George Weigel

Praxis Circle Contributor George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, New York Times bestselling author, and world-leading Catholic theologian. Praxis Circle interviewed Mr. Weigel because he is among the most influential spokespersons for Christian orthodoxy and Western freedom in the world. His knowledge of and personal experience with the history, doctrines, and authorities of the Catholic Church, the world's largest religion, are perhaps without parallel. He has much wisdom to offer concerning Christian worldview and the challenges it faces today.

What shaped your worldview growing up? 

George Weigel:

I think my view of the world was shaped when I was a boy and an adolescent by growing up in an intact Catholic culture in urban and suburban Baltimore in the late ’50s and ’60s. It was shaped by an intense interest in politics that I think began really with the ‘64 presidential elections, but this was a moment in US Catholic history when the faith was still presented as a coherent A to Z view of the world that ought to shape everything. And I think it’s that intact Catholic culture that had the most to do with shaping how I perceive things and think about them and try to deal with them.

What has being a sports fan taught you?

George Weigel:

It taught me how to suffer. I mean, until the mid ’60s, the Orioles were not much to talk about. Colts were a different matter, but the Colts could never quite put together strings of excellence the way the Green Bay Packers did. And I still think the Packers stole that ’65 playoff game where Don Chandler shanked a field gold, and I said that to a lawyer’s group in Green Bay several years ago, and they all shouted me down. Sports teaches you how to both enjoy excellence, and how to suffer, because you’re just not going to win all the time. And how to roll with the punches in life was an important life lesson. Putting up with the national media’s intense focus on New York was aggravating, but taught you something about how journalism works.

And then there were genuinely heroic figures in those days. Brooks Robinson was not only the greatest third baseman in history from a fielding point of view, he was a thoroughly decent human being and still is today in his late 80s or early 90s. That was an impressive example to say. These were working class, middle-class guys who were part of the community, and who were not saying, look at me, look at me, look me all the time. That was a good lesson.

Who influenced you in your graduate and professional years? 

George Weigel:

Well, I was very fortunate in the nine years I lived in Seattle to work with a fine editor and publisher by the name of David Brewster in what were the glory days of alternative newspapers in the United States, most famous of which of course was The Village Voice, but there were lots of these things all over the place in Boston, Phoenix, I forget what the name of the one was in New Orleans, and then there was The Seattle Weekly, which was founded and edited by this fellow named David Brewster. He was an ex-academic. He had done PhD studies in English at Yale, had gone to Seattle to teach English literature, but eventually moved into journalism, both print and television, and founded this alternative newspaper, which among other things, produced one of the most successful spy novelists of our time, Alan Furst. Alan was our football writer.

It produced a congressman, John Miller, with whom I was the baseball writer, as well as the religion writer and the foreign policy writer. It was quite a little breeding ground for offbeat writers who were doing other things, but wanted to contribute to the life of the community through journalism. It helped that Seattle had and still has really bad newspapers. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times were really bad newspapers. So, if you wanted lively stuff, you went to The Seattle Weekly. And that was incredibly important for me, because I came out of graduate school with all the usual bad writing habits, and it was David Brewster, who remains a friend to this day, he’s now in his late 80s, who hammered me into being a writer that people could actually read.

Have you ever had a crisis of faith?

George Weigel:

I really have not had a crisis of faith. There have been moments in my life, when my brilliant cancer doctor, son-in-law died of cancer, when most recently one of my oldest friends, Cardinal George Pell, with whom I had worked intensely for over three decades, suddenly died, I really do wonder what divine providence is up to. Those have not been moments of a crisis of faith, so much as a crisis of challenge to conform your life to the divine will. We were talking about Seattle. Now, it was dealing with the increasingly irrational, intolerant, left word politics of Seattle that turned me into what is conventionally called a neo-conservative.

I mean, I thought and wrote my way into Catholic neo-conservatism over against this increasingly, it seemed to me, mindless progressivism that has really made a terrible mess out of both Seattle and Portland, Oregon over the past 10 years. I sort of smelled that coming in the mid ’80s, which was why it was time to get out of Dodge and come back east, but in a sense, I’m grateful for that experience, because I think you only really know what you think and what you believe if you try to explain it to others, either in teaching or writing.

How did you come to know Pope John Paul II? 

George Weigel:

I began writing about John Paul II in the Seattle Weekly of all places within four or five months of his election. I found him a fascinating human personality. I thought his first Encyclical, Redemptor hominis, The Redeemer of Man, which was the first papal encyclical to articulate a full-blown Christian anthropology, a Christian view of the human person, was really exciting and was getting at some of the most urgent problems at the time. So I continued writing about the Pope in a variety of venues, some of them in Seattle, some of them national, throughout the 1980s. He had a pretty good intelligence network, and I think came to the view that I was one of the people who were interpreting him in the United States along with Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, in a way that he thought was accurate, and we could explain him to an American audience in a way that made sense to that audience.

So, when we come to the early ’90s and I decide to write a book, which eventually was called The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, on how the church and the Pope had shaped the events in 1989 to 1991 in Central and Eastern Europe, he had a pretty good sense of who I was. And our first serious conversation came when I presented him with a copy of that book, which he had already read in page proof through the intercession of a mutual friend of theirs. And I think he liked the book, not because I had made him the hero, that would’ve been out of character, but because I explained how a transformation of culture had led to a transformation of politics. And that was his view of how history really worked.

What inspired you to write “Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II”?

George Weigel:

So, the conversation intensified in the years after that, and then in 1995, a truly dreadful biography of John Paul II by a fellow named Tad Szulc came out, and I was reading this to review it, and I’m thinking I can do better than this. So that spring, I pitched the idea of my doing the biography of the Pope to his press spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, in Spanish layman, and in December of that year over dinner in the papal apartment, the Pope made it pretty clear that he thought it would be a good idea if I did this. What’s interesting, I think, is the next step. I wrote him after that dinner and said, “Can I please have a written indication of your will in this matter?”

Because I thought I needed that to sell the project to a publisher. So, he writes back and says, “You’re well prepared to do this. I’ll cooperate as much as I can. Give my best to your wife. Bye-bye.” Two months later, I went to Rome to talk about how we were going to make this work, and I said to him over another dinner, “There are two things necessary to make this work. One is, I have to have access to you, to your associates, and perhaps to some paper that would normally be under a time lock, that I think I need to tell the story the way it needs to be told now. And the second thing is, you can’t see a word of this until I hand you the finished book.” And he just looked across the table to me and he said, “Well, that’s obvious. Let’s talk about something interesting.” That really captures the character of the man.

He had taught his whole life about individual responsibility, personal responsibility. This project was going to be my responsibility. He was not going to look over my shoulder and say, “Do this, don’t do that.” Now, unfortunately that was not the general attitude towards this at higher levels of the Roman curia, so I had to learn how to maneuver in that space over the next three years. But I think him saying, “That’s obvious that I can’t see this until you hand me the finished project,” it tells you just about all you need to know about how he thought of the way people should act and behave.

Doug Monroe:

Absolutely. And I know it’s just a fascinating story. You had to win over the trust. It wasn’t just getting his okay, it was winning over the trust of the key people. And they weren’t going to just hand it to you. You have to earn your trust, and it was clear that that happened. And you formed friendships that no one else will ever have that comes from such an outside point of view, I don’t think.

George Weigel:

What was interesting, if I could just interject at that point, that when I went to Poland numerous times, where I was already reasonably well-known… The book, The Final Revolution, had been translated into Polish. A lot of my articles had appeared in Poland. But when I went to talk to John Poll II’s oldest friends, it really took a while to warm things up, because they had felt so betrayed by other American biographies, by Szulc, by Carl Bernstein. And I said to one of them after the ice had been broken, and we had had a very good conversation… She said, “You are not like the others.” And I said, “The biggest cross I am carrying in this project is my biographical predecessors who all thought of him exclusively through a political optic,” and I was trying to get to the man from the inside, from his spiritual life.

How important is John Paul II to modern history? 

George Weigel:

I think John Paul II is crucially important to not only a history of the Catholic church in the modern world, but to the history of the modern world. He had a distinctive, unique, penetrating insight into the way modernity worked and didn’t work, this rock solid conviction of his that if you get the idea of the human person wrong, if you think of the human person as simply conjures of desires, if you think of the human person as simply material, if there’s no spiritual aspect to life, if there’s no aspiration to a higher consciousness, then you’re going to make a mess of just about everything else: culture, politics, economics, et cetera. That was an enormously important theme to raise up at the end of the 20th century and the turn into the third millennium.

I think his understanding that culture is the driver of history over the long haul was terribly important for a world that had either fallen for the Jacobin fallacy, quest for power drives history; or the Marxist fallacy, history is simply the exhaust fumes of the means of production; or the utilitarian fallacy, if it itches, scratch it, and everything will work out as long as everybody keeps scratching their own itches. He lifted up a higher vision, a truer vision, of the human condition. And by leading a revolution of conscience throughout the 1980s in central and eastern Europe that made the political revolution of 1989 possible, the non-violent political revolution of 1989 possible, he showed a different way forward into the human future. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the 20 years after the Second Vatican Council, arguably the most important event in Catholic history since the 16th century, had been extremely turbulent.

There was beginning to be a lack of doctrinal and moral clarity in the church, disciplinary failures, which led to all sorts of terrible things, including the sexual abuse of young people and adults. John Paul II re-ballasted the Catholic Church over 26 years, working with Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become his papal successor as Benedict XVI. He gave an authoritative interpretation to Vatican II. And if we look at the living parts of the World Church in this third decade of the 21st century, it’s those parts of the church that have embraced John Paul II and Benedict XVI view of Vatican II, of the Evangelical mission of the church. The church is here to bring people to meet the Lord Jesus Christ, and to incorporate them into his body, the church.

Those are the living parts of the World Church. The dying parts of the World Church are those parts that ignored or did not accept that interpretation of the council, and that are still trying to make the project that I’ve called for 20 years Catholic light work. Well, Catholic Light is like Coca-Cola Light. Eventually Catholic Light leads to Catholic Zero. That’s Coke Light led to Coke Zero. You get this Catholicism very visible in Germany today, for example, that is essentially formless. It’s a religion of the zeitgeist. It’s a woke discussion group. It’s a simulacrum of authentic Christianity. So by pointing a different direction in the face of intense cultural pressures, John Paul II, with a strong assist from Joseph Ratzinger, pointed the Catholic Church into a viable future in the 21st century.

Why was the Second Vatican Council important to John Paul II? 

George Weigel:

Well, the Second Vatican Council was important to John Paul II, because as he wrote, it was kind of his second graduate school in theology. I mean, he discovered a whole world of religious thought of which he simply wasn’t aware in any detail before. I think it was important to him for introducing him to the World Church. He was deeply impressed by the African bishops he met at the council, the vitality and freshness of the faith of these men who were living a kind of New Testament experience in the church. And over four years, introduced him to the way business gets done in Rome, which was very useful for him when he would come to Rome in 1978 as the city’s bishop, as the pope. In a broader sphere, against a broader horizon, I think John Paul II understood that the council was addressing the two key dilemmas of late modernity: What is the human person, and what is authentic human community? And it addressed those first by lifting up Jesus Christ as the image of a true and redeemed humanity. To meet Christ is to meet the father of mercies, but it’s also to meet the truth about us.

Jesus introduces us to both God and ourselves. And in the church, in the body of Christ, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, all are one in Christ Jesus. We have a template for authentic human community that ought to be inspiring of other authentic forms of human communities. So, I think he understood that the council had gotten at the two key questions of the moment, which are still the two key questions of this moment and had offered an impressive answer to those two dilemmas.

Why was John Paul II called “The Freedom Pope”? 

George Weigel:

Well, I helped create that, and there were two reasons. I mean, first of all, he was the indispensable figure in what we now know as the Revolutions of ‘89 in central Eastern Europe, the collapse of European communism. Now, that needs some unpacking. European communism would’ve collapsed at some point, because of its inherent implausibility, economically, politically, and whatnot. But if you ask yourself, why did it collapse in 1989 rather than 1999 or 2009 or 2019 or whenever, and if you ask yourself, why did it collapse the way it did? Largely nonviolently, then you have to take account of the revolution of conscience and consciousness, but primarily conscience, revolution of moral conscience. “I will not live the communist culture lie anymore” that John Paul II ignited in Poland in 1979, and that spread throughout the region. You can’t explain ‘89 without that. So, he, in a sense, lit the fire that over 10 years would result in what we know as 1989. So, he was a genuinely liberating figure in a different way than the world was used to liberating figures.

ohn Paul II and a True Understanding of Freedom (

George Weigel:

I think the other reason why he is appropriately called the “Pope of Freedom” is that he had a true understanding of human freedom, and an adult understanding of human freedom. Too much of the world today thinks of freedom as “I did it my way.” Frank Sinatra is the lyricist of freedom. Well, “I did it my way” is a two-year-old’s understanding of freedom. Freedom rightly understood is freely choosing the right thing, the right action, which we can know by both reason, and Christians would say revelation. And doing that is a matter of moral habit. Freedom as I did it my way is like a two-year-old banging on the piano. That’s not music. Freedom for excellence. Freedom rightly understood as an attribute of reason, not simply of will, is like someone who has done all the hard work to learn how to play the piano or the violin, or the guitar, or the clarinet, or whatever properly. Freedom as I did it my way is like a six-month-old babble.

Freedom, rightly understood, is like someone who has learned the rules of grammar and vocabulary, and therefore can communicate in a truly human way. He understood that the world needed a richer, deeper, thicker understanding of freedom than “I did it my way” and spent the last half of his pontificate explaining that.

What was the relationship between John Paul II & Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger?

George Weigel:

I think the team of John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was one of the most remarkable collaborations really in Christian history. Certainly in papal history. These were two very different guys: Paul a [inaudible] athlete and nerd, philosopher and theologian, great public personality, shy academic, someone who fed off of conversation, someone who was happiest by himself with his books and his piano and his cat. Very different human personalities, but each of them a great man who had the humility to recognize in the other something he lacked. John Paul II was a very, very intelligent man, but he understood that Ratzinger had a deeper, broader theological intelligence than he had, Ratzinger recognized in John Paul II a capacity to publicly communicate Christian truth in a way that he just simply wasn’t capable of.

They had a very similar understanding of the Second Vatican Council. They had a very similar understanding of the history of the West and the late 20th century. They could disagree without being disagreeable. And for 23 years, Joseph Ratzinger gave his life to the service of John Paul II. Three times during that period, he asked to be able to retire from Rome and return to Germany, and pick up the threads of his academic life, his scholarly life. Three times the man who was arguably the most important Pope in 500 years said in effect, “I can’t do this without you, or at least I don’t want to do this without you.” And three times Ratzinger agreed to stay. And of course the last time sealed his fate, because it was those last years that persuaded his brother Cardinals that he should be the successor.

Now, I think there are lots of misunderstandings about Ratzinger. I knew him actually longer than I knew John Paul II. I knew him for 33 years, 34 years. And when I last had a long conversation with him, a couple of years ago, he was the man of robust humor, which no one normally thought of him as being, that I had known for three decades. And we had a couple of great laughs together. He had the most luminously clear mind, I think, of anyone I have ever met. John Paul II was not a great prose stylist. That phenomenological method of doing philosophy leads to a kind of circular way of writing, which is really climbing down a spiral staircase. You’re getting deeper each time, but it’s hard to follow. Ratzinger was the only person I have ever met who when you would ask him a question, would pause, think, and then answer in complete paragraphs. Not complete sentences, but complete paragraphs. And his writing was like that. So, that was another complimentary aspect of their collaboration and I think illustrates facets of Ratzinger Benedict the 16th that are often not appreciated sufficiently.

Doug Monroe:

Well, the only thing I’ve read of his are his three books on Jesus. And I will say that, it’s by far, and I haven’t read the John or anything of course, but the best expression of what we’re all looking for when we read the gospels, there’s something you can’t put your finger on. He summed it up so well in story form, and it’s just beautiful, really.

George Weigel:

He understood those three books as the summation of his life’s work. And that’s what he wanted to go back to Germany and write. And that’s what he was determined to get done. Even though he had this new responsibility of being the bishop of Rome, and thank God he did it. People are going to be reading that hundreds of years from now.

What is Catholic social doctrine? The Four Foundational Principles 

George Weigel:

Catholic social doctrine is a, I think, distinctive, perhaps even unique way of thinking about the human condition in its public dimensions: culture, politics, economics, society. Catholic social doctrine, which begins in its formal sense in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII, and his foundational social and cyclical Rerum novarum, and analyzing the new things of the Industrial Revolution, the new democracies, the world after the old regimes of the previous centuries. And continuing through John Paul II, Catholic social doctrine has four foundational principles.

The principle of personalism or what we would call, in more secular vocabulary, the human rights principle. What’s that? All right thinking about society, culture, politics, and economics begins with the inalienable dignity and value of the individual human person. Does not begin with the tribe. Does not begin with the gender group. Does not begin with the political party. Does not begin with the economic class. It begins with the dignity and value of the human person.

Secondly, and immediately complimenting that principle of the common good: I should live my freedom in such a way that it contributes not simply to my aggrandizement, but to the common good of society as a whole. I come to the fullness of my freedom through living it in such a way that it enhances the freedom rightly understood of others.

Third principle, articulated first by Papacy XI in 1931, the principle of subsidiarity, we would call it the principle of civic association or the pluralist principle. This was articulated against totalitarianism, and specifically against Mussolini’s definition of totalitarianism: everything within the state, everything for the state, nothing outside the state. Pius XI said, “No, that’s wrong.” A properly ordered society. You have a state, you have an individual, but then you have all these mediating institutions. You have the family, a natural association, like the family.

You have what we would call today, voluntary associations, church, business, labor union, social groups of all sorts, boy scouts, girl scouts, you name it. And these are essential to the proper functioning of both society and the health of the individual, because it’s in those natural associations and voluntary associations that we learn how to live freedom for the common good. Nobody learns that from the state. You learn that in your family. You learn that in your school. You learn that in your scout troupe. You learn that in your church, or your synagogue, or your mosque. These in between institutions have an integrity that the state is there to protect. It’s not to crush.

And then the fourth principle of Catholic social doctrine, articulated by John Paul II, is the principle of solidarity. There must be, in a properly functioning society, a bond between people that is more than legal, that is moral and cultural. If the only thing I know about you or about me as members of the same society and political community is how we can sue each other, take each other to law when we come into conflict. That’s just not sufficient. It’s the kind of solidarity that you saw expressed on 9/11, when people literally risked their lives, and in some instances, gave their lives for people with whom they had no legal obligation, but they felt a moral obligation. These are people in trouble. These are fellow Americans. We have to help them.

So personalism, common good, subsidiarity, solidarity, the human rights principle, the common good principle, the communitarian principle, the anti-totalitarian principle, and the principle of civic friendship, the civic association and those voluntary associations and natural associations like the family can only thrive if there’s a special kind of friendship going on there. So, that’s the structure of Catholic social doctrine. And the social doctrine asked us to think through questions of public policy through the prism of those four principles.

Does this proposed policy recognize the dignity and value of every human life from conception to natural death? Does it advance the common good, or is it simply scratching somebody else’s back? Does it foster civic association and free associations of individuals? And is it an expression of that civic friendship, which is essential to the proper functioning of society?

The Subsidiarity Principle and Limited Government 

Doug Monroe:

I guess you have to believe that those four principles do have some vector pointing to a limited function of government. Is that accurate?

George Weigel:

Absolutely right. Well, that’s the subsidiarity principle in particular. As I say, it was an anti-totalitarian principle at the point where whether it’s Mussolini’s Italy, or Hitler’s Germany, or the Soviet Union was simply eliminating all of those voluntary association, including the church was radically redefining the family as essentially an instrument of the state. Principles of subsidiarity says, “You cannot have just the state and the individual.” This is a prescription for tyranny, and it’s also a prescription for immature individuals.

Doug Monroe:

Yeah. Yeah, it is. And the subsidiary principle had been taught to me in business for 30 years before I had a name for it. Because it’s basically the principle that you take a decision, every good decision that you need made, push it down as far in the organization as you can possibly push it, that makes your organization much better in every way. Much more efficient, in every way, much more nimble in every-

George Weigel:

It makes people more responsible-

Doug Monroe:

It makes lives better.

George Weigel:

… because they can own the decision.

Doug Monroe:

It makes the world better. And that’s why you can’t ever put Nazism, communism, fascism… they’re not right-ish. They all about big government. So, wherever you put big government, but it’s not about force. It’s the opposite of force.

George Weigel:

When Pius XI articulated the principle subsidiary in that 1931 encyclical, he probably was not thinking about American federalism. But American federalism is a perfect example of the principle of subsidiarity. You do not ask the local police department or fire department to provide for national defense. By the same token, you don’t ask the Pentagon to put out the fires, or to police the neighborhoods. There is a rank ordering of these functions. And as you say, the closer you are to the people most directly affected, the most likely you’re going to be to get good decisions and good governmental functioning. Now, we know that there has been, ever since Woodrow Wilson, a huge battle in the United States over the role of the state in the lives of individuals and communities. And that continues well under the 21st century.

And it’s one of the defining issues of American public life today. And that principle of subsidiary is essential to understanding why, first of all, top-down government rarely works terribly well, and B, why it’s important for the health of local communities and individuals that they be making the decisions that most directly affect their lives, their family’s lives, and their community’s lives.

Doug Monroe:

Yes. And we’re making hopefully a long-term bet in this country and in the West versus China that we’re righting their wrong about that principle is one of the major differences.

Is Catholic social doctrine just orthodox Christianity applied? 

George Weigel:

Well, in some important respects, Catholic social doctrine grows out of Augustine and Aquinas, and Augustine and Aquinas are thinking and writing before the fracture of Western Christianity. So, particularly, these fundamental principles of the person and the common good reflect Christian convictions that really do go back to the fathers of the church and particularly Thomas Aquinas. So, they’re everybody’s patrimony, I think. There are forms of Protestant theological reflection. Abraham Kuyper would come immediately to mind that runs parallel to this. I think this body of thought has been systematized more in the Catholic Church between Leo XIII and John Paul II than perhaps anywhere else. But there are surely points of tangency between Catholic social doctrine, a Kuyperian understanding of the church and the world.

There are Lutheran thinkers who find themselves quite at home in Catholic social doctrine, liberal Protestantism in the main seems to have simply become zeitgeist Christianity, whatever the spirit of the age says is what we believe, and that’s what the lack of a systematized understanding of the church and the world lead you to. Because there are no guardrails, there are no breaks on the train. And when the cultural pressures get as intense as they are today, then it’s the truth of divine revelation and reason that get thrown over the side for the sake of keeping the peace with the culture. And then you have essentially a hollow Christianity in which very few people are interested.

The Truth Will Set You Free 

Doug Monroe:

Yeah, I don’t mind saying they’re just painting themselves into a corner, and I think they’re almost evaporated totally out of the room at this point. So as far as mainline Christianity… This little church that I’m dealing with, that I’m taking a lesson from the left, and not giving up board seats anymore. I’m not running. I’m going to stand and have it out. It’s just got to stop.

George Weigel:

If a Christian community cannot tell you what puts you outside its boundaries, then it has lost any sense of orthodoxy or orthopraxis. And therefore it’s simply feeling good together about the things we feel good together about. But John Paul II, to go back to him for a minute, was once asked if there was this terrible disaster and there were no more Bibles left in the world, what is the one sentence from the Bible that you would want to see preserved? And he immediately said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Very interesting answer.

Doug Monroe:

That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful.

On Michael Novak & Impact of “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” 

George Weigel:

Mike Novak was an incredibly energetic and insightful man. He was a truly creative thinker about many things, philosophy, theology, sports. I never, I’ve spent I don’t know how many, thousands of hours watching sports in my life. I’ve never met anybody who was a more enthusiastic watcher than Mike Novak. I think his creativity showed itself in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in helping people understand that markets are more than mechanisms, that markets involve human beings. There is a cultural prerequisite, moral and cultural prerequisites, to making markets work. And that business can be a truly Christian vocation. In that sense, he was not a libertarian, he was not an economic functionalist. He understood that it took a certain kind of people living certain virtues to make markets work so that the flourishing of the human person, the common good social solidarity were all served.

He also had the courage to break with the notion that was rampant in the mid ’60s, mid ’70s, when Spirit of Democratic Capitalism came, was being gestated, that only socialism, a state centered economy could satisfy the Christian understanding of what a proper economic order was. That had almost become gospel in mainline Protestantism and in many Catholic circles. And it took courage to challenge that. It took courage to challenge that. So Mike was a prophet ahead of his time, took the usual hits the prophets take. I think the impact of that book globally, it was perhaps most felt in Poland during the Marshall Law period of the 1980s, and after that. So there had been this rise of the solidarity movement, which was both a trade union and a political reform movement, and then comes down the hammer of Marshall Law. And everybody’s looking for a path forward. And Spirit of Democratic Capitalism was translated into Polish and published in what we used to call Samizdat, this underground literature and circulated among the solidarity people in Poland throughout the 1980s to… And gave them a vision of the future beyond a libertarian wild west economic environment. And the Marxism, which they knew just didn’t work. And Mike became a real hero in Poland because of that. And I think deeply influenced the transition that Poland made in the early 1990s, which has made it quite successful post-communist economy.

Doug Monroe:

I think why it rang my bell, is although I’m a law MBA type and been an investment banker, I studied Trotsky and Marxism and Trotskyism and new communism, cold read everything Trotsky ever wrote. And I was looking for a comprehensive worldview that I believed in and that seemed to capture… And when I interviewed Michael, he said, “I was trying to write my remarks as friends about what was different about us.” And that’s just an aside note.

Centesimus Annus, Human Creativity, and Freedom 

George Weigel:

Well, as the title Centesimus annus, the hundredth-year encyclical, this was the hundredth anniversary of the first social and cyclical Rerum novarum by Leo XIII. What John Paul II came to understand in the process of the development of that encyclical is that the world had changed in dramatic ways over those a hundred years. And one of the crucial, most important changes was that wealth was no longer stuff in the ground, natural resources, whatever, or the ground itself, agricultural. The source of wealth was human creativity applied to stuff.

And of course, the perfect example of this was silicon. I mean, there have been silicon on this planet for billions of years. Silicon was worth nothing until human creativity figured out how to make microchips, and suddenly you’ve got the greatest explosion of wealth in human history. He understood that. And so in a sense, he dematerialized Catholic social doctrine, which had tended to think of wealth in materialistic terms. Who owns the iron ore? What’s making of steel? Who owns the agricultural land?

If wealth is stuff and as the old saw has it, God isn’t making real estate anymore, there’s a fixed pie, then the moral question is fairly obvious. How do you equitably divide up the pie? If wealth is generated by human creativity so that it’s an expanding pie, then the moral question shifts. The primary moral question shifts from slicing up the fixed pie to getting people into the process of expanding wealth, the empowerment of individuals through education opportunity, the formation of the habits that allow you to enter circles of production and exchange so that you help create wealth and you become better off yourself. He understood all that in a way that a lot of people who imagine they’re doing Catholic social doctrine 40 years after Centesimus annus still don’t understand.

And that was a fundamental shift. Now a lot more stuff in Centesimus annus than economic theory. He nailed down the point that the fundamental problem of communism was anthropological, that it misread the human person by denying the reality of God. If you don’t get God right, you’re not going to get human beings, and if you’ll get human beings right, you’re going to get society, economics, culture and politics wrong. So nailing down that point that the fundamental problem of communism and why it was going to collapse at some point was its failure to grasp the spiritual character of the human person, was very important. Also, in Centesimus annus that John Paul II begins to challenge this notion of freedom as I did it my way and lift up a no blur view of freedom as freely choosing the right thing as a matter of moral habit. And that was a real challenge to the dominant notions of freedom in the western world at that time, or indeed in our time. So there’s a lot in that document that still bears reading. Let’s see, ’91, 2001, 2011, 2021 many decades later. And read it on its own. I mean, don’t read it through filters of people pushing political agendas in reading.

Drafting of Centesimus Annus 

Doug Monroe:

It definitely combines theology and practical economics, social economics, social political economics, almost within the same sentence, sentence after sentence. It must have taken many drafts to get there.

George Weigel:

Well, this is interesting, and I’ve described this in the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope. I mean, the way these things work is that the Pope was presented with a draft from the appropriate office in the Roman Curia, and he shared it with a friend of his who said, “This is just not the way the world works anymore. We are in a whole different kind of economic reality, and the encyclical needs to reflect that. Moreover, the encyclical needs more of you in it in terms of your understanding of culture, driving politics, true meaning of freedom, why Marxism failed.” So essentially the original draft was thrown out, and a new draft was prepared and then refined. And that made it to me and many others, a very exciting breakthrough into the future of Catholic social doctrine.

What is your book “The Irony of Modern Catholic History” about? 

George Weigel:

What The Irony of Modern Catholic History is is really twofold. A lot of political modernity, beginning with the French Revolution and continuing through the German [inaudible], the Italian Risorgimento, all sorts of other secular, highly secular movements, saw the Catholic Church as the fundamental enemy, institutional enemy of human freedom and a democratic way of ordering life. And it tried to kill the church and killed a lot of people in the process. The second… But it turns out that unless you have a truly Catholic or Christian understanding of the nature of freedom, freedom is not mere willfulness, but freedom is doing the right thing for the right reason, freely choosing that as a matter of moral habit. Your free society is going to self-destruct, and if you don’t have any moral reference points to be agreed upon, then when your freedom as willfulness comes into conflict with my freedom as willfulness, what settles the argument? Do you impose your power on me or I impose my power on you? That’s a prescription for tyranny. So that’s the first irony. Modernity needed what we now call Catholic social doctrine in order to realize its aspirations to freedom and prosperity.

The second irony is that the Catholic Church, and particularly the papacy whose original reaction to modernity was analogous to Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign, “Just say no.” No to modern political life, no to modern cultural and intellectual life, et cetera, et cetera, was compelled by this confrontation with modernity in all of its forms to re-examine its own self-understanding and to rediscover itself as fundamentally an evangelical movement in history for the conversion of the world, not as a previous ecclesiology or theology of the church had it. The church is the perfect society, over against all this worldly stuff.

Now the church is fundamentally the body of Christ in the world to convert the world through an encounter with the incarnate Son of God. And out of that will come a human future that is worth living and that satisfies those modern aspirations to freedom and prosperity. So, there’s irony in both directions, and I tried to explain that in the book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History.

Can humanism, nationalism, and universalism co-exist? 

George Weigel:

Well, a lot of that, of course, depends on your definitions of those terms. What John Paul II would mean by an “authentic humanism” is one that begins with the inalienable dignity and value of the human person which each of us possesses by the very fact of our existence, not as a gift from the state. And further, a humanism that finds its most fulfilled expression, in Christian humanism. Because it’s in Christ that we meet both the truth about our humanity and its glorious destiny because the risen Lord is the revelation of our destiny. So we meet the truth about us and the truth about God.

Nationalism is a troubled subject for hundreds of views. In his last book, Memory and Identity, John Paul II, distinguished between narrow nationalism, which seeks only the good of my gang, and what he called patriotism, the proper patriotism, which was gratitude for what is distinctive about one’s own patrimony, a reverence for what has brought that patrimony into existence over time, and a willingness to see that others have patrimonies that might be complimentary about which they feel deeply. So a broad patriotism, if you will. I’m not sure what universalism means beyond a sense that all human beings are possessed of an innate dignity and value, and that a nation which looks out only for itself is going to get in trouble because the world is inevitably interconnected, even at the biological or epidemiological level. I mean, we just went through two really nasty years that should have reminded people that there is no isolationism. I also think John Paul II, who had a deep regard for the United States would say to today’s isolationists, “You are not living up to the promise of America.” America means something for the world, and for America to withdraw from the world is to let all sorts of bad forces have a freer rein that they might otherwise not have. Now, that doesn’t solve every problem of foreign policy or intervene here versus intervene there, but I am absolutely confident that John Paul II would support a robust American support of Ukraine against this brutal Russian invasion over the past year.

John Paul II, Nationalism, and Pluralism 

Doug Monroe:

You and I were brought up at a time right after World War II, and World War I prior to that. We knew a lot of World War I vets and America was good. No one really… Very few questioned that. There were some people, but they were quiet. So, culture was different. And then more recently, you’ve had nationalism associated with Donald Trump, and so that has all kinds of bad baggage and populism. One of the things I got out of the books you asked me to read on the Pope was, for him, Polish nationalism was extremely important, and it was nothing on the right. It had nothing to do with the… It was really a revolutionary thing. It was something that was liberating. It was what communism may have been to Trotsky and Lenin. It was something that empowered it, and so it had a whole… He always had much, I felt like, a little bit more passion for nationalism, if it’s the right kind of nationalism. That’s the key thing, right?

George Weigel:

John Paul II was a true son of his father, who was a military man in the Habsburg Empire. He was also deeply read in Polish history and particularly fond of what is referred to the Jagiellonian period in Polish history in the High Middle Ages and a bit later. When what was called the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth was the second largest state in Europe, and it included Poles and Lithuanians. It included Catholics and Jews and non-believers. There were no wars of religion in Poland after the Reformation. As the Reformation was tearing Europe apart, the King of Poland at the time said, “I am not the king of your consciences.” It was a country without bonfires, as the historian Norman Davies puts it.

So, he inherited from that history, mediated through his father’s views of what Poland in the 1920s should be, a genuinely pluralistic society in which there was ample civil space for Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews, Lithuanians, whatever. He inherited this rather ample view of a genuinely pluralistic Poland. That wasn’t the only view of Poland, and it still isn’t today. But that’s not unlike the United States where we’ve been wrestling with the problems of authentic pluralism, really, from the time of the first great post-revolutionary European migrations to this country in the early 19th century.

Where is Orthodox Christianity today? 

George Weigel:

I think that there is an iron law of Christianity and modernity, I would call it, according to which law, Christian communities that maintain a sense of their doctrinal and moral identity and boundaries can not only survive, but flourish under the cultural pressures of late modernity and postmodernity. Whereas Christian communities that have lost a sense of their doctrinal and moral integrity identity, and thus boundaries, wither and die. I don’t know of any exception to that rule, if you survey the entire Christian world.

One of the most interesting things to me in world Catholicism today is the fantastic growth of the church over the last two generations in sub-Saharan Africa, where by the middle of the 21st century, there may well be as many as 400 million Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa. These people are living a New Testament experience of the church. They experience the gospel as liberating from all sorts of things. Ancient tribal customs that made women into chattels, a spirit world that was very hostile and manipulative, gospel comes as real liberation into that kind of an environment. African Catholicism is going to produce many great Catholic leaders in the 21st century. In fact, it already has.

I think the same thing is true if you look at Catholicism in the United States. Very few people talk about this, but we are living in a kind of golden age of Catholic campus ministry in the United States. I don’t mean just on Catholic colleges and universities. I mean on state universities, in the Ivy League, in the heart of the woke world, there is vibrant Catholic life through campus ministries, through the fellowship of Catholic university students, focused young people who go as missionaries to college campuses. What my friends here in Washington at the Dominican House of Studies, called the Thomistic Institute, which brings high-end Catholic intellectual life to now over 120 campuses around the country. They began with the wokest and most prestigious universities where suddenly, hey, people are interested in something serious, not in political correct sandbox stuff.

This is all this dynamic orthodoxy of John Paul II and Benedict the XVI. It is not Catholic Light. Catholic Light is going nowhere. But that’s true of Christianity Light too. We talked about the tragedy of mainline, oldline, sideline, liberal Protestantism, which is dying all over the world, and particularly in the US, and the vibrancy of the evangelical world where there is a sense of distinctive Christian identity and moral… what makes for righteous living. It’s an ongoing struggle. The cultural headwinds are pretty severe right now for all Christian Orthodox communities, Orthodox Christian communities. But the product, if you will, that seems to sell, that seems to attract, is the gospel in full. It’s not the gospel reconfigured to meet the passions of the New York Times editorial board. That’s going nowhere.

 How does the Catholic Church maintain its various religious orders? 

George Weigel:

Well, there are limits to “big tentism” in the Catholic Church, and John Paul II and Benedict XVI knew where the outer boundaries were. But I think the fundamental glue that holds the Catholic Church together is the papacy. But the Pope has to understand that he is the center of that unity. Pope is not there to start arguments. Pope is there to be the reference point around which arguments are settled. When the Pope does not understand that, when the Pope signals in whatever ways may be distorted by media, that really anything goes, he is not acting out of a proper understanding in the nature of the office of Peter in the church. And this is going to be a major issue in the election of a successor to Pope Francis, because I think there is concern that he does not quite grasp as firmly as he should, that the papacy is not an office that is intended to start arguments. It’s the reference point around which arguments are settled.

Doug Monroe:

He needs to set the edges of the tent, right? At a minimum.

George Weigel:

That’s the nature of the office. Pope Francis famously said to young people in World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro shortly after he was elected. “Make a mess,” meaning, try all sorts of evangelical initiatives. That’s fine to say to young people or even to your pastors. Try something different and if it doesn’t work, it might be messy, then learn from that and move on. The papacy does not exist to make a mess. Other people can make messes and learn from them, and then the Pope will help them figure out how to move forward. But “make a mess” is not a motto that applies to the office of Peter in the Catholic Church.

What’s the biggest challenge to Christianity? 

George Weigel:

I think the biggest challenge for Christian Orthodoxy in its Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox forms is to figure out how to articulate the yes that is behind every no that we say to the culture of the moment. That task is not made easier by a mass media that is determined to hear only the no and not wrestle with the yes. But when the church says no to X, Y, or Z, it is out of a concern for human flourishing, human happiness, and ultimately human beatitude.

The Magna Carta of the Christian moral life is not the 10 Commandments. It’s the Beatitudes. Christian moral theology begins with the Beatitudes. The Mosaic Law, the Law of Christ, the Law articulated in the New Testament by St. Paul, these are guardrails along the road to Beatitude. While the church has made enormous messes of things over 2000 years, the church also has an awful lot of experience in what makes for human happiness flourishing in Beatitude. That is why, as Benedict XVI would say, and did say many, many times, “The most persuasive demonstrations of the truth of Christian orthodoxy are the saints and the beauty that the church has created.”

Whether that’s Gothic cathedrals, or Mozart’s Ave Verum, or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, or Michelangelo’s Pieta, and the saints of our time. Maximilian Kolbe giving his life for a… Father or Franciscan priest gives his life for a father of a family in Auschwitz. John Paul II, liberator of Central and Eastern Europe. Damien De Veuster, missionary to lepers on the island of Moloka’i in Hawaii. Edith Stein, brilliant philosopher, Catholic convert, Carmelite nun, dead in Auschwitz. The family of Saint Theresa Lisieux, the Little Flower, one of the most popular Catholic saints of the last hundred years, but her parents were just beatified several years ago.

We now have models of all sorts of modes of life. To encounter the saints, to encounter a Mother Teresa, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, is to inevitably raise the question, “How can you live that way? How can you be happy amidst this challenging ascetic life?” That opens the evangelical door, because the answer to that question is, “I can live this way because I’m a friend of Jesus Christ. May I tell you about it?” Then the door is open. So, the saints and beauty are going to, I think, get us to a different cultural place via Christian orthodoxy, probably more than argument. We’ve got all the good arguments. I mean, we really do. The new atheism is so intellectually shallow that it’s embarrassing, but the arguments aren’t winning right now.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of America? 

Doug Monroe:

Yes, it’s definitely the leadership that’s required more than the arguments. I know that Rodney Stark, who I’m a fan of, and I don’t know how he’s doing right now, but he says, “Growth happens in churches, religious organizations, because of discipline.” That’s it. Discipline. That would be the 10 Commandments. But it’s the beauty of the Beatitudes that creates the positive freedom, and that’s why people are here to live, not to avoid doing bad things. Last question for you: How do you think about the next 10 years in the US? Are you optimistic? Pessimistic? Darkest before the dawn? Cultural change?

George Weigel:

I am deeply concerned about the future of the country. Our politics are dominated by people who are getting stature from politics rather than bringing stature to politics. The only way to fix that is for the citizenry to get serious and demand something more than tweets, outrage shows on Fox News, wokeness on CNN from politicians, and say, “Get serious, boys and girls. We’ve got some serious problems to address here.” And they cannot be addressed in 280 characters, or by acting like an ill-disciplined adolescent on television or radio. The citizenry has to demand more from its public officials. It is mind boggling that our choices have been what they are in the last several presidential cycles. That means more serious Christians are going to have to step up and get into the arena.

Overview

George Weigel

Praxis Circle Contributor George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, New York Times bestselling author, and world-leading Catholic theologian. Praxis Circle interviewed Mr. Weigel because he is among the most influential spokespersons for Christian orthodoxy and Western freedom in the world. His knowledge of and personal experience with the history, doctrines, and authorities of the Catholic Church, the world's largest religion, are perhaps without parallel. He has much wisdom to offer concerning Christian worldview and the challenges it faces today.
Transcript

What shaped your worldview growing up? 

George Weigel:

I think my view of the world was shaped when I was a boy and an adolescent by growing up in an intact Catholic culture in urban and suburban Baltimore in the late ’50s and ’60s. It was shaped by an intense interest in politics that I think began really with the ‘64 presidential elections, but this was a moment in US Catholic history when the faith was still presented as a coherent A to Z view of the world that ought to shape everything. And I think it’s that intact Catholic culture that had the most to do with shaping how I perceive things and think about them and try to deal with them.

What has being a sports fan taught you?

George Weigel:

It taught me how to suffer. I mean, until the mid ’60s, the Orioles were not much to talk about. Colts were a different matter, but the Colts could never quite put together strings of excellence the way the Green Bay Packers did. And I still think the Packers stole that ’65 playoff game where Don Chandler shanked a field gold, and I said that to a lawyer’s group in Green Bay several years ago, and they all shouted me down. Sports teaches you how to both enjoy excellence, and how to suffer, because you’re just not going to win all the time. And how to roll with the punches in life was an important life lesson. Putting up with the national media’s intense focus on New York was aggravating, but taught you something about how journalism works.

And then there were genuinely heroic figures in those days. Brooks Robinson was not only the greatest third baseman in history from a fielding point of view, he was a thoroughly decent human being and still is today in his late 80s or early 90s. That was an impressive example to say. These were working class, middle-class guys who were part of the community, and who were not saying, look at me, look at me, look me all the time. That was a good lesson.

Who influenced you in your graduate and professional years? 

George Weigel:

Well, I was very fortunate in the nine years I lived in Seattle to work with a fine editor and publisher by the name of David Brewster in what were the glory days of alternative newspapers in the United States, most famous of which of course was The Village Voice, but there were lots of these things all over the place in Boston, Phoenix, I forget what the name of the one was in New Orleans, and then there was The Seattle Weekly, which was founded and edited by this fellow named David Brewster. He was an ex-academic. He had done PhD studies in English at Yale, had gone to Seattle to teach English literature, but eventually moved into journalism, both print and television, and founded this alternative newspaper, which among other things, produced one of the most successful spy novelists of our time, Alan Furst. Alan was our football writer.

It produced a congressman, John Miller, with whom I was the baseball writer, as well as the religion writer and the foreign policy writer. It was quite a little breeding ground for offbeat writers who were doing other things, but wanted to contribute to the life of the community through journalism. It helped that Seattle had and still has really bad newspapers. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times were really bad newspapers. So, if you wanted lively stuff, you went to The Seattle Weekly. And that was incredibly important for me, because I came out of graduate school with all the usual bad writing habits, and it was David Brewster, who remains a friend to this day, he’s now in his late 80s, who hammered me into being a writer that people could actually read.

Have you ever had a crisis of faith?

George Weigel:

I really have not had a crisis of faith. There have been moments in my life, when my brilliant cancer doctor, son-in-law died of cancer, when most recently one of my oldest friends, Cardinal George Pell, with whom I had worked intensely for over three decades, suddenly died, I really do wonder what divine providence is up to. Those have not been moments of a crisis of faith, so much as a crisis of challenge to conform your life to the divine will. We were talking about Seattle. Now, it was dealing with the increasingly irrational, intolerant, left word politics of Seattle that turned me into what is conventionally called a neo-conservative.

I mean, I thought and wrote my way into Catholic neo-conservatism over against this increasingly, it seemed to me, mindless progressivism that has really made a terrible mess out of both Seattle and Portland, Oregon over the past 10 years. I sort of smelled that coming in the mid ’80s, which was why it was time to get out of Dodge and come back east, but in a sense, I’m grateful for that experience, because I think you only really know what you think and what you believe if you try to explain it to others, either in teaching or writing.

How did you come to know Pope John Paul II? 

George Weigel:

I began writing about John Paul II in the Seattle Weekly of all places within four or five months of his election. I found him a fascinating human personality. I thought his first Encyclical, Redemptor hominis, The Redeemer of Man, which was the first papal encyclical to articulate a full-blown Christian anthropology, a Christian view of the human person, was really exciting and was getting at some of the most urgent problems at the time. So I continued writing about the Pope in a variety of venues, some of them in Seattle, some of them national, throughout the 1980s. He had a pretty good intelligence network, and I think came to the view that I was one of the people who were interpreting him in the United States along with Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, in a way that he thought was accurate, and we could explain him to an American audience in a way that made sense to that audience.

So, when we come to the early ’90s and I decide to write a book, which eventually was called The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, on how the church and the Pope had shaped the events in 1989 to 1991 in Central and Eastern Europe, he had a pretty good sense of who I was. And our first serious conversation came when I presented him with a copy of that book, which he had already read in page proof through the intercession of a mutual friend of theirs. And I think he liked the book, not because I had made him the hero, that would’ve been out of character, but because I explained how a transformation of culture had led to a transformation of politics. And that was his view of how history really worked.

What inspired you to write “Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II”?

George Weigel:

So, the conversation intensified in the years after that, and then in 1995, a truly dreadful biography of John Paul II by a fellow named Tad Szulc came out, and I was reading this to review it, and I’m thinking I can do better than this. So that spring, I pitched the idea of my doing the biography of the Pope to his press spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, in Spanish layman, and in December of that year over dinner in the papal apartment, the Pope made it pretty clear that he thought it would be a good idea if I did this. What’s interesting, I think, is the next step. I wrote him after that dinner and said, “Can I please have a written indication of your will in this matter?”

Because I thought I needed that to sell the project to a publisher. So, he writes back and says, “You’re well prepared to do this. I’ll cooperate as much as I can. Give my best to your wife. Bye-bye.” Two months later, I went to Rome to talk about how we were going to make this work, and I said to him over another dinner, “There are two things necessary to make this work. One is, I have to have access to you, to your associates, and perhaps to some paper that would normally be under a time lock, that I think I need to tell the story the way it needs to be told now. And the second thing is, you can’t see a word of this until I hand you the finished book.” And he just looked across the table to me and he said, “Well, that’s obvious. Let’s talk about something interesting.” That really captures the character of the man.

He had taught his whole life about individual responsibility, personal responsibility. This project was going to be my responsibility. He was not going to look over my shoulder and say, “Do this, don’t do that.” Now, unfortunately that was not the general attitude towards this at higher levels of the Roman curia, so I had to learn how to maneuver in that space over the next three years. But I think him saying, “That’s obvious that I can’t see this until you hand me the finished project,” it tells you just about all you need to know about how he thought of the way people should act and behave.

Doug Monroe:

Absolutely. And I know it’s just a fascinating story. You had to win over the trust. It wasn’t just getting his okay, it was winning over the trust of the key people. And they weren’t going to just hand it to you. You have to earn your trust, and it was clear that that happened. And you formed friendships that no one else will ever have that comes from such an outside point of view, I don’t think.

George Weigel:

What was interesting, if I could just interject at that point, that when I went to Poland numerous times, where I was already reasonably well-known… The book, The Final Revolution, had been translated into Polish. A lot of my articles had appeared in Poland. But when I went to talk to John Poll II’s oldest friends, it really took a while to warm things up, because they had felt so betrayed by other American biographies, by Szulc, by Carl Bernstein. And I said to one of them after the ice had been broken, and we had had a very good conversation… She said, “You are not like the others.” And I said, “The biggest cross I am carrying in this project is my biographical predecessors who all thought of him exclusively through a political optic,” and I was trying to get to the man from the inside, from his spiritual life.

How important is John Paul II to modern history? 

George Weigel:

I think John Paul II is crucially important to not only a history of the Catholic church in the modern world, but to the history of the modern world. He had a distinctive, unique, penetrating insight into the way modernity worked and didn’t work, this rock solid conviction of his that if you get the idea of the human person wrong, if you think of the human person as simply conjures of desires, if you think of the human person as simply material, if there’s no spiritual aspect to life, if there’s no aspiration to a higher consciousness, then you’re going to make a mess of just about everything else: culture, politics, economics, et cetera. That was an enormously important theme to raise up at the end of the 20th century and the turn into the third millennium.

I think his understanding that culture is the driver of history over the long haul was terribly important for a world that had either fallen for the Jacobin fallacy, quest for power drives history; or the Marxist fallacy, history is simply the exhaust fumes of the means of production; or the utilitarian fallacy, if it itches, scratch it, and everything will work out as long as everybody keeps scratching their own itches. He lifted up a higher vision, a truer vision, of the human condition. And by leading a revolution of conscience throughout the 1980s in central and eastern Europe that made the political revolution of 1989 possible, the non-violent political revolution of 1989 possible, he showed a different way forward into the human future. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the 20 years after the Second Vatican Council, arguably the most important event in Catholic history since the 16th century, had been extremely turbulent.

There was beginning to be a lack of doctrinal and moral clarity in the church, disciplinary failures, which led to all sorts of terrible things, including the sexual abuse of young people and adults. John Paul II re-ballasted the Catholic Church over 26 years, working with Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become his papal successor as Benedict XVI. He gave an authoritative interpretation to Vatican II. And if we look at the living parts of the World Church in this third decade of the 21st century, it’s those parts of the church that have embraced John Paul II and Benedict XVI view of Vatican II, of the Evangelical mission of the church. The church is here to bring people to meet the Lord Jesus Christ, and to incorporate them into his body, the church.

Those are the living parts of the World Church. The dying parts of the World Church are those parts that ignored or did not accept that interpretation of the council, and that are still trying to make the project that I’ve called for 20 years Catholic light work. Well, Catholic Light is like Coca-Cola Light. Eventually Catholic Light leads to Catholic Zero. That’s Coke Light led to Coke Zero. You get this Catholicism very visible in Germany today, for example, that is essentially formless. It’s a religion of the zeitgeist. It’s a woke discussion group. It’s a simulacrum of authentic Christianity. So by pointing a different direction in the face of intense cultural pressures, John Paul II, with a strong assist from Joseph Ratzinger, pointed the Catholic Church into a viable future in the 21st century.

Why was the Second Vatican Council important to John Paul II? 

George Weigel:

Well, the Second Vatican Council was important to John Paul II, because as he wrote, it was kind of his second graduate school in theology. I mean, he discovered a whole world of religious thought of which he simply wasn’t aware in any detail before. I think it was important to him for introducing him to the World Church. He was deeply impressed by the African bishops he met at the council, the vitality and freshness of the faith of these men who were living a kind of New Testament experience in the church. And over four years, introduced him to the way business gets done in Rome, which was very useful for him when he would come to Rome in 1978 as the city’s bishop, as the pope. In a broader sphere, against a broader horizon, I think John Paul II understood that the council was addressing the two key dilemmas of late modernity: What is the human person, and what is authentic human community? And it addressed those first by lifting up Jesus Christ as the image of a true and redeemed humanity. To meet Christ is to meet the father of mercies, but it’s also to meet the truth about us.

Jesus introduces us to both God and ourselves. And in the church, in the body of Christ, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, all are one in Christ Jesus. We have a template for authentic human community that ought to be inspiring of other authentic forms of human communities. So, I think he understood that the council had gotten at the two key questions of the moment, which are still the two key questions of this moment and had offered an impressive answer to those two dilemmas.

Why was John Paul II called “The Freedom Pope”? 

George Weigel:

Well, I helped create that, and there were two reasons. I mean, first of all, he was the indispensable figure in what we now know as the Revolutions of ‘89 in central Eastern Europe, the collapse of European communism. Now, that needs some unpacking. European communism would’ve collapsed at some point, because of its inherent implausibility, economically, politically, and whatnot. But if you ask yourself, why did it collapse in 1989 rather than 1999 or 2009 or 2019 or whenever, and if you ask yourself, why did it collapse the way it did? Largely nonviolently, then you have to take account of the revolution of conscience and consciousness, but primarily conscience, revolution of moral conscience. “I will not live the communist culture lie anymore” that John Paul II ignited in Poland in 1979, and that spread throughout the region. You can’t explain ‘89 without that. So, he, in a sense, lit the fire that over 10 years would result in what we know as 1989. So, he was a genuinely liberating figure in a different way than the world was used to liberating figures.

ohn Paul II and a True Understanding of Freedom (

George Weigel:

I think the other reason why he is appropriately called the “Pope of Freedom” is that he had a true understanding of human freedom, and an adult understanding of human freedom. Too much of the world today thinks of freedom as “I did it my way.” Frank Sinatra is the lyricist of freedom. Well, “I did it my way” is a two-year-old’s understanding of freedom. Freedom rightly understood is freely choosing the right thing, the right action, which we can know by both reason, and Christians would say revelation. And doing that is a matter of moral habit. Freedom as I did it my way is like a two-year-old banging on the piano. That’s not music. Freedom for excellence. Freedom rightly understood as an attribute of reason, not simply of will, is like someone who has done all the hard work to learn how to play the piano or the violin, or the guitar, or the clarinet, or whatever properly. Freedom as I did it my way is like a six-month-old babble.

Freedom, rightly understood, is like someone who has learned the rules of grammar and vocabulary, and therefore can communicate in a truly human way. He understood that the world needed a richer, deeper, thicker understanding of freedom than “I did it my way” and spent the last half of his pontificate explaining that.

What was the relationship between John Paul II & Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger?

George Weigel:

I think the team of John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was one of the most remarkable collaborations really in Christian history. Certainly in papal history. These were two very different guys: Paul a [inaudible] athlete and nerd, philosopher and theologian, great public personality, shy academic, someone who fed off of conversation, someone who was happiest by himself with his books and his piano and his cat. Very different human personalities, but each of them a great man who had the humility to recognize in the other something he lacked. John Paul II was a very, very intelligent man, but he understood that Ratzinger had a deeper, broader theological intelligence than he had, Ratzinger recognized in John Paul II a capacity to publicly communicate Christian truth in a way that he just simply wasn’t capable of.

They had a very similar understanding of the Second Vatican Council. They had a very similar understanding of the history of the West and the late 20th century. They could disagree without being disagreeable. And for 23 years, Joseph Ratzinger gave his life to the service of John Paul II. Three times during that period, he asked to be able to retire from Rome and return to Germany, and pick up the threads of his academic life, his scholarly life. Three times the man who was arguably the most important Pope in 500 years said in effect, “I can’t do this without you, or at least I don’t want to do this without you.” And three times Ratzinger agreed to stay. And of course the last time sealed his fate, because it was those last years that persuaded his brother Cardinals that he should be the successor.

Now, I think there are lots of misunderstandings about Ratzinger. I knew him actually longer than I knew John Paul II. I knew him for 33 years, 34 years. And when I last had a long conversation with him, a couple of years ago, he was the man of robust humor, which no one normally thought of him as being, that I had known for three decades. And we had a couple of great laughs together. He had the most luminously clear mind, I think, of anyone I have ever met. John Paul II was not a great prose stylist. That phenomenological method of doing philosophy leads to a kind of circular way of writing, which is really climbing down a spiral staircase. You’re getting deeper each time, but it’s hard to follow. Ratzinger was the only person I have ever met who when you would ask him a question, would pause, think, and then answer in complete paragraphs. Not complete sentences, but complete paragraphs. And his writing was like that. So, that was another complimentary aspect of their collaboration and I think illustrates facets of Ratzinger Benedict the 16th that are often not appreciated sufficiently.

Doug Monroe:

Well, the only thing I’ve read of his are his three books on Jesus. And I will say that, it’s by far, and I haven’t read the John or anything of course, but the best expression of what we’re all looking for when we read the gospels, there’s something you can’t put your finger on. He summed it up so well in story form, and it’s just beautiful, really.

George Weigel:

He understood those three books as the summation of his life’s work. And that’s what he wanted to go back to Germany and write. And that’s what he was determined to get done. Even though he had this new responsibility of being the bishop of Rome, and thank God he did it. People are going to be reading that hundreds of years from now.

What is Catholic social doctrine? The Four Foundational Principles 

George Weigel:

Catholic social doctrine is a, I think, distinctive, perhaps even unique way of thinking about the human condition in its public dimensions: culture, politics, economics, society. Catholic social doctrine, which begins in its formal sense in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII, and his foundational social and cyclical Rerum novarum, and analyzing the new things of the Industrial Revolution, the new democracies, the world after the old regimes of the previous centuries. And continuing through John Paul II, Catholic social doctrine has four foundational principles.

The principle of personalism or what we would call, in more secular vocabulary, the human rights principle. What’s that? All right thinking about society, culture, politics, and economics begins with the inalienable dignity and value of the individual human person. Does not begin with the tribe. Does not begin with the gender group. Does not begin with the political party. Does not begin with the economic class. It begins with the dignity and value of the human person.

Secondly, and immediately complimenting that principle of the common good: I should live my freedom in such a way that it contributes not simply to my aggrandizement, but to the common good of society as a whole. I come to the fullness of my freedom through living it in such a way that it enhances the freedom rightly understood of others.

Third principle, articulated first by Papacy XI in 1931, the principle of subsidiarity, we would call it the principle of civic association or the pluralist principle. This was articulated against totalitarianism, and specifically against Mussolini’s definition of totalitarianism: everything within the state, everything for the state, nothing outside the state. Pius XI said, “No, that’s wrong.” A properly ordered society. You have a state, you have an individual, but then you have all these mediating institutions. You have the family, a natural association, like the family.

You have what we would call today, voluntary associations, church, business, labor union, social groups of all sorts, boy scouts, girl scouts, you name it. And these are essential to the proper functioning of both society and the health of the individual, because it’s in those natural associations and voluntary associations that we learn how to live freedom for the common good. Nobody learns that from the state. You learn that in your family. You learn that in your school. You learn that in your scout troupe. You learn that in your church, or your synagogue, or your mosque. These in between institutions have an integrity that the state is there to protect. It’s not to crush.

And then the fourth principle of Catholic social doctrine, articulated by John Paul II, is the principle of solidarity. There must be, in a properly functioning society, a bond between people that is more than legal, that is moral and cultural. If the only thing I know about you or about me as members of the same society and political community is how we can sue each other, take each other to law when we come into conflict. That’s just not sufficient. It’s the kind of solidarity that you saw expressed on 9/11, when people literally risked their lives, and in some instances, gave their lives for people with whom they had no legal obligation, but they felt a moral obligation. These are people in trouble. These are fellow Americans. We have to help them.

So personalism, common good, subsidiarity, solidarity, the human rights principle, the common good principle, the communitarian principle, the anti-totalitarian principle, and the principle of civic friendship, the civic association and those voluntary associations and natural associations like the family can only thrive if there’s a special kind of friendship going on there. So, that’s the structure of Catholic social doctrine. And the social doctrine asked us to think through questions of public policy through the prism of those four principles.

Does this proposed policy recognize the dignity and value of every human life from conception to natural death? Does it advance the common good, or is it simply scratching somebody else’s back? Does it foster civic association and free associations of individuals? And is it an expression of that civic friendship, which is essential to the proper functioning of society?

The Subsidiarity Principle and Limited Government 

Doug Monroe:

I guess you have to believe that those four principles do have some vector pointing to a limited function of government. Is that accurate?

George Weigel:

Absolutely right. Well, that’s the subsidiarity principle in particular. As I say, it was an anti-totalitarian principle at the point where whether it’s Mussolini’s Italy, or Hitler’s Germany, or the Soviet Union was simply eliminating all of those voluntary association, including the church was radically redefining the family as essentially an instrument of the state. Principles of subsidiarity says, “You cannot have just the state and the individual.” This is a prescription for tyranny, and it’s also a prescription for immature individuals.

Doug Monroe:

Yeah. Yeah, it is. And the subsidiary principle had been taught to me in business for 30 years before I had a name for it. Because it’s basically the principle that you take a decision, every good decision that you need made, push it down as far in the organization as you can possibly push it, that makes your organization much better in every way. Much more efficient, in every way, much more nimble in every-

George Weigel:

It makes people more responsible-

Doug Monroe:

It makes lives better.

George Weigel:

… because they can own the decision.

Doug Monroe:

It makes the world better. And that’s why you can’t ever put Nazism, communism, fascism… they’re not right-ish. They all about big government. So, wherever you put big government, but it’s not about force. It’s the opposite of force.

George Weigel:

When Pius XI articulated the principle subsidiary in that 1931 encyclical, he probably was not thinking about American federalism. But American federalism is a perfect example of the principle of subsidiarity. You do not ask the local police department or fire department to provide for national defense. By the same token, you don’t ask the Pentagon to put out the fires, or to police the neighborhoods. There is a rank ordering of these functions. And as you say, the closer you are to the people most directly affected, the most likely you’re going to be to get good decisions and good governmental functioning. Now, we know that there has been, ever since Woodrow Wilson, a huge battle in the United States over the role of the state in the lives of individuals and communities. And that continues well under the 21st century.

And it’s one of the defining issues of American public life today. And that principle of subsidiary is essential to understanding why, first of all, top-down government rarely works terribly well, and B, why it’s important for the health of local communities and individuals that they be making the decisions that most directly affect their lives, their family’s lives, and their community’s lives.

Doug Monroe:

Yes. And we’re making hopefully a long-term bet in this country and in the West versus China that we’re righting their wrong about that principle is one of the major differences.

Is Catholic social doctrine just orthodox Christianity applied? 

George Weigel:

Well, in some important respects, Catholic social doctrine grows out of Augustine and Aquinas, and Augustine and Aquinas are thinking and writing before the fracture of Western Christianity. So, particularly, these fundamental principles of the person and the common good reflect Christian convictions that really do go back to the fathers of the church and particularly Thomas Aquinas. So, they’re everybody’s patrimony, I think. There are forms of Protestant theological reflection. Abraham Kuyper would come immediately to mind that runs parallel to this. I think this body of thought has been systematized more in the Catholic Church between Leo XIII and John Paul II than perhaps anywhere else. But there are surely points of tangency between Catholic social doctrine, a Kuyperian understanding of the church and the world.

There are Lutheran thinkers who find themselves quite at home in Catholic social doctrine, liberal Protestantism in the main seems to have simply become zeitgeist Christianity, whatever the spirit of the age says is what we believe, and that’s what the lack of a systematized understanding of the church and the world lead you to. Because there are no guardrails, there are no breaks on the train. And when the cultural pressures get as intense as they are today, then it’s the truth of divine revelation and reason that get thrown over the side for the sake of keeping the peace with the culture. And then you have essentially a hollow Christianity in which very few people are interested.

The Truth Will Set You Free 

Doug Monroe:

Yeah, I don’t mind saying they’re just painting themselves into a corner, and I think they’re almost evaporated totally out of the room at this point. So as far as mainline Christianity… This little church that I’m dealing with, that I’m taking a lesson from the left, and not giving up board seats anymore. I’m not running. I’m going to stand and have it out. It’s just got to stop.

George Weigel:

If a Christian community cannot tell you what puts you outside its boundaries, then it has lost any sense of orthodoxy or orthopraxis. And therefore it’s simply feeling good together about the things we feel good together about. But John Paul II, to go back to him for a minute, was once asked if there was this terrible disaster and there were no more Bibles left in the world, what is the one sentence from the Bible that you would want to see preserved? And he immediately said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Very interesting answer.

Doug Monroe:

That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful.

On Michael Novak & Impact of “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” 

George Weigel:

Mike Novak was an incredibly energetic and insightful man. He was a truly creative thinker about many things, philosophy, theology, sports. I never, I’ve spent I don’t know how many, thousands of hours watching sports in my life. I’ve never met anybody who was a more enthusiastic watcher than Mike Novak. I think his creativity showed itself in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in helping people understand that markets are more than mechanisms, that markets involve human beings. There is a cultural prerequisite, moral and cultural prerequisites, to making markets work. And that business can be a truly Christian vocation. In that sense, he was not a libertarian, he was not an economic functionalist. He understood that it took a certain kind of people living certain virtues to make markets work so that the flourishing of the human person, the common good social solidarity were all served.

He also had the courage to break with the notion that was rampant in the mid ’60s, mid ’70s, when Spirit of Democratic Capitalism came, was being gestated, that only socialism, a state centered economy could satisfy the Christian understanding of what a proper economic order was. That had almost become gospel in mainline Protestantism and in many Catholic circles. And it took courage to challenge that. It took courage to challenge that. So Mike was a prophet ahead of his time, took the usual hits the prophets take. I think the impact of that book globally, it was perhaps most felt in Poland during the Marshall Law period of the 1980s, and after that. So there had been this rise of the solidarity movement, which was both a trade union and a political reform movement, and then comes down the hammer of Marshall Law. And everybody’s looking for a path forward. And Spirit of Democratic Capitalism was translated into Polish and published in what we used to call Samizdat, this underground literature and circulated among the solidarity people in Poland throughout the 1980s to… And gave them a vision of the future beyond a libertarian wild west economic environment. And the Marxism, which they knew just didn’t work. And Mike became a real hero in Poland because of that. And I think deeply influenced the transition that Poland made in the early 1990s, which has made it quite successful post-communist economy.

Doug Monroe:

I think why it rang my bell, is although I’m a law MBA type and been an investment banker, I studied Trotsky and Marxism and Trotskyism and new communism, cold read everything Trotsky ever wrote. And I was looking for a comprehensive worldview that I believed in and that seemed to capture… And when I interviewed Michael, he said, “I was trying to write my remarks as friends about what was different about us.” And that’s just an aside note.

Centesimus Annus, Human Creativity, and Freedom 

George Weigel:

Well, as the title Centesimus annus, the hundredth-year encyclical, this was the hundredth anniversary of the first social and cyclical Rerum novarum by Leo XIII. What John Paul II came to understand in the process of the development of that encyclical is that the world had changed in dramatic ways over those a hundred years. And one of the crucial, most important changes was that wealth was no longer stuff in the ground, natural resources, whatever, or the ground itself, agricultural. The source of wealth was human creativity applied to stuff.

And of course, the perfect example of this was silicon. I mean, there have been silicon on this planet for billions of years. Silicon was worth nothing until human creativity figured out how to make microchips, and suddenly you’ve got the greatest explosion of wealth in human history. He understood that. And so in a sense, he dematerialized Catholic social doctrine, which had tended to think of wealth in materialistic terms. Who owns the iron ore? What’s making of steel? Who owns the agricultural land?

If wealth is stuff and as the old saw has it, God isn’t making real estate anymore, there’s a fixed pie, then the moral question is fairly obvious. How do you equitably divide up the pie? If wealth is generated by human creativity so that it’s an expanding pie, then the moral question shifts. The primary moral question shifts from slicing up the fixed pie to getting people into the process of expanding wealth, the empowerment of individuals through education opportunity, the formation of the habits that allow you to enter circles of production and exchange so that you help create wealth and you become better off yourself. He understood all that in a way that a lot of people who imagine they’re doing Catholic social doctrine 40 years after Centesimus annus still don’t understand.

And that was a fundamental shift. Now a lot more stuff in Centesimus annus than economic theory. He nailed down the point that the fundamental problem of communism was anthropological, that it misread the human person by denying the reality of God. If you don’t get God right, you’re not going to get human beings, and if you’ll get human beings right, you’re going to get society, economics, culture and politics wrong. So nailing down that point that the fundamental problem of communism and why it was going to collapse at some point was its failure to grasp the spiritual character of the human person, was very important. Also, in Centesimus annus that John Paul II begins to challenge this notion of freedom as I did it my way and lift up a no blur view of freedom as freely choosing the right thing as a matter of moral habit. And that was a real challenge to the dominant notions of freedom in the western world at that time, or indeed in our time. So there’s a lot in that document that still bears reading. Let’s see, ’91, 2001, 2011, 2021 many decades later. And read it on its own. I mean, don’t read it through filters of people pushing political agendas in reading.

Drafting of Centesimus Annus 

Doug Monroe:

It definitely combines theology and practical economics, social economics, social political economics, almost within the same sentence, sentence after sentence. It must have taken many drafts to get there.

George Weigel:

Well, this is interesting, and I’ve described this in the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope. I mean, the way these things work is that the Pope was presented with a draft from the appropriate office in the Roman Curia, and he shared it with a friend of his who said, “This is just not the way the world works anymore. We are in a whole different kind of economic reality, and the encyclical needs to reflect that. Moreover, the encyclical needs more of you in it in terms of your understanding of culture, driving politics, true meaning of freedom, why Marxism failed.” So essentially the original draft was thrown out, and a new draft was prepared and then refined. And that made it to me and many others, a very exciting breakthrough into the future of Catholic social doctrine.

What is your book “The Irony of Modern Catholic History” about? 

George Weigel:

What The Irony of Modern Catholic History is is really twofold. A lot of political modernity, beginning with the French Revolution and continuing through the German [inaudible], the Italian Risorgimento, all sorts of other secular, highly secular movements, saw the Catholic Church as the fundamental enemy, institutional enemy of human freedom and a democratic way of ordering life. And it tried to kill the church and killed a lot of people in the process. The second… But it turns out that unless you have a truly Catholic or Christian understanding of the nature of freedom, freedom is not mere willfulness, but freedom is doing the right thing for the right reason, freely choosing that as a matter of moral habit. Your free society is going to self-destruct, and if you don’t have any moral reference points to be agreed upon, then when your freedom as willfulness comes into conflict with my freedom as willfulness, what settles the argument? Do you impose your power on me or I impose my power on you? That’s a prescription for tyranny. So that’s the first irony. Modernity needed what we now call Catholic social doctrine in order to realize its aspirations to freedom and prosperity.

The second irony is that the Catholic Church, and particularly the papacy whose original reaction to modernity was analogous to Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign, “Just say no.” No to modern political life, no to modern cultural and intellectual life, et cetera, et cetera, was compelled by this confrontation with modernity in all of its forms to re-examine its own self-understanding and to rediscover itself as fundamentally an evangelical movement in history for the conversion of the world, not as a previous ecclesiology or theology of the church had it. The church is the perfect society, over against all this worldly stuff.

Now the church is fundamentally the body of Christ in the world to convert the world through an encounter with the incarnate Son of God. And out of that will come a human future that is worth living and that satisfies those modern aspirations to freedom and prosperity. So, there’s irony in both directions, and I tried to explain that in the book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History.

Can humanism, nationalism, and universalism co-exist? 

George Weigel:

Well, a lot of that, of course, depends on your definitions of those terms. What John Paul II would mean by an “authentic humanism” is one that begins with the inalienable dignity and value of the human person which each of us possesses by the very fact of our existence, not as a gift from the state. And further, a humanism that finds its most fulfilled expression, in Christian humanism. Because it’s in Christ that we meet both the truth about our humanity and its glorious destiny because the risen Lord is the revelation of our destiny. So we meet the truth about us and the truth about God.

Nationalism is a troubled subject for hundreds of views. In his last book, Memory and Identity, John Paul II, distinguished between narrow nationalism, which seeks only the good of my gang, and what he called patriotism, the proper patriotism, which was gratitude for what is distinctive about one’s own patrimony, a reverence for what has brought that patrimony into existence over time, and a willingness to see that others have patrimonies that might be complimentary about which they feel deeply. So a broad patriotism, if you will. I’m not sure what universalism means beyond a sense that all human beings are possessed of an innate dignity and value, and that a nation which looks out only for itself is going to get in trouble because the world is inevitably interconnected, even at the biological or epidemiological level. I mean, we just went through two really nasty years that should have reminded people that there is no isolationism. I also think John Paul II, who had a deep regard for the United States would say to today’s isolationists, “You are not living up to the promise of America.” America means something for the world, and for America to withdraw from the world is to let all sorts of bad forces have a freer rein that they might otherwise not have. Now, that doesn’t solve every problem of foreign policy or intervene here versus intervene there, but I am absolutely confident that John Paul II would support a robust American support of Ukraine against this brutal Russian invasion over the past year.

John Paul II, Nationalism, and Pluralism 

Doug Monroe:

You and I were brought up at a time right after World War II, and World War I prior to that. We knew a lot of World War I vets and America was good. No one really… Very few questioned that. There were some people, but they were quiet. So, culture was different. And then more recently, you’ve had nationalism associated with Donald Trump, and so that has all kinds of bad baggage and populism. One of the things I got out of the books you asked me to read on the Pope was, for him, Polish nationalism was extremely important, and it was nothing on the right. It had nothing to do with the… It was really a revolutionary thing. It was something that was liberating. It was what communism may have been to Trotsky and Lenin. It was something that empowered it, and so it had a whole… He always had much, I felt like, a little bit more passion for nationalism, if it’s the right kind of nationalism. That’s the key thing, right?

George Weigel:

John Paul II was a true son of his father, who was a military man in the Habsburg Empire. He was also deeply read in Polish history and particularly fond of what is referred to the Jagiellonian period in Polish history in the High Middle Ages and a bit later. When what was called the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth was the second largest state in Europe, and it included Poles and Lithuanians. It included Catholics and Jews and non-believers. There were no wars of religion in Poland after the Reformation. As the Reformation was tearing Europe apart, the King of Poland at the time said, “I am not the king of your consciences.” It was a country without bonfires, as the historian Norman Davies puts it.

So, he inherited from that history, mediated through his father’s views of what Poland in the 1920s should be, a genuinely pluralistic society in which there was ample civil space for Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews, Lithuanians, whatever. He inherited this rather ample view of a genuinely pluralistic Poland. That wasn’t the only view of Poland, and it still isn’t today. But that’s not unlike the United States where we’ve been wrestling with the problems of authentic pluralism, really, from the time of the first great post-revolutionary European migrations to this country in the early 19th century.

Where is Orthodox Christianity today? 

George Weigel:

I think that there is an iron law of Christianity and modernity, I would call it, according to which law, Christian communities that maintain a sense of their doctrinal and moral identity and boundaries can not only survive, but flourish under the cultural pressures of late modernity and postmodernity. Whereas Christian communities that have lost a sense of their doctrinal and moral integrity identity, and thus boundaries, wither and die. I don’t know of any exception to that rule, if you survey the entire Christian world.

One of the most interesting things to me in world Catholicism today is the fantastic growth of the church over the last two generations in sub-Saharan Africa, where by the middle of the 21st century, there may well be as many as 400 million Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa. These people are living a New Testament experience of the church. They experience the gospel as liberating from all sorts of things. Ancient tribal customs that made women into chattels, a spirit world that was very hostile and manipulative, gospel comes as real liberation into that kind of an environment. African Catholicism is going to produce many great Catholic leaders in the 21st century. In fact, it already has.

I think the same thing is true if you look at Catholicism in the United States. Very few people talk about this, but we are living in a kind of golden age of Catholic campus ministry in the United States. I don’t mean just on Catholic colleges and universities. I mean on state universities, in the Ivy League, in the heart of the woke world, there is vibrant Catholic life through campus ministries, through the fellowship of Catholic university students, focused young people who go as missionaries to college campuses. What my friends here in Washington at the Dominican House of Studies, called the Thomistic Institute, which brings high-end Catholic intellectual life to now over 120 campuses around the country. They began with the wokest and most prestigious universities where suddenly, hey, people are interested in something serious, not in political correct sandbox stuff.

This is all this dynamic orthodoxy of John Paul II and Benedict the XVI. It is not Catholic Light. Catholic Light is going nowhere. But that’s true of Christianity Light too. We talked about the tragedy of mainline, oldline, sideline, liberal Protestantism, which is dying all over the world, and particularly in the US, and the vibrancy of the evangelical world where there is a sense of distinctive Christian identity and moral… what makes for righteous living. It’s an ongoing struggle. The cultural headwinds are pretty severe right now for all Christian Orthodox communities, Orthodox Christian communities. But the product, if you will, that seems to sell, that seems to attract, is the gospel in full. It’s not the gospel reconfigured to meet the passions of the New York Times editorial board. That’s going nowhere.

 How does the Catholic Church maintain its various religious orders? 

George Weigel:

Well, there are limits to “big tentism” in the Catholic Church, and John Paul II and Benedict XVI knew where the outer boundaries were. But I think the fundamental glue that holds the Catholic Church together is the papacy. But the Pope has to understand that he is the center of that unity. Pope is not there to start arguments. Pope is there to be the reference point around which arguments are settled. When the Pope does not understand that, when the Pope signals in whatever ways may be distorted by media, that really anything goes, he is not acting out of a proper understanding in the nature of the office of Peter in the church. And this is going to be a major issue in the election of a successor to Pope Francis, because I think there is concern that he does not quite grasp as firmly as he should, that the papacy is not an office that is intended to start arguments. It’s the reference point around which arguments are settled.

Doug Monroe:

He needs to set the edges of the tent, right? At a minimum.

George Weigel:

That’s the nature of the office. Pope Francis famously said to young people in World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro shortly after he was elected. “Make a mess,” meaning, try all sorts of evangelical initiatives. That’s fine to say to young people or even to your pastors. Try something different and if it doesn’t work, it might be messy, then learn from that and move on. The papacy does not exist to make a mess. Other people can make messes and learn from them, and then the Pope will help them figure out how to move forward. But “make a mess” is not a motto that applies to the office of Peter in the Catholic Church.

What’s the biggest challenge to Christianity? 

George Weigel:

I think the biggest challenge for Christian Orthodoxy in its Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox forms is to figure out how to articulate the yes that is behind every no that we say to the culture of the moment. That task is not made easier by a mass media that is determined to hear only the no and not wrestle with the yes. But when the church says no to X, Y, or Z, it is out of a concern for human flourishing, human happiness, and ultimately human beatitude.

The Magna Carta of the Christian moral life is not the 10 Commandments. It’s the Beatitudes. Christian moral theology begins with the Beatitudes. The Mosaic Law, the Law of Christ, the Law articulated in the New Testament by St. Paul, these are guardrails along the road to Beatitude. While the church has made enormous messes of things over 2000 years, the church also has an awful lot of experience in what makes for human happiness flourishing in Beatitude. That is why, as Benedict XVI would say, and did say many, many times, “The most persuasive demonstrations of the truth of Christian orthodoxy are the saints and the beauty that the church has created.”

Whether that’s Gothic cathedrals, or Mozart’s Ave Verum, or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, or Michelangelo’s Pieta, and the saints of our time. Maximilian Kolbe giving his life for a… Father or Franciscan priest gives his life for a father of a family in Auschwitz. John Paul II, liberator of Central and Eastern Europe. Damien De Veuster, missionary to lepers on the island of Moloka’i in Hawaii. Edith Stein, brilliant philosopher, Catholic convert, Carmelite nun, dead in Auschwitz. The family of Saint Theresa Lisieux, the Little Flower, one of the most popular Catholic saints of the last hundred years, but her parents were just beatified several years ago.

We now have models of all sorts of modes of life. To encounter the saints, to encounter a Mother Teresa, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, is to inevitably raise the question, “How can you live that way? How can you be happy amidst this challenging ascetic life?” That opens the evangelical door, because the answer to that question is, “I can live this way because I’m a friend of Jesus Christ. May I tell you about it?” Then the door is open. So, the saints and beauty are going to, I think, get us to a different cultural place via Christian orthodoxy, probably more than argument. We’ve got all the good arguments. I mean, we really do. The new atheism is so intellectually shallow that it’s embarrassing, but the arguments aren’t winning right now.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of America? 

Doug Monroe:

Yes, it’s definitely the leadership that’s required more than the arguments. I know that Rodney Stark, who I’m a fan of, and I don’t know how he’s doing right now, but he says, “Growth happens in churches, religious organizations, because of discipline.” That’s it. Discipline. That would be the 10 Commandments. But it’s the beauty of the Beatitudes that creates the positive freedom, and that’s why people are here to live, not to avoid doing bad things. Last question for you: How do you think about the next 10 years in the US? Are you optimistic? Pessimistic? Darkest before the dawn? Cultural change?

George Weigel:

I am deeply concerned about the future of the country. Our politics are dominated by people who are getting stature from politics rather than bringing stature to politics. The only way to fix that is for the citizenry to get serious and demand something more than tweets, outrage shows on Fox News, wokeness on CNN from politicians, and say, “Get serious, boys and girls. We’ve got some serious problems to address here.” And they cannot be addressed in 280 characters, or by acting like an ill-disciplined adolescent on television or radio. The citizenry has to demand more from its public officials. It is mind boggling that our choices have been what they are in the last several presidential cycles. That means more serious Christians are going to have to step up and get into the arena.

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