January 2006By Dale Vree
Dale Vree is Editor of the NOR.
The Cube and the Cathedral. By George Weigel. Basic. 202 pages. $23.00.
The NOR asked the publisher of this book for a review copy on May 20, 2005, so we could review it in our pages. Strangely, the book never came. So the NOR wrote again on July 13. Again, strangely, the book didn't come. We can only assume the author instructed the publisher not to send the book to the NOR. Why? No doubt because of our New Oxford Note "George 'Humpty Dumpty' Weigel" (Sept. 2004), to which Weigel took strong objection. His objections were registered in the letters section of the NOR (Dec. 2004), to which the Editor replied. It seems obvious that Weigel didn't want the NOR to review his book. And that made us even more curious about the book. So we decided to buy it.
The book is basically an attack on Europe, disguised as a friendly dialogue. You see, Weigel -- a neoconservative Catholic -- is an ardent supporter of the war on Iraq, even though Pope John Paul II and his men condemned the war before it was even started. Most Europeans opposed the war too. Weigel refers to "the harsh words between Europeans and Americans over Iraq," saying that "it struck me that the rift between the United States and Europe on, say, the best means to disarm the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq touched only the surface of things." Disarm Saddam? He had no weapons of mass destruction.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus notes in First Things (Aug./Sept. 2005) that The Cube and the Cathedral "is a greatly expanded version of Weigel's essay 'Europe's Problem -- and Ours' [First Things, Feb. 2004]." In that essay, Weigel makes explicit his animus against Europe: "Most Europeans...have a thoroughly distorted view of...American actions in Iraq...."
In the book, Weigel accuses Europe of "committing demographic suicide." But so is America, if you leave out the immigrants. Weigel does like one part of Europe, the Slavic part. He extols "the Slavic view of history" because the Slavs know that "the deepest currents of history are spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic." But Weigel doesn't tell us that the lowest birthrate in Europe is the Czech Republic at 1.1. He doesn't tell us that Poland and the Slovak Republic have a birthrate of 1.3 (the fourth and fifth lowest in Europe). So why is Weigel so hot for the Slavic part? We'd guess because certain of those countries sent troops to Iraq.
He praises Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) as a key figure in the Slavic view of history, but he doesn't tell us that John Paul opposed the war on Iraq (Weigel mentions his "opposition to war and abortion" but without telling which war).
Of freedom, Weigel says: "Freedom is the capacity to choose wisely and act well as a matter of habit -- or, to use an old-fashioned term, as a matter of virtue." Sorry, but freedom is not another name for virtue. No dictionary defines freedom as virtue.
Politically correct liberals redefine and euphemize words to suit their purposes: Homosexuals are "gay," pornography is "adult entertainment," abortion is "choice" or "reproductive rights," etc. This is rhetorical witchcraft. And now we're supposed to believe that freedom is "virtue"? This is just more rhetorical witchcraft.
Look, freedom is the exercise of free will, of choice, of doing what's right or what's wrong. That's what the dictionary says. Dick Cheney is right about freedom. At the October 5, 2004, Vice Presidential debate, when the question came up about Cheney's lesbian daughter and same-sex "marriage," he said: "Freedom does mean freedom for everybody. People ought to be free to choose any arrangement they want. It's really no one else's business." Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is also right about freedom: "Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."
(Yes, the Church will say that virtue is "authentic" or "true" freedom, and it is. But that's our special Catholic vocabulary. In the political realm, there is separation of Church and State in the U.S. and Europe, and the Church has essentially renounced the Confessional State, so the Church has no intention of forcing people to accept her ideas of "authentic" freedom.)
Europe is decadent, as is America. They are free societies where, as Rumsfeld says, people "commit crimes" (which is what Vatican II called abortion) and "do bad things" (we would include homosexual acts, premarital sex, extramarital sex, pornography, euthanasia, contraception, etc.). Weigel, however, is worried about the Muslims flocking into Europe. But observant Muslims are opposed to abortion, homosexual acts, premarital sex, extramarital sex, pornography, euthanasia, and they have large families. That's why Muslim countries have been the greatest allies of the Holy See at the UN. If Weigel is so interested in virtue, why does he want war against observant Muslims?
Weigel quotes John Paul's signature phrase, "Do not be afraid." But Weigel is very afraid of Muslims. Have Catholics ever thought of evangelizing the Muslims coming into Europe? Or have Catholics given up on evangelization since Vatican II? Could be. But it shouldn't be, for then Weigel and those who think like him wouldn't be afraid. John Paul believed in evangelization and he was not afraid.
Weigel also says freedom is "freedom for [moral] excellence." Ah, but who defines moral excellence? The Church? If so, it's a theocratic society, not a free society. Weigel believes in separation of Church and State, so it cannot be the Church. So who defines excellence? In a free, democratic, pluralistic society, no one has a monopoly on defining moral excellence; it's up to the individual.
Weigel also says that freedom is a means to "human happiness," but in a free society, individuals decide what makes them happy, and they will decide that in various and opposite ways.
Weigel says that the term "freedom for excellence" comes from Aquinas. However, Aquinas preferred monarchy over democracy, which makes hash of Weigel's claim that democracy is "freedom for excellence," for Aquinas regarded monarchy as the most excellent form of government.
Weigel contrasts "freedom for excellence" with freedom of indifference, of self-assertion, of power. For Weigel, freedom of indifference leads to "Nietzsche's will to power." Of course it never occurs to Weigel that the U.S. now has a Nietzschean, an imperial will to power. Weigel cites French political theorist Alain Finkielkraut on the antipathy Europeans feel toward the U.S. and Israel: "thou shalt not pray to the discredited gods of nationalism...." Weigel, a zealous nationalist, completely misses the point.
Weigel claims: "Absent a secure and publicly assertive moral culture, the machines of democracy and a free economy cannot run well over the long haul...." Weigel has no way of knowing that. Western Europe has for a long time been an immoral culture, and democracy and a free economy are certainly not in peril.
What's wrong with Europe? Weigel points to the Italian Catholic philosopher and politician Rocco Buttiglione (Weigel doesn't mention that Buttiglione is a pal of Weigel's and other U.S. neocons). Buttiglione was nominated to be Commissioner of Justice for the 25-member European Commission. As Weigel tells it: "His convictions about the morality of homosexual acts and the nature of marriage were deemed by Euro-parliamentarians to disqualify him from holding high office on the European Commission -- despite Buttiglione's clear distinction, in his testimony, between what he, a committed and intellectually sophisticated Catholic, regards as immoral behavior and what the law regards as criminal behavior, and despite his sworn commitment...to uphold and defend the legitimate civil rights of all." In other words, Buttiglione took a "personally opposed" position regarding homosexual acts and "marriage," but would not "impose" his views (just like John Kerry on abortion). Who needs this? Buttiglione is no better than Kerry.
Weigel says: "Which culture [secular culture or Catholic culture] is more likely to protect human rights, promote the common good, defend legitimate pluralism, and give an account of the moral commitments that make democracy possible...[and who can] build free and democratic societies characterized by tolerance, civility, and respect for others...?" This begs the questions whether we should "tolerate" the intolerable, whether we should "respect" others who commit abortion, homosexual acts, adultery, etc. Weigel's big argument for Catholicism is that it is the correct means to the end of freedom and democracy. Sorry, but the Church is not a means to any political concept; the Church is the correct means to salvation.
In making his argument, Weigel believes Catholicism, not secularity, is the best way to guarantee freedom and democracy. But Weigel implicitly realizes the shakiness of his hypothesis. Weigel admits that the Glorious Revolution in England of 1688 and the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 were "crucial turning points" for "democratic political institutions." Among other things, the Glorious Revolution banned Catholics from the throne, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man was directed against the Catholic clergy. Weigel also admits that the Catholic Church was "resistant to the democratic project in the late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe." Only after World War II did Catholicism come to accept freedom and democracy (and it's possible that Catholicism could turn her back on them once again, given all the moral decadence that ensues).
During World War II, the Church tended to favor Mussolini, Franco, and other fascist dictators. It's even been said that Pope Pius XII was "Hitler's Pope." He wasn't, but there was a certain ambiguity. If Germany and the Axis Powers had won, the papacy would have had to deal with those nations. Hence the ambiguity. Had Germany won, there would never have been a turn toward liberal democracy by the Church. And the Europeans know this.
The cry of the French Revolution was liberté, égalité, fraternité. Weigel is reduced to saying that "Catholic faith can nurture a free society (liberté), human dignity (equalité [sic]), and human solidarity (fraternité)." This is just me-too-ism, and quite late in the day.
Weigel says that "one senses in many European cultural and political leaders an instinctive recoil from, even horror at, the idea that freedom is a gift from God that must be actively defended -- as George W. Bush frequently dared to put it...." That God wants people to be free is our civil religion, our national mythology. Nowhere in the Bible will you find that God wants political freedom, democracy, or capitalism. The traditional position of the Church has been indifference to forms of government, so long as the common good is protected and the Church is not under the thumb of the State -- and it's not hard to see where that came from.
Weigel's book was written before President George W. Bush's Second Inaugural Address, but there's no doubt Weigel would approve of it. Bush said that God is "The Author of Liberty" and that "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." Bush said that freedom is "a fire in the minds of men," and "this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." The "fire in the minds of men" line was cribbed from Dostoyevsky's The Possessed and refers to the burning of a village by radical anarchists. Patrick Buchanan commented in The Wanderer (Feb. 3, 2005): "The president is here asserting a unilateral American right to interfere in the internal affairs of every nation on earth, without regard to whether these nations have threatened us or attacked us. Their domestic politics are now our concern, because if they are not democratic, we are not secure. Let it be said: This is a formula for...endless wars."
America is once again a "redeemer Nation." As Bush said on the first anniversary of 9/11: "The ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope still lights the way, and the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness shall not overcome it." This is clearly an allusion to John 1:4-5: "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." Bush's remark is very close to blasphemy, for America is not Jesus Christ. The hope of mankind is Jesus Christ, not America. Moreover, the Church has condemned this political messianism: "The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the Kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the 'intrinsically perverse' political form of a secular messianism" (Catechism, #676).
Weigel says, "We are made for excellence." Physician, heal thyself! This is a third-rate book permeated with the odor of witchcraft.
DOSSIER: Neocons & Neoconservativism