Why we are where we are

George Weigel

By early March 1865, more than a million Americans had killed or wounded each other in civil war; the killing, wounding, and maiming continued for another month or so. Yet amidst that unprecedented carnage, Abraham Lincoln, at his second inauguration as president, called the American Republic to recompose itself in unity by means of magnanimity: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to…bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves…”

Those luminous words, now engraved in his memorial in Washington, confront Americans with a hard truth: it is very difficult, if not impossible, to imagine either major presidential candidate, on January 20, 2021 echoing the sentiments of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. One candidate could not do so credibly because, whatever his personal amiability or claim to moderation, his party is committed to the inherent divisiveness of woke identity politics, and some of its most visible members loathe the idea that the American democratic experiment is a worthy one. The other would almost certainly not do so because magnanimity seems alien to his character and exacerbating division has become his habitual method of governance.

Lincoln’s command of the majestic rhythms of the English language is not easily replicable. But that’s not the issue, is it? It’s hard, verging on impossible, to imagine the president-to-be-inaugurated next January summoning the country to national unity through magnanimity because our political culture has become so coarsened that it cannot cast up presidential candidates capable of credibly making that kind of appeal. And one reason it cannot do so is that too many Americans aren’t interested in, or could not grasp the meaning of, any such summons.

How did we get here?

We got here, in part, because Americans have paid insufficient attention to Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde. The name is not well-known, but that defines the problem. For Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde diagnosed a primary cause of our current distress over half a century ago.

Böckenförde was a German constitutional law scholar whose “dictum” is familiar to, if often ignored by, political scientists: “The liberal secularized state lives on conditions that it cannot guarantee itself.” Put another way, the liberal institutions of a modern democracy – free speech, a free press, freedom of association, universal adult suffrage, majority rule and protection of minority rights, religious freedom, and so forth – rely for their credibility, and their tensile strength under pressure, on cultural foundations those liberal institutions cannot, by themselves, create or defend. Thus American democracy is not, and can never be, a machine that runs by itself. The cultural and moral lubricants of the machinery – indeed, the very rationale for this kind of machinery rather than some other kind – must come from somewhere else.

For over two centuries in the United States, that “somewhere else” was a public moral culture formed by biblical religion and natural law philosophy. Biblical religion taught Americans the built-in dignity and value of every human person as a person, irrespective of condition. The philosophy of the natural law taught Americans that there are moral truths inscribed in the world and in us, that we can know those truths by reason, and that knowing them teaches us our duties. These cultural norms underwriting American democracy were sometimes forgotten or ignored. But they were there, and people of character could appeal to them to reform the Republic and help it realize its promise of freedom in solidarity for all Americans.

The accelerated process of political decay we’ve witnessed in the past six months didn’t just happen. America’s once-noble liberal political institutions are crumbling because, over the past six and a half decades, the cultural foundations on which those institutions long relied have been deeply eroded by a soul-withering secularization (which even affects religious believers) and a debased public ethic of “I did it my way.”

The annus horribilis through which we’re living is telling us that America is at an inflection point. If that inflection point is to lead to national renewal, Catholics in the United States must be leaders in reclothing the American public square with the truths about the human person, the moral life, and the common good that make democratic self-governance possible. Absent those truths, there can be no summons to unity through magnanimity. For absent those truths, those words are empty husks.

COMING UP: Rediscovering Eucharistic amazement

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In his 2003 encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church from the Eucharist), Pope St. John Paul II invited Catholics to regain a sense of “Eucharistic amazement.” Being “amazed” by the Eucharist is probably not all that common these days. But Holy Mass should be all amazement, all the time. For in the celebration of the Eucharist, John Paul wrote, our time is linked to the time of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, because the Eucharist has a “truly enormous ‘capacity,’ which embraces all of history as the recipient of the grace of the redemption.” In a spirit of eucharistic amazement, we live history as His-story: God’s story.

As bishops, pastors, and catechists use this moment of eucharistic fasting to rekindle a sense of eucharistic amazement in the Church, they can put a recent “response” from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to good use. That August 6 responsum, personally approved by Pope Francis, had to do with Baptism. It also teaches a lesson applicable to the Eucharist.

The question the Congregation had to answer was whether Baptism is validly conferred by saying “In the name of the father and mother, the godfather and godmother, the family, the friends, and in the name of the community, we baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The answer was “No.” Why? Because the ancient formula, “I baptize you….” expresses the bedrock truth the Second Vatican Council inscribed in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “When anyone baptizes, it is Christ himself who baptizes.” To speak of “we” baptizing is to suggest that the Church invents the sacraments rather than her being created by the sacraments. And that, to cite an image from Father Robert Imbelli, is to decapitate the Body of Christ.

Christ is the principle actor in the sacramental drama of Baptism. Christ acts through the baptizer, to be sure. But it really is Christ who acts. Otherwise, Baptism would be merely a welcoming rite rather than the radical reconfiguration of a person to Christ as a member of his Mystical Body, the Church.

The same principle applies to the Eucharist: If Christ is not the principal actor in the celebration of the Eucharist, then the Mass is a social ritual, the community’s celebration of itself.

Vatican II was quite explicit about the Christ-centered reality of the sacraments, so  appeals to the Council to support aberrations like “We baptize you….” falsify the Council. As the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states, “Just as Christ was sent by the Father so he also sent the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit…so that they might preach the Gospel….and proclaim that the Son of God by his death and resurrection had freed us from the power of Satan, and from death, and brought us into the Kingdom of his Father. But he also willed that the work of salvation that they preached should be [manifest] through the sacrifice and the sacraments….[Thus] Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations….[which] are performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members.”

How many Catholics understand that we are called to the weekly celebration of the Eucharist so that, in union with Christ the Head of the Body, we might offer ourselves to the Father along with the eucharistic Christ who is offered? How many Catholics grasp that, at Mass, Christ, the Head of the Body, is acting through us, the members of that Body, as well as through the ordained priest who leads us in worship? How many of us realize that, in union with the Head who baptizes and the Head who is really present in the scriptural Word of God and the consecrated bread and wine, we continue Christ’s mission in the world, for which we are commissioned in Baptism and nourished by the Eucharist?

This is, in a word, amazing. So is the truth that the Eucharistic body of Christ that nourishes us at Mass is Christ’s risen and glorified body, in which, John Paul wrote, “we digest, as it were, the ‘secret’ of the resurrection” and are prepared, here and now, for the glorious destiny that awaits us once, through death, we pass over into the Kingdom.

These are basic truths the Church must hear. They should be preached and taught vigorously, and especially now. If they are, the “Sunday normal” to come may be better than the “Sunday normal” that was.