Shepherds of ‘Evangelical Catholicism’

George Weigel on the Link Between Benedict XVI and John Paul II


George Weigel’s latest book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, was released just as Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the Petrine office.

The new work from the prolific Washington-based public intellectual offers a timely analysis of the German-born Pope’s efforts to advance the Church’s mission in the 21st century and provides a guide to the issues that will dominate the conclave. 

In a Feb. 19 exchange with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Weigel notes the primary achievements of Pope Benedict’s pontificate and explains how his development of "Evangelical Catholicism" has laid the foundation for the 21st-century Catholic Church.


In Evangelical Catholicism, you state that "friendship with Jesus Christ" has been one of the great themes of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate: "The Church exists to offer the possibility of a personal friendship with the Lord." How and why has Benedict laid the foundation for this understanding of the Church’s mission in the world?

It’s been a constant theme in his catechesis and preaching, and it’s a reflection of his decades-long study of the New Testament and his exposure to the German kerygmatic theology of the mid-20th century — one of the streams of theological reflection that shaped Vatican II. For Benedict XVI, the central document of Vatican II is, likely, Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation, in which the Council Fathers wrote that the truths that God reveals about himself and about us most clearly shine forth "in Christ, who is himself both the mediator and the sum total of Revelation."


"Dynamic continuity" is the term you use to explain the relationship between Pope Benedict’s pontificate and that of his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II. "Caretaker" is another term often employed to describe the link between these two pontificates.

Yes, "caretaker" is used, but it’s misused, in my view. Benedict XVI continued to advance the "New Evangelization" announced by John Paul II and made it more radically Christ-centered. He also pressed forward with important proposals of his own: that beauty (especially liturgical beauty) is a unique window into the true and the good for jaded postmoderns; that democracy depends, in the final analysis, on a respect for the "human ecology" that is built into reality; that the Church needs to rediscover how to read the Bible theologically if it is to be the evangelical, missionary Church demanded by Vatican II and by current cultural circumstances.

Thus the two pontificates should be read as two moments in one authoritative interpretation of the Second Vatican Council and the completion of the turn from Counter-Reformation Catholicism (and its stress on institutional maintenance) to Evangelical Catholicism, which stresses that the Church is a mission, to which the institution must contribute (and be reformed so that it does).


In Evangelical Catholicism, you predict that the Church of the "late 21st century will look back and see the birth of a new model of papacy, drawn from the New Testament and what the Church knows of Peter from Scripture and Tradition." Hasn’t St. Peter always been the template for the vicar of Christ?

Theologically, yes. Practically, no. Actually, the new template has been defined over the past five pontificates. John XXIII gave a warmly paternal face to the papacy and took a few cautious steps outside Vatican City, thus hinting at a missionary papacy of the future. Paul VI expanded that missionary thrust in global terms and demonstrated that the successor of Peter must, like Peter, be willing to sacrifice himself to the Truth, as Paul VI did in absorbing a world of abuse (and grief) after Humanae Vitae.

The 33 days of John Paul I gave us a glimpse of a winsomely catechetical papacy speaking effectively to the modern world in terms that late modernity could grasp.

Then came John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who brought to a point of no return (I hope!) the transition from a Counter-Reformation stress on pope-as-CEO to an evangelical Catholic stress on pope-as-witness — that is, the future course is set, for the world and the Church both now expect the bishop of Rome to be an evangelist. Management is important; but the pope can find people to manage the shop with him and for him.

What the Church and the world need is a witness.


How did the "missionary papacy" of Blessed John Paul, marked by pilgrimages around the world, advance this effort to tap into the origins of the Church?

It’s the recovery of an old role: the role of Peter as the Church’s first witness, which is displayed in various chapters of the Acts of the Apostles.


When Pope Benedict said he would resign his office because of his failing "strength," he seemed to be signaling that the modern papacy required the resilience of a much younger man. If so, what has changed?

If a pope, for the greater part of his pontificate, is going to be expected to be present to the people of the Church throughout the world, then it’s best to start a pontificate with a man who’s physically vigorous when he takes up this enormous burden.

But as I indicate in Evangelical Catholicism, the deeper question here is not so much one of schedule (which can always be adjusted), but of the spiritual burden of the papacy.

Popes know far too much about the world’s sorrows in both macrocosm and microcosm. It takes a man of great spiritual strength to bear those wounds without being destroyed by them. Bearing the burden both physically and spiritually also takes a man who knows how to judge people, get the right help, delegate responsibility and renew his own intellectual and spiritual resources. The last will work differently for different popes, of course.

I do think it’s important to put one myth to rest, though: Benedict XVI did not renounce the office of Peter because he couldn’t take it anymore. He renounced the chair because he judged, in conscience, that he could not give the Church the leadership it needed and deserved, given his own diminished strength.

That’s an act of self-abasement and humility, not a concession to exhaustion.


Your book provides a checklist of essential qualities that the next pope should possess, and you make the following point: "The first thing to be discerned about any possible candidate for the papacy is whether he wants the job: For if he does, his desire disqualifies him, not so much for a lack of humility as for a lack of prudence, even sanity." What is the proper disposition for a worthy candidate?

Radical discipleship and deep friendship with Jesus Christ, which are displayed in an openness to the will of God (manifest through the votes of the cardinal electors) and complemented by a very acute understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Another way to put it would be "confident and affirmative orthodoxy plus humility (and, if possible, humor)."


You contend that the nationality of the next pope is irrelevant. Yet Blessed John Paul’s Polish nationality played a decisive role in his pontificate, and some Vatican experts still insist that we won’t see a U.S.-born pope.

Most "Vatican experts" are nothing of the sort, in my experience, so I wouldn’t take their clinging to the so-called "superpower veto" very seriously. The world has changed, America has changed, and so have the possibilities for a pope from the most vital, vibrant part of the Church in the developed world.

As for John Paul II’s Polishness, that was obviously a crucial factor in igniting the "Revolution of 1989" in Central and Eastern Europe. But his openness to other nationalities and cultures was a more decisive factor in his ability to be a father to the entire world than his Polishness — although it’s certainly true that he learned how to be a priestly "father" with his young friends in Poland.


While Pope Benedict has laid the foundation for the New Evangelization, you argue that the stalled reform of the Vatican Curia has impeded the impact of his pontificate. What critical reforms await action from his successor?

The entire structure needs to be reassessed, and I have some proposals for how the machinery might be redesigned in 


Evangelical Catholicism. But what must come first is a change of understanding and attitude.

The Roman Curia doesn’t exist for itself; it exists for the Church, and specifically to give effect to the ministry of the bishop of Rome as universal pastor of the Church. Thus even the most well-designed structural changes are going to be for nothing if the Curia isn’t suffused with a new attitude.


As Catholics wait for the outcome of the conclave, what should we pray for?

A man whose radical discipleship will be so transparent that he is able, simply by being himself, to deepen the faith of his brethren and invite others into friendship with Jesus Christ, the answer to the question that is every human life.