Grace under pressure

George Weigel

A chapter in a remarkable American and Catholic life will close on June 6, when Abbot Thomas Frerking, OSB, concludes more than two decades of service as leader of the monastic community at St. Louis Abbey. His story deserves to be better known.

William Preston Frerking was born into a historically Presbyterian family in St. Louis on July 29, 1944. Two years later he was struck by polio, the childhood disease most dreaded by parents before the Salk and Sabin vaccines. His doctor, perhaps without knowing it, spoke prophetically when he told the boy’s parents, “He may be crippled in body, but don’t cripple his mind.”

They didn’t. And as William Frerking was completing an outstanding undergraduate career at Harvard, he was encouraged to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. He so impressed those conducting the preliminary screening of Rhodes candidates that he eventually found himself a finalist, just one interview away from landing perhaps the most coveted academic prize in the Anglosphere. There was a hitch, though.

Cecil Rhodes wanted his scholars – think Pete Dawkins and Bill Bradley – to exemplify the ancient maxim, mens sana in corpore sano [a sound mind in a sound body]. And thus far, none of the Rhodes’ judges had had the nerve to ask William Frerking about his disability – unmistakable because of the braces with which he walked and the crutches he sometimes used. The issue could not be indefinitely avoided, however. So at the conclusion of the final interview, during which the candidate had wowed the Rhodes jury yet again, one member of the selection committee asked, softly, “And about the athletics?” Missing nary a beat, young Mr. Frerking answered, “I play a mean game of bridge.”

He got his Rhodes Scholarship.

The result, however, was not what he or the Rhodes selection committee might have imagined.

During his years at Trinity College in Oxford, this young scholar in philosophy experienced a profound religious conversion through his encounter with the Oxford Catholic chaplaincy. Received into the Catholic Church in 1970, he completed his formal education with two Oxford degrees: an M.A. in theology and a D.Phil. in philosophy, the latter earned with a dissertation written under the guidance of the great Elizabeth Anscombe. Then, during five years of teaching at Notre Dame, William Frerking began to hear a call to monastic life. In 1979, he entered what was known in those days as St. Louis Priory, eventually taking the religious name “Thomas.” After making final vows in 1984, he was ordained a priest in 1986 and taught theology for several years before becoming the abbey school’s headmaster in 1992 and abbot of the monastery in 1995. Because of the long-term effects of his polio, he has led his brother-Benedictines from a motorized wheelchair for the past several years.

His retirement coincides with the fortieth anniversary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 commencement address at Abbot Thomas’s undergraduate alma mater, Harvard. In what was perhaps his most controversial public statement, the great Russian chronicler of the evils of the communist system, speaking “as a friend, not an adversary,” nonetheless criticized the West for what he described as its “loss of will power,” “psychological weakness,” and “spiritual exhaustion.” Of the many extraordinary people it has been my privilege to know, few have offered as profound a contrast to that critique as Abbot Thomas Frerking.

For me, as for many others, he has been a model of determination, strength, and spiritual depth. In a culture that Solzhenitsyn rightly criticized for its obsession with “unlimited freedom in the choice of pleasures,” Abbot Thomas has lived a vocation of self-giving and self-denial, gently summoning the students he taught, their parents, and the monks who kept re-electing him their superior to a nobler understanding of freedom as a matter of choosing the good, freely. That achievement was not only the expression of a keen mind honed by contact with the brilliance of Elizabeth Anscombe; above all, it was the expression of a soul nourished daily by the Eucharist he celebrated and the Divine Office he prayed in community.

Abbot Thomas, as I’ll now call him for the last time, embodies Hemingway’s definition of courage as “grace under pressure.” In his case, the grace is supernatural in origin, and its effect has been the sanctification of others.

COMING UP: Justin Trudeau and the dictatorship of relativism

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You’ve probably never heard of the Waupoos Family Farm. I hadn’t either, until I met some folks involved in it during a recent visit to Ottawa. Their story vividly illustrates the dictatorship of relativism at work.

The farm is a vacation site for poor families who can’t afford a holiday together. It’s run by Christians who apply only one criterion to their potential guests: applicants must have an income below Statistics Canada’s poverty line. That’s it. No religious requirements. No work-for-play requirements. All you have to be is poor.

For years, the Waupoos Foundation, which supports the farm, has received Canadian government funds, through Canada’s summer jobs program, to help staff the farm and assist the low-income people the farm serves. Win-win-win, right? Poor families get vacations; summer interns get real-world experience and a modest income through working with and for low-income families; the taxpayers are assured that their dollars are being put to good use among people who really appreciate the help.

Well, wrong. Or at least wrong according to the Canadian department of Employment and Social Development, which is not going to fund summer jobs at the Waupoos Farm this year because the Waupoos Foundation has declined to accept a new governmental requirement: that recipients of summer jobs funds must “attest” that respecting human rights means respecting “reproductive rights,” which include “the right to access safe and legal abortions.” So, unless something changes soon, the Waupoos Foundation is going to have to scramble to find private sector money to support summer jobs at the Waupoos Family Farm. And if the Foundation has to cut back on staff as a result of the government’s refusal to fund summer jobs at the farm — which will amount to a governmental rejection of the Foundation’s conscientious objection to affirming abortion-on-demand as a human right — poor people will suffer as a result.

Since taking power in November 2015, the government of Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau has been a paragon of political correctness, sometimes to the point of self-parody. One ukase recently instructed Canadian governmental employees to avoid using the honorifics “Mr.,” Mrs.,” and “Ms.” and the words “mother” and “father” in interacting with the public, as these terms could be understood as “gender specific.” The prime minister himself, during a public meeting, corrected a woman who used the word “mankind,” saying that the preferred term was “peoplekind.” Alas, it’s all of a piece with a government which, in defiance of all logic and linguistic common sense, insists that “reproductive rights” include the “right” to willfully terminate reproduction by killing an innocent human being.

A broad coalition of religious leaders protested the coercion of consciences implicit in the “reproductive rights” attestation, including representatives of religious communities that do not share orthodox Christian convictions about abortion. Thus far, their protests have been fruitless, although there is talk of the attestation being reconsidered next year. Meanwhile, though, and for as long as the “reproductive rights” attestation remains in force, the Trudeau government will continue to embody the dictatorship of relativism: the imposition of a relativistic morality on everyone by coercive state power, with poor people often the losers.

I hope the attestation disappears, just as I hope Prime Minister Trudeau begins to use the English language properly; at least one North American head of government should be able to do so. But even if the Trudeau administration reverses itself on this blatant coercion of consciences, there may be an important lesson here for Canadian non-profits, including the Catholic Church: beware of too close an embrace of Caesar and too great a dependence on Caesar’s coin.

Canada does not have the culture of philanthropy that exists in the United States, in part because Canada remained part of the British Empire after Americans bade farewell to King George III. In Canada, a tradition of governmental benevolence and largesse grew out of the experience of monarchy, while in America the republican habits of voluntarism and philanthropy (identified in the 1830s by Alexis de Tocqueville) formed early. The current Canadian summer jobs-funding fracas may thus suggest to our friends north of the 49th parallel that developing a culture of giving, capable of supporting a thick network of non-governmental organizations involved in education, health care, and social work, is good in itself — and essential when Caesar’s coin turns toxic.