I noticed “Letters to a Young Catholic” by George Weigel in the library, read it, liked it, and posted a review at Blogcritics back in December. I decided to rewrite the review and put it up on my own site too.
This is a new book, published in 2004, part of the Art of Mentoring series published by Basic Books. Weigel is a good writer, witty, engaging, passionate. His project is to support young Americans in embrace orthodox Catholicism in a secular age. The book is basically a collection of essays about special places and personalities in Catholicism, an exposition of culture rather than a systematic apologetic. There are essays on Flannery O’Connor, Newman, Waugh and Chesterton, and essays about Warsaw, Krakow and the Polish Catholics who resisted Hitler and then Stalin and Russian Marxist orthodoxy. He offers several stories about Pope John Paul II, and insights into the Pope’s approach to the leadership of the world church – as might be expected of the author of a biography of the pope.
He presents modern Catholic orthodoxy as literate, principled, dedicated, vibrant, engaged and alive with his stories of writers and activists building on a living tradition. He presents Catholicism as countercultural, almost post-modern in its rejection of the failures of the secular philosophies and ideologies devised by Western European and American thinkers in the past three centuries. He demonstrates that Catholicism is fresh, engaging and spiritually fulfilling, without having had to reinvent itself as a rival to the hundreds of fringe spiritualisty movements of the late 20th Century. It started as an apocalyptic Jewish sect, but has evolved a rich and sophisticated tradition that puts Catholics firmly within the reality-based community while supporting a spiritual life.
He puts forward some of the basic elements of modern Catholic theology, frequently referring to writings of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthazar, whose work has become fundamental in rethinking Catholic orthodoxy. He answers some of the popular stereotypes about Catholicism – that it is a religion of morbid self-denial and obscure rituals practiced to avoid offending a vengeful deity. He tried to explain the Catholic attitude towards joyful living in the real world, and the appreciation of rituals and religious art to help see the real beauty of the world.
Unfortunately he is still a conservative Catholic trying to dress up a a traditional and highly structured religion. As a conservative, he won’t try to present Catholicism as a mere personal spirituality – he has to present it as the One, True Faith. This won’t play well in a plural modern culture, and it won’t play will if you favour science and philosophy over more emotional and superstitious pursuits. Hehe also skirts some of the ethical problems of his American Catholic neo-orthodoxy. Weigel, like Michael Novak and Richard Neuhaus, is a Catholic polemicist who usually supports the social conservative agenda of the Republican Party, and a defender of American and global capitalism. He is at best indifferent to economic, environmental and equality issues. He is dismissive of liberation theology and the movement to empower women in the Church on the basis that these are artificial intrusions of an alien philosophy in the Church rather than a genuine movement for Christian humanism. He also seems, not unlike the liberal Catholics that he criticizes on other issues, to not talk about the Church’s teaching on some issues.
It is a spirited and forceful presentation of the orthodox version of modern American Catholicism, an interesting book.