A Review of George Weigel’s Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017), by Dr. Jesse Russell, Fetzen Fliegen (A Remnant newspaper blog, September 7, 2017):
The notorious journalist and friend of Catholic traditionalist Patrick Buchanan, Hunter S. Thompson once wrote in his famous essay “The Hippies”: “The best year to be a hippie was 1965, but then there was not much to write about, because not much was happening in public and most of what was happening in private was illegal.”
A similar statement could be made of Catholic neoconservatives: the best year to be a Catholic neoconservative was 2001. September 11 had given the green light to the destruction of any country that stood in the way of the New World Order’s goal of global hegemony. With magazines like First Things and books such as Witness to Hope and The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, the very polite triumvirate of neoconservative leaders, Fr. Richard Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak, had not only complete control over the American reception of John Paul II’s life and work, but increasing access to the White House of President George W. Bush.
Many bishops such as Charles Chaput, Francis George, and Timothy Dolan (whom Weigel refers to as an “old friend”) were the under the spell of Weigel, Neuhaus, and Novak. Even the lumbering, felt-banner-adorned battleship of old liberals called the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was turning toward the shores of the “new” Catholic conservativism born from Fr. John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain.
But then something happened. Like a Greek tragic hero, the Catholic neocons at the apex of their power, fell from grace.
The first denotation in the armor of the neocon war machine was not necessarily the fault of the neocons: revelations of the sex abuse crisis erupted in Boston in 2002 and then spread throughout entire world. As many of these crimes were committed under Vatican II bishops appointed by Vatican II popes, the abuse crisis gave the lie to the notion peddled by the Catholic neocons that Vatican II had largely eliminated the systemic corruption in the Church, and a New Pentecost, New Advent, or New Spring Time of Evangelization was emerging under the reign of John Paul II. Even worse, it became public knowledge that the founder of the darling religious movement (outside of Opus Dei) of the Catholic neocons, the Legionnaires of Christ, was a serial sex offender who fathered several children and claimed to work for American intelligence.
The second major blow was the clear opposition by John Paul II to the love child of the Catholic neocons: the 2003 Iraq War. John Paul II’s condemnation of the war, along with its tremendous toll on American soldiers and their families as well as the countless deaths of Iraqis, made it shockingly clear that the neocons (some of whom, led by Michael Novak traveled to the Vatican in a vain attempt to beg John Paul to support the war) did not really speak for John Paul II and may have ulterior motives in labeling every American misadventure into developing nations as being an application of St. Augustine’s just war theory.
And then came two very unpredictable papal animals out of two rapid conclaves.
A cardinal that the neocons thought a safely manageable Bavarian bear, Joseph Ratzinger, was elected Benedict XVI. George Weigel scrambled to write a book, God’s Choice: Pope Benedict and the Future of the Catholic Church (which, in fact, is mostly about John Paul II) that promised American readers that Benedict would be another John Paul and carry the banner of neoconservativism into the 21st century. The neocons were able to stave off Benedict’s condemnations of capitalism in Caritas in veritate through George Weigel’s most Orwellian essay, “Caritas in veritate in Gold and Red,” in which any criticism of capitalism in the encyclical is blamed on the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and any positive comments on capitalism are attributed to the Holy Father.
However, Pope Benedict crossed a line when he lifted of the excommunications of the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X and expressed his desire that they should enter “full communion” with the Church. American Catholic neocons went into full damage control as George Weigel penned articles in Newsweek as well as in online Catholic neocon periodicals. Like John Paul II’s opposition to the two Iraq Wars, Benedict’s gesture to the SSPX was a bridge too far. However, despite the booming interest in the Church’s traditional liturgy and way of life among the young, this contagion of authentic Catholicism could be contained and spun in the neocon’s favor.
Pope Benedict XVI’s unfortunate resignation, however, changed everything. His successor, the first Pope from the New World was not Timothy Cardinal Dolan or any other of the neocon disciples in the hierarchy. Pope Francis was a very different pope who did not fit the neocon narrative. As his political, economic, and sexual views became increasingly clear, a palpable sense of horror spread throughout the neocon press as it became obvious that Pope Francis was something that was almost as bad as a traditionalist: A Marxist.
To both save face for the surviving members of the Catholic neocons and to console American Catholics who have grown disenchanted with the fairy tale of Catholic neoconservativism, George Weigel has recently penned Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II. The title of the book conveys the subtle message that Catholics ought not to worry but should turn to the “good ol’ days” of John Paul II, George W. Bush, and First Things Magazine.
The second goal of Weigel in the book is to reassert himself as the clear champion of John Paul II’s legacy. Weigel wants to make it clear that not only he, but his entire family were intimates with John Paul who had direct access to the papal apartments through the “family elevator,” a fact that Weigel repeatedly brings up in the book. This intimacy infallibly proves that Weigel is the de facto authority of not only John Paul II but any and everything Catholic.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Lessons in Hope is the chronicle of Weigel’s rise to power and his selection as papal biographer.
Attempting to reestablish his street creds in light of attacks from both the left and the right, George Weigel, unlike other Catholic neocons with an Ivy League pedigree, brandishes his Philosophy BA from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore where he undertook “the adventure of disciplined abstract” as irrefutable evidence that George Weigel is more equipped than other biographers and journalists to tackle the intricacies of John Paul II’s phenomenology and personalist philosophy
Weigel claims to begin his journey as a Cold Warrior and then post-Cold War neocon after reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, James Billington and Leszek Kołakowski as well as watching the iconic scene on April 29, 1975 of helicopters evacuating the US embassy in Saigon during Operation Frequent Wind. Weigel became thus a proponent of the “never again” choir of American foreign policy that perceives war as the solution to virtually every conflict in the world, and the United States of America as the most suitable prosecutor of the war, or as Weigel himself writes, “...I entered the lists in what would turn out to be the last decade of the Cold War, working for human rights in communist lands while battling anti-anticommunism then rife in liberal American political circles.” Thus, Weigel’s work as a theologian would be to garner Catholic support for American foreign policy abroad and deflect American Catholic allegiance away from the misguided peace movement at home.
Providing fodder for conspiracy theorists, while living in Seattle in the late 1970s, Weigel was recruited into the World without War Council, a platform for universal disarmament and world government, “in order to write a major study of American Catholic thought on war and peace” by University of Chicago Alumnus Robert Pickus. Weigel worked at the Woodrow Wilson Center where he was assisted by Rodger Potocki who later worked for the National Endowment for Democracy. Pickus was the one who directed Weigel to write and even name his first major work Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace.
This work set the precedent for much of Weigel’s career. It sought to present the neocons (not the traditionalists) as the true defenders of the Church’s tradition (and which the neocons could manipulate at will). This was also the first time Weigel attempted to include JPII in support of his arguments, and, as Weigel’s states, “…John Paul II’s rich, subtle, and complex thinking about the human person and human rights…would be at the center of” the neocon refashioning of the Church’s just war tradition.
Through the World Without War Council and Robert Pickus, Weigel “friended, the first and second-generation leaders of what came to be known as ‘neoconservatism’…” Weigel’s description of the group as “a largely Jewish network of thinkers who intersected at key points with Catholics and about-to-be-Catholics who had broken with the American political left for a variety of reasons…” Weigel boasts of the influence that the “first neocon generation” had upon him and the future leaders of Catholic neoconservatism for whom the older generation was “remarkably open to guiding and encouraging.”
Weigel thus began to use his own words, “writing [him]self into Catholic neoconservativism” by attacking liberation theology and trying to make sure that John Paul II’s 1979 speech in Puebla Mexico condemning liberation theology was given a decidedly pro-capitalist slant. Weigel further gained traction by penning “Our Martyrs for Democracy” in support of Mark Pearlman and Mike Hammer of the American Institute for Free Labor Development murdered in El Salvador. This was all part of Weigel’s “immersion in the bloody politics of Central America in the 1980s” and his attempt to get Catholic support for fighting regimes hostile to the United States in Latin America.
Weigel’s circle of friends was a veritable “who’s who” of American and Israeli intelligence. Weigel’s associates included Menahem Milson, with whom Weigel worked at the Wilson Center from 1984-1985 whom Weigel says “served in Ariel Sharon’s famous Unit 101” but whom conveniently forgets to mention is a “former” member of Israeli intelligence, a committed Zionist and neoconservative journalist. Weigel does note that Milson brought Weigel to Jerusalem where he made “a host of contacts who later became important in helping me to get inside the dramatic story of John Paul II’s efforts to establish full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Jewish state, and in facilitating my writing on John Paul’s epic Holy Land pilgrimage of March 2000.” The sort of “contacts” with which a member of Israeli intelligence could provide Weigel is easy to guess, and it is possible that Weigel, encouraged by the state of Israel, may have played some role in the recognition of Israel by the Holy See in 1994, which both legitimized Israel and delegitimized the right of Palestinian Christians and Muslims to their homeland.
After ascertaining that he would be a perfect asset in swaying American Catholics in support of the neocon element within the Reagan administration, George Weigel’s handlers directed him through a series of prestigious and lucrative organizations that molded his mind and lined his pocket book. Weigel was a member of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars which was attended by Fr. (later Cardinal) Avery Dulles, whose father John Foster Dulles and Uncle Allen Dulles were among the founding fathers of the CIA and American intelligence after the Second World War, had served before George Weigel. Weigel then worked for the James Madison Foundation, which is linked with Robert Pickus’ World without War Foundation, which involved Weigel in “enterprises that would shape” Weigel’s “work on John Paul.” So Weigel is basically telling his reader, over and over again, neoconservative think tanks were instrumental to his writings on John Paul II. Weigel was amply rewarded for his good work promoting neoconservativism and support for the Republican Party among Catholics, being appointed the second president of Ethics and Public Policy Center
In 1990 Weigel was sent to Moscow by the editor of Washington Quarterly, published by the journal of the globalist Center for Strategic and International Studies, which had published Weigel’s “first major article on John Paul” and what Weigel calls “the Catholic human rights revolution.” While in Moscow, Weigel attended the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1990, which sought to assert American global dominance at the end of the Cold War; Weigel himself writes, the “U.S. goal at the meeting was to get the strongest possible agreement on what the ‘rule of law’ meant in the post-Cold War world.”
While as early as Tranquillitas Ordinis, Weigel tells us that his goal is recruit John Paul II’s teaching in favor of the American version of globalism, Weigel at the same time duplicitously and frequently gives the impression that he slowly came to appreciate John Paul II’s thought. This contradictory and twofold narrative gives Weigel the ability to present himself as a veteran “insider” as well as deflect the impression that Witness to Hope and the siphoning of John Paul II’s ideas in the neocon camp was the product of a long, concerted effort.
The second critical element of Lessons in Hope is Weigel’s narration of how he was recruited to write Witness to Hope. Weigel begins his book with a discussion of a conference he attended in 1995 at which Cardinal Agostino Casaroli attacked Weigel’s attempt to assert himself as the interpreter of John Paul II and the Church’s position vis a vis Soviet Communism in Weigel’s 1992 work The Final Revolution. Referring to the situation as “a little ironic,” Weigel explains that he and fellow neocon, the late Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus, were personally invited by Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul II’s “highly competent” secretary. Weigel frames the story so the reader, as long as he or she does not engage in too much reflection, will come away with the impression that John Paul II, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, personally requested that Weigel write the book in order to dispel the false impressions given about John Paul II.
Like many of Weigel’s armchair stories, the narrative seems at times exaggerated and other times like there are pieces missing from the puzzle while, at the same time, being basically true. While at dinner, the possibility of Weigel writing a biography of John Paul II was brought up by Fr. Richard Neuhaus. John Paul II changed the subject and then “completely out of the blue” “abruptly and forcefully” told Fr. Neuhaus: “You must force him to do it! You must force him to do it!” The message here is clearly that under divine inspiration, John Paul II, who for Weigel is the greatest pope and greatest saint in the history of the Church, as well as the “defining personality” in Weigel’s work, commanded George Weigel to write Witness to Hope, which became the “pivot” of Weigel’s life.
Seemingly contradicting this narrative of a divine call to write Witness to Hope, Weigel elsewhere writes of exactly how he had originally broached the idea of writing a biography of John Paul II with Joaquín Navarro-Valls, a former physician and member of Opus Dei who seems to have an intimate relationship with George Weigel and was a conduit through which Weigel had direct access to John Paul II. We further learn that rather than being generated by a surprise invitation from the pope, Weigel’s Witness to Hope was specifically written to counter New York Times journalist Tad Szulc’s 1995 Pope John Paul II: The Biography in which Szulc depicts the late pontiff as theological conservative but socially liberal. Perhaps with a plot in mind for a counter biography that could serve the ends of the neocons Weigel had written “The Biography that Might Have Been” for Crisis in 1995 attacking Szulc’s depiction of John Paul II. In his writings, Weigel wanted to make sure that no one got the impression that “…Karol Wojtyla was a conservative Pole with a premodern mind.” Weigel desired to make it clear that John Paul was “a thoroughly modern intellectual with a very different read on modernity--one that deserved serious attention.”
In fact, Weigel admits to speaking with Joaquin Navarro Valls who had seen his review of Szulc’s book in Crisis, and apparently Navarro and Weigel plotted to create a “reliable biography” of John Paul II to be written by “someone who understood the Catholic situation from the inside.”
Yet, at the same time that he plotted with Navarro, Weigel also claims to have been scouted out in the early 90s by John Paul II’s “efficient personal intelligence network,” which was abreast of Weigel’s attempt to “explain” John Paul to “an American audience.” Again, it is especially curious that Weigel repeatedly needs to assure his reader that John Paul sought him out as opposed to Weigel and/or other neocons in Europe seeking out John Paul II—even though Weigel simultaneously strongly hints that the latter is true!
Weigel even feels obligated to print “The Mandatum Scribendi” from John Paul II in which John Paul refers to Weigel’s (not John Paul II’s) “kind offer” to write the book which seems to have been communicated not over dinner but in a “letter of December 19, 1995” sent by Weigel to which John Paul refers.
It is clear that Weigel had plotted for over a decade to seize the narrative of John Paul II’s life and work; however, it is equally clear that John Paul did approve of Weigel’s work on some level.
Another key watershed moment about which Weigel reveals some curious details in Lessons in Hope is the neocon capture of the narrative of Centesimus Annus, which they were able to largely spin as a pro-capitalist, neoconservative document.
Weigel reveals that it was Italian politician Rocco Buttigione, at the behest of Michael Novak, author of the Catholic neocon economic Bible, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, who convinced John Paul II to reject the original draft of Centesimus that the Pontifical Council for Justice and the Peace composed, by informing the pope, ‘This is not the way the economy works today and it isn’t the way it will work tomorrow.” Weigel’s condescending description of how Buttigione helped the supposedly hapless Polish philosopher pope “understand” economics is worth quoting in full:
“Rocco then helped John Paul, who never had a bank account and had long lived outside everyday life, understand that there might be economic laws roughly analogous to the natural moral law: meaning that some things worked economically because those things cohered with human nature, and some things didn’t work economically because they cut against human nature.”
However, it was not enough to have Michael Novak whispering into John Paul’s ear via Rocco Buttigione; the neocons needed to grab control of reception of Centesimus Annus in America where they were trying to draw Catholics from the more labor friendly Democratic Party. We finally learn the name of the mysterious character who snuck Weigel, Fr. Neuhaus, and Michael Novak “an advance copy” of Centesimus Annus. US ambassador to the Holy See, Thomas Melady, gave them copies so that could get the jump on both Catholic leftists and traditional Catholics in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. In Orwellian fashion, Weigel then, after proving that the neocons deliberately and secretly seized the interpretation of Centesimus for their own purposes, dismisses those who would accuse him and his friends of “expropriating the Pope for…partisan purposes, ecclesiastical and political…”
However, controlling Catholic social thought was not the only important plank in the Catholic neocon platform: they also needed to provide justification for their Middle East adventures.
Weigel tells a very curious story regarding the first Persian Gulf War. While John Paul II’s very public condemnation of the war is quite clear, Weigel argues that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran informed him that “…John Paul II had called President George H.W. Bush the night before the ultimatum to Saddam Hussein requiring him to evacuate Kuwait or face allied military action expired: the Pope said that if diplomacy couldn’t resolve a violation of international law that must not stand, he hoped the allies would win, Saddam would be ejected from Kuwait, and there would be as few casualties as possible.” This passage is worth quoting in full because in it Weigel is suggesting that John Paul II told the world that Holy Father opposed the first Iraq War but then secretly told George H.W. Bush that he supported the war. Someone is clearly lying in this mess.
Weigel tries to qualify his description by explaining that John Paul II simply saw his role as arguing to “the last possible moment for reason and diplomacy to work, even as he understood that the just war criterion of ‘last resort’ was not infinitely elastic but a judgment of prudence.” Thus according to Weigel, John Paul only opposed US wars abroad in the 90s and 00s because that’s what he thought he was supposed to do not because the Holy Father considered the wars unjust.
Weigel further reveals his anger at the Vatican for not fully supporting neocon imperialistic ambitions after 9/11. This opposition from the Church, according to Weigel, was the result of “the cast of mind… dubbed ‘functional pacifism’ now dominated the Holy See” and there “was little serious just war thinking inside the Leonine Wall,” which was the result of a “conceptual vacuum” in the Vatican. The implication here is that only Weigel’s thinking on just war theory was serious thinking, and one would have to be either stupid or mentally ill to disagree with neocon foreign policy.
During his discussion of the War on Terror, Weigel admits what his harshest critics on both the right and the left have always said of him, that he was a representative of neoconservative geopolitical interest who would journey to Rome to “keep the lines of communication open between the Vatican and the Bush administration on the deepening crisis in Iraq.” Weigel is all but admitting that he worked for the neocons in order to sell the Vatican and Catholics worldwide on various foreign policy issues.
Weigel further uses weasel language to depict US Ambassador to the Holy See under George W. Bush, James Nicholson’s efforts; Nicholson, according to Weigel, “bent every effort to prevent the breakdown of communication between Vatican and White House that had occurred before the 1990-1991 Gulf War.” Again Weigel is attempting to make it sound like the Vatican’s opposition to both Iraq Wars was not due to John Paul II’s notion that the wars were illegal and unjust but to the idea that there was just a failure to communicate clearly.
In order to save face in light of the radical split between the Vatican and the neocons of the Iraq War, Weigel blames Vatican bureaucrats—many of whom were appointed by John Paul II to do their jobs who somehow obscured John Paul’s supposed support for American global hegemony. Weigel, as has done in the past, ridicules Vatican diplomats who opposed to the Iraq War, including Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, by whom Weigel feels personally betrayed, who argued that the United States had no right to invade Iraq and the “force of law, not the law of force” must triumph. Weigel writes that the “problems” in the Vatican became “intolerably severe” after President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Renato Martino criticized Secretary of State Colin Powell’s now infamous February 2003 “Weapons of Mass Destruction” speech to the UN Security Council.
In retaliation Weigel wrote to one of his most crucial contacts in the Vatican, Bishop Stanisław Dziwisz, stating that it “was unacceptable” for Archbishop Martino to criticize Colin Powell’s speech without having read it. Weigel further contacted Joaquin Navarro to try to control Martino’s statements. What is especially revealing in these passages is Weigel’s hubris in needing to lecture an Archbishop on how to do his job as well as Weigel’s clear role as acting as an agent on behalf of neocon political and economic interests to censure the Vatican.
One of the most pitiful and admittedly painful revelations of Lessons in Hope (especially for those of us who came of age during the JPII era) is the realization that the old magic of “JPII cool” has lost its effect. One of the strongest selling points of Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism to Baby Boomers and their children was the idea that Catholic neoconservativism was “cool.” The handsome, intelligent, charismatic and genuinely pious John Paul II was known primarily by the many images archived from his globetrotting tour. While stories of JPII escaping from the Vatican for ski trips were once appealing, in the chaos and anxiety of the Francis era, they no longer have the same appeal. Weigel’s reference to himself as “a lifelong Orioles fan and a rising John Paul II fan” and his image of John Paul “as a daredevil skier careening down a mountain in the Tatras” are not enough to console Catholic now being ridiculed and demoralized by the man currently sitting on in the See of Peter.
In Lessons in Hope, we also get the typical attacks upon the bête noir of Catholic neoconservatives: traditional Catholics. Outside of the Palestinians, whom Weigel derides as “non-Israeli Catholics,” there is no other group for whom Weigel has more contempt. While Weigel has praise for liberal Catholics with whom he sometimes spars and with whom he, at times, collaborates, one can always feel Weigel’s anger when writing of traditional Catholics, and especially the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Weigel tars the Archbishop with the appellation “schismatic” and has John Paul II firmly state that Archbishop Lefebvre’s “vision of the Church was quite different” from the Holy Father’s. This passage is especially revealing and should be disturbing for those deeply devoted to Weigel’s presentation of John Paul II, for George Weigel is basically saying that John Paul II’s vision of the Church is quite different from the traditional Catholic faith that the late French Archbishop espoused.
At the end of the book, Weigel also provides another interesting anecdote that demonstrates one of the Catholic neocons’ central projects: the demolition of traditional Christian culture. Weigel writes that while promoting his second biography of John Paul II, The End and Beginning, in Poland, Weigel was “struck by how poorly John Paul II’s intellectual project had been received and internalized” in the traditionally Catholic country. Weigel further notes that with the exception of a few intellectuals, politicians, and journalists and some Polish Dominicans, “John Paul’s vision a public Church that was not a partisan Church…was not much in evidence in twenty-first century Poland, sadly.” Weigel further indicates the opposition of conservative Polish Catholics to Weigel’s efforts to liberalize Christianity and political life in Poland “would have deeply saddened John Paul II.”
Here is one of the most curious and disturbing revelations of Lessons in Hope. It was an integral policy of the neocons to strip Christ the King of his reign of the public sphere in Catholic countries and replace Our Lord’s rule with the rule of liberalism. It was the “forces of freedom” as Weigel calls them, not the Church Militant or the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which won the Cold War and defeated Communism. Weigel’s goal had always been the creation of a “democratic political community, a free economy, and a vibrant moral culture” and to make sure that the world thought this was the lifelong goal of Pope John Paul II as well.
While most of Weigel’s books are a waste of time and tinted with the slime of modernism and thus should be passed over by traditional Catholics, Lessons in Hope is a very interesting chronicle of the John Paul II era in which, for many, there mushroomed great hope for restoration of Christian culture but then tragically fell. Despite George Weigel’s many obnoxious personality traits and his duplicitous role in getting Catholics to subscribe to political policies at odds with their faith, he emerges in Lessons in Hope as a sympathetic figure who climbed the latter of power and influence in and outside the Church only to be dethroned by the return of the Old Liberals whom he always treated with kid gloves as well as by the upsurge of the traditionalists whom he always despised.
However, the conservative brand of modernism that Weigel peddled has failed many Catholics. As traditionalists, we can offer a friendly hand to the conservative Catholics misled by Weigel who are only now coming to the bitter realization that Pope Francis is only one of a series of deeply flawed post-Vatican II popes.