Redeeming the Time

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.


  • November 22, 2010

    Bryan W

    1. additional weekly services – they may attend 3 services a week
    2. “seasons” of focus for the church (like an evagelism campaign), or some may even give a theme for the year. This helps identify time.
    3. for those churches to whom it applies, imminent eschatological expectation is an important factor in valuing or even marking time (i.e. interpretation of world events).
    4. Interpretation of how God is working in one’s own life – what He is saying, how He has been working events, internal changes or learning from the Bible. All of these, when remembered, mark the time past.

  • November 22, 2010


    Interesting post, thanks for careful writing.

    Several things come to mind, one is the danger that the demon of Secularism presents to a person who doesn’t really understand the difference between Secularism as 19th century essentially atheistic philosophy and “the secular and secularity.” It is similar to what happened when Modernism was named a heresy. In both cases, the point the capital letter/ism makes is relevant and just, but the confusion of the capital letter/ism with the lower case adjectives can create a large scale misunderstanding that is a little dangerous.

    Weigel’s proposal doesn’t necessarily betray that misunderstanding but it does strike to the heart of what is at stake in that distinction.

    As lay Catholics we are called to live secular lives as leaven within the culture. In a certain sense that is already counter-cultural, but that is not the goal–as some very wise young woman has on her Facebook page it isn’t that we are here to continually show the world the error of her ways, but that we are here to shine our light, and to be the salt. It’s the subtle difference between compassion and defiance for its own sake.

    The thinking behind some of the reforms that Weigel is naming–in addition to the lift on Friday meat fasts, and modification of fasting rules in general, etc.–was to make it possible to live as a Catholic within the culture without becoming essentially separated from it, and thus ghettoized.

    It might be possible that it swung things in a different direction or was an over-correction but I think the idea there is also worth thinking about–that if we confuse “the secular” and “secularity” with this grand evil Secularism, we continue to separate ourselves from the culture rather than exist within it, and then precluding the chance to be like leaven.

    The rule of capital S Secularism states that all things are socially, culturally and historically contingent, which is wrong and it is why it is considered a negative social force.

    But to say that there are NO things that are socially, historically, or culturally contingent is also wrong, and Weigel’s assertion that the evolving of our culture into work weeks with weekends is essentially part of evil hegemonic forces is a bit much for me to accept.

    Frankly, most jobs provide ample opportunity for time off for religious obligations so a reform like this would not be majorly disruptive, and we could all use those HR religion rules more, and heck who wouldn’t like a little extra time off? It’s sort of taking advantage of the fact that we live in a society where there is freedom of religion and not freedom from it.

    And for those of us who already strive to attend Daily Mass and receive the sacraments freely it doesn’t really disrupt much.

    It seems like he’s using the big guns of opposing cultural evil to kill a liturgical housefly. I wouldn’t oppose a reversion if the powers to which I am obedient decided it was wise. I just think Weigel is a little overdone here, both in the negative effects of the reform and what a reversion would actually do.

    It seems to imply that there is some sort of veiled attempt within the Church to secularize the Church herself, and that the goal of integrating Catholics into the culture as a vibrant part of it is always flipping silver coins at Secularism.

    This is part of the wisdom of Thomism–and Augustinianism–which I think (as you know, perhaps) gets lost. Both Aquinas and Augustine were highly aware of the necessity of living as Catholics in a nonCatholic world. Therefore, things like “modesty in dress” are specifically named as being attuned to appropriate to the culture and the custom of the society in which we exist. It is a contingent issue not a transcendental one.

    And good thing, too. Continually wearing what was considered modest in the time of Aquinas would pretty much negate the possibility of being a serious cultural force in the world and separate us from that which we have been created to transform with our light and our salt. Not to mention having the additional negative effect of making us a SURE target for TSA employees. 😉

    This is one of those issues, where people have a tendency to become extremely annoyed at me, saying, well if you think liturgical form might be a good idea, what extremely fine hair are you splitting here?

    The hair I’m always splitting is how we arrive at the conclusions we do–because it is possible to arrive at good (or neutral) conclusions by the wrong means. Which can have the effect of proliferating misunderstandings.

    One misunderstanding I think proliferates is these persistent needs to isolate and cordon off Catholics in either a self-protective mode or in a mode of placing ourselves ABOVE the culture, rather than an integrated and necessary part of it, and to believe that everything in the culture that isn’t explicitly Christian, or even explicitly Catholic is the dangerous force of Secularism at play in the world.

    We think society and culture is worth redeeming, that most of the things that come out of it are virtues gone wild, or the overreaching toward the good and not essentially evil–and we decidedly don’t subscribe to millenarianism, which states that the world is increasingly evil with every step we take and that the only solution for our evil Secular world is Armageddon.

    As Fr. Neuhaus (RIP–how I miss his voice!) used to say frequently, God is equally present throughout history. Whether we have a Holy Day on Wednesday or Sunday.