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Friday, December 03, 2004

When Jesuits Attack!

[IMPORTANT UPDATE: I'm something of an Asshole at times. No surprise to regular readers, but for those who Google in, there you go. This post was one of those times. READ THIS FIRST. Mark Mossa, S.J., is a better man than I. As of 2008, he's also an ordained Jesuit priest and the Church is all the better for it.]

America's favorite rogue religious order for men is still in the casuistry business, I'm happy to report.

As can be seen in this largely hissy review by Mark Mossa, S.J., of George Weigel's Letters to a Young Catholic.

Reading George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic is a bit like watching Kevin Costner attempt a British accent in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” You can see that he’s trying, and for stretches he gets it, but despite his best efforts he can’t avoid returning to his normal way of speaking. So, too, of George Weigel’s attempt at a “youthful” accent.

If true, this is a legitimate point of criticism. There's nothing more likely to turn off an inquiring reader than a patronizing tone. Think George W. Bush greeting the attendees at an Urban League conference with "Yo--wassup? W is in da hizzouse!"

However, as we will shortly see, there is a very good chance that Fr. Mossa is reading into Weigel things that might not be there.

You have to give him credit for trying to speak a positive message about the Catholic Church to young people, for it is something they desperately need. Still, every time you think he’s got it, he reverts to his high intellectual and ideological self. This makes his sincere attempts to connect with young people seem artificial. (In the book, for example, G. K. Chesterton becomes simply GKC, as if he were a rap artist.)

The first example: Or maybe Weigel calls him "GKC" because that's what others called him, Fr. "Marky Mark."

(Might as well continue the artificial "rap" references.

Hmm. Come to think of it, the Jebbies these days are definitely a "funky bunch," so maybe the reference isn't so forced after all.)

By the way: the musical form is called "hip-hop" these days, Father.

You don't want to leave Gen Y scratching their heads about dated references, now, do you?

The result is a work that will be inaccessible to most young Catholics. Given that in the first chapter he is already talking about Nietzsche, Sartre and what he calls “debonair nihilism,” and his use of presumptuous openers like, “Sometime, when you’re in Florence...” the book might be more accurately titled, “Letters to a Young, Middle- to Upper-Class College-Educated Catholic.”

OK, now I'm confused: what's Weigel's besetting sin here, again? Talking down to the reader, or sending the conversation whizzing way over his head? I know which one I find more grating, and it's the former.

Put another way: is it really better to assume your reader is a booger-eating moron?

To use a simple analogy--sometimes part of the fun of a Monty Python (they're a British comedy troupe from the '70s) sketch is not being fully up to speed on the references--"Purley, squire? Say no more!"--but still being invited in to laugh anyway. I'll take that over the "you're too damn dumb and uncultured, televidiot, so I'll speak to you accordingly" approach every day of the week.

Then there's the matter of Fr. Mossa's current posting: a professor of philosophy at Loyola University of New Orleans. That would mean that Fr. himself is dealing with, well, "college students," right? Plus, according to the website, a year at LUNO will set you back almost $32,000. Can you say "middle to upper class Catholic"?

I knew you could.

Weigel is just not speaking to the majority of young Catholics who have peopled my classroom and youth ministry programs in the last 15 years.

Only a tiny percentage of which I've ever seen darken the door of a church afterwards, worse luck.

Odd, that.

Despite these limitations, the work shines in places. The author’s evocation of the Catholic “sacramental imagination” as an optic through which we see the world is compelling. His chapter “Mary and Discipleship” is one of his best, showing the value that reflection on Mary’s life can have for overcoming youthful fear of commitment. His contemplation of Chartres Cathedral and our need for beauty is Weigel at his most lyrical, though he teeters on the brink of proclaiming all things past beautiful and all things present ugly, a hazard throughout this historically minded travelogue.

Ah, the nice stuff. Furthermore, I join with Father in rejecting a world view that "proclaims all things past beautiful and all things present ugly."

The second half needs an essential qualifier: "virtually."

Two of the central chapters represent, successively, the low and high points of this work. The first, “Why and How We Pray,” is vintage Weigel, a sustained attack on contemporary liturgy and worship (“The Catholic Church has failed its Lord times beyond numbering”). Worship God only because God is to be worshiped, he suggests; our experience of worship doesn’t matter.

The choir says "Amen, Brother Weigel! Preach it!" In fact, I'd go beyond the quoted sentence and replace "failed" with "insulted." The problem is that "our experience of worship" has become the focus of the Mass, as seen in the constant effort to celebrate the inherent Pelagian wonderfulness of the folks whose butts warm the kneeler-free pews.

Well, of course, not so much "our experience of worship" as "our betters' experience of worship," influenced as it is by the near universal Pre-Conciliar Traumatic Stress Disorder of American liturgical experts.

Lord knows nobody gave a rat's ass about my devoutly Catholic aunt's "experience of worship" when the new pastoral administrator (an OSJ nun) took over the parish and injected herself, front and center, into the liturgy. This "experience of worship" has ensured that my aunt hasn't darkened the door of a Catholic church in over a year and counting. Likewise, my "experience of worship" is irrelevant to the consciousness-raising that must--must!--occur when the parish ensemble leader offers up his/her gender-neutered version of the Gloria at 90 decibels, or the priest sings about God as "She", or....skip it.

I'm getting tired of talking about it.

Forgetting his audience, he trashes “the Phil Donahue-style priest,” a reference that will leave readers under 30 scratching their heads.

Is that an example of talking down or over their heads? It's so confusing.

But I have to concede that the Donahue reference is a bit dated. Must be especially galling given the Springer material some of the Jesuits have turned into.

More disturbing is the way he begins that same chapter, offering, presumably, a role model in Father Jay Scott Newman.

Why do I picture Fr. Mazza reacting the exact same way my cat does to a feline interloper on the lawn?

He quotes, at length, the inaugural sermon of this new pastor, introducing himself as “a priest of the New Covenant in the presbyteral order.” As Weigel excerpts it, this new pastor presents his fundamental duties as being “to teach, to sanctify and to govern” and goes on to explain how “presbyteral ordination configures the man ordained to the Person of Christ the Head and Bridegroom of the Church in such a way that he is able to stand in the Person of Christ and act in his name for the welfare of the whole Church.” It’s hard to imagine that Weigel thinks such self-importance in a priest is a good thing, especially given the way such attitudes contributed to the church’s sexual abuse scandal.

Sounds like Fr. Newman has the makings of one hell of a fine priest, a man who takes his vocation seriously--as a God-given challenge and charge. As opposed to an endlessly diffident and deferential nebbish expected to affirm the Almighty Flock in all particulars, all in the name of "pastoral sensitivity."

Which, naturally, is the problem for "the pastorally sensitive" who refuse their parishes nothing in the way of bad behavior. OK, you can give the occasional racism, consumerism and social justice speeches. Just as long as Fr. Nebbish doesn't suggest anyone is actually guilty, beyond the vaguest, most expansive sense that makes everyone (and therefore no one) culpable for these sin--er, structural inequities.

Reality check: the abusers don't exactly have a record of gabbing about acting in persona Christi. Instead, they were rule-breaking iconoclasts like Fr. Shanley ("if he wasn't a damned pervert, he'd be my hero"), or guitar-playing "rock stars" who charmed the gullible as they "allegedly" hide a history of serial child rape. Not exactly men who thundered neo-Tridentine catchphrases.

It could be worse, Fr. Mossa. Fr. Newman could have said ordination configured him to act in the office of priest, prophet and king, just like one of those pre-conciliar theology manuals.


The next chapter, “How Vocations Can Change History,” the best chapter in the book, and a relief after the previous one, could easily stand alone. Introducing the vocational journeys of the Polish martyr Jerzy Popieluszko and the Polish pope Karol Wojtyla, Weigel paints a picture of two humble and heroic priests. With his reflection comes sound vocational advice, absent the backsliding into ideological agendas that mars the other chapters. Popieluszko’s murder by the Communist government in 1984, Weigel says, teaches the important lesson that “faith has consequences,” as does Wojtyla’s courageous underground training for priesthood during Nazi occupation.
Weigel encourages young people to think in terms of vocation (“something you are”), not career, for “people determined to live the truth of who they are—people determined to live vocationally—are the most dynamic force in history.” In this chapter, Weigel maintains his accent from beginning to end, and speaks to young people most powerfully. I will recommend this chapter to my students, as well as his handy summary of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, which is presented earlier in the book.

There's nothing to pound on here. Good stuff, really. Though perhaps an acknowledgment of his own ideological blinders would have been nice. He sits firmly entrenched in the progressive camp--perhaps even on the far left of the Jesuits, too--for example, see this summary of an article by Fr. Mossa which, inter alia, argues that the war in Afghanistan was likely unjust.

Then again, yanking the log out of one's own eye can be awfully difficult, in all fairness. Lord knows I don't fire up the chainsaw enough myself.

Obviously, there are things to recommend in Letters to a Young Catholic. But ultimately, one senses that the Catholic world Weigel presents in these pages, filled with certainties about what is good and what is bad and largely lacking in complexity, is as hermetically sealed as the idyllic Catholic boyhood with which he begins. Though he says, “for Catholics, suffering is a vocation,” there is no evidence that he has ever suffered, especially from doubt. And while clearly not his intention, his “Matrix”-like conclusion, “Welcome to the real world,” signals the end of the reader’s vacation in George Weigel’s world and the return to a less black-and-white Catholic reality.

Obviously, there are things to recommend in Mossa's review of Letters to a Young Catholic. But ultimately, one senses that the Catholic world Mossa--and by extension America--presents in these pages, filled with uncertainty about what is good and what is bad and lacking in objective standards, is as hermetically sealed as the lurid Catholic childhoods of the magazine's readership, festooned as they were with wrinkled and scary Slavic nuns wielding hardwood rulers. Though Mossa mocks Weigel by accusing him of blind certitude, there is no evidence that Mossa and Catholics like him have ever offered certainties about anything in Catholic life, aside from their own enlightened bona fides and fitness to lead the Church in America. And while clearly not his intention, his conclusion signals an invitation to vacation in the fantasy world of AmChurch, where nothing is ever black or white, and moral decisions are based on principles so hopelessly nuanced, relative, and unmoored to authority that everyone does what is right in his own eyes.

I recommend cancelling the reservation.

[Update 12/6/04: additional info about Fr.'s current posting, grammatical errors eliminated, and a sentence added to the experience of worship section.

Also, hat-tip to Bill Cork for the link.]

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