That Was the Year That Was

Published January 4, 2006

Cleaning out my “possibilities” file last month, I bumped into several bits and pieces that never quite made it into columns in 2005. I offer them here, randomly, for whatever combination of amusement, edification, and/or consternation they might provide.

With a summertime New York Times op-ed piece that challenged the nihilistic conclusions many scientists seem to draw from a Darwinian account of evolution, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, OP, the archbishop of Vienna, ignited what may be one of the most important arguments engaged during 2005. The usual suspects got into the usual hysterics about “Galileo-all-over-again.” In fact, the Austrian cardinal did everyone a service by forcing into public discussion a theme Pope Benedict XVI had struck during his installation Mass homily, when he worried aloud about a world which imagined itself a cosmic accident. So: full marks to Cardinal Schoenborn for kick-starting a needed debate.

During the baseball playoffs, Cardinal Francis George, OMI, the archbishop of Chicago, told reporters that, of course, God wants the White Sox to win; but human willfulness can get in the way of God’s purposes. Excellent point, Your Eminence, and one that, as a long-suffering native Baltimorean, I have been trying to make ever since Super Bowl III!

It wasn’t a banner year for several Catholic politicians whose grasp of public policy is, one hopes, greater than their grasp of the catechism. Boston mayor Thomas Menino seemed to have defined the outer limits of the goofy when, addressing a Catholic Charities dinner in the Hub, he missed the Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel (and a lot of the rest of the Gospel, too). To wit: “What moves me about being a Christian is what Jesus taught us about being religious. He did not give priority to piety. He didn’t make holiness the big thing. And he did not tell us to go around talking up God, either.” As Our Lord, not being a Yiddish-speaker, wouldn’t have said, “Oy vey!”

But wait – the contest wasn’t over. Three weeks after Mayor Menino’s un-catechism lesson, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took to the floor to denounce “this Republican budget and statement of injustice and immorality,” ending with a clarion call: “Let us vote no on this budget as an act of worship and for America’s children.” An act of worship? I regret having to crown another fellow-former-Baltimorean with the laurels, but Minority Leader Pelosi’s call-to-worship beats the Menino rewriting of the Great Commission by a nose.

The Catholic mind in America hasn’t completely atrophied, however; one heartening example of that in 2005 was the inaugural address of Father John Jenkins, CSC, the new president of the University of Notre Dame. Twenty years ago, Notre Dame’s Catholicism was often a combination of nostalgia and contemporary Catholic Lite. Today, having been re-converted in part by its students, the university has a president whose inaugural address affirmed the “deep harmony between faith and reason” and located Notre Dame’s future in a line of continuity with great Catholic institutions of higher learning of the past – institutions that, as Father Jenkins put it, grew ex corde ecclesiae, from the heart of the Church. That allusion to John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the Catholic identity of Catholic universities, bitterly opposed by the forces of Catholic Lite, could not have been accidental. Schools whose Catholic identity has been severely attenuated can, it seems, be reclaimed.

Finally, the annual December battles over the “holidays” produced at least one interdenominational zinger of a joke. In an otherwise dreadful op-ed deconstructing Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson recalled that “in the middle of the 20th century, Jewish assimilationism was so pervasive that it gave rise to the following crack: What’s the difference between Reform Jews and Unitarians? Unitarians don’t have Christmas trees.”

My thanks to all who took the trouble to write in response to these columns in 2005 – all right, my thanks to most of you who wrote. A happy and healthy 2006 to one and all.

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

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