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
Basic Books, $30, 336 pp.
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