A review of Letters to a Young Catholic, by George Weigel

Part of the appeal of Allan Bloom's bestselling The Closing of the American Mind was his frank recognition that adolescence is a time of powerful longings, both high and low. As a great teacher, he yearned to find students whose souls had not been flattened by modern crudities, who enjoyed strong attachments to faith, family, and country, even though he hoped to give them a philosophic education that would largely liberate them from those attachments. 

The loftiest attachments are those to faith, philosophy's great rival, and Bloom displayed considerable respect, even nostalgia, for this endangered element of American life. He traced a steep decline from his grandparents—who, though "ignorant by our standards," were "spiritually rich" because of their lived faith—to his own generation of the family, all with M.D.s or Ph.D.s but lacking "any comparable learning."


I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by. I mean rather that a life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things.

Bloom placed such hopes as he had in other books, because he believed that in America he was witnessing the Bible's "gradual and inevitable disappearance." But his gloomy claim is itself a statement of faith that may not with-stand scrutiny.

Perhaps the strongest evidence against Bloom's claim is Pope John Paul II, who draws Woodstock-size crowds of the young at will. (Actually, the pope's last World Youth Day was twice as big as Woodstock.) Who today has a more powerful Socratic draw on open-hearted youth? 

It is fitting, then, that George Weigel, the pope's acclaimed biographer, should write Letters to a Young Catholic, the latest entrant in Basic Books' "Art of Mentoring" series. In fourteen letters and a "postcard," Weigel writes neither a defense of the faith nor a handbook for Catholic living. Instead, he writes for "young Catholics—and not-so-young Catholics, and indeed curious souls of any religious persuasion or none—who wonder what it means to be a Catholic" in this new century.

Instead of dry lectures on saints, sacraments, and the like, Weigel provides an elegant "epistolary tour of the Catholic world," bringing to life places that have shaped his own understanding. And so he takes his readers to the Baltimore Cathedral in which he grew up in the 1950s and '60s, to Flannery O'Connor's farm, to Rome for the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter's bones, the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Chesterton's favorite pub, the churchyard of a Polish priest martyred for supporting Solidarity, and several other evocative sites. In this way, he covers concisely a vast array of topics without argumentativeness, embracing a gritty realism and exhorting the young never to settle "for less than the spiritual and moral grandeur which, by grace, can be yours."

Weigel does not sneer at the Catholic ghetto he is just old enough to have experienced, even though it included a teaching nun who denied that the earth revolved around the sun. Yet he is no "pre-Vatican II Catholic." He knows the dangers of "a brittle form of Catholic orthodoxy" that could fear the work of such powerful thinkers as his heroes John Henry Newman and John Paul II, both of whom have been attacked as dangerous innovators ("the good ones are always dangerous," Flannery O'Connor cracked). 

For all its strengths, the old Catholic ghetto was too often blinkered and timid in its thinking, trapped in "coloring-book scholasticism," as one wag put it—and deserving of Leo Strauss's complaint that its typical Thomist did not deeply engage the modern predicament. But as Weigel makes clear to his young reader, one of the marks of this ancient Church is her ability to make herself "young" again without changing her fundamental identity, an ability that even Strauss acknowledged when he wrote that the Catholic Church "has maintained throughout the ages" her "inflexible principles…by means of a most flexible policy."

Bloom may have spoken too soon when he wrote off the young and lamented the disappearance of Biblical faith. Pope Leo XIII was wiser when he wrote in Rerum novarum (1891) that "all struggle against nature is in vain." Though modernity may seek to demean the young to the last man, so to speak, even today's juvenile delinquents hang icons of rap stars and thereby display immortal souls yearning to look up to—to worship—something. What proportion will make their oblations on the altars of rap versus the Rock of Saint Peter is unclear. What is undeniable is the appeal of Peter's Church to precisely the kind of youth Bloom wished to teach.

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Nor does faith offer only an education of the sentiments, as Bloom sometimes seemed to imply, ennobling a youth's heart before he is led out of the cave to the harsh landscape of philosophy. In this regard, one of the best stories Weigel tells is that of Edith Stein. Born in 1891 and raised Jewish, she lost her faith while still young. A brilliant philosophy student, she became a protégé of Husserl. She bumped into Catholicism, so to speak, in the person of another Husserl disciple, Max Scheler, but he made little impression. Only years later while visiting friends did Stein happen to pull off a bookshelf the Autobiography of Teresa of Avila, the Spanish Carmelite. Stein

got no sleep that night. At dawn, she finished reading and said, simply, "This is the truth." She then went out to buy a catechism and a missal. Four months or so later, she was baptized. Twenty-one years later, as a Carmelite nun, she was martyred in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Stein was not enraptured by romantic novels, gripped by "high politics," or bent on sublimating her bodily drives. Nor was her rigorous mind abandoning "reason," as her post-conversion writings make clear. What led her to an austere life as a Carmelite and ultimately to a death worthy of Socrates or Jesus, was an appetitive intellect and a hungry soul. Weigel quotes a biographer's summation: "So convinced was she of the truth of St. Teresa's experience that she had to acknowledge the source of that experience as Truth itself."

The incident proves Weigel's point: for Christians, the truth of faith is found not in abstractions but in a person who has entered into our history. This faith is the supreme example of something Bloom lauded in his introduction to the Republic: reaching a "sureness grounded on a perception of the universal seen through the particular." 

The encounter with that person can be as traumatic as any other where philia and eros are at stake. Weigel, echoing thePhaedrus, admits it is not easy to open yourself to another, to give up cold calculation and instead give yourself without limit. Certainly it is not possible under the sway of a modern rationalism which finds, as Weigel and Chesterton note, that it "understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding." 

What counts most for Weigel and his depiction of the faith, then, are truth and love, and his two best "letters" are devoted to these. His letter from Newman's Birmingham Oratory attacks "liberal religion," religion that eschews unchanging, challenging truths and seeks instead an "ice-your-own-cupcake world." This irrational sentimentality has no place in a religion founded on crucifixion and unalterable revelation. Nor will Weigel stand for narrowing the young's vision to the limits of reductionist science à la Carl Sagan, a "science" which does not even know that men have souls, much less how to appeal to their deepest longings.

Sentimentality and scientism both collapse ineluctably into nihilism, the final enemy not only of truth but even of love, though not necessarily of pleasure. Weigel worries, above all, about "debonair nihilism," a term he takes from Bloom by way of their mutual friend Fr. Ernest Fortin, "the nihilism that enjoys itself on the way to oblivion." Against the nihilist's faith that "nothing is really of consequence, Catholicism insists that everything is of consequence, because everything has been redeemed."

Truth is addressed to the whole man and demands the kind of response a lover demands. And thus (pardon my numerology) Weigel's central letter, and his best, is devoted to the ladder of love. He writes it from Castle Howard, the Yorkshire manse that helped inspire Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. That novel, Weigel explains, ascends through three love stories: First, protagonist Charles Ryder has a schoolboy crush at Oxford on Sebastian, wanton heir of the old Catholic family of Brideshead. Next, Charles falls more deeply in love with Sebastian's sister Julia. But she finally breaks off this adulterous affair after her wayward father returns to the Church as he's dying. Though Charles is deeply wounded by Julia's fidelity to the demands of her faith, the novel hints at his growing understanding of a love beyond any he had known. Finally, the novel closes when, years later, he returns to the Brideshead estate and finds himself kneeling happily in the chapel, amidst the bad art that had long offended him. 

Weigel summarizes the novel in a manner reminiscent of Plato's Symposium and Lysis: "Each lesser love is real and valuable, but at the same time inadequate: each is a means pointing beyond itself to a more satisfactory end." Even in this praise of love Weigel's realism remains firm. "You will stumble on the ladder of love, and you will fall," he warns. But "that's no reason to lower the bar of expectation."

"Great expectations," in fact, could be Weigel's subtitle, for that is what he hopes to inspire in youthful souls with his graceful meditations on truth, beauty, and love. His wise letters may beguile at least some of the best youths away from the cult of Ecstasy and Puff Daddy and toward a way of life far more erotic and rational.