A man for strengthening others

George Weigel

When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.

COMING UP: Religious freedom: bleached, blanched, and rinsed out

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Father Richard John Neuhaus put two Big Ideas into play in American public life. The first was that the pro-life movement (of which Neuhaus was an intellectual leader) was the natural heir to the moral convictions that had animated the classic civil rights movement (in which Neuhaus was also deeply involved). The second was that the First Amendment to the Constitution did not contain two “religions clauses” but one religion clause, in which “no establishment” (i.e., no official, state-sanctioned Church) was intended to serve the “free exercise” of religion. Neither of those Big ideas is welcome in today’s Democratic Party, in which Neuhaus (then a Lutheran pastor) was once a congressional candidate, and of which he remained a registered member until his death in January 2009.

Those who point out that the 2020 Democratic platform has the most radical pro-abortion plank in American history, and that the same platform promises to hollow out religious freedom in service to lifestyle libertinism, risk being labeled “culture warriors.” Well, so be it. “Culture warrior” is snark masquerading as thought. Facts are facts. And one of the sad facts of this unhappy political moment is that Neuhaus’s efforts to rescue the Democratic Party through two Big Ideas was frustrated because those two ideas got linked – and then rejected, thanks to the corruption of rights-talk that preceded, made possible, and was then accelerated by Roe v. Wade and its abortion license.

While Neuhaus’s interpretation of the First Amendment on religion has gained some traction in the federal courts (including, it seems, the Supreme Court), it hasn’t dislodged the alternative view in much of the academic legal establishment or the media. That alternative was baldly stated by Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe in his constitutional law textbook. In the First Amendment, Tribe wrote, there is a “zone which the free exercise clause carves out of the establishment clause for permissible accommodation of religious interests. This carved-out area might be characterized as the zone of permissible accommodation.”

Ironically, Tribe agrees with Neuhaus on one point: there is one “religion clause” (even though the professor uses the conventional rhetoric of two such clauses). But in Tribe’s view, which has now been replicated in the 2020 Democratic Party platform, there is really just one “religion clause” – that which prohibits the state’s “establishment” of religion. Being tolerant to some degree, good liberals like Professor Tribe will try to find some wiggle-room to “accommodate” religious “interests” – much like the liberally tolerant would “accommodate” the “interests” of Flat Earthers. But only up to a point.

That point was drawn close to the bone by the 2020 Democratic Party platform, which rejects what it called “broad religious exemptions” that “allow businesses, medical practices, social service agencies, and others to discriminate.” What that means in plain English is that, under a Democratic administration allied to Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the Little Sisters of the Poor will be compelled to provide contraceptives, some of which are abortifacients, to their employees. That, and nothing other than that, is what the Democratic platform promises. That is also the policy the Democratic candidate for president has said he would support. Does anyone doubt that his running mate (who seems to think the Knights of Columbus are a hate group because they espouse the understanding of marriage espoused by Barack Obama in 2008) disagrees?

This is Tribe’s First Amendment theory, turbocharged: the “religious interests” of the Little Sisters of the Poor (and evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and all others who have religiously-informed, conscience-based objections to contraception, abortion, the redefinition of marriage, and the full LGBTQ agenda) do not fit within that “zone of permissible accommodation” that “the free exercise clause carves out of the establishment clause.” So those parties are out of luck – and out of legal protection, unless the Supreme Court comes to their rescue.

In this context, appeals to personal piety, rosary-carrying, and so forth ring hollow,  however sincerely felt that piety may be.

It is fatuous to dismiss concerns over the rinsing-out of religious freedom as the overwrought fretting of culture warriors. The commitments in the Democratic platform are plain, and there can be no reasonable doubt that those commitments will be given legislative and regulatory effect by a Democratic administration in league with a Democratically controlled House of Representatives and a Democratically controlled Senate. Those are the facts. They are not the only facts to weigh. But those facts should certainly bear on conscientious Catholic voting for all federal offices in 2020.