Dr. Wills comes unhinged

George Weigel

“Why isn’t there a ‘progressive’ candidate?” was, to some, one of the mysteries of this past April’s conclave. The fact that John Paul II had named so many of the electors was suggested as the explanation. But that didn’t work, as a quick riffle through the Vatican yearbook easily revealed the names of at least thirty cardinals whom no one would ever label “conservative” — and every one of them had been named by John Paul II.

At the time, I suggested that there was no “progressive” candidate because the campaign to compel the Catholic Church to deconstruct its doctrine and bend its moral teaching to a thin notion of freedom-as-autonomy was exhausted. Confirmation of that thesis now comes from a bizarre essay in the October 6 issue of the New York Review of Books. Under the rubric “Fringe Government,” Garry Wills proposes that Father Richard John Neuhaus, Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., Michael Novak, and your scribe are “situated at the contact points between the similar ruling systems of the Vatican and the White House,” from which perch we are busily — doing what? Well, according to Garry Wills, destroying American democracy and turning the ecclesiastical clock back to the days of Pius IX, or maybe even Pius V.

I take it as an iron law of controversy that people turn to conspiracy theories and personal nastiness when they’ve run out of ideas. Dr. Wills is, evidently, out of ideas, or at least arguments. In the course of his New York Review essay, he doesn’t engage a single idea that Neuhaus, Novak, or I have proposed over the past twenty-five years. As our students will readily attest, my friends and I relish real debate; but how does one respond to cartoons masquerading as arguments?

Garry Willis is a very intelligent man who has made important contributions to our understanding of American history — which makes it all the more discouraging when his commentary on things Catholic comes unhinged. So, for the record, here are what I take to be some of the key ideas three of his Great Conspirators have been propounding:

1. The Founders and Framers did not intend the United States to be built around a “naked public square” in which religiously informed moral argument is deemed out-of-bounds in public life. The Supreme Court should recognize that the First Amendment was intended to create the legal and cultural conditions for the free exercise of religion — “no establishment” being one means to the end of free exercise.

2. The abortion license defined by Roe v. Wade is a grave injustice because it legalizes the willful taking of innocent human life. Similar threats to first principles of justice are entailed in euthanasia and in embryo-destructive stem cell research. These issues can be adjudicated on genuinely “public” moral-philosophical grounds, without appeals to ecclesiastical authority or “sectarian” doctrine.

3. The free economy is superior to state-based economies because it creates wealth more efficiently, distributes it more equitably, and reflects the economic creativity built into us as rational and moral beings. If you believe the poor are people with potential and your goal is to empower the poor to unleash the creativity that is theirs, you work to incorporate the poor into those networks of productivity and exchange that we call the “free economy;” you don’t keep poor people trapped on the welfare plantation.

4. The just war tradition, a tradition of statecraft, remains the normative Catholic method of moral reasoning about world politics and provides a public moral grammar by which free societies can debate their responsibilities in a dangerously conflicted world.

5. The pontificate of John Paul II was not a pontificate against modernity, but a pontificate advancing a distinctively modern appraisal of modernity, one that included both affirmation and critique.

6. The Catholic Church has a “form” given it by Christ. All genuinely Catholic reform is by reference to that “form.”

In the event that he pulls himself out of the slough of progressive Catholic despond, it would be instructive to learn Dr. Wills’s objections to these six points.

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

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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.