Discouragement is not an option: Weigel on the fragility of order

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 10, 2018

In the midst of the disturbing now of a crazy Summer (see, for example, Phil Lawler’s two latest posts on political priests and Italian influence in the Curia)—in the midst of this disturbing now, I say, perhaps it is time to refresh ourselves with calm and studied reflections on the life of the Church over the past century or two.

I’ve just finished reading a fine collection of essays by George Weigel entitled The Fragility of Order which covers a number of fascinating topics from the late nineteenth century to the present with the author’s usual combination of broad knowledge, meticulous research, and sound judgment. Of course, even Catholic friends like to criticize Weigel on occasion; when somebody is so obviously a leading Catholic thinker, the rest of us have to distinguish ourselves somehow—and we all have dogmatic personalities, after all.

But the depth and range of analysis represented in these essays makes them a feast for readers of varied interests. And unlike Weigel’s magisterial biography of Pope Saint John Paul II, The Fragility of Order consists, as I mentioned, of essays. You don’t need to make a lifetime commitment to read the book at your leisure, in small pieces, without ruining your Summer down-time. Each essay is about fifteen pages long, give or take a couple: Very manageable.

When you consider the title (again, The Fragility of Order) and the subtitle, which is “Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times”, you may wonder how this 200-page volume creates an escape from our current season of Catholic craziness. But the essays are careful reflections, which enable the reader calmly to assess a number of trends and concerns which have, at any given “present moment” precipitated their own confusion and crisis over the last dozen or so decades. It is a help, I think, to get this perspective, if for no other reason than to realize that a perplexing craziness, manifested in a wide variety of forms, is part of both the human condition and the condition of the Church.

Pinpointing our own special craziness with bulls-eye accuracy in the essay entitled “Evangelical Churchmanship”, Weigel writes:

Arguments are important and Christians should keep making them. But in a postmodern world that can only concede “your truth” and “my truth” (before it tries to deploy coercive state power to impose its truth on everyone), it will be the witness of Christian lives that changes hearts and minds This is especially true when Christians live nobly, courageously, and compassionately in service to those who have been most deeply wounded by the Gnostic cultural tsunami and its personally lethal effects.… The new paradigm must be in the Franciscan mode, with embodied witness coming first. Because of that witness, those who have been touched by Christian compassion or Christian nobility or Christian courage may be moved to ask, “How can you live this way?” And at that point, the door to the offer of friendship with Christ has been opened. [p. 196]

Sections and topics

The book is divided into three parts, “A World without Order”, “A Republic in Disarray” (focused, obviously, on America), and “The Church in the Postmodern World”. In the first part, Weigel considers the impact and meaning of World War I, principles for renewing our debates on morality and foreign policy, lessons from the Communist assault on the Church, the statecraft of John Paul II, and the real meaning of Pope Benedict’s famous Regensburg address.

In part two (the American section), Weigel revisits the questionable template of John Courtney Murray for Catholic politics, offers lessons learned from Pope Leo XIII, describes what he calls the Gregorian Option for American cultural reform, and—in one of my favorite essays—explains the dependence of public policy on contact with reality (the lack of which lies at the root of our particular craziness today):

Reality contact, it seems, is important not only for personal mental health. Reality contact is essential to making democracy work. Yet an insistence on avoiding reality is more or less the organizing principle of our contemporary political life. It lies at the center of a great many of our public problems, and it connects them to one another…. [pp. 126-7]
To imagine that we live in [a] self-created world is not only to imagine that we owe nothing to our given nature but also to believe that we owe no attention or response to the problems that arise when we ignore that nature. Such a warped sensibility not only makes any moral order impossible; it makes political order untenable, too. [p. 130]

In the third part on the Church, Weigel explores John Paul II’s renovation of Christian humanism and looks carefully at what we learned from the Synods of 2014 (the German problem, Catholicism in Africa, the global crisis of marriage and family) and 2015 (in which the hopes for Pope Francis, the Kasper Proposal, and a sociological approach to Churchmanship came to a head). The book concludes with the essay “Evangelical Churchmanship”, from which the first quotation in this review was excerpted.

Many of the essays began life as lectures. All were written over the past two decades, previously published in one form or another between 2007 and 2017, and then reworked for this welcome collection, published as a hardback this year by Ignatius Press. In his introduction, Weigel calls attention to the fragility of order not only in the world and in America but also in the Church, of which he writes:

As for the Church, the assumption that the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI had restored a sufficient measure of order—understood as evangelical purpose—after the upheavals of the post-Vatican II period was dramatically falsified by the quick (and in some instances, cheerful) resumption of intra-Catholic conflict during the first years of Pope Francis…. Francis seemed unpersuaded by the claim, and the evidence, that the living, evangelically dynamic parts of the world Church were those that had embraced Catholicism in full, and that the dying parts of the Church were those in thrall to “Catholic Lite”. The result…was not an intensification of missionary fervor but a deterioration into discord and disunity. [p. 12]

Order in this present life is fragile indeed. But there is some comfort in the long view, in the awareness that it has always been so, and of course in the hope offered by Our Lord and Savior. For if “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7), this means that the darkness is necessarily fleeting. It “is passing away and the true light is already shining” (1 Jn 2:8). Sadly, “because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold” (Mt 24:12). But we know beyond doubt that “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 24:13).

These words are true not just in our generation, but in every generation. Our job is to plant and cultivate for the harvest of souls, but not just for one season, nor even for an especially frustrating silly season like our own. Discouragement is not an option. We may as well calm down, take the long view, and relax, for we are called to do exactly what the flustered and the discouraged cannot do. We are called to endure to the end.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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