Books for the Summer of Our Discontent

George Weigel

These past few months, I expect many folks have found themselves resorting to the page and the lamp more often; may that literary trend continue long after our public health circumstances change! Since plague time began, I’ve found the following books reassuring, challenging, illuminating, and in some cases just plain fun: which is to say, apt reading in, and for, this troubled moment.

There’s nothing like a quarantine and sheltering at home to rekindle that resolution to read the Bible regularly. Now comes The Word on Fire Bible: The Gospels (Word on Fire Catholic Ministries). The fourfold story of Jesus is lavishly illustrated and the text is complemented by commentaries ancient and modern, which clarify the puzzling and make the familiar come alive anew.

If there were one mentor I’d recommend to a young person seeking wisdom, it would likely by Leon Kass. The newest collection of his essays, Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter Books), is chock-full of the insights that follow when a master teacher combines biblical literacy, deep learning in the humanities, and a trained scientist’s grasp of science that is unmarred by an uncritical reverence for scientific achievement. If several hundred Leon Kasses had been teaching in elite American colleges and universities the past 50 years, those institutions wouldn’t have become the playpens of cancel culture they are today – and there would be much less nonsense spouted in public.

That nonsense is also the sorry result of a profound ignorance of American history. One remedy for that – and one way to get today into perspective – is H.W. Brands’ story of the four decades between the War of 1812 and the aftermath of the Compromise of  1850: Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants (Doubleday). I finished the book with a new respect for Clay (arguably the greatest American never to become president); a renewed respect for Webster; and the feeling that Calhoun, for all his brilliance, did the Republic no enduring service except by illustrating what happens when abstract ideology runs amuck.

Like the old grey mare, the Pulitzer Prize ain’t what she used to be. But the Pulitzer committee got it right when it gave David W. Blight its 2019 History award for Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster). Douglass, my fellow native Marylander, was one of the greatest Americans of his time or any time. His firm belief in the promise of the United States as a land founded on the conviction that all are created equal, sorely tried at times, remains an inspiring antidote to the false story of America that’s underwriting a lot of cheap-grace political posturing in the face of injustices today.

David Pryce-Jones is frequently described as one of the last of that splendid breed, the “man of letters.” And while I hope his tribe increases and flourishes, I’m also grateful that he’s shared decades of literary memories in Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime (Encounter Books). David’s mini-sketches of 90 authors whose signed volumes he owns sparkle with wit and insight from cover to cover. Perhaps my favorite thrust from the Pryce-Jones rapier puts touché to the leftie British historian A.J.P. Taylor, “a typical intellectual of the 1930s [who] made sure to enjoy the privileges he was criticizing.”

At a moment when the United States seems to have lost the capacity to produce leaders of intelligence, courage, and the capacity to work with others for the common good, it’s important to remember that we were once such a nation, and within living memory. Two good reminders are Eric Larrabee’s Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War (Naval Institute Press) and Walter Borneman’s The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King – The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea (Back Bay Books). Admiral Raymond Spruance, who won “the war at sea” far more than media-darling Bull Halsey, gets unhappily short shrift from these authors; still, both volumes offer well-drawn, concise portraits of a host of leaders with the human qualities we could use in 2020.

Finally, two books by two great theologians with important things to say about hope, the most urgently needed of theological virtues today: Pope Benedict XVI, The Yes of Jesus Christ (Crossroad) and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? (Ignatius Press). The latter is typically misunderstood and the former typically ignored. Both repay a close, careful reading.

COMING UP: Will Nancy Pelosi take a page from her father’s playbook?

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In 1918, Mayor James Preston presented a 264-piece silver service to Cardinal James Gibbons on behalf of Baltimore and its citizens – a municipal tribute to the city’s beloved archbishop on the 50th anniversary of his episcopal consecration. Funded by public subscription, the cutlery, plates, tea pots and coffee pots, serving bowls, trays, and platters of the “Gibbons silver” featured a unique decorative pattern, the cardinal’s monogram, and his coat-of-arms. For decades, much of the jubilee silver service was displayed in the dining room of the residence of the archbishops of Baltimore, located just behind Benjamin Latrobe’s magnificent Cathedral of the Assumption.

Then disaster seemed to strike.

One morning in the 1950s, the cathedral rector came downstairs to find that the Gibbons silver was gone: stealthy burglars had entered the residence during the night and made off with it. The rector called the police. The police called City Hall. And Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro, Jr., suspecting who might have been responsible for this caper, put the word out: If that silver isn’t returned in 48 hours, somebody’s gonna be in a world of hurt.

The next day, the telephone rang in the rectory of Our Lady of Fatima parish, several miles east of Baltimore’s downtown. The caller, declining to identify himself, simply said, “Look in your trash cans.” The pastor did. And there, in plastic bags, was the Gibbons silver service.

Thus Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro: paragon of efficient local government.

Another theft of something far more consequential than silver is on the near-term horizon – the theft, by COVID-19, of the Catholic school education on which tens of thousands of poor children and their parents rely as preparation for a life beyond poverty. And another D’Alesandro – Tommy’s daughter, more familiarly known as Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives – can and should emulate her father’s example and do something about it.

Many Catholics schools in the United States are in serious trouble because of COVID-19. The trouble is not educational; across the country these past four months, Catholic schools showed themselves far more supple in responding to the pandemic than the state schools, as Catholic schools implemented online learning far more quickly and efficiently. The trouble is financial: too many parents, unemployed or under grave financial stress because of the shutdown of the economy, face the prospect of not being able to afford tuition at the Catholic schools they’ve freely chosen for their children’s education and formation.

If inner-city and other low- and middle-income Catholic schools are emptied because of unbearable financial pressures on parents, there will be multiple victims. The first victims of this education-theft will be those Catholic schools’ former students. The second victim will be state school systems, overwhelmed by an influx of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of new students they cannot handle – especially under the restrictions that will likely be necessary to avoid an autumnal spike in COVID-19 cases.

Speaker Pelosi has publicly lamented the recently-announced closing of her Baltimore alma mater, the financially strapped Institute of Notre Dame: a venerable secondary school for young women whose first graduating class had heard the rumble of Civil War cannon from their classrooms. Many of my elementary school classmates attended IND and I share the Speaker’s sense of loss. But what are we to say, and do, about the virtual certainty that many, many Catholic elementary schools across the country, especially those serving low- and middle-income children, will be decimated by COVID-19 economic distress?

The chief obstacle to emergency financial aid for the low- and middle-income parents who still wish to choose Catholic schools for their children is resistance to such aid in the Democratic caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. Speaker Pelosi rules that caucus with a firm hand. Might she adapt a page from her father’s playbook? Might she put the word out that anyone acquiescing in education-theft, by blocking financial aid to the low- and middle-income parents who choose Catholic schools for their children, is going to be in trouble as they seek campaign dollars and plum committee assignments?

The long-term question of federal funds for independent schools can be debated and settled later. This is an emergency: a crisis for Catholic schools and state schools, for children and parents. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in American political history, can help resolve that crisis by being her father’s daughter.

Featured photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images