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: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA