The Summer Reading List

George Weigel

Continuing a venerable tradition, I offer the following for your canicular reading pleasure:

John Hay spent decades at the center of American public life as Lincoln’s secretary and biographer, a Republican political operative, an accomplished diplomat, and Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state. And what’s not to like about someone who replied to Andrew Carnegie’s gift of Scotland’s finest in these terms: “I thank you kindly for the ‘corpse reviver.’ If a man could only drink enough of it, he would either never die, or wouldn’t care whether he did or not.” John Taliaferro’s biography is terrific: All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt (Simon and Schuster).

Two distinguished Notre Dame historians shed light on U.S. Catholic history with two fine books. Father Wilson Miscamble’s American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh (Image) is a fair-minded portrait of a good but complex man too often turned by propaganda into a superhero. In A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become American (University of North Carolina Press), Kathleen Sprows Cummings explores how the changing fortunes of the canonization causes of Elizabeth Anne Seton, Frances Xavier Cabrini, and John Neumann illustrate the shifting tides of U.S. Catholic self-understanding — and the quirks of the Roman saint-making process before John Paul II’s reforms.

The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, by Robert Kagan (Knopf): I’ve got my quarrels with my friend Kagan’s understanding of the Enlightenment and its role in shaping political modernity (and thus America), but his dissection of various forms of isolationism, and his analysis of contemporary threats to a decent world order, are required reading for serious citizens.

Bob Kagan and many others should spend some time this summer with Robert Louis Wilken’s new masterpiece, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (Yale University Press), which demonstrates from primary sources (including a second-century African theologian and a feisty, 16th-century German nun) that what we know as religious freedom has far, far deeper roots than Enlightenment skepticism.       

The late Justice Antonin Scalia, perhaps the most influential American jurist of the past half-century, was also a reflective Catholic who wrestled thoughtfully with life at the crossroads of an ancient creed and a post-modern world, as you’ll discover in On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer, by Antonin Scalia, edited by Christopher J. Scalia and Edward Whelan (Crown Forum).

The 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” is a good time to relive the extraordinary achievement that took Americans to the moon. The canonical text remains A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, by Andrew Chaikin (Pengiun Magnum Collection). A vividly personal account of the U.S. space program’s first decade can be found in Moonshot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon, by Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, and Jay Barbree (Open Road).

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, by Tyler Kepner (Doubleday): “K,” for the culturally deprived, is the baseball scoring symbol for a strikeout. The pitches in question are the slider, fastball, curveball, knuckleball, splitter, screwball, sinker, changeup, spitball, and cutter — and the book is the perfect gift for those poor souls who think little or nothing “happens” in a baseball game.

Apologetics — explaining the faith in a sub-pagan culture — is making a comeback in Catholic publishing. David Bonagura’s Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media LLC) is a welcome addition to the genre.

It’s gratifying to see arguments one has been making for years — that any development of religious freedom in the Islamic world must proceed from Islamic sources, and that Catholicism’s path to the affirmation of religious freedom at Vatican II might provide a template for Muslims to consider — reaffirmed by others. My former student Daniel Philpott is a bit more sanguine about the evolution of an Islamic theory of religious freedom than I am, but his painstaking analysis of contemporary Islamic societies, their diversity and their challenges, should be required reading in the Department of State and the National Security Council; you’ll find it engaging, too: Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today (Oxford University Press).

And for the youngsters, the young of heart, and all who’d like to expand their moral imaginations and their vocabularies, there’s Matthew Mehan’s Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals, with wonderful illustrations by John Folley (TAN Books).

Featured photo by Dan Dumitriu on Unsplash

COMING UP: Whose republic? Which “liberalism”?

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Extra credit question: Name the author of this admonition about the insecure cultural foundations and potentially perilous future of the American republic — “Seeds of dissolution were already present in the ancient heritage as it reached the shores of America. [And] perhaps the dissolution, long since begun, may one day be consummated. Perhaps one day the noble many-storeyed mansion of democracy will be dismantled, leveled to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is no mansion but a barn, perhaps even a tool shed in which the weapons on tyranny may be forged. Perhaps there will one day be wide dissent from….[the understanding] that the eternal reason of God is the ultimate origin of all law [and] that this nation in all its aspects — as a society, a state, an ordered and free relationship between governors and governed — is under God…”

OK, who wrote that? A millennial Tradinista? A proponent of the new integralism? A “traditional Catholic?” A political theorist down on John Locke? A Catholic commentator revolted by several states embracing a “fundamental human right” to infanticide? A “populist” with a surprisingly elegant pen?

Well, no, actually. The author of that limpid prose and prescient warning was Father John Courtney Murray, S.J.: and he raised that cautionary flag 60 years ago. So much, then, for the charge that Father Murray mortgaged Catholic social thought to an uncritical “Americanism,” an indictment also laid against those of us who’ve tried to follow in Murray’s footsteps as theological analysts of American democracy. But in the Wild West of the Internet blogosphere (which reminds us daily why God invented editors), as in Twitter’s playpen of snark, there is little room for serious social and political analysis these days, much less serious, theologically-informed social and political analysis. And thanks to click-bait bloggers and incontinent tweeters, some serious damage is currently being done to authentic Catholic social doctrine, which some misidentify with a new authoritarianism and others warp by bending to the progressive cause of the day.

In my forthcoming experiment in historical revisionism, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (which Basic Books will publish on September 17), I outline the development of the Church’s social magisterium from Pope Leo XIII to the present, with special emphasis on the social teaching of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. I don’t know whether either of those voracious readers ever read Father Murray’s We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. The thinking of these three men about liberal democracy ran along parallel tracks, however.

Murray, John Paul, and Benedict were all convinced that the institutions of liberal democracy — popular self-government through democratic participation in republican representation; separation of powers; rotation in office; enumerated civil and political rights limiting the state’s reach into society — were dependent on a moral and cultural foundation those liberal institutions could not generate. Democracy was not a machine that could run by itself. It took a critical mass of mechanics — mature citizens — to operate the machinery of democracy so that politics helped advance individual human flourishing and social solidarity. Democratic self-governance could fail, and the results would not be pretty if it did.

Yet these three men of the Church were also convinced that there was no plausible, real-world alternative to the institutions of liberal democracy for those interested in a humane future. Monarchy, benign or otherwise, was done, and only nostalgics indulged in fantasies of altar-and-throne restoration. Various 20th-century authoritarianisms had produced either social, economic, and cultural stagnation or genocidal mass violence. Thus the real-world option — the real-world imperative — was the hard work of building and maintaining the moral and cultural foundations essential to the liberal democratic political project, while playing good defense against the temptation of the modern democratic state to impede that reconstruction by using its coercive power to impose on everyone a dumbed-down notion of freedom as personal willfulness or “choice.”

This, I suggest, is authentic Catholic social doctrine: The Church’s strategy for democratic renewal. It’s a framework for collaborative thinking in which there is ample room for serious debate over tactics. That collaboration is impossible, however, when those who should be allies trade smarts for snark, or go to DEFCON 1 and hurl rhetorical nukes into the blogosphere at the first whiff of disagreement. We can do better than that. And we must, for the sake of both Church and country.

Featured photo by Aaron Burson on Unsplash