Books for Christmas

George Weigel

The past year has seen the publication of any number of books I’ve wanted to write about, but didn’t. Here they are, as suggestions for Christmas gifts that will provoke thought and give pleasure throughout the new year.

Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War (HarperCollins): Beginning with his monumental study of German National Socialism, The Third Reich: A New History, British historian Michael Burleigh has been restoring religious (and pseudo-religious) passions and convictions to their rightful place in the study ofmodern history. Earthly Powers is a great, sprawling smorgasbord of a book, showing how the emergence of the modern state in Europe, and its displacement of religion from public life, opened the door to a variety of fanaticisms that laid the cultural foundations for the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century (which Burleigh explores in depth in a follow-on volume, Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror, to be published in the U.S. in March 2007). Demanding but richly rewarding reading, and likely to change the way reasonable people think about the past two hundred years.   

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (Ignatius Press): Here is the Pope’s most succinct formulation of his proposal for a cultural renewal of the West — “Even the one who does not succeed in finding the path to accepting the existence of God ought nevertheless to try and direct his life…as if God did indeed exist.” Former Italian Senate president Marcello Pera, himself a nonbeliever, comments in a fine Introduction, “This proposal should be accepted, this challenge accepted, for one basic reason: because the one outside the Church who acts [as if God did indeed exist] becomes more responsible in moral terms. He will no longer say that an embryo is a ‘thing’ or a ‘lump of cells’ or ‘genetic material’. He will no longer say that the elimination of an embryo or a fetus does not infringe any rights. He will no longer say that a desire that can be satisfied by some technical means is automatically a right that should be claimed and granted…He will no longer act like half a man, one lacerated and divided.” Like the 2005 volume, Without Roots (Basic Books), the Ratzinger/Pera dialogue in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures opens a window into one of the most important, and hopeful, conversations underway today.

Mary Habeck, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (Yale University Press), and Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 ((Knopf): Habeck’s book is the best single introduction to the ideas that drive jihadist Islam; Wright’s is a brilliant piece of reportage, showing how the ideas Habeck analyzes shaped (and misshaped) the men who made 9/11 possible, ideologically and operationally. If you don’t understand how an Egyptian intellectual’s unhappy experience of a church social in Greeley, Colorado, in the late 1940s eventually led to the deaths of some 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, you should: and Wright tells the story masterfully. Both books are must reads for any friends you have in government — Habeck’s, to explain precisely what it is we’re fighting, conceptually; Wright’s, as (among many other things) a chilling cautionary tale of governmental incapacity.

Elizabeth Kantor, The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature (Regnery): Dr. Kantor takes no prisoners in this romp through the madnesses of contemporary literary theory — which is, at the same time, a fine introduction to what we used to call the literary “canon.” A couple of her characteristically bracing claims — “most great literature was, in fact, written by dead while males” and “Jane Austen was a fan, not a critic, of ‘patriarchy’” — suggest why Elizabeth Kantor need not apply for a faculty position at most of U.S. News & World Report’s top-tier colleges. But that’s all the more reason to read and enjoy her book, and to give it to your favorite high school senior or college freshman.

COMING UP: John Paul II, youth minister

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Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.