United States Catholic intellectual Professor George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II, visited Brisbane recently, and journalist PAUL DOBBYN sought his views on a range of topics related to the Church in the world
AUSTRALIA and Europe may seem worlds apart but both are increasingly similar in their “aggressive secularism”.
According to prominent United States Catholic intellectual Professor George Weigel, recently visiting Brisbane as part of an eastern states tour, this means Australian society is heading down a dead-end track.
Indeed the entire enterprise of Western Civilisation is, in his estimation, at risk.
“Western Europe, in particular, is in a crisis of civilisational morale because it has abandoned the God of the Bible,” he said.
“It has abandoned its commitment to reason and it is now attempting to live on political correctness which is a very shaky foundation on which to build the future.
“If anything is going to turn that around it is a revival of Christian faith which in that context means almost certainly a revival of Catholic faith.”
Given the professor’s stature such warnings certainly bear consideration.
A Senior Fellow of the US Ethics and Public Policy Centre, he is author of more than 20 books including the bestselling “Witness To Hope“, a biography of Pope John Paul II which was made into a movie.
Prof Weigel is also a frequent guest on radio and television and his weekly column “The Catholic Difference” is syndicated to 60 newspapers around the United States.
A Vatican analyst for NBC News, he has also received nine honorary doctorate degrees, as well as the papal cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice and the Gloria Artis Gold Medal from the Polish Ministry of Culture.
The Catholic Leader’s conversation held just after the professor’s address to the Assembly of Catholic Professionals’ luncheon on November 11, elicited a brief but telling overview of the Church’s current situation.
Conversation topics included a strong upswing in the influence of the Catholic faith in North America, the “meltdown of the faith in Ireland”, society’s need “to rediscover Jerusalem, Athens and Rome”, and the impact of the new Catholic evangelism.
Prof Weigel also spoke of his profound respect for Pope John Paul II (“he was deeply wounded that Europe seemed to be consciously forgetting its Christian roots”) and Pope Benedict XVI (“he has a vast and encyclopaedic command of the Bible, the history of both Jewish and Christian thought over past 2000 years, is widely read historically and in literature, and he is an absolutely lucid prose stylist”).
He’s known both men personally and professionally, Pope Benedict since 1988.
His image of the “empty shrine” cropped up frequently in the conversation.
He found this a useful way to describe a society “which has deliberately emptied itself of transcendent, religious and moral points of reference, imagining it can run on purely utilitarian criteria”.
Ultimately, he was optimistic about the Church’s future – using statistics, such as the 160,000 new Catholics who joined North American parishes last Easter, to support this view.
However, he also indicated the Church of the 22nd Century would look vastly different to the one of 2011.
In terms of this present moment in the Catholic Church’s mission, Prof Weigel said problems around the Western world were identical.
“How do we preach the Gospel in a world grown spiritually bored?” he asked.
“It’s the same problem throughout developed world.
“I think the Church in the US has begun to figure out the answer.
“It’s about strengthening Catholic identity, strengthening the identity of Catholic institutions, reforming seminaries, making sure our Catholic schools teach the fullness of Catholic faith, encouraging vocations, encouraging good Catholic marriages …
“When you do all that, you find out that young people line up and want to be recruited for the new evangelisation.”
And what about proof that this approach works?
“Pope John Paul II taught in the encyclical Redemptorios Missio the Church does not have a mission, the Church is a mission,” Prof Weigel said.
“You’re seeing the rediscovery of this mission in World Youth Day, in evangelisation programs in parishes – over 160,000 people came into the Catholic Church in the US over Easter last year …
“All this suggests the Church is rediscovering itself as an evangelical mission in the world and wherever the Church is lively throughout the world, it is because of that missionary evangelical fervour.”
So what are the “least positive things” happening in the Church at the moment?
“It’s not easy to answer because there are so many problems,” Prof Weigel said.
“(Authorities) have to address once and for all the question of abusive clergy and the effects of this terrible crime and sin on young people.
“In addressing that you’ve also got to address the problem of failed bishops who ought to have dealt with these problems and haven’t.
“I wrote a whole book on this almost 10 years ago called ‘The Courage to be Catholic‘.
“I think a lot of the agenda of reform I laid out there has been adopted, but you look at a situation like Ireland where faith is in meltdown, where the Church itself is in meltdown and the bishops still don’t get it.
“That’s the point at which bishops need to be replaced.”
Prof Weigel expands his concerns about the future of Western civilisation which includes the impact of political correctness on effective decision-making.
“Unless the West rediscovers its cultural foundations: belief in the God of the Bible, faith in reason, commitment to the rule of law then this civilisational enterprise called the West is going to be in deep trouble,” he said.
“We have to rediscover Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, the God of the Bible, faith in reason, superiority of law to brute force.”
Can Prof Weigel offer examples of problematic political correctness?
“It’s very hard to talk seriously in Europe today about marriage as it is indeed throughout the Western World,” he said.
“The state cannot reinvent marriage – if the state attempts to reinvent marriage it is behaving in a tyrannical fashion and should be told that’s what it’s doing.
“Marriage and the family are human institutions that antedate the state and the state is intended to acknowledge and serve.
“It’s getting very hard to make those arguments without being called an intolerant bigot, but we have to keep presenting them.
“Because if the state can redefine marriage then it can redefine other fundamental human relationships – parent/child, doctor/patient, lawyer/client, priest/penitent and suddenly the state has occupied all that free space where there used to be these institutions of civil society.
“That’s not a prescription for a robust democratic future.”
Prof Weigel’s prescription for a healthy Catholic Church is very clear.
“The Catholic Church is alive throughout the world when it has taken the preaching of the Gospel, witnessing to Christ, celebrating the sacraments, beautifully and with fervour.
“When the Church is sitting back on its heels feeling sorry for itself, being defensive in the face of secular culture, or when it is trying to imitate the failures of liberal Protestantism it isn’t doing so well.
“So there’s no big mystery about how this works – the truth works and Catholic ‘lite’ doesn’t.”
Prof Weigel is sure the Catholic Church of the 22nd Century will look vastly different to today.
“For example it will be significantly African – that’s where the greatest growth is occurring,” he said.
Another of his certainties is the Catholic Church is here to stay.
“The notion that the Church would fade into mists of late modernity as a kind of odd lifestyle is just not happening.
“What is happening is a revival of evangelical Catholicism committed to the preaching of the Gospel, one persuaded it has a pretty good package to give the world at this moment of its needs.”
Sometime in the next two years, the professor will publish a book on this theme, with the planned title “Evangelical Catholicism – Deep Reform in the Church“, but that’s a story for another time in the life of a busy and dedicated supporter of the mission that is the Catholic Church.