Recompense for a Serious Mistake

Published January 10, 2018

George Weigel's weekly column The Catholic Difference

won’t venture into classical Roman literature, which is not my forte, but I will say with assurance that the greatest modern Latin pun was the result of a schoolgirl prank. In 1844, General Charles James Napier, commanding a British army during the heyday of imperialism in South Asia, was ordered to subdue the province of Sindh (which is now in Pakistan). His methods were criticized in Parliament, and young Catherine Winkworth remarked to her teacher that Napier’s report to his superiors should have been a one-word double-entendre, “Peccavi” (literally, “I have sinned,” but also, phonetically, “I have Sindh”). Miss Winkworth sent her pun to the humor magazine Punch, which then published it as a factual report from Napier under the headline, “Foreign Affairs.” General Napier later commented, “If this was a piece of rascality, it was a noble piece of rascality.”

Alas, I can claim no such nobility for my own recent fall into grave literary sin, which involved my annual books-for-Christmas column. There, I described my old friend, Leon Kass, as a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. This was very, very bad. For as I have long known, Dr. Kass is a lifelong Chicago White Sox fan, and to ascribe enduring Cub fanhood to a Chisox partisan is the baseball equivalent of describing Ronald Reagan as a lifelong communist. I can only imagine my reaction if some scribe had, stupidly, described me as a New York Yankees fan; but Dr. Kass, a true gentleman, merely noted that, when his beloved Pale Hose finally won the World Series in 2005, he had written that this miracle “proved . . . that not all hope is foolishness.”

So: May my fingers freeze on the keyboard before I ever again locate Leon Kass’s baseball rooting interests on the North Side of Chicago: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

In addition to a firm purpose of amendment, though, a confession of grave sin should also include a suitable penance. My self-chosen penance, which is really no penance at all, is to make my unconscionable error the occasion to suggest that my readers use all those unexpired Christmas gift cards to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or whatever, to thicken their personal libraries with three more books written or edited by Leon Kass.

First among equals here is Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. Bioethics is a cottage industry today, and far too much of the bioethics professoriate functions as a permission-slip industry for those advancing dubious projects under the banner of the new genetics. In sharp contrast, Toward a More Natural Science offered a brilliant introduction to deep thought at the intersection of science and moral reasoning, just as bioethics was taking off. Decades after its first publication, it remains an essential primer in a crucial field of reflection, the moral health of which is critical to the human future.

Then there is Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying, an annotated anthology Leon Kass assembled and edited with his late wife, Amy. Leon and Amy Kass were the premier husband-and-wife teaching team of the past half-century; they knew how to summon from university students the best thinking of which they were capable; and one result of those labors at the University of Chicago is this collection of readings from a host of sources on some of the most important questions of life. Unapologetically pro-marriage, this mini-library between two covers—which includes selections from Jane Austen and Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus and Shakespeare, Homer and C. S. Lewis, and many others—also revives the notion of “courtship,” a concept and experience some may be willing to reconsider after our national dog-paddle through the cesspool of sexual harassment.

The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis is another by-product of Leon Kass’s exemplary teaching: a fresh exploration of the first book of the Bible, undertaken without theological presuppositions, in order to unpack what Genesis has to say about the perennial human struggle to find the truth, live in it and through it, and chart a decent, honorable path through history. Agree or disagree, wrestling with Kass’s interpretations of this foundational text in the civilization of the West will armor those willing to fight for that civilization’s future with some tools necessary for the battles ahead.

And once more, with feeling: White Sox, not Cubs!

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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