Making ‘Catholic’ make sense

George Weigel

The ecumenical phenomenon that Colleen Carroll Campbell dubbed “the new faithful” —  accomplished young professionals leading lives of intense Christian orthodoxy — has had interesting manifestations in the Catholic Church. Is there a major American city that doesn’t have a “Theology on Tap” program these days? Suds and the catechism seem to be an attractive mix. Then there are campuses like Notre Dame, where students are reconverting their faculties and their schools, often against great odds. And, of course, there’s World Youth Day.

Now comes the new apologetics. Two books by younger Catholic writers demonstrate that the art of “making ‘Catholic’ make sense” has been recovered in a distinctive way for these unique times.

Matthew Lickona’s Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic (Loyola Press) is a sometimes funky, sometimes lyrical explanation of how a cradle Catholic, who buys the whole package, thinks, prays, struggles, and manages to have a lot of fun while being self-consciously counter-cultural. Lickona, a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, loves wine, movies, “alternative rock” (don’t ask me…), and the Church. He’s frank about his spiritual limits — “In times of suffering, I look first to myself. God is the backup, to be called upon when I find myself insufficient.” Yet he has a firm grip on the faith and a keen insight into what apostasy has done to contemporary society: “We’re living in an awful middle ground. Some might call it Christ-hungover. He lingers, a painful leftover presence that punishes the conscience but brings no comfort. People are left with the sad thrill of transgression: the enraged bumper stickers, the endless appeals to sex that is ‘perfectly natural’ but still sold as ‘naughty.’ Such may be the penalty for knowing His rules without knowing Him.”

Then we have Mark Gauvreau Judge, hitherto known in Washington circles as the town’s most ardent Senators fan. His grandfather, Joe Judge, had played for the team during baseball’s golden years; grandson Mark kept the flame of local baseball passion alive for decades, and is currently locked in an embrace of the re-commissioned Nationals. Now, outside the ballpark, Judge lowers the boom on the silliness that beset Catholic high schools and colleges in the post-Vatican II period in a feisty memoir, God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling (Crossroad).

Matthew Lickona writes elegantly; Mark Judge’s prose has edge. Looking back from his early forties, he knows he was cheated of a serious Catholic education at Georgetown Prep and Catholic University — and he’s not happy about it. Judge is no plaster saint; he freely admits that his own propensities for wild behavior (especially when fueled by drinking) made a circus out of his high school and (extended) college years. But he rightly asks why formation ceased being part of education in Catholic schools during and after the overheated Sixties. Grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous for helping him get his life together, he wonders, appropriately, why the trendy priests and teachers at some of America’s most prestigious Catholic institutions didn’t help him steer a better path.

Local Washington rumor has it that the Powers That Be at Georgetown Prep are unhappy with Mark Judge. Assuming that the self-examining spirituality of St. Ignatius still plays a role in those circles, the Jesuit panjandrums at Prep might consider whether their ire shouldn’t be redirected, in what was once called an “examination of conscience.”

Having survived the silly season, Matthew Lickona and Mark Judge have built integral, exciting Catholic lives despite the collapse of intact Catholic culture in the United States. Growing up in the intensely Catholic culture of Bavaria, a more famous Catholic apologist, Joseph Ratzinger, discovered that the Catholic Church is a wonderful thing, a treasure-house of insights and experiences to be savored and explored, reflected upon and argued over. Amidst the confusions of post-modern America, Lickona and Judge have discovered what Benedict XVI intuited as a boy: that the Church is everyday life and soaring speculation, liturgy and art and music, all at the same time. Learning the connections is a lifelong project, full of adventure and beauty.

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.