09 JULY 2020, THE TABLET George Weigel

White smoke from a Sistine Chapel chimney signals that a new pope has been chosen
Photo: CNS, Paul Haring

The biographer of John Paul II believes that Catholicism in Western Europe is moribund.

As other Christian communities with a clear sense of moral identity flourish, only a pope offering doctrinal clarity will make the faith compelling

In John 8:31-32, the Lord Jesus proclaims that those who “continue in his word” will “know the truth, and the truth will make you free”. Thus the next pope must understand that doctrine is liberating, and that Catholicism can and must be both a Christ-centred Church of doctrinal clarity and a Christ-centred Church manifesting the divine mercy. That understanding will help him, and it will help the Church he leads, to cope with a basic sociological fact about the Christian circumstance today.

There seems to be a kind of iron law built into the relationship between Christianity and modernity (and late modernity, and post-modernity, and probably whatever is coming after post-modernity): Christian communities that have a clear sense of doctrinal and moral identity can survive, even flourish, under the challenges posed by contemporary culture; Christian communities whose sense of identity becomes weak and whose boundaries become porous wither – and some die.

This iron law was first demonstrated among the various forms of liberal Protestantism around the world. The liberal Protestant denominations that began abandoning doctrinal clarity in the nineteenth century and moral clarity in the twentieth are dying – everywhere.

The part of Protestantism throughout the world that is growing is evangelical, Pentecostal, or fundamentalist. And while there are vast differences in theological sensibility and pastoral method among evangelical Protestants, Pentecostalists and Protestant fundamentalists, each of these forms of Christianity exhibits clarity of teaching and strong moral expectations.

The iron law is also applicable to world Catholicism.

There is a strong correlation between the collapse of Catholic belief and practice in Western Europe and the ongoing attempt there to make “Catholic Lite” – a Catholicism of indeterminate convictions and porous behavioural boundaries – work as a twenty-first-century pastoral method. This phenomenon is most obvious in the German-speaking lands of Europe but it is not confined there. Catholic Lite is an evangelical and pastoral failure throughout Western Europe, as it is an evangelical and pastoral failure in North America, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand.

By contrast, the living, vibrant parts of the world Church in the third decade of the twenty-first century are those that have made the proclamation of the Gospel their priority; that teach the Catholic faith in full, with imagination and compassion; and that offer fallen-away Catholics, dissatisfied Protestants, and unbelievers a reformed and more satisfying way of life, rooted in friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ. This is most obviously true of the newer local Churches of sub-Saharan Africa. It is also true of the growing end of the Church in North America. And it is true of those shoots of new Christian life that are sprouting up through the hard, secularised soil of Europe.

This basic truth of twenty-first-century Catholic life – Catholicism-in-full is attractive and compelling; Catholic Lite is moribund – also extends across a range of Catholic institutions.

It is true of parishes, dioceses, religious communities, seminaries and lay renewal movements. Perhaps the most dramatic example is found in communities of women Religious in the West. There, communities that have abandoned the religious habit and a distinctive mode of life, and whose members regularly dissent from authoritative church teaching, are dying; those that have embraced the reform of religious life mandated by the Second Vatican Council in the decree, Perfectae Caritatis, as authoritatively interpreted by Pope John Paul II in the 1996 apostolic exhortation, Vita Consecrata, are growing – even as society makes more and more opportunities for service and leadership available to women.

Lay renewal movements in the Church follow a similar pattern: those that have flourished in the past several decades embrace Catholicism-in-full.

That Catholicism-in-full attracts is also demonstrated by the remarkable fact that, in the United States, seminary recruitment has not collapsed under the pressure of the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. A young man discerning a priestly vocation today is not only considering a challenging way to live his Catholic faith, he is taking a great risk of social opprobrium. Yet across the US, twenty-first-century seminaries are populated by young men who want to embrace the Gospel in full and who are uninterested in Catholic Lite.

Catholicism-in-full does not set “Gospel” against “doctrine”. That is a Protestantising move that has done grave damage to the Christian identity and witness of many Christian communities born from the Reformations of the sixteenth century. Catholicism-in-full recognises that the basic Gospel proclamation – “Jesus is Lord” – was developed intellectually by a Spirit-led movement within the Church, which produced the Church’s creeds and its defining dogmatic statements.

Catholicism-in-full also recognises that, under the same divine inspiration, the Church’s understanding of the truths that make the Church who she is develops over time – always in continuity with what has been handed on from the past. Thus Catholicism-in-full deploys both Gospel and doctrine in evangelisation and pastoral ministry, believing that the full truth of Catholic faith is indeed liberating in the deepest meaning of human freedom.

The failures of Catholic Lite have been manifest for some time, and it takes a special kind of arrogance, or just plain stubbornness, not to face the empirical facts of the contemporary Catholic situation.

Catholic Lite may have the capacity to maintain existing Catholic institutions for a time; Catholic Lite has demonstrated no capacity to grow those institutions or, more importantly, to transform them into platforms for evangelisation and mission.

This suggests that, in the not-too-distant future, Catholic Lite will lead to “Catholic Zero”, or something that looks remarkably similar to Catholic Zero – a Catholicism that has lost any serious capacity for either mission or public witness.

Examples of this can be found in both Europe and North America, in once-vibrant Catholic cultures and societies such as those in Quebec, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. These societies are now aptly described as “post-Christian”. And in several cases, “post-Christian” is rapidly decaying into “anti-Christian”, with the Church incapable of mounting any defence of the innocent against the culture of death, or of responding to the anti-Christian propaganda in politics, culture and the media that seeks to drive the Church out of public life.

To repeat and sum up: there is no example, anywhere in the world, of Catholic Lite delivering on its promise of “relevance”. Where Catholic Lite has infected local Churches, evangelical fervour has diminished and so has the Catholic capacity to shape humane societies. These situations are sometimes described, and by high-ranking churchmen, as a “pastoral emergency” for which more and lighter Catholic Lite is prescribed.

The iron law of Christianity and modernity suggests an alternative diagnosis and prescription. The “emergency” is a collapse of deep faith that Jesus is Lord, which has led to a failure to proclaim the Gospel. The remedy is a vibrant Catholicism-in-full offering friendship with Jesus Christ and incorporation into the communion of his friends as a pathway to human happiness, fulfilment – and salvation. The next pope must know these truths and lead the Church in light of them.

Caricatures to the contrary notwithstanding, Catholicism-in-full is not a revival of Jansenism or other forms of moral rigourism in the Church. The vibrant, living parts of the world Church are not those reserving the handclasp of fellowship to the already perfected. The living parts of the world Church are those that offer friendship with Jesus Christ to those caught in the worship of false gods, be those the gods that terrify indigenous peoples or, in the West, the false god of the imperial autonomous Self – the false god “Me”.

The living parts of the world Church are those that offer mercy as well as truth, while recognising that the most merciful thing a Christian can do for suffering or lost souls is to offer them the truth: that, in Jesus Christ, we meet the face of the merciful Father and the truth about ourselves – the Father who welcomes the prodigals home when they acknowledge that they have squandered their human dignity, and the truth that that dignity is magnified in Christ.

When a pope manifests the power of divine mercy in his own life, he empowers the people of the Church to be agents of that mercy in the world.

The next pope must live and teach in such a way that the relationship between mercy and truth is clear, and he must live and teach in such a way that mercy (which the world often confuses with therapeutic forgetfulness) does not devolve into sentimentality. The divine mercy is purifying as well as comforting, and what can seem comforting will not be truly comforting over time if it is detached from purification.

Growth into the Christian life is a lifelong process for all. The lesson involves both truth and mercy. Catholics learn that lesson from the lives of the saints, beginning with Peter himself. The next pope must teach that lesson to a Church sometimes confused about the intimate relationship between mercy and truth and should display the meaning of the lesson in his own self-emptying witness to Christ.

Adapted and excerpted from The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, published this week by Ignatius Press.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His books include Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II.


Weigel is proposing a return to CATHOLICISM IN FULL to to turn around the great decline in world Catholicism.


Is it the reinstatement of Limbo into which unbaptised babies are flung?

Is it the reinstatement of churching the mother of a new born baby before she is worthy of receiving Holy Communion.

Is it a return to the Magdalen Laundry concentration camps for girls pregnant outside marriage?

Is it a return to church run institutions where children were abused sexually, physically and mentally by priests, brothers and nuns?

Is it a return to convents where wealthy entrants bringing a dowry were choir sisters and poorer women became “lay sisters” who were the slaves of the choir sisters?

Is it a return to a church that was mates with Hitler, Mussolini, Franco etc?

Is it a return to a church where Irish peasants knelt in puddles on the road when the priest went by on his horse?

Is it a return to a church that dominated the state and outlawed divorce and contraception?

Is it a return to a church that told us it was a mortal sin to enter a Protestant church?

I dont believe for one minute that a church of that kind would save Christian Catholicism.

The RCC will be renewed when it returns to the model of the early New Testament church – when it was not part of the establishment and before it became an empire.

And it’s not about NUMBERS.

Better to have 1000 true Christian Catholics than 1.3 billion nominal ones.

Catholicism full was the bad old days.

No sane person wants back there.