As a former Catholic and someone who is for the most part sympathetic with Catholic social teaching, it has always baffled me how Catholics–especially American Catholics–tend to be so selective when they talk about the social teachings of their Church. Liberal Catholics love to talk about social justice and the poor, but seldom make a big deal about abortion or marriage. Conservative Catholics are quick to champion life issues when it comes to abortion or stem cell research, but seldom talk about life as it relates to war or capital punishment. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish liberal Catholics from the left-wing of the Democratic Party and conservative Catholics from the libertarian economics of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, or the Club for Growth.
George Weigel falls into the conservative group. Some of you know him as a prolific Catholic cultural critic, part of the old First Things crowd when John Richard Neuhaus and Michael Novak were in their heyday, and the author of a sympathetic biography of Pope John Paul II. I think it might be an understatement to say that Weigel is not a big fan of Pope Francis. The current Pope’s approach to social justice and the needs of the poor have turned Francis into a hero of the Catholic Left and have empowered the efforts of many liberal Catholics to discredit Weigel’s understanding of Catholicism.
Anthony Annett‘s recent piece at Commonweal, “The Enduring George Weigel Problem,” is one of those efforts. The Columbia University climate change and sustainability expert offers a very strong, and very compelling, critique of Weigel. Here is a taste:
I was involved in last month’s symposium at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development”. As I noted before, this symposium brought together some of the world’s top climate scientists, development practitioners, and religious leaders, and it was opened by Ban Ki-Moon. It also had the dubious distinction of being gate-crashed by the worst emblem of this “American problem”—the Heartland Institute, which uses quack science to mock the idea of climate change while upholding the virtues of the unlimited extraction of fossil fuels. More than one person noted in private that this is indeed an American issue, and it is being driven by American financial interests.
And who provides cheap intellectual cover for these radicals and dangerous extremists? None other than George Weigel. In the aftermath of our symposium, he noted that it “assiduously excluded those skeptical of the U.N.’s global-warming orthodoxies” – as if the subject of anthropogenic global warming was actually subject to debate outside the hermetically-sealed chamber occupied by this cabal.
Circling back to his attack on the German Church, the lesson Weigel draws is that of “a cautionary tale about the effects of surrendering to the spirit of the age.” Yet I would contend that few American Catholics in the modern era have surrendered more to the spirit of the age—the age of Reagan and the resurgence of free-market liberalism and aggressive militarism—than George Weigel.
For decades now, Weigel has been a thorn in the side of authentic Catholic social teaching, seeking to baptize economic liberalism and American exceptionalism with the waters of the Catholic faith. Alongside fellow travelers like Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak, he has been peddling the idea that Centesimus Annus—John Paul II’s landmark social encyclical from 1991—represented a decisive break with the past, a significant development of doctrine that saw the Church fully embrace capitalism and free market economics. A simple reading of the encyclical itself exposes the hollowness of such a claim. Yet Weigel et al actually produced an abridged version of the encyclical, which managed to remove the passages that went against their radical reading. Not exactly the height of honesty.
Weigel sprung back into action with the release of Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate in 2009, which was a profound reflection on the maladies of the modern global economy. This time, Weigel found it too difficult to expunge the offending elements, so he invented his own “encyclical exegesis”—calling on readers to distinguish the authentic “gold pen” of the pope and the false “red pen” of the leftists associated with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
I should point out that, in all of this, Weigel has decisively lost the theological argument. Communio theologian David Schindler, for example, completely undercut the false anthropology of this Americanist accommodation—its full-throttled embrace of Lockean liberalism and defense of self-interest as the route to virtue. Yet theological defeat did not preclude political victory. Weigel and his allies proved quite persuasive, including among a rising generation of bishops and priests. They have made it far easier for lay Catholics to jettison the essential elements of Catholic social teaching when they set foot in the public sphere, so that Catholic politicians like Rick Santorum can sound like mirror images of their evangelical counterparts, simply ignoring Catholic teaching in areas that don’t suit. (Yes, the left does this too. But they rarely claim the mantle of faithful and orthodox Catholicism).
The great casualty of this accommodation has been coherence and consistency. And yet the great beauty of traditional Catholic teaching lies in this very consistency, in the affirmation of the dignity of every human being and in our communal responsibilities to one another. But Weigel and his allies have spent decades trying to turn this beauty into a beast. And who wants a beast? Is it any wonder that the young are bolting from the Church, the great example of Pope Francis notwithstanding? Their noses are finely attuned to the stench of hypocrisy. They are profoundly turned off by a Church that elevates a small number of culture war positions above all else. On the abortion issue, for instance, the pro-life position always gets a more respectful hearing in the secular culture when it is seen as consistent—when it also takes a stand against war, the death penalty, poverty, lack of affordable healthcare, environmental degradation, and the gun culture. Yet Weigel and friends have been deriding and undermining this consistent ethic of life for decades now. In doing so, they are actually shooting themselves in the foot.
To add insult to injury, Weigel’s prudential analysis has so often been profoundly wrong. He fails to make the connection between the “liberationist” economic policies he espouses and the consequent breakdown in trust, social capital, and community bonds—to say nothing of financial instability and collapse. He fails to understand that the European financial crisis has little to do with the “welfare state”, and that the countries in northern Europe with the strongest social protections are also the healthiest economically. He fails to appreciate the gravity of the environmental crisis, and his free market zealotry and his nationalism preclude him from accepting that the government and the international community have vital roles to play.
Nowhere has he been more wrong than with the Iraq war. This marks the true nadir of Weigel’s career. Completely ignoring his beloved John Paul II, Weigel engaged in mental gymnastics with the just war teaching, twisting and contorting it to defend the indefensible—the unprovoked “preventive” invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The Vatican foresaw the consequences with great clarity. Cardinal Pio Laghi, Pope John Paul’s envoy, implored Bush to come to his senses. He sketched out three negative consequences—immense suffering for the Iraqi people, a huge deterioration in Christian-Muslim relations, and greater political instability across an already-unsettled region. Everything the Vatican predicted has come to pass with a vengeance. But the Bush administration didn’t listen. No doubt comforted by the alternative magisterium of Weigel and allies, they went in with guns blazing. This set in motion a catastrophic train of events, including the utter annihilation of the ancient Christian community in Iraq. Not only did Weigel once again provide cheap intellectual cover for his political overlords, but he has never taken any personal responsibility whatsoever for the evil consequences that flowed from his dreadful advice. Aren’t Republicans supposed to be big on personal responsibility?
There is certainly no doubt that he is a highly partisan Republican. It’s easy—far too easy—to dig up examples of this in his writings. Take the case, for example, of Weigel mocking the poignant border Mass as “politicized” while strenuously defending the “fortnight for freedom”, which sometimes seemed to forget that the gospel is very different from the American constitution. Weigel can be petty too. When Francis met Obama, for example, he engaged in some deep Vaticanology by noting that the meeting across a large desk was a signal of disapproval. The only problem? This is the exact way Benedict met Bush, and John Paul met Reagan.