George Weigel

From a speech at St. Thomas, Oct. 6, 2003 George Weigel is a senior fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Public Policy in Washington. The following are excerpts from Weigel’s talk at St. Thomas on Oct. 6, 2003. Parts of this talk were previously published in the Winter 2003 edition of Perspectives. It is…

From a speech at St. Thomas, Oct. 6, 2003 George Weigel is a senior fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Public Policy in Washington. The following are excerpts from Weigel’s talk at St. Thomas on Oct. 6, 2003. Parts of this talk were previously published in the Winter 2003 edition of Perspectives.

It is clear that John Paul II, this most energetic of popes, has left a few things unfinished for us to do after he is called home to glory.

A number of things will be unfinished because it will take the Church time to absorb the teaching of John Paul II and give it practical effect in the lives of local churches. First, the very idea of the Church as, in its essence, an evangelical movement, a movement in history telling the world the truth of the world’s story. That idea of the Church is going to take a while to be absorbed in a Church accustomed for centuries to thinking of itself primarily in institutional terms. Now we can already see some parts of the Church taking on this renewed image as an evangelical movement, “putting out into the deep” as the Pope said in his apostolic letter. I think you see it primarily in renewal movements around the Church, you see it in new religious communities in the Church, you see it among younger Catholic intellectuals. Wherever renewal movements, older religious communities, new religious communities, intellectual centers, have truly absorbed the dynamism of this pontificate, which is not a dynamism of Church maintenance but a dynamism of evangelism, a dynamism of “go out into the world” to bring the message of Christ, you see the unfinished agenda getting a little bit closer to being finished.

Another issue that’s going to take a while to absorb is John Paul II’s social doctrine, which is genuinely bold and path-breaking but has been slow to penetrate Catholic circles. The vision of the free society that John Paul II offered in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, the vision of a free, prosperous and virtuous society built through democratic politics, a free economy and a vibrant public moral culture — that remains the most comprehensive, compelling view of what it means to live freedom in community that is offered in the world today. But it’s not really well understood throughout the Church. If one listens, for example, to interventions at several recent synods of bishops it’s quite clear that this vision of the interaction of culture, free economy and democratic politics has just not been taken on board by many of the bishops, particularly of Latin America, where this is quite crucial. Crucial because Latin America is the demographic anchor of the 21st-century Church, crucial because for 500 years Latin America has been waiting for a culture-forming Catholicism that could sustain a public moral culture, a free economy and democratic politics. I think one of the things that we are going to have to do more of in the 20th century is engage in a real dialogue within the Americas, with Latin American Catholic friends and colleagues on these issues.

Third, John Paul II’s theology of the body is an enormous resource that has barely begun to be explored. One of the great tasks for catechesis is bringing this remarkable corpus of thought to young people and into the homiletic practice of the Church. This is an extraordinarily rich body of material, terribly important in terms of meeting the challenge of the toxic waste dump that is so much of our popular culture today. But also important for creating the foundation on which Catholics can lift up and affirm the gift of sexual love within the bond of faithful and fruitful marriage as a good in its own right and as a model for the thinking about human community, human dignity and the givenness of certain things in human life, which is absolutely essential for dealing with today’s biotech issues.

Tied to this is the Pope’s distinctive feminism. One dimension of this feminism is the modeling of discipleship in the Church. The Church of proclamation is always formed in the image of St. Paul; the Church of jurisdiction and authority always formed in the image of Peter; the Church of contemplation formed in the image of John; and the Church of discipleship formed in the image of Mary, formed in the image of a woman, formed in the image of the first of disciples whose fiat, “Be it done unto me according to your word,” is the condition for the possibility of the Incarnation, of the Church, of discipleship. The Church of Mary is in some sense the first reality of the Church. The Church of discipleship exists in a kind of theological priority. This is a very rich idea that, if pursued by theologians, would help get us beyond some of the quarrels ecclesiologically that have bedeviled us for many years. The other dimension of the Pope’s distinctive feminism is his reading of the contemporary feminist movement, which we find in documents such as Mulieris Dignitatem in terms of its teaching that men and women are equal but distinct. Both men and women are icons of God but they are distinctive icons of God. Particularly within the bond of marriage, they are joint icons of God. Now this strikes me as a wonderful way to begin thinking again about men and women, and women and men, and men and women together and all of the things that so roil that discussion in the Church and in our society. I find that the atmosphere today is much more open to this notion of equality and distinction than would have been imaginable even 10 years ago.

Pope John Paul II’s unfinished agenda also involves issues on which history was simply not ready to move in the direction the Pope was proposing, at least not with the same sense of urgency that he brought to the matter. Here I would list one great example. This is a pontificate that has made an enormous investment in ecumenism. I think the Pope really believed at the beginning of the pontificate that it was possible by the turn of a new millennium to effect ecclesial reconciliation between Rome and the churches of the Christian east. That dream has, of course, been unfulfilled. There has been no sustained and significant answer from the orthodox world to the Pope’s proposal in the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint that the churches of the East help him think through an exercise of the Petrine ministry that could be of service to them. We can see the beginnings of real reconciliation between orthodox churches, Latin and Catholic churches, and Greek Catholic churches in Romania, for example. But the great goal is not on the horizon and I think that raises a question for the future.

A last category of John Paul II’s unfinished agenda touches on things that the Pope simply did not address extensively and will have to be addressed in the future. One of these has to do with the ethics of international relations, or ethics and world politics. There are a number of open questions that this pontificate will leave behind in that complex area of the Church’s theological reflection. In 1992 the Pope went to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome and gave a major address in which he said that in cases of impending or underway genocide there was a “duty of humanitarian intervention,” which one assumes means a duty of humanitarian intervention through the use of military force. But he did not say on whom that duty fell, why this duty existed, or how it was to be met. Then there is the whole set of tangled issues that were evident in the debate prior to the war in Iraq involving the development of the just war tradition to meet the new circumstances of a post-cold war world. The development of that tradition must be taken up again in the next decades. There are too many new things out there, the terrorist phenomenon, new technologies, nonstate threats to international order, failed regimes, rogue regimes, all of this sort of business that we’ve been wrestling with in this country since 9/11 needs to be thought about in a morally and sophisticated way in terms of when is hard power required to deal with these problems and when are softer forms of power more morally appropriate.

And finally the question of structures of pastoral discipline in the Church is one that is going to have to be addressed more in the future. This Pope seems to have taken the view that his primary task is to encourage and nurture what is good and true and growing in the Church and to leave what is off the reservation to die eventually of its own implausibility. And it is only when things have gotten completely out of control, as they have in the case of five or six theologians, that there has been a direct intervention from the Holy See. And yet I think we have seen in our own country over the past 35 years that a culture of dissent in the Church can do enormous damage to what I would call the ecology of the Church, to the environment of the Church. So the question of how the structures of pastoral discipline in the Church, not simply with respect to theology but with respect to liturgy and the organization of pastoral life, how are these structures going to be renewed and revised in the future seems to me a large one that the next pontificate is going to have to take up.

I have been asked several hundred times by journalists from Tierra del Fuego to the North Pole and all the way around the other way how I would sum up this man John Paul II. “Give it to me in one sentence,” they always say. And what I always say is, “This is the great Christian witness of our time.”