Tuesday 19 March 2013

An Open Letter To George Weigel

To our brother, George:

It is wonderful how the election of a new pope causes the world to stop for a time and listen. We heard the words of Pope Francis describing his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, as “the man of the poor. The man of peace. The man who loved and cared for creation.” Perhaps with astonishment, we heard him add, “How I would like a poor church…and for the poor.” Such a moment calls to mind the role that earlier popes have played in world affairs, and the legacies they have left us. For many Americans, the papacy of John Paul II, for example, is seen through the lenses supplied by you, his most famous English-language biographer.

And now, in close coincidence with the accession of Pope Francis, we note the publication of your latest book, Evangelical Catholicism, with its particular project for the Church, one which we believe would benefit from further reflection as well. In its Prologue, you explain what you do not intend by this term: Evangelical Catholicism does not refer to borrowing techniques from the evangelical churches, nor to some particularly American religious ethos, nor to some particular response to the clerical abuse crisis.

Rather surprisingly to us as we read the book, neither does evangelical Catholicism apparently have any reference to questions of political economy, to the condition of the poor or to the state of the environment–all of them themes dear to the new pontiff’s heart, as we are discovering, just as they were to his predecessor. In your interpretation, evangelical Catholicism seems to be mostly about getting catechetics and metaphysics right. “Evangelical Catholicism,” you say, “is the Catholicism that is being born, often with great difficulty, through the work of the Holy Spirit in prompting deep Catholic reform — a reform that meets the challenges posed to Christian orthodoxy and Christian life by the riptides of change that have reshaped world culture since the 19th century.”

You conclude, “Grasped in its fullness, Evangelical Catholicism invites Catholics (and indeed all who are interested in the Catholic Church) to move beyond the left/right surface arguments of past decades, which were largely about ecclesiastical power, and into a deeper reflection on the missionary heart of the Church — and to consider how that heart might be given expression in the 21st century and the third millennium. Evangelical Catholicism is about the future. Grasping its essence, however, means learning a new way of looking at the recent Catholic past.”

As admirers of your earlier work, we wish to take you up on your suggestion of looking anew at the recent Catholic—and non-Catholic—past. In particular, while we share your devotion to the “free and virtuous society,” it is the way in which those virtues should condition our freedom that we wish to discuss here by posing the following questions to you:
  • The recession of 2008, the consolidation of financial assets (especially in the banking industry), the impact of unmanaged globalization, and the looming threats of economic collapse due to the severity of the austerity measures now grinding European societies into a grim destitution: all of these world-shaking developments have been often and urgently addressed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, by Pope Francis, by many other Church leaders and by many fellow figures of American conservatism. How is it that you, with your background in modern Catholic social thought, have chosen not to comment prominently on these sufferings in the body of the Church and beyond?

  • As one of America’s better-known public intellectuals, you demonstrate a range of understanding in many areas of thought. Yet you exhibit no particular curiosity about questions of political economy. Were these matters truly settled to your satisfaction in the Reagan-era debates over globalization and what came to be called neoliberalism? We cannot think so, and invite you to consider carefully the work of such individuals as your Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague John Mueller, University of Dallas professor John Medaille, and Professor Stefano Zamagni (a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Studies). These and other figures have inspired a movement called, variously, natural law economics, the economy of communion, and (in the case of the encyclical Caritas in Veritate) the “gift economy.” Of these hopeful and reflective new ways of looking at the recent Catholic past, you’ve had very little or nothing to say, other than arguing that the Church keep a lower profile in public policy debates on the principle that “less is more.” Can the Church really avoid addressing such critical questions on the pretext that they are, as you maintain, matters of “technical solutions” beyond the Church’s competence? Would you not concede that this scientistic notion of economics has led us blindly to the purest kind of materialistic economism?

  • While decrying “the left/right surface arguments of past decades,” your preferred way to address many Catholic groups with whom you differ often includes a certain amount of muted sarcasm.  For example, you’ve written of “proponents of granola and Corona-lite gnosticism” and the like. Is it not time to acknowledge that a culture warrior makes for a poor evangelist—or evangelical Catholic?

  • Although the Western democracies won the Cold War, perhaps you would agree with our recent Popes that we then lost the peace in many respects. Similarly, we believe the Culture War has had unintended consequences. By some lights, the recent presidential election demonstrated that the pro-life movement has allowed itself to lapse into a “half-life” movement mostly based in mailing-list politics and legal threats. Its adherents have too often left the critique of other social evils to their pro-choice opponents, with the result that in our public discussions, the wickedness of abortion has been camouflaged behind a mantle of concern for poverty, for social inequality, and for women’s well-being. Those on the left who care about these latter issues have been told that in order to be true to their moral intuitions about the importance of helping women get out of poverty, and the importance of making sure that every child has a good chance at a flourishing life, they must deafen themselves to their moral intuition about abortion. How much good might you do for the pro-life movement should you chose to argue forcefully for a “both-and” view of this issue–i.e., on behalf of a “whole life” view?

  • Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly addressed the grave environmental challenges facing the world in both his writings and in his public pronouncements. There is every reason to expect that Pope Francis will continue in the same vein.  Given the commodification and extractive exploitation of the natural world, and the great burden this places on the world’s poor and also on future generations, would you join us (and now a second Magisterium) in calling for a continued emphasis on faithful stewardship of the environment and its resources for the common benefit of all humanity?

  • While having written extensively about the dangers of a selective approach to Catholic doctrine and teachings, you uncharacteristically recommended that your readers approach Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate with gold and red pens in hand, red for any criticism of neoliberal orthodoxy (such as that favored by the Acton Institute), gold for unobjectionable criticism of the culture of death. Are you not thereby facilitating precisely the cafeteria Catholic’s approach to such documents? Do you not believe that living “lives of moral heroism against the conventions of the age” has to include a rejection of consumerism and the whole complex of cultural values associated with it?

  • Echoing the sentiments of his 20th Century predecessors, Pope John Paul II once stated, “War is always a defeat for humanity.” You beg to differ, and have dedicated a good part of your public career to espousing your interpretation of just war principles, which you vigorously asserted in the case of the Iraq War. A decade later, in the aftermath of one of the worst humanitarian and moral disasters in recent world history, that “Marshall Plan for the New American Century” looks very different. Given your prominence in reconciling faithful Catholics to this series of decisions, might we ask whether any second thoughts have occurred to you (as they certainly have to fellow conservatives such as David Frum and others) on the conflict? How would you evaluate your own prudential judgment, historically speaking, in making the principled case for this particular war? Would you not acknowledge that our American leadership of our recent almost interminable conflicts is a product of a technocratic hubris completely alien to the generation of George Marshall and George Kennan? If the Vatican is wise to eschew recommending “technical solutions,” as you advise, due to its supposed lack of competence in such matters, how much worse has the supposed expertise of our secular leadership proven to be? Who, as we now can see, spoke up in a timely way for prudence and a sense of human limits here?

  • Finally, you have repeatedly invoked John Courtney Murray’s contributions to the Church as a model for integrating authentic Catholic teaching with American-style liberal democracy. Yet surely you are aware that Murray’s ideas partly inspired the “Hyannisport Conclave” of 1964, which laid the groundwork for legalized abortion on liberty grounds, or what Justice Kennedy has called “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Have you reflected on the fact that political liberalism, especially in the American context, has become a powerful relativizing force, and that perhaps Murray’s contributions ought to be reconsidered in the light of the accelerating secularization of American society since the Council? Should our new way of looking at the past not include a revaluation of Murray’s legacy and its unintended consequences?

And so we call upon you to join Pope Francis in working to make the next century’s Catholicism—preferably without any qualifying adjectives–free from elements of materialistic/technocratic Gnosticism, neoliberal ideology, a less-than-critical faith in market mechanisms or indeed any fear of the very Incarnation we should hope to glimpse in the faces of our own neighbors.

And we hope that our efforts at a kind of fraternal engagement with you here will be received in the charitable spirit that inspired them: a desire to honor your fidelity in speaking up for the most vulnerable in society, and a request for you to join us in linking the cause of those most vulnerable with the cause of others victimized by the rampant commodification of persons and planet that is one of the darkest legacies of the century just past.


Elias Crim, publisher, Solidarity Hall
Mark Gordon, contributing editor, Solidarity Hall
Michael Stafford, Catholic attorney and syndicated columnist
John Medaille, University of Dallas

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