Monday, May 11, 2009

More on Weigel and Bottum

The most recent episode of EWTN’s The World Over Live featured a long segment (more than half the program, actually) dedicated to the memory of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Joseph Bottum and George Weigel, respectively the new captain and quartermaster of Neuhaus’ literary legacy, First Things magazine, were present as honored guests. Ostensibly the topic under consideration was American Babylon, Neuhaus’ final and posthumously publish book; but that book, being as it was a collection of previously published essays and retrospectives spanning a long career of cultural commentary, readily induces a Talmudic caste of mind in literary men already wont to offer their opinions at the slightest provocation, and under its influence the discussion eventually uncoiled into a mishmash of philosophical abstractions and rococo-maudlin bizarrerie. Central to their meandering parley was the concept of tension as experienced by one who affirms both a Christian and an American identity, out of the fiery depths of which Fr. Neuhaus believed it was possible to forge an optimal version of human existence.

I’ll admit that over the last few days I’ve begun to think that some of my recent criticisms of Fr. Neuhaus were unduly harsh. Such a beloved figure, a man so universally admired and appreciated, and here I was, an upstart like me, daring to flaunt my misgivings about him when I’m sure I couldn’t hold a candle to his knowledge, to say nothing of his years of service! Just who did I think I was? When I heard that Fr. Neuhaus was to be the subject of the next broadcast, I made a point of watching the program with the express purpose of gathering material to refute my earlier point of view, arming myself for what I was certain must needs be a grandiloquent and publicly delivered mea culpa. The material never came, however. I emerged from the viewing experience with the unwelcome conviction that in essence my criticisms had been just. Neuhaus’ conception of America as an “almost chosen nation” (at least as it was presented by Weigel and Bottum) seemed like a heady idea to me, flush with the lusty rat-a-tat-tats of a Henry Steele Commager and even the sappy panegyrics of a Walt Whitman. This is all fine in the main, I suppose; but any attempt to weave together the threads of America’s self-conceived political destiny with the substance of the believer’s identity in Christ strikes me as an ill-advised compromise, for the simple reason that it tends to prevent the very thing it is trying to achieve: the right ordering of loyalties and the proper love of one’s country.

Now, my own thinking on the matter remains, I hope, decidedly unchallenging to the plain sense of Scripture: love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength (and your neighbor as yourself), and then you will be able to love your country as you would love your mother—that is, as the concrete being who nurtured you and to whom you owe a special kind of allegiance—without getting too persnickety about the details of its interior constitution. The chimerical association of America with Christianity, implying in this case that the country founded on a strong commitment to the free expression of ideas also functions as a particularly good, if not unique, vessel for the attainment of Christian culture—in short everything implied by that alarming theme of almost chosenness—makes continuous threats to destroy my happy hamlet with its uncomfortable admixture of political desirables and religious passion; but that is not how Weigel and Bottum see things. I can almost imagine them quoting with glassy-eyed satisfaction that all too often misused line of Chesterton’s, viz. “America is the only nation with the soul of a church,” without mentioning that, viewed in context, Chesterton makes it quite clear that he in no wise considered this to be an unmitigated advantage. Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote more extensively on the subject, was of the same opinion. In comparison with these two great figures (and especially with the latter), as renowned as they are for their wisdom and foresight, Weigel and Bottum seem to be crippled by a very unhealthy attachment to the present moment and its transient debates. A hermeneutic of American exceptionalism and culture warriorship permeates their analysis of theological questions, creating in my mind the suspicion that, perhaps without expressly willing it, they would nevertheless see the Church and all her transcendent treasures pressed merely into the service of some more passing temporal agenda. I will have more to say below about why this occurs and how to correct it; but first I wish to sketch my impressions of the personal demeanors of these two men, for character is revealed in the physiognomy much more than in the words, and thus we will have a better indication of just who it is we’re dealing with.

Concerning George Weigel I have spoken before. The overriding visual impression he gives is that of an oaf. Large, protruding ears frame a neotenous face topped by a tuft of thickish black hair. All in all, he reminds me of nothing so much as the textureless, milk-fed suburbanite specimens I chanced to meet during my days at engineering school. But these slight physical limitations would have been easily overcome by the presence of a winning personality; however, it is in this very respect that Weigel falls decidedly flat. His preferred style of discourse is to drone on in monotone while leaning over the desk, raising the volume of his voice in order to win out in those awkward moments when two speakers are vying for the conversational space. There is a relaxed, overly self-confident slurring and sputtering quality to his speech, as if what he had to say were so important that he need not trouble himself to form actual words; his mere telepathic prowess is sufficient to drive concepts home into the listener’s head. Weigel belongs solidly in the neoconservative wing of the Catholic lay commentariat, having always been a defender of the Iraq War, of religious liberties, and of Vatican II (and “the spirit of Vatican II,” whatever that means). In fact, he’s just the sort of person who would feel very much at home in the WASP establishment; only the Protestant “P” doesn’t apply in his case and “WASC” is not nearly so tidy an acronym. He is perhaps best known for his massive book Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II. Such book I am tempted to deride as hagiographic, but one must puzzle over the irony of using “hagiography” as a term of derision when the subject of the book will in fact be canonized someday. The point at present is that it is an overly fawning, one-sided, and heavily processed account that alters the Pope’s views to make them conform to George Weigel’s preexistent political and theological conceptions. In writing it so, Weigel was simply following his larger pattern of presenting Catholic doctrine as if it were justification for his neoconservative outlook; and I suspect it is the latter wherein he has stored up his real treasures.

Joseph (AKA “Jody”) Bottum is an odd sort of fellow, to say the least. A mop of wiry brown hair sits like a wig atop his beady-eyed face, lending him an uptight countenance reminiscent of the character actor Jeffrey Jones. He speaks in long, hastily composed paragraphs that tend to wander around the topic like the incomputable geodesics of some verbal n-body problem. In this, he displays a tin ear for the cadences appropriate to televised conversation—in which dialogue must be kept pithy and wit is superior to exposition—which is tantamount to a lack of conversational shame: he seems unaware of the fact that the time he takes to tell a story is incommensurate with the value of the story he tells. There was a repetitious quality to his speech as well: familiar words, atavisms, and chunks of thought recycled from earlier passages kept sewing their way into his patchwork explanations, padding their length and confusing their content. In the midst of one particularly lengthy excursion, the camera could be seen cutting back to World Over Live host Raymond Arroyo, who was growing visibly agitated and anxious to wrest control back from the interminably verbose Mr. Bottum. To crown these interesting developments, once Bottum had satisfied himself that his lecture was over, he settled into his chair with a look of contentment and cocked his left arm back like a cobra, drawing his hand up to his shoulder in what I took to be his characteristic gesture of completion.

The low point of their discussion occurred after a caller enquired about the wisdom of advancing a constitutional amendment proclaiming Christ the King. What the caller’s actual question was we shall never know, for he was cut off in mid-sentence by Raymond Arroyo, who was no doubt feeling very squeezed for time after already enduring several of Bottum’s bottomless disquisitions. Weigel spoke “to the issue,” saying (in paraphrase) that “Fr. Neuhaus would have been steadfastly against any such proposal. It is unadvisable to grant congress the authority to declare the kingship of Christ in even a social or a metaphorical sense, for a legislature that had such authority could also do very unsavory things with it, like proclaiming, oh, Oprah Winfrey as queen. It is best to keep the state out of the church’s business; the arrangement hit upon by America is a pretty good way of doing things, and Fr. Neuhaus was keen on preserving it.”

What kind of men behave thus? What kind of men, when faced with the (admittedly hypothetical) opportunity of getting one of the tenants of their faith written into statutory law, respond by abrogating it in favor of some jejune concept of liberty and political minimalism? Not exactly men who have placed both body and soul in the service of their beliefs. It is one thing to understand that the church and the state have fundamentally different roles and that, for many practical purposes, they ought to stay out of one another’s way. It is quite another thing to say that liberty trumps truth in the political arena. A strong commitment to liberty becomes, in every question of gravity, simply a commitment to self-negation. If you’re going to believe in something, it is necessary to fight for it, to bring it to expression using whatever means present themselves (including political means), and to take the inevitable setbacks and tragedies as the price of doing business in a fallen world. The Oprah analogy sets up a false dichotomy: Weigel has abandoned the possibility of a concrete victory for the illusion of a security bought by keeping metaphysical questions underneath the government’s radar; but it is not enough to refuse to claim the scepter and to hope that no one else does so. If we do not fight for Christ, than Oprah may end up as queen anyway—by default, and unresisted. We are not far from that situation now.

Towards the end of the program, Weigel expressed some disquietude about the manner in which the Obama administration has justified its stance on the sanctity‑of‑life issues so important for the functioning of our society, not to mention dear to the heart of God and to the hearts of His people. In effect, the administration has been saying “We understand your concerns and we respect them, but we’re going to proceed with [say, funding embryonic stem-cell research] anyway.” Weigel says that we’ve never dealt with an opponent like this before: someone who listens to our objections, but then simply dismisses them with a smile and a pat on the head. May I suggest to Mr. Weigel that this is precisely what comes from disregarding the use of political tactics in the service of Church ends? Obama does this because he knows he can: the only army that can stop him has decided that fighting is passé. The Christian of today need not wonder idly what it must have been like to join the crusades like his ancestors did of old, for there are plenty of crusades to be fought right now; but much of the Church, including the episcopacy, has foregone the use of politics to achieve what it desires, because it doesn’t fall into line with the modern day notions of religion as a matter of conscience and the church as a Community of Nice People.

What has happened to the Church today? What does it need, really, to be revitalized? I submit that it needs fewer spokesmen like Weigel and Bottum. Religious culture is a vast topic—far to vast to tackle in a short essay—but the crux of the matter is that we moderns have lost any sense of what religion actually is. It has become intellectualized, bowdlerized, and most perniciously, laicized out of all contact with truth and reality. It is the laicizing tendency which I mean to address here. What gives Weigel and Bottum the authority to discourse as they do? Neither one of them has been ordained; neither one of them follows the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It is inevitable that profit motives and personal hobbyhorses figure into their theological triangulations. The vulgarization of the teaching function that properly belongs to holy offices has spread the message too thin and caused it to lose coherence, such that the community of believers can no longer be said to be “of one mind.” In fact, the Church has lost its character as a church, becoming merely an umbrella organization for a hodgepodge of disconsonant verities.

The apostolic priesthood was instituted in part to help combat this natural tendency, but as the power of the laity has increased, that of the priesthood has decreased. This is not to say that the mind of Christ, as it is communicated to us in the person of the priest, is no longer respected anymore, for that would simply be restating the ascendancy of the laity; it is to say that the priests, all too often, no longer communicate the mind of Christ. They have become excessively accommodating to a shadow Magisterium consisting mainly of laypersons—parish committees, diocesan bureaucracies, and secular intellectuals like Weigel and Bottum—who are well able to extort concessions from the Church due to the latter’s lack of political heft.

Truly addressing this problem will require us to completely reorganize how we think about religion in the context of modern life. It is important to remember that the individual members of the priesthood have been called out of the lay state and into a higher order of being. The priesthood is an estate, a vocation, a metaphysical reality that brings with it graces, powers, and responsibilities that simply aren’t accessible to the layperson. The priest is a jewel that must be placed in a proper setting, treated with respect and veneration by the entire society. It is they who should be delivering the decisive word on all matters of truth and faith. But this requires, in turn, that they elevate themselves to the dignity that their office demands, and begin to rule the cultural landscape with clarity and firmness. The laity, on the other hand, is much better served by being solidly under the care of a worthy priest than by attempting to make theological determinations for itself. The priest is the hand by which the layman grasps God, and is much more dependable than the fickle mind of man, beset by worldly cares. The best way for a layperson to come close to God is to cultivate strong sacramental and devotional practices, and commit himself to work and to family life. In this way, religion begins to work its way into the bloodstream, becoming a matter of culture and habit, and a sure guide to virtue. For the laymen who is not called to a special religious status, religion is best learned in the context of the family; which, formed under the hand of a holy priesthood, becomes the seedbed of future priests. Thus the religious and lay states support each other on their pilgrimage through this world.

It is true that certain laypeople, like St. Catherine of Sienna, have done work that none of the ordained clergy dared to do, and rose to become great doctors of the faith. But this was precisely because the Church was in a state of confusion at the time. When no priest can be found to do the work, God will raise up whomever is willing. I have described here the ordinary way of leading a religiously informed life, the sure way, the way most conducive to peace and harmony, the way that is gentlest on the human frame. It is not the way of the broadsides that so inflame contemporary discussion. It does not stand in need of commentary, and the subscription rates are decidedly cheap.


  1. Though I would have to have my dictionary at hand to understand a lot of this essay, I agree heartily with the last four paragraphs. I am wondering if you are not on the path to being raised up as the "willing".

  2. Hi Cheryl,

    I too hope God will find me "willing," although I know it's going to be brutally tough. I thank you for your kind words on the previous post as well.