Catholic in America

The title of George Weigel’s The Truth of Catholicism, Ten Controversies Explored, suggests this book will sound like a finger-wagging, lecturing apologetic in defence of Catholic orthodoxy. In fact this 2001 book, like his 2004 book “Letters to a Young Catholic” is an literate and enthusiastic presentation of orthodox Catholic teachings in an American context.


Weigel learned a few things from Pope John Paul II’s techniques for renewing the Church. He takes a positive approach. Pope John Paul II identified renewal as a process of vitality in public engagement, supported by cautious intellectual re-entrenchment. Weigel, like the late Pope, believes that renewal is not a process of accomodating Christian beliefs and practices to the expectations of modern culture or fitting in to the modern intellectual order. Like the late Pope, he presents Catholicism as a faith or belief system with strong ideas about human dignity and freedom, founded in a strong tradition. Like the late Pope and all orthodox thinkers for the last 3 centuries, he rejects the ideas of a handful of philosophers who theorized about freedom and will, and the dominant modern ideologies.
His book is organized into ten short chapters, each broken into 3 to 5 shorter essays, and I will not try to summarize all of them. His message, again, seems to be taken from Pope John Paul II. He seems to unpack the ideas of the encyclicals letters Faith and Reason, the Splendor of Truth, and the ideas of the Theology of the Body, for a wider audience. The ideas peresented are often described as conservative, or traditional.
He begins from the standpoint that Catholic principles make more sense from “within” when several perspectives on human nature, fulfilment and salvation are appreciated. In the early chapters he presents principled responses to some of the common criticisms of Catholicism – that it is intolerant of other religions, and that religion is inherently demeaning to free humans. His discussion of tolerance begins with an exposition of the difference between tolerance founded on respect for other human beings and their understanding of the truth, and a weak unwillingness to make judgments and to speak the truth firmly.
He argues that liberal atheism, in spite of its humanist rhetoric, leads either to spiritually empty materialism or to a totalitarian system. He reminds us that the evil dictatorships of the 20th Century – Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China – all started with utopian ideas of organizing society to create a better social order. He presents Catholic Christianity as having a better sense of what human beings need, and a more realistic idea about whether human beings can fulfil – and save – themselves by their own laws and social systems.
His chapter on liberal church and conservative church has particular resonance for Americans. He contends that Catholics should not regard themselves as a denomination – a private organization – within a secular nation or as the purveyor of one among several kinds of “spirituality”. He says that American Catholics have been too occupied with the Church as institution, with liturgical innovation, with power in the church. He argues that there should not be liberal or conservative catholics, that the terms liberal and conservative are labels applied to catholics by outsiders who are fundamentally hostile to religion, and who expect religion to wither away in a secular pluralist society. He is right in observing that Catholics have become timid about their faith and about being religious. He implies that the decline of the Church in America and Eurpose was caused by liberal catholics who were and are too caught up with embracing the values of secular culture and philosophy. The question of the relationship between Church and general culture is somewhat more complex – as is evidenced in the papacy of John Paul II. Conservative Catholics have been smug and self-satisfied in the practice of traditional pieties and the observance of rules. The bureaucratic Church did not have the resources to renew itself, and it began to wither away when the old style of orthodoxy lost its cultural traction in the era of global electronic media for communicating news and entertainment products.
His chapter on ethics is good. He presents the Catholic teaching on free will and freedom with a good quote from Lord Acton – liberty is not the freedom to do what I want; it is the right to do what I ought to do. His chapter on sexual ethics including birth control and sex outside marriage is difficult and countercultural. His chapter on interreligious dialogue and pluralism is worthwhile. Catholics respect strong orthodox traditions, and are skeptical of liberal, syncretic and Gnostic ideas.
Weigel writes clearly, and passionately, and he is pretty persuasive. Like all good philosphers and theologians, he makes a logically coherent case. Like most orthodox thinkers since the Council of Trent, he basically dismisses the liberal case as wrong-headed, and ends up making a case that people should choose to live a conservative life in a socially conservative society with women at home having babies, limited sexuality, hard work, prayer, church.
His chapter on liberal and conservative Catholics tends to dismiss liberal Catholics as moral and intellectual weaklings who have given in to an evil culture. His version of Catholic orthodoxy has made an accomodation with the comforts of materialism and capitalism. His Church stands in solidarity with the American Pharisees of the religious right. He distrusts – as I do – the messy emotionalism and fraudulent psychology of pop culture spirituality, but he supports a return to traditional Catholic piety, which turns into a mirror image of pop culture spirituality.

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