Games intellectuals play

George Weigel

Shortly after President John F. Kennedy’s cabinet met for the first time, Vice President Lyndon Johnson waxed enthusiastic about the best and the brightest to his mentor, Speaker Sam Rayburn. They were all so brilliant, LBJ raved, especially “the fellow from Ford with the Stacomb on his hair” (Robert McNamara). Mr. Sam paused (perhaps taking a contemplative sip of bourbon-and-branch) and then replied, “Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

That gem of political wisdom came to mind while I was pondering one of the strangest phenomena in this season of many discontents: the emergence of a new “Catholic integralism” that (in the words of an advocate) promotes the notion that “the state should recognize Catholicism as true and unite with the Church as body to her soul.” The proponents of a confessionally Catholic state as the optimum form of government are small in number. But they’ve demonstrated an impressive ability to rile up the debate about the current American political situation, and about Catholic social doctrine generally, so a few questions are in order.

Question #1: Haven’t we seen this, or something like it, before? European Catholic intellectuals’ dismay over their continent’s cultural and social disarray after World War I led some of them to flirt (and worse) with various forms of authoritarian rule in which the Church partnered with the state. Some found in Italian Fascism a rough but serviceable form of the social doctrine of Pope Pius XI (before being caught off-guard by Pius XI’s condemnation of Mussolini’s thuggery in the 1931 encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno). In 1933, a priest from the Benedictine abbey of Maria Laach described the ascendant National Socialist German Workers Party as the “realization” of the Body of Christ in the secular world. Emmanuel Mounier, a prominent French thinker and activist, first found a complement to his rejection of modernity in the right-wing statism of Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime, before pivoting 180 degrees after World War II and trying to forge a Catholic alliance with Stalinist communism. Living in the rarified air of high-altitude abstraction, the new integralist seem uninterested in this history. Nevertheless, such fiascos are important cautionary tales for any Catholic thinker who imagines that the moral and cultural crisis of the West is going to be resolved by the Catholic Church allying itself with state power or by the state endorsing the Nicene Creed.

Question #2. Has Pope Leo XIII been swapped out for Hegel?  There are many, many disturbing things about American culture, society, and politics today; in some quarters, “I Did It My Way” has displaced “America the Beautiful” as an alternative national anthem. But to suggest (as some integralists seem tempted to do) that the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision imposing same-sex “marriage” on the country was gestated in the womb of the Declaration of Independence is ahistorical nonsense. There is a complex causal chain leading to Obergefell and it doesn’t run back to “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” To suggest that it does – and that Catholic social doctrine provides the key to understanding Obergefell’s alleged inevitability – is to replace Leo XIII’s interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas with G.W.F. Hegel’s historical determinism in the foundations of the Church’s social teaching.

Question #3. Where did John Paul II and Benedict XVI go?  As I explained in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, John Paul and Benedict offered acute analyses of the crisis of the West without falling into an authoritarian trap in their prescriptions. Emphasizing the crucial importance to democracy of a vibrant, truth-based, public moral culture, they correctly diagnosed the deepest causes of today’s political distortions and dysfunctions. Teaching that the Church’s public role is to shape that public moral culture by forming citizens who live in the truth, they set Catholic social doctrine in the context of the New Evangelization and defended the Church’s liberty to be itself. Stressing the theological incompetence of the state, they helped strengthen the barriers to any new form of authoritarianism, left or right.

The more sober of the new integralists admit that they’re not offering a practical program for here-and-now. What’s the project, then? Would it be uncharitable to suggest that this might be a game played by Catholic intellectuals who, so to speak, never ran for sheriff – a game that, however unintentionally, is complicating the Church’s public witness by misrepresenting Catholic social doctrine?

COMING UP: On John Paul II’s centenary

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As the world and the Church mark the centenary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II on May 18, a kaleidoscope of memories will shape my prayer and reflection that day. John Paul II at his dinner table, insatiably curious and full of humor; John Paul II groaning in prayer before the altar in the chapel of the papal apartment; John Paul II laughing at me from the Popemobile as I trudged along a dusty road outside Camagüey, Cuba, looking for the friends who had left me behind a papal Mass in January 1998; John Paul II, his face frozen by Parkinson’s Disease, speaking silently through his eyes in October 2003, “See what’s become of me….”; John Paul II, back in good form two months later, asking about my daughter’s recent wedding and chaffing me about whether I was ready to be a nonno[grandfather]; John Paul II lying in state in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace, his features natural and in repose, wearing the battered cordovan loafers that used to drive the traditional managers of popes crazy.

Each of these vignettes (and the others in my memoir of the saint, Lessons in Hope), has a particular personal resonance. Two, I suggest, capture the essence of the man for everyone on this centenary.

It was March 2000 and I was in Jerusalem with NBC to cover the papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land. For weeks, a global controversy about the Pope’s impending visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial, had raged. What would he say? What should he say? What could he say?

I found out two days before the event, when, on a drizzly Tuesday evening, I walked past the Old City’s New Gate to the Notre Dame Center, where the papal party was staying. There, a friendly curial official slipped me a diskette with the texts of the Pope’s speeches and homilies during his visit. Back in my hotel room, I went immediately to the remarks prepared for Yad Vashem. As I read them, I felt a chill run down my spine.

At Yad Vashem itself, on March 23, the sight of the octogenarian pope bowed in silent prayer over the memorial hall’s eternal flame quickly muted the world’s pre-visit argument and speculation. And then came those unforgettable — and stunningly appropriate — words: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to make some sense of the memories that come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah[the Holocaust].”

Some days later, I got a phone call from an Israeli friend, Menahem Milson, a former soldier and distinguished scholar who had seen a lot on his life. “I just had to tell you,” he said, “that Arnona [his wife] and I cried throughout the Pope’s visit to Yad Vashem. This was wisdom, humaneness, and integrity personified. Nothing was missing. Nothing more needed to be said.”

The second emblematic memory from that papal pilgrimage came on March 26 when John Paul walked slowly down the great esplanade before the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple, stopped at the Wall, bowed his head in prayer, and then — like millions of pilgrims before him — left a petition in one of the Wall’s crevices: God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the nations; we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. Amen. Joannes Paulus PP. II.

These two episodes give us the key to understanding Pope St. John Paul II. He could preach solidarity, embody solidarity, and call people to a deeper solidarity because he was a radically converted Christian disciple: one who believed in the depth of his being that salvation history — the story of God’s self-revelation to the People of Israel and ultimately in Jesus Christ — is the deepest truth, the inner truth, of world history. John Paul II, who was likely seen in person by more people than any human being in history, could move millions because the grace of God shone through him, ennobling all whom its brightness and warmth touched.

That was the key to the John Paul II effect: radiant, Christ-centered faith.