Rome's Cassandra: On George Weigel
The neoconservative leading the fight over the legacy of Vatican II in the American Church.
May 15, 2013 | This article appeared in the June 3, 2013 edition of The Nation.
Tutored by a fierce little platoon of tireless, ambitious and well-connected neoconservative intellectuals, many of the most influential Catholic hierarchs in the United States did everything in their power to obstruct Barack Obama’s first-term agenda. Fevered opposition to Obama was evident at the bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore, one week after the 2008 election, when one bishop after another warned, often in apocalyptic terms, of the grave danger that the new president posed to the nation and to the sanctity of life. First among the bishops’ fears was that Obama would shepherd into law the Freedom of Choice Act, securing the right to abortion by statute and eliminating state and federal restrictions on the procedure.
Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.
By George Weigel.
Obama, a moderate politician with little interest in inflaming the public on the abortion issue, did no such thing. Yet the episcopacy’s fears were not allayed, and in 2010 the relationship between the hierarchy and the administration flared into confrontation. After decades of advocating for universal healthcare, the bishops opposed the president’s Affordable Care Act, alleging that it would open the door to federal funding of elective abortions—a judgment rejected by other anti-abortion Catholic groups, including the Catholic Health Association. Tensions escalated in 2011, when the Department of Health and Human Services determined that free contraception must be included in every healthcare insurance plan. Exemptions were given to certain religious institutions, such as parishes, but not to Catholic universities or hospitals. When the bishops objected vociferously (and rightly, in my opinion), the administration backtracked, proposing an accommodation that spares such institutions direct involvement in the funding of contraceptives while making free contraception available to employees through third parties. Accusing Obama of waging a “war on religion,” the bishops and their allies scoffed at this compromise and proceeded to mount an even more aggressive political and legal campaign of resistance. (In February, the Obama administration issued a revised set of guidelines concerning the accommodation. So far, the bishops and their allies have rejected the proposal.)
In April 2012, as part of its effort to overturn the mandate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” a broadside condemning the contraception mandate and other alleged threats to religious freedom. The document invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight against legal segregation, characterizing the mandate as an “unjust law” that “cannot be obeyed” and calling for a national protest movement to resist “totalitarian incursions against religious liberty.” A number of bishops went further, making it clear that no “faithful” Catholic could vote for Obama. One prelate in Illinois compared the president to Attila the Hun, Hitler and Stalin, a paranoid vision worthy of Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.
This was not a view widely shared by Americans, or ultimately by most American Catholics, who voted to re-elect the president by a margin of 50 to 48 percent. The election results, a triumph for Obama and for pro-choice Democratic Senate candidates, also included the approval of same-sex marriage in three states over the church’s voluble opposition. Mark Silk, a columnist and blogger for Religion News Service, observed that the bishops “got their butts kicked from coast to coast.” Yet they remain obdurate. Many are convinced that the United States is moving inexorably toward a regime of religious intolerance, where those who hold to traditional biblical notions of sexual morality will not only be ostracized but discriminated against and even persecuted by the government. Stirring such fears, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, former president of the USCCB, has warned that while he expects to die in his bed, his successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr.
The Catholic right is rife with aspirational talk of martyrdom at the hands of a secular liberalism run amok. Legal access to abortion remains at the center of what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death” that threatens the moral basis of modern democracy, while the legal recognition of same-sex marriage is seen as an attack on the God-given nature of sexual difference and of the family. Pope Benedict XVI denounced these developments, along with the push for assisted suicide, as the inevitable result of “the dictatorship of relativism.” Having rejected any metaphysical basis for sexual morality, the sanctity of life or the protection of human rights, modern liberal society in this view is destined to pose an ever greater threat to human dignity and freedom.
While the bishops are not wrong in objecting to the government forcing Catholic institutions to provide coverage for what the church has long (if mistakenly) judged immoral, no one in the Obama administration who promotes access to contraception is demanding that Catholics abjure the Apostles’ Creed or acknowledge an earthly authority over that of God. If that were the case, I believe Americans would rally to the bishops’ side. Most Americans, however, including most Catholics, do not appear to see either the Affordable Care Act or same-sex marriage as an existential threat to the church’s freedom.
Such Catholics wonder why the bishops find the trajectory of American culture so ominous—and why they have taken such a confrontational approach to this administration. When Obama was invited to give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in 2009, more than eighty bishops condemned the university. That a duly elected president of the United States should be regarded as a moral monster unworthy of being given a hearing—especially at a school as steeped in American patriotism as Notre Dame—is bizarre. The uproar and the bitter recrimination that followed Obama’s speech revealed how deeply divided and directionless the once formidably cohesive American Catholic Church has become. And if George Weigel’s new book is any indication of where the church’s hierarchy is headed, the divisions promise to grow deeper. Indeed, a good deal of the blame for the bishops’ belligerent public posture can be laid directly on the desk of the author of Evangelical Catholicism.
* * *
Weigel is best-known as the author of Witness to Hope (1999), a bestselling biography of Pope John Paul II. The tome was frankly hagiographic, and Weigel directed much of his considerable energy then and since into promoting what he characterizes as John Paul’s “authoritative interpretation” of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). (Weigel played a prominent role as an expert commentator for NBC during much of the recent papal conclave.) After two centuries of striking a defiant tone of resistance to modernity and liberalism, the church at Vatican II embraced a more conciliatory attitude toward modernity, particularly the idea of democracy. Catholics have been arguing ever since about how accommodating the church should be to democratic values, including when it comes to governing decisions within the church. John Paul’s interpretation, as championed by Weigel, emphasizes obedience to papal authority, suppression of theological dissent, and an unyielding defense of the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church—especially the exclusively male priesthood.
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I'll say it again. I'm not Catholic, and I find much error in the setup of the Catholic Church. There is much error in many other denominations too, but the Catholic Church is so huge and so set in its ways that it refuses to even consider that there are points that should be changed. (Usually, evangelical Churches will oust the false leaders eventually and hold them accountable for their error....)
I can speak to this subject because I have friends and even family members who are Catholic, so I've seen and experienced quite a bit of how this works first-hand.
But I do respect the Catholic Church's stances on the moral issues like Right to Life, traditional marriage, and refusing to let the Government tell them they have to pay for people's contraceptives.
There are some nonCatholic Churches that have fallen in those areas already, and it's very disappointing that they're so easily swayed toward the pit of hell.
You (or the article) is wrong about something too.
Obama sure DID deliberately inflame the public on the abortion issue! Is there anyone in the U.S.A. who still hasn't heard his words in a public speech where he said if his daughters "made a mistake" he wouldn't want them to be "punished with a baby"??
That's not the only issue he has inflamed. His foot-in-mouth-manipulations of unwise and impressionable Americans runs the gamut from babies being a punishment to stirring up racial tension to insulting Christians by his speech (from a Church pulpit, no less!) about how we should all tolerate homosexuality. So I think it's AWESOME that Notre Dame didn't want Obama making a speech there! (I don't remember if he finally did or not......?) That man shouldn't be giving ANYONE any advice on ANY moral issue.......and probably not on any other issue! He is simply an opinionated man who saw a chance to try to be the authority on everything and insert his agenda when he has no business being the authority of anything.
While it's true that many Catholics (from some of the ones I know and have heard) do not adhere to doctrine of the Popes/Bishops..........I find it even more laudable that those leaders DO still stand their ground on those issues.
Ralph, I have never grasped the concept of someone who thinks any and all abortion is murder not taking up arms literally against it. Especially those who feel that way on a spiritual level. I mean what the hell? They pontificate at conferences while within miles another life is taken wrongfully? That is absurd. None of them can be entrusted to watch my 3 year old. They would be chatting while someone killed my son. And then they would decry it and pound fists on pulpits, meanwhile my son is dead because of them. They did this kind of shit with Jesus. Even the danged Apostle Peter denied him 3 times.
So I suppose we need blowhards. I suppose we need those howling at the moon at the injustice of it all. And perhaps it is fine for me to get sick at the sight of these hypocrites, probably good for my digestion and colon.
I am a product of what should have been an abortion. But back then it was really taboo. And when the lady/my bio mom inquired of my adoptive father, her physician about an abortion, he just laughed and said "I will help you with medical care and a stipend" and then I shall adopt the child. What the heck, fairy tales do happen, but reality is stark. And my father was raised through high school in a Jesuit School, but in fact did operate to abort when right.
Romes' Cassandra. Very nice touch.
The politics of the "Church" is just disgusting. It so mimics the Sanhedrin so closely that it is laughable to a Christian with discernment. Everything from the finest robes to the best seats to the taking of funds from widows to judging others to making 5,000 rules, to deciding who and when can be in the temples to courts of judgment to lack of standing for women to a hierarchy where leaders are not last but first to symbols outweighing love, to worshiping other than God to landholding, to the establishment of a state, to sacrifices and heritage of man is Sanhedrin.
So I rail against them, but I love 'em, like I know to do. They need our love more than I do. Or even more than you do Ralph. It is kind of funky, both the Christian and the Humanist for their own reasons must reach out and love these folks, cuz they ain't got none.
I think this era will pass by. I think self proclaimed righteousness is receding or at least being exposed. Not all will be enlightened and that is OK. But those that look rather than yell and feel rather than think and have compassion rather than judgment will be happy.
You did a valid job here, thank you.
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