Two years ago today, Pope Francis was introduced to the world in a rainy St. Peter’s Square, asking for prayers. George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II and Evangelical Catholicism, among many other books, is the Distinguished Senior Fellow and holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He talks here with NRO about Pope Francis and the Church. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is Pope Francis in an evangelical hurry, as you’ve put it?
George Weigel: Because he has felt the mercy of God in his own life and wants to share that experience with others. Because he sees a world in need of the Gospel, and of friendship with Jesus Christ, as an antidote to the self-absorption and loneliness that are eating away at the solidarity of the human community. Because, in the Vatican, if you don’t get something new done quickly you may not get it done at all. Because he’s 78 years old and knows that his will be a short pontificate.
KJL: You’ve written that he has “reanimated the papacy.” What does that mean for Church teaching?
GW: I hope it means that the new interest in the pope evokes a new interest in the Church’s teaching, of which the pope is the custodian. Francis ought to be taken at his word when he says, as he has often done, that he is a son of the Church who believes and teaches what the Catholic Church believes and teaches. If his media-generated popularity, fragile as that may turn out to be when the world discovers that the pope is really a Catholic, opens windows of possibility for explaining that divine mercy leads us to the truths God revealed to us (and inscribed into the world and into us), then his reanimation of the papacy will advance the “Church in permanent mission” for which he called in Evangelii Gaudium, which is the grand strategy document of his pontificate.
KJL: In that same article for the Tablet, a British magazine, you said, “All over the world, Francis is news, and when the Pope is news, so is the Church and the Gospel.” Is that still good news when the pope seems to be interpreted in different ways by different people? When the Gospel seems to be interpreted in different ways by different people?
GW: That’s the obvious challenge, perhaps even danger, here. By its very nature as a custodial office, the papacy can’t be a Rorschach test, into which people read whatever they like – whatever they fear or hope for. So when media “narratives” about Francis get set in concrete, and act as filters bending or distorting (or ignoring) aspects of his vision and his teaching that don’t fit the established story line, the Church has a problem. There’s an obvious investment in some media circles in the “narrative” of “the pope who’s finally going to get with it.” And as a friend at a major American newspaper said to me when I complained about this tendency in his own paper, “You know how these media narratives are. They’re like bamboo.” Meaning, once they start growing, you can’t kill them.
Perhaps the dumbest of these story lines is that Francis has re-opened conversation and debate in a Church that had been closed and claustrophobic for 35 years under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I defy anyone who, over the last 35 years, has spent time on the campuses of Notre Dame or Georgetown, or who has read the National Catholic Reporter, or who has gone to a meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, to make that claim without experiencing a twinge of conscience that says, “I should wash my mouth out with soap.”
The most enduring of the false narratives is that the signature phrase of the early pontificate — “Who am I to judge?” — was a matter of the pope jettisoning millennia of Catholic moral teaching. It was not. It was a specific response to the circumstances of a man who had repented and was trying to live an upright life; it was, in a word, what any sensible pastor, facing that specific set of circumstances, would say. But ripped out of context, it has become an all-purpose filter through which everything else — including the pope’s multiple reaffirmations of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical on the morally appropriate means of family planning — gets airbrushed out of the picture.
And then there’s the trope about an impending “global-warming encyclical.” The pope is preparing an encyclical on nature and the environment, including the human environment (which includes the moral imperative of a culturally affirmed and legally recognized right to life from conception until natural death). So what happens? A low-ranking Vatican official with gauchiste tendencies and a marked talent for self-promotion gives an interview to the Guardian, one of the most consistently anti-Catholic newspapers in the world, in which he claims that this is a global-warming encyclical — which he couldn’t possibly have known, as the document wasn’t drafted yet. The Guardian loves it, because it fits the story line of the long-awaited Great Catholic Cave-In. So the story wafts across the Atlantic, where it’s picked up with glee by Catholic progressives and horror by some Catholic conservatives — and the battle of the blogs is on, full blast. No one bothers to ask whether there’s any basis in fact for the assertion that this is going to be a “global-warming encyclical.” So when climate change gets some attention in a 100-page document, the most important parts of which will have to do with the theology of stewardship and the theology of “human ecology,” it’s almost certainly going to be rapturously embraced, or bitterly opposed, as a “global-warming encyclical,” despite the evidence that it’s much more broadly gauged than that.
More pro-active Vatican communications might be able to do something about all this, but when the Holy See is constantly in the mode of, “No, what the pope really meant was . . . ,” the game has already been largely forfeited.
KJL: What is it that is so powerful about Pope Francis’s example? His gestures?
GW: The world needs a pastor, whether it knows it or not. And Francis communicates the pastoral embrace of the Church, the breadth and inclusiveness of Catholicism symbolized by the Bernini colonnade around St. Peter’s Square, in a powerful way. What is amazing here is that he started doing this at age 76; there was none of it in Buenos Aires, as least on a vast scale. So here’s a contrast to John Paul II, who was an immensely attractive public figure in Cracow and then brought that capacity to inspire-by-example to Rome — although some of the narrative-merchants seem to have forgotten that.
KJL: What is it about the missionary mandate of the Church that modern-day Catholics miss in the West?
GW: We’re used to institutional-maintenance Catholicism, in which the institution ticks along by its own inertia and people are “born” into the Church. Francis knows that is over and done with: “Kept” Catholicism, whether “kept” by legal establishment or by cultural habit, has no future. The only future is intentional Catholicism, evangelical Catholicism. That’s what he and the other bishops of Latin America proclaimed at their Aparecida meeting in Brazil in 2007. And that’s what the liveliest parts of the world Church today — ranging from the booming Church in Africa to FOCUS missionaries on American campuses — are living: a Catholicism that has discovered that it doesn’t have a mission, it is a mission. The people who are behind the curve of the Catholic future are the institutional-maintenance types. The Germans now seem the primary example of this — which is another reason to scratch the head at their seeming determination to force the whole Church to adopt the Catholic Lite approach that has, in a bizarre inversion, emptied German churches of congregants while vastly expanding the German Church’s bureaucracies.
KJL: All this focus Francis has put on family, and all the debates he has seemed to encourage, what is that about? Where do we wind up? Is there a danger in the risks he seems to have taken?
GW: The pope knows that the marriage culture is in crisis throughout the world, and so is the family. He comes to that conviction as a pastor, not as Brad Wilcox or Charles Murray. So he wants to challenge the Church to find pastoral responses to that crisis that meet real human needs. The turmoil of the Synod last October was in large part the result of the Synod’s being hijacked by a small cabal of northern-European bishops, determined to make the entire exercise a referendum on some things the rest of the Church already considers settled: the permanence of marriage and the conditions for receiving Holy Communion worthily. I think the Synod of October 2015 is going to get back to that broader agenda — at least I hope it does, and I’ve reason to believe that there are many bishops determined that that will be the case.
KJL: What do you say to conservative friends who are nervous — or disappointed, or dismissive, or livid, or heartbroken — about the pope?
GW: “You don’t believe what you read in the papers about anything else; why do you believe it about the pope?” That’s where I’d start.
I’d then suggest that these people, if they’re Americans, look back on the last 35 years of our ecclesial experience and take heart from that. The dramatic reform of seminaries continues. The priests and bishops who take their pastoral model from John Paul II will continue to do so, perhaps learning a lesson or two from Francis along the way — and they’ll be the overwhelming majority of the Church’s ordained ministers ten, twenty, thirty years from now. The dynamically orthodox orders of religious women will continue to grow, and the dying orders, which long ago opted for the lightest of Catholic Lite, will continue to die. Younger theologians will continue to pursue and understand truth rather than deconstructing it, as a lot of their elders seemed to want to do. Vital parishes built on the Bible and the sacraments, committed to evangelizing their neighborhoods, will continue to flourish. The poor will be served, the sick healed, and the dying comforted. None of that is going to change, and I’d wager that it’s going to get better. The Church in the United States turned a corner about three decades ago, and the idea that we’re going back to the incoherence of the late Sixties and Seventies is, frankly, silly. Let’s have a little faith in what the Holy Spirit has done among us these past 35 years.
KJL: What do you say to liberals who warn Francis (like that Rolling Stone cover a year or so ago) that he’d better not be like Benedict, that he’d better be the pope of their ideological hopes and dreams?
GW: That anyone would imagine finding insight in a Rolling Stone article on a pope, be he Francis, Benedict XVI, Agapitus I, or Leo the Great, is beyond my comprehension; it would be like seeking the inside scoop on the rock scene in Foreign Affairs. What I hope my liberal friends (and I have more than a few) take from this pontificate is that mercy and truth are never separable in Catholic pastoral life. The Church offers the medicine of the divine mercy so that healed souls can grasp the truth that will liberate them in the fullest meaning of human freedom. I’d also hope that my liberal friends, who find in this pope a critic of what they’re pleased to call “culture-warrior” Catholics, will read carefully, and ponder even more carefully, what Pope Francis had to say about the “ideological colonization” implicit in Western decadence when he was giving robust pro-life, pro-family talks in the Philippines earlier this year. (In fact, the nervous conservatives should read those texts, too.)
KJL: Is there any shot at cleansing some of the ideology that’s crept into Church circles and getting back to something more sacramental?
GW: That’s happening all the time in the best parishes in the Church, where the transformative power of the Eucharist is experienced through the dignified celebration of Holy Mass, and people are empowered for mission because of that.
KJL: Why are people responding to him so favorably? He blows Pew polls off the charts. Is there a real impact he’s making?
GW: The impact remains to be seen; I don’t think we can measure the enduring impact of John Paul II, for example, for another hundred, perhaps two hundred, years. The short-term impact is that people are encouraged to give the Church another look. It’s up to the liveliest parts of the Church — the dynamically orthodox parts of the Church — to seize that opportunity.
KJL: What is the “encounter” he talks about? What are the “peripheries”?
GW: Again, the pope takes his vocabulary from his pastoral experience, not from the rhetorical tool kit of liberation theology, with its Marxist yammering about “center” and “periphery.” The “peripheries,” for Francis, are all those who have fallen through the cracks of late-modernity and post-modernity — in his native Argentina, because of colossal corruption, political and financial. The pope speaks with great passion about the shame we should all feel when, as he puts it, “a man does not have the dignity of earning bread for his family,” but is turned into a peripheral person, a welfare client, a dependent. The “encounter” with the people on the peripheries is intended to draw them into the circle of common care and concern — that call to encounter is, to use a favorite world of John Paul II’s, a call to solidarity. And that means, it seems to me, aggressive Catholic efforts to empower the poor — and a profound Catholic challenge to all those cultural forces that are eroding stable families, which are the elementary schools where we learn to take responsibility for our lives, which is the highest exercise of freedom.
The emphasis on the “peripheries” is also a distinctively “Franciscan” way of expressing the pope’s respect for untutored poplar piety — a respect, I might add, that was shared by St. John Paul II. No one who reads and reveres the New Testament should doubt for a second that the pious poor and marginalized have something to teach all of us — including German theologian-bishops — about the truth of the Gospel and the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.
KJL: What have your conversations with him been like?
GW: Robust, quite candid, occasionally whimsical, very friendly; everything’s on the table.
KJL: Has the Vatican changed on account of him? What does the future hold?
GW: The most important appointment Pope Francis has made is the appointment of the Australian cardinal, George Pell, as the Vatican’s financial overseer. The colossal mess in Vatican finances that Francis inherited two years ago has been cleaned up, and cleaned out. Real budgeting and accounting procedures are in place; so are real professionals, not somebody’s nephew. The job now is to institutionalize all of that, and I wouldn’t bet against Cardinal Pell, who hasn’t shied away from contact sports since his days as an Australian-rules football star.
It would seem that the rest of the re-design of the Roman Curia is not going nearly as well. And the contrast between these two realities, two years on, underscores a point I learned long ago about the papacy: One of the most important qualities in a pope is his judgment of people — can he get around him the people who can put into practice his vision of what the Church must be doing now to fulfill its mandate from the Lord?
KJL: Who is Jesus Christ to Pope Francis?
GW: The Lord with whom he speaks for hours every day in prayer. The Risen One who reached out, touched his life, and called him into mission.
KJL: What’s the most constructive Catholic response to him?
GW: The papacy is an impossible job. So the best thing Catholics can do for the pope is to pray for him.
Then they owe him the loyalty that is expressed in speaking the truth to him — and that puts a premium on knowing whether what you’re happy about, on unhappy about, has a basis in fact, or is merely a reflection of the “narrative.” By the same token, the new and stringent Ultramontanism on the Catholic Left — in which even the mildest questions about how things are working in this pontificate are denounced as treasonous disloyalty — is an affront to the open conversation for which the pope has called.
KJL: What is his visit to the United States going to mean for the Church here?
GW: For us, it’s going to be a great gathering of the vast and multifaceted Catholic family. For him, it’s an opportunity to experience the vitality of Catholicism in America, which, despite all its problems, is the best embodiment of his “Church in permanent mission” in the developed world.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA