Like most large organizations, the Catholic Church experiences both insiders and outsiders. Some persons are able to use networking, personality and political clout to great advantage: those are the “insiders.” The insider role to the Vatican has been played for more than a decade by George Weigel, the official biographer of Pope John Paul II and a trusted spokesperson for the conservative right-wing in U.S. politics. But in the law of political changes, today’s insider can become tomorrow’s outsider. That, I think, has been the turnaround for Weigel.
Named official biographer for Pope John Paul II, Wiegel was given unparalleled access to the Vatican and to the persons and places surrounding the pontiff. But Weigel was not content in producing a quality biography (Witness to Hope, 1999): he decided to parlay his access with the church into an influential role among neo-conservatives. His insider status with the Vatican allowed him to wax expansively in the conservative media about “what the pope really meant.” Almost without exception, Weigel considered the pope’s thinking to be in line with Republican Party politics.
Weigel then set up shop at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, one of many “think tanks” within the Beltway. His opinions were regularly posted by the National Review, the birthplace of “Mater, Sí; Magistra, No!” While no doubt his political job paid the bills, it also aligned him with the authors of the classic Cafeteria Catholic dismissal of papal authority in matters of social justice. The compromise was painfully evident when first John Paul II and then his successor, Benedict XVI, condemned the invasion of Iraq. Weigel voiced the line that “abortion was an intrinsic evil” which meant no deviation was possible, but that waging an unjust war or supporting the death penalty were areas where good Catholics like himself could openly differ with papal teaching. Weigel’s postings became more ideological and less insightful, I think. Clearly, with the majority of Catholic voters supporting Barack Obama for president in 2008, Weigel had been turned into an outsider in Washington. Then Weigel’s response to Pope Benedict’s social justice encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, revealed that he had been turned into an outsider for Vatican goings-on as well.
Weigel apparently believed that he could accept the parts of the encyclical with which he agreed politically and dismiss the rest of the pope’s teaching. He inferred that Pope Benedict had not been honest with the world’s Catholics but instead had succumbed to ideas foisted on him by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace According to Weigel, Pope Benedict produced a document in which certain passages were “golden” (as in GOP) and others were “red” (as in Communist). When discussing the pope’s call to lessen world poverty through international cooperation, Weigel opined that “it may mean something naïve or dumb.” Weigel concluded that rather than an expression of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church, Caritas in Veritate was “an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus.” One wonders if the inability to find coherence in a papal document is the fault of the pope or of prejudgments from analysts like George Weigel.
In my opinion, the dismissive tone of his analysis violates a common sense reading of the encyclical, but readers should look at Weigel’s own words. For those inclined to review a point by point rebuttal of Weigel’s analysis, the usually conservative M.J. Andrew at Evangelical Catholicism admirably dissects the inconsistencies of the former Vatican insider.
My issue is the business of outsider vs. insider. It makes a difference to Catholic America because U.S. partisan politics and Vatican declarations affect each other. Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, for instance, related the extensive communications between White House and Vatican during the crisis that ultimately brought down the Communist Party in the Polish pope’s homeland. Insiders like Weigel facilitated those kinds of contacts. A different President and party in control in Washington require the Vatican to rethink its approach to U.S. politics. In such a new stage of communications, George Weigel, like other former insiders, will be replaced: it’s a new ball game with a different lineup.
COMING: Who is the new Vatican Insider for Catholic America?