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The Spirit in Letters

George Weigel writes epistles to a young Catholic.

Jun 14, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 38 • By EVE TUSHNET
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Letters to a Young Catholic

The Art of Mentoring

by George Weigel

Basic, 251 pp., $22.50

GEORGE WEIGEL, in agreeing to write Letters to a Young Catholic, took on the unenviable task of writing a thin book about a very thick subject. "Letters to a Young . . ." is a Basic Books series that includes Dinesh D'Souza's Letters to a Young Conservative and Christopher Hitchens's Letters to a Young Contrarian--but none of the other books has tackled anything even approaching the size and scope of the Catholic Church. There is probably a reason for that. And rather than limit himself to one aspect or theme of Catholicism's millennia-old and globe-spanning history, Weigel covers everything from Mary to the apostolic succession to sexual ethics.

Weigel is best known as the author of the enormous and definitive biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, and he has become in recent years the most visible Catholic commentator in America with such books as The Courage to Be Catholic and The Truth of Catholicism. Now, in Letters to a Young Catholic, Weigel offers provocative statements. Unfortunately, the small structure of the books in the series gives him little space to fill in the finer features of the argument. He cites, for example, Flannery O'Connor's famous statement on the Eucharist, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." On its face, this is a curious dismissal of symbolism--but an explanation of why so many Catholics respond fervently to O'Connor's words would require a full-length book on the strongly visceral sense Catholics have of the Incarnation and physicality. Weigel is right to draw the point: "Stuff counts. I count. You count. It all counts." But the jump to this conclusion is too quick and too abstract.

Similarly, Weigel describes the gay-rights movement as "perhaps the most potent example" of "the 'gnostic imagination' in our culture today," and he asserts that cutting-edge biotechnology is an attempt to "remanufacture the human condition" that will require "massive coercion." Both of these positions are startling, intriguing, and defensible. They are the sort of insights that attract people to the Catholic Church. They are the sort of countercultural, philosophically rich assessments that our culture needs. But both of them require much more than the few short paragraphs they can receive in this sort of book.

An interesting feature of Letters to a Young Catholic is the way Weigel writes the book as a series of actual letters from different places that have shaped his Catholic imagination. This approach allows him to hop from subject to subject; it also emphasizes that Catholicism is as vast as the globe, but as intimate as your local parish. The locations chosen are often deeply personal, so a strong sense of Weigel's own history comes through. Weigel is also adept at describing the attractions of Gothic architecture--the way it is both majestic and busy, both awe-inspiring and familiar--and the letters he writes from Poland vividly convey the love of he has for Polish Catholicism and for John Paul II.

Within one letter, Weigel leaps from a discussion of Charles and Julia's affair in Brideshead Revisited to a description of St. Thomas More's life and martyrdom. The connection at first seems obscure. But Weigel subtly draws out the similarities between the showy, obvious martyrdom of the saint and the hidden, conflicted decisions of Waugh's characters. This comparison makes the need for sacrifice in every life immediate and fresh, connecting More's grand-scale suffering to the moments we are all called to choose God or self.

Many passages are written from a nostalgic perspective that actual young Catholics will likely find alien, and Weigel's background in traditional Catholicism may hide from him one of the biggest problems facing "cradle Catholics" today. Weigel's loving memories of the parochial Catholicism of his youth make it impossible for him to talk about the problem ethnicity has become for the church in America. John Kerry's Communion photo-ops are only the most obvious examples of the problem: Catholicism is viewed as an ethnic identity, a human social network rather than a divine institution malleable only by God. Almost all of this book could have been written as letters to a young Catholic from 1973; the main exception is the section on John Paul II.

Some young Catholics, or young people considering Catholicism, might need an introduction to basic practices. Others might need poetry, novels, or histories of architecture. Others might need lives of the saints or explanations of Catholic ethics. Letters to a Young Catholic incorporates all these elements, but Weigel has not been allotted the space he would need for such an encyclopedic endeavor. Instead, we get shorthand, a series of impressions and thesis statements. If one is not St. Paul, it is very hard to write a book that is all things to all people.

Eve Tushnet is a freelance journalist and editor of www.marriagedebate.com.