To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II – By George Weigel (October 4, 2022, 296 pages, Basic Books, New York)

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  Matthew 16:18 (NRSVCE)


I feature video clips of Michael Novak at top and below filmed on January 13, 2014, because that’s the day I met George Weigel, totally by coincidence. Mr. Novak and Mr. Weigel were close friends, both Catholic insiders of the highest order. They had agreed to have lunch at the University Club in Washington, D.C. after our interview, and Mr. Novak was kind enough to introduce me to Mr. Weigel before they enjoyed a private lunch together.

While they lunched, we packed up the video equipment and scooted back to Richmond, Virginia, a two-hour drive southward.

I had become interested in Mr. Novak because of his book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), and was only vaguely familiar with Mr. Weigel. I did know that Mr. Novak had attended Vatican II as a young layman, and it had greatly influenced him. Since January 13, 2014, I’ve read seven of Mr. Weigel’s books and will be reading them for the duration of my life.

Today, George Weigel is publishing his newest book, To Sanctify the World. I much appreciate receiving an advance copy. Mr. Weigel has agreed to a future Praxis Circle interview.

Who is George Weigel? For those who don’t know, he is among the most distinguished and respected Catholic laymen in the world. He is John Paul II’s biographer and currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) in Washington, DC. He gave up his position as President of the EPPC in 1996 to write the pope’s biography in two volumes. That pope embraced the idea and placed his full confidence in George. Over several years he gave Mr. Weigel full access to the Vatican’s resources, the Roman Curia, and the most important thoughts, memories, persons, and places of his life.

Since then, Mr. Weigel has devoted his life to the Church and to John Paul II’s work. Karol Wojtyla played a vital role in Vatican II before becoming Pope John Paul II, along with Joseph Ratzinger, who followed JP II as Pope Benedict XVI.

Mr. Weigel regards his life as an example of the radical grace of God – how could a Catholic parochial kid from Baltimore, who loved the Orioles and Colts during their glory years and eventually a bourbon and water every now and again as an adult, become a close confidant of many of the most influential religious figures of our day on the international stage? Such a phenomenon is always a function of serendipity in combination with good Catholic-style focus, raw ability, and intense discipline. Today, Mr. Weigel is one whom all Catholics, particularly its Cardinals and priests, stop immediately and listen to when he has something to say.

Well, on Saturday, Mr. Weigel offered his own overview of his new book in the Wall Street Journal linked here. Please read that to see if you want to know more. To purchase the book, we offer the link to Amazon at top under the book title.

Certainly, even though having carefully read his last seven books, I am not qualified as an average American and Protestant layman to write a book review outlining “strengths and weaknesses.” I will only say that it’s easily readable and a delightful walk through Western theology, philosophy, and history with a focus squarely on the worst ills the West faces today.

Vatican II was the brainchild of Pope John XXIII, and, after his death, it was completed under the skilled leadership of Pope Paul VI. In To Sanctify the World, Mr. Weigel simplifies and explains Vatican II’s sixteen formal documents, along with their further, critical development under Popes John Paul and Benedict. Vatican II was the Church’s all hands effort to reposition itself for the times and the future. It called on all Catholic constituencies and engaged its friends ecumenically in unprecedented ways.

“If the teaching of Vatican II could be summed up in a single sentence, it would be this: Christ is the center – of history, of the cosmos, and of the quest for an authentic humanism that centers human community in freedom and solidarity.” (page 291) In the words of John XXIII himself, the precise definition of Vatican II’s reason to be: “Of fundamental importance . . . ‘Go teach all nations . . .’ The purpose of the Council is, therefore, evangelization.” (page 102) See the Great Commission Matthew 28:19.

With little to add other than to convey a sense of admiration for scholarship, I do want to comment as a Protestant in the form of five questions:

  • With Christianity today being the religion of approximately one third of the world’s population and approximately one third larger than its next closest rival (Islam), how important is Christian belief?
  • With Catholicism constituting approximately half of all Christians (the other Christian categories being Protestant and Orthodox) and being many multiples larger and diverse than any other Christian church, how important is Catholic belief when it varies today theologically only in the margin from the rest and, even then, primarily on organizational matters only?
  • Based on its own historical record, if the Catholic Church only holds a council like Vatican II once every 500 years (the last one being the Council of Trent in the mid-1500’s), how important should Vatican II (in four sessions 1962 – 1965) be to the future of the Church, Christianity, and the world?
  • If the Pope only calls such councils in modern times when the world is terribly at odds with itself, like after a schism causing the end of formal Christendom (the Reformation) or after two consecutive World Wars (I and II), and when internal Western strife between theists and atheists feels to be at an all time high for those living, how important would the Catholic Church’s strategy for at least the 21st Century be to Americans, Westerners, and all Christians?
  • If since inception in the early First Century the Catholic Church has remained utterly devoted to the truth, which does not change, but applies it differently as human knowledge and circumstance grows and changes . . . and if you believe in truth yourself and perhaps that is among life’s most worthy goals . . . how important could To Sanctify the World be to you?

Vatican II set itself against murder, tyranny, lies, immorality, the destruction of families, relativism, the ultramundane world, humanity’s Promethean self-deification, and Communism. And most important, against Satan. Vatican II emphatically underscores that God is real and true and embraces the Creator God rather than the Man God line of human history. It anticipated the racist, Marxist postmodernism we see in identity politics and critical theory today that’s tearing America and much of the West apart. It offers Christian freedom, family, moral discipline, community, and solidarity. It offers the answers we need: Truth.

The Catholic Church’s magisterium constitutes its authority and the vast body of written work outside Scripture, though based primarily on Scripture. Christian churches have moved much closer in the last 200 years.

Catholic Social Doctrine began formulation in the late 1800’s in response to the problems of modernity and the Industrial Revolution. It was expanded during Vatican II and then defined within Vatican II’s parameters during the tenures of Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict. It offers a comprehensive theological, philosophical, anthropological, social, political, and economic model based on Scripture applied to the immense laboratory of human history. To my knowledge, nothing like Catholic Social Doctrine exists today in the Protestant world with the same currency, yet differences in orthodoxy are few.

Vatican II’s ecumenism is humble and real. It is other-focused seeking only to present each human being with a real experience with Christ in a New Pentecost. “‘Many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside’ the ‘visible confines’ of Catholicism, and these are spiritual gifts belonging to the one Church of Christ.” (page 142) “In sum: There is one Church of Christ, and the fractures within it cannot be blamed on any one party.” (page 228) Clearly, “in treating the Church’s relationship to Hinduism, Buddhism, and ‘other’ faiths, [Vatican II] taught that that ‘the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.'” (page 232)

The implication for America today is this (though my description repeats itself): While America came of age in the 1800’s as a Protestant nation, now it’s a Catholic Pentecostal nation following no less than universal aspirations. Christians churches can and must unite today worldwide.

Vatican II changed the Catholic Church from an emphasis on Latin to today’s vernacular. So, in an effort to comply, let me say in a clear, maybe Southern vernacular what the Catholic Church, in my own opinion, is doing for the West now: “Without the Roman Catholic Church, the West today would be toast.” It is the remnant, the rock now having all Christians’ backs. Without it, we might very well crumble. Only truth and its organizational strength and focus make this possible. The Radical Left knows this, and that’s why Catholics in the decadent West everywhere experience withering attack.

George Weigel’s work is bringing all of this Good News to the world, and all Christians should take note. It’s high time for Christians to work together with the same purpose. The gates of Hell have not and will not prevail against us.

In one of his earlier books Mr. Weigel describes his last meeting with Pope John Paul II in Rome in December 2004. At the end of a private dinner, Mr. Weigel walked around to the pope’s side of the table, and said, “Holy Father, I promise you that, if you don’t bury me, I’ll finish what I started.” Mr. Weigel concludes the chapter: “I kissed his ring (for the first time, I think); and then we parted, for what turned out to be the last time.” (Lessons in Hope, page 305)

I suspect that with all of the books Mr. Weigel has written since then and with To Sanctify the World, in particular, Pope John Paul II is earnestly smiling somewhere in heaven with the Vatican II popes, as well as Benedict and Michael Novak nearby, looking down and quoting the Bible:

“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”  Matthew 25:21 (NRSVCE)

Clearly, God has given Mr. Weigel the time to fulfill his pledge, and he has done so by any measure. While nowhere near satisfied in his own mind, we’re quite sure, he has completed the minimum distance of St. Paul’s race in faith as a writer.

I end with one last video clip below from one of my own days of grace, because it offers a sense for the miracles Vatican II directly accomplished after 1965 through the Holy Spirit, as Mr. Weigel has extensively documented in other works, as well as a foretaste of what is to come for our true, good, and beautiful World of Hope in the 21st Century and beyond. With good, new Christian thinking and actions, the Freedom Pope guarantees it. Quite seriously: Saints be praised.

We who remember Vatican II as children in the stirring news and under the leadership of the Greatest Generation have been witnesses.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims as leading monotheists, with all of humanity, should have no fear and “put out into the deep” together (Luke 5:4 and John Paul’s metaphor for the Catholic Church in the third millennium) in the Spirit of Vatican II. With God’s help and George’s handiwork, we will.



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