George Weigel, reflecting on the legacy of outgoing USCCB president Francis Cardinal George, puts forth a thought-provoking suggestion for one way to fight the battle against cultural relativism. Also, Archbishop Dolan is a cutie patootie.
The big news in American Catholicism these days is the election of New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan to the presidency of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops. Since the vice president of the USCCB is the perennial heir apparent to the presidency, Dolan’s selection is nearly unprecedented; he interpreted his victory over Tucson’s Gerald Kicanas as a sign that “the bishops are tired of short and skinny presidents.”
Dolan will replace Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, whose three-year term ended Tuesday. Perhaps the most interesting reflection on George’s legacy is this piece by George Weigel at First Things. Weigel applauds George for his frequent reminders to the American Church of the dangers of a creeping (sometimes galloping) secularism “that is, in its way, as great a threat to the integrity of Christian faith as the lethal totalitarianisms of the mid-20th century.” As relativism cuts an ever wider and deeper swath through the harvest of American culture, Weigel says, there is great danger of “the use of law and other forms of coercive state power to impose certain concepts of the plasticity of human nature on a range of issues including the protection due to human life and the nature of marriage.”
As the need for strong countercultural influences grows more acute in the face of such threats, Weigel suggests a partial solution specific to American Catholicism: the re-reform of the liturgical calendar. But while the specific observances he mentions might only make sense to those familiar with the Catholic rhythm of fasts, feasts and memorials, Christians of all confessions who agree with Weigel about the problem might gain great insight from considering his broader point about the power of a transcendent approach to time:
If the time we spend worshipping God through Christ in the power of the Spirit is, in truth, an experience of enriched time (because it anticipates the time-beyond-time), then we should not look for ways to cut temporal corners by shifting to Sunday long-established feasts whose celebration during the week once gave a unique rhythm to Catholic life.
In other words: the idea that feasts of the Church—which are nothing less than contact points with eternity—must be “bent…to the imperial demands of that modern cultural artifact, the weekend,” is an implicit surrendering of control over the time of the faithful to the dictates of secular society. And the ordering of our time reflects our priorities. An American faithful that desires to take a firm stand against the “dictatorship of relativism” will have a hard time doing so, I think, if it has ceded the very rhythm of its life to the harmful cultural influences it seeks to redeem.
The danger is not difficult to see; the suggested remedy is, at the very least, occasion for thoughtful reflection. And since I’m coming at Weigel’s proposition from a Catholic perspective, the most interesting question for me is: how might this work out, practically speaking, in non-liturgical or “low church” Protestant traditions? Is a Catholic/high church Protestant understanding of the liturgical year an essential precondition for understanding Weigel’s argument? Weigh in.
Miriel Thomas Reneau is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. She has served as an ISI Honors Fellow, a John Jay Fellow, and an American Enterprise Institute policy analyst in constitutional studies. She endures many a sleepless night, though reports differ on whether this is due to her concern over federal courts’ equity jurisdiction or her addiction to caramel lattes. In her daytime hours, she can be found defending St. Augustine against Calvinist co-optation and T. S. Eliot against everyone.