by Jon Elsby
George Weigel is a controversial figure. A Catholic intellectual and a political and cultural conservative of a distinctively American kind, he is greatly admired by those who share his convictions and severely criticized by those who do not, including some of his co-religionists. But reactions to Weigel are rarely mild. For better or worse, he tends to polarize opinion into irreconcilable camps – for and against. His admirers praise the quality of his prose, the clarity of his arguments, and the scope of his knowledge. His detractors criticize the conservative assumptions, the sometimes superficial analyses of complex phenomena, and the absolute self-confidence with which he invariably delivers his judgments, as if no other conclusion were rationally possible.
I may be in a minority of one, but it seems to me that both admirers and detractors are right. Weigel is a fine prose writer, his arguments are clearly and forcefully stated, and he does have an impressive breadth of scholarly knowledge. On the other hand, he assumes very conservative positions politically and theologically, his analyses of phenomena such as the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church and the causes of the First World War are too hasty and somewhat simplistic, and his tone both in speech and in writing has a dogmatic certitude and an air of finality – of having said the last possible word on the subject – which recall what William Lamb, the second Viscount Melbourne is reported to have said of Macaulay: “I wish I were as certain of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything.”
Another trait of Weigel’s – related to, but not identical with, that air of certitude and finality already mentioned – no doubt delights his admirers as much as it infuriates his detractors, viz: his pugnacity in controversy. He does not pull his punches. He seldom, if ever, shows any tenderness for the feelings of people who happen to think differently from himself, dismissing their views with contemptuous or witheringly sarcastic putdowns. This may be effective polemically, but it will alienate some readers unnecessarily.
Examples of Weigel’s over-confidence in his own judgment and the lack of depth in his analyses can be found more or less wherever one cares to look in his essays. The first essay in his collection, The Fragility of Order (2018) – an essay entitled “The Great War Revisited” – affords an apt illustration of both those attributes. The essay bears the subtitle, “Why It Began, Why It Continued, and What That Means for Today”. The essay consists of fourteen-and-a-half pages. Yet the English historian, A. J. P. Taylor, devoted an entire volume – and a substantial one – of his magisterial five-volume A Century of Conflict 1848-1948 to the causes of the First World War: a subject which Weigel disposes of in a mere four pages. The causes of the Great War 1914-18 (according to Weigel) were a combination of Balkan instability, rising Serbian nationalism, the political decadence of Austria-Hungary, and the web of unwise and counter-productive alliances entered into by European powers driven by a mutual distrust amounting almost to paranoia, and a desire to protect or advance their own interests, together with a notable failure to perceive where their true interests lay. For good measure, Weigel mentions what he regards as the malign role played by certain allegedly pervasive intellectual influences, including a distorted understanding of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Nietzschean Prometheanism, the Bergsonian notion of the élan vital, and the emerging political ideologies of Teutonic supremacy and Pan-Slavism.
Weigel does not offer much in the way of hard evidence or reasoned arguments to support his thesis. He merely states it assertorically, as if it were certainly and demonstrably true – too obvious to need proof, in fact. Now, it may be true, and I think certain parts of it would probably be accepted without demur by most historians (although they would prefer to see the evidence). The only points I would make are—
(1) that some elements of Weigel’s analysis are rationally contestable, and
(2) that, by any criteria, his analysis is inadequate because (among other reasons) it takes little or no account of the personalities of the decision-makers, the loci of power and the processes of decision-making in the various European states, or the psychology, predispositions, prejudices, perceptions, and personal motivations of the principal actors.
Weigel’s air of certitude goes with a tendency to see the world and both historical and contemporary issues in black-and-white terms. Thus (to cite one example) he thinks communism is evil, period. But he does not consider whether aspects of Marx’s diagnosis of the ills of capitalism might be correct. He does not ask whether communism in the Soviet Union and China represented improvements in any respects over the regimes that had preceded them, or whether communism could fairly claim certain achievements – e.g. universal employment, housing, education, healthcare, low crime rates, and the eradication of socially harmful levels of inequality – which have eluded some liberal democracies. He does not ask why so many people in the newly liberated states of eastern Europe now look back on the communist period with a certain wistfulness, or why, having initially welcomed the promises of liberal democracy and capitalist economics, they seem so disenchanted with the realities. Nor does he seem willing to consider seriously the possibility that free and unregulated markets might become dysfunctional and require urgent government intervention if they are to be prevented from being socially destructive. He champions Republican policies to the extent of claiming justification for the Iraq wars, while excoriating Democrat policies on healthcare, welfare programmes, foreign affairs, the economy, and just about everything else. He describes President Obama as having “a mind awash in the intellectual exhaust fumes of postmodernism”. It need hardly be said that such abusive language and naked partisanship are not calculated to win him any friends on the left – or, it might be added, anywhere on the political spectrum in Europe, where the majority view, even on the right, is (1) that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were calamitous and costly mistakes, and (2) that President Obama, whatever his flaws, had a far better record on the economy, foreign policy, the environment, and social justice than the Republican presidents who preceded and followed him.
Weigel has been severely critical of the western European powers, and especially of the European Union, which he sees, not entirely inaccurately, as an instrument of social and philosophical liberalism opposed in principle to the American neo-conservative political positions that he has consistently advocated throughout his career. His views on Europe are set out most comprehensively in The Cube and the Cathedral (2005), in which he claimed that below-replacement birthrates in most European countries meant that Europe was “committing demographic suicide” and undermining its own culture by increasing its dependence on (mainly Muslim) immigration. Weigel and other right-wing American Catholic intellectuals (of whom William Kilpatrick is an example) view a resurgent Islam and the liberal commitment to an unsustainable multiculturalism as threats both to Christianity and to the survival of the western culture which grew out of the Christian religion. He does not consider the possibility that closer contact with (and direct experience of) both Christianity and secular liberalism might, in the medium to long term, affect Muslims and Islam in ways that cannot yet be foreseen.
When we turn to the scandal of clerical sex abuse, Weigel follows Pope Benedict XVI in ascribing such cases to a lack of faith – more specifically, to the crisis of faith that occurred after 1968, as the Church struggled to absorb the full implications of the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council and the sexual revolution. No doubt, all of these played their part. But the incidence of clerical sex abuse and the attempts to cover up the scandal instead of dealing with it, cannot be satisfactorily explained by a monocausal account. Other factors were at work, including an instinct on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to avoid adverse publicity whatever the cost, and an ingrained culture of clericalism and deference by the laity towards ecclesial authority. If the Church is to deal effectively with this crisis and prevent its recurrence, her investigations must be conducted thoroughly, fearlessly, honestly, and transparently.
Weigel is an intelligent, stimulating, and thought-provoking interlocutor. But he is an unreliable guide. The Catholic Faith does not encourage such certainty as his: on the contrary, it teaches us how to live without it. We strive to do the best we can, and for the rest we place our trust in God, acknowledging our own limitations, which include the fact that we are not omniscient. We should not overestimate the deliverances of our reasoning, or our own powers of understanding and foresight. Nor should we assume that, simply because not everything in the world is as we should like it to be, it is going to hell in a handcart. The world is not under a duty to comport itself according to our desires, prescriptions, and preferences; and, if it fails to do so, it does not follow that an apocalypse is imminent. Catholics believe in a doctrine of divine providence. This includes, in the words of the Dominican theologian, Père Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, “God’s loving care for man and the need for confidence in Almighty God.” It is not the least of Weigel’s flaws that he persistently seems to place greater trust in his own reasoning than in God.
In several respects, Weigel resembles an English philosopher, the late Roger Scruton. Like Scruton, he is politically conservative and a polemical defender of conservative positions. Like Scruton, he is a clear thinker – although both sometimes display a greater degree of certitude in matters of opinion than their arguments appear to warrant – and an outstanding writer. And, again like Scruton, Weigel is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank based in Washington DC. And, of course, Weigel and Scruton share an allegiance to Christianity.
They also share, or so it seems to me, a tendency to see the world in black-and-white terms, and to attack more nuanced thinking as “woolly” and “liberal”. The title of Scruton’s final broadside against left-wing intellectuals – Fools, Frauds and Firebrands – reveals perhaps more than he intended about his attitudes. It would surely have been more polite – and more becoming in a philosopher – to have conceded at least the abstract possibility that there might be some merit in the arguments of his opponents. Instead, Scruton employs the rhetorical weapons of scorn, ridicule, and invective, as well as the logical weapons of reasoned philosophical arguments. Similarly, Weigel, in his essays, although he sometimes quotes approvingly from other conservative thinkers, including Jews and Protestants, invariably lambastes and lampoons liberals and left-wing radicals, even among his co-religionists. His depictions of communists are almost cartoonish, like pantomime villains. The ideas that nations with histories, tribal ethnicities, and cultures like Russia’s or China’s might be unsuited to liberal democracy as it has developed in the West, or that the rulers of such nations might have valid points of view of their own, or that there might exist such things as “Asian values” with which the West is imperfectly acquainted but which Asian countries wish to uphold and defend as an intrinsic part of their culture, are never entertained for a moment. He would probably dismiss all such talk as cultural relativism.
Well, is it? And, if it is, is it necessarily to be dismissed on that account? A people’s history and culture are surely relevant to deciding what system of government might work best for them. And it is surely unlikely that a form of government developed elsewhere, and in very different circumstances, could simply be imposed on a nation which lacks the political and governmental infrastructure, the cultural traditions, the popular customs, the social institutions, and the philosophical beliefs to support it. Like Scruton, Weigel has a dogmatic approach to ethical and political questions which effectively precludes any possibility of a rapprochement with people who do not share his basic philosophical assumptions and political orientation. This coming from a member of the Catholic Church, which invented the term “inculturation,” and which includes, in its incomparably rich and varied pastoral tradition, the Ignatian ideas of “discernment,” “accompaniment,” and “meeting people where they are,” is, to say the least, a little puzzling.
It is possible to defend a point of view without implying that anyone who thinks differently is a knave or a fool. It is possible to grant that an opponent’s arguments have some merit without capitulating in argument or abjuring one’s own opinions. It is possible to argue eloquently and passionately, but with civility and respect for one’s adversaries. It is possible to advance truth-claims for one’s faith without claiming for oneself a monopoly on truth or wisdom or rationality. It is possible for equally intelligent, rational, and well-informed people to hold different beliefs and, even when confronted with the same evidence, to reach different conclusions. It is possible for people to agree to differ without harbouring feelings of contempt, animosity, anger, or resentment. It is possible for people of different cultures and religions to live side by side as neighbours on terms of mutual amity and respect. Acceptance of these propositions is, I would argue, necessary if we are to live amicably and peaceably with others in the pluralistic, multicultural, yet law-governed society of a modern liberal democracy. It is necessary if we are to share the same public square without causing violence or disorder. I would also argue that the truth of all these propositions has been empirically and emphatically demonstrated at many times and in many places.
Polemical writing is often entertaining, especially when the writer is not only partisan, but witty. But readers who care more for balance and fairness in argument, or who see the world in more nuanced terms, or who believe that people of different convictions may sometimes coöperate in the service of the common good, or who just prefer courtesy to confrontation in discourse, might want something a bit different from what either of these gifted, but combative, thinkers has to offer.
A final point: Weigel is primarily a Christian theologian, and his work as a social, cultural, and political commentator is an off-shoot of his theological concerns. But it is a curious and striking fact that, in his extensive output, there is very little mention of Our Lord. There is a great deal about God, the Church, the Pope, the Catholic Faith, doctrine and dogma, and modern evils, but not much about the Founder of the Church. One cannot help but wonder why. Is it, perhaps, because Our Lord was not enough of a neo-con to be recruited to Weigel’s cause?
It is not, however, surprising to find that George Weigel is no admirer of Pope Francis, or that he has volubly expressed his negative views of the current pope in several articles. Ironically, the title of an earlier book of Weigel’s, concerning Pope Benedict XVI, was God’s Choice. Was God otherwise occupied, then, when Pope Francis was elected?
Jon Elsby’s spiritual and intellectual journey has been from Protestantism to atheism, and finally to Catholicism, an evolution he has traced in his memoir Wrestling With the Angel: A Convert’s Tale, published in paperback by CentreHouse Press. His most recent book, also published by CentreHouse Press, is Seeing is Believing, which develops themes touched on in his memoir, but with greater focus on the relations between faith and culture, an issue addressed by several American apologists, though very few on the UK side of the Atlantic have taken it up. Seeing is Believing is available on Amazon Kindle.
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