Rorate Caeli

Neo-Triumphalism: George Weigel's Offenses Against Pious Ears

The latest article by Mr. Weigel in First Things is yet another in a series of articles wherein he touts the "triumphs" of Vatican II over the previous magisterium. This time, he does so by making fun of the former head of the Holy Office during the years before, during, and after the Council, His Eminence Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani.

And to what purpose? Mr. Weigel implicitly embraces a hermeneutic of rupture by suggesting that Dignitatis humanae deviates from the Church's long-standing teaching that error should not be allowed to flourish in society; indeed, his writing suggests the embracing of the modernist doctrines condemned by Pius IX, those doctrines of latitudinarianism and pluralism in society.

His argument could be expressed like this: a pre-conciliar ultra-conservative got utterly silenced during the Council on the issue of religious freedom. Having silenced the bad guy, allegedly the Church now claims that the state has no competence in restricting or promoting truth in religion (against the teaching of the entire tradition), and so therefore, there is a new theology of religious tolerance of persons, wherein one cannot be discriminated because of their abhorrent religious ideas, even if that means they believe, for instance, in mass suicides or terrorism in the name of religion-- they should still be respected and tolerated in society, because, well, we believe in tolerance.

The real purpose of the article is revealed when he tries to show the secularists taking up the "old teaching" of the Church, and in the name of secularism use a "no tolerance" policy to discriminate against religious groups. This is convenient for Weigel, because it shows that the old theology was in fact very bad, and vindicates the new theology for being so egalitarian.

However, there are not a few errors in Weigel's argument.

First, Weigel knows that the actual doctrinal teaching of the document is one of the most disputed of the Council, and a definitive interpretation has yet to be given. He therefore claims a particular interpretation, his interpretation, unsurprisingly one of rupture with the past, in order to demonstrate his point; namely, that Ottaviani, representative of tradition and the evil pre-conciliar days, paved the way for the persecution of the Church by the modern state that took up his outdated doctrines.

Further, he knows that the false interpretation of this document was one of the greatest catalysts in the Abp. Lefebvre affair, and so Mr. Weigel uses his column to claim a sort of triumphalism of the Spirit of Vatican II over those who would remain firmly attached to tradition or at least the "reform in continuity" as the hermeneutic for interpreting the documents of the Council -- including Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. What he fails to do, however, is give the other side of the story, and that is that this program following a false interpretation of the Council has done nothing but diminish the Church's voice in the public sphere, resulting in an entire loss of Catholic identity, while at the same time not at all preventing the great persecutions of Catholics in the post-Conciliar age, including in our own days.

Finally, and this is perhaps the most truly grievous error, Mr. Weigel makes the mistake of placing on a similar level the teaching authority of the Church, who cannot err when teaching on matters of faith or morals, with the fallible judgments of those leaders in civil society (for instance, the promotion of Secularism). In doing so, his statements implicitly diminish the authority of the Church, and likens the claim that the Church has over the fullness of the truth to that of a modern, subjective State -- one whose "truth" is one among many, rooted in an arbitrary positivism or personal conviction of what one thinks is right or wrong, and without reference to an objective truth rooted in divine and natural law. Surely, more respect can be given for the authority of the Church, if not for one of her Princes.

In the future, it may help Mr. Weigel for him to begin with theology in order to correctly summarize events of the life of the Church in light of the truth of the matter, rather than in the light of political spectrums and intrigues, which, while perhaps may make for good journalism and great laughs, have no bearing on God's divine truth.

Herein lies the greatest difficulty of the neo-conservative position-- the true fruit of the nouvelle theologie of the mid-20th century: in the embracing of modern philosophies, one is no longer able to know anything with real certainty anymore. The faith becomes an entirely personal conviction devoid of an ecclesial dimension, and the law of non-contradiction becomes more of a guideline, rather than a logical premise. And people like Weigel, who think that they are holding a Catholic position and building up the faith by championing a program of modernizing the Church, in fact only succeed in leading people to error and confusion.

[Dominicus is a new contributor to Rorate Caeli, with posts of a more theological bent.]

[Image: Cardinal Ottaviani celebrates Mass on December 10, 1963, in the Church of Santa Maria di Loreto, Rome, for the Roman Union of Bakers - source: Biblioteche di Roma - Cinecittà Luce archives.]