Log in
    

The Catechism of the Catholic Church at 25

Pope John Paul II called the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 to assess what had gone right and what had gone wrong in two decades of implementing the Second Vatican Council. In Vaticanese, it was styled “extraordinary” because it fell outside the normal sequence of synods. But Synod 1985 also was extraordinary in the ordinary sense of the word. 
               
It occasioned an almighty row over a book-length interview, The Ratzinger Report, that pretty well set the terms of debate in the synod hall. It was the synod that came up with an interpretive key that linked the 16 documents of Vatican II, through the image of the Church as a communio, a communion of disciples in mission; thus Synod 1985 accelerated the Church’s transition to the Church of the New Evangelization. And it gave us the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
               
At a press conference shortly after the synod, Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, then president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, was asked about the new catechism the synod fathers recommended. Don’t worry, Bishop Malone, replied, you’ll never live to see it. The bishop was, of course, wrong about that, and John Paul II promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Oct. 11, 1992.
               
For those expecting a Q&A format like the old Baltimore Catechism, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was a surprise. While divided into 2,865 bite-size sections, the catechism is a discursive exposition of Catholic faith in full. Its structure, which mirrors the Catechism of the Council of Trent, reaches back to the early Church and the patristic catechumenate. Thus the catechism’s four parts reflect the four pillars of Christian initiation: the “Profession of Faith” (the Creed); the “Celebration of the Christian Mystery” (the Sacraments); “Life in Christ” (Christian Morality); and “Christian Prayer.”
     
Each of these four parts is then subdivided. Part One begins with a reflection on revelation and our response to it before examining the 12 articles of the Apostles Creed, the baptismal creed of the ancient Roman Church. Part Two is structured around the seven sacraments. Part Three vastly enriches the Tridentine pattern by beginning with the Beatitudes and our vocation to beatitude or happiness, which sets the framework for the exposition of the Ten Commandments. Part Four begins with a meditation on Jesus and the Samaritan woman, explaining the Lord’s “thirst” for souls as the beginning of prayer, before illustrating Christian prayer through the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.
               
Thus Parts One and Two of the catechism illuminate God’s action in seeking us out; the catechism’s very first section speaks of the divine invitation to communion, while the sacraments are described at the beginning of Part Two as the extension of Christ’s earthly life in us: as Pope Leo the Great put it, “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into His mysteries.”
 
Parts Three and Four then outline our response to God’s action through the moral life and prayer. Part Three is a rebuff to those rigorists and laxists who continue to misconstrue Christian morality as a form of legalism: The moral law is important, the catechism insists, because these are the guideposts provided by revelation and reason for the pilgrimage to beatitude and happiness, the goals of the moral life.
 
Part Four speaks forcefully of “the battle of prayer,” the fight “against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God.”
               
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has made a considerable difference throughout the past 25 years, because it was one crucial answer to the question posed to me in 1996 by a great first-generation Christian, Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Speaking of one problem Synod 1985 was called to address, the cardinal asked, “How can [anyone] join a group of permanently confused people who don’t know where they’re going?”
 
And while there’s still considerable work to be done to deepen the reform and renewal of catechetics, the mere fact of the catechism helped end the silly season in religious education while establishing a compelling, and in many cases quite beautifully written, benchmark and pattern for the future.
               
If you’ve not read the catechism, this silver jubilee is a good occasion to do so. Then share it with a friend.
 
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Center.

-- Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of
Vermont Catholic magazine.
 

In Memoriam, 2017

This was a tough year for losing friends. At one point, I got so tired of writing obituary columns that I wrote a kind of pre-obituary so the friend in question could read it before his death. Before the civil year ends, let’s remember seven giants who will be sorely missed.

                Michael Novak (1933-2017). Mike Novak was one of the most creative Catholic minds of our time, a philosopher whose thinking ranged all over the human landscape. He made a far better moral case for free enterprise than anyone before him; he had a penetrating insight into the American idea and the dangers besetting it; he probed the depths of both religious experience and secular nihilism with precision and compassion. Prior to his death on Feb. 17, the last thing we talked about was Super Bowl LI, which was entirely in character. RIP.

                Peter L. Berger (1929-2017). I began reading him in 1970, when his classic, "A Rumor of Angels," was assigned in a course on Revelation and Faith – and I kept reading him for more than 45 years. We became friends and colleagues in the mid-1980s, and I discovered that, in addition to his insight into society and its dynamics, Peter Berger was one of the funniest men alive, a walking encyclopedia of jokes who used his native Viennese wit to both sharpen conversations and deflect silly conflicts between overinflated academic egos. Berger also had the intellectual humility to admit that the data falsified his early claim that modernization necessarily means secularization, so he began thinking and writing about the complex interaction of modern social, cultural and economic life in a world that remained stubbornly religious, at least outside of a dying Europe. Andrew Greeley once sniffed that the only numbers in his fellow-sociologist’s books were at the bottom of the page: That was fine with the millions who learned to think about sociology as a form of philosophy, not a subdivision of statistics, from Peter Berger, who died on June 27. RIP.

                Cardinal Joachim Meisner (1933-2017). For nine years, his Diocese spanned both sides of the Berlin Wall. Then he was sent to Cologne, against fierce opposition from the forces of Catholic Lite, where he tried to reignite Catholic faith in one of Catholicism’s German heartlands. Meisner reveled in telling me stories about his banter with the Polish pope who loved to kid him about the German propensity for Polish jokes. He died on July 5, full of concern for the Catholic future but with calm confidence that the Lord’s truth would prevail. RIP.

                Joaquin Navarro-Valls (1936-2017). He brought the Vatican press office into the (first half of) the 20th century, was sorely missed since he left that post in 2006, and died on July 5. RIP.

                Father Arne Panula (1946-2017). For 10 years, he ran the Catholic Information Center on K Street in Washington, D.C.: Swamp Central, if you will. In that decade he became the foremost priestly embodiment of the New Evangelization in the nation’s capital, a fisherman of souls always on the lookout for a convert to bring to the faith, a lapsed Catholic to bring back into the fold or a lukewarm Catholic in whom to reignite the fire of the Holy Spirit. He was living proof that doctrinal clarity and priestly charity work together – a brilliant man who wore his vast learning lightly but was prepared to deploy it evangelically to bring men and women to Christ. Before his death on July 19, his last months were a powerful witness to faith and hope. RIP.

                Michael Cromartie (1950-2017). We were colleagues at the Ethics and Public Policy Center for 28 years and friends for longer than that. His infectious humor won a legion of friends and admirers and he worked diligently to make the “faith angle,” as his forum for journalists was called, accessible and comprehensible to the press. The antithesis of the politicized evangelical, he was, first and foremost, Christ’s servant, and he died in Christ’s peace on Aug. 28. RIP.

                Cardinal Carlo Caffarra (1938-2017). A brilliant moral theologian, he had a great impact on Synod 2015, where his five-minute exposition of what conscience means taught a lesson to more than one confused or ill-informed bishop. He died on Sept. 6 – technically of cancer – in some respects from a broken heart at current ecclesiastical contentions. RIP.

 
 

Books for Christmas

It’s been a good year for publishing – at least in the sense of a lot of good books getting published – so here are some for the readers on your Christmas gift list (in addition, of course, to "Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II" [Basic Books], by your scribe):
                
"The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism," by Thomas Joseph White, OP (Catholic University of America Press): Father White is one of America’s most impressive younger Catholic thinkers (and its most impressive banjo-playing Catholic thinker). His work exemplifies the Catholic renaissance inspired by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and his book makes the searching skeptic think, and then think again, about what the fullness of Catholic faith means.
                
"Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies, and Writings," edited by John R. Cihak (Bloomsbury): The saintly 16th-century archbishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo – who was shot at the altar for his reformist efforts, recovered, and then pleaded for his assailant’s life – is obviously a man worth getting to know. Msgr. John Cihak’s fine introduction to Borromeo’s life and work helps us distinguish true from false reform in the Church at a moment when that’s a crucial issue for the 21st-century Catholicism.   
                
"An Introduction to Vatican II as an Ongoing Theological Event," by Matthew Levering (Catholic University of America Press): I’ve been amazed to discover in recent years just how little young and engaged Catholic millennials know about the Second Vatican Council and what preceded it – a gap in their historical knowledge that often leads to a distorted view of today’s intra-Catholic contentions. Give Dr. Levering’s fine book to anyone you know who falls into that category, or indeed to anyone who wants to know the Council and today’s arguments over its proper implementation better. It’s reader-friendly and written for non-specialists (although I can think of some theologians on the port side of the Barque of Peter who could benefit from studying it, too).
                
"Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating: A Handbook for the Pastoral Care of the Family According to 'Amoris Laetitia,'” by José Granados, Stephan Kampowski, and Juan José Pérez-Soba (Emmaus Road Publishing): The buzzword title ought not put anyone off from giving this engaging and trustworthy guide through the thicket of family life issues to every priest, deacon, marriage-preparation minister, and marriage counselor on their gift list.
                
"Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived," edited by Christopher J. Scalia and Edward Whelan (Crown Forum): How could anyone not love a man whose favorite lunch was pepperoni pizza and red wine? Well, a lot of people didn’t love Justice Scalia during his lifetime, but this posthumous collection of his speeches may change even the most hardened of hearts and minds. For it not only introduces the man in full but helps explain why he was one of the most influential jurists in American history, in a class with John Marshall and Joseph Storey. Antonin Scalia was a serious man who took his craft seriously, loved his family and country, and wrote with courage, passion, and wit, especially in dissent. Little wonder that he was given, by his priest-son, Paul, the finest funeral homily since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s homily at the funeral Mass of John Paul II. 
                
"Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times," by Leon R. Kass (Encounter Books): Generations of students at the University of Chicago found in Leon Kass and his late wife Amy the kind of teachers for which every student and every student’s parents should long. In this collection of essays, some jointly written by one of the all-time great husband-and-wife teams, readers meet wisdom and decency honed by a deep reading of everyone from Homer, Aristotle, and Moses to Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and C.S. Lewis – and by a lifelong love for the Chicago Cubs (which, after the 2016 World Series, can no longer be dismissed as a sign of grave psychic distress). 
                
"Kenneth Clark: Life, Art, and 'Civilisation,'” by James Stourton (Knopf): A charming biography of the great art historian, who once said that entering the Catholic Church (which he seems to have done on his deathbed) was like a painting entering the Louvre: “It would find itself in some pretty queer company, but at least it would be sure that it had a soul.” 
 

Summer reading list

I recently met the good people of St. Benedict Elementary School in South Natick, Mass., which offers classical Catholic education to some very fortunate youngsters. The extensive summer reading lists the school suggests to those kids’ parents put me in mind of my high school English teacher, the late Father W. Vincent Bechtel – who did not, however, do suggestions and made sure that his charges kept their noses to the grindstone from June through August by assigning us at least a half-dozen novels every summer. Some of them – like Paul Horgan’s “Things As They Are” – I still re-read with pleasure, a half-century later.
           
So herewith, in honor of the Bechtel tradition as continued at St. Benedict Elementary and other classic Catholic schools, are some summer reading possibilities:
           
Peter Cozzens’ “The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West” (Knopf) is the finest piece of narrative history I’ve read in some time. It’s rigorously honest, appalling and instructive, without a whiff of political correctness.
           
My friend Joseph Epstein is a great read 365 days a year; his crisp prose and ready wit make him an especially appropriate summertime companion. Try Joe’s “Wind Sprints” (Axios), a collection of shorter pieces on everything from the pleasures of life in Chicago to the perfidies of contemporary waiters; or “Masters of the Games” (Rowman and Littlefield), in which Joe explores the addiction to sports he and I share; or “Essays in Biography” (Axios), 41 pointillist sketches of personages great and obscure; or “The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff” (Mariner Books), a bundle of short stories of which the title piece is especially fine. Or all of the above.
           
William F. Buckley Jr. was, arguably, the most politically influential Catholic in 20th-century America. Alvin S. Felzenberg tells the story of Buckley’s political journey, and its impact on history, in “A Man and His Presidents” (Yale). Bill was a friend and I’ve heard a lot of Buckley stories over the years, but Al Felzenberg’s diligent mining of both the vast Buckley correspondence and the secondary literature on WFB brought to light some facets of the story of which I was insufficiently aware: not least the raw and blatant anti-Catholicism that marked elite WASP response to Bill’s first bombshell book, “God and Man at Yale.”
           
Diplomatic history doesn’t often lend itself to able storytelling, but Michael Doran happily provides an exception to that rule in “Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East” (Free Press). It’s a tale with numerous lessons for today, a portrait of a president whose greatness involved a willingness to change his mind if reality proved previous assumptions mistaken, and a reminder of just how fractious the post-colonial Arab world has always been – and how poorly the Arabs have been served by their leaders.
           
Of the making of Wavian biographies there seems to be no end, but I thoroughly enjoyed Philip Eade’s “Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited” (Henry Holt). Unlike some of Waugh’s biographers, Eade does not start from the premise that the 20th century’s great master of English prose was a fiend in human form: a wise decision that allows him to see, and portray, a complex personality in full. For those who want to explore Waugh’s still-immensely-readable oeuvre, Douglas Lane Patey’s “The Life of Evelyn Waugh” (Blackwell) remains the gold standard; those more interested in the man than in his literary accomplishment will be well served by “Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited.”
 
Robert Harris uncharacteristically whiffed (and badly) with his recent “Conclave,” but his Cicero Trilogy – “Imperium,” “Conspirata” and “Dictator” (Vintage) – offers a fine portrait of late republican Rome and brings to life an exceptionally able man, not without flaws, who helped cement into the foundations of the West the notions that the rule of law is superior to the rule of brute force – and that civil law should be accountable to the moral law we can know by reason. Harris’s trilogy inevitably raises the question, where are the Ciceros among us today?
           
And finally, Frank Hanna’s “A Graduate’s Guide to Life: Three Things They Don’t Teach You in College That Could Make All the Difference” (Beacon) offers those just getting started in life nuggets of wisdom, drawn from the experience of a successful Catholic entrepreneur and generous philanthropist.
 

Heroic Virtues

On Jan. 20, Pope Francis authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to publish decrees acknowledging the “heroic virtues” of six men and one woman: two diocesan priests, three priests in religious orders, the foundress of an Italian religious community and a Polish layman. It does no disservice to the memory of the other six men and women who now bear the title “Venerable” to suggest that the Polish layman, Jan Tyranowski, had the greatest impact on the Catholic Church throughout the world – and by orders of magnitude.
 
By the end of May 1941, the Gestapo had systematically stripped the Parish of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Cracow’s Dębniki neighborhood of its clergy; 11 of the priests who once served there were eventually martyred.  One of the remaining Salesian fathers asked a layman in the parish, a tailor who spent hours in contemplative prayer and meditation, to take responsibility for what we would call
“youth ministry” with the parish’s young men. Since organized Catholic youth work was banned by the Nazi Occupation, the request was an invitation to risk deportation to Auschwitz – or worse. Jan Tyranowski, the tailor with an eighth-grade education, said “yes,” and began to organize the young men of the parish into what he called “Living Rosary” groups: 15 teenagers or young adults (for the 15 mysteries of the rosary as then constituted), each group led by a more mature young man to whom Tyranowski gave spiritual direction. 
 
One of those first group leaders – “animators,” as Tyranowski called them – was a manual laborer with intense literary interests named Karol Wojtyła. In a memorial essay written after Tyranowski’s death in 1947, Wojtyła remembered his spiritual mentor’s greatest lesson: that “religious truths” were not “interdictions [or] limitations,” but the guideposts by which to form “a life which through mercy becomes [a] participation in the life of God.” How did Tyranowski do this? By demonstrating with his own life that, through contemplative prayer, “one could not only inquire about God…one could live with God.” 
 
To do this with edgy adolescents was no small achievement. To do it under the pressures of a homicidal Nazi Occupation was remarkable. To do it with a future pope meant that Tyranowski’s lessons extended far beyond Dębniki and touched the entire world.
 
It was Tyranowski who introduced the future Pope John Paul II to the spiritual theology of the great Carmelite reformers, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross (on whom Wojtyła would write his first doctoral dissertation). And it was Tyranowski who showed Wojtyła a path beyond the simple Marian piety with which he had grown up, introducing him to the Marian theology of St. Louis Grignon de Montfort – and to Montfort’s idea that all true devotion to Our Lady is Christ-centered and Trinitarian, for Mary points us to her son, who leads us into the life of the thrice-holy God. 
 
It’s not difficult to trace the influence of Tyranowski on the papal teaching of the young man he helped discern a vocation to the priesthood. But when the news came that the mystically-gifted Dębniki tailor at whose tomb I’ve frequently prayed was now “Venerable Jan Tyranowski,” it struck me that his tutelage and the Tyranowski-Wojtyła relationship remind us of something important about the papacy.
 
John Paul II, who had a tender pastor’s heart, was also tough-minded and strong-willed. That could have led to trouble if he were not also a man of deep humility, who knew what he didn’t know and was prepared, as pope, to learn from those who had something to teach him – like Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. That pattern of humility and receptivity in his papal life finds one of its roots in Wojtyła’s providential relationship to Tyranowski, to whom John Paul remained profoundly grateful 60 years after they first met. 
 
The willingness to learn from others is an essential quality in any great leader; it is certainly an essential quality in a pope. For the charism of papal infallibility, which only touches fundamental matters of faith and morals under clearly specified circumstances, is not a charism of omniscience. Anyone tempted to imagine otherwise might ponder the friendship of the Venerable Jan Tyranowski and Pope St. John Paul II.
 
 

Theology isn't math

During the heyday of the Solidarity movement, a famous Polish slogan had it that, “For Poland to be Poland, 2 + 2 Must Always = 4.” It was a quirky but pointed way of challenging the communist culture of the lie, which befogged public life and warped relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, colleagues and neighbors. For Poland to be something other than the claustrophobic Soviet puppet-state it had been since 1945 – for Poland to be itself, true to its character and history – Poland had to live in the truth: It had to be a country in which 2 + 2 always equaled 4.
           
That Solidarity slogan harkened back to George Orwell’s “1984.” In Orwell’s dystopian novel, a totalitarian state maintains social control by obfuscating reality, using what the British author called “Newspeak” and “doublethink” to compel its subjects to acknowledge as true what they know is false. Thus one of the more odious of the characters in the novel, a regime stooge whose job is to break the will of “thought criminals,” explains that if Big Brother and the omnipotent Party say so, two plus two doesn’t necessarily equal four: “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.”
           
Which brings us to a tweet earlier this month from Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a prominent figure on the current Roman scene.
            
I don’t use Twitter, so its syntactical wonderland is a bit foreign to me. And having had previous experience of Father Spadaro’s capacity for provocation-via-Twitter, I’m prepared to think that, in this case, he may have been trying to say something other than what he seemed to be saying. But as his tweet rang ominous bells for anyone familiar with Orwell or Solidarity, it’s worth reflecting upon.
           
Here’s what Father Spadaro tweeted (in linear, rather than Twitter, format): “Theology is not Mathematics. 2 + 2 in Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with God and real life of people.”
           
Now that was not, so to speak, a tweet in a vacuum. It was a message projected into an already-overheated Catholic conversation about the proper interpretation of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In that context, the charitable reading of the tweet is that Father Spadaro was reminding us of the obvious – that pastoral care is an art, and that the priest dealing with complicated and messy human situations is not like a first-grade teacher drilling six-year olds in addition.
 
But then the question inevitably arises, what is the relationship of truth to pastoral care? And why suggest, even in Twitter-world, that there are multiple “truths” – a convention of the post-modern academic playpen that leads by a short road to the chaos of “your truth” and “my truth” and nothing properly describable as the truth?
As for theology, the word means speaking-of-God, which in Christian terms speaking of the One who is Truth – the Truth who makes us free in the deepest meaning of human liberation. There are many ways of doing theology, and not all of them are strictly syllogistic; St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, doctors of the Church, were not logicians. But if theology decays into illogical forms of Newspeak, it is false to itself.
           
It was providential that Christianity had its first “inculturation” in a milieu – Greco-Roman antiquity – where the principle of non-contradiction was well-established and something couldn’t “be” and “not be” simultaneously. That cultural environment was where Christianity found the conceptual tools to turn confession and proclamation – “Jesus is Lord” – into catechesis and creed. Suppose the first “inculturation” had been in a setting where it made perfect sense to say “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is not Lord” at the same time – like the culture of India two millennia ago? It made a great deal of difference that the first formative centuries of Christianity took place in a culture where 2 + 2 always equaled 4.
           
Applying the truths of the faith to the complexities of life is not a matter of logic alone. But if attempts to do so are illogical, in that they stretch truth to the breaking point, they’re unlikely to be pastorally effective. Because the soul needs truth to be free.       
 
 

A reflection on “A Man for All Seasons”

On Dec. 12, 1966, the film “A Man for All Seasons” was released. And if it’s impossible to imagine such a picture on such a theme winning Oscars today, then let’s be grateful that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got it right by giving Fred Zinnemann’s splendid movie six of its awards in 1967 – when, reputedly, Audrey Hepburn lifted her eyes to heaven before announcing with obvious pleasure that this cinematic celebration of the witness and martyrdom of Sir Thomas More had beaten “The Sand Pebbles,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Alfie” and T”he Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” for Best Picture.
           
Intriguingly, though, “A Man for All Seasons” is a magnificent religious film – perhaps the best ever – despite its author’s stated intentions.
           
Robert Bolt’s introduction to his play, which led to the movie, makes it rather clear that author Bolt saw More less as a Catholic martyr than as an existential hero, an approach befitting the hot philosophical movement of the day (which was, of course, the Sixties). As Bolt put it:
           
“Thomas More…became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what areas of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases, for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at last he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self.  And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff….
           
“What attracted me was a person who could not be accused of any incapacity for life, who indeed seized life in great variety and almost greedy quantities, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death.”
           
Yet this portrait of Thomas-More-as-Tudor-era-existentialist doesn’t quite convince, because Bolt, perhaps in spite of himself, gave us a different More in his drama and later in his screenplay – a More who “grasps” his death, not as an existential stalwart, a courageously autonomous “Self,” but as a Catholic willing to die for the truth, which has grasped him as the love of God in Christ.  Thus when More’s intellectually gifted daughter Margaret, having failed to argue him out of his refusal to countenance Henry VIII’s divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, plays her final card and cries, “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?”, More replies, haltingly, “Well…finally…it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
           
And not love of self, but love of God and love of the truth. For the God who is truth all the way through is also, St. John the Evangelist teaches us, love itself. And to be transformed by that love is to live in the truth – the truth that sets us free in the deepest and noblest meaning of human liberation.
           
There was something worthy and inspiring about certain aspects of existentialism: not the soured existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which quickly decomposed into nihilism, but the heroic existentialism of a Albert Camus, who could not abide the anti-clerical Catholic progressives of his day and who sought a world in which we could be, as he put it, “neither victims nor executioners.” But it was Sartrean existentialism that won the day, at least insofar as one can trace a line from Sartre to contemporary narcissism, displayed today in everything from temper tantrums on university campuses by over-privileged and under-educated barbarians to voters across the Western world who seek relief from their grievances – some quite legitimate – in adherence to some pretty dreadful characters.
           
In this unhappy situation, we need the real Thomas More: the Thomas More who bore witness and ultimately “grasped his death,” not to vindicate his sense of self, but as the final and ultimate act of thanks for his having been grasped, and saved, by Truth itself, the Thrice-Holy God.   
 

God and Brexit

Ever since the United Kingdom decided in June to leave the European Union, contending (and sometimes overlapping) explanations have been offered for a vote that stunned the world’s opinion-makers: a perceived loss of national sovereignty to a transnational organization; concerns over current EU immigration policy and the effect of open EU borders on jobs and the rule of law; aggravations with petty bureaucratic regulation by EU mandarins in Brussels. Together, these amount to what’s often called the EU’s “democracy deficit,” which seems to me real enough.

I’d like to suggest another, perhaps deeper, answer to the question of the EU’s current distress, though: to put it bluntly, the “democracy deficit” is a reflection of Europe’s “God-deficit.” Let me connect the dots.

The founding fathers of today’s European Union – which began with the European Coal and Steel Community before morphing into the European Common Market and then the EU – were, in the main, Catholics: Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, France’s Robert Schumann. Appalled by the self-destruction that Europe had wrought in two world wars, they sought an answer to aggressive nationalism in economic partnerships that would bind the West Franks (the French) to the East Franks (the Germans) so that war between them would be inconceivable. It was a practical idea, it worked, and it was understood to be the first step toward forms of political partnership and integration.

The wager underlying this project, as these men conceived it, was that there was enough of Christian or biblical culture left in Europe to sustain democratic pluralism in a “union” of sovereign states that would respect national and regional distinctiveness. And that Christian or biblical “remainder” involved the Catholic social-ethical principle of “subsidiarity:” The idea that decision-making should be left at the lowest possible local level (as in classic American federalism, where local governments do some things, state governments do other things and the national government does things that local and state governments can’t do). 

“Subsidiarity” is a check against the tendency of all modern states to concentrate power at the center: which explains why the principle was first articulated by Pope Pius XI in 1931, as the shadow of totalitarianism lengthened across Europe. Respect for the social-ethical principle of “subsidiarity” also implies respect for cultural difference. And that, in turn, assumes that human beings get to universal commitments – like respect for basic human rights – through particular experiences, not through generalized abstractions. Or as Polish editor Jerzy Turowicz said to me 25 years ago, John Paul II was a “European” because he was a Cracovian, the heir of a particular experience of pluralism and tolerance, not despite the fact that he came from a unique cultural milieu. 

When biblical religion collapsed, as it manifestly has in most of Old Europe and too much of New Europe after 1989, commitments to subsidiarity and its respect for difference imploded as well. The vacuum was then filled by a monochromatic, anti-pluralist notion of “democracy.” Embodied in EU law and enforced by unaccountable bureaucrats and EU courts, the results of this decayed democratic idea went far beyond idiotic regulations on the shape of tomatoes and bananas to include a concerted attempt to impose a single political culture in Europe, best described as the culture of personal autonomy – the Culture of the Self. That pseudo-culture is the hollowed-out shell of the Christian personalism that once inspired de Gasperi, Adenauer, Schumann, and the mid-20th-century Christian
Democratic parties of Europe. And its political by-product is the EU’s “democracy deficit.” 

Forty years ago, German constitutional scholar Ernst-Friedrich Boeckenfoerde argued that the modern, liberal-democratic state faced a dilemma: It rested on the foundation of moral-cultural premises – social capital – it could not itself generate. Put another way, it takes a certain kind of people, formed by a certain kind of culture to live certain virtues, to keep liberal democracy from decaying into new forms of authoritarianism – more pungently described in 2005 by a distinguished European intellectual, Joseph Ratzinger, as a “dictatorship of relativism.” The Boeckenfoerde Dilemma is on full display in the European Union, which is in deep trouble because of a democracy deficit that is, at bottom, a subsidiarity-deficit caused by a God-deficit. 

Americans would be very foolish to think ourselves immune to a similar crisis of political culture.

     
Subscribe to this RSS feed
Bishop's Fund Annual Appeal