Weigel’s sharp vision begins to fail when he turns to the United States
To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II by George Weigel. Basic Books, 2022. 368 pp., $32.00
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is arguably the most significant event in the history of the modern Catholic Church. Pope St. John XXIII summoned the Council in 1959 with the purpose of providing a comprehensive Catholic response to the political, social and cultural revolutions that transformed the world since the eighteenth century. No mere collections of position papers, the Council documents were to provide a guide for spiritual renewal within the Church and a new evangelization of the world outside it.
The decades since the Council have witnessed the growth of the Church in certain parts of the Third World, most especially in Africa. Looking at the Western developed world over the same period, however, even the most sympathetic supporters of the Council’s vision must admit (or at least should admit) that the Council did not achieve its stated goals. The Western world is far less Christian than it was in the 1960s; Mass attendance and Church affiliation have dropped dramatically even where they were once strongest—in the United States.
Catholics who think and write about the Church have expended much energy trying to understand these developments. The sixtieth anniversary of the opening of the Council has brought a redoubling of these efforts. George Weigel’s To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II stands out not only for the quality of its argument but for the significance of its author. Weigel is one of the most influential American Catholic public intellectuals of the last half century. He is perhaps best known for his authoritative and bestselling biography of St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope (1999), in which he presents John Paul as an authoritative interpreter of liberal modernity, affirming the Western regime of human rights against totalitarian alternatives of fascism and communism. In To Sanctify the World, Weigel presents John Paul as an authoritative interpreter of Vatican II.
Weigel’s earlier account of John Paul spoke to a time where few Catholics questioned the legitimacy of the Council. Instead, they argued over how best to implement the Council’s call to evangelize the world. The battle lines within the Church roughly mirrored those in secular politics. Weigel stood on the conservative side of that divide, lending a Catholic imprimatur to Reagan-era neoconservatism, affirming both free-market economics and aggressive anticommunism. To Sanctify the World speaks to a different Catholic world—one in which a small but increasingly vocal minority rejects the legitimacy of the Council and demands a return to the intellectual and liturgical orientation of the pre-Vatican II Church. Once a leader of the Catholic Right, Weigel now finds himself defending something like a Catholic Vital Center.
For all its concern with internal Church politics, To Sanctify the World should be of interest to any reader concerned with the relation of Christianity and modernity. To his credit, Weigel devotes several early chapters to clarifying the nature of modernity itself. He offers insights that provide needed correctives to the secular triumphalism that continues to serve as the common sense of Western elites. To those who claim that liberal modernity rescued the West from the murderous wars of religion, Weigel looks at the twentieth century and sees in the two World Wars (1914-1945) a “New Thirty Years War.”
The decline of Church influence brought not peace but war on an unprecedented scale, driven by the secular ideologies of liberalism, nationalism, imperialism, communism, and fascism. I only wish Weigel had broadened this analogy and written of a Two Hundred Years War—from the American and French Revolutions of the late-eighteenth century to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century. This, of course, would have complicated his narrative by implicating the United States in the violence of modernity. Good Cold War conservative that he is, Weigel prefers to see the World Wars as the distinct failure of European modernity.
The twentieth century bore out the dark prophecies of many of the anti-modern popes of the nineteenth century. But Weigel wastes little time gloating. The best Catholic minds of the nineteenth century realized that the world had changed, changed utterly, and that no simple turning back of the clock would be possible. In 1873, in his address at the opening of a new English seminary, St. Bernard’s, John Henry Newman noted that the priests trained at St. Bernard’s would face an unprecedented challenge: “I know that all times are perilous . . . [but] ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it . . . [For] Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious.” Newman accepted this as a sad but unavoidable fact. The Church’s task, he thought, was to articulate new ways of understanding the faith in order to present the timeless message of the Gospel persuasively to a world that no longer took religion or God seriously.
Drawing on Aristotelian notions of organic development, Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845) had provided an earlier model for understanding historical change within the Catholic tradition. Sadly, when other Catholic thinkers, in their pursuit of relevance, sought to incorporate historical thinking into the Catholic tradition, they drew more on the dominant secular traditions of Hegelianism and Darwinian evolution. Church authorities resisted the relativism inherent in these traditions—in particular, new developments in the historical-critical interpretation of the Bible. Pius X gathered all such historicisms together under the label of “Modernism,” which he condemned as a heresy in his 1907 encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis.
The condemnation of Modernism did much to create a sense of a “fortress Catholicism” in the decades preceding the Council. Debates at the time of the Council often focused on assessing the merits and deficiencies of that fortress. In his opening section, titled “Why Vatican II Was Necessary,” Weigel challenges the very existence of such a fortress, quoting a young priest who in 1958 judged that, despite outward appearances, the Catholic Church had become “a Church of pagans who still call themselves Christians, but have actually become pagans.” That priest was Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
Weigel takes this observation seriously and interprets much of the disarray following the Council as a symptom of the problem identified by Ratzinger. Catholics interpreted the Council documents in light of the “pagan” assumptions that shaped their understanding of the world. Not surprisingly, in the name of the Council, Vatican II-era reformers themselves often ended up remaking the Church in the image of the world.
Weigel’s account of this dynamic is persuasive. It offers a needed corrective to liberals who remain committed to making the Church conform to standards of the secular liberal world and to traditionalists who reject the Council as Modernism redivivus. His gloss of the Council documents provides an accessible introduction to what the Council actually taught; his account of John Paul II and
Benedict XVI provides convincing examples of an authentic implementation of the Council’s teachings.
Still, I cannot help but feel that there is something ultimately unconvincing, even evasive, about his concluding plea to put “Christ at the Center.” John Paul and Benedict proclaimed this clearly in their teachings, but the thirty plus years of their combined pontificates did little to stem the decline of the Church in the developed world. The paganism that Joseph Ratzinger identified in 1950s has only grown stronger. How has this happened? Is it simply a consequence of individual choice, something we must accept in the name of religious freedom? What exactly does religious freedom mean in actual practice? The function of old church establishments has been taken over by other institutions, most significantly by schools and by the culture industry of corporate capitalism. Does the dominant power of these institutions really allow for meaningful religious freedom?
These questions are perhaps different ways of asking the question, How do we put “Christ at the Center” beyond private piety? Weigel does not seem to consider this question in connection with the state of the Church today. Had he done so, he might have drawn from his experience writing on the life and influence of John Paul II. Polish Catholics did not bring down Soviet communism through prayer alone. They created an institution: Solidarity. As a labor union and political party, Solidarity sought to promote a communal alternative to Soviet communism. Catholics in America seeking to fulfill the promise of Vatican II face the challenge not of an oppressive state but an oppressive culture, neither liberal nor conservative but, more broadly, modern. This American culture promotes freedom as the primary good. Advancing a positive alternative to this culture of freedom awaits another—doubtless very different—Solidarity.
Christopher Shannon is associate professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. He is the author of several works on U.S. cultural history and American Catholic history, including American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey Through Catholic Life in a New World (2022), available now from Ignatius Press.