Practicing Catholic: Essays Historical, Literary, Sporting, and Elegiac is a feast. It’s a new collection by George Weigel, a leading writer on Catholic, cultural, and political matters of recent decades. It is a treasure trove of good language, penetrating insights, and the challenging and consoling vision that true hope reveals. It provides a contemporary look into the love that a truly Catholic life can make manifest: the mercy of God and even joyful foretastes of heaven itself. The social doctrine of the Catholic Church, “particularly as articulated by John Paul II, can give a more compelling account of the free and virtuous society than anything on offer in a standard Ivy League school’s government department,” writes Weigel in Practicing Catholic. “And the attraction that many evangelical intellectuals feel for that social doctrine suggests that the story of religiously informed moral argument in American public life is not over, but is in fact heading into a new, more robust phase, in which classic Christianity versus neopaganism, rather than Catholic versus Protestant, is the crucial fault line,” he continues.
Weigel gives a taste of the collection — which includes the longest essay the papal biographer has ever written, on baseball — in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Did Camelot ultimately beget gay marriage and the HHS mandate?
GEORGE WEIGEL: Let’s not give the “Camelot” myth too much credit. But I would say that the Kennedy mythology, which glamorized and romanticized liberalism while identifying liberals as the party of reason and soldering the mainstream media to an increasingly left-leaning Democratic party, helped soften up the cultural ground for the triumph of the sexual revolution, which is the true progenitor (or should I say “progenitrix”) of gay “marriage” and the HHS mandate. Of course, as I noted in the essay dealing with all this, there was more than a little irony here, as JFK’s liberalism, such as it was, was of a very pragmatic/rationalist sort; if you doubt that, read his 1962 Yale commencement address.
LOPEZ: How was Griswold v. Connecticut “the Pearl Harbor of the American culture war”? And why should anyone who is not a “Taliban Catholic,” as they say, care about a ruling on contraception that is now more than five decades old?
WEIGEL: I of course defer to my colleague Ed Whelan on matters constitutional, but it does seem fairly clear, even to the untutored, that Griswold begat Eisenstadt which begat Roe v. Wade, which eliminated all abortion law in the 50 states, thus igniting the American culture war as it might not have been ignited had the abortion debate played itself out in the states. By nationalizing the abortion issue, Roe, the spawn of Griswold, intensified by orders of magnitude the passions engaged. And while I leave it to the constitutional scholars to connect the dots fully, it does not seem unlikely to me that Justices Brennan and Douglas (not to mention the plaintiffs) had something like Roe in mind when they concocted Griswold.
LOPEZ: Isn’t the toothpaste out of the tube at this point, though? “Privacy” is the buzzword, even as we seem to put a whole lot on display, don’t we?
WEIGEL: “Privacy” is a buzzword, and is too often thought to be a political argument-settler, because too many pro-life politicians haven’t learned to speak about the issue in terms of justice, the limits of state power, and the moral imperative to provide alternatives other than abortion to women in crisis pregnancies. This is really appalling, after 40 years. And so the campaign consultants advise candidates to flee the issue rather than engage it.
LOPEZ: Are we still living with the consequences of the Tet offensive, and what can be done about it?
WEIGEL: We’re still living with Tet insofar as the Left’s master narrative of Vietnam remains set in concrete in the media and in liberal academia. And that’s an impediment to clear thinking about far more difficult situations, such as the war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates and allies, which is by no means over, inaugural addresses and “What difference does it make?” insouciance notwithstanding.
LOPEZ: What do you have against Earth Day?
WEIGEL: I’m generally against pantheism, and what the first “Earth Day” set in motion was the transformation of the environmental movement from a conservation movement (which any reasonable person could and should support) to what is now an increasingly irrational cult, impervious to either the reality of trade-offs in public policy or (if I may quote President Obama and Al Gore) “the science.”
LOPEZ: “Will only a renewal of the idea of freedom for excellence — freedom tethered to moral truth and ordered to goodness — see us through the political and cultural whitewater of the early twenty-first century?” If so, how do we do that — beyond essays on NRO?
Weigel: It will happen in schools and in homeschooling. It will happen in the military, unless that admirable American institution becomes, post-Obama, so completely PC that it no longer helps transmit the virtues that allow us to live freedom for excellence. It will happen when the Catholic Church fully rediscovers its moral-theological heritage and begins to preach and teach that. It will happen when my evangelical Protestant friends discover Thomas Aquinas and his modern interpreters. And, of course, it will continue to happen in essays on NRO!
LOPEZ: If the 2008 presidential election “did not mark an unmistakable turning point in American public life,” did the 2012 one?
WEIGEL: The turning point may in fact have been earlier, in 1992 or 1996. Knowing what they did about the character of Bill Clinton, the American people chose him anyway — and then reelected him. In retrospect, if one is in Spengler mode, those were two appalling choices, the post-Clinton mythology about this politically masterful and successful president notwithstanding.
LOPEZ: Why is John Courtney Murray important?
WEIGEL: We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition is still a seminal book for anyone wanting to think seriously about the moral and cultural foundations of the American experiment in ordered liberty — it’s also, for the uninitiated, a wonderful introduction to the very idea of an “American experiment in ordered liberty.” Beyond that, it’s a remarkably prescient book, and a very good read; Murray was, among other things, a brilliant stylist.
LOPEZ: How do we “create an America in which every child is welcomed in life and protected in law”?
WEIGEL: One conversation at a time. One woman helped through a crisis pregnancy at a time. And by being a lot smarter politically than several notable pro-life candidates were in 2012.
LOPEZ: How does a “dictatorship of relativism” lead to “open or thinly disguised totalitarianism”?
WEIGEL: It seems fairly clear. When the state uses its monopoly on coercive power to compel the citizenry to accept moral relativism (as embodied in, say, gay “marriage” or the HHS mandate), something structurally similar to what happened under hard totalitarianism is afoot. Judging from the opening gambits of the second Obama administration, however, “thinly disguised” seems likely to give way to “overt.”
LOPEZ: Did Cardinal Dolan take that a step too far when he used the t-word with regard to the (eventually successful) push by a Catholic governor for gay marriage in New York?
WEIGEL: No, and for the reasons just adduced.
LOPEZ: Why did Princess Diana make it into your book?
WEIGEL: Because the British national nervous breakdown at her death, which Tony Blair failed to recognize as such in his memoir (which is in turn the foil in my book for Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 visit to Britain), tells us rather a lot about the state of political culture in the Mother Country. Which strikes me as something of a cautionary tale for us here in the former colonies.
LOPEZ: “St. Evelyn Waugh”? Was that a typo?
WEIGEL: No. Waugh, for all his crotchetiness, was a theologically serious Catholic convert who knew that “saints” are what we all must become in order to live with God forever. The Church recognizes some people, publicly, as “saints” by canonizing them. But sanctity is every Christian’s human and religious destiny, and it’s the ticket, if you will, to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem — which I am assured will be much superior to any luncheon thrown by Chuck Schumer.
LOPEZ: Are abortion “and related life issues” the “great civil-rights issues of our time”?
WEIGEL: Of course they are, for issues like the right to life of the unborn, the radically handicapped, and the terminally ill measure whether the community of common protection and concern, embodied in our laws, includes all of us, or only some of us.
LOPEZ: What’s your favorite essay in the book?
WEIGEL: I’m frankly partial to the essay on baseball, but I rather like the Waugh and Mencken essays, too.
LOPEZ: Why should anyone read Helena today?
WEIGEL: It’s a splendid antidote to regnant cultural Gnosticism, which Waugh smelled coming in the late 1940s. It’s also a brilliantly achieved experimental novel and, like all of Waugh’s fiction, it is “laugh out loud” funny at several points, in this case including a spectacular smackdown of Edward Gibbon.
LOPEZ: Why are you a Menckenian?
WEIGEL: I’m not, in a philosophical or political sense. But Mencken was a great writer — the first really great op-ed columnist, I daresay — and he remains immensely fun to read, especially when he’s in reminiscence mode. No one who cares about American cities should miss Happy Days, his memoir of life in the Gilded Age Baltimore of his childhood. And no one who cares about journalism (or practices it) should miss Newspaper Days, a rollicking account of HLM’s first years on the old Baltimore Herald.
LOPEZ: Why is Paul Horgan so important to know?
WEIGEL: Because he seems so totally forgotten these days, and in his prime, he was perhaps America’s most accomplished man of letters. His corpus — historical works, novels, essays, clerihews, you name it — is simply amazing. Things as They Are is perhaps the best book written about a boy growing up since Huckleberry Finn. And in a culture increasingly devoid of manliness, Horgan’s novel of the settlement of the Southwest, A Distant Trumpet, makes for a splendid Confirmation or Bar Mitzvah present.
LOPEZ: What was so special about Henry Hyde? And is it “too much to ask that we’ll ever see his like again”?
WEIGEL: Henry was a remarkable combination of intellect, wit, political deftness, and legislative savvy. Moreover, he was an old-fashioned patriot for whom politics wasn’t about power, it was about principles and purposes. He was the product of a distinctive time and place, but we may see his like again; at least I hope so. Paul Ryan strikes me as a man with similar qualities.
LOPEZ: Of the late French cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger you write: “Here was a man of God; here was a man. The first explained the second.” What does that mean, and what could it mean in a secular culture of men who don’t know what it means to be men?
WEIGEL: Lustiger’s luminous humanity was formed by his Christian discipleship, which taught him about courage, tolerance, decency, respect for ideas, and the capacity to suffer without being paralyzed by suffering. Those strike me as manly qualities that the radical secularism of the imperial autonomous Self finds it difficult to affirm, and thus difficult to teach.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.