If I didn't know better, I'd say Pope Francis is making George Weigel nervous

George Weigel's syndicated column is called "The Catholic Difference," presumably because in it Weigel lays out the proper way for Catholics to view the world -- and corrects the errors of those non-Catholics (or inadequately formed Catholics) who keep getting things wrong.

I often find that my view of things does not quite line up with what Weigel insists is the "Catholic" position. For example, the January 15 column, "What Popes Can and Can't Do," features this illustrative anecdote:

At an academic conference years ago, a distinguished Catholic philosopher remarked (perhaps hyperbolically) that “If the pope said that ‘2+2 = 5,’ I’d believe him.” An even more distinguished Catholic philosopher gave the correct, and far more Catholic, response: “If the Holy Father said that ‘2+2 = 5,’ I would say publicly, ‘Perhaps I have misunderstood His Holiness’s meaning.’ Privately, I would pray for his sanity.”

I, meanwhile, would have said the "correct" and "Catholic" response is "Sorry, Holy Father, but that's not right." I probably wouldn't be all that private about it, either.

With this little story, Weigel is attempting to explain that popes can't go around changing established church doctrine on a whim, which is true enough. (He also says, "it is very difficult for those who see Catholicism through political lenses to grasp this." Which of course is why we need George Weigel -- now more than ever!) They do have a little more influence on church doctrine than they do on basic math, but we'll set that aside. Weigel is also taking this opportunity to throw more cold water on the hopes so many non-conservatives have been nurturing since Pope Francis's election. But the occasion of Weigel's warning is odd -- and not just because it follows his proclaiming the Wall Street Journal "America's best newspaper" and praising "the openness of the Journal's op-ed pages to serious Catholic argument on numerous issues." (I've been waiting for their Francis-inspired editorial "Trickle-Down Economics Reconsidered," but I think I must have missed it.)

What has Weigel worked up is a one-sentence description of Pope Francis in a space-filling listicle that ran in the WSJ, "People to Watch in 2014."

The WSJ said: "After raising expectations for shifting views toward homosexuality, divorce, the environment and society's obligation to the poor, the pontiff is expected to also undertake bureaucratic reform at the Vatican, as well as the possible expansion of the role of women in the church."

Weigel sighs. "A change of papal 'administration' does not—indeed cannot—mean a change of Catholic 'views.' Doctrine, as the Church understands it, is not a matter of anyone’s 'views,' but of settled understandings of the truth of things."

Yes, but did the Journal's little blurb really merit this correction? That awkward language about "raising expectations for shifting views" is their way of avoiding the mistake Weigel is anticipating. "Views" does not mean "doctrine." For example: Abortion is a grave wrong. That's church teaching. But whether politicians, or voters, should be denied communion for directly or indirectly supporting prochoice policies is a matter of one's views. When it comes to setting priorities, choosing areas of emphasis, enforcing orthodoxy, and so forth, Pope Francis appears to have some views that are markedly different from his predecessors'. That's not a delusion.  (Weigel doesn't mention that the WSJ's list also includes the USCCB's new president, Joseph Kurtz, and that his writeup offers another capsule summary of the Francis Agenda: "The pope is steering the church away from culture wars over gay marriage and abortion, focusing instead on economic inequality.")

I can't help feeling Weigel is working harder than necessary to spread the message that, when it comes to the prospects for meaningful change under Francis, there's nothing to see here, everyone should just move along. But that could just be a trick of my ideological blinders. As Weigel goes on to explain, women, in particular, shouldn't get too excited:

And “the role of women in the Church”? No doubt various Church structures would benefit by drawing upon a wider range of talent (irrespective of gender) than the talent-pool from which Church leaders typically emerge. Still, in an interview with La Stampa before Christmas, Pope Francis made it clear that identifying leadership in the Church with ordination is both a form of clericalism and another way of instrumentalizing Catholic women. Flying a Vatican desk, Francis was suggesting, is not the acme of discipleship.

There's an awful lot of misdirection and mumbling in that paragraph, considering that this was a fight Weigel picked. I mean, if the first part of the WSJ's sentence was perhaps a bit shaky, the last part, referring to expectations for "the possible expansion of the role of women in the church," is pretty rock solid: Francis has gone beyond typical Vatican boilerplate several times now to say that he thinks it's crucial for women to have a more prominent and non-symbolic role in the structures of the church. (For example: “It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church.... The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised.") He may not follow through on those statements, but that's what he has said.

So what's Weigel doing here? The WSJ (and the pope) referred to "[expanding] the role of women in the Church," not "making women priests." But Weigel responds by arguing against women's ordination, as though ordination were the only possible way that women's role could ever be expanded -- and then he turns around and wags his finger at those who keep "identifying leadership in the Church with ordination"! (They are guilty of a "grave misconstrual of eccesiastical 'roles.'") Also, please note that when the subject under discussion is expanding the role of women, then endorsing "drawing upon a wider range of talent" provided it is done "irrespective of gender" is just a longwinded way of saying "change nothing."

As for that last part, let's see if I'm following: if you object to the fact that, in the church, ordination is restricted to men and authority is restricted to the ordained, you are just contributing to the instrumentalization of women. Why focus on a petty little thing like gender? Truly orthodox defenders of the truth hardly think about it at all. And after all, there are other ways to be a disciple, ways that don't involve upsetting the balance of power that's working so well for the people who get to decide whether things are working well.

But perhaps this is one of those occasions when, finding the pope's plain words alarming, a distinguished Catholic intellectual has only one correct way to respond: by changing the subject and privately praying that the pope will come to his senses.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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