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George Weigel On Evangelical Catholicism And Traits The Next Pope Has To Have

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HH: As I told you last week, if we would be lucky when the cardinals processed into the conclave, we would be able to find George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center to talk to us about the momentousness of this week. And indeed, we are lucky. George Weigel is in Rome. His brand new book, Evangelical Catholicism, maybe the most influential book of this run up to the conclave, and of course, it’s linked at I can’t recommend it enough. George Weigel, welcome back, it’s great to have you again Rome time. It’s late, thanks for staying up.

GW: Thanks, Hugh, good to be with you.

HH: I want to talk about the whole book, but I want to talk about Chapter 12 – The Evangelical Catholic Reform Of The Papacy. As I was going back and making my notes for today, I just thought wow, this was prophetic. And I wonder, how widely read is it, do you think, among the 115 cardinal electors?

GW: Well, I couldn’t give you a percentage, but as you’ll have noticed, two of the prominent Anglophone electors – Cardinal Dolan and Cardinal George Pell, have endorsements on the back of the book. So I think you can assume they’ve read it. Others I’ve given the book to here, others have told me that they’re reading it or have read it. So I’m grateful for all of that. I think the description of the attributes of the kind of pope that can continue to accelerate the Church’s transformation into a community of disciples in mission is drawn from the last two pontificates. These were extraordinary men. And you kind of take the best of both of them and put it together and shake it up and pour it out. And you get the ideal type, if you will, of the pope of the 21st Century that I describe there.

HH: I want to walk through those specific elements, but first, I want to get your impressions of today. When the oaths were sworn, and the doors were closed, and the first vote inconclusive, but expected to be, was taken. How are you assessing what’s going on, George Weigel?

GW: Well, I think it was a great day to experience beauty as a window into the Catholic proposal. That magnificent Pauline chapel where the conclave process began, the procession from the Pauline Chapel to the Sistine Chapel, which through the great Scala Regia of the Apostolic Palace, which is full of magnificent frescos. And then you get into the Sistine Chapel, which is arguably the most extraordinary room in the world. And you’ve got these men living inside the entire Biblical narrative. I mean, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has the creation of the cosmos, the creation of Adam and Eve, and that unbelievable back wall, which forms a kind of backdrop to this whole election process, is the great Michelangelo fresco of the Last Judgment. So you’ve got beginning, middle and end. And I think that created a sense that this is not like popping into your local precinct and casting your ballot on the second Tuesday of November. There’s something distinctive and different going on here, and I thought that was very moving. And the sheer magnificence of the surroundings lifts up a theme I raise in the book, namely that for postmoderns who are skeptical that anything is true, or are skeptical that we can describe properly anything as good, beauty can be a way to open up a new conversation about the true and the goo.

HH: There’s also something that was, that came to mind as they celebrated their mass – the high liturgy, the beautiful liturgy, the well done liturgy, that in Evangelical Catholicism, you make an argument about the reform of the liturgy, which includes some pretty controversial propositions. But as one watched this very extraordinarily beautiful ceremony today, and the consecration and the liturgy, it’s a glimmer of what could be actually ordinary as opposed to extraordinary.

GW: That’s right. I mean, it’s high liturgy, not prissy liturgy. We’re not talking about recreating some imagined past. But the liturgical aspects of the day were very impressive, and I have to say that as a long time complainer about the Sistine Choir, which many of us Americans who have spent some time in Rome usually refer to as the Sistine screamers…

HH: (laughing) I haven’t heard that.

GW: The choir during the opening of the conclave, during the singing of the Veni Creator Spiritus was just fabulous. So I don’t know, someone has dialed it down from the usual Italianate operative shrieking, but it was really good stuff.

HH: Now George Weigel, I’m going to interject at this moment. The only disappointment I had with all of Evangelical Catholicism, because I’ve got this huge audience listening right now, and all sorts of priests and bishops are listening, because George Weigel is talking to me from Rome, and the conclave is underway. In your book, you failed to denounce the absolute awfulness of the responsorial antiphons everywhere in the American Church between the reading, of the first reading and the second reading. They’re dreadful. They’re absolutely, it’s a desert in the middle of the liturguy. Why did you let them escape unscathed?

GW: Well, that’s, I mean, there’s only so many things I can complain about at any one time, Hugh. I’ve written two columns in the last five years complaining about prayers of the faithful. And in both cases, the column has been called Lord, Please Do Not Hear This Prayer.

HH: (laughing)

GW: But you know, one step at a time. We’re moving slowly in the right direction.

HH: Please, when you get a chance with the new pope, tell him to stop the dreadful responsorial antiphons. All right, back to the key stuff here. It is, I just talked to C.J. McCloskey, Father McCloskey last hour. And I said here’s what struck me this week. It’s been so gloomy. Here on the one hand, you’ve got these amazing people – Cardinal Scola, Cardinal Tagle, Cardinal O’Malley, and they’re on short lists, and they’re very exciting, et cetera. But then there’s this gloom about just what an utter fiasco the Curia is. What’s it feel like in Rome? Is it gloomy, or is it happy?

GW: Well, I think it’s anxious. These are always moments of real concern, because there’s so much riding on this. That sense of anxiety or anxiousness, I think, has been heightened this time in part because there was no spiritual catharsis of the sort we had with the funeral mass of John Paul II eight years ago. Secondly, there’s a certain anxiety level because this is an unprecedented moment in the history of the Church that lives by tradition. And there’s never been a papal abdication of this sort before. There have been papal abdications, but not under these circumstances. And there is a deep and wide sense, which is accurate in my view, that the central bureaucratic machinery is badly broken and needs fixing, indeed, radical fixing, so that it can be an instrument of the new evangelization. And all of that is at stake and on the table in this conclave.

HH: Do you think you will be surprised, before we begin to move through in the next segment, the bishop of Rome as a Christian witness, all the various elements that you have outlined in Evangelical Catholicism, and that book is linked, by the way, America, over at, you can read it tonight if you go and get Chapter 12. Is there anything that could surprise you? Or are you ready for anything?

GW: There’s not going to be any major surprises here, Hugh. I think we have a pretty good sense at this point who the five or six plausible possibilities are.

HH: Would you review those for the audience?

GW: Now having said that, let me say that if this goes beyond Friday, if the cardinals get to the first pause day in the voting, which is Saturday, when they stop balloting, take a day for prayer and reflection, and frankly, politicking, if we get past that, then surprises may well be in order. But assuming this gets settled before then, I think there’s a fairly clear sense of the cast of likely characters who will come out on that loggia.

HH: Who is that short list with a minute to the first break, George Weigel, of the five to six names that wouldn’t surprise?

GW: Well, there’s Cardinal Scola of Milan, Cardinal Oillette of the Roman Curia, formerly of Quebec, and I think two Americans, Cardinal Dolan and Cardinal O’Malley.

HH: Wow, Cardinal Tagle is not on your list of possibles?

GW: A 55 year old pope is not going to happen.

— – –

HH: George Weigel, in Evangelical Catholicism, your new book, the very first thing you say that the bishop of Rome must have is to be a Christian witness. Would you explain to the audience what you mean by that?

GW: Well, Hugh, we’ve had a kind of shift in what both the Church and the world expect from popes since John Paul II, I think. Prior to him, there was a sense that the pope was a kind of global Catholic CEO, and that his principal task was to manage the central bureaucracy of the Church, the Roman Curia. John Paul II broke that mold, and became a real successor of Peter in the sense that Peter in the New Testament is the first great Christian preacher and evangelist. And that model, if you will, proved immensely successful, very popular, established the papacy as a kind of global moral reference point in a way it had really never been before. And that was carried on by Benedict XVI. So when I say that the first thing the pope must be is the chief witness, I think we’re talking about a continuation of a recovery of the ancient New Testament understanding of what the office of Peter is. You look at Luke 22:32, The Lord says to Peter, and you, Peter, when you have been converted, you must turn and strengthen your brethren. That’s the unique task of Peter in the many tasks that have to be performed in the Church. He’s the one who strengthens the brethren. And then you go to the Acts of the apostles, and he’s the first great preacher. He’s the guy who gets up at Pentecost and says I’ve got something to tell you here. So that dimension of the papacy, which is so important at a moment when whether the world likes it or not it looks to the Catholic Church for some stability of moral reference points, what other religious communities look to the bishop of Rome to be the defender of religious freedom for all, not just for his own religious community. This is the kind of witness role I’m talking about here.

HH: Is part of the witness role as well increasingly, because you live in the secular world as I do, we run into our friends who simply don’t believe that we believe what we believe, that there’s this great, oh, come on, you Catholics have got a thing going on here, but you don’t really believe this Jesus story. That’s what Richard Dawkins told me on this show a couple of years ago. Do you really believe He turned water into wine? And I had to assure him that I really did believe that. And I don’t know that there’s really been a pope who’s been out there and easily accessible, as opposed to theological ways, saying this is true, this is really what happened. Is that part of the witness function?

GW: Yeah, I think so. I mean, Benedict XVI, I think, was the greatest Biblical preacher and teacher in the papacy since perhaps Gregory the Great in the late 5th and early 6th Centuries. And when you add to that that Joseph Ratzinger would have demolished Richard Dawkins…

HH: Yes.

GW: …in any serious debate, I mean, you would have needed a dental record to identify the remains of Richard Dawkins after that encounter, this is a very, very powerful business. Now I don’t think every pope has to be a world class intellectual, although it’s certainly been helpful that the last two have been. But he certainly has to have a secure hold on what we call the symphony of Catholic truth, and he has to be able to express that in a winsome and compelling way.

HH: Well, this is where I’m going. The world class intellectual, no debate whatsoever about back to back Ruth and Gehrig. But the ability to communicate the essentials of that edifice in a way that is winsome, effective, and I think increasingly quick, I think that’s a different skill set than Benedict XVI or even John Paul II in his later years had, isn’t it?

GW: Well, a bit, although if you look at the general audience addresses and the homilies of Benedict XVI, there is a luminous clarity there that any person of normal intelligence can really be engaged by. Now the other facet of this witness aspect of the job description, if you will, is one of personality, frankly. It’s not just what a pope says, it’s who he is. Does his person communicate the joy of Christian life, the adventure of Christian life, the possibility of nobility in the Christian life? I mean, John Paul II wasn’t just a great actor or a great rhetorician. He was transparent, his person was transparent to the faith that shaped his life. And that kind of transparency, that kind of openness, that’s very, very important. And it’s at least as important as what the guy actually said.

HH: I’m going to read now, George Weigel, from Page 383 of your book, Evangelical Catholicism. “The first thing to be discerned about any possible candidate for the papacy is whether he wants the job. For if he
does, his desire disqualifies him not so much for a lack of humility as for a lack of prudence, even sanity. No sane man seeks the burdens of the papacy. No man who knows the demands made on a pope, which range from sheer physical stamina to a deep spiritual capacity to bear the wounds of the entire Church without being bled to death by them, will seek the office. The office seeks the man.” Do you think that is much on the mind of these cardinals? Do they agree with that, because it’s certainly not a common understanding of the approach?

GW: I think so, Hugh. When you get really down to it, and you’re in that Sistine Chapel, and you’re looking at the Christ of the Last Judgment, and you’re walking up to that altar, and before you cast your ballot, you hold it up and you say I call upon Christ, the Lord, who will be my judge, that he for whom I am voting is the one I think should be chosen. And that is pretty heavy duty stuff here. And when you are about to say that, you are first of all measuring a man for whom you might vote by a very simple fundamental question – is this a man of God who can communicate to others the grace that is within him?

— – –

HH: George Weigel, when I went to break, I was saying that some of our Christian friends may disagree with this, but the Roman Catholic pontiff is indeed the de facto leader of worldwide Christianity, despite doctrinal differences. And I’ve got many, many wonderful friends like Rick Warren, who are big names in the worldwide Protestant Church, but I don’t think they would disagree that when the world looks to Christianity, they begin by asking what does Rome say? Is that fair?

GW: Yeah, I think it’s entirely fair, Hugh. My friend, Timothy George, dean of the Beeson School of Divinity at Sanford University in Alabama, prominent evangelical theologian, had a fine piece on the First Things website recently. He said I want the pope to be a Catholic. And what he meant by that is that the Catholic Church is a stable, religious and moral reference point that is terribly important for the rest of the Christian world. The utter collapse of the liberal Protestant project has left Christianity with only one stable institutional reference point, and that is the Catholic Church. I mean, our evangelical friends live in a kind of world of entrepreneurial religion. That’s what they’re very, very good at. That’s why they’re the real models of missionary fervor. But there’s no institutional stability in that world. And there’s not authoritative reference points of the sort there are in the Catholic Church and the papacy, in the catechism, in the 2,000 year tradition et cetera. And everybody, I think, intuits, unless they’re blinded by some sort of prejudice, everybody intuits that that’s good for everybody. Even if you don’t agree with all of the points in the catechism of the Catholic Church, you’re glad that at the end of the 2,000 years of Christian history, one Christian community could get up on its hind legs and say, not boastfully but humbly, you want to know what we think after 2,000 years? You want to know what we believe? How we think we ought to live? How we worship? Here it is in a thousand pages, the whole package. And that was a terribly important thing for the Catholic Church to do. And I think everyone else benefitted from it.

HH: It did, and they did. And now I go back to Evangelical Catholicism, and the chart of the attributes of an evangelical Catholic pope – natural resilience, you write, amplified by grace. Can you explain a little bit what that means?

GW: Think about John Paul II. I mean, here was a guy elected at age 58. I mean, he was an athlete, he was a sportsman, he had enormous physical resilience. But you can’t just do this on energy alone, on human energy alone. It has to be a human sturdiness that is deepened and broadened by, frankly, divine support, by a rich interior life, by a deep spiritual life. And another dimension of that, which we may have discussed the other time we talked, I can’t remember, but part of the difficulty of this job of poping is that you know too much. You know all of the awfulness of the world in macrocosm, because you’re getting reports every day from Vatican diplomatic representatives around the world, from bishops around the world, from other sources of Catholic information around the world. And that’s a very heavy burden. But when you add to that burden the burden of the knowledge of individual human sorrow in microcosm, thousands of prayer requests pour into the Vatican every day. Please, your Holiness, pray for my crumbling marriage, my husband can’t find a job, my child is sick and I can’t do anything about it, you know, one thing after another. And the sum total of that is an extraordinary burden of knowledgeability about the world’s sorrow. And unless you have as a Christian disciple conformed your life to the cross before you take up that burden, it will crush you.

— – –

HH: George Weigel, one of the things you called for in the new pope, openness, a second curiosity. These are not qualities that a lot of our media friends who are not churched will understand as being essentially, actually, to a pontiff. Please educate them.

GW: If one asks why was the pontificate of John Paul II so successful, I think one of the answers to that is that this man who craved human conversation, who learned from people all over the world, whom he would invite to his table, had sources of information about the world and the Church that were not the normal channels. I mean, he had reports from his nuncios around the world, he had reports from his bishops and so forth, but he learned by talking to people, and people from all walks of life, and all stations in life. And that seems to me to be important in this. You can’t just rely on the normal channels of information any more, I would say, than a thoughtful governor of a state, or a president of the United States, can simply rely on the normal information flow, because you’re just not going to get the texture of things that way. Curiosity? I think a pope has to be a man who has still got a great thirst for understanding the human condition in all of its complexity, for understanding how human beings live in a wild variety of circumstances around the world, and who is energized by all of that, who’s not burdened by a knowledge of the complexity of the human circumstance, but is engaged by it, and fascinated by it, and wants to figure out how he can best propose the Gospel in all of those situations.

HH: Now George Weigel, lots of people have been talking about the governance issue as we said in the first segment of this program. And you write in Evangelical Catholicism about the willingness to take on the structure and the ideas of the Roman Curia. How quickly does a new pope have to do that if it’s going to be successful? I don’t actually think you get a lot of time. It’s sort of like a presidency. You get a honeymoon in which that what you do can be done rather quickly. But what’s your sense of the timing?

GW: Well, there’s a short game and a long game here, Hugh. I think in the particular circumstances of this papal transition, where the machinery just isn’t functioning very well at all, I think we need something like 100 days where there’s a real clean up and large scale changes of senior personnel signals that things are going to be different, new expectations are in place. That would help break the kind of malaise that is lying over the Church’s central administrative machinery today. Then you’ve got the long game. And the long game, I think, begins with the notion that you have to change the institutional culture of the Roman Curia. And I have sometimes compared this, as I’ve compared the reform of the priesthood and the episcopate in the Catholic Church to the reform of the United States military after Vietnam. The military after Vietnam was in terrible shape. Some 15 to 20 years later, it was perhaps the best functioning major institution in American society. How did that happen? It didn’t happen just by changing people. It happened by changing an institutional culture, changing the expectations of what leadership was, changing the modes of training, our armed forces. That, we need something like that here in Rome. We need a change of institutional culture that will lend itself to this important structure, the Roman Curia, becoming part of the new evangelical missionary Church of the 21st Century.

HH: That’s so daunting, George Weigel, because while the American military is a million strong, and while the Roman Curia is only 3,000, you’re talking nevertheless about a billion Catholics, which is of course, you know, a thousand times as big a problem of changing a culture. And where do you begin?

GW: Well, the culture that needs to be changed isn’t the billion Catholics. It’s the 3,000 people. And it’s, in fact, it’s about 40 of them, because in terms of real decision making authority in the Roman Curia, it’s a very, very lean operation. And if you could get that change of cast of mind embedded in your forty key people, and make it clear to the middle levels that this is what is expected now, then I think this could actually move rather quickly. But it’s going to take extremely strong leadership from not only the pope, but the man he appoints to be the head of the Vatican bureaucracy known as the secretary of state.

HH: And so how quickly does this roll out? You know, there will be a new pope maybe by Friday, if not, surprises could happen by the end of next week, certainly. And how quickly does he roll out these forty changes?

GW: I would say within the first 100 days.

HH: Wow. That’s…

GW: At least the ten or twelve most crucial of them.

HH: And does he go anywhere and take anyone?

GW: There really needs to be swift action here in order to signal to a culture that is very, very good at stalling things out. I mean, these are guys who really know how to dig in their furry, little heels.

HH: But does he go anywhere and drag, you know, C.J. McCloskey said earlier, Father McCloskey, hey, Donald Wuehrl, the cardinal of Washington, D.C., he’s really good, be willing to pull him out of D.C. if you need to? Does that go? Does he just drag whoever he needs to Rome?

GW: Well, I think you look around the world Church, and you find people who are strong executives. The way I’ve tried to describe this here is to say you want St. Paul for pope, but you want a St. Paul with the shrewdness to hire a Jack Welch to straighten out the organization.

— – – –

HH: George, thanks for staying up late. Are you exhausted? This must be emotionally, as well as intellectually, challenging and exhausting.

GW: It’s not quite as emotionally taxing as the last time around, Hugh, because I had lived through, with John Paul II, very difficult circumstances of his last years. And that is absent this time. I mean, that whole emotional drain is absent this time. I’m energized by this. I think it’s a great opportunity to explain the truth about the Catholic Church to a global audience. Today was a marvelous experience of Catholic liturgy at its finest, of the Church as a community of disciples, not simply as a kind of precinct club getting together to choose the new precinct chairman. All that, you know, is very satisfying, to be able to contribute in the small way that I do to that…

HH: Do you have a hope in your heart, though it’s unrevealed, as to who will be the next pope?

GW: Well, Hugh, as we say, never talk about a no-hitter while it’s being pitched. So…

HH: Okay, so I’m not asking for a name. I’m just curious…and then finally, that revolution you talked about, that 100 days, do you expect laity to have a role in that? Or is it all going to be the ordained?

GW: No, it certainly should. I mean for example on the question of Vatican finances, I would say there needs to be a commission of lay Catholic financiers from around the world to come in and take a very, very close look at how money operates in and out of the Vatican, and to make sure that those financial transactions reflect the integrity that the Church preaches, and the new evangelization which it proposes.

HH: George Weigel, thanks for staying up late, continued prayers for your health and your energy as you continue to explain what is unfolding there around the world via NBC and many other media outlets. The book is Evangelical Catholicism. It is linked over at If you haven’t read it, yet, you ought to go get it right now. And when you do go and get it right now, you ought to go to Chapter 12 on the election of the next pope. Thank you, George, and I hope we can catch up with you after the pope is revealed, whoever that might be.

End of interview.


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