George Weigel, '60 Minutes,' and nonsense

Alas, there's an awful lot of nonsense that goes on in our beloved church.

During the four decades -- those ending in a zero -- that have coincided with my life here in Rome dating back the mid-1980s, I've seen a good amount of it.

And it has manifested itself in all the various ways the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it:

non·sense
noun \ˈnän-ˌsen(t)s, ˈnän(t)-sən(t)s\
: words or ideas that are foolish or untrue
: behavior that is silly, annoying, or unkind
: language that has no meaning

I'm now trying to work out which definition George Weigel had in mind when he recently wrote "Nonsense on 'Sixty Minutes.' "

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In this, his latest syndicated (moralizing) lecture, the world's leading apologist for John Paul II pretends to take aim at the CBS News program for a segment it aired Dec. 28 on the "Francis effect." But "60 Minutes" is not Mr. Weigel's target at all.

It's yours truly.

What's my offense? According to the author of the 992-page biography of the man he calls "John Paul the Great," it is the following comment I made about a pope that very likely could be seen as even greater -- Pope Francis.

"What he has done is he's opened up discussion in the Church," I said on "60 Minutes." "There had been no discussion on issues like birth control, about premarital sex, about divorced and remarried Catholics. None whatsoever. There's been no discussion for the last probably 35 years on that."

Not true, Mr. Weigel writes. And he proceeds to use another 500 words, cleverly woven together, to explain why. He also criticizes CBS' Scott Pelley, saying he "gave Mickens a pass" by not pressing me to defend my remarks.  

"What Robert Mickens and similarly-situated Catholics are really complaining about when they say there's been 'no discussion' on these issues is that they've lost the argument: they don't like the fact that the teaching authority of the Church has declined to repeal Catholic settled moral understandings about the morally appropriate means of family planning, the nature of human love, and the indissolubility of marriage by taking the counsel of those who have different (and defective) ideas on those matters," he proclaims with a quasi-magisterial flourish and a cavalier disregard for punctuation.

"Constant harping on all this by the self-identified 'progressive' wing of the Catholic Church strikes me as a tacit confession of intellectual impoverishment," he declares. 

I'll return to Mr. Weigel's points in a moment, but first, I'd like to provide a bit of backstory to my participation on the "60 Minutes" episode.

The program's producers contacted me in March 2014, and we ended up doing the interview in Rome two weeks before April 13, Palm Sunday, when the segment was eventually aired. Among the other guests on the program were President Barack Obama, who was in town for his first meeting with the pope, Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec City, and Elisabetta Piqué, an Argentine journalist-colleague that covers the Vatican.

Apparently, the segment was well received, and the views expressed had retained their validity over time, so CBS decided to run a slightly modified version of the segment again at the end of December.  

I was surprised that the producers used as much of my interview that they did. I expected they'd end up using only a brief comment and a couple of tiny sound bites. That is pretty standard. Nonetheless, even the several minutes they included in the program were only a small piece of a recorded conversation that stretched over an hour.

So much for the background.

Now to the easier task: responding to George Weigel's objection to my statement that there has been no discussion on certain issues these past 35 years in the church.

"If there's anything self-evident about Mickens' claim, it's that it's self-evidently not true," he says definitively.

Obviously, Mr. Weigel has not attended or followed any synod gatherings. And he hasn't been paying very much attention to the talent pool from which the Holy See has been plucking the candidates on whose head it plops those pointy hats called miters.

Or perhaps he just closes his eyes in willful ignorance to all that.

Because the self-evident truth is that debate on the hot-button issues mentioned earlier has never been tolerated inside the Synod Hall. It's been, by nota praevia, forbidden. And the strictly imposed litmus test for becoming a bishop is that candidates steer clear of questioning those topics.

Still, Mr. Weigel laments that there has been far too much discussion, nonetheless -- in publications and university classrooms dominated by "the self-identified 'progressive' wing of the Catholic Church."

Again he is mistaken. Appeals and protests for discussion are only that. The Holy See and, with few exceptions, most of the world's bishops have rebuffed or simply ignored these requests.

Probably what most irritates him in my comments on "60 Minutes" is that marker: "for the last probably 35 years." That, of course, is the span of time stretching back to the beginning of the John Paul II pontificate (1978-2005) and encompassing its seamless and, in certain respects, even more unyielding addendum, the pontificate of Benedict XVI (2005-2013).

Under these two popes, so many issues of morality -- read, "sexual and reproductive issues" -- were treated almost as if they were articles of faith that could not be questioned, doubted or debated.

But in a brief period of time, Pope Francis has given more than just mere approval to questioning, doubting and debating the efficacy of the church's approach to many of these noncreedal issues. Through his apostolic exhortation (Evangelii Gaudium), his first consistory and the extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops, he has actually encouraged such discussion as something very normal and very healthy.

But unlike Mr. Weigel, the pope knows he does not have all the answers.

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

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