George S. Weigel, Jr., author, political analyst and social activist, spoke at the Seminary as part of the Pope Benedict XVI Lecture Series on October 12. His topic was “The New Evangelization and the Crisis of American Public Life.”
Weigel was last at Saint Vincent Seminary in 2000, when he spoke at commencement and received an honorary doctorate. He is perhaps best known for his widely translated and internationally acclaimed two-volume biography of Pope St. John Paul II, the New York Times bestseller, Witness to Hope (1999), and its sequel, The End and the Beginning (2010). He has written more than twenty other books, and, as he told his audience, is working on an analysis of Vatican II and its impacts on present-day life, scheduled for completion next year. His essays, op-ed columns, and reviews appear regularly in major opinion journals and newspapers across the United States.
The Pope Benedict XVI Lecture Series was established in 2005 with support from Mr. and Mrs. John F. Donahue and Dr. and Mrs. George Magovern.
He began his talk by tracing the history of modern Catholicism through the church of the Counter-Reformation in the early 16th and 17th centuries, and through the church’s ecumenical councils, including the Council of Trent and some of the other 20 councils leading up to Vatican II.
The Council of Trent, he said, defined a “way of being Catholic that lasted for some 400-plus years.” It was a way of being Catholic that produced great saints, he said, noting it was also the form of Catholicism that eventually came to the western hemisphere. It was a way of being Catholic, he said, that withstood the assault of modern totalitarianism, socialism. and communism, and which was familiar to those who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s.
Catholics familiar with the catechism at that time, he said, believed in one “holy Catholic and apostolic church,” but also felt that it was immutable. While that is not true, he said, it was “something of a disturbing experience for many Catholics to learn that the Church develops over time.”
The fifth great moment of transition in the time period from the Church of the Counter-Reformation to the Church of Pope Saint John Paul II’s New Evangelization did not begin, as some may assume, with the Second Vatican Council, but rather with papacy of Pope Leo XIII. Intended as a short-term successor to the long-reigning Pope Pius IX in 1878, the 68-year-old proved “that you never know what is going to come out of a conclave,” Weigel said.
Leo XIII had the second- longest reign in recorded papal history until he was topped by John Paul II, Weigel said. But, over 25 years, in what Weigel and others have come to call the Leonine Revolution, he renovated Catholic philosophy and theology by mandating a close study of Thomas Aquinas in the original text, believing the Aquinas was uniquely positioned to help Catholics come to grip with the new learning of the modern period and the changes in the study of philosophy and history. So his encyclical, Aeterni Patris, “was not a look back. It was a look ahead,” examining the intellectual tools that were needed to convert the modern world.
He warranted the modern study of the Bible, Weigel said, by blessing the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, by creating the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and later the Pontifical Biblical Commission. He commissioned the modern study of Church history by opening the Vatican archives to qualified historians of any faith and even of no faith. Weigel said Leo XIII created modern Catholic social doctrine, and noted that the “Leonine Revolution rippled through the world Church, particularly in Europe, for some 50 years after his death.”
The Leonine Revolution, Weigel said, was fruitful pastorally and intellectually, leading up to the selection of Pope John XXIII by the College of Cardinals in 1958. Again expecting a short-term successor as the next pope, after the long pontificate of Pope Pius XII, his intention was to reignite the evangelical energy in the church.
But unlike every other ecumenical council in Church history, Weigel said, “Vatican II did not provide the keys to its own authentic interpretation.”
Then came the election of a son of Vatican II, Karol Józef Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, who recruited as his theological deputy Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. Their papacies represent 35 years of a continuous arc of interpretation and, Weigel said, “provide the authoritative keys to the interpretation of Vatican II. Those two pontificates have to be understood as one continuous arc of providing an authentic and interpretative in which these men both played significant roles.”
A significant event in that interpretation came in 1985 when Pope John Paul II called an extraordinary synod that defined the Church as a communion of disciples in its mission.
“All of those nouns are crucial,” he said.
Catholicism as defined by Pope John Paul II begins with a personal relationship to Jesus Christ and a conversion to his way.
“Unlike other forms of Christianity which kind of leave it there,” Weigel said, “Catholicism understands that to be a friend of the Lord Jesus is to be immediately inserted into the body of his friends, what Pius XII called the mystical body.”
The term communio was chosen as the best description of this human and divine reality. He defines it as a body “in which each of the members relates to the other members in a completely unique way. … That communion of disciples does not exist alone. It exists for the mission to offer to others to propose to the others the gift it has been given, which is friendship with Jesus Christ and its incorporation into the body in the world of the incarnate son of God.”
Another crucial moment of interpretation came in 1990 with the Redemptoris Missio encyclical, which “teaches that the Church does not have a mission; the Church is a mission,” Weigel said. “Everyone in the Church should measure himself or herself and the quality of each of our discipleships by mission effectiveness. Everyone in the church is a missionary and everywhere is mission territory.”
In 1992, he said, Pope John Paul II began to use the term New Evangelization “and that becomes, I think, the dominant motif of the second half of his pontificate until he dies in 2005.”
Examining the end of this pontificate, Weigel remarked upon the Great Jubilee of 2000, where the aging pontiff spent a week in the Holy Land, and a year in which he held 180 papal events, or one about every other day.
“Why did he do that?
“There was a longing in his Christian disciple’s heart to go to the Holy Land. The Pope in effect put the whole church on his back and was carrying us with him to the places of salvation history so that with him we could see and touch and hear and smell and taste the fact that Christianity, now 2000 years old, is not a pious myth. It is not a nice story. Christianity begins with real human lives in places you can go to now, in times we know with some measure of historical clarity.”
Those lives were so transformed by their encounter with Jesus that “they went out and converted somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the Mediterranean world over the next 250 years.”
Thus, he said, the pontiff’s visit “was to remind the church that it is a mission.” Citing his apostolic letter urging people to “put out into the deep,” from Luke 5, it was the pope’s metaphor for the church to “leave the shallow water of institutional maintenance Catholicism and put out into the deep of a troubled, roiling, confused, often hostile postmodern world for a great catch of souls. It’s not a question of getting rid of institutions. It’s a question of transforming those institutions into a platform for missions.
“This is taking Catholics a long time to get used to this notion that all of us are involved in a missionary enterprise, and that all of us have evangelical or missionary responsibilities, but it’s come just in time,” Weigel said.
Culture no longer transmits the faith, he said, and that’s been difficult to digest. Culture is not only not transmitting the faith, it’s not neutral to the Biblical view of the human person,” he said. “It’s actively hostile to it. If we are going to be the Church that has some traction in this society in the future,” he said, “we have got to all get into the evangelization business. … All of us are being called to go to Galilee, are being called to that mountain to hear the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all nations.”
Tying in this call to the crisis of American public life, Weigel called public culture today rancid. Citing his friend and columnist George F. Will, he said politics are dominated by the “survival of the shrillest.” Politics have become performance art rather than means of achieving the common good.
“Why has all of this happened?” Noting that politics is always downstream from culture, he said that the political culture is in trouble because the public moral culture is sick. “Freedom has been reduced to the mantra of choice without the sentence ever being completed. Choose what? This is really an infantile notion of freedom.”
Citing the “toxic waste dump of the internet and the deterioration of conversation into social media sniping,” he said that fundamentally the “Biblical and Christian roots of American democracy have been largely severed in our high culture and our politics is suffering because of that.”
Returning to the Greek philosophical roots that there are “truths embedded in the world and in us, and that knowing them we can know both what makes for human happiness and what our duties and obligations are” is what prompted Thomas Jefferson to write that “we hold these truths to be self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence.
“The only answer to the present distress of American public life is a new Great Awakening to those truths about the human person that we learn from both Biblical religion and from a disciplined, reasoned reflection on the human condition,” Weigel said. “The Catholic contribution to that will be to lift up the idea of the human person as created with intelligence and free will, capable of knowing the truth, called to nobility, summoned to a destiny that is much higher than immediate personal satisfaction, to lift up the vision of the human person as capable of what those patristic fathers of the Church, particularly in the eastern Catholic world, used to call in that first millennium deification. We are called to deification. That’s a much higher view of human possibility than anything that’s being offered in our culture today.”
We have to learn, he said, how to lift that up, to preach that, to proclaim that, to offer that to people. It is precisely in actualizing the New Evangelization in our time that we will make our best contribution to the healing of a wounded moral culture and the rebuilding of an increasingly toxic political culture. So it all fits together and we are being summoned to a great task. This can get depressing, even frightening. But to go back to where I started with learning from history, I often remind folks that while there are libraries of books of Church history, there is only one divinely inspired book of Church history. It’s called the Acts of the Apostles. … How does the Acts of the Apostles end? It ends with a shipwreck. And the shipwreck becomes the occasion to extend the mission of the Church into previously unevangelized territory. If we can think of ourselves in those terms, then I think we will rise to meet the challenge of the New Evanglization and the renewal of American democracy to which our faith calls us.”