An interview with George Weigel
Mar 2, 2018
Deacon Kyle Eller, N/C
On March 12, St. John the Evangelist Church in Duluth, fresh off hosting the daughter of St. Gianna Molla in October, will host another distinguished guest: George Weigel, who is a distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and public Policy Center, author of three volumes on the life of Pope St. John Paul, and a distinguished conservative Catholic intellectual and media figure.
The event at St. John’s will focus on St. John Paul II. It will begin with Mass at 6:30 p.m. and be followed by Weigel’s presentation, based on his latest book, “Lessons in Hope,” the third of his volumes on John Paul.
Weigel agreed to be interviewed by email in advance of his appearance this month. The interview follows:
The Northern Cross: Would you tell our readers a bit about what you will be speaking on in Duluth? I understand from Father Kunst that it is related to your newest book, about your personal friendship with Pope St. John Paul II.
Weigel: Yes, that’s right. I’ll be talking about “Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II,” but also about the pope and his legacy. “Lessons in Hope” is a book, of stories, quite different in that sense from the two volumes of my John Paul II biography, “Witness to Hope” and “The End and the Beginning,” so I hope the talk (and the book) will help people come to know John Paul is a more personal way.
TNC: Is there an anecdote from that friendship you would be willing share to give readers a flavor of what you will be talking about?
Weigel: In March 1996, John Paul said to me, in respect of other biographical efforts, “They try to understand me from outside, but I can only be understood from inside.” That idea — learning a saint “from inside” — will help frame my remarks. I’ll also be introducing the audience to some of the remarkable cast of characters that surrounded John Paul II, and helped form his “inside.”
TNC: It’s now nearly 13 years since Pope John Paul went to the house of the Father. Those days were so full of powerful, memorable scenes: his last gestures, the large, peaceful crowds, the cries that he immediately be recognized a saint. I’m sure they must often come to mind for you. Now, more than a decade later, is he remembered and revered as you imagined he would be? Or to put it another way, how do you see John Paul’s place in the church as a member of the Church Triumphant?
Weigel: He’s obviously a venerated figure all over the world. Unfortunately, his insistence on the great Catholic “both/and” — truth and mercy, revelation and reason, love and responsibility — is being forgotten in some parts of the church. And it doesn’t seem as if the senior diplomats of the Vatican have learned much from the most politically consequential pope in a millennium, which is a real shame. As for John Paul’s place as a member of the Church Triumphant, I’m sure he’s a powerful intercessor for many people — as well as a continuing model for priests and bishops.
TNC: St. John Paul’s long, fruitful pontificate left a great body of teaching, and many of the issues he dealt with not only remain with us but sometimes have come dramatically to the fore. I’m thinking, for instance, of his Theology of the Body and the meaning and “language” of the body in an adequate Christian anthropology, and how this relates to gender ideology and the definition of marriage; or of his great teachings on the family in light of contemporary ecclesiastical debates about pastoral outreach to those in irregular situations; or of his great encyclical on moral theology in light of debates over the meaning of Christian conscience. What, in your view, are some of the most important things John Paul’s teaching has still to offer us in 2018?
Weigel: The Theology of the Body is the most coherent Catholic response to the cultural tsunami of the sexual revolution ever articulated, and ought to be a much larger part of catechesis and marriage preparation, although it’s already had an effect on both. John Paul’s social doctrine, with its emphasis on the imperative of a vibrant public moral culture for both democracy and the free economy, has a lot to say to contemporary American discontents. And then there is Veritatis Splendor, the great encyclical on moral theology, which tried to re-ballast a Western world collapsing into moral subjectivism; that’s still a huge issue, and there is much still to learn from Veritatis Splendor. I’d also cite his encyclical on faith and reason, which ought to be read by every Catholic educator today, as we try to keep Catholic education, especially Catholic higher education, from imploding into the incoherence you see on so many campuses today.
TNC: Many believe that Pope John Paul II changed people’s expectations of the papacy, because of his great gifts of charisma and communication and his willingness to travel the world and evangelize and be a public figure. Pope Francis is also a pope who seems to embrace that kind of a role. (In fact, some who are younger may not recall that there was a pope with “star power” before Francis.) How would you compare and contrast the way they live out that aspect of their ministry?
Weigel: The pope has been at the center of the world Catholic conversation — and the world’s perception of the Church — at least since Pius IX (1846-1878), and perhaps since Pius VII (1800-1823). There are obvious advantages to this, but there are also disadvantages. The pope cannot and should not be the protagonist of everything in the Church. We all have our roles in the Body of Christ, and we all have a responsibility to live as missionary disciples. Both John Paul II and Francis have insisted on that.
— By Deacon Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross