George Weigel’s Mission Impossible


Even if you don’t agree with him, you have to admire George Weigel’s moxie.

It can’t be easy serving as the spokesperson for a “conservative” Catholic movement that labors so mightily against the preponderance of evidence to reconcile every last scintilla of conciliar innovation with the Faith handed down from the Apostles. Yet, he does it anyway.

Case in point, Weigel’s recent column in National Review wherein he takes American “liberal Catholics” to task for “betraying their own noblest heritage;” namely, the John Courtney Murray led assault against the Church’s traditional teaching on religious freedom.  

Painting a quasi-messianic portrait of the late American born Jesuit theologian, Weigel batters Catholic sensibilities right out of the gate when he states, “It took the Church the better part of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to develop a robust Catholic concept of religious freedom;” the unmistakable implication being that the poor dimwitted Roman Pontiffs who had the great misfortune of having to rule without the benefit of Murray’s insight (a number of whom are Saints) were simply mistaken.    

Weigel praises Murray’s “intellectual virtuosity” in convincing the Second Vatican Council to supplant the Church’s traditional doctrine with “a new Catholic understanding of the modern state” modeled after the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

At this, a bullet point sketch of these two vastly different approaches may be helpful, beginning with the traditional teaching which states:

  • Rulers of States, just as individuals, are duty bound in service to Christ the King.
  • The Catholic Church is the one true religion and so enjoys a unique claim to absolute freedom of activity and expression in society.
  • State recognition of the exclusive prerogatives of the Church is the ideal arrangement, so too is State support for the Catholic Church in Her mission.
  • Rulers of State must not place the false religions on equal footing with the true religion.
  • Privately, man is free to seek God according to his conscience, but he does not enjoy absolute freedom in the practice of false religion in the public arena as this can be detrimental to the common good. The State, therefore, may restrain him from doing so, but rulers may also patiently tolerate such practices in order to avoid a greater evil.
  • In all cases, however, no one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will.

The novelties put forth by Murray (and adopted at Vatican II) by contrast state:

  • No one is to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own religious beliefs (even in the public sphere) limited only as necessary to maintain order.
  • The State is no longer called to recognize Christ the King and to embrace the “true religion.”
  • The State is no longer called to discern religious truth from religious falsehood; rather, all religions are to be given equal standing under the law.
  • In short, the freedom once claimed by the Church as uniquely Her own is now demanded of States as “the Constitutional right of all men and communities,” even those that oppose the reign of Christ (DH 13).

According to Weigel, one of the greatest challenges Murray faced in swaying the Council Fathers was addressing their fear that his decidedly American approach “would inevitably lead to religious indifferentism, and perhaps even to hostility to religious conviction.”

Hello? Isn’t this precisely what happened? With Catholic life in 2012 being what it is, Weigel is forced to point to the century leading up to Vatican II as evidence that the Council Fathers’ fears were unfounded. 

Back then, in the United States (whose Constitution has a non-establishment clause) the Church was at peace with the government and Catholicism was thriving. By contrast, in more traditional Europe (where the Catholic State was possible) the Church was often at odds with the ruling authorities and was struggling to hold Her own.  

Weigel wants us to join him in assuming (as the Council ultimately did at Murray’s urging) that there must be a cause-and-effect relationship between the American version of religious freedom and the Church’s ability to carry out Her mission and grow, (a proposition very closely related to the “Americanist” ideal rejected by Pope Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae in 1899).

I would like to propose a different explanation; one curiously lurking right beneath Weigel’s nose.

In addition to Murray’s “exegesis of Leo XIII” (the theological shortcomings of which I’ve examined at some length here, here, and here), Weigel tells us that the matter was settled for most of the Council Fathers thanks to the allure of the “European personalist philosophy;” defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “proposing the human person as the new irreducible key to thought, especially regarding social organization.”

It was this over-glorification of man — a cancer that had infected much of Europe but had not yet fully invaded the American culture prior to the 1960’s — that accounts for the observable disparity in the Church’s relative health in these places during the  19th and 20th centuries.    

The Church’s influence with the rulers of State in traditional European nations made that part of the world ground zero for the personalist movement. So while the sacred Magisterium was preaching Almighty God, through Jesus Christ, as the goal and highest ordering principal of both society and State, the secular humanists in Europe were busy making war on the culture (which by extension also meant directly combatting the Catholic Church). It was in this environment, not surprisingly, that the Church struggled. 

In the United States, however, where the State is officially disinterested in evaluating religious truth but rather views all expressions of faith as equals under the law, no such direct assault on the Catholic Church was necessary. Why? Simply put, goal number one on the liberal to-do list was constitutionally prearranged; namely, instituting a form of governance that is disinclined to acknowledge the existence of absolute religious truth. It was in this atmosphere — one in which the commandants of the liberal regime were pleased to operate more subversively than they were in Europe — that the Catholic Church was able to thrive.

Make no mistake, however, Catholicism wouldn’t have fared nearly as well as it did in the century prior to Vatican II in the United States had the sacred hierarchy behaved then as it does today; the majority so paralyzed by ecumenical sensitivity that very few even bother to proclaim the Kingship of Christ and the Holy Roman Catholic Church as the universal sacrament of salvation and the custodian of objective religious truth.  

Back then, the Church wasn’t afraid to preach her doctrines; like them or not, everyone with an interest knew what the Church professed, most especially Catholics! Catholic identity was distinct and it was noteworthy. We had our own festivals, our own disciplines, our own rituals and our own language. We even had our own primetime television star in Bishop Fulton Sheen!  

And then it happened; the perfect storm.

The Council ratified Murray’s version of religious liberty shortly after the liberal culture warriors came blazing out of the shadows to unleash all out Hell on America. In essence, the Church had voluntarily adopted the language of mealy-mouthed legislators who speak as though Christ the King has no more rights than Buddha, and this at precisely that moment in history when the world needed Apostolic clarity the most.

In charity, one can perhaps understand how the “signs of the times” were so grossly misinterpreted in the halcyon days during which the Council met. Deficient though they were theologically, Murray’s idea’s appeared to make practical sense to many at that time based on the Church’s success in the United States.

That said, it’s high time at this point to admit that subsequent events have demonstrated the enduring wisdom of the traditional teaching.

Look, I’m as American as anyone, but unlike JFK, I’m Catholic first. As such, I’m not the least bit hesitant to say that the U.S. Constitutional approach to religious liberty is fatally flawed. In a nutshell, it attempts to sustain the unsustainable by avoiding the existence of absolute religious truth in a world that is ultimately ruled by Jesus Christ who is Truth incarnate.

A couple of days before the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act went to a vote in the U.S. Senate, Senator Barbara Mikulski (a liberal Democrat pretending to be a Catholic) inadvertently drove this point home when she decried what she viewed as the dangers associated with allowing employers the freedom to offer only those health insurance plans that don’t violate “their religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

She then sneered, “What’s a moral conviction? Where’s a moral conviction come from?”

Sarcasm aside, these are actually important questions, the Catholic answer to which (the only correct one) isn’t getting very much play these days, neither within the Church nor without.

For personalists like Mikulski, however, the answer goes without saying: In a country where every individual religious belief is as valid as the next, irrespective of its relationship to the absolute truth that comes to us from God, a bona fide “moral conviction” is whatever the Hell the ruling party says it is.

So now here we are, Catholic citizens of a nation that is quickly descending into the abyss of State imposed immorality, looking for leadership from churchmen who have effectively disarmed themselves of the only weapon that can possibly protect us; the sword of truth wielded in defense of the Sovereign rights of Christ the King.

And this, according to George Weigel, is a noble heritage of which to be proud.

Like I said, you have to admire his moxie.


About Author

Catholic News Agency columnist, author and speaker w/ particular focus on applying the hermeneutic of continuity to Vatican Council II.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    An interesting revision of history, inasmuch as it ignores the source of the Founders’ concern for religious freedom. The First Amendment is not the first word spoken by the Constitution with respect to religious freedom. Before there was a First Amendment, there was (and is) Article 6 of the Constitution, which states in part: “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

    There is an historical reason for this concern of the Founders. It’s called the Oath of Supremacy. You see, England got torn apart, first by the requirement that English Catholics abandon the Faith and “go to Church,” meaning that they go to the Anglican services instead of Holy Mass. And those who recused themselves faced fines. But it was the Oath that blew England up into violence. The Oath barred people from public office of any kind if they did not accept the religious dictates of the English crown. In practice, it barred most private economic activity as well. Belief in the True Presence was enough for any Catholic, especially if he was and employee of the Crown, to be thrown out into the street. And it wasn’t a very happy street. That same Crown had already expropriated and destroyed all the monasteries. Not even the vaunted poor houses, so loved by Scrooge, had yet emerged to help the completely disenfranchised get something to eat.

    The Founders knew this history cold. Many had no love for the Church. Take John Adams, for instance (and don’t give him back!) He couldn’t even conceive that the urban Catholics of his era could understand the Latin they heard at Mass, a false notion that is now presented as dogma by the as-yet unreformed-of-the-reform occupants of many parish offices these days. It was a lie then. It’s lie now. Just ask anyone who has actually been to a Latin Mass. They all know exactly what is going on.

    But I digress. The Founders’ goals were well-founded, if you will. Even though many did not like the Church, most loved government even less, and those who knew their history (pretty much all of them) knew that the intrusion of government into religion was an invitation, first to coercion, then to violence and finally to disaster. The problems we are experiencing today, insomuch as they are the fault of the government, have come about not because the government has refrained from intruding upon the prerogatives of religion but rather because the government has not so restrained itself. A government that respects freedom of religion does not issue an HHS mandate requiring contraception, for example.

    The Founders knew this. So they implemented their imperfect fix, Article 6, and augmented it later with a stronger, though still imperfect fix, the First Amendment. This fix has no bearing on the reluctance of bishops, priests and laity for nearly fifty years in refusing to proclaim the Truths of our Church. The refusal to speak out in an environment conducive to freedom is perhaps ironic now that, having had that freedom snatched from us, many people are suddenly convinced of the need to speak out. Well, good for them. Because silence – and not mealy-mouthed utterances about freedom of religion – is what got us here.

    Only good, sound preaching and teaching – and practicing – can get us back.

  • HSDad,

    Thanks for the American history lesson, but it seems you’ve missed the point.

    The reason you don’t find any reference to the Founders’ goals and motivation in this column (much less a revision of the same) is because that has no bearing whatsoever on the topic at hand.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    You could pick anything done after Vatican II that you don’t like — and you’d probably be well-founded in your dislike. Maybe it’s something the council Fathers adopted (like freedom of religion). Maybe it’s something foisted on the rest of the Church in direct opposition to the Council fathers’ decisions (like contraception). Odds are you’ll find a lot of mealy mouthed discussion on the matter. And it all comes back to the same thing. In the Church — meaning bishops, priests, religious, and laity — we haven’t taught the Faith. We haven’t preached the Faith. We haven’t lived the Faith. And we’ve given lots of mealy-mouthed excuses for all of it. Because of this, we left huge vacuums everywhere which the State and secular society have simply filled. The perfect storm has nothing to do with freedom of religion or its lack. It has everything to do with the vacuum left by mealy-mouthed defense of the Faith. And even more to do with silence, meaning no defense of the faith.

    This perfect storm exists in an environment where freedom of religion is both the law of the land and the teaching of the Church. But without teaching, preaching, and living the Faith, the same vacuum emerges even if freedom of religion is not the teaching of the Church. It happened in France when Albigensianism nearly overwhelmed the Church there. Official State alignment with the Church did nothing to stop its advance. But the Dominicans eliminated it with preaching. They filled the vacuum with Truth. The heresy disappeared.

    Even today, where the state explicitly supports the Church with tax dollars, like they do in much of Europe, you get loss of Faith where the Church hasn’t preached, taught or lived it. In Spain, for example, the Church is still subsidized by the State. There’s an alignment there that might have been leveraged, had the Church bothered with the full extent of the Truth. But the members of the Spanish Church have been at least as silent and mealy-mouthed there as here over the past 50 years. It’s not because of freedom of religion or its lack. The Church has had a de facto preference from the State, in the form of financial support. But they let the vacuum emerge. And the State and secular society filled that vacuum with falsehood.

    You got it right about mealy-mouthed utterances. You missed the silence. And you have attributed the problems in the Church to an irrelevant cause. Those problems exist whether or not freedom of religion is the teaching of the Church or the practice of the worldly society in which She dwells.

  • Jared B

    All good points wrt church-and-state relations, but putting the blame on Personalist philosophical thought wasn’t so convincing.

    At the very least, referring to Mikulski as a personalist was rash and unwarranted. Reminds me of the tendency to overuse the term “relativist” to refer to anyone whose morality isn’t 100% in line with Catholic teaching.

    Also, Mr. Verrecchio slings mud at Personalism while ignoring the elephant in the room that is Bl. Pope John Paul II, who actually was one of the major personalist philosophers of the 20th century. One could make the case that his thinking on religious freedom and church-state relations was as flawed as Murray’s and Weigel’s, but JPII was no Mikulski or JFK.

  • goral

    I see, Mikulski is not a personalist while JP2 was.
    Jared, you need to lay out your definition of – personalist before some “mud slinging” comes your way.

  • I regret that I can’t spend more time replying. I think Jared is missing the distinction between the European personalist philosophy that I (and Weigel) referenced and the distinctly Christian personalism that JPII taught. JPII referred often in this context to GS 22 – “Christ fully reveals man to himself” – He is the “irreducible key” not man himself; i.e., unlike the liberal version where man (apart from absolute Truth) is the be all end all, JPII’s teaching was Christocentric.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    In the end, however, Mr. Weigel’s Mission is easy. He need only lean on the teaching of the Council. It is, of course, true that religious freedom is a good in and of itself, and the good of it can easily be seen from even a cursory look at history. Wars today and yesterday are often fought in the name of one religion or another. Contrary to popular view, few of these wars are motivated by religion in any real sense. But governments with specific, usually selfish, interests can and will use religion as a cover for their own secular blood lust. Anyone who has studied the Reformation as it actually occurred — wherein a bunch of princes figured out that they could steal from the Church if only they could subsume the Church into the State — knows this. Thus, Natural Law, as expressed through violent human history, is the best justification that freedom of religion is a natural good. But failing that, Catholics can always lean on the Council.

    Pope Benedict seems to be doing exactly that when speaking recently to the American bishops:

    “Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”