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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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The importance of Jackie Robinson

In the history of the modern American civil rights movement, three iconic moments are typically cited:
 
• May 17, 1954: The U.S. Supreme Court hands down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring segregated — “separate but equal” — public schools unconstitutional.
 
• Aug. 28, 1963: Two hundred thousand Americans participate in the March on Washington and hear Martin Luther King Jr. proclaim his dream of a country in which his children will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; 10 months later, Congress enacts the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
 
• March 3, 1965: Civil rights marchers are assaulted by police tear gas and Billy clubs on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala.; five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs into law the Voting Rights Act, vindicating the Selma marchers’ cause.
 
These were noble moments, worth remembering; I certainly cherish my memories of encounters with Bayard Rustin, who organized the march that made Dr. King a national eminence.
 
But I believe there was a fourth iconic moment in America’s journey from a land fouled by segregation to the most racially egalitarian nation on the planet. The man at the center of that fourth dramatic moment was an American legend whose accomplishments should rank as high as anyone’s in the pantheon of civil rights heroes.
 
On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers opened their National League season against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. The Dodger first baseman that day was Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in a major league game since the infamous “color line” was drawn in the 1880s.
 
At UCLA in 1939-41, Robinson was perhaps the greatest amateur athlete in the country, a star in track and field, football and basketball.
 
After service as an Army officer in World War II, he was playing shortstop for the
Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League when he was signed to a minor
league contract by Branch Rickey, a cigar-chomping Methodist and the Dodgers’ general manager.
 
Rickey was determined to break the color line, and he deliberately chose Jack Roosevelt Robinson to do so.
 
And not because Jackie Robinson was a mild-mannered wallflower. Robinson was to be a warrior with a difference, however: Rickey, an adept psychologist who believed in the essential fairness of the American people, wanted a man with the courage not to fight back against the racist slurs, beanballs and spikings that were sure to come his way — except by giving an unforgettable performance on the field.
 
Which is what Jackie Robinson, the immortal Number 42, delivered.
 
Grainy black-and-white videos today remind us of a truth the baseball world learned 70 years ago: There has never been anything more exciting in baseball, including the majestic home run and the overpowering no-hitter, than 42 stealing a base, especially home. Rather than hollering back at bigots during his rookie year, Robinson beat them with games that helped lift the Dodgers to the National League pennant and brought them within one game of a World Series victory over the
Yankees (who didn’t sign an African-American player until Elston Howard in 1955).
 
It was a performance for the ages. And it changed America.
 
In this entertainment-saturated 21st century, it may be hard to recall the grip baseball had on the national emotions and imagination in 1947. But as the late
Columbia University cultural historian Jacques Barzun used to say, whoever wants to understand the heart and mind of America had better understand baseball.
 
On April 14, 1947, that nation-defining pastime still embodied the nation’s original sin. The next day, Jackie Robinson began to accelerate a change in America’s heart and mind. That change made possible Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights
Act and the Voting Rights Act.
 
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the GW Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
 
This article has been published in the summer 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.

 

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.       
 
 
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