‘Letters to a Young Catholic’: George Weigel hits a literary home run

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George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic is a wonderful book, but oddly enough I must begin this review by griping about the title — it’s something that Catholics of any age should read. In fact, the publisher does not lie by billing the book as “a modern spiritual classic,” which is why I recommend it to anyone who is interested in such issues.

Like many Catholic kids, my parents took me to Mass every Sunday growing up. And, like many Catholic kids, I was not exposed to the writings of G.K. Chesterton, George Weigel or other intellectual heavyweights. What I did have access to were kind adults who lacked the ability to articulate the faith in a way that “clicked” for me. I drifted from the Church as a young man and did not come back until I learned many painful lessons. If I were exposed to a book like this as a teenager then it probably would have saved me a lot of lost time, although I admit to having a largely impenetrable chip on my shoulder in those days. (And yes, I know that some of you would argue that it’s still there!)

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Letters to a Young Catholic is that in many ways it doubles as a must-read for those who are wondering why America’s political institutions are crumbling before our eyes. The way in which the author travels the globe, goes back in time, covers essential questions about the Catholic faith that all young people ask, and then ties it into our contemporary political landscape is like watching a gymnast who puts everything out on the floor before the judges — and nails it.

Mr. Weigel writes:

If American popular and high culture could ever agree on a theme song that captured the idea of freedom driving much of contemporary life, it would almost certainly be Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” I did it my way seems to sum up the widespread notion that freedom is a matter of asserting myself and my will — that freedom is really about choice, not about what we choose and why. Suggest that certain choices are just incompatible with human dignity and with growth in goodness, and you’ll get some very strange looks these days, whether on campus or in the workplace.

Catholicism has a different idea of freedom. In the Catholic idea of freedom, freedom and goodness go together. A great contemporary moral theologian, Father Servais Pinckaers, OP, explained all this. […] Learning to play the piano, he reminded us, is a tedious, even dreary business at first: well do I remember my own distaste for a book of technique-strengthening tortures entitled Scales, Chords, and Arpeggios. But after doing one’s exercises for a while, what originally seemed like a burden comes into clearer focus — learning to do the right thing in the right way is actually liberating. You can play anything you like, even the most difficult pieces. You can make new music on your own. Sure, Father Pinckaers writes, anybody can pound away on a piano. But that’s a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom,” not a truly human freedom. …

I did it my way teaches us an idea of freedom that Father Pinckaers calls “the freedom of indifference.” Doing things “my way,” just because it’s my way, is like banging idiotically on the piano or talking gibberish. The richer, nobler idea of freedom the Catholic Church proposes is what Father Pinckaers calls freedom for excellence — the freedom to do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons, as a matter of habit. That’s the truly human way. Because that’s the kind of freedom that satisfies our natural desire for happiness, which itself reflects our desire for God, who is all Good, all the way.  […] What’s all this got to do with democracy? Everything. Freedom untethered from moral truth will eventually become freedom’s worst enemy. — Weigel, George. Letters to a Young Catholic. Basic Books, 2015. 305-306.

A friend of mine texted me on Monday and said she hoped that I would cover the first U.S. presidential debate on the blog. In many ways, the text from Mr. Weigel’s book shown here tells us everything we need to know.

Why is America forced to choose between a woman who should be wearing an orange jumpsuit in a federal prison, and an egomaniac with occasionally orange skin?

Answer: Because America long ago decided it wanted to untether freedom from moral truth.

There really is no way to read Letters to a Young Catholic and not have a crystal clear understanding as to why civil society in the U.S. is unraveling. Our cultural influencers embrace a kind of nihilism “that enjoys itself on the way to oblivion, convinced that all of this — the world, us, relationships, sex, beauty, history — is really just a cosmic joke,” and we are now paying the price.

Mr. Weigel counters that “against the nihilist claim that nothing is really of consequence, Catholicism insists that everything is of consequence, because everything has been redeemed by Christ. And if you believe that, it changes the way you see things. It changes the way everything looks.”

If for no other reason, wayward Catholics should read this book to realize that what they thought was Catholicism growing up was in all likelihood a grossly watered down version of the Faith that denied them knowledge of its true richness and beauty. There are numerous reasons for this, and the author does a masterful job spelling it all out. I found myself thinking, “Finally! Someone who gets it,” and I am sure you will too.

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