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Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy
by george weigel
paulist press, 218 pages, $11.95

Forty years ago, Evelyn Waugh wrote a piece for Life magazine entitled “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church.” In a manner only mildly condescending and with controlled admiration for what the Irish had done for the Church in the United States, he saw a great shift in the center of gravity of Christendom. “It may well be that Catholics of today, in their own lifetime, may have to make enormous adjustments in their conception of the temporal nature of the Church. Many indeed are already doing so, and in the process turning their regard with hope and curiosity to the New World, where, it seems, Providence is schooling and strengthening a people for the historic destiny long borne by Europe.” 

Waugh marveled at what American Catholics had accomplished—the parishes, the education system, the widespread practice of the faith, the well-trained clergy, the press, the missionary orders, the contemplative renaissance. This was the era in which the Church was ranked “second only to Standard Oil” in corporate efficiency, an appraisal that provided J. F. Powers with an ironic chapter title in his magnificent novel Morte d'Urban. Waugh's account of the vibrant condition of Catholicism in those pre-conciliar years could profitably be read by current revisionists.

Waugh did not foresee what would require of him and many others far more painful adjustment than the hegemony of the New World, namely, the Second Vatican Council. The post-conciliar upheaval in the Church is a good part of the theme of George Weigel's Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy, but the author's intention is to think through the current controversies to a genuinely conciliar and conciliating approach to the problem of the Church's presence in the contemporary world, more particularly, its presence in the United States. The latter presence, he argues, is full of potential consequences for the former, the global, presence.

There are two basic ways to misunderstand Weigel's argument. The first, that he thinks everything is splendid in American society and that the Church should get its act together, largely by taking its cue from secular society, and become a player. The second is that every-thing is splendid in the Church, and its committees and pressure groups and lobbyists thus constitute sure guides for the country at large.

Like Waugh before him, Weigel views a fallen world and a flawed Church. Like Richard John Neuhaus, he refuses to see what's wrong with America as systemic. Indeed, he calls for both religious and political renewal and relies fruitfully, as he has before in his magisterial Tranquillitas Ordinis, on the work of John Courtney Murray. Following Murray, Weigel argues that the true Catholic doctrine of the relation of Church and state, that of Pope Gelasius I, is preserved in the American constitutional system. This argument is compatible with that which finds an indirect influence of the enlightened Salamanca school on Locke and the early development of American constitutional theory. The point in any case is that there is no theoretical enmity between the American republic and the Church. Indeed, like Neuhaus in The Catholic Moment, Weigel is inclined to see the Church as the best current defender of the genius of the Constitution. Of course, neither man thinks that buttressing of the civil order is the point of Catholicism. The Church has a global mission and nowhere sees man's destiny as exhausted by his citizenship. In short, Weigel provides what those acquainted with his work expect, a balanced, nuanced, indeed sinuous argument that gathers force as he maneuvers through the most vexed issues within the Church and the wider society.

One of the greatest impediments to the Church's contributing to the renewal of American democracy is what Weigel calls “the theological guild.” Whatever their views on angels, members of the guild have two demonologies, one their incredible misunderstanding of Pope John Paul II (and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), the other their mystifying rejection of democratic capitalism. Weigel's portrait of the world of the National Catholic Reporter is devastating (more so than his analysis of the opposite world of The Wanderer).

Those who have been in the forefront of the Blame America Firsters now would instruct the Vatican on what the Church must learn from the American experience. Michael Novak, a truly thoughtful theologian, has pointed out the inconsistency. Novak, whose theological analysts of democratic capitalism is a genuine contribution to Catholic social philosophy, is a pariah in the eyes of members of the theological guild who continue to look fondly on the socialism currently being rejected by the Marxists. But then it must be upsetting to have arguments you have been debunking now accepted by those you thought to defend.

The positive core of Weigel's book lies in his discussion of six key issues: (1) Church, State, and the Civil Public Square. (2) Abortion, (3) Peace, (4) the Politics of Witness, (5) Human Rights, and (6) Natural Law. The argument of the final subject on the list suggests that there is a discourse common to believers and unbelievers that provides the possibility of a common society. Weigel's discussion of natural law is by way of examples rather than theory, and it would be helpful to his project if he would develop his argument further. Perhaps he will take that as his next assignment.

Weigel concludes by suggesting that in order to seize the “Catholic moment” there must be a new understanding of the “public Church” (with less emphasis on attempts to influence national legislators and bureaucrats), a new axis of ecumenical dialogue (with particular attention to the conjunction of Catholics and evangelicals), a more self-critical and self-disciplining Catholic theological community, and, finally, a sense of the two most pressing questions of political theology: the intrinsic limits of the state and the substantive nature of the democratic republic.

George Weigel has managed in this excellent book to exemplify the level of discussion that he calls for. It should be read by all those interested in getting the discussion of Church/State out of its current rut.

Ralph McInerny is Director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame.

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