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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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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.

 
 

The crèche and the gap

For the past decade or so, I’ve been assembling a mid-sized Judean village of Fontanini crèche figures, including artisans, herders (with sheep), farmers (with chickens and an ahistorical turkey), vintners, blacksmiths, musicians, weavers, and a fisherman or two (one awake, another sleeping). Like the colossal Neapolitan crèche at the basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Rome, it’s a reminder that the Lord Jesus was born in the midst of humanity and its messy history: the history that the Child has come to set back on its truest course, which is toward God. The messiness of history is a caution against letting sentimentality take over Christmas; so are some challenging truths about Mary, Joseph and their place in what theologians calls the “economy of salvation.”
 Why challenging? Because Mary and Joseph were called to both form their son in the faith of Israel and then give up, even renounce, their human claims on Him, so that He might be what God the Father intended and the world needed.
When Luke tells us that Mary kept all that had happened to her and to her boy “in her heart” (Lk 2:52), we may imagine that she was pondering what the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once described as a great detachment: at His birth, Jesus “detached himself from her in order to tread his way back to the Father through the world.” Some will welcome the message He will preach along that messianic pilgrimage; others will be resistant. And that resistance (in which the Evil One will play no small part) will eventually lead to Calvary, where the sword of sorrow promised by ancient Simeon in Luke 2:35 will pierce Mary’s soul. Then, in the tableau at the foot of the Cross, as captured by Michelangelo in the Pietà, Mary will offer the silent affirmation of God’s will to which she once vocal assent at the Annunciation: “Be it done unto me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
The last recorded words of Mary in the New Testament – “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5) – underscore that the role of Mary, who receives the Incarnate Word of God at the Annunciation and gives birth to Him in the Nativity, is always to give her Son away: to point beyond herself to Him, and to call others to obedience to Him. Thus what Balthasar described as a “detachment” applies to Mary as well as to Jesus: Mary detaches herself from whatever her own life-plans might be, and from whatever her maternal instincts to keep her Son close might be, in order to fulfill the vocation planned for her from the beginning – to be the model of all Christian discipleship, which is the abandonment of my will to God’s will for my life.
Then there is Joseph, another model of self-gift and self-renunciation. Hans Urs von Balthasar again: “In the background of this scene of birth there also stands Joseph, who renounces his own fatherhood and assumes the role of foster father assigned to him. He provides a particularly impressive example of Christian obedience, which can be...very difficult...to accept, especially in the physical sphere. For one can be poor by having given everything away once and for all, but one can be chaste only by a daily renunciation of something which is inalienable to man.” And that makes Joseph a model for those who struggle daily to live, by grace, the truths they affirm about human love.
 “Mind the gap” is the ubiquitous instruction found on the London Underground, cautioning passengers against stepping between the train and the platform. It’s also a pithy but accurate description of the drama of the Christian life. For we all live, daily, in the “gap” between the person I am and the person I was called to be at baptism. The quotidian effort to minimize that “gap,” which means cooperating with God’s grace, is the warp and woof of the spiritual life. So the complement to the Fontanini characters surrounding our family crèche – each of whom represents a personal and unique “life in the gap” – is a small “Mind the Gap” Christmas ornament on our tree. For the Child born in Bethlehem is the bridge across the gap, and the angels atop the tree announce his birth.
A blessed Christmas to all. 
 
— George Weigel
Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies
Ethics and Public Policy Center

 
 
 

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.” 
 

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.

 
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