Homelands and social doctrines

George Weigel

With hundreds of bishops coming to the Vatican in October 2001 for a Synod, I decided to spend that month in Rome conducting interviews for what would eventually become the sequel to Witness to Hope and the second volume of my John Paul II biography, The End and the Beginning. During my conversations, I found a striking similarity among bishops from Latin America, each of whom I asked to name the greatest challenge his local Church faced in implementing Catholic social doctrine in the 21st century.  Without exception as to country, and no matter where the bishop in question fell on the spectrum of Catholic opinion, each of them gave the same, one-word answer: “Corruption.”

That got my attention, because fostering cultures of honesty and trust would seem to be right in the Catholic Church’s wheelhouse, and the Church had been present in Latin America for some 500 years at that point. Yet one by one, the bishops told me that personal corruption, leading to systemic and culturally reinforced economic and political corruption, was the greatest challenge they faced in the new century. It was an answer that helped explain some otherwise puzzling phenomena: like Argentina’s collapse from being one of the world’s 10 wealthiest countries in 1900 to being a perennial political and economic basket case; like Brazil’s inability to realize its potential as a great economic power. There was serious Catholic failure here, and the bishops with whom I spoke were honest enough to admit it.

I remembered those conversations when reading a recent essay in America magazine by San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy, “Pope Francis brings a new lens to poverty, peace, and the planet.” In that essay, the bishop had this to say about comparative pontificates:

“This new lens reflects in a fundamental way the experience of the Church in Latin America. Critics of Pope Francis point to this as a limitation, a bias that prevents the pope from seeing the central issues of economic justice, war and peace and the environment in the context of the universal Church. But St. John Paul II certainly enriched key aspects of Catholic social teaching from a perspective profoundly rooted in the experience of the Eastern European Church under communism. Contemporary critics of Pope Francis voiced no objections to that regional and historical perspective.”

I’ve no idea who these “critics” are, but perhaps a few refreshers on John Paul II’s social doctrine would help further the discussion.

First, Karol Wojtyla was steeped in the classic social doctrine tradition of Leo XIII and Pius XI, which he taught at the Silesian seminary in Cracow in the 1950s and which provided the intellectual scaffolding for his own social magisterium when he became pope.

Second, it’s true that John Paul II’s most important contribution to the 21st -century discussion of the free and virtuous society — his insistence on a vibrant public moral culture as the key to living freedom nobly and well, in both political and economic life — reflected the experience of a Poland that remained alive through its culture when its independent statehood was eliminated between 1795 and 1918. But it’s also true that this “culture-first” theme was thoroughly baked into the classic social doctrine, beginning with Leo XIII.

Third, John Paul II’s recognition of the dynamics of post-Cold War economies was not drawn from his Polish experience — the man never had a checkbook and lived largely “outside” the economy — but from intense conversations with western scholars who knew how post-industrial economies work (and don’t), and from whom he was both smart enough and humble enough to learn.

And finally, John Paul II’s social doctrine took failure seriously and tried to learn from it: specifically, the failure of the Weimar Republic in interwar Germany, where an ably-designed political and economic system eventually produced a totalitarian regime, because its moral and cultural foundations were too shaky to support the institutions of freedom when the crunch of the Great Depression came.

So it seems to me that, with John Paul II, a distinctive personal experience refined and extended the classic social doctrine tradition. John Paul was not imposing an idiosyncratic view on the world Church — which is in fact something no pope should do, because the Bishop of Rome is the custodian of a universal tradition, not an intellectual free agent.

COMING UP: After the Irish debacle

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I wasn’t surprised by the result of Ireland’s May 25 referendum, which opened a path to legal abortion in the Emerald Isle by striking down a pro-life amendment to the Irish Constitution. Nor was I all that surprised by the large margin of victory racked up by those for whom an unborn child isn’t “one of us;” both the government and the virulently anti-Catholic Irish media put heavy thumbs onto the scales as the debate over the referendum unfolded. So with Ireland having joined the Gadarene rush into legalizing the dictatorship of relativism, what next?

Amend the Irish Constitution again. Ireland’s constitution begins with a preamble that now seems, at the very least, ironic: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred…” Having long ago jettisoned in practice the bit about God’s judgment on “men and States,” Ireland has now made it clear, by a 66 percent supermajority, that it does not recognize the “authority” of “the Most Holy Trinity” in terms of either divine law (see Exodus 20:13) or the natural moral law God inscribed in creation, which teaches us that innocent human life is not to be willfully taken and deserves cultural and legal protection.

Ireland has been a post-Christian society for decades. The effects of de-Christianization and ecclesiophobia were painfully evident in the aggressive tone of pro-abortion advocates during the pre-referendum debate and by the referendum’s results. So why not stop the charade and delete from the Constitution an affirmation belied by both contemporary custom and Irish law?

Protect the dissenters. Before and immediately after the referendum, the totalitarian passions of some of the pro-abortion forces were on display in TwitterWorld. Their target was the Iona Institute, a think-tank led by one of Ireland’s leading Catholic layman, David Quinn. Anticipating victory on May 25, columnist Barbara Scully tweeted the day before, “Once we’re done repealing the 8th [i.e., the pro-life amendment to the Constitution], can we repeal The Iona Institute? They serve no useful purpose. Any why do we need to listen to their views every time we need to make a social change. Why do they have such an amplified voice?” The morning after her side won, another columnist, Alison O’Connor, gnawed the same rotten bone, tweeting, “Is it too soon to ask just who are the Iona Institute? Where do they get their cash? Who appointed them guardians of our nether region morals? Did we hear far too much from one small (& we now know hugely unrepresentative) group over the last months?”

Thus speaketh the thought police. So the friends of democracy in Ireland had better think quickly about providing robust legal protection for heroes like David Quinn and other pro-life stalwarts who fought the good fight, lost, and will now try through persuasion to limit the damage that will follow the repeal of the pro-life amendment. If their voices are squelched by thuggish cultural pressures, or even by law, Irish democracy will become a pathetic joke.

Take bold steps to rebuild Irish Catholicism. Whatever polling data tells us about the percentage of the pro-abortion vote being an anti-Church vote, it’s been obvious for over a decade that, with a few exceptions, the Irish bishops are incapable of leading the re-evangelization of the country. Their credibility has been shattered by abuse cover-ups. The strategy of kowtowing to political correctness and bending to cultural pressure, which too many Irish bishops have adopted, has been a complete failure.

In December 2011, after meeting in Dublin with legislators of both major political parties, journalists, serious lay Catholics, and the country’s most accomplished theologian, I sent a memo to friends in Rome, arguing that radical measures were needed to turn things around in Irish Catholicism: retiring most of the then-sitting bishops; shrinking the number of Irish dioceses by at least half; and appointing new bishops for Ireland from throughout the Anglosphere – the principal criterion for selection being a man’s demonstrated capacity as an evangelist. Ireland, I wrote, was mission territory. It needed missionary bishops. And if native-born Irishmen could once become bishops in the U.S., why couldn’t American bishops known to be effective evangelists be sent to Ireland today?

My analysis, I fear, was correct. The drastic measures needed to rebuild Irish Catholicism remain to be implemented.

Featured Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images