Full-immersion Catholicism

George Weigel

As this Catholic annus horibilis continues to unfold, perhaps some good news is in order; first, a little background.

In late 1991, Italy’s Rocco Buttiglione and America’s Michael Novak had an idea: create a summer seminar in which young Catholic adults with leadership potential could immerse themselves in the social doctrine of the Church, and especially the social magisterium of Pope John Paul II. Rocco and Michael recruited Father Richard John Neuhaus, the Polish Dominican Maciej Zieba, and me to the faculty team, and in July 1992 we went to Liechtenstein (where Rocco then taught) for several intensive weeks of intellectual work with some 40 graduate students from Europe and North America.

We repeated the experiment the following July. But after two weeks during which the resonant cowbells of some lovely Liechtensteiner bovines woke me every day at 4 a.m., as they meandered beneath my hotel window, I made a suggestion to my colleagues at evening prayer one night (First Vespers being celebrated from the Liturgy of the Hours and Second Vespers with W.L. Weller Special Reserve): Were we to continue this initiative, we should head east, planting our flag in one of the new democracies of east central Europe. The brethren agreed; we considered the possibilities of Prague and Cracow; John Paul II made it quite clear that he favored the latter; so the “Centesimus Annus Seminar on the Free Society” began meeting in Poland’s cultural and spiritual capital in July 1994 — and has met there every summer since. Renamed the “Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society” in 2000, the seminar has graduated some 900 students; its 27th annual assembly this past July included young adults from the United States, Canada, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Russia.

When Mike Novak handed me the leadership reins in 1999, I was asked by one sponsoring donor how I measured the seminar’s success. My reply was probably frustrating, but it was accurate: “Ask me in 25 years.” The seminar’s purpose was, and is, to help prepare Catholic leaders of the free and virtuous society of the 21st century; it takes time for that leadership to express itself and leadership impact is difficult to quantify. Now, my faculty colleagues and I can look back on more than a quarter-century of work that has helped form great priests and religious; parliamentarians and civil servants; journalists and academics; doctors and lawyers; successful businessmen and philanthropists; impressive marriages and families; and, most importantly, Catholics who live the joy of the Gospel as missionary disciples in many walks of life.

Over two and a half decades, TMS (the seminar’s shorthand moniker) has evolved programmatically. Intellectual immersion in Catholic social doctrine remains the program’s substantive core. But my colleagues and I have come to understand that TMS becomes a life-transforming experience for many because study is embedded in an experience of Christian community (the students and faculty live, dine, and pray together) that also includes rich cultural encounters and, above all, the liturgy. Our daily TMS Mass is celebrated with simplicity and reverence. We sing various ancient and modern chants, and our priest faculty provide excellent, expository preaching that helps our students see the world through biblical lenses. A lot of learning — philosophical, theological, historical, and cultural — happens during TMS. What ties it all together is our shared experience of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the life of faith.

Our curriculum has changed over time to meet the new pressures on missionary discipleship in the early 21st century. Centesimus Annus and Catholic social doctrine remain the seminar’s framework. But we now spend more time on a Catholic analysis of the sexual and biotech revolutions than we did in the early 1990s, more time on the question of what Benedict XVI called “human ecology,” and more time on understanding the New Evangelization and what it means to live out the meaning of one’s baptism.

This year’s TMS XXVII — we’re now so venerable that we date ourselves like the Super Bowl — was full of impressive young men and women who have met and embraced Jesus Christ, who have zero interest in Catholic Lite, and who want to explore everything that vibrant Catholicism means, personally and in their civic and professional lives. Their eagerness to know and live the faith fully is encouraging in this time of trial and purification — and something October’s Synod on youth ministry should take seriously.

COMING UP: Searching for wisdom in a confused world

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Jordan Peterson became an overnight celebrity with the success of his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Random House, 2018). A viral interview from January of this year with Kathy Newman of England’s Channel 4 News brought immediate attention to Peterson’s newly released book, which has sold over two million copies since its release. The interview proved emblematic of Peterson’s popularity for attempting to retrieve common sense and to push back against the ideology overtaking our society.

Why has Peterson proved to be so popular?  A clinical psychologist, who teaches psychology at the University of Toronto, Peterson addresses issues that people care about: finding meaning, relationships, parenting, and gender, to name a few. People are looking for a guide, they desire wisdom — knowing how to order and make sense of reality — and Peterson has offered some needed insights. He tells his readers, “Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being” (63).

This quote illuminates both the allure of Peterson’s writing, helping people to seek definition for their lives, but also its limits, as the definition of self he recommends lacks mooring. Writing from the viewpoint of secular psychology, Peterson can help us to reflect, but his 12 Rules for Life can come across as sophisticated self-help devoid of deeper wisdom. He engages the Western tradition, including the Bible, and offers a fresh, but ultimately unsatisfying, reflection of the stories that define our tradition. He does bring needed common sense, such as “stop doing what you know to be wrong,” (which should not even need to be said) but fails to provide answers to the ultimate questions that define meaning and identity (157).

Greater depth and wisdom can be found in Leon Kass’ Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter, 2017). Kass, a Jewish medical doctor and bioethicist, draws from his lengthy experience in science and teaching the Great Books at the University of Chicago to take us deeper into the human condition and point us toward a richer understanding of the human person — body, mind and soul. Kass, like Peterson, does not write from a religious perspective, but engages the same general themes and classic works, such as the Bible, though with a more convincing explanation of their meaning.

Kass’ book has four major sections, treating themes of love, human dignity, education and our higher aspirations. Kass guides us to reconsider the importance of the foundational goods of life — finding meaning in work and married life — as well as calling us to “the cultivation in each of us of the disposition actively to seek the truth and to make the truth our own” (256). We pursue this liberation by entering into the great tradition of Western thought, which provides an “education in and for thoughtfulness. It awakens, encourages, and renders habitual thoughtful reflection about weighty human concerns, in quest of what is simply true and good” (ibid.).

The thoughtfulness encouraged by Kass is needed more than ever to address the key concerns he raises: a collapse of courtship and marriage, biomedical challenges to the integrity of human nature, and a decline of citizenship. The first two themes share a common source in the “the rejection of a teleological view of nature,” which finds no intrinsic purpose in the human body or even life itself (54). Speaking of the threat of biotechnology and transhumanism, but in a way applicable to gender as well, he relates that “only if there is a human givenness that is also good and worth respecting — either as we find it or as it could be perfected without ceasing to be itself — does the given serve as a positive guide for choosing what to alter and what to leave alone” (149). We must learn to appreciate and cultivate the good of our nature, rather than manipulating and controlling it to our own demise. The same is true of our nation, as Kass, drawing on Abraham Lincoln, points to the need for “enhancing reverence for the Constitution and its laws” (377), as we appreciate, preserve and advance the heritage of our country.

Kass, drawing on his unique background, guides us through an integrated discovery of the good and points us toward the wisdom we need to live a worthy life.