George Weigel, Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, speaks at the Napa Institute’s annual Summer Conference in California, July 25, 2019. (CNS Photo/Courtesy Napa Institute)

The pope is far less in control of his flock than most people realize. This has always been the case: no leader in history, let alone one in charge of a billion people across the globe, has been able to claim absolute obedience. It is especially true, though, of Pope Francis, and especially true in the United States. Here, the standard-issue neglect of papal missives coincides with a well-financed effort to conquer the Catholic public sphere in the name of clerical conservatism and libertarian economics. Over the centuries, popes have had to deal with all manner of challenges to their rule, including military ones. And while some of those were devastating to the church, perhaps none were as corrosive as this one to the world the church calls home. 

One of the most prominent of these conservative organizations is the Napa Institute, founded and financed by a millionaire attorney and businessman named Timothy Busch. Its ninth summer conference took place in July, and its list of seventeen speakers makes for interesting reading. Sixteen of them were white; sixteen of them were men. Lindsey Graham and Scott Walker, who are not Catholic but are certainly conservative, spoke, as did Cardinal Raymond Burke, the leader of the conservative resistance to Francis inside the church. 

Of all the politicians and church leaders who attended the conference, however, George Weigel stands out. He is affiliated with a think tank rather than a political party, and he is probably the speaker with the best reputation outside of conservative Catholic circles. His books are published by mainstream publishing houses, not the Christian operations that publish works like Alan Sears’s The Homosexual Agenda, to name another of the luminaries onstage at the Napa gathering. Weigel is best known for his 1999 biography of Pope John Paul II, which is clearly hagiographical but is also a competent study that labors to place that larger-than-life figure in the many historical contexts he traversed.

Weigel matters because the conservative Catholicism he represents matters. Especially on the Supreme Court, but elsewhere too, this strange Catholic brew brings together gender conservatism and libertarian economics in ways that seem alien to the gospels but which are perfectly at home on the contemporary right. Hence the importance of  Weigel’s new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History, which represents his first attempt to give a full accounting of how the Catholic Church has evolved in the past few centuries. Weigel’s book claims to be written for non-Catholics and non-conservatives. He draws on secular historians, including me, and keeps the jeremiads to a minimum. The whole thing is pleasantly written and has an air of plausibility about it. And this is what makes it so dangerous.


The Irony of Modern Catholic History does purport to be a scholarly work of history, so I will engage it on those terms before turning to what seems to me to be its true intent, which is to provide a usable history for the conservative, Napa brand of Catholicism. As a work of popular history, it is reasonably successful, and sometimes even exciting. It is, essentially, a polemical account of the Catholic Church from the French Revolution to the present, focused on the papacy and focused on the past half-century (Vatican II is reached at around the halfway mark). 

The basic thesis is that the Catholic Church and “modernity” (not clearly defined) were at loggerheads for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Catholics were suspicious of secular science and the secular state, while non-Catholics were wary of the church as a hothouse of dogma and intolerance. While there were some church leaders and theologians who sought a more constructive dialogue between Catholicism and the secular world, they were in the minority, and the intransigence of violent anticlericals rendered the time unripe for them. Since the 1960s, however, this has changed. Especially during the pontificate of John Paul II, Catholicism and the world opened up to one another, in ways that Weigel thinks are healthy, or at least potentially healthy, for them both.

This basic argument is unobjectionable, if a little banal. “Modernity” is defined so vaguely that it is challenging to put Weigel’s argument in a form that would be acceptable to historians; since there is no clear causal argument at work, there is not much for the guild to grapple with. At some basic level, though, he is clearly right about the broad sweep of the story. There are not that many volumes that trace the history of the church from the early modern period to the present, or which integrate the North American and Latin American stories with the well-trod European ones. The Irony of Modern Catholic History is, at one level, just such a volume, and not a bad one.

Before moving on to Weigel’s true purposes, it is worth pointing out that this clearly is not a cutting edge history of the church. Catholic history has been a boom field in recent years, even and especially for non-Catholics, and while Weigel does sometimes cite them, he does not seriously grapple with their findings. More than most historians, he believes that the history of the papacy is essentially the same thing as the history of the church. And more than most historians, he is uninterested in the long Catholic heritage of anti-Semitism; he is risibly sketchy about the depth of the Catholic attraction to dictatorship and fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, which is covered in just a few paragraphs. His rosy account of Pius XI, who reigned from 1922 to 1939, does not grapple at all with the conclusions of David Kertzer’s The Pope and Mussolini, a much less charitable book that, having won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, is not exactly obscure. A great deal of work in recent decades has been done to decenter European men in Catholic history, but this leaves not a ripple in Weigel’s book. As far as I can tell, the only woman mentioned by name in this long book is Mary. Women in the abstract are mentioned once as founders of schools, and once as an audience talked at by a pope.   

As a purely historical thesis about the Catholic Church, then, Weigel’s argument is not especially objectionable, even if its sins of omission are just shy of forgivable. This is not, though, the most interesting way to reflect on this book, which after all is not written by a trained historian and is not aimed at an audience of historians. 


Weigel is not interested in the many ways that secular and religious people today craft morally meaningful lives for themselves.

Weigel’s true purpose is more moral than historical. The vagueness and banality of his historical claims are matched by razor sharp and controversial claims about the state of the world today. Let’s begin by listing what Weigel sees as the grave dangers that we face in general, before turning to his more specific thoughts about the dangers faced by the Catholic Church. As we will see, in both cases Weigel’s position is bizarre to the point of absurdity. While this would normally doom a book to well-deserved obscurity, these are not normal times. The bizarre and the absurd have increasingly become commonplace among conservatives, inside the church and without.

In general, Weigel believes that our present moment, which he calls "post-modernity,” is defined by the curse of rampant individualism, which has both intellectual and moral components. Intellectually, he believes that we have, in our universities especially, abandoned a commitment to rationality and truth, replacing that commitment with a relativist free-for-all in which only the claims of our subjective identity have import. Morally, he believes that we have abandoned any claims of objective truth, following our sexual and consumerist impulses wherever they might take us. 

These are such familiar canards of this genre that it is easy to skim over them without noticing how outrageous they are. Weigel cites no evidence for any of them, which is surprising for someone so apparently committed to rational inquiry. In truth, he is presenting a warmed-over stereotype from the 1960s, which may have accurately reflected some pockets of a hedonist, student subculture then but hardly does so now. He shows no evidence of actual familiarity with the world outside of the frigid AC of the lecture circuit, in which people are obviously and sometimes heroically committed to living an ethical life, in all sorts of ways. I have tried to compare Weigel’s portrait with the people that I know from my own workplace, and my own church: people trying desperately to pay medical bills and provide a decent upbringing for their children amid conditions that make doing so almost impossible. These people do not inhabit the relativist free-for-all of the conservative imagination. Weigel, like so many others, is dealing with Fox News caricature rather than observable reality.

Weigel is not interested in the many ways that secular and religious people today craft morally meaningful lives for themselves. And he is not interested in the role of the universities in that process. A minor yet persistent theme in the book is the claim that universities are purveyors of relativism, and no longer teach people to apprehend truth. This kind of claim has become commonplace, especially on the right: so commonplace that there is no perceived need to provide a shred of evidence, even as it legitimates a world-historical assault on our educational system. Nobody who spends time in university classrooms could countenance it, and Weigel does not display any familiarity with what actually goes on inside them. He claims, preposterously, that the philosophy departments of Harvard and the Sorbonne have given up on truth and reason. Given that those departments are full of people who teach logic and the philosophy of mind, we are justified in wondering who, exactly, has given up on rationality.


Weigel is admirably upfront about his cafeteria Catholicism, even as it is hard to square with his denunciations of us moderns for believing we can craft our own morality.

The transparent bad faith of Weigel’s diagnosis is compounded by what he chooses to leave out. The issues that consume most of us—inequality, climate catastrophe, the re-emergence of concentration camps on American soil, and so on—simply do not merit discussion for him. He asserts without evidence that contemporary capitalism is doing a wonderful job at addressing domestic inequality, and that economic impoverishment abroad can be chalked up to the corruption of third-world governments. He says nothing about climate change and nothing about the refugee crisis.

Some readers might think this is unfair: Weigel is writing as a Catholic, to a Catholic audience, so perhaps it is asking too much for him to abandon this framework. This, though, is precisely the danger of the book. It resurrects an antiquated and narrow form of Catholicism at a historical moment when the future of the church is very much in contest. Many Catholic intellectuals would disagree with Weigel almost completely, although this is hardly mentioned in the text. Pope Francis, for instance, has made climate change and refugee care the linchpins of his own engagement with “modernity,” including secular scientists and non-Christian refugees. These would seem to be reasonable topics of consideration in a book supposedly dedicated to the church’s encounter with the modern world—and yet they go mostly unmentioned. Francis’s own diagnosis of climate change as a negative externality of the capitalism Weigel champions is both transparently correct and transparently incompatible with Weigel’s system.

In some parts of the book, Weigel is admirably upfront about his cafeteria Catholicism, even as it is hard to square with his denunciations of us moderns for believing we can craft our own morality. This highly selective approach has long marked his work, and resulted in some of the strangest passages of his biography on John Paul II. Essentially, whenever the pope wrote or spoke in terms compatible with economic libertarianism, he is judged correct; but where he did not, he is judged wanting, and readers are counseled that they need not make too much of it. This same model is followed even more radically in the current book. In his previous work, Weigel criticized some papal encyclicals in favor of others. This is a time-honored Catholic tradition: encyclicals are not necessarily dogmatic, and really constitute little more than the pope writing to his bishops. Here, though, Weigel takes aim at Gaudium et spes. As the pastoral constitution of Vatican II, this is significantly bigger game, and it is striking how freely Weigel bats away its anti-capitalist findings as baleful features of their own time rather than a component of Catholic doctrine that ought to trouble the libertarian conscience. 

This leads us to what might be the most shocking aspect of the book: Weigel’s diagnosis of the two gravest dangers facing the church. The first of these is “Gallicanism,” by which he means the independence of national synods from papal guidance. He is particularly concerned with some decisions that the German bishops have threatened to make regarding sexual ethics and priestly celibacy; the threat, in his view, is that this could portend a fracturing of the church into component parts—the dreaded spectre of Anglicanism, often invoked on the Catholic right. The second of these is “historicism,” by which he means the view that moral teachings, specifically sexual and marital ones, should evolve over time, instead of being informed by the universal light of reason and Scripture. 

The skeptical reader might wonder whether either of these really constitutes much of a threat. The independence of national synods has risen and fallen over time, and there is no inkling that the German Church is about to launch a new Reformation. As for “historicism,” it is curious that Weigel is so exercised by this, as the whole point of his book seems to be that the doctrine of the church has and should evolve. One might dispute this or that form of evolution, but it seems strange to posit the mere fact of change as a danger. 

But even the sympathetic reader could not possibly be convinced that these are the two gravest dangers facing the church. Talk to any young Catholic today (outside of the Napa Institute at least) and they will tell you that the sex-abuse crisis is rocking their faith. I was recently at a conference of young Catholics, and in between the keynotes, which hardly addressed the issue, they spoke of nothing else. 

Weigel does, to his credit, address the matter in the closing pages of the book. And while the results make for painful reading, they are also illuminating as to just what is wrong with Napa Catholicism. Any analysis of the sex-abuse scandal, especially one that purports to come from a Christian perspective, must begin with the experience and suffering of the victims. In all of  Weigel’s pages on the theme, he has nothing to say about or to them other than to point out that they were “frequently vulnerable innocents.” Even that comes several pages in: from the beginning, his concern is more with the church as a victim. He refers to the crisis, for instance, as a “self-inflicted wound,” rather than a wound inflicted on one group of vulnerable people by another group of powerful ones. This approach to the problem leads him to the perverse claim that the crisis was “a moment of necessary purification” for the church. 

His main concern in his account of the crisis is to cast stones. This is a valuable enterprise, if a secondary one—the question is where they are aimed. Those stones ought to be aimed, as many Catholic scholars and historians have argued, at a longstanding culture of clericalism and noblesse oblige in the church. Weigel rejects this approach, perhaps because it tends to tarnish the legacy of John Paul II. Instead, he places most of the blame on “late modernity,” whose culture of sexual confusion and license was so powerful that it affected even the church. And the cover-up is blamed, conveniently if implausibly, on Pope Francis. 

The abbreviated, skewed coverage of the sex-abuse scandal represents the true nadir of the book—the point at which it becomes obvious that Weigel has lost contact with the living core of the church in his ascent to the Napa pantheon. He claims a desire to recover the evangelical core of the Catholic mission, converting wayward moderns back to the Catholic fold. Such a mission would, presumably, involve meeting the world where it is: mainly young and mainly female; many poor or incarcerated; many seeking some kind of refuge from the horrors of late capitalism but rightly worried, in the wake of the sex-abuse crisis, that the church cannot provide one. This mission would, like Christ himself, begin with the downtrodden. Christ reached out to the tax collector and the prostitute, while followers today might begin with the prisoner, or the refugee, or even the victim of sexual assault. 

Weigel is so uninterested in this task that one wonders if evangelism is truly his goal. He seems more interested in providing a plausible historical narrative for a brand of narrow Christianity that has enormous political power, to the detriment of the poor and the lonely. He seems more interested, too, in providing an affable face and a scholarly apparatus for a reactionary project that, whatever it might augur for the church, is disastrous for the common world we share. Weigel wants to argue that the church is necessary to save modernity from itself. And yet he proposes a vision of the Catholic Church that celebrates and amplifies the very impulses that are putting us all in danger. It might be that we need saving, and it might even be that the Catholic Church is up to the job. But not like this. 

The Irony of Modern Catholic History:
How the Church Rediscovered Itself & Challenged the Modern World to Reform

George Weigel
Basic Books, $30, 336 pp.

James Chappel is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History at Duke University. He is the author of Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church (Harvard University Press, 2018).

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Published in the September 2019 issue: View Contents
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