Phantom Heresies

WHERE GEORGE WEIGEL GOES WRONG

Classical theological terms like “the economy of Salvation” or “the economy of Redemption” have expanded their range of late, gaining resonance from our current preoccupation with the actual economy. During the recent fracas and Vatican meltdown over the lifting of the excommunications of the schismatic Lefebvrist bishops, one commentator on the right referred to the “bailout” the bishops were getting. To the larger Catholic public, the botching of the overtures to the Lefebvrists made clear that the credibility of the curia had dipped. There followed a high-volume exchange of analyses, dissections, attacks, and counterattacks about the bankruptcy of Rome.

Rather than furthering such hackneyed economic lingo, or raising such tired themes as managerial ineptitude, ingrained turf-guarding, or incompetent PR from the Vatican, I will look at how this crisis was handled in Washington, by one of the leading dispensers of conservative Catholic commentary—George Weigel, the writer who also applied the term “bailout” to those he likes to call “cafeteria Catholics.” Described on his Web site as a “Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and one of America’s leading public intellectuals,” Weigel made his mark as the hagiographer of John Paul II; then and since, he has made superciliousness a hallmark. After introducing the jargon of the economic crisis to the Lefebvrist imbroglio, Weigel broadened its scope to include one of his other specialties: the menace of liberal Catholicism. His musings on “Rome’s Reconciliation” (Newsweek.com, January 26) included references to Richelieu and Robespierre, Tocqueville and the Dreyfus Affair, as well as observations about “the hypersecularists of the Third French Republic.” He went on:

Ironically, but hardly coincidentally, the Catholic Left (which has been clever enough to avoid formal schism while living in intellectual and psychological schism since Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on family planning, Humanae vitae) has welcomed Benedict XVI’s canonical rescue of the Lefebvrist bishops, with numerous left-leaning Catholic dissidents now saying, in effect, “Where’s my bailout?”

Weigel’s “irony” may have escaped most readers, but what certainly got their attention was the sudden insertion of Humanae vitae, coming as it did after half a dozen paragraphs on the history of traditionalist opposition to the Enlightenment. Weigel’s readers may have recognized that his legerdemain amounted to nothing more than the “heresy hunting” typically practiced by self-designated religious reformers: the trick of reducing all issues, whether administrative, political, liturgical, or doctrinal, to matters of personal morality invariably associated with some form of sexual misconduct. The classic instance of this ethical reductionism was the response of the National Association of Evangelicals (an organization still in unholy alliance with right-wing Catholics) to the murderous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The NAE’s single-minded expression of outrage addressed “the lust and drunkenness” of V-J Day—where presumably the celebrants were also all left-leaning.

The story of Weigel’s alleged Catholic dissidents may go down in American church history as “Phantom Heresy II,” echoing an earlier nonexistent fall from orthodoxy at the time of Leo XIII. As for those on the Catholic Left who “welcomed Benedict XVI’s canonical rescue of the Lefebvrist bishops,” none will be named, since none exists other than in the fructuous imagination of our hagiographer. Still, Weigel’s arbitrary introduction of Humanae vitae into the debates over the Society of St. Pius X may be unintentionally useful, since that encyclical represents the most salient instance of committed Catholics apparently balking at obedience to a pope. Paul VI’s encyclical and its companion decree, Persona humana, are almost all that this magnanimous pontiff is remembered for, so a brief reminder of what he actually achieved may be useful. It will at least show how history may judge two quite different popes, Pius X and Paul VI, and perhaps help guide us in responding to their respective encyclicals.

No one denies that Humanae vitae has been a cross borne by many of the faithful—mainly laypeople and their priest confessors attempting to rely both on the magisterium and on their own insights and lights. This is not unlike the fate of Pius X’s Pascendi, an encyclical whose condemnation of “Modernism” was a cross borne by hundreds of priests and three cardinals, as well as one (future) pope, Benedict XV. (Pascendi has become a totem to today’s right-wing Catholics. One celebration of the encyclical’s centennial, in 2007, featured such topics as “Vatican II’s Disastrous Liturgical Revolution,” “Modernist Lobotomy: The Dissolution of Catholic Militancy,” and “From Pascendi to Pelosi: Modernism and the Deformation of Catholics.”) Unlike Humanae vitae, however, Pascendi mandated a personal oath of submission to its decrees. This oath was ruthlessly enforced, even though many people recognized that much of what Pascendi condemned was either a misstatement or an exaggeration of acceptable theological positions—many of which were, in the event, recognized as the cornerstone of Vatican II.

One of the anomalies of the council was that it did nothing about the anti-Modernist oath, “a weapon of spiritual torture,” according to Maude Petre, friend of Modernist theologians George Tyrrell and Alfred Loisy, and one of the oath’s targets. That was left to Paul VI himself, whose own family suffered in the anti-Modernism purge, and who on Pascendi’s sixtieth anniversary abolished the oath altogether. Such an abolition, along with the history of these two encyclicals, highlights the problem with using the word “schism” to describe any deviation from this or that papal statement—as well as the importance of a saying by Cardinal Newman (whose beatification Paul VI publicly fostered): “What one pope has done another can undo.”

Those eager to condemn violators of encyclicals should note that many victims of Pascendi have been redeemed by the passage of time. One of the most harshly treated among them was Andrea Ferrari, the peasant-born but noble-minded archbishop of Milan, whose agonizing final weeks in the winter of 1921 (he was stricken with throat cancer) saw him personally bless hundreds of devoted diocesans who night and day passed through his death chamber. Although denounced as disobedient to Pascendi in the pages of Riscossa—the First Things of that era—he was the bishop most highly esteemed by both John XXIII and Paul VI. This cardinal, clearly “living in intellectual and psychological schism,” is now known to history as Blessed Andrea Ferrari, and the story of his complicated march to the altars can be read in Kenneth L. Woodward’s invaluable book Making Saints.

Just a few short years ago, as the radical Right rode the crest of the Bush wave, George Weigel loudly broadcast his views on the war in Iraq—views as off-target as those of the Evangelicals on the bombing of Japan had once been. Iraq represents a central pillar in the fundamentalist campaign to politicize Catholicism; and to that end, Weigel managed both to overturn just-war doctrine and to slam his own publicly lauded pontiff, John Paul II. Weigel’s upending of the just-war doctrine was achieved by emphasizing prewar (jus ad bellum) and wartime (jus in bello) factors while excluding those relating to the occupation of the country itself (jus post bellum). Such a convenient exclusion ignores the horrific realities of the post-bellum period in Iraq. According to John Tierman, chief researcher at the MIT Center for International Studies, the start of 2009 saw that beleaguered country burdened with 4.5 million displaced people, 5 million orphans, and about 1 million dead. In one way or another, Tierman notes, the war has affected nearly one out of two Iraqis.

It is a dismal record, and one that reflects what happens when the providentially enlightened insight of a pope is rejected in favor of the fabricated insight of a president. The technical term for the former is “Petrine charism.” A term central to Garry Wills’s explanatory effort in Why I Am a Catholic, it refers to the “grace of state” bestowed on popes to help guide their decisions. Given this grace, and John Paul’s criticisms of the human devastation in Iraq, one might ask, Where was the principle of obedience to a pope, so stalwartly vaunted by Weigel elsewhere? Apparently it is acceptable to disagree with a pope about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but if you disagree with him about when you’re going to say to your spouse the words of the old prayer, “with my body I thee worship,” then you are trafficking in schism.

One wonders whether his disregard of John Paul’s warnings concerning Iraq haunted Weigel, or raised in his conscience the specter of schism. In effect, Weigel stripped the pope of his charism and tendered it to George W. Bush. Thus the Petrine charism morphed into the president’s “charism of political discernment,” as Weigel put it in a January 2003 First Things article titled “Moral Clarity in a Time of War.” Similarly, the pope’s charism, instead of being unique to himself, now became “unique to the vocation of public service.” In order to obfuscate this metamorphosis, Weigel spelled out that his suddenly discovered “charism of political discernment” was not shared by “bishops, stated clerks, rabbis, and imams”—strategically omitting from this litany “popes,” even though it was obviously a pope with whom he was in direct opposition.

Ultimately, perhaps, the devious moves used to create such political/theological “Weigel room” can be set aside as a burden on Weigel’s conscience alone. His parting shots at the “clever” Catholic schismatics are another matter, however. That final salvo came in the last sentence of “Rome’s Reconciliation,” when Weigel announced that the “Lefebvrist faction” would just have to affirm what Rome demands: “Absent such an affirmation, pick-and-choose cafeteria Catholicism will be reborn on the far fringes of the Catholic Right, just when it was fading into insignificance on the dwindling Catholic Left, its longtime home.”

To this, the response of some Catholics on the self-righteous Right is probably a solemn and portentous, “Amen.” The rest, including those Catholics in what Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens called “the extreme center,” will be reminded that such smugness about the unimpeachable orthodoxy of one’s own views, combined with a prosecutorial zeal toward the supposed errors of others, is a sign of fear, not confidence—of doubt in the Lord’s generous promises to his church, not faith. Those of us concerned about Weigel owe this distinguished senior fellow a measure of comfort by telling him, in the words of the Lord, “do not be afraid”: moral clarity is still attainable; spiritual bankruptcy is not impending; left-leaning Catholics can bail you out. In short, there is an economy of salvation, and it is large enough to support us all, whether we are fading into insignificance or denouncing imaginary Catholic dissidents on Newsweek’s Web site.

 


Related: "Setting a Narrow Table" by the Editors

Published in the 2009-04-24 issue: 

Justus George Lawler is author of Popes and Politics: Reform, Resentment, and the Holocaust (Continuum).

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