R&L: You opened your essay in Reinventing the American People, a recent book from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, by noting that a long line of political theorists, dating back to the days of the Romans, would regard you as “a dangerous man, a threat to the public order” because you are “an orthodox Christian.” What is the appropriate way for Christians to be political?
Weigel: My book, Soul of the World, begins with this claim: The most important thing Christians say about everything is that “Jesus is Lord.” And that “everything” most certainly includes politics. The Lordship of Christ is the greatest truth in history, and about history; the Lordship of Christ is a great barrier against absolutizing politics, which has been one of the great curses of the twentieth century. Human freedom and human flourishing are only possible when politics is kept in its place, which is a limited place.
So when Christians confess that “Jesus is Lord” they’re relativizing all their other loyalties, including their political loyalties. That’s why commentators from Pliny the Younger to Rousseau to the New York Times editorial board have considered Christians dangerous. The irony, of course, is that the Christian refusal to treat Caesar–or James Madison–as God is what clears the social space for pluralism, democracy, and the politics of consent.
R&L: In the above quotation, you make a point of explicitly describing your faith as orthodox. Why is this accent on orthodoxy so important in your formulation?
Weigel: Christian orthodoxy has shown itself remarkably resistant to the temptation to make an idol of the political: look at the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, or the resistance Church in east central Europe under communism. Attempts to “conform” Christianity to the “spirit of the age” often end up with the Church giving its blessings to some very dubious politics, as in the German Deutsche christen, or the “liberationist” churches of Latin America during the 1980s.
R&L: You have described Pope John Paul II as the “pope of freedom.” What do you mean by this?
Weigel: John Paul II is the “pope of freedom” because he has given the quest for freedom, which he described at the U.N. this past October as “one of the great dynamics of human history,” a philosophical and theological justification that has both deepened and broadened our understanding of liberty and its relationship to moral truth. The Holy Father has also described what I might call the “moral architecture of the free society” with great boldness in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. But John Paul’s contributions to the cause of freedom have not been merely theoretical; as I argued in The Final Revolution, the pope was the primary architect of the revolution of conscience that made the nonviolent Revolution of 1989, and the collapse of European communism, possible.
R&L: What will be the implications of the papacy of John Paul II for future Catholic social teaching? And as we approach the five-year anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, what do you see as its greatest achievement?
Weigel: Centesimus Annus is, with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931), one of the three great texts of modern Catholic social teaching. But Centesimus Annus did more than recapitulate the teaching of John Paul II’s predecessors; it also set the social doctrine of the Church on a new path by its endorsement of the “free economy,” its empirical sensitivity on questions of economic development, and its insistence that a vibrant, publicly-assertive moral-cultural order is essential to the functioning of the free economy and the democratic political community. Catholics, and indeed everyone interested in the relationship between moral truth and the free society, will be wrestling with Centesimus Annus for at least a century.
R&L: How has this encyclical transformed the public conversation about the nature of rights and duties in modern democratic regimes?
Weigel: It’s helped transform that conversation by reigniting a discussion of the link between rights and duties or obligations. Over the past several generations, Americans had begun to think of “rights” as merely instrumental: trump cards, if you will, for advancing the claims of what Father Neuhaus has called the “imperial autonomous Self.” This emptied the notion of “rights” of its proper moral content. John Paul II, by emphasizing that freedom finds its fulfillment in goodness, not in mere “process,” has helped us to re-engage the idea that rights are means for the fulfillment of our duties. Or, as your patron, Lord Acton, said, freedom is “having the right to do what we ought.”
R&L: There are certain defenders of capitalism who, looking at Centesimus Annus, are amazed that Christians are becoming apologists for the free market. What accounts for the tendency of Christianity to promote an anticapitalist mentality?
Weigel: Some Christians, especially in mainline-oldline Protestantism, are committed socialists. Other Christians, and not without reason, worry about the market’s capacity to create what Zbigniew Brzezinski once called the “permissive cornucopia.” Given its “organic” view of society, Catholic social doctrine has, until recent years, been leery of what it deemed the excessive individualism of capitalist economies. The pioneering work of Michael Novak and others on the “communitarian individual” in the free economy has helped the Church achieve a real development of social doctrine on economic matters, such that in Centesimus Annus entrepreneurship and economic initiative are proposed as reflections of the divinely-ordered creativity that is a characteristic of every human person.
But the Church will continue to insist, and should continue to insist, that the free economy be tempered, directed, and disciplined by the moral-cultural order and by law.
R&L: You have written in your introduction to A New Worldly Order that, in regard to economic questions, “the pope is not persuaded by libertarian arguments” about the self-sufficiency of the market and that “the real issue is the ability of a culture to provide the market with the moral framework it needs to serve the cause of integral human development.” Can you elaborate on the deficiencies and limitations of the market, and how ought Christianity respond to them?
Weigel: In Centesimus Annus, the pope writes that the temptation of wealthy societies (or developing societies, for that matter) is to confuse “having more” with “being more.” Spend an hour looking at ads on prime-time television, and you’ll see that temptation is omnipresent in America.
Capitalist economies only work when a critical mass of people are possessed by certain habits of the mind and heart (what some of us used to call “virtues”): self-command, the capacity for prudent risk-taking, the ability to form cooperative working relationships, and the willingness to defer gratification. Corporations need to be very careful that, in their marketing and advertising, they don’t promote attitudes and counter-values that will, eventually, cause the market system to implode. “Just do it” is bad morals and bad economics.
R&L: As a onetime seminary professor, can you give us an overview of the state of seminary education in America today, especially in regard to things political and economic? And what needs to be done to deepen seminarians’ understanding of these topics?
Weigel: Most seminaries do a very poor job of teaching the social doctrine of the Church, and what teaching goes on tends to be filtered through an establishment-liberal optic. In these circumstances, the Acton Institute’s work with seminary students is terribly important.
R&L: Finally, you have written that ecumenism will be the next great challenge for the Church as it approaches the third millennia. Why do you feel so strongly about ecumenism?
Weigel: I feel strongly about ecumenism because Christ wants His Church to be one. Christian divisions impede the proclamation of the Gospel, and make it more difficult for Christians to be salt and light in society. Happily, Christians of many ecclesial communities have found it possible to work together for the moral renewal of society, even as we continue to search together for that unity which Christ prayed for His Church.
R&L: What is the appropriate theological basis for undertaking the ambitious task of Christian unity?
Weigel: Christian unity is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. There is only one Church, because there is only one Christ, and the Church is His Body. The ecumenical task is not to “negotiate” the “terms” of Christian unity, but for all Christians to work together to give greater effect and public visibility to that unity with which the Holy Spirit has already endowed the Church.