On the Sheer Implausibility of George Weigel’s Story
In his 1989 book, Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy, George Weigel describes then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as a “precise man” and that we should expect that the good Cardinal chooses and uses words “precisely” (p. 15). Roughly sixteen years later, at the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy, Weigel published a book with the title God’s Choice, no doubt referring to Cardinal Ratzinger’s providential rise. In a 2005 televised discussion with Nihad Awad, a scholar of Islam, on Newshour with Jim Leher, Weigel described Pope Benedict XVI as “a world-class scholar, a gentleman, who says what he means and means what he says.” But it appears that, as of yesterday, Weigel may have changed his mind.
In a widely circulated National Review piece that has been harshly criticized by Catholics across the American political spectrum, Weigel does not extol the virtues of Pope Benedict XVI’s precision and deftness in communication. Rather, Weigel paints the Pope as an appeaser who capitulated to the demands of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, which “has been pining for revenge” ever since its drafts for Pope John Paul II’s third social encyclical (Weigel alleges) were rejected.
Weigel’s piece reads much like the script of a bad telenovela, which led exasperated bloggers to initially mock the piece (the most humorous, in my opinion, being here and here). I do not wish to mock what Weigel wrote. Rather, I wish only to consider briefly its implications, which I think show how truly implausible his story really is.
Let me first say that I have long been an admirer of much of Weigel’s work. My devotion to Pope John Paul II is largely a product of my reading of Weigel’s Witness to Hope, which remains the standard and most impressive biography ever written on the late Pope. I honestly enjoy his books on Catholicism and politics. Accordingly, Weigel was the last Catholic commentator I suspected would provide an altogether unmeasured and grossly unjust review of the new encyclical.
Weigel issues two main charges with respect to the penning of Caritas in Veritate, all of which are shallow and unscrupulous:
1. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has been revenge-hungry since “the Waterloo for Justice and Peace” in the early 1990’s and overbearingly pushed Pope Benedict XVI to incorporate its points into the new encyclical.
2. Pope Benedict XVI “evidently believed he had to try and accommodate” the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace “in order to maintain the peace within his curial household.”
Let’s take these charges one at a time.
As to 1: Weigel was granted unprecedented access to both John Paul II and the Roman Curia officials while writing the pope’s biography. Weigel made several contacts at the Vatican and was, no doubt, a reliable source on the inner workings of John Paul II’s pontificate. These facts certainly lend to credibility when Weigel relates a story of the tensions between the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and John Paul II, that is, if there were any at all. Interestingly, Weigel mentions no such tension in his nearly 1,000 page, meticulously researched Witness to Hope. The National Review material seems to come out of nowhere, and there Weigel provides us with no citations or sources for the drama of the drafting of Centesimus Annus. What Weigel does tell us in Witness to Hope is that Roger Cardinal Etchegaray, President of the Council for Justice and Peace from 1984-98 , and Bishop Jorge Mejía, the Council’s deputy at the time, were among the Pope’s top, hand-selected consultants on issues of diplomacy and world religions (pp. 330, 447, 512-13). In Witness to Hope, Weigel paints a very different picture of the Pope’s collaboration and relationship with the Council. Consider first the National Review article where Weigel describes the affair:
The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which imagines itself the curial keeper of the flame of authentic Catholic social teaching, prepared a draft, which was duly sent to Pope John Paul II — who had already had a bad experience with the conventionally gauchiste and not-very-original thinking at Justice and Peace during the preparation of the 1987 social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. John Paul shared the proposed draft with colleagues in whose judgment he reposed trust; one prominent intellectual who had long been in conversation with the Pope told him that the draft was unacceptable, in that it simply did not reflect the way the global economy of the post–Cold War world worked.
So John Paul dumped the Justice and Peace draft and crafted an encyclical that was a fitting commemoration of Rerum Novarum.
But in the official biography of Pope John Paul II, which would be read by those who also had knowledge of the inner workings of Vatican and whose facts and data would no doubt need to be honed to accord with the actual events, tells a different tale of close cooperation and respect:
That there would be a centenary encyclical to celebrate Rerum Novarum was a given. In it, John Paul wanted to tackle questions of contemporary economics. So he said to his classmate, Bishop Jorge Mejía of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, “Perhaps we should hear some economists.” Mejía took the hint and, to help prepare the intellectual ground for drafting the encyclical, Justice and Peace invited a group of distinguished economists of various schools to a meeting at the Vatican on November 5, 1990. After a morning session at the Pontifical Council’s offices, the economists were driven to the Apostolic Palace, where John Paul II hosted them at a working lunch. Bishop Mejía led the discussion, drawing comments from each of the economists invited. John Paul II questioned the scholars “very sharply, though certainly pleasantly,” Professor Robert Lucas recalled. Lucas found himself impressed with the Pope’s “intelligence and seriousness” and with his “complete lack of ceremony and pomposity.” After their luncheon discussion with the Pope, the economists returned to the Pontifical Council to continue the debate.
In due course, a “synthesis” to guide the drafting of the centenary encyclical was developed by the Pontifical Council. John Paul studied this and circulated it among his intellectual interlocutors, including the Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione, who had known Cardinal Wojtyla in Kraków and had published the best study of John Paul’s pre-papal intellectual project, the 1982 volume, Il Pensiero di Karol Wojtyla [The Thought of Karol Wojtyla]. Out of these conversations, John Paul decided that the new encyclical should make more use of the personalism central to his philosophical studies than the curial “synthesis” had, and ought to reflect more closely the empirical realities of today’s world economy. It then become clear that these two concerns could be combined, so that the encyclical’s moral analysis of the economy would emerge out of John Paul’s philosophy of moral action. The result was an encyclical that did not deal with economics from the top down, in terms of macro-aggregates, but from the bottom up. (Witness to Hope, 613).
Notice that the biography does not mention anything about “dumping” the Justice and Peace draft (in fact, the biography says nothing about a draft from the Council but a “synthesis” that would guide the actual drafting). Rather, the biography depicts a close collaboration between Bishop Mejía of Justice and Peace and John Paul II on the technical, economic analysis of the encyclical and a consultation between Buttiglione and John Paul II on the philosophical and moral aspects of the encyclical (the latter, obviously, making up the core). There is no mention of a scrapping of the Justice and Peace draft, nor is there any hint that John Paul II worked independently of Justice and Peace, nor is there anything written about any animosity among the Pope and his curial officials. From the commencing of the groundwork for Centesimus Annus to its completion, Weigel informs us that John Paul II assigned much of the legwork to the Council for Justice and Peace, which leaves us with an impression quite different than that which the undocumented, unsubstantiated National Review piece does.
As problematic as Weigel’s inconsistency in describing the cooperation of the Council for Justice and Peace and John Paul II is, what is more striking is the suggestion that the Council “has been pining for revenge” since 1990. This assertion is well beyond credulity. The Council’s president in 1990 was Cardinal Etchegary. In the intervening 19 years, the Council has had two other presidents, François-Xavier Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận (1998-2002) and Renato Cardinal Martino (2002-present). According to Weigel, the Council’s vindictiveness would have to have spanned across the terms of these three men, as well as across those of the countless Justice and Peace officials who have come and gone over the past nineteen years.
Bear in mind, too, that Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận was in a Vietnamese prison from 1975 until 1988 and was kept under house arrest in Vietnam from 1988 to 1991. Obviously, he was nowhere near the Vatican during the drafting and promulgation of Centesimus Annus. Furthermore, Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận is up for beatification, so here we have Weigel insinuating that a man who was imprisoned by his own government and is saint-material would harbor a grudge against John Paul II over alleged events that of which he was no part. I think more pressing things were on the good Cardinal’s mind. Cardinal Martino took over the Council of Justice and Peace in 2002 and, after the death of John Paul II, was reappointed by Pope Benedict XVI. During the drafting of Centesimus Annus, Cardinal Martino was Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations. He had no share of the work behind the encyclical. And yet, for Weigel’s charge to stick, both of these cardinals would have had to buy into some vendetta that issued from Cardinal Etchegaray’s years with the Council. Highly improbable.
These facts make Weigel’s charge that the Council for Justice and Peace has been out for revenge for the last nineteen years utterly implausible. There is absolutely nothing to substantiate his reckless claim. Not only does it seem that his National Review piece grossly exaggerates the different plans of the Council and John Paul II on the direction of Centesimus Annus, but also there is no reason for any reasonable person to think that the Council today in any way resembles the personalities and policies it had in 1990-91. And the bottom line is Weigel has not enjoyed the same access and insight into Vatican affairs under Benedict XVI that he did in his years as John Paul II’s biographer. When Weigel postures behind his “advanced degrees in Vaticanology” we need to be suspicious of anything that he utters about the pontificate of Benedict XVI that is not substantiated and well-referenced.
As to 2: Weigel admonishes us to divide Caritas in Veritate into sections that are “obviously Benedictine” and those that clearly “reflect current Justice and Peace default positions” (presumably, Weigel wants us to take the former seriously and to look suspiciously and, perhaps, dismissively at the latter). The “Benedictine” parts include the discussion of charity and truth, the link between life ethics and social ethics, and the relation of economic development to religious freedom. The Justice and Peace parts include the discussion on foreign aid, redistribution of wealth, and world public authority. Now, is it only a coincidence that the political and economic positions attributed to Benedict in the National Review piece are those with which Weigel already agrees and that the positions attributed to Justice and Peace are those with which Weigel already disagrees? Perhaps, perhaps not, but the villainizing of the Council for Justice and Peace may help to mitigate the backlash against the Pope’s encyclical from two ideologically American-conservative organizations that support Weigel’s work, namely the National Review and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. These ideological outfits turn to Weigel as one of their main point-men in Catholic matters, and I assume they don’t want to be disappointed by Catholicism.
Ironically, the same encyclical that Weigel is reviewing actually warns us not to do what Weigel has done, that is, to parse through Catholic social teaching and to erect artificial walls between hand-selected fragments:
It is not a case of two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new. It is one thing to draw attention to the particular characteristics of one Encyclical or another, of the teaching of one Pope or another, but quite another to lose sight of the coherence of the overall doctrinal corpus. Coherence does not mean a closed system: on the contrary, it means dynamic faithfulness to a light received. The Church’s social doctrine illuminates with an unchanging light the new problems that are constantly emerging. This safeguards the permanent and historical character of the doctrinal “patrimony” which, with its specific characteristics, is part and parcel of the Church’s ever-living Tradition. (Caritas in Veritate, 12)
Caritas in Veritate is a single, cohesive whole whose teaching should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has kept up with Pope Benedict XVI’s political writings (especially Turning Point for Europe and Europe), which have always leaned away from neo-liberalism. But more importantly, Benedict XVI tells us to read papal social thought as a a single, undivided “patrimony.” Indeed, Benedict XVI preempts Weigel’s attempt to cut up the newest installment of that patrimony. No parts are more important or authoritative than any others, despite what Weigel may try to repackage to individuals who are at ideological odds with Catholic social thought.
But let us just say, for the sake of argument, that Weigel is correct. Let us say that the Council for Justice and Peace actually wrote whole portions of this encyclical. Would that give us license to dismiss or neglect those portions? Of course not. The promulgation of a papal encyclical is a solemn occasion which gives full papal authority to the contents of said encyclical. Caritas in Veritate will go down in the annals of Catholic history as Pope Benedict XVI’s work. What matters is not how the doctrinal piece is written, but who promulgates the piece. Besides, it is well known that Popes Leo XIII, Pius IX, and Pius XII had curial officials and collaborators write many of their encyclicals, just as it is well known that the conciliar documents of the Councils of Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II were written mostly by theologians rather than the bishops or popes. What makes a Church document and its teaching authoritative is its promulgation or ratification by a pope or ecumenical council. Thus, no matter how Caritas in Veritate was written, its content is fully presented under the authority of Benedict XVI.
Finally, just consider the implications of what Weigel is saying with respect to Benedict XVI’s character. If Weigel is correct–if the Pope caved in to the Council for Justice and Peace–then we have a serious problem with our ecclesial leadership. What Weigel is telling us is that Pope Benedict XVI incorporated positions that were not his own into his first social encyclical. He didn’t do this in a speech, homily, address, or apostolic letter, but in an encyclical! Weigel is telling us that the Pope was willing to use the authority of a papal encyclical just “to maintain the peace within his curial household,” meanwhile misleading the faithful into believing that the contents of that encyclical are an authentic expression of papal teaching. If this narrative is true, then Weigel is telling us that the character and pastoral discretion of the Pope is up for serious questioning. Weigel is telling us that Benedict XVI really doesn’t mean what he says in the encyclical about the importance of Populorum Progressio, distributive justice, and the logic of gift, which is tantamount to accusing the Pope of being, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, dishonest, to the faithful of the Catholic Church. What is certain is that Weigel has retracted his earlier statements about Benedict XVI’s precision in communication, that the Pope “says what he means and means what he says.” Evidently, Weigel no longer believes this.
In all seriousness, does this sound like a move Benedict XVI–the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the aggressor in the war against the dictatorship of relativism–would make? Is Benedict XVI so weak and “gentle” that he felt he had not choice but to capitulate to the very men that he hand-picked to assist him? Did Benedict XVI really surround himself with shady curial figures bent on avenging their Vatican Waterloo? Is it even in the Catholic spirit to cast such shadows on our leaders without due cause?
What Weigel appears to me to be doing is minimizing the force of Caritas in Veritate. He seems to be bent on explaining away those political and economic positions that resemble the “then-popular leftist and progressive conceptions” that played a role in Populorum Progressio. What really seems to be going on here is this: Weigel is expressing his discomfort with Caritas in Veritate and those elements that are contrary to the neo-liberal positions to which he clings. For years he has been proclaiming the alleged liberalism of John Paul II in an effort to bring together Catholic social principles and conservative ideology in America. The latest encyclical threatens this union, so Weigel has invented sources of light (who write with gold ink) and darkness (who write in red ink), situating them together in a grand epic that narrates their clashes in the writing of papal social encyclicals. Weigel, then, fancies himself our guide through the story (since he has those degrees in Vaticanology), parsing out whats good and true, and what is just “clotted and muddled.” Ah, the imagination runs wild!
Of course, the informed and intelligent thing to do is to dismiss outright Weigel’s curial conspiracy as a fanciful fabrication, too implausible to be taken seriously. I think the best course is to read and ponder this new encyclical, whose depth, insight, and courage will always escape the ideological straitjackets Weigel has designed for it. I believe that would be a good start toward living charity in truth.
George Weigel, Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1989).
—, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).