George Weigel, John Paul II, and What We Need Now

By Peter Wolfgang Published on April 13, 2019

The speech George Weigel gave the other night? He could have given it 20 years ago. He’s one of the leading Christian intellectuals of my lifetime. He sees what’s wrong with the world, and he has an idea what we must do about it. But he answers with the view from 30,000 feet in the air, the world as seen from Mount Olympus. He doesn’t give those of us on the ground a plan of action.

Weigel is also the last of the three great “Catholic neoconservatives” who came to prominence in the eighties. With Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak, he greatly influenced Christian engagement in public life these last 35 years for the better.

Neuhaus defended the place of religion in public life, invented the term “the naked public square,” and ran the influential magazine First Things. Novak offered a winning argument for the free market. Weigel contributed to both works as well as writing the monumental biography of Pope John Paul II. All three explored the nature of “American exceptionalism.”

When I was in my 20s, their work set my imagination on fire. It altered the course of my adult life. They are the reason I am the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut today. They are the reason I am a columnist here at The Stream.

But now we need something different.

Then and Now

Twenty years ago, Catholics and Evangelicals greeted the dawn of the Third Millennium with tremendous hope. Working together, we were going to re-evangelize America, defeat the Sexual Revolution and bring about a “New Springtime” of faith.

The Alternatives to Weigel

The alternatives, who seem to think of themselves as the anti-Weigel, don’t offer much more. I’m sorry, those nice young Catholic millennials going on about “integralism”? Integralism believes the state should serve the final ends of man (his spiritual destination) and therefore subordinate itself to the Church.

It’s the view from your mom’s basement, dude. Medieval France is not coming to 21st Century America.

Yes, I know. It’s not just idealistic kids in Mom’s basement. Serious people address these challenges, too.

Like Patrick Deneen at Notre Dame explaining Why Liberalism Failed, and in doing that, repudiating the Catholic neoconservatives. Like Rod Dreher, who provides the plan of action with his idea for building local communities in Benedict Option.

Dreher does provide a partial answer. I’m all for community. And, as your friendly neighborhood pro-family activist, I wish more Christians would take his advice about fighting the local battles. But dropping out of every national fight except religious liberty will lead to disaster — even for the local communities.

— Peter Wolfgang

The Cold War had ended. The Soviet Union was gone. Now we could get about the business of winning back the culture for Christ. We had every reason to believe we could do it. Evangelicals like James Dobson and Chuck Colson led organizations that knew how to engage the wider public. Catholics like Neuhaus, Novak and Weigel turned Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching into inspiring calls for action.

It didn’t happen. Where once we planned to re-evangelize our country, now we consider it a win if we can just practice our faith free of government coercion.

Where once we planned to defeat the Sexual Revolution, now we consider it a win if we can shield our own children from society’s ever-increasing sexual degradation.

Where once we thought we were the first fruits of a “New Springtime” of faith, now we consider it a win if we can at least halt the demographic decline of our churches amid the exploding population of atheists.

Weigel Doesn’t Know

Weigel is not blind to this radical change. His speech argued that both the ship of state and the Barque of Peter are off course and need to be steered back. But he didn’t tell us why this happened. And he didn’t tell us how to get back on course.

I mean, ok, he did. It’s all there in the teaching pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, he told us. And honestly, I agree with that answer. But people like me, involved in the practical work of protecting life, promoting sexual sanity and defending religious freedom, need a plan of action.

Twenty years ago Weigel and the other Catholic neocons told us the world would heed John Paul II’s call to “open wide the doors to Christ,” because he offered the only remaining alternative to a humanity that had been exhausted by the failures of totalitarianism. But Christians face new forms of oppression today.

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That’s why it’s not enough today to simply keep saying that JPII has all the answers. That doesn’t tell parents how to cope with laws forbidding them from bringing their gender-confused children to “conversion therapy,” or help pregnancy center directors deal with laws restricting their advertising. It doesn’t guide Christians in academia or corporate America who could lose their jobs if they don’t promote the LGBT agenda.

“It’s all in JPII” doesn’t answer any number of similar new challenges that have cropped up in the last two decades. The pope beat worse challenges under full-blown communism. But their Western versions, most of which did not exist at the time of his death, have proven more difficult to vanquish.

Nothing Out There

Weigel’s recipe for success is … well, there isn’t one. Again, I love Weigel. But except for a few lines, he could have given that same speech 20 years ago.

No one in Christian life today fills the space that Neuhaus/Novak/Weigel did 20 years ago. No one has a comprehensive vision of the near-future like theirs, and no one offers a battle plan like theirs. In that empty space, we get Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher. They’re smart guys who are trying to think our way out of this. But they haven’t answered the challenges either.

But it’s not enough. I think we are waiting for a new, doubtless very different, Neuhaus/Novak/Weigel.

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