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The Political Pope in the Age of Meta-Politics

The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission. George Weigel. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020.


In his 2015 biography of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Randy Boyagoda includes what in the year 2021 is a haunting and remarkable photo. In this black and white, taken in January of 2004, President George W. Bush is meeting with three prominent American Conservative Catholics underneath a portrait of the first American President, George Washington. Immediately to President Bush’s right is a jovial and pensive Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the former Vietnam protesting Lutheran pastor turned Catholic “theocon,” dressed in black with a wry smile directed at the then leader of the free world. To Fr. Neuhaus’s right, is Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who is listening to Fr. Neuhaus attentively and with a smile on her face. Sitting to Glendon’s right on the couch is papal biography and Catholic theologian George Weigel.

This scene is so curious and unusually precisely because it appears like something from a different century, not simply a different generation. With President Bush in the White House the old Reagan alliance between neoconservatives and social conservatives had been resurrected, shedding its more reactionary and populist elements and becoming the crowning fruits of the ultimate victory of the new conservativism over both the New Left and the old conservatives or “paleo-cons.”

For the Catholic neoconservatives in particular, of whom Weigel, Neuhaus, and to a lesser degree, Glendon, were prominent representatives the photo captures the moment of their own particular victory in American Catholicism over both what were perceived as the Cardinal Bernardin liberals and traditionalist or “Latin mass” Catholics. Having secured a foothold in the White House, the Catholic neoconservatives further could rejoice that they had at least some influence in the Vatican. John Paul II, a pope some of the neoconservatives in varying degrees attempted to claim as their own, would remain on this earth for another year, drawing overwhelming sympathy and love from the people of the world.

In the long intervening seventeen years since this photo was taken, the United States has seen three very different presidents, and the Catholic Church has had two seemingly very different popes.

No longer united by the common effort of the War on Terror, the United States is incredibly fractured along economic, social, ethnic, and religious lines.

Assaulted by wave after wave of alleged scandal, the Catholic Church itself is divided between a left galvanized by Pope Francis and an increasingly “traditionalist” right wing faction that is waging a guerilla war against the current Holy Father.

Weigel, along with Princeton University’s Robert George, and few other public figures, is among the few remaining neoconservative public figures.

Weigel’s most recent work, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission thus has an uneasy feel uncharacteristic of the confidence of Weigel’s previous writings. The Next Pope is focused on Weigel’s opinions on what he perceives are the positive and negative elements of the Francis papacy as well as Weigel’s (perhaps unrealistic) hope that the next successor of Peter will be modeled in the image that the Catholic neoconservatives had crafted of John Paul II and, to a lesser degree, Pope Benedict XVI.

While George Weigel is a theologian by training, much of The Next Pope, like the bulk of Weigel’s writings, has a decidedly political cast.

Throughout the climax of his career, much of George Weigel’s political and social capital has depended upon the narrative that he was a close confidant of John Paul II—Weigel’s reputation was made on Witness to Hope, his mammoth 1999 biography of the Polish pontiff. Within The Next Pope, Weigel attempts to maintain the image of himself as a Vatican insider even during the reign of a progressive Argentinian prelate whose political and theological views seem to clash with Weigel’s.

Although like Catholic traditionalists, Weigel holds that the Catholic Church is an enduring and constant institution, Weigel, in The Next Pope, frames the Church as being historical conditioned by various cultural and political periods, viewing the current era as the “Fifth Epoch” of Church history when “Counter-Reformation Catholicism” is giving way to “the Church of the New Evangelization.”

Although in works such as his early Tranquillitas Ordinis, Weigel attempts to find a pedigree for what he believes is the liberalization of the Catholic teaching in writings of medieval thinkers, in The Next Pope, the papal biographer, as he does in his 2013 work Evangelical Catholicism, looks for the roots the Vatican II’s seeming opening up to political liberalism in the life and teaching of Pope Leo XIII, a pope in whose writings liberalism is routinely condemned. Following in the train of Pope Leo, in Weigel’s view, the catalyst of the Church of the New Evangelization was the Second Vatican Council. As Weigel notes, as a young Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis was not directly involved in the Second Vatican Council but is nonetheless a priest very much molded by it.  This historical narrative, however, is essential to Weigel’s contest with left wing and traditionalist Catholics for control over the Church in America.

For traditionalists, Vatican II was an attempted coup d’etat by the modernists condemned by Pope Pius X, who had been conspiring to infiltrate the Church with Enlightenment thought for centuries. For Catholic progressives, however, Vatican II was a stepping stone in a process of loosening the grip of medieval and Hellenistic thinking that was allegedly stifling the Holy Spirit’s desire to breathe into the Church the counter culture of the 1960s and the “woke” revolution of our own age. In the thinking of Weigel and the other Catholic neoconservatives, Vatican II was the long awaited rapprochement between Catholicism and Anglo-American liberalism, which would prepare the Church to engage (post-)Enlightenment modernity. As he argues in The Next Pope, Weigel seems to hold that Vatican II was a way of bringing the Church back to its early evangelical roots before what Weigel himself in other works as called “the Constantine era” took over.

Despite his public reputation as an advocate for neoconservative political policy, much of Weigel’s theology is very much centered on the Gospels as well as the person of Christ, the gospels, and the sacraments—Weigel does also does make mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well in The Next Pope.

Moreover, although Weigel has a great deal to say positively about John XXIII and Paul VI, the papacy of John Paul II was truly a world historical event in which the teachings of Vatican II began to take full effect—like most of Weigel’s works, The Next Pope contains many of Weigel’s favorite memories of John Paul II’s papacy—memories that are shared not only by many of Weigel’s fellow Catholics, but by people throughout the world.

While the age of John Paul II has ended, Weigel holds that the Church will persistence under the guidance of Christ. As he has stressed throughout much of his public commentary, Weigel sees the Church as having an important role in the world as a leavening institution that helps to strengthen the moral character of non-Catholics as well and for showing humans what the true nature of liberty is—although some thinkers have argued that Weigel’s understanding of Christian liberty departs from the traditional understanding of Christian freedom. Weigel’s vision largely seeks to find a via media between the aristocratic and monarch vision of society presented by Catholic traditionalists and the more radical (but ironically now more totalitarian) vision of the left.

In the Next Pope, Weigel sees one of his principal enemies as secularism, which he sees as having colored at least some of Church synods of 2014, 2015, 2018 as well as the now extremely controversial 2019 Amazon synod, which Weigel sees has having sown confusion regarding some of the essential elements of Christianity. While he is very careful in his wording, Weigel further expresses concern that the Church under Pope is slowly turning to resemble an NGO, and the centrality of Christ in the Church is being overshadowed by humanism and/or what Weigel calls “Catholic Lite.” As a result, many Christians in the Global South have turned to the apparently more self-confident Evangelical and Pentecostal movements. At times, Weigel even sounds (almost) like a Catholic traditionalist, arguing for the pope to be a servant of tradition as opposed to the master of it, presenting what appears to be a strong but respect critique of elements of Pope Francis’s papacy. Weigel hopes for a strong (but not too strong) pope who will crack down on the immorality and doctrinal laxity that appears to have resurfaced during the Francis era. Weigel does not directly attribute this breakdown to the Holy Father, but rather to the alleged misreading of him in the media. Likewise, Weigel also rightly condemns the financial corruption that festers in the Church.

Again while maintaining a careful respect for the Office of Peter, in The Next Pope, Weigel expresses his concern about Pope Francis’s many seeming off the cuff statements, which many have interpreted as signifying changes in Catholic doctrine. Weigel also dislikes Pope Francis’s decision to live in the papal guesthouse. More critically, Weigel believes that Francis’s synodality is threatening the unity of the Church. In an ironic twist for George Weigel who spent much of his career promoting the image of John Paul II, Weigel (rightly) notes that too many Catholics are focused on the seemingly confusing papacy of Pope Francis and not on the local Church in which there are many positive developments.

Despite the long shadow of clerical abuse that hangs over the Church in the United States especially, Weigel rightly notes that there has been marked uptick in conservative vocations to the priesthood in America. Weigel, however, is clear to distinguish the (neo-)conservative movement he desires from traditionalist Catholicism, which Weigel sees as excessively rigorist and outmoded compared to the personalism and “virtue-centered” theology and philosophy of the Catholic neoconservatives.  Traditionalism and “Catholic Lite” are just two of the Catholic neoconservative bêtes noires that continue to haunt Weigel in The Next Pope. Liberation theology, against which, Weigel and the late Michael Novak, the elder statesman of Catholic neoconservatism battled, makes an appearance as one of the culprits for the decline in Catholicism in Latin America.  Although in the late twentieth and early twentieth century, Weigel and the Catholic neoconservatives could claim victory over these enemies, during the Francis era, they appear to have made a resurgence.

In the current year, nearly twenty two years into the War on Terror, it is easy to dismiss neoconservativism in general as a movement that, like a hero in a Greek tragedy, failed through its success. Catholic neoconservatism in particular successful pulled a large segment of American Catholics into the fold of the Republican Party, helping to sell them Reaganomics and compassionate conservativism as well as the neoconservative vision of America’s mission civilisatrice. However, during the Obama and then Trump era, these same Catholics would fracture into two bitter feuding cultural political camps of traditionalism and progressivism—both of which reject Weigel’s Catholic neoconservatism. A sober survey of the American political landscape strongly suggests that there is little likelihood of neoconservativism returning to dominate the Republican Party. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that George Weigel, despite legitimate and strong criticism that can be levied at his work, is a sincere Catholic and a sincere patriot (with a very specific and contestable vision of the Church and America).

As for who will be the “next pope,” only God knows.

Jesse Russell

Jesse Russell is an Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Southwestern State University. He has contributed to a wide variety of academic journals, including Political Theology, Politics and Religion, and New Blackfriars.

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