly critical” of Pope Francis, and about my alleged intention to use an official U.S government post to criticize the Pope’s governance and teaching.

To the first: While I had questioned aspects of Pope Francis’s activity between his election in 2013 and early 2017, those questions were always raised in the respectful terms I believe appropriate for anyone with a sense of churchmanship. Moreover, I had never criticized the Pope personally and had in fact written a new foreword to the 2014 paperback edition of my Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, in which I praised Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Had I been such a publicly prominent papal critic, I doubt that my private audiences in 2013 and 2014 would have occurred. And if the Pope invited back a known public critic for a third private audience in late 2017 – an audience that was conducted in entirely cordial terms – one can only wonder why.

To the second: I have been privileged to know every U.S. ambassador to the Holy See since the post was established by President Reagan and the Congress in 1984, and I have worked with several of them on various matters. In each of these interactions, and in conversations I had in early 2017 with two serious candidates for the Holy See ambassadorship, I stressed the imperative of the U.S. embassy (whose relationship to the Holy See is of a diplomatic, state-to-[micro]state character) rigorously refraining from any involvement in internal Church affairs – which would most certainly include an absolute proscription on public criticism of the Pope by the ambassador. Having insisted on this for over thirty years, is it likely that I would have taken a different path under different circumstances? If the suggestion that I would was not a lie, then it was certainly a calumny.

The Catholic Spectrum

As to my being, by McCarrick’s account, “very much a leader of the ultra-conservative wing of the Catholic Church in the United States,” this has caused considerable angst among self-identified “traditional Catholics,” one of whom was pleased to describe me in a May 28 tweet as “a rather potted plant neocon kind of guy.” This and similar comments say rather more about soi-disant “traditional Catholics” than about me, however, as McCarrick’s caricature clarifies more about McCarrick than about the target of his deprecation. I defy any serious person to browse through my twenty-five books, or the thousands of my articles and columns, and find credible evidence of “ultra-conservatism.” Such charges only come from real ideologues. And therein lies another lesson from the McCarrick affair: in this instance, his mendacious and quite relentless campaign to define anyone to his starboard as a conservative nut.

For more than twenty years, McCarrick continually regaled audiences with his recollections of John Paul II’s entrance into Newark cathedral in October 1995, often telling his seminarians and priests that he wanted them to be just like the Pope on that occasion, “walking right down the center, touching both sides.” A review of the video indicates that John Paul II did do some handshaking of those who reached out to him; he also did a lot of blessing. (The two members of that congregation who really worked the crowd on their way out of the cathedral that evening were President and Mrs. William Jefferson Clinton, who shook far more hands than John Paul had done at his entrance – and the Clintons did their shtick while the Pope was immersed in prayer in the cathedral’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel.) This tall tale and its putative “lesson” were classic McCarrick, though, and two comments on them are in order.

First, McCarrick’s implicit suggestion that John Paul II was some kind of fifty-yard-line pontiff who straddled the key issues of Church and society during his pontificate doesn’t bear a moment’s serious scrutiny. The Pope who boldly challenged tyranny at the United Nations in 1979 and who played a pivotal role in the collapse of European communism was not a fifty-yard-line guy. (Unlike, I might note, those Vatican diplomats, often among McCarrick’s Roman interlocutors, who thought that the Cold War would end at some mythical “center” where a gradually liberalizing Warsaw Pact would meet an increasingly social-democratic West.) The Pope who wrote Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae was not a straddler. Nor was the Pope who commissioned the Catechism of the Catholic Church. To present him as such was, and is, a lie.

It was a lie, moreover, in service to another McCarrick falsehood: that he defined the sought-for “common ground” in U.S. Catholicism, mediating between those of his liberal friends who were in more of a rush than he was, and those awful conservatives (not to mention “ultra-conservatives”) whom he loathed, but with whom he pretended to be friendly. This game led McCarrick deeper and deeper into the slough of ecclesiastical despond during the latter years of John Paul II’s pontificate and the entirety of Benedict XVI’s, as he saw the liberal dominance of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops dismantled by a generation of bishops who took their lead from John Paul, Benedict, and their authoritative interpretation of Vatican II.

Like his mucking about in Vatican diplomacy, though McCarrick’s fretting about the bishops’ conference continued long past his (forced) retirement. At the November 2010 meeting that eventually elected then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan as conference president over the liberal-establishment candidate, conference vice-president Bishop Gerald Kicanas, McCarrick buttonholed Dolan and, in his inimitable and gratingly avuncular way, demanded that “Timmy” not allow himself to be used by a “right-wing plot” to deny “Gerry” the conference presidency. So much for McCarrick’s vaunted moderation. (Which is further contradicted by a story the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, archbishop of Westminster, told me in late 2005. Over tea in the cardinal’s residence, Murphy-O’Connor asked me, “How’s Ted doing?” When I asked why he asked, the English cardinal replied, “Well, on the way out of the Sistina [i.e., right after the election of Benedict XVI], he said to me, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to explain this at home.’”)

Theodore McCarrick signed the 1967 Land O’ Lakes statement, which sought to divorce Catholic universities from the authority of the local bishop and the Church’s magisterium (an act that, unrepudiated, should have been a definitive black ball against his becoming a bishop). Theodore McCarrick was a left-liberal Democrat in his politics and, while no theologian, a Walter Kasper-like liberal Catholic in his ecclesiology. Did he ever defend, much less attempt to explicate, Humanae Vitae? As for the defining abortion issue, McCarrick was never regarded as a serious pro-life leader by serious pro-life leaders, and his advocacy of behalf of the unborn was typically wrapped in a seamless garment of other issues (not least when he presided over the burial of Senator Edward M. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery).

Theodore McCarrick fooled a lot of people over the course of his career. And the greatest of his false-flag operations was to successfully sell the notion that he was another fifty-yard-line guy, when in fact his feet were firmly planted on the ten-yard-line, just outside the goal line marking the field’s left end zone. That he was allowed to get away with this for so long is, I imagine, a source of regret to the more honest of his friends and colleagues on the Catholic Left, as it ought to be to the bishops who didn’t forcefully challenge the charade while it went on, year after tiresome year.

But however nonsensical it is, the notion that Theodore McCarrick was some sort of moderating centrist whose analysis of the condition of the Church in the United States was both correct and important has now leapt the Atlantic. And it is doing grave damage in Rome, and beyond.

The false narrative of the moment

It was beginning to be evident at the Synod of 2015; it was becoming uncomfortably unmistakable at the Synod of 2018; and it was deployed in a sinister way at the abuse summit this past February: the notion that opposition to Pope Francis is the result of a cabal of hard-right, wealthy Americans who hate the Pope because of his criticisms of markets, capitalism, and restrictive immigration policies. This is utter nonsense, and those who have been hawking such shoddy goods do little justice to the putative intelligence of those they have been trying to persuade. But that this fairy tale is believed as dogma by many of the most influential personalities in the present pontificate is certain (recall Fr. Anthony Spadaro’s bizarre disquisition on American Catholicism in La Civiltà Cattolica). That these men have assiduously worked to convince leading churchmen around the world of it is certain, as I know from personal experience at the Synod in October 2018. And that they will try to deploy this fake story to shape the terms of the next conclave is equally certain.

Where any notion of “collegiality,” “synodality,” or simple honesty is to be found in this is unclear. But the new ultramontanists of the Catholic Left, who describe the range of Francis’s infallibility (or at least indefectibility) in terms that would make the hard ultramontanists at Vatican I blush, have found a supportive, parallel narrative in the notion of an “ultraconservative” American conspiracy to resist and undermine this Pope. Some will dismiss this by noting, correctly, that there has always been anti-Americanism in Rome. But this is different.

It is different because of its virulence and its tenacity. It is different because of its strategic purpose. And who introduced this new, more toxic anti-American storyline into the Vatican conversation – or, at the very least, softened up the ground for it, virtually from the moment Pope Francis was elected? Theodore McCarrick: now convicted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of sacrilege and child sexual abuse, and laicized for his ecclesiastical crimes.

One might think that this fact would cause at least a moment of reconsideration among defenders of the pontificate who have been trafficking in untruths about the Church in the United States, who have been sliming their perceived enemies for some five years now, and who have continued to do so in the wake of Msgr. Figueiredo’s revelations. But the calumnies and lies seem likely to continue. That, unfortunately, is how those who know they’re losing an argument usually behave – especially ideologues and those fearful of losing their grip on power.

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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