Weigel: The best Nuncio we’ve had thus far

George Weigel

The announcement that Archbishop Christoph Pierre will succeed Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò as Apostolic Nuncio to the United States is an opportunity to pay tribute to a courageous churchman who has served Catholicism, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis in an exemplary way during his tenure in Washington.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with each of the Nuncios in Washington, since full diplomatic relations were established between this country and the Holy See under President Reagan and Pope John Paul II. And at the risk of embarrassing him, I have to say that I consider Archbishop Viganò to have been the best of them all thus far.

He came to Washington under what some in the Vatican thought was a cloud. The truth of the matter is that this scrupulously honest man had seen financial corruption in the Holy See and tried to do something about it – a task now being pursued with vigor by Pope Francis and Cardinal George Pell. But in the last years of Benedict XVI, things were not in good shape managerially in the Vatican; Viganò’s honesty was resented and, I expect, feared by lesser men; and the Washington appointment was arranged to give what amounted to a sacking the appearance of a promotion.

It was a completely one-sided trade: those who exiled Viganò from the Vatican lost, badly, and the Church in the United States won, handsomely. For Carlo Maria Viganò understood this moment in U.S. Catholic history as perhaps few other career Vatican diplomats could have done.

He appreciated the many strengths of the Church in the United States, including the evangelically-centered reconstruction of the hierarchy by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He understood where the vitality was in American Catholicism, and he knew that this vitality had to do with the strength of faith in those living parts of the Church. He knew that Catholic Lite wasn’t going to advance the New Evangelization, and he quickly grasped that the great project of converting a wounded culture in America was being threatened by an unprecedented assault on the Church’s capacity to be itself. And he knew that the threat came,  not from old-fashioned nativist bigots of Protestant persuasion, but from militant secularists  allied with the federal government.

Thus there was complete agreement between the papal representative in Washington and the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the imperative of defending religious freedom in full, and on challenging an administration that seemed determine to reduce that first freedom to a lifestyle choice about weekend leisure activities. The archbishop understood that there was no honorable retreat from what some deplored as “culture wars.” He knew who had declared war on whom; that the Church had not been the aggressor in this struggle; and that the battle had to be engaged, with the tools of reason and persuasion, for the sake of all religious communities and indeed for the sake of American democracy. His support for the bishops was crucial and effective, as was his work in preparing the meeting in Rome between Pope Francis and President Obama, where POTUS got the message that the Bishop of Rome was deeply concerned about the pressures being put on his flock in the United States.

The wonderful reception that Pope Francis received in the United States last September was due to many factors; Archbishop Viganò was surely one of them. As for the idiotic caterwauling in some quarters about the Pope’s spending a few minutes with former Kentucky official Kim Davis, let’s be clear that Kim Davis’s presence in the Nunciature was cleared with Archbishop Viganò’s superiors, Archbishop Giovanni Becciu and Archbishop Paul Gallagher. The obsession in certain quarters with this episode, which was front-loaded in far too many stories about Archbishop Pierre’s appointment, says far more about the passions of the obsessed than it does about Archbishop Viganò.

Carlo Maria Viganò may be seventy-five, but a man of his faith and integrity still has much to give the Church. The further reform of the Roman Curia would be well-served if he were drawn into it, officially or unofficially.

COMING UP: Searching for wisdom in a confused world

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Jordan Peterson became an overnight celebrity with the success of his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Random House, 2018). A viral interview from January of this year with Kathy Newman of England’s Channel 4 News brought immediate attention to Peterson’s newly released book, which has sold over two million copies since its release. The interview proved emblematic of Peterson’s popularity for attempting to retrieve common sense and to push back against the ideology overtaking our society.

Why has Peterson proved to be so popular?  A clinical psychologist, who teaches psychology at the University of Toronto, Peterson addresses issues that people care about: finding meaning, relationships, parenting, and gender, to name a few. People are looking for a guide, they desire wisdom — knowing how to order and make sense of reality — and Peterson has offered some needed insights. He tells his readers, “Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being” (63).

This quote illuminates both the allure of Peterson’s writing, helping people to seek definition for their lives, but also its limits, as the definition of self he recommends lacks mooring. Writing from the viewpoint of secular psychology, Peterson can help us to reflect, but his 12 Rules for Life can come across as sophisticated self-help devoid of deeper wisdom. He engages the Western tradition, including the Bible, and offers a fresh, but ultimately unsatisfying, reflection of the stories that define our tradition. He does bring needed common sense, such as “stop doing what you know to be wrong,” (which should not even need to be said) but fails to provide answers to the ultimate questions that define meaning and identity (157).

Greater depth and wisdom can be found in Leon Kass’ Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter, 2017). Kass, a Jewish medical doctor and bioethicist, draws from his lengthy experience in science and teaching the Great Books at the University of Chicago to take us deeper into the human condition and point us toward a richer understanding of the human person — body, mind and soul. Kass, like Peterson, does not write from a religious perspective, but engages the same general themes and classic works, such as the Bible, though with a more convincing explanation of their meaning.

Kass’ book has four major sections, treating themes of love, human dignity, education and our higher aspirations. Kass guides us to reconsider the importance of the foundational goods of life — finding meaning in work and married life — as well as calling us to “the cultivation in each of us of the disposition actively to seek the truth and to make the truth our own” (256). We pursue this liberation by entering into the great tradition of Western thought, which provides an “education in and for thoughtfulness. It awakens, encourages, and renders habitual thoughtful reflection about weighty human concerns, in quest of what is simply true and good” (ibid.).

The thoughtfulness encouraged by Kass is needed more than ever to address the key concerns he raises: a collapse of courtship and marriage, biomedical challenges to the integrity of human nature, and a decline of citizenship. The first two themes share a common source in the “the rejection of a teleological view of nature,” which finds no intrinsic purpose in the human body or even life itself (54). Speaking of the threat of biotechnology and transhumanism, but in a way applicable to gender as well, he relates that “only if there is a human givenness that is also good and worth respecting — either as we find it or as it could be perfected without ceasing to be itself — does the given serve as a positive guide for choosing what to alter and what to leave alone” (149). We must learn to appreciate and cultivate the good of our nature, rather than manipulating and controlling it to our own demise. The same is true of our nation, as Kass, drawing on Abraham Lincoln, points to the need for “enhancing reverence for the Constitution and its laws” (377), as we appreciate, preserve and advance the heritage of our country.

Kass, drawing on his unique background, guides us through an integrated discovery of the good and points us toward the wisdom we need to live a worthy life.