The columns of George Weigel running monthly in Catholic New York are thick with facts, informed commentary and faith, compressed into 700 words. They almost never fail to draw a strong reaction, both pro and con, from our readers, which is not a bad attribute for a columnist. One of the letters to the editor in this week’s issue (Page 12) weighs in on Weigel’s most recent column about baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson. No one could ever accuse Weigel of writing a dull column, that’s for sure.
On April 29, I had the pleasure of joining an appreciative audience of 400 people in Manhattan listening as Weigel delivered the fifth annual Edward Cardinal Egan Lecture, named for the late Archbishop of New York.
The lectures, sponsored by the Magnificat Foundation, are normally heady affairs. Weigel did not disappoint in the least, offering a challenging, nearly hour-long talk on the catchy topic “Ironies in the Fire: Catholicism and Modernity.” It felt like a graduate school seminar, so much so that I half-expected an exam at the end, rather than the energetic question-and-answer session that followed.
For those who don’t know very much about Weigel beyond his column, he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies and is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. A Catholic theologian, he is the author of some 20 books, most notably “The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II” and “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church.”
His talk was a rapid-fire delivery that showed how the Church has confronted the topic, through the prism of papal history, from Pope Gregory XVI (1832-1846) to Pope Francis (2013-present), over the past nearly 200 years.
As Weigel roared along, you quickly realized you were in the presence of a superior intellect with an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject and an ability to write and speak with meaning, depth and authority. The only problem I fear many fellow listeners had was an inability to process his words at the speed and volume at which they poured forth. A few more asides and a little more humor sprinkled in would have helped, in my opinion.
The history lessons he transmitted are such that I can barely touch them, given this column’s brevity. I did gain a better understanding of how many of the more recent popes, relatively speaking, fit together, at least when it came to Catholicism and Modernity.
Here’s a nugget or two about Pope Leo XIII, who Weigel said was elected as “place-keeper” in 1878, but managed to serve for the next quarter-century until his death at age 93. The accomplishments of his lengthy pontificate ensured he would be remembered more than a century later, as Weigel noted. They included opening “the Vatican Secret Archives to qualified researchers of all faiths, and no faith, thereby inaugurating the modern study of Catholic history…” Leo XIII also established “the first modern Catholic Observatory and supported studies in astronomy and other natural sciences at the Vatican, thus beginning a rapprochement between Catholicism and modern science.” He also initiated the modern Catholic study of the Bible and founded the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1902.
There was plenty more about Pope Leo XIII, so much so that Weigel posited that the five and a half decades of Catholic history immediately following his death “were a contest, sometimes bitter, over the Leonine Revolution and its attempt to engage modernity with distinctively Catholic tools.”
Obviously, I’m glossing over much of what Weigel offered, but I do want to mention at least a bit of his comments about Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who he said should be viewed “as a single moment of intellectual engagement with the cultural crisis of late modernity and the emergence of a post-modern world that is both robustly religious…and deeply conflicted about both its luxuriant plurality and the meaning of pluralism.” Their critiques of modernity, in contrast to earlier popes of the 19th century, were from “within.” As such, they began “with a broad acceptance of the accomplishments of modernity, before turning to a critique of what both popes perceived as the danger of the late-modern/post-modern world’s self-deconstruction into incoherence.”
Weigel probably could have easily lectured for an hour just on Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, rather than taking the survey approach across the decades. It’s easy to slough off Weigel’s academic research as too hard or inaccessible, but if you want to make the time for an interesting, thought-provoking read, you should look up his Egan lecture in the publications section of the website of the Ethics and Public Policy Center at eppc.org.