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George Weigel

George Weigel

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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Confessions of an 'elitist'

The term "elitist" has been bandied about so promiscuously in this election cycle that it's become virtually content-free. Yet "elitist" is also being weaponized as a scare-word to prevent legitimate criticism of ideas, attitudes, and behaviors once thought beyond the pale, even in the rough-and-tumble of politics (which, as Mr. Dooley reminds us, "ain't beanbag"). That kind of bullying is bad news for an already degraded political culture.

So let me offer these "Confessions of an Elitist" in the hope that they might encourage others to push back against the "anti-elitist" thought police – and in so doing, to help rescue American public life from terminal moral trivialization.

I believe that intelligence is superior to emotion, and reason better than anger in making political arguments and choices: in political debate as in curry, heat doesn't necessarily make things better.

I believe that the systematic rhetorical degradation of political opponents betrays a coarseness of mind and spirit corrosive of the norms of civility essential to democratic politics.

I believe that there are some things worth losing for, and that losing in defense of them doesn't make anyone a "loser."

I believe that the reduction of political argument to 140-character tweets is ruinous to democracy.

I believe that incitements to political violence are despicable, no matter what their source, alleged purpose, or putative justification.

I believe that a sense of honor is essential in a political leader and includes commitments to telling the truth (no matter how discomforting) and to doing one's duty (irrespective of political risk). I believe that a knowledge of history and an openness to learn from it are essential qualities in any public official who proposes to bend the curve of history in a more humane and just direction. I believe that politicians who ignore the danger of unintended consequences inevitably make matters worse rather than better.

I believe that, in politics, prudence is the greatest of the cardinal virtues, closely followed by courage (which prevents prudence from decomposing into expedience).

I believe that a legislator or president owes constituents his or her best judgment, and that the legislator or president who imagines himself or herself a mere channel of constituent passions is going to do a lot of damage to the common good. I believe that politicians who refuse to acknowledge their errors of judgment in the face of massive empirical evidence that they got it wrong display a narcissism that is inherently dangerous.

I believe that former public officials who accept obscenely large honoraria for (usually vacuous) speeches are reprehensible; that the people who pay those fees are either star-struck fools impressed with celebrity or inveiglers soliciting future access; and that both the payer and the payee in these tawdry transactions contribute to the further debasement of our politics into a sub-set of "entertainment."

I believe that any morally serious notion of "national interest" includes a concept of national purpose, informed by the classic ends of politics: freedom, justice, security, the common good, and the peace of public order.

I believe that a mass media facilitating a serious debate over complex issues, rather than playing "gotcha" games, would fulfill its ambition to be the fourth estate and be applauded by serious citizens.

I believe that political parties exist to achieve certain political purposes; that no party has a claim to exist in perpetuity; and that when parties abandon the noble ideas and purposes to which they once subscribed, party loyalty has no further claims to make on a thoughtful citizen.

I believe that tribalism – be that the ethnic tribe, the racial tribe, or the gender tribe – is inimical to democratic pluralism.

I believe that kowtowing to political correctness and indulging in identity politics are signs of low intelligence, cowardice, or both.

I believe that a "value-neutral" democracy is a contradiction in terms and that the attempt to create such a chimera in the name of false ideas of "fairness" and "tolerance" inevitably results in coercive state power being deployed to impose relativism on an entire society.

I hope you believe these things, too. If you do, welcome to the ranks of elitists. Wear the label with pride, and help rescue our political culture from the vulgarians.

Biblical preaching and healing the culture

If Catholics in the United States are going to be healers of our wounded culture, we're going to have to learn to see the world through lenses ground by biblical faith. That form of depth perception only comes from an immersion in the Bible itself. So spending 10 or 15 minutes a day with the word of God is a must for the evangelical Catholic of the 21st century.

Biblical preaching that breaks open the text so that we can see the world, and ourselves, aright is another 21st-century Catholic imperative.

There is far too little biblically based catechetical preaching, at which the Fathers of the Church in the first millennium excelled, today. The Church still learns from their ancient homilies in the Liturgy of the Hours, but the kind of expository preaching the Fathers did is rarely heard at either Sunday or weekday Masses. It must be, though, if the Church's people are to be equipped to convert and heal contemporary culture. For the first step in that healing process is to penetrate the fog, see ourselves for who we are, and understand our situation for what it is.

How might biblical preaching help us do that?

Take the recent Solemnity of the Ascension as an example. The essential truth of the Ascension is that it marked the moment in salvation history at which humanity–glorified humanity, to be sure, but humanity nonetheless–was incorporated into the thrice-holy God. The God of the Bible is God-withus, Emmanuel. But, with the Ascension and Christ's glorification "at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Heb 1:3), humanity is "with God." If the Incarnation, Christ's coming in the flesh, teaches us that God is not distant from us, and if the Passion teaches us that God is "with us" even in suffering and death, then the Ascension teaches us that one like us is now "with God," and indeed in God. Which means that humanity is capable of being sanctified, even divinized.

Eastern Christian theology calls this theosis, "divinization," and it's a hard concept for many western Christians to grasp. Yet here is what St. Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian Fathers of the Church, teaches about the sending of the Holy Spirit, promised in Acts 1:8 at the Ascension: "Through the Spirit we acquire a likeness to God; indeed we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations–we become God." What can that possibly mean?

It means that, through the gift of salvation, we are being sanctified: we are being drawn into the very life of God, who is the source of all holiness. And it means that our final destiny is not oblivion, but communion within the light and love of the Trinity. Why? Because the glorified Christ, present in his transfigured humanity to the first disciples in the Upper Room, on the Emmaus Road, and by the Sea of Galilee, has gone before us and is now "within" the Godhead, where he wishes his own to be, too.

Wonderful, you say. But what does that have to do with healing 21st-century culture?

Everything.

At the root of today's culture of happy-go-lucky hedonism, which inevitably leads to debonair nihilism, is a profound deprecation of the human: a colossal put-down that tells us that we're just congealed star dust, a cosmic accident–so why not enjoy what you can, as soon as you can, however you like, before oblivion? Why take your humanity seriously–including that part of your humanity by which you are constituted as male or female? You can change whatever you like; it's all plastic and it's all meaningless, because the only meaning of our humanity is the meaning we choose for it.

Christian faith offers a far nobler vision of the human condition than this dumbed-down self-absorption. Where do we find that nobler humanity exemplified? In the Ascension, and the incorporation of Christ's human nature into the mutual love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And where the Master has gone, the disciples are empowered by grace to follow.

That's what should have been preached on the Solemnity of the Ascension. That's the kind of preaching we need, day after day and Sunday after Sunday.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Things that can't change

When the Second Vatican Council was putting the finishing touches on one of its key documents, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), Pope Paul VI proposed that it include a statement that the pope is "accountable to the Lord alone."

The suggestion was referred to the Council's Theological Commission, which, perhaps to Pope Paul's surprise, flatly rejected it: the Roman Pontiff, the Theological Commission noted, "is . . . bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier Councils, and other obligations too numerous to mention." The pope cannot, in other words, change the deposit of faith, of which he is the custodian, not the master. The pope can't decide that the Church can do without bishops, or that there really are eleven sacraments, or that Arius had it right in denying the divinity of Christ.

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