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Church Cannon

Some years ago—before it banned jokes—the New Yorker carried a cartoon showing a pollster interviewing a man at the door of his house. The man is saying, “Put me down as right-wing, lunatic fringe.” George Weigel calls us the “Unhinged Right.” Like our friends on the “Unhinged Left,” we just don’t get it. We don’t recognize a war when we see one, let alone a war that will continue “for generations” (at least). We are in denial. We “distort the debate.”

Quite how we distort the debate Weigel does not say. He does not address our arguments—other than to suggest that some of us are a bit hung up on immigration—but then why should he? He is not writing for lunatics. He is writing for the sane folk of the Hinged Right, the people who said the war against Iraq would be a cakewalk, a slam dunk, over in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. His target audience will not be disappointed. In support of his stand, Weigel quotes the usual suspects: Victor Davis Hanson, Melanie Phillips, Winston Churchill, Walter Laqueur, Max Boot, Adam Garfinkle, Richard John Neuhaus, David Gelertner, Mark Steyn, and Bernard Lewis. (“Bernard Lewis is, as usual, a wise guide here…”)

But let’s not snigger. If there are stretches of Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism that are about as subtle and convincing as Fess Parker at the Alamo, there are also passages that are really rather good. Weigel is in the mood for love, or at least for interreligious dialogue. He advocates a public policy, to quote the jacket, that “meets the challenge of jihadism forthrightly while creating the conditions for a less threatening, more mutually enriching encounter between Islam and the West.” When you are losing a war, you sue for peace. Not that Weigel admits that the war is being lost, of course, but he and his neocon pals know that they must come up with a new narrative to justify their support for military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They don’t dwell on the failures and crimes of the past six and a half years—for example, the slaughter of scores of thousands of innocents (including American and British servicemen), the strengthening of militant Islam, the irreparable damage to Anglo-American prestige, the creation of vast numbers of Christian refugees—but Weigel, at least, concedes that “errors” have been made. The responsibility for those errors rests not with George W. Bush or Tony Blair but with incompetent bureaucrats, feckless allies, poor intelligence, bogus data about civilian casualties, inadequate funding, endless stabs in the back from al-Jazeera, and the “holiday from history” of the Clinton years. Blame everyone and everything, that is to say, except the perps. In Weigel’s estimation, however, there was never any error about the enemy. The war was imperative. According to Weigel, the West faces an existential threat from militant Islam, which is inspired not by genuine grievances but by hatred of freedom and a desire for world domination.

Appeasement is not an option. It never is with intransigent evil. (“The lessons of the 1930s remain salient…”) You know the drill.

But if appeasement is not the answer and military action has failed, what do you do? You try moral rearmament. Here Weigel is on to something. He maintains, in effect, that unless the West becomes morally serious, it is doomed to squirm beneath the heel of the Mussulman. No doubt he is wrong about the identity of the heel, but at least he acknowledges that the Islamists have every reason to be revolted by Western decadence or at any rate—let’s not yield to exaggeration—that their misgivings are “not without merit.” It is here that he comes close to blasphemy by allowing that there may be root causes in the underbrush. Just occasionally Weigel comes across as a dove in hawk’s clothing.

“The vulgarities and self-absorption of late modernity,” he writes, “are indeed a grave cultural problem, and a country whose principle exports include pornography and films saturated in violence weakens both its own moral culture and its capacity to make for freedom abroad.” Weigel deplores the “genteel secularity” of some parts of the U.S. government and the “aggressive and inward-looking secularism” in Western higher education and journalism.

“It is, perhaps, ironic,” he notes, “that, at precisely the moment when a religiously grounded, existential threat to the civilization of the West has manifested itself with real power, a new atheism, dripping with disdain for traditional religious conviction, has risen up in the form of broadsides by bestselling polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.” Another irony, perhaps, but one that Weigel overlooks, is that Christopher Hitchens is one of the keenest supporters of the Bush-Blair war, partly because he is an international socialist and partly, one senses, because he sees it as a front in the secularist struggle against the God he both hates and refuses to believe in.

It’s a funny old world. In truth, both Weigel and Hitchens are children of the Enlightenment. Weigel, however, is a troubled child. As a good Catholic and a good American he feels compelled to try to reconcile the Enlightenment with Catholic teaching. That’s not easy. Pope Benedict XVI believes that some sort of reconciliation is possible, but I am not persuaded by Weigel’s approach, not least because it draws on what strikes me as too sanguine a view of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the concepts of religious freedom and separation of Church and state.

One must take care here. Weigel is not only the Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a charter signatory of the Project for the New American Century but a fully qualified Catholic theologian and known as such to millions of television viewers. He has earned the right to be treated with sober respect. All the same, as a Catholic know-nothing, I find my eyes narrowing and my tongue clucking at some of Weigel’s rather oblique assertions.

In a key passage he proposes Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) as a model for reform-minded Muslims: “Rather than an Islamic Luther, Islamic reformers might better look towards the possibility of an Islamic Leo XIII: towards the possibility of a religious leader who reaches back into the deeper philosophical resources of his tradition in order to broker a critical engagement with Enlightenment political thought. … Leo XIII’s retrieval of authentic philosophy as a tool of social analysis led to a remarkable, evolutionary development of social doctrine in the Catholic Church, and eventually to the Second Vatican Council’s historic declaration on Religious Freedom, a high water mark in the disentanglement of the Church from state power…”

Unwary readers might conclude from this that the Second Vatican Council was definitive and that Leo himself was at the very least a lib-symp. Nothing could be further from the truth. Catholics have been rowing about the Council for the past 40 years and more. The two fiercest arguments have focused on the suppression of the old liturgy—perhaps the greatest act of vandalism in history—and on the declaration on religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae, 1965). Leo himself was a friend of the poor and enemy of both socialism and industrial capitalism, but he was no friend of religious freedom and separation of Church and state. In his encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum (1888), he declared that separation was a “fatal theory” and described freedom of worship as a “degradation.”

Furthermore, “Justice … forbids, and reason itself forbids, the state to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness—namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges.”

Such a view would have appeared outrageous to Thomas Jefferson and seems outrageous to so many people today, including, probably, most Catholics. Maybe Weigel feels Leo’s words no longer apply, or—and this is more likely—that they must be interpreted in the light of developing doctrine. Certainly the Church now proclaims religious freedom but in the sense that men may not be coerced in matters of faith, not in the sense that it is understood by most Americans and Europeans: that religion is just a matter of taste; that one man’s religion is as good as another’s. The Church holds that religion is a matter of fact, not of opinion.

But to Weigel, religious toleration is the “first of human rights,” the doctrine that will lead to global understanding and happiness. At times he writes as if the United States were the ideal Catholic nation, now that the perfidious Catholics of Old Europe have abandoned the faith.

Perhaps Weigel should keep it simple, and see things the way Benedict sees them. The Pope’s view that the war in Iraq is unjust is not of course de fide, but it is obviously right. The Vatican has more in common these days with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement than with George Weigel and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The Vatican not only opposes war—Rome is now borderline pacifist—but also capital punishment, liberal capitalism, globalization, false individualism, abortion, and the carbon footprints left by the waddling, overfed creatures of the developed world as they indulge their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Pope understands the danger of militant Islam, of course, but he is more troubled by the moral relativism that grips Europe and North America. Weigel, too, understands the threat of relativism—and of Western decadence in general—but he has invested so much intellectual and moral capital in the war against jihadism and the belief that Islamism is a threat to Western civilization that he cannot see the paradox that stares him in the face: that the true existential enemy of the West is the West.  

Stuart Reid is a freelance writer living in London. 

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