Weigel is Right

Weigel is Right July 13, 2009

In one sense of the word, such a claim is hardly controversial. Weigel is clearly of the American political Right, and he makes no apologies about that. (In my view, keeping such rigid company—on either side— is troubling in certain ways, but by no means offers immediate answers about the integrity of the person or their ideas.)

The point of this post, however, is to say that his recent article that compared Benedict’s newest encyclical to a duck-billed platypus and an untuned piccolo is quite right. By ‘right,’ I now mean ‘correct’ or ‘true.’ In fact, I would even say that Weigel offer us a tremendous insight in his much poo-pooed article about the meaning of the Church that is steeped in a sanity that we could all learn from.

Weigel’s reply to this encyclical tip toes between the credibility of the Pope and the interests that are competing with his credible views, as they did in the past with John Paul II. Weigel wants to argue that, when we read this encyclical, we would be remiss to think that it comes out of a pure Benedictine ego, unquestioned by the curial household. The implication here is that, in his gentle manner, Benedict ceded some ground to his neighboring advisers to preserve the fragile peace of the tedious—and contentious—inner-workings of the Vatican.

The implications of this argument are profound, I think. Weigel is effectively making a point that reaches into the very annals of Church controversy and brings up the basic questions that surround topics like papal infallibility, scriptural interpretation, and Church unity. He notes the fine line between superstition and grace that is not so easy to navigate when we read promulgated texts from the Vatican, their press releases, clerics, and so on.

Weigel effectively theorizes towards a post-structural approach to Church literature; where we do not take authorship at face value but look into the power/knowledge relations that constitute the thing in question and assume that the (competing) motives involved are steeped in structurations of conflict that create the Foucauldian notion of “governmentality.”

It may seem too ironic, but Weigel is right precisely because he takes into account the possibility of the impossible. And he does so based on a largely accurate understanding of Church (and papal) authority: Namely, that, a hermeneutic of suspicion is not heterodox to Catholic devotion, on the contrary, a simplistic or superstitious reliance on the intervention of the Holy Spirit as the norm in Vatican affairs is not necessarily orthodox at all, in fact, it can be downright dangerous.

Imagine, by extension, the way this would open up a robust dialogue for the interpretation of scripture in pastoral affairs—none more widely impacting than homiletics. Dissent, suspicion, and even robust imagination in conceiving not only the possible meaning of texts, but the rigor required to speak of the truly- impossible, would burst an entire new literary attitude into the Sunday pulpit.

Also, we might join our sister and brothers of the East in their various degrees of suspicion about Roman ecclesial authority. If the Vatican is a network of sectarian plots and missions, then, why not make room for more? Why not raise the taboo question about the somewhat lukewarm representative democracy that seems to take place at councils and papal conclaves? After all, this is precisely the kind of reasoning that might lead to a plausible (and expedient) reunification of the Eastern and Western Church.

Weigel may have been doing something totally different in his mind, he may have just been out to discredit the less-than-free economics this encyclical advocates for. But, it is clear to me that his line of reasoning is not destructive at all. In fact, it is just what we need.

Where Weigel might fall short of his intentions is that he never makes a convincing argument about the issues I assumed him to care about the most (economics, nation-states, environmentalism), he just dismisses that within his other, insightful exercise of imagination: Questioning the very heart of what it means to be orthodox by deconstructing the internal structures of the Church in Her most intimate household, the papal household.

Weigel may be wrong about many things, including the merits or demerits of Benedict’s new encyclical, but he is right about this: Using the Holy Spirit as a cover up for rigorously understanding the Church, warts and all, is a serious (and ultimately heterodox) mistake.

Thank you George Weigel!

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  • Alien Shore

    Wow! In one short article, George Weigel has done Ricoeurian hermeneutics (distanciation of author and text), the hermeneutics of suspicion, post-structuralism and deconstruction, and in his consideration of power structures, he has provided an exercise in Western Marxist critical theory. Impressive!

    Could this be the same George Weigel or is there another one?

  • Seems Weigel is playing in what he calls the postmodern sandbox. Brilliant, Sam!

  • wj

    On this account–which is preposterously generous in its reading of Weigel, but no mind–the correct approach to take toward a signed encyclical is that of the genealogist: truth claims are seen rather as revelatory of power relations, meaning becomes less a function of authorial intention and more a function of the interplay of forces operating below (and within) the text, etc.

    But the problem with this account is that it sets up an untenable binary between unthinking fideism (or in this case papalism) and a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” There are many ways of criticizing the Church from within the Tradition that is itself handed down by the Church, and so one does not have to be a genealogist to have a properly mature understanding of the relation between one’s conscience and the Magisterium. (Indeed, I suspect that a limitation of the genealogist critique is precisely its inability to develop a substantive notion of either of these concepts.)

  • David Raber

    As a Catholic I do believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church and will not let it err–in the long run. But this faith of mine does not exclude the possibility that this or that human being speaking officially for the Church will make a mistake, perhaps a big mistake.

    So as what I take to be a good and faithful Catholic, I believe it is my job to listen to what the Church says with a great deal of intellectual humility, but not leaving my conscience (intellectual or otherwise) at the door. And I see a big difference between dissent and rebellion. St. Aquinas and St. Francis were in their times, in their own ways, to a degree, dissenters from Church authority, and many more now accepted as saints by the Church could be added to that list. Luther and Calvin and their ilk were rebels who did not need the magisterium or self-proclaimed “orthodox” Catholics to tell them they were not Catholics–they proclaimed it from the rooftops.

    We have got to have strong authority in the Church to maintain as far as possible that Christian unity which is centered on the Catholic Church as a matter of history; but that unity is not served either if the Church acts like a tyranny, in effect encouraging rebels.

    In sum, let’s be led by the Church in every way that we can while not forsaking our own God-given mental faculties, and let’s argue about the rest, with our ultimate reference point being our Lord Jesus Christ as he has revealed himself to us in the Gospels.

  • I glossed over some careful distinctions (e.g. Marxist critical theory vs. Foucauldian genealogy), but they are not particularly important to my thesis here, I think.

    To reply specifically to wj: I am not suggesting the chasm you suggest, in fact, at the heart of genealogy is exegesis: Nietzschian rumination (from his preface to Geneology of Morals). It is precisely this misunderstanding of genealogy, as something beyond hermeneutics, that I criticize the social sciences for doing to their (selective) reading of Foucault. So, even if I were to offer a sharper point to what I am trying to pin on Weigel, I think we would have some major disagreement. To be clear: I am not convinced that genealogical analysis is entirely incompatible with the requirements of orthodoxy. In fact, I often feel the situation is exactly the reverse.

    This gets me to David: I agree with you and like your distinction between dissent and rebellion. We need more of the former, and Weigel’s essay (when read with a sense of irony) seems to show that.

    Truly, Kyle gets my point: Weigel’s essay can only be seen as an opening to richer analysis in the rigor of thing that people call “post” for whatever reason. Such a reading is at a stroke odd and refreshing (to me).

    Alien: By now you see that, yes, same Weigel.

  • Weigel sounds defensive. He should be. Is it the case that he can only be published in the pro-torture pro-war National Review these days?

  • Gerald A. Naus

    Weigel speaks of “The gay insurgency”. I wonder whether he dreams of putting it down shock-and-awe style ? Of course, this would backfire – who would prepare the flowers grateful peoples will hand to American liberators if not gay florists ? Peace to Lance the Florist, woe to Joe the Plumber.


  • brettsalkeld

    Thank you Sam. Is it too much to hope that Weigel reads this?

  • brettsalkeld

    As it happens, there is a school of economic thought that styles itself the “Economy of Communion” and promotes free-market approaches in which profit, while a factor in business life, is not the only factor, and in which a portion of profits are shared with projects aimed at the economic empowerment of the poor. It is unclear from the text of Caritas in Veritate whether this is being recommended as a general model for 21st-century economic life, or an interesting experiment within the framework of the free economy. But given the influence of “Economy of Communion” academics on the formation of Caritas in Veritate, the idea is not going to go away and ought to be engaged and debated, both by economists committed to market principles and practices and by Catholic scholars committed to the Centesimus Annus portrait of the free economy.

    “As it happens”? Ah, gee George, isn’t that nice? I thought it was just muddled Justice and Peace non-sense. Or maybe you need to be careful about putting your name to ideas that you haven’t really thought about. Unless of course, such nonchalance is also modeled by the successor of Peter.

    (Focolare, the originators of this “Economy of Communion, is, unsurprisingly, ecstatic with the encyclical.)

  • David Wheeler-Reed

    As a biblical scholar, I thought Weigel was talking about the Synoptic Problem for a moment. I almost had to get out my colored pens–red and gold–to try and find “Q”… oppss… I mean Benedict…

    I never thought Weigel we be pro-Redaction Criticism… fascinating!!!



  • wj

    “and by Catholic scholars committed to the Centesimus Annus portrait of the free economy…”

    The gist of this passage is to suggest that Benedict’s notion of “Economies of Communion” is somehow in tension with that hazy entity, “the Centesimus Annus portrait of the free economy…” But, of course, if you actually read Centesimus Annus you find that JPII’s “free economy” is much closer to Economies of Communion than it is to what JPII calls “capitalism.” Of course, Weigel thinks that “free economy” in CA just means “capitalism topped by the bourgeois moral virtues” so he goes on jabbering about “the Centesimus Annus portrait” as if it supported his own views.

    And can anybody tell from reading this convoluted piece where Weigel himself comes down on whether there is continuity in Catholic Social Teaching and if so whether that is a good thing? I find lots of hemming and hawing about PP being the outlier document, but then from another vantage point it is clear that for Weigel CA is the outlier document–and it’s a good thing, too!

  • Weigel is right to detect different redactional layers in the Encyclical — the theological generalities are echt Ratzinger, the specific proposals are more suggestive of input from the Justice and Peace people. This kind of analysis has been done on many church documents, notably in discussions of the tensions between rival ecclesiologices in Lumen Gentium (and similar analyses can be made of the ancient Councils). Weigel’s contempt for Justice and Peace thinking, and implicitly for Paul VI, is where he goes wrong.

  • Here is what Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, writes in today’s Irish Times:

    The theme of God’s love has been a focal point of the writings of Pope Benedict XVI. In his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, published last week, the pope takes up the relationship between charity and truth in the context of the social and economic realities of our world.
    Some might ask should justice rather than charity not be at the heart of the church’s social doctrine? In the Christian vocabulary the word charity is not about handouts or vague benevolence.
    “Charity is at the heart of the church’s social doctrine – every responsibility, and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine, is derived from charity, which according to the teaching of Jesus is the synthesis of the entire law” (n.2).
    Justice prompts us to offer others what is due to them. For Pope Benedict, charity goes beyond justice, “because to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other . . . Charity transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving” (n.6).
    Christian charity is about gratuitousness, a giving not just of things and ideas but of self, without any of the price tags or packaged portions typical of consumer society. Christian charity is the counterbalance to a consumerist and utilitarian way of life.
    What have charity and gratuitousness to say to the realities and mechanisms of economic life?
    What has a papal encyclical, which is primarily a religious document, to say about the mechanics of economic and social development? The encyclical does not as such present fixed recipes for development. It draws inspiration from an understanding of a God who is love and who shares his life with us.
    What might be the place of the idea of sharing in today’s competitive, market and profit-driven economy? The encyclical recognises the irreplaceable role of the market but notes that “without an internal form of solidarity and mutual trust the market cannot fulfil its proper economic function”.
    The economy serves the common good but economic growth on its own will never respond to all the needs of social development. Development needs both economic growth and solidarity.
    But the originality of the encyclical is in how it explores ways of illustrating that economic growth and solidarity are not two totally parallel tracks: “solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity and not only outside or after it”.
    Pope Benedict takes up the concept of integral development as set out by Pope Paul VI 40 years ago: development of every person and of the whole person. There cannot be holistic development unless we address the spiritual and moral dimensions of the theme. Justice can only be attained by people who live justly.
    Development is impossible without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finely attuned to the common good.
    The sharing of goods, from which authentic development proceeds is not guaranteed by merely technical progress of relations of utility but by the potential of love that overcomes evil with good.
    This requires “a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise” (n.40) since “investment always has a moral as well as an economic significance”.
    In a wide-ranging reflection, the encyclical addresses many of the aspects of our current world order and especially the challenges of globalisation which the pope describes as “the explosion of worldwide interdependence”.
    A section addresses the role of migrants noting that “no country can be expected to address today’s problems of migration on its own”, but clearly reminds that migrant workers “cannot be considered as a commodity or a mere workforce. They must not be treated like any other factor of production. Every migrant is a human person who, as such, possesses fundamental, inalienable rights that must be respected by everyone and in every circumstance” (n.62).
    The primary capital to be safeguarded and valued today is the human person in his or her integrity. The pope expresses his anxiety about “a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitiveness in the global market” (n.25). He stresses “the priority of the goal of access to steady employment for everyone” (n.32.) He notes the continuous call of the church’s teaching to the importance of workers organisations.

  • Jesuit social ethicist Friedhelm Hengsbach says the Encyclical is the confused result of too many writers, hopelessly abstract. Stefano Zamagni, Economics, Bologna goes public as one of the ghost-writers and says the Pope wants to replace capitalism with another system.

  • David Nickol

    I confess to being somewhat baffled. When you pick an encyclical apart, how do you know which parts to accept and which to reject? Why didn’t Benedict just write it himself so it would all be “gold”? What is the point of the Church promulgating a document, under the pope’s name, in such a way that you have to submit it to “source criticism” to figure out which ideas came from where? All of these people are alive, so what is the point of them scrambling their viewpoints together in one document, publishing it, and then letting critics try to unscramble it?

    I would expect Catholics to view encyclicals somewhat like scripture. While they may be the result of editing and combining various strands, they are still taken to be authoritative. We don’t analyze the two creation accounts in Genesis to figure out which one to accept.

  • We don’t analyze the two creation accounts in Genesis to figure out which one to accept.

    Speak for yourself. I like the second one. Hehe

  • Michael
  • The link doesn’t work…

  • David Nickol

    This link should work for On the Sheer Implausibility of George Weigel’s Story, which Michael tried to link to.

  • Spirit of Vatican II

    I agree of course that all parts of an Encyclical are authoritative, even when signs of multiple authorship are seen. On the other hand, a feeble encyclical usually falls into oblivion rather quickly. It is interesting the Paul VI gave up writing encyclicals after Humanae Vitae — did he find the genre somehow ungrateful?

  • Spirit of Vatican II – Can you give a link to the Stefano Zamagni source you mentioned?

  • Tim F.

    Katerina says: ‘Another Weigel gem” sarcastically of course. And then adds “Out of control”.

    Care to elaborate? Or is it so obvious that only a moron can’t see what you see?

    Seriously, how is it “out of control”?

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  • I’ll look for it. Meanwhile there is this: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1909020,00.html?xid=rss-topstories

    I see TIME considers Pop Prog the last major social encyclical, forgetting Sollecitudo Rei Socialis and Centesimus Annus. Well of course the latter two are not really major, but neither is the new one.

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