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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

George Weigel Reporting From The Vatican On Evangelical Catholicism

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HH: Sometimes, a book arrives exactly when it ought to, and that is the case with Evangelical Catholicism, the new book out by George Weigel. Of course, any of you who have listened to the show for years know who George Weigel is, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He’s a Catholic theologian, one of America’s leading public intellectuals, the author of more than twenty books, the biographer of Popes Benedict and John Paul, and of course, now in Rome as the conclave is about to begin. I think the cardinals gathered for the first time today. George Weigel, welcome, it’s great to have you on the program.

GW: Thank you, Hugh, it’s always good to be with you.

HH: Well, I want to begin by saying Evangelical Catholicism is a wonderful book. I was just recommending it this morning to the Salem Radio Network editorial board as the necessary book that they’ve got to read before the conclave gets underway to understand everything. I know you didn’t write it with this timing in mind, but it is rather providential it’s arrived, and I hope all of the cardinals are carrying it with them.

GW: Well, some are, because I’ve given it to them.

HH: Good, good, good.

GW: Others are, because friends of mine have been spreading it around here in Rome. I think the general vision that I lay out here, that this is a Church at a hinge moment in history, the Church that was formed in the counter-reformation of the 16th Century, is coming to an end as an epoch in the history of the Church. And the Church of what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called the new evangelization is emerging as the Church of the future. It’s the same Church, it’s the same Lord, it’s the same faith, it’s the same baptism. But as patristic Catholicism gave way to medieval Catholicism, which gave way to counter reformation Catholicism, now the Catholicism in which anybody over 50 in the United States grew up, is giving way to a new mode of being Catholic. And that, whether you get that or not, seems to me one of the interesting fault lines, or division points in the conclave that will be opening a week or ten days from now.

HH: And I thought it was, again, reading autobiography to a certain extent, because at 56, I grew up, began my life in the counter reformation, pre-Vatican II Church, went through the last turbulent fifty years of the post-Vatican II life of a Roman Catholic in America. And then, to read how is fits from Pope Leo XIII through Benedict XVI’s abdication makes perfect sense, but it requires some very careful distinctions that you make throughout Evangelical Catholicism, and I urge people to go over to The book is linked there, and it’s flying off shelves everywhere. And those distinctions are, you’re not buying into the progressive Church, you’re not buying into the Society of Pius X. You’re arguing that this is, it’s the same understanding of the truth of the Gospel, but a different calling for a postmodern world.

GW: Yeah, there are two things going on here, it seems to me, Hugh. And they’ve been going on in some sense since Leo XIII in the late 19th Century. One is that the slogan, Ecclesia Semper Reformonda, the Church always to be reformed, is usually associated with the Protestant reformers of the 16th Century, but it in fact describes an essential internal dynamic of the Church itself, which always wants to be, or should always want to be, a more perfect expression of the love of God in the world. So that what has been shifting over the past 120 years is impelled by internal dynamics in the Church. As it happens, this shift towards a more assertively evangelical, Gospel-centered Catholicism comes just in the nick of time, because we are now, throughout the Western world, experiencing a highly aggressive secularism which wants to reduce religious conviction to a kind of lifestyle choice to certain recreational activities on weekends, and driving us all out of the public square. That kind of assertive secularism cannot be met by institutional maintenance Catholicism. It can only be met by an assertively evangelical Catholicism in which every Catholic understands that he or she has been born into a missionary vocation, and that he or she enters mission territory every day.

HH: And this is not nostalgia. Ross Douthat wrote a fine book, and I talked with Ross greatly about the great nostalgic feeling that many Catholics who are over even 40 feel for the community that’s been destroyed. But that’s not what you’re talking about here in Evangelical Catholicism, nor is it what we hope the cardinals are discussing in their conclave.

GW: Well, let me put it this way, Hugh. When I grew up in Baltimore, a very Catholic city in the late 1950s, early 1960s, Catholicism was in the air you breathed. Now, that air has become toxic. The ambient public culture no longer transmits the faith, it’s not neutral towards the faith, it’s actively hostile towards the faith. Anyone…but this, by the way, I should say, extends across Christian denominational lines. Anyone in America today who holds to a classic Biblical view of the right relationship between men and women, and the nature of marriage, risks being branded an irrational bigot by the culture, and increasingly by the government. That’s a very, very different cultural environment than the one I grew up in. And yet that’s the world we have to somehow figure out how to evangelize, how to present the possibility of friendship with Jesus Christ to.

HH: And I noted in a column I wrote for the Washington Examiner today, that heavily draws upon your book and an interview that Cardinal George gave to John Allen, you wrote in your book lukewarm Catholicism has no future. I couldn’t agree with you more on this, George Weigel, but I think that’s going to scare some people.

GW: Well, it may, and of course, Hugh, as you know, I have an entire fourth chapter in the book called True And False Reform In The Church, in which I note that from the get go, it’s always been weeds and wheat in the Church. There have always been frightened people in the boat, to vary the Biblical metaphor. All of us are sinners, all of us are imperfect, all of us are in need of constant conversion. So I’m not talking about some repristinated, small community of the elect. I’m talking about everyone being challenged by their fellow Catholics, by their pastors, by their bishops, by the new pope who will be elected here sometime this month, to be full bore Catholics who embrace the symphony of truth that the Catholic Church teaches, and who understand that the greatest thing they can do for others is to offer them the possibility of what Benedict XVI insistently called friendship with Jesus Christ.

HH: Now there are many men entering the conclave. I wish there were some others, like Archbishop Gomez and Archbishop Chaput, and the latter will be my guest tomorrow, who had red hats to join them. But there are many in there, including Cardinal Burke and others, who already embrace this idea. But they’re fewer than a majority, aren’t they?

GW: I’m not sure, Hugh. I mean, this is, in one sense, a rather old conclave. I was just running some numbers today here in Rome. 8% of this electorate is under 65 years old. Only 8%.

HH: Wow.

GW: 20% of it is men who are retired. So it’s a bit tilted towards the older end of the cardinalatial spectrum. On the other hand, there’s some of those older men who clearly get this, and I wouldn’t say that the age factor determines whether you have embraced the vision of Vatican II, John Paul II and Benedict XVI or not. What I would also say is that what I’m describing in this book, at least in the first half of the book, the vision of Evangelical Catholicism, is not the George Weigel proposal. It’s my understanding of the reality of what history, and I believe divine providence, has produced over the last 125 years. The second part of the book, the reforms of evangelical Catholicism, is, I admit, the George Weigel program for fixing just about everything.

HH: Yeah, but the dei verbum, you rely upon the encyclical, the key document of Vatican II has been understood and interpreted by Benedict and John Paul II. So this is not, I do like the second part of the book, but I liked the fact you grounded it in the documents of Vatican II.

GW: Well, I think I am trying to put into perhaps a different set of wineskins the new wine of the counsel, as authoritatively interpreted, by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It was John Paul who invented the term the new evangelization. I’ve kind of flipped that around to talk about evangelical Catholicism. But the impulse is the same, and the sense of a new moment in the two millennial history of the Church is the same, too.

— – – –

HH: I’ve been reading it over the last week and recommending it to everyone I know who is interested in the proceedings of the Church. And everyone ought to be, even if you’re not Roman Catholic, even if you’re Protestant or an atheist or an agnostic, or Muslim or anything, and you want to know, because the Church is the Church universal, and it’s everywhere, and everywhere it is important, what is going to happen in this conclave, and understand what some of the debate will be about, you’ll want to read Evangelical Catholicism. George Weigel, I want to go back, I mentioned earlier a column I’d written today quoting a conversation that Cardinal George had with National Catholic reporter, John Allen, in which the Cardinal said you know, we need a pious, intelligent, good and open new pope, and one who’s very good at governance, to which I wrote, that’s all true, but what we really need is a truth-telling pope, one fully equipped to use the tools of modern technology, and willing to bring to Rome with him the talent to energize an old, and in some case, corrupt bureaucracy, and to set, you know, a match to all the fuel that’s been accumulated by John Paul II and Benedict. Was George being adamant about those traits that you obvious, just it’s obvious from Evangelical Catholicism what you think we need in a pope. Do you think that Cardinal George was articulating that, because governance is not what we need.

GW: Well, I think Cardinal George is rightly concerned, Hugh, that the Vatican bureaucracy is in the worst condition it’s been in, in generations.

HH: Would you explain that for laymen who are not Catholic?

GW: Sure. It’s become dysfunctional in numerous ways. The communications operation is a nightmare. Things don’t happen in a timely way. There has been a kind of re-Italianization of the Curia, which means as one of my Italian friends put it to me, the culture of corruption that has taken over Italy has not seeped behind the walls of the Vatican. All of this needs to be cleaned up, not simply to settle scores, in fact, not primarily to settle scores, but to turn this central administrative machinery of the Catholic Church into an instrument of the new evangelization, and a help to the pope, not an impediment to the pope, which it became too often during the years of Benedict XVI. Now having said that, I think Cardinal George is an old and dear friend, and I would be completely agreed that the first order of business is to find, if possible, a charismatic, evangelical, missionary-oriented pastor who has demonstrated that by the force of his personality, as well as by the power of his words, that he can make the invitation to the world to consider conversion, to consider friendship with Jesus Christ. That man should also have, in my judgment, and I think Cardinal George would share this, the shrewdness to hire himself from among a rather large pool of experienced churchmen, a very efficient chief executive officer, chief operating officer, I suppose one would say, who would take on the job of reforming this Roman bureaucracy, and who will redesign it, because as I indicate in the book, I think there’s, some of this dysfunction is at least attributable to not having the chart set up accurately. The fundamental problem is institutional culture, and that will only change when you change personalities. So I don’t think we need to look for a pope who is both St. Paul and Jack Welch wrapped into one. I’ll take St. Paul, and then he hires Jack Welch. That’s the way to do this.

HH: Now there are obviously lists and lists and lists, and lots of biographies, and I’m looking as we speak at a picture of Cardinal Tagle, the Philippine-Manilan cardinal who is on so many people’s lists for bright and smart, the passionate sort of speaker of the Word. But are there many of such people? And are they willing to go that far? As John Paul II was a reach, not completely unanticipated by everyone, but it surprised 90% of the people, does, do you believe the cardinals are willing to go that far and throw that deep, to use a football metaphor that may be unfamiliar to most of the cardinals?

GW: Yeah, well I think going vertical, as we say in football, Luis Antonio Tagle is perhaps an end zone too far.

HH: Okay.

GW: He’s 56 years old, and that’s asking someone to do this for 25 years. And that’s probably asking too much. I do think, after what has now been 20-some years of aged and declining popes, although you know, both of these guys, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, really poured themselves out to the end, although the end came in different ways. I think they’re going to be looking for someone of real physical vigor. But Hugh, the most important thing on the vigor front is any future pope’s spiritual vigor. Popes just know too much for any one human being to bear. They know the sorrow and wickedness and evil of the world in macrocosm, because they’re hearing about it every day from their ambassadors around the world, from bishops around the world, from Vatican embassies around the world. And popes also know the burdens of humanity in microcosm. I mean, thousands of prayer requests every day pour into the apostolic palace from people in troubled marriages, people who have sick babies, people who can’t find jobs, people who are disappointed in life in one way or another. And it’s all just too much, unless this man is so solidly grounded in his faith, and is of such emotional stability, firmness, rock-like, like Peter, that he can bear that burden without being bled to death by it.

HH: There’s also, and I think you described this at length in Evangelical Catholicism, the crisis of postmodern living is that no one believes in anything, and they don’t even feel bad about it. Their disenchantment is profound. I thought that was really the strength of the book, is to put the election in the context of this…you know, people know Dawkins and Hitchens, and Hitch was a friend of mine, but they represented the very tiniest tip of this crisis of why am I alive? And why not euthanize…

GW: Right, well, what I say is David Hart said this several years ago when he said the real problem with the Western world is, I think David called it metaphysical boredom.

HH: Yes.

GW: And I would, you know, you could say spiritual boredom, that life has ceased to be a great adventure, and is just about the aggrandizement, usually the sensual aggrandizement, of me, myself and I. Well, this is to play in the sandbox of solipsism. And it’s soul withering. And a pope who can call people to a larger horizon of aspiration than what they see in the mirror in the morning will in fact be a powerful messenger to the whole culture.

— – –

HH: George, Ed Morrissey, my colleague from, will be over there next week for the next three weeks. I hope you connect with him. He’ll be connecting with us daily. And I hope that…and he’s going to be writing online about what’s going on, as I hope you find at many opportunities. I read your L.A. Times piece yesterday. But I’m thinking about that. John Paul II went on global, globetrotting missions, and Benedict did what he could, but he’s 78-85 years old. It’s hard to do, like I did this last week, back and forth to Tokyo in a week. It takes a toll on you. But the next pope doesn’t have to do that. The next pope just has to embrace all of these new technologies that make the passionate description of the four fundamental realities of Christian ecclesial life, as you put it down – unity, holiness, Catholicity, and apostolicity, pardon my pronunciations. I’m jetlagged. But anyone can do this from anywhere. Do the cardinals understand that? And will they be looking for that skill set and a genuine willingness to do it that way?

GW: Well, they are certainly aware, Hugh, that the communications apparatus of the Vatican very badly served Benedict XVI. And while there was some sort of scrambling and what now looks like the 8th and 9th inning of the pontificate to do something about this, you don’t fix it simply by getting the pope a Twitter account, because nobody serious us fooled by that. I mean, you understand that people are writing this stuff for him and what not. But that the world operates in a 24/7 communications environment…

HH: Yes.

GW: …which creates a 24/7 evangelical opportunity.

HH: Yes.

GW: That is not understood here, and I think the next guy has to be someone who grasps that not as something to be fought or whined about or deplored, but as something to be seized and bent to the Church’s ends.

HH: So in our last four minutes here, George Weigel, Evangelical Catholicism lays out great programs, great background. But it comes down to 116 individuals gathered in prayer. They’re doing their…I think they met for the first time today in one of their pre-conclave gatherings. How is this going? What’s your sense of what’s emerging? And if I can press you in a very American way, who do you see emerging from this, or short list of who do you see emerging from this?

GW: Well, there is no short list. Let’s start with that. I mean, unless 2005, when Cardinal Ratzinger was, if you were paying attention, and not getting caught up in a lot of media chaff, Italian media chaff in particular, it was obvious that he was the frontrunner. I have said on several occasions in the past few days if this were the Daytona 500, there’s not only not a pole position, there’s no front row. This is really wide open. I think it’s going to be a long and possibly somewhat difficult conclave. I think part of that is because there’s a sense of unease. The Church is in wholly uncharted waters right now. And one does not want to lose what momentum has been built up by these two great men, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. So I think it’s not at all possible to say with any degree of seriousness here are the top three or five people.

HH: Interesting.

GW: I could name ten or twelve people, men who may come out of this process wearing white.

HH: Well then, the American metaphor is on any given Sunday then.

GW: That’s good.

HH: Let me ask you, then, to help us out, I have you Google alerted. Who else would you be reading right now for understanding what’s going on? Who do you, when you see their byline talking about what’s going on in the conclave, do you stop and read?

GW: Well, John Allen, who you mentioned before, is an old friend of mine, and he and I form what we consider a club of two people, you know, who actually have some real idea of what’s happening here. I have to say, Hugh, I read very little of what’s produced in newspapers and magazines about this stuff. I go direct to the sources. And I think that’s a much more helpful way to try to understand the dynamics.

HH: Then my only appeal to you is write early and often every day. Are you posting at the Ethics and Public Policy Center?

GW: Everything I write is, well, from whatever – Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times, NRO, my Catholic Press column, that all goes up immediately at

HH: I’ll look for it there. George Weigel, thanks for staying up late. The new book, Evangelical Catholicism, we’ll talk greatly about it at length when you have more time. Thanks for joining us on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

End of interview.


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