Benedict XVI and the Future of the WestGEORGE WEIGEL
A year ago, my subject would probably have struck some as counter-intuitive, implausible, even absurd: why would an octogenarian German theologian with little practical experience of political and economic life have anything interesting or important to say about "the future of the West"?
And that, in turn, should focus our attention on the font of wisdom from which Pope Benedict drew in analysing the current cultural situation of the Western democracies: the social doctrine of the Catholic Church as it has developed from Leo XIII – the last pope of the 19th century and the first pope of the 20th – through John Paul II, the last pope of the 20th century and the first pope of the 21st. Benedict has, of course, made his own distinctive contributions to this evolving body of thought; but before exploring those themes, a brief sketch of the Catholicism that has emerged during the period following Leo XIII, and that is struggling to come to full maturity today, will help orient the distinctively Benedictine reflections on society, culture, politics, and economics that follow.
Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI represent the full flowering of a renaissance in Catholic thought that began with Pope Leo XIII, who, after his election to the papacy in 1878, sought an engagement with modern intellectual and cultural life through distinctively Catholic methods. The Leonine Catholic renaissance flourished in the mid-20th century in philosophical, theological, liturgical, historical and biblical studies. Those studies in turn paved the intellectual way to the Second Vatican Council, and shaped its deliberations between 1962 and 1965. The Second Vatican Council was unique, however, in that it did not provide keys for its proper interpretation: it wrote no creeds, legislated no canons, defined no doctrines, condemned no heresies – all the things other ecumenical councils had done in order to provide keys for their interpretation. Absent such keys, the nature and terms of Vatican II's achievement were sharply, even bitterly, contested in the years immediately following the Council's conclusion. As a result, the evangelical energy that Blessed John XXIII had intended his council to ignite – the determination to bring the Gospel of God's passionate love for the world to the world through a two way dialogue with the world – was dissipated.
Then came the Wojtyła-Ratzinger years. Since October 16, 1978, the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican has been given an authoritative interpretation by two popes who, as young men, had both been influential participants at Vatican II. And with that authoritative interpretation, which synthesises the achievements of Catholic intellectual life since the Leonine revival of the late 19th century, a decisive moment has been reached in the history of the Catholic Church: the catechetical-devotional Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation is giving way to what may be called Evangelical Catholicism.
Evangelical Catholicism takes its ecclesiology, its idea of the Church, from Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, as interpreted by John Paul II's 1991 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer). In this ecclesiology, the Church does not so much have a mission (as if "mission" were one among a dozen other things the Church does); the Church is a mission. Everything the Church does, the Church does to propose Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life. Everything the Church does, the Church does in order to offer friendship with Jesus Christ as the true means of satisfying the deepest longings of the human heart. Evangelical Catholicism takes John Paul II's injunction in the 2001 apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte [Entering the New Millennium], to heart: it sets sail from the stagnant shallows of institutional maintenance into the deep waters of post-modernity, preaching the Paschal Mystery as the central truth of the human condition, while building communities of integrity, decency, solidarity, and compassion – Eucharistic communities of supernatural charity capable of nurturing genuine human flourishing.
Evangelical Catholicism is thus both culture-forming and counter-cultural. It is culture-forming, in that it takes the formation, nurturance, and maturation of a distinctive culture – the Church – with utmost seriousness. And it does not look to the ambient public culture for suggestions as to how this distinctive ecclesial culture, this distinctive mode of life called "Christian," is to be structured and lived. Thus it is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the emergence of Evangelical Catholicism has been concurrent with the liberation of the Catholic Church from the Babylonian captivity of ecclesial establishment, with its evangelically unbecoming nexus between the power of the state (however that state might be organised politically) and the life of the Church. This liberation has been a fruit of the Second Vatican Council and its Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae); it has been codified in ecclesiastical law by Canon 377, which bars governments from any direct role in the nomination of bishops. Evangelical Catholicism is, then, post-Constantinian Catholicism. It does not seek the favour of the state. Rather, it asks of the state, and if necessary it demands of the state, the free space in which to be itself: a community of Eucharistic worship, evangelical proclamation, and charity. And it does so in order to ask the state (and society, and culture, and economics) to consider the possibility of their redemption.
This last suggests at least one facet of Evangelical Catholicism's counter-cultural character. This side of the Kingdom of God, the Church will always be challenging the principalities and powers (be they political, social, economic or cultural) to admit that the things done by states, societies, cultures, and economies stand under the judgment of moral norms that do not emerge from within those states, societies, cultures and economies. Rather, the moral norms applicable to constructing and sustaining states, societies, cultures and economies that foster the conditions for the possibility of genuine human flourishing are transcendent; they reflect the inalienable dignity and value of the human person – a dignity and value that is inherent, not conferred. Those moral norms stand in judgment on us; we do not construct them or tailor them to our own requirements.
Evangelical Catholicism, in the line of development that runs from Leo XIII through Benedict XVI, thus takes a rather different stance toward public life than the Catholicism of Christendom (whose conception of Church and State – or, more broadly, Church and Society – long outlasted the 16th-century fracturing of Christendom). Evangelical Catholicism declines the embrace of state power as incompatible with the proclamation of the Gospel: the Gospel is its own warrant, and the power of that warrant is blunted when coercive state power is put behind it, however mildly. Evangelical Catholicism is also wary of a direct role by the Church, as institution, in the affairs of the state. There may be moments when a robustly evangelical Church must speak truth to power, directly and through its ordained episcopal leadership, bringing the full weight of their unique form of authority to bear on a matter in public dispute. But the normal mode of the Church's engagement with public life will not be that of another lobbying group. Rather, Evangelical Catholicism takes its lead from the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), and from Blessed John Paul II's teaching in the encyclicals Redemptoris Missio and Centesimus Annus and the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici: it seeks to form the men and women who will, in turn, shape the culture that creates a politics capable of recognising the transcendent moral norms that should guide society's deliberations about the common good.
Within the Anglosphere, this facet of Evangelical Catholicism will necessarily cause some reexamination of consciences and political alignments. In the United States, it has already caused a major, and in some cases wrenching, reexamination of the traditional Catholic affinity for the Democratic Party, as that party has embraced what John Paul II called the "culture of death" in the party's radical commitment to an unfettered abortion licence. In Great Britain, the emergence of Evangelical Catholicism is likely to cause a similar reexamination of traditional Catholic alignments with Labour, although it is not clear, from the western shores of the Atlantic at least, where, in practical terms, such a re-alignment might eventually lead. But as the life issues and the challenge of lifestyle libertinism continue to define the great fault lines in the domestic politics of the West, Evangelical Catholicism – which follows John Paul II (in Evangelium Vitae) and Benedict XVI (in Caritas in Veritate) in insisting that the life issues are basic social justice issues – will find itself, irrespective of voting patterns, in a profoundly counter-cultural position, much as the Evangelical-Wesleyan opponents of the slave trade found themselves in a counter-cultural position in early 19th-century Britain.
The Evangelical Catholicism that has been struggling toward maturity in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is also a Catholicism with a distinctive public voice – or perhaps I should say, voices. Within the household of faith – inside the distinctive culture that is the Church – that voice is a Gospel voice, and the deepest warrants for the Church's defence of life, of religious freedom, and of the dignity of the human person are found in the Church's sacramental life, and in Scripture and tradition as interpreted by the Church's authentic magisterium. In addressing the wider culture and society, and in the give and take of the democratic political process, the public voice shaped by the culture of Evangelical Catholicism is a voice that makes genuinely public arguments, deploying a grammar and vocabulary that those who are not of the household of faith can engage.
That voice, it should be added, is primarily the voice of truly converted disciples: lay men and women, bringing the universal moral truths learned within the household of faith to bear in their workplaces, their voluntary associations, their cultural activities, and their political lives. The voice of the pastors is not, and cannot be, the only voice of the Church in the public square. The pastors' voice ought to be heard when questions of first principles are at issue (as, to be sure, they are, and not infrequently these days). But when there are legitimate differences of prudential judgment on how the principles of the Church's social doctrine are to be driven into the hard soil of political reality, the principal voices in those debates should be lay voices. The pastors have graver matters to which they must attend.
A profound and compelling synthesis of Benedict XVI's contribution to the development of Evangelical Catholicism may be found in the recently-published second volume of his projected three-volume study, Jesus of Nazareth. In this middle panel of his Christological triptych, in which the Pope analyses the biblical texts that deal with Holy Week and Easter, the Evangelical Catholic project is laid out with scholarly insight and catechetical power. For Benedict's intent is nothing less than to bring his readers into a personal encounter with the world–transforming power of the Paschal Mystery through his reflections on the Passion narratives and Easter accounts: the axial moment of human history in which the human drama finds its climax in the suffering, death and resurrection of the Son of God. Here, a lifetime of scholarship is sifted and distilled in service to the essential Christian kerygma, the proclamation of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, as Lord. It is a hard heart indeed that does not read Benedict on Holy Week and Easter without sensing the power of God at work in history, bending history towards redemption.
As for the interface between this unapologetically evangelical Catholicism and the principal questions of public life in the West today, the first, and perhaps most important, of Benedict XVI's contributions has been his challenge to the West to recover the full richness of its cultural patrimony. Here, as in so many other ways, Benedict XVI's magisterium is in dynamic continuity with that of his predecessor (which of course should be no surprise, as both men's thought emerges out of the great tradition of the Catholic Church). We remember John Paul II's insistence, during the 2003 debate over the preamble to the European Constitutional treaty, that the New Europe of an expanded 25-member European Union ought to acknowledge Christianity as one of the sources of contemporary Europe's commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Benedict XVI has continued to press this theme while sharpening it in his gentle, scholarly way. The civilisation of the West, he regularly reminds us, is the product of the interaction of three great cultural forces: biblical religion, Greek rationality, and Roman law. Or, if you will, what we know as "the West" emerged from the mutually fruitful interaction of ancient Hebrew convictions about the God of the Bible (who comes into history as a liberator freeing humanity from the often bloody-minded whims and caprices of the pagan gods); the Greek conviction that there are truths embedded in the world and in us, truths that we can know by reason; and the Roman conviction that the rule of law is superior to the rule of brute coercion in public life.
Absent any of these three supports, the entire Western project in history begins to teeter, and may eventually collapse. Twentieth-century high-cultural post-modernism, with its principled epistemological scepticism and the metaphysical nihilism that inevitably follows the notion that, while there may be your truth and my truth, there is no such thing as the truth, followed readily from the abandonment of the God of the Bible in the name of human liberation: a 19th-century project Henri de Lubac analysed in great depth in the 1944 study, The Drama of Atheistic Humanism. So with the God of the Bible gone, the foundation stone of the Western civilisational project labelled "Greek rationality" project began to crumble, with the first signs of decay being the irrationalism that shattered European political life in the two great mid-century wars. Today, the situation is perhaps even more perilous: for absent both biblical religion and the arts of reason (to which post-modernist scepticism and nihilism can hardly be said to contribute), the foundation stone of Western civilisation marked "law" has begun to crack and may, under the pressure of political correctness (which is itself a lame substitute for moral reason), crumble, such that mere coercion will be the order of the day in democratic law-making.
This unhappy prospect is the situation often described by Benedict XVI as the "dictatorship of relativism": absent agreed moral reference points that can be rationally known, defended, and deployed in public life, coercive state power is deployed to impose the canon of moral relativism – in the definition of marriage, in the resolution of debates over the life issues, in the legal understanding of religious freedom – on entire societies. When couples are declared incompetent to be foster parents because their Christian convictions compel them to teach the truth about men and women and the ethics of human love, the dictatorship of relativism is at work. When doctors are threatened with the loss of professional accreditation because they will not perform procedures that are immoral, or facilitate behaviours that endanger both health and morals, the dictatorship of relativism is at work. When the state imposes a definition of "marriage" that is incoherent in itself and that has no standing in the history of the West – or, even worse, when the state requires ministers of religion to cooperate in confecting such unions – the dictatorship of relativism is at work. In all these cases, democracy is threatened, because a false idea of freedom as personal wilfulness is being imposed by coercive state power and the virtues that make democratic self-governance possible are being attenuated.
The Evangelical Catholicism of Vatican II, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI thus brings a thicker idea of "democracy" to bear on public life than the thin concept of procedural democracy that dominates political science departments in the West's universities. Thin democracy is democracy unmoored from its historic moral-cultural foundations in biblical religion and Greek rationality. Democracy that enables genuine human flourishing in the 21st century – the democracy that can defend the West against other civilisational projects with very different views of what constitutes "human flourishing" – is one that has reestablished the link between forms of democratic governance and the cultural foundations of democratic civilisation: a democracy that understands that it takes a certain kind of people, possessed of certain virtues, to make democratic self-governance work.
The Pope laid out these challenges in his 2006 Regensburg Lecture – an event that may take the gold medal for comprehensive media incomprehension (which would be no small accomplishment). Rather than the "gaffe" that it was immediately assumed to be, the Regensburg Lecture, and the Holy Father's subsequent exegesis of it in his Christmas 2006 address to the Roman Curia, correctly identified the two challenges facing Islam in the 21st century, within its own house and in its interaction with those who are "other". The first challenge is to understand religious freedom (which necessarily includes the right to convert to another faith) as a universal human right that can be known by reason and thus lays moral obligations on everyone. The second challenge for Islam is to find, within its own intellectual and spiritual resources, Islamic warrants for a clear distinction, in theory and in practice, between religious and political authority in a 21st-century state.
Benedict XVI also suggested that the Catholic Church might be of some assistance to genuine Islamic reformers interested in advancing these developments of Islamic self-understanding. Why? Because the Church itself had taken almost two centuries to find a Catholic understanding of religious freedom and political modernity that did not represent a rupture with, but a development of, classic Catholic understandings of the act of faith and the nature of political society. This process did not involve a wholesale, uncritical embrace of Enlightenment thought. Rather, it involved the recovery of classic Catholic notions of the distinction between sacerdotal and imperial authority, and the development of those ideas in light of the emergence of the political institutions created by the Enlightenment.
Retrieval and renewal, Benedict XVI proposed, was the way ancient religious traditions engaged political modernity without losing their souls. It remains to be seen whether the Pope's offer to reframe the Catholic-Islamic dialogue along these lines is taken up by Islamic scholars, legal authorities, and religious leaders. But an offer like Benedict's does seem more congruent with the demands of both faith and reason than a supine acquiescence, in the name of "toleration," to the agenda of those who would impose the social mores and cultural standards of seventh-century Arabia on Western societies.
Benedict's public commentary has also embraced economic questions where, like John Paul II, the Pope takes an anti-libertarian or anti-Benthamite view by insisting that the free economy, like democratic politics, is not a machine that can run by itself. The free economy, like the democratic polity, is bound by moral norms that transcend it. Those norms emerge from a careful and rational reflection on the dignity of the human person as an economic actor who is the subject, not merely the object, of economic processes.
21st-century economic life should thus value the entrepreneurial creativity built into humanity by God the Creator. 21st-century economic life should also think of the fruits of economic activity as what we might call "profit-plus". Thus, in Benedict's vision, business, making its own distinct contribution to the common good, will sustain private and independent sector philanthropies that educate and empower the poor, that care for those who are unable to care for themselves, and that give expression to a vibrant culture of life in a society of solidarity. (Implicit in this view, of course, is the judgment that the social welfare responsibilities of society are not exhausted by, and indeed ought not be dominated by, the state – a judgment sustained by the bedrock Catholic social-ethical principle of subsidiarity.)
One is the phenomenon that the international constitutional legal scholar, Joseph Weiler (himself an Orthodox Jew), dubbed "Christophobia" during the 2003 debates over the European Constitutional Treaty. It was on raw and ugly display in the months preceding Benedict XVI's visit to the United Kingdom last September, and while the Pope's self-evident humanity and decency – as well as the power of his message – drew a lot of the poison out of the air (for the moment, at least), the broader problem of Christophobia remains. This irrational and, let it be said frankly, deeply bigoted refusal to concede that Christian moral ideas have any place in the public square (even when "translated" into genuinely public language) is evident throughout the Western civilisational orbit. It is evident in the attacks on Christian orthodoxy and classic Christian morality that are now a regular feature of the European Parliament and other EU bodies. It is evident when the Star Chambers known in Canada as "human rights commissions" lay severe monetary penalties on evangelical Protestant pastors who dare teach publicly the biblical understanding of marriage. The measure of its potency and its potential for wickedness may be taken from the remark of a senior member of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States, a man of deep learning, who has said privately, "I will die in my bed; my successor will die in prison; and his successor will die a martyr." The formulation was deliberately provocative, but it does not take an especially lurid political imagination to construct scenarios in which precisely such a history unfolds. The pressures from the dictatorship of relativism – which is one political expression of Christophobia – could become that severe. And in those circumstances, the public impact of the New Evangelisation will be severely impeded, even halted, because Evangelical Catholicism will have become an underground religion.
This fate is not inevitable, although its possibility may illustrate in our own time what Hans Urs von Balthasar called (as only German-language theologians can name things) the "theological law of proportionate polarisation": the more God's presence is felt within history, the more opposition that Presence elicits; the more vigorously the Gospel is preached, the more those forces determined to deny the divine love will intensify their efforts. This is the rhythm of salvation history: it is evident in the intensifying opposition to Jesus as he goes up to Jerusalem for the last time; it is described in spectacular world-historical imagery in the Book of Revelation. Yet we know, in faith, the way the story will end. And so we can live within history with an eye to the vindication of God's purposes in the end of history and the coming of the Kingdom in its plenitude.
And because of that, we can, here and now, take heart from what Edmund Burke taught this country two centuries ago: that the immediate triumph of evil here and now is possible only if good men do nothing. Burke's dictum has an unintended but unmistakable implication for the Catholic Church of the 21st century in the West. For if Christophobia is one major obstacle to the flourishing of a New Evangelisation that will be a culture-healing presence in all of society, so is ecclesiastical pusillanimity: a timid response to the challenges of Christophobia and the dictatorship of relativism, married to a less-than-fervid embrace of the New Evangelisation, both born of an internalised sense of marginality to the tides of history as they are flowing in the 21st century. This is the timidity from which Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been calling the Church throughout the Western world. This is the timidity to which the antidote is the courage to be Catholic: vibrantly, compellingly, evangelically Catholic, not out of some cranky wish to recreate the old regimes (however we imagine them), but out of an apostolic passion to bring the Gospel to the world-and in so doing, to create conditions for the possibility of free and virtuous societies.
And to form these disciples and leaders, the demands of the New Evangelisation require the Church throughout the Anglosphere to learn the lesson that Blessed John Henry Newman tried to teach more than a century ago, and that the sad fate of liberal Protestantism and the disintegration of the Anglican Communion illustrate in our time: that "religion as mere sentiment [...] is a dream and a mockery." Religion as "mere sentiment" is our search for God, which inevitably ends up in the sandbox of our own self-absorption, where anything may be countenanced as an expression of my "authenticity." Biblical religion, by contrast, is about God's search for us, and our learning to take the same path through history that God is taking: a journey guided, Catholics affirm, by the doctrines of the Church and the regula fidei, the rule of life that is the sacramental system. The New Evangelisation requires teachers who teach that, pastors who support that, and disciples who believe that – and believe it, not as a personal lifestyle option, but as the revealed truth of the world, which has been given into our completely unworthy and often trembling hands. It requires evangelical Catholic communities in mission like St Patrick's, Soho.
The late French journalist André Frossard was a convert to Catholicism from the fashionable atheism of his class, an atheism that was once a Parisian intellectual fad but that has now taken on a much harder, Christophobic edge across the 21st-century Western world. When Frossard saw John Paul II at the Mass marking the beginning of the Pope's public ministry on October 22, 1978, he wired back to his Paris newspaper, "This is not a pope from Poland; this is a pope from Galilee." It was a brilliant metaphor, and it still speaks to us today.
For that is where the Leonine revival that has reached its fulfillment in John Paul II and Benedict XVI, heirs and authentic interpreters of the Second Vatican Council, is inviting us: it is inviting us to Galilee, and then beyond Galilee. We are being invited to meet the Risen Lord in the Scripture, the sacraments, and prayer, and to make friendship with him the centre of our lives. We are being invited to think of ourselves as evangelists, and to measure the truth of our lives by the way in which we give expression to the human decency and solidarity that flows from friendship with Christ the Lord. We are being invited, through the New Evangelisation, to make our distinctive, Catholic contribution to the renewal, and perhaps the saving, of Western civilisation, which is beset from within by the corrosive forces of the dictatorship of relativism and from without by the passions of jihadist Islam.
Through the witness of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, we are being invited to have the courage to be Catholic. Whether we accept that invitation or not, God's purposes will be vindicated. But a lot of what happens to the West during this century will depend on whether a critical mass of men and women embrace the Gospel in full, and have the courage to take the Gospel beyond Galilee and out to the nations.
This is an edited version of a lecture given at St Patrick’s Church, Soho on June 2, 2011 George Weigel.
Reprinted with permission of Standpoint.
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George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explore.
George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.
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