At National Review Online over the weekend, the familiar-to- First Things -readers George Weigel published a talk he gave recently in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in the course of which he argued:

The argument today isn’t about assimilation. The argument today is about who “gets” America: who understands the true character of America and the nature of freedom. And that puts Catholics—and those allies in the Evangelical Protestant, Mormon, and traditional Jewish worlds who, with serious Catholics, still hold to Murray’s four foundational truths of American democracy—in a challenging position. For the challenge now is to give America a new birth of freedom rightly understood as built upon those four truths; a new birth of freedom re-cemented to a foundation of transcendent moral truths about the human person, to the principle of government-by-consent, to a recognition of the priority of civil society over the state, and to an existential affirmation of the linkage between personal and civic virtue and liberty lived nobly.


This challenge will not be met by Catholic Lite. Indeed, one of the most powerful indicators that the Catholic Lite project is finished has been the uselessness of “progressive” Catholicism in the battle for religious freedom this past year and a half, a battle the stakes in which most Catholic “progressives” manifestly have not grasped.


The challenge also won’t be met by Catholic traditionalists retreating into auto-constructed catacombs.


The challenge can be met only by a robustly evangelical Catholicism . . .


I urge our readers to go read the rest of Weigel’s piece, which is as cogently argued as they will have come to expect.

Yesterday evening, however, at NRO ’s Corner, Nicholas Frankovich directed all of his attention to the one line above concerning “Catholic traditionalists.” This he understood to be a remark contemning all those “who are attached to the traditional Latin Mass.” On he goes, then, for several hundred words elaborating his grievance, and celebrating these “traditional” Catholics (he objects to the “-ist” suffix).

But George Weigel—whom I barely know but have enjoyed reading for years—is a writer of considerable care, and only someone determined to take offense could have read this lone sentence as Frankovich has read it. Syntactically and grammatically, this sentence:

The challenge also won’t be met by Catholic traditionalists retreating into auto-constructed catacombs.


functions exactly as this sentence does:

The challenge also won’t be met by [those] Catholic traditionalists [who are intent on] retreating into auto-constructed catacombs.


One cannot say, from anything Weigel has written here, that he would classify all “Catholic traditionalists” as intent on such a retreat. Those who do display such an intention would, of course, be unable to meet the challenge he describes.

Could it be that Weigel defines “traditionalist” in some way distinct from the merely “traditional,” such that all the former but not all the latter are subject to his criticism here? Does he hold all those fond of the Latin Mass to be “traditionalist” in the way he is criticizing?

Perhaps it would be worth asking him before assuming it to be so. But all we know from what he says is that those Catholics who would retreat “into auto-constructed catacombs” will be little use in meeting the challenge he describes. This seems both a mild and a self-evident judgment.

Articles by Matthew J. Franck

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