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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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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.

     

A cinematic lesson in hope

At a moment like this when there doesn’t seem to be a lot going right — ascendant authoritarianisms throughout the world; lethal violence by ideological fanatics; feckless responses to both from the democracies — it’s good to be reminded that things can be different, and in fact were different, not so very long ago. 

Recapturing those days and summoning memories of a time when the good folks won, cleanly and against all the odds, is the singular accomplishment of a splendid new documentary, “Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism,” which should be on everyone’s summer must-watch list.

It took me 19 years of research and three books (“The Final Revolution,” “Witness to Hope,” and “The End and the Beginning”) to do what executive producer Carl Anderson and writer/director David Naglieri have done in 93 minutes of gripping videography and marvelous graphics: explain how and why John Paul played a pivotal, indeed indispensable, role in the greatest drama of the last quarter of the 20 century: the collapse of European communism. In doing so, they make us think hard, again, about how this miraculous liberation took place: something no one expected on October 16, 1978, when a little-known Polish cardinal, who styled himself the pope “from a far country,” was presented on the central loggia of St. Peter’s as the new bishop of Rome.       

Central and eastern Europe weren’t liberated by conceding that the communists had a point, even if they were rather brutal and inefficient in making that point socially, economically, and politically. Nor were the countries of the Warsaw Pact liberated by churchmen and western diplomats cosseting the dictators that ran those party-states. What we used to call the “captive nations” were liberated because “good” and “evil” were “called by their right names,” as the Solidarity martyr, Blessed Jerzy Popieliuszko, used to put it.

Central and eastern Europe didn’t break free of the shackles of totalitarianism without trying, failing, and then trying again: it took a critical mass of people, determined to “live in the truth” no matter how difficult, to implode the communist culture of the lie and give a new birth of freedom to the lands Stalin claimed as his prize for helping beat Hitler.

And the countries of central and eastern Europe didn’t regain their liberties by adopting the usual 20th-century method of social change, mass violence. Understanding that people who begin by storming Bastilles usually end up building their own (as one Polish dissident said), the new freedom fighters inspired by John Paul II deployed weapons that communist brutality could not match: truth, national memory, tenacious organizing, and personal resilience. 

For those whose memories of St. John Paul reach back only as far as his last years, “Liberating a Continent” is also a powerful reminder of what a handsome, charismatic, and utterly compelling man John Paul II was at the height of his physical powers. He radiated confidence, moral strength, and the courage of a happy warrior. And because of that, those whose lives he touched felt empowered in return. 

The displacement of history by “social studies” in U.S. elementary and secondary schools has been a disaster for historical understanding. And while the new “social history,” which wants to do history from the bottom up, has taught us many things, there are still occasions when great men do bend history’s curve in a different direction; “Liberating a Continent” is also a useful reminder that John Paul II didn’t make “1989” happen by himself. But without him, a continent wouldn’t have been liberated when it was and how it was. So I’d suggest adding this terrific film to the curriculum of every Catholic (and indeed every Christian) high school in North America, to remind students what happened in their parents’ lifetimes and to inspire them to moral greatness themselves.

“Liberating a Continent” will be aired on various public television stations in the months ahead; that schedule will be regularly updated at www.jp2film.com. But while you’re checking for local airings at that site, go to the “purchase” tab, order a copy online, and settle down for an hour and a half of superb entertainment that will lift your spirits in a darkling season.  

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

Synod-2015 Revisited

As I write, just before Thanksgiving, it's been over a month since Synod-2015 finished its work. Yet there is still no official translation of the Synod's Final Report into the major world languages from the original Italian (a language regularly used by 8/10 of one per cent of the world's population). That's a shame because, in the main, the "Relatio Finalis" is an impressive, often-moving statement of the Church's convictions about chastity, marriage, and the family: biblically rich, theologically serious, pastorally sensitive, and well-crafted to meet the challenge of the cultural tsunami responsible for the contemporary crisis of marriage and the family, which has left a lot of unhappiness in its wake.

It's also a shame because the unavailability of the Final Report in the weeks after the Synod has led to all sorts of spinning about its contents, and thus to no small amount of confusion, even consternation.

So while it's impossible to do full justice to the "Relatio Finalis" in a single column, let me address some of those confusions through eight bullet-points, based on the original Italian text and informed by my experience of the discussions throughout Synod-2015:

1 The Final Report reaffirms the classic teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage and the conditions for worthiness to receive holy Communion, both of which are based on divine revelation and are thus not subject to change.

2 The Final Report does not endorse what has become known as the Kasper Proposal, i.e., the readmission to eucharistic communion, after a penitential period, of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics whose prior marriage has not been granted a decree of nullity by an ecclesial court.

3 In reaffirming these classics of Catholic faith and practice, the "Relatio Finalis" affirms that there can be no wedge driven here between "doctrine" and "pastoral practice," for the traditional discipline of the Church is based on the conviction that what is at stake is the integrity of individuals before the Lord: in other words, worthiness to receive holy Communion is a matter of living in the truth.

4 In its now widely-controverted paragraph 85, the Final Report emphasizes that "pastoral accompaniment" of the divorced and civilly remarried by a priest in the "internal forum" must always be undertaken "according to the teaching of the Church." Those seven words were inserted in the "Relato Finalis" in the last 24 hours of the Synod and provide the necessary anchor for any truly pastoral accompaniment in the case of the divorced and civilly remarried (or indeed in any other case). For in pastoral life, as in the gospels, truth and mercy work together.

5 The Final Report urges the Church's pastors to provide whatever canonical/legal help they can in resolving difficult and painful situations of marital breakdown. It also underscores the importance of effective marriage-preparation programs, which are urgently needed in situations where the ambient public culture's understanding of "marriage" and the Church's understanding of "marriage" are often dramatically different. Which is to say, marriage preparation should be seen as an integral part of the New Evangelization, and an important ecclesial mission of mercy among the walking wounded who are sifting through what Pope Francis has described as the post-battlefield wreckage of contemporary culture.

6 The Final Report, like Cardinal Péter Erdő's opening address to the Synod as its Rapporteur- General, makes clear that there is no analogy at all between the Church's understanding of marriage and other living arrangements among consenting adults.

7 The "Relatio Finalis" (unlike the Synod's working document) celebrates children as a great blessing, praises large families, and urges support for families with special-needs kids.

8 In all of this, the Final Report emphasizes that the Church reads the "signs of the times" through the lens of divine revelation (in this case, the unambiguous teaching of the Lord Jesus and St. Paul). The "signs of the times" do not judge the deposit of faith, although the most challenging of those "signs" can highlight the Church's failures in teaching and witnessing to the truth.

For more, see my article, "What Really Happened at Synod 2015," available at www.firstthings.com.

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

 
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