Editors’ note: This is the second of a two-part series featuring an exclusive interview on Liberty Nation Radio with one of America’s most prominent and well-connected Catholics, George Weigel. Mr. Weigel is author of the official biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, has served as Senior Vatican Analyst for NBC, and is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the DC-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. In part one, Weigel addressed reports of sexual abuse in the Church, and allegations that Pope Francis reinstated and promoted a proven sexual predator.
Being the shepherd of a flock numbering more than a billion souls is a job arguably as difficult as President of the United States. And much like President Trump, Pope Francis has certainly been challenged by the Vatican’s own deep state and its consequent thirst to consolidate power and control the narrative transmitted to the world.
Thus, when the Pope announced recently that he would “not say a single word” about his reinstatement of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, after Francis’s predecessor Pope Benedict had sanctioned and demoted McCarrick for sexual abuse of young seminarians, it had the unmistakable ring of a permanent Vatican bureaucracy attempting to commandeer a naive Holy Father unprepared for the worldly and often hideous realm of politics.
George Weigel has seen Popes come and go over the last half century, and the official biographer of Pope John Paul II and Senior Vatican Analyst for NBC says trying to change the subject to how the Catholic Church is embracing politically correct, progressive policy positions is exactly the wrong approach:
Tim: Pope Francis has been drawn into the leftist side of a number of political debates. Most recently, the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich, said on NBC that answering the allegations brought by the former Papal Nuncio, or Ambassador from the Vatican, was not a priority for the Pope since he had more important things to worry about, such as the environment and immigration. Now, this Pope seems to the layman like me to be drawn into these debates by progressive forces within the church hierarchy. Is this true and does this Pope have the kind of strength and leadership skills necessary to actually take on this issue and right the ship?
George Weigel: I thought Cardinal Cupich’s statement was even more inadequate than the Vatican response to Archbishop Vigano’s testimony. That’s just silly to say that, “Look, the Pope has more important things on his mind.” If there is a deep corruption in the leadership of the church, the Pope is responsible for sorting that out and you can’t blow it off by saying, “Well, he’s got a world day of prayer for the environment coming up and a variety of other things on his plate.” The Pope’s first job is to be the rock around which the church … on which the church stands.
If there’s some crumbling going on in that rock, he’s got to fix it. I think we have to all hope and pray that Pope Francis finds it within himself to really get to grips with stuff, not only in the United States, and not only with this particular case of McCarrick and what led up to that, but in Chile, in Honduras, in Great Britain, in Ireland. There’s a big, big work of reform to be done here. He was elected in 2013 under the banner of reform. It’s now time to follow through on that program.
Tim: Attendance at Catholic services is about half of what it was 60 years ago and about 6% less than in 2014, while Protestant Church attendance has remained steady over the course of time, according to a Gallup poll from this spring. What has this ongoing scandal cost the church in terms of the devotion of its flock, the moral authority of its priesthood, and the financial stability of the church writ large, especially when you consider the younger Catholics of today, the ones who’ve been hearing about all these scandals for most or all of their lives?
George Weigel: Yeah, that’s a good question, particularly the last part, Tim. I have to say, I’ve been getting emails and phone calls from friends saying that they have found their parish churches more full than usual at the end of the summer these past weeks. That somewhat parallels what happened in 2002. I mean, when it really gets to crunch time, Catholics know, as all Christians know, that they have to turn to the Lord, which is the big point in my Wall Street Journal piece, and that bailing out on the Lord is not the answer to these problems. Catholic Church attendance in the United States is still far higher in terms of regular practice than any place else in the developed world.
It does seem to have been slipping slightly year by year during … Frankly, during the present pontificate. You are quite right to point out that this creates a special set of problems for ministry to young people and young adults, because if all they know this past 16 years is one bit of bad news after another, that creates real problems. On the other hand, I think we’re in a kind of golden age of Catholic campus ministry in the United States that will really show important fruits down the line 10-20 years from now. The financial side of this is not an easy or simple one. Estimates of how much the church and its various institutions have lost over the past 16 years because of these abuse settlements I think are now in the billions of dollars.
The unfortunate parallel factor of that is that a lot of tort lawyers have gotten very rich off of this and it’s not easy for me to see how making tort lawyers rich is justice for the victims of sexual abuse. But that’s the way our tort law system works. It is certainly the case that the ministries of the church, particularly things like its inner city schools, which are crucial for the health of America, not just for the Catholic Church. Catholic schools are the schools that work in inner city America. Those are threatened by a massive financial assault on the church by the plaintiffs’ bar. The people who are really going to suffer from that are poor children and that needs to be very much in the front of any discussion about lifting statutes of limitations’ laws now under discussion in Pennsylvania and New York.
Tim: One of the things you write in your piece in the Wall Street Journal is that Bishops have been putting institutional maintenance ahead of evangelical mission. Let me ask you a question that’s simple with a complicated answer. Is the Catholic Church too bureaucratic, too hierarchical?
George Weigel: Not in theory, but in practice there has been, particularly in a place like the United States where institution building is what we do, whether it’s in religion, or sports, or education, or medicine, or any other field of endeavor. It’s often easy to think that institutional maintenance is the name of the game. But I think Catholics have learned from the experience of the past several hundred years, and frankly from their encounter with evangelical Protestants, that institutional maintenance has to take a backseat to evangelical mission. Institutions exist as launchpads for mission. If we can get the institutions to understand themselves that way again, then a lot of these problems that have come from an institutional maintenance mindset, I think we’ll find their answer in a renewed evangelical commitment.