George Weigel on Where the Church Is Going

Biographer Puts John Paul II´s Work in Perspective

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ROME, MARCH 7, 2002 ( The first of two congresses on “The Pontificate of John Paul II: Achievements and Prospects” was held Feb. 21-22 at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum. The second congress is April 18-19.

Among the key speakers was George Weigel, author of the papal biography “Witness to Hope,” who agreed to an interview with ZENIT.

Q: How could we summarize the significance of John Paul II´s pontificate in a historical perspective?

Weigel: Some would argue that we are living in the most consequential pontificate since the Reformation. Others would call it the most important pontificate of the second Christian millennium. However one measures the magnitude of the Holy Father´s achievement, it seems clear that the Catholic Church and the world will be living with the intellectual, spiritual and pastoral effects of this pontificate well into the third millennium of Church history.

Q: How does John Paul II fit in with Vatican II?

Weigel: Unlike other ecumenical councils, Vatican II did not provide “keys” to its teaching in the form of creeds, canons or anathemas. It has been left to the pontificate of John Paul II to provide an authoritative interpretation of the council, which the Pope has done in his own magisterium and in those magisterial documents that reflect the deliberations of the Synod of Bishops.

Q: How does the Pope see Vatican II?

Weigel: Like Blessed John XXIII, John Paul II thinks of the Second Vatican Council as a new Pentecost — a privileged moment in which the Holy Spirit prepared the Church for a springtime of evangelization. Contrary to the conventional readings of the meaning of Vatican II proposed by both Catholic traditionalists and Catholic progressives, John Paul II has insisted that the council was not primarily about the distribution of authority and jurisdiction inside the Church.

Rather, the council was meant to revivify within the Church a profound sense of itself as the sacrament of the world´s salvation: the “communio” in which we experience, here and now, a foretaste of what God intends for humanity for all eternity.

In Karol Wojtyla´s experience of the council as one of its most active Fathers, and in his authoritative interpretation of the council as Pope, Vatican II was meant to prepare the Church, theologically and spiritually, to rediscover itself as a great evangelical movement in history, proclaiming to the world the truth about the human person, human community, human origins and human destiny.

Q: You have mentioned that the Enlightenment project, the long experiment to create an “autonomous man” apart from God, is ending — in failure. So where do we go from here?

Weigel: When the methodological skepticism that informs so much of Enlightenment thought is radicalized to the point where it is thought impossible to know the truth of anything — when the very notion of truth becomes an object of ridicule — we may be reasonably sure than the intellectual project that began with Descartes is self-destructing.

Yet when postmodernism fades into the shadowlands where other spent intellectual forces now lie buried, a deep cultural residue will remain. Philosophers may take up the challenge of “Fides et Ratio” and turn their inquiries once again to the truth of things.

But several generations of Western peoples have been brought up to believe that, while there may be “your truth” and “my truth,” there is and can be no such thing as “the truth” — and these are the generations to which the Church of the 21st century must preach Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. How are we to do that?

The events of Sept. 11 clarified a lot. One of the things any morally serious person contemplating the smoldering wreckage in Lower Manhattan must recognize is the truth of the teaching of “Veritatis Splendor” on exceptionless moral norms. Some things are manifestly and unambiguously evil.

But several generations of Western peoples have become convinced that moral relativism is essential for pluralism, tolerance and democracy. And even those prepared to say that the mass murder of innocents for political purposes is wicked have forgotten how to justify such judgments. How does the Church proclaim the truth about good and evil, which is an essential part of the proclamation of the Gospel, in these cultural circumstances?

Q: If we can shift gears for a moment: With the growth in the Church, not to mention cardinals, outside Western Europe, how does that change the outlook for the Church´s future?

Weigel: While Catholicism has always claimed universality as one of its mark, the Catholic Church is now a “world Church” in a new way. The demographic center of gravity of world Catholicism has moved decisively to the New World, and it may perhaps be suggested that the center of intellectual and pastoral initiative in the world Church is moving in that direction as well.

Some of the most vibrant Catholic communities in the world are among the youngest Catholic communities in the world, in Africa and Asia.

Meanwhile, Catholicism in its historic center of Western Europe is on life-support, even as Western Europe itself undergoes a profound demographic and cultural crisis. In the 21st century, China, today a land of persecution, underground churches and martyrs, could become the greatest field of Christian mission since the European discovery of America.

At the same time, profound new challenges to theology and indeed to Christian orthodoxy are emerging from the Churches of south Asia and southeast Asia. All of this bears, heavily, on the work John Paul II has left us to do.

Q: Is the episcopate ready for the new evangelization?

Weigel: Even as it becomes ever more a world Church, the Catholic Church continues to debate its self-understanding. This was quite clear at the Synod of Bishops this past October, where the discussion divided, not so much between progressives and conservatives, as the press coverage often had it, but between what I would call institutional bishops and evangelical bishops.

The former are primarily concerned about the exercise of authority and jurisdiction in the institution; they seem to stress the institution as an end in itself. The latter are primarily concerned about the proclamation of the Gospel; they tend to stress the institution as a means to that end.

The Church is, of course, both end and means, but it is perhaps not unfair to say that those most concerned about institutional questions are often those from local Churches where the Church has ceased to be an effective instrument of proclamation and witness.

Then there are the related issues of the relationship between the universal Church — and its center of authority in the See of Peter — and the local Churches. It is sometimes said that the 20th century was the century of ecclesiology. Part of the work that John Paul II will leave us to do is to resolve several large questions that have been left unresolved by the upheaval in ecclesiology that began with the early liturgical movement and the encyclical “Mystici Corporis,” which shaped the Second Vatican Council´s complex teaching on the Church, and that has defined much of the unsettled character of the council´s reception.

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