Weigel to bring personal experiences of JPII to pro-life conference

Many readers of the Catholic Voice are well acquainted with the internationally-known Catholic thinker, author and syndicated columnist who is keynote speaker for this year’s Bishops’ Pro-Life Conference.

George Weigel, whose column, “The Catholic Difference,” appears in the Catholic Voice and more than 80 other publications worldwide, will bring his knowledge of St. John Paul II’s life, spirituality and reverence for the dignity of human life to the annual conference Oct. 24. The event is sponsored by the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC).

Weigel is distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon chair of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Catholic Studies in Washington, D.C.

His personal friendship with the pope and future saint formed the basis for writing what many consider the definitive work on John Paul II – the internationally acclaimed two-volume biography, “Witness to Hope” (a New York Times best seller) and its sequel, “The End and the Beginning.” Weigel also published a memoir of his experiences with the pope: “Lessons in Hope – My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II.”

Weigel also is a frequent guest on radio and television, including serving as senior Vatican analyst for NBC News. He has written 20 other books, including his most recent work, “The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission,” which examines the major challenges confronting the next pope and the entire Catholic Church in the 21st century and the need to empower Catholics to become missionary disciples.

Weigel responded via email to a Catholic Voice request for his reflections on the progress of pro-life efforts in the United States, the wisdom St. John Paul II’s statements and writings bring to our national discourse, and what Catholics can do to help build a culture of life.

Q: You’ve entitled your talk for the Bishops’ Pro-Life Conference, “JPII as a Model for Redeeming the Times.” Do our times stand in need of redemption more so than other periods in history? If so, how does St. John Paul II speak to our particular needs?

Every time stands in need of redemption; the challenging task for the Church is to identify the specific needs for healing in a given time and place, and John Paul II was exceptionally good at that job of “reading the signs of the times.” He could do that, though, because he knew that every time was a time “groaning,” as St. Paul put it to the Romans, as it waits to meet the Lord through the proclamation of the Gospel.

Q: Since St. John Paul II’s encyclical, “The Gospel of Life” was promulgated 25 years ago, what trends – positive and negative – have you seen emerge regarding respect for human life and human dignity?

In America, the right-to-life movement has won the substantive scientific argument. No serious person denies that the product of human conception is a human being; the question is, what is owed in justice to that human being? And our answer is clear: the protection of the law and a culture of welcome and nurture. We’ve got a long way to go to build that culture, because the notion of freedom-misunderstood-as-willfulness continues to dominate our public life. “I did it my way” risks becoming the new national anthem, and until we achieve a more mature notion of freedom in 21st century America, we’re going to have to struggle to win the hearts of people on this pre-eminent issue of the right to life, at either end of the life spectrum.

Q: As you have pointed out elsewhere, St. John Paul II was both the pope of the Catechism and the pope of the Divine Mercy devotion. How do these two realities – truth and mercy – fundamentally orient his approach to the life issues?

John Paul II clearly understood what the American pro-life movement has understood for decades: that effective advocacy for life (the truth-telling part of the project) must be paralleled and complemented by effective service to women in crisis pregnancies. Those 3,000-plus crisis pregnancy centers in the United States are an expression of solidarity and mercy; abortuaries are the opposite.

Q: What have you learned from your personal friendship with Pope John Paul II that can provide us with insights for how to advance the culture of life?

Don’t be afraid. Never give up. Be open to the possibility of converting people who seem to be enemies or adversaries. And constantly bring both the joys and the burdens of pro-life work before the Lord in prayer.

 Q: How do the writings and statements of St. John Paul II speak to today’s discussion of, not only respect for human life, but also social justice issues such as racism, immigration and human rights?

Catholic social doctrine begins with the inalienable dignity and value of every human life, what we call the principle of “personalis.” That’s why the Church doesn’t do, or shouldn’t do, identity politics, or deal with people as racial or ethnic categories. Of course, our backgrounds and heritage shape that inalienable dignity and value that characterizes each of us as a birthright. But when those categories take over and become a narrow prism through which we view everything, the individual – and individual responsibility – tend to disappear. Catholics don’t, or shouldn’t, let that happen. The Church also has a lot to teach today’s anger culture and cancel culture about respect for others and reconciliation.

Q: How has the devaluation of human life and human dignity contributed to the current social discord and the vitriol present in our national discourse?

There’s a deep irrationality in radical pro-abortion rhetoric and politics; that irrationality – that unwillingness to acknowledge the obvious biological fact of what an unborn child is – breeds anger and rage when it isn’t affirmed. We saw the rage culture at work during the Kavanaugh (Supreme Court nomination) hearings, and the fact that the outrageous behavior exhibited by some was not universally condemned certainly softened things up for what we’ve seen the last six months. But let’s also remember that much of the violence of the past six months has, in its origins at least, been deliberately orchestrated by people with an anarchist or nihilist agenda. That public officials haven’t done their duty to protect civil order is a national disgrace.

Q: You have emphasized in your writings that Pope John Paul II was an apostle of hope. How can his life and his teachings encourage us to take hope now, especially in building a culture of life?

However grave our situation may seem today, it is nowhere near as tough as the situation that Karol Wojtyla faced as a young priest and then bishop in Poland. He found, in faith and a rich spiritual life, the means to be an effective agent of the Gospel under those draconian circumstances. If he could, we can.

Q: In addition to voting, what can Catholics do right now to help build a culture of life?

Talk to our neighbors. Teach our children and grandchildren well. Pray that God’s grace will open hardened hearts to the truth. Get involved in witness activities like “40 Days for Life.” Support (or work in) a crisis pregnancy center. It’s a long list, and this is a long-term struggle. But it’s the great civil rights issue of our time and we must engage it.

Q: Based on what we know about John Paul II’s teachings, how would he encourage us to make voting decisions between candidates where there is a clear difference on abortion, but also positions on other issues such as capital punishment, immigration and poverty that are in opposition to church teaching? In this situation, to what extent should other such issues impact our evaluation?

There is a clarity to the life issues that isn’t present when we assess other issues, on which reasonable people can reasonably differ. That gives life issues a certain “heft” when assessing candidates. A candidate’s unwillingness to get serious about the life issues is also a rather good indicator that he or she won’t be serious about other matters.

Q: Please give our readers a preview of what you plan to cover during your presentation.

I will discuss how “Evangelium Vitae,” John Paul II’s great encyclical on the Gospel of Life, was shaped by his experience as a campus minister, chaplain to health care workers, and bishop in communist-era Poland – and how we can learn from these experiences to be witnesses to the Gospel of Life in our own time. The priestly and episcopal ministry of Karol Wojtyła, like the papal ministry of John Paul II, grew out of a life of constant prayer, in which the question, “What is the Lord asking of me now?” was always front and center. That kind of immersion in prayer can open our eyes to new methods of advancing the Gospel of Life and new venues for offering that Gospel to others.


WHAT: Bishops’ Pro-Life Conference

WHEN: Oct. 24, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

WHERE: Online

COST: No cost, but free will offerings accepted


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