George Weigel on the Church’s Answer to Cultural Woes

The writer enthralled listeners in New Haven as he gave insights into these times and the Church’s answer to them.

George Weigel in 2015
George Weigel in 2015 (photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

“The times offer a very large terrain of troubles in our country, in the world and in the Church,” said George Weigel in opening his talk that enthralled a large audience at St. Mary Church, the birthplace of the Knights of Columbus, in New Haven, Connecticut. The distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center shared thoughts based on his latest book, The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent TimesWeigel’s April 8 appearance was sponsored and arranged by the Thomistic Institute, an academic institute of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., with three chapters at Yale. He did not disappoint.

He set the scene: We’re “subjected on an hourly basis to politics by tweets” by a whole cast of characters, we see “new forms of aggression all over the world and in America,” and in the Church “we are in an unexpected period of doctrinal and moral instability after a period of some stability in the life and thought of the Church during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”

While his book addresses all three topics in detail, he shared insights into these “terrains of trouble” in concise ways, with the “overarching theme,” which is “order.” He said it did not mean things remaining as they are, but progressing with “agreed-upon guideposts or guard rails to guide us to create a human future. That kind of order can never be taken for granted.” The “ordering of public life is an accomplishment that has to be constantly achieved.”

Weigel asked what the Catholic Church has to offer when “putting some order into thinking that the American future, and time with that future, is being evermore being bitterly contested across the political spectrum.”

He answered, “What the essential doctrine of the Church offers us” is “unlike perhaps any other body of thought presently available … the fundamental ideas of the modern Catholic social doctrine,” which he then outlined. He got chuckles from the audience upon calling his approach a Catholic version of the old, highly popular Classics Comics.

The basis and building points, Weigel said, have been articulated by Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI and John Paul II. Leo XIII put the “two foundational principles” into place, beginning with Rerum Novarum.

“The first of these principles is typically referred to as personalism.” Contemporary vocabulary “might call it human rights,” he said.

“According to the personalist principle as the basis of Catholic social doctrine,” Weigel explained, “all right thinking about society and politics begins with the inalienable dignity and value of the human person. It does not begin with the state … party … tribe … social group or gender.” It means “society and the state exist to serve the flourishing of human beings” because what we call “human rights are built into the human person. … You enjoy that right by virtue of who you are. And the state is to acknowledge that and indeed protect” it.

Leo XII complemented personalism with a second principle “technically called the common good or what we might call … the communitarian principle.” Weigel explained the meaning: “Men and women grow into the fullness of their humanity through relationships.”

In 1931 Pius XI added a third foundational principle in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Leo’s groundbreaking Rerum Novarum.

With this third principle, Pius XI “cements into this Catholic social doctrine what in the vocabulary of theology we call the principle of subsidiarity, or what we might call the principle of civil society,” Weigel said. In 1931, when “the long shadow of totalitarianism” was extending, “Pius XI proposed his principle of subsidiarity, according to which ... decision-making in society should be left at the lowest possible level commensurate with the common good.” In other words: Don’t ask the national government to run the local farm.

“This subsidiarity principle inoculated Catholic social doctrine from the totalitarian temptation which is perennial ... because it provides an easy answer to the confusions, consternations, instabilities of the majority’s ‘Let’s just have somebody settle everything mentality.’”


John Paul II Builds on the Foundation

Next, St. John Paul II arrived and cemented a fourth great principle into the foundation that, Weigel said, “we call the principle of solidarity, or the principle of civic friendship. The free and virtuous society of the future, John Paul II taught, depends on a deeper level of human relationships than mere contracts.” John Paul II required “a sense of obligation.”

Weigel, author of St. John Paul II’s biography Witness to Hope, illustrated how American saw this this principle at work, particularly in the New York metropolitan area and Washington, D.C., during 9/11, as “people who had no idea who they were risking their life for put themselves in harm’s way out of a sense of solidarity and obligation” and “sense of mutual purpose.”

Next, John Paul II laid out what Weigel believes “fills out this template” and that “might be of some use putting order into our American domestic future.” These “serious penetrating insights” are developed in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus.

The first, “the free and virtuous society of the future,” is composed of three interlocking parts — “the democratic political community,” which is “popular participation in government ... free economy and a vibrant moral culture.”

Weigel emphasized that the third is the most vital part. “The cultural sector is the key to the proper functioning of the democratic political community and the free economy. Why? Because free politics and free economics let loose tremendous human energies. And therefore the society with these energies needs a vibrant public moral culture to discipline and direct those energies so that they result in the flourishing of individual human beings, the common good, solidarity and, ultimately, beatitude.”

He continued, “It requires a certain kind of people possessed with certain kind of virtues if these impressive machines are not to self-destruct.” Weigel pointed out the “beautifully balanced machine” of the Weimar republic ended up producing the Third Reich. John Paul II never forgot that “the Third Reich came to power through a democratic process.” The Pope knew the necessity “to form those habits of heart and mind that make proper functioning of democracy and the market. And it’s the task of the Church to help form that culture by forming the individuals who create the culture.”


Church’s Part

“The Church,” Weigel said, “offers a vision of the human person and the free and virtuous society … to shape a culture capable of disciplining the energies of freedom, both politically and economically, so that the result is … the flourishing of individuals, the common good, the sense of solidarity, ultimately beatitude.”

“At the center of that culture-formation project, and here we come to the third point,” he added, “is a richer, nobler concept of freedom than that which dominates in our public life today.”

“John Paul II taught that freedom must be tethered to moral truth if freedom is not to be self-cannibalized. If freedom is reduced, as it so often is today, to a free-floating faculty of choice that can attach itself to anything, this freedom of indifference will eventually erode the machinery of democracy. Why? Because freedom is simply a question of my truth contested with your truth. Both of us arrive at that truth simply as a matter of will. … What happens when your truths and my truths conflict and neither one of us recognizes something called ‘The Truth’ by which we can settle the argument? … Either you will impose your power on me, or I will impose my power on you.”

The result? “We get what Benedict XVI talked about so many times — the dictatorship of relativism,” he explained,  adding that is when power is used “to coerce, or force, or impose on all of society the relativistic morality. Rather than this freedom of indifference, freedom that is mere willfulness, the Catholic Church proposes freedom for excellence … freedom as a virtue … and doing that as a matter of habit.”

As coined by a Dominican, Weigel said, it’s the difference between “freedom of indifference” and “freedom for excellence.” Being indifferent, anyone can bang on a piano to make noise. Wanting to make excellent music requires exercising a mature freedom to learn the skills “often acquired by often dull exercises to train your fingers to do what you want.” Or think of a 3-year-old, who “manifests the freedom of indifference 24-7.”

What transforms one from being a tyrant to someone looking out for the common good is “the fourth idea, and that is the crucial importance of the voluntary association in society. It’s not just the individual in the state. It’s everything from the natural association of the family to voluntarily enter associations like businesses, unions, social political and cultural groups — all of these John Paul II said are essential to the free and virtuous society. These civil society institutions, beginning with family, John Paul II would say, are the first schools of freedom.”

Weigel emphasized another of John Paul II’s major insights. “Centesimus Annus breaks with the thought of Catholic social doctrine that really dominated up through Pope Paul VI,” he said. “And that was the notion that wealth is stuff — wealth is in the land, or resources, or stuff you make out of land and resources.” Because there is “a finite amount of stuff, the primary moral question becomes: How do you equitably divide up stuff” among everyone?

John Paul II “understood that in the late 20th and early 21st centuries wealth was no longer just stuff … wasn’t even primarily stuff. Wealth was a matter of ideas, skills, entrepreneurial instincts, applied to stuff so that wealth actually grew. ... Wealth resides in the human mind, in human creativity. If that’s what wealth is, the moral question shifts from distribution to inclusion.”

This brought about thinking of poverty in a new way. John Paul II saw the lack of basics in certain parts of the world, but “in most of the world it was primarily a problem of exclusion. People were excluded from, or did not have the skills and personal habits to engage in, those networks of production and exchange where wealth was created,” Weigel said. “We should think of the poor, he urged us, not as an abstract problem to be solved but … as people with potential to be unleashed. Therefore, he was very critical of social-welfare systems that led to welfare dependency.” Instead, there should be educational systems that aim at bringing the poor into the circle of personal empowerment, such as Christo Rey schools — “Empowerment of the poor through Catholic education.”

Weigel honed in on yet another point from John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor: “The quality of persons is a fundamental principle of democratic society, but “the fact presented to us 24/7 is human inequality.”

John Paul II’s “very creative suggestion” was that “the equal obligation of everyone [is] before the principles of the moral law, especially the obligation to avoid intrinsically evil matters — things that are simply wrong in and of themselves.” Weigel gave the example of rape and destruction of someone’s character by lying as part of a long list.

“We’re all obligated to honor the ‘Thou shalt nots’ about intrinsically evil acts,” he said. But the problem today “is a great number of not only intellectuals, but of our fellow citizens, believe there are no such things as moral truths embedded in us and in the world.”

This leads to what John Paul II built “on top of this edifice” in Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life). “[D]emocracies risk self-destruction if what we can know to be moral wrongs, namely the willful taking of innocent human life, for example, can be legally defended as rights.”

He pointed to the ongoing battle over the right to life of the unborn in the last 46 years since Roe v. Wade.

Weigel added, “This is a huge issue … there is a serious threat to the democratic future, John Paul II would say … which then lays upon us the obligation to help people who find themselves in very difficult situations.” For example, “the essential complement to right-to-life advocacy is the crisis-pregnancy center.” And don’t forget “the euthanasia juggernaut,” where more human dignity is at stake, Weigel continued.

“John Paul II said ‘to reduce human beings to useful or useless objects deeply damages the cause of freedom.’ …That was another precious insight because we are awash in utilitarian thinking, and it is deeply corroding the foundations of our society.”

Weigel summed up his speech in familiar terms, but with a moral meaning: “In the social doctrine of the Church, politics and economics are downstream from culture. And [if] we are unhappy with the state of our political culture, we need to look upstream to what’s going on in the culture.”