Much has been said in the press in recent days and weeks about the synod on the family that just wrapped in the Vatican. George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, and author of Evangelical Catholicism, talks about this synod, Pope Francis, a second synod next year, an anticipated papal visit to the United States focused on the family, and more. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Was Pope Francis playing with fire by convening a synod on the family, encouraging debate on a whole host of issues?
George Weigel: Everyone who’s paying attention, including Pope Francis, knows that there is a deep crisis of marriage culture in the West. It was to address that crisis in its many dimensions that the pope summoned the synod of 2015, and this year’s synod as an agenda-setting exercise. If the Church can’t talk to itself candidly about the nature of the crisis, even if that means exposing deep misunderstandings of the crisis among some churchmen, then it will not be able to address the crisis substantively and pastorally.
Lopez: Is there a danger that this pope talks about mercy at the expense of truth?
Weigel: The pope knows full well that the exercise of mercy is intended to lead to conversion — which is always conversion to the truth. But some others seem not to have made the connection. I hope the rest of the world now knows that there is something a bit odd about the pastors (or former pastors) of dying local churches presuming to instruct the living and vibrant parts of the world Church on pastoral sensitivity — or worse, trying to impose on everyone solutions that have manifestly failed in those dying local churches, in the name of mercy detached from the liberating power of truth.
Lopez: How did the public coverage and “knowledge” of the synod get so out of hand? You’ve written about the “wishful thinking” in the media. There was also a lot of fear. Is there anything to be afraid of?
Weigel: It’s certainly disconcerting that the lesson of the Catholic failure in Vichy France and in parts of Germany during the Nazi period — appease, then surrender, then collaborate — has not been applied to the challenge posed by the sexual revolution in some of the quarters from which those mistakes originally came.
It’s also disconcerting that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which is the Church’s best answer to that challenge, seemed to have been systematically excluded from the synod deliberations, in that no member of any of the John Paul II Institutes on Marriage and the Family around the world was invited to the synod. We may hope that that will be remedied when the cast of characters is assembled for 2015.
It’s also a bit disconcerting that the “progressive” Catholic punditocracy felt compelled to try and spin away Cardinal Walter Kasper’s very unfortunate comments about African Catholics and his denial that he had said what he said.
And it doesn’t do any good when sensible Vatican reporters deny that there was deck-stacking at this synod by the synod secretariat, led by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri — resentment of which got so great that changes in the process were forced by a revolt on the synod floor led by Cardinal George Pell that began with a sharp fusillade against Baldisseri’s manipulations.
Finally, it’s a shame that some otherwise sensible commentators took another slug out of the old Vatican II liberals-versus-conservatives bottle, trying to pin the tail of Cardinal Ottaviani on the donkey they imagine Cardinal Burke to be. Burke and Pell, the two leaders of the party of dynamic orthodoxy at the synod, are about as much Alfredo Ottaviani as I’m Hans Küng.
Lopez: Was there a concrete good that came out of the synod?
Weigel: There were a lot. The synod’s message to the world is a welcome affirmation of the beauty and dignity of marriage and the family. Some serious deficiencies in Catholic leaders’ understanding of what “works” pastorally have been exposed, and can now be addressed. Ditto on getting a proper understanding of the “development of doctrine” in place before the October 2015 synod.
Lopez: Was there a gaping wound exposed?
Weigel: If there was, it was the arrogance of Western elites who seem to have learned nothing from the hard lessons of what happens when Christian communities dissolve their doctrinal and moral self-understanding in the face of relentless assaults from a postmodernist culture that tells them that they’re meanies. I’d also have liked to have heard a lot more about conversion; yes, there is a ladder of love which we all must climb, and yes, good pastoral practice begins where the person seeking the Church’s help is on that ladder. But the point of starting there is to encourage that person to climb higher, with the help of grace.
Lopez: Did anyone have a finest hour?
Weigel: The African bishops who were not about to be told by Europeans to sit down and shut up.
Lopez: Why another synod next year? Why is it taking so long?
Weigel: Because these are complicated matters. Figuring out how to tell the truth in love and in such a way that people feel called to conversion hasn’t been an easy business since Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and it’s no simpler today.
Lopez: Some have commented on how shocking the lack of knowledge even among Church-attending Catholics is about the hows and whys of Church teaching on love and marriage. Does it surprise you? What are some of the best resources and opportunities around to help?
Weigel: No, it’s not shocking, although it’s continually depressing. Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation completing the Synod of 1980, is a good place to start the education program.
Lopez: Is there a danger that with all the talk of irregular relationships, there is not enough focus on supporting the regular ones, so to speak? Is there a real danger that when the pope marries cohabitating couples, it looks like he is saying that anything goes?
Weigel: I wrote a column a few weeks ago urging that this be a synod of affirmation, because it’s only in setting out the truth of marriage and the family that the Church has, by reason of both revelation and reason, that we can get to grips with the enormous pastoral challenges posed by a culture of libertinism and by the dictatorship of relativism. I think some of that affirmation happened, but there could have been more.
Lopez: You once wrote a book called The Courage to Be Catholic. What might your pitch on a book by that title look like today?
Weigel: Truth is liberating; that’s always the case, and that’s the case for Catholic courage, in the face of cultural assault, that we have to have today.
Lopez: We are celebrating the first feast day of Saint John Paul II this week. What does it mean for you personally, as you were blessed to spend time with him and write so thoroughly about him? What does it mean for all of us, that the man seen by more people than anyone in history is now known as a saint?
Weigel: It means he’s interceding for the Church now in a powerful way, and I think we’ll feel the effects of that intercession over the next year of conversation and debate.
Lopez: Did poor John XXIII’s first feast day earlier this month get underplayed in the shadows of JPII and his long pontificate and the synod?
Weigel: A bit, I think, but that will change over time.
Lopez: Was Pope Francis’s celebration of Paul VI an overlooked synod detail?
Weigel: A lot of the air got let out of the media balloon before the beatification, and Paul VI was never a media star, so the result was predictable.
Lopez: What should a person who believes what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage be thinking about now in the United States, where this is increasingly considered an intolerable and hateful view?
Weigel: We’ve got a long road ahead of us, a road on which courage, patience, and compassion are going to all be required if we’re to help rescue a very disturbed and confused culture and society from its self-destructive inclinations.
Lopez: Pope Francis chose to focus on Christians in the Middle East, particularly those in Iraq and Syria, immediately after the synod. How important is the consistory? Does it carry weight?
Weigel: I fear that too much of the media’s attention span is limited and that persecuted Christians aren’t as sexy as, well, sex. It would also be helpful if Vatican officials would stop prattling on about the “international community” doing something about these appalling situations. There is no “international community” capable of effective action on behalf of persecuted Christians. But there are states, and coalitions of states, and they should be encouraged to do what needs to be done.
Lopez: Could Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to Turkey be a significant one?
Weigel: I hope the pope’s presence draws attention to the genocide against Christians that’s underway in northern Iraq. And with attention focused, maybe something serious will be done by those with the capacity to do it.
Lopez: And not to be parochial, but what might his expected visit to Philadelphia next year look like, and what will it mean for the Church in America?
Weigel: It’s going to be a chance for American Catholics to meet the Holy Father in person, and a chance for him to learn something about the vitality of Catholic life in America.
Lopez: There is a lot of confusion, excitement (some of it “wishful thinking,” as you’ve identified it), and anger in the air surrounding Pope Francis and seemingly merciful moves that can obscure truth. Do you have any specific or general advice — and maybe especially about reading news stories about the Church today?
Weigel: Read everything through a filter that helps you understand that the world press has been waiting for the Great Catholic Cave-In for fifty years, and that that expectation frames an awful lot of coverage of events like the synod.
Lopez: What can people reasonably expect from Pope Francis to come?
Weigel: He will continue to clear up the money mess in the Vatican, a project on which he’s already made great strides. The curial reform will be rolled out sometime next year. These are some of the major things he was elected to do, and he’s doing them.
Lopez: What gives you hope these days?
Weigel: Christ has won the victory; we’re just trying to be faithful to that. The “end of history” has already been revealed, and at the end of the story, God is going to get what God wants. The air turbulence between here and there can be a little disconcerting at times, but it’s also entirely predictable.