George Weigel on the State of the World

BOOK PICK: The Fragility of Order

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, which is showcased on the cover of this book
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, which is showcased on the cover of this book (photo: Public domain)


Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times

By George Weigel

Ignatius, 2018

223 pages, $25 (hardcover)

To order: or (800) 854-6316


“Order” has been a leitmotif in George Weigel’s writing: Tranquillitas Ordinis, his first major book (in 1987) was about the then-American Catholic debate over war and peace. Fragility of Order, released in April, is a collection of 13 revised essays, most previously appearing in First Things, on a variety of world, American and Church issues.

Weigel frequently insists, following John Paul II, that a just modern society stands on three legs: a democratic political order, a free economy and a set of moral values. People will not be free just because there are regularly scheduled elections or they can order their latest desire 24/7 online and get it delivered faster than a speeding pizza. As Weigel notes — quoting Yeats — absent moral underpinning, “things fall apart/the center cannot hold.”

The topics Weigel treats are wide-ranging: the origins of World War I; morality and foreign policy; moral truth and American public life, past, present and future; Islam and the modern world; John Paul on Christian humanism; the synods of 2014 and 2015; and what St. Francis can tell the modern world (and his pontifical namesake).

As usual with Weigel, each essay is an interesting and thought-provoking read; I must admit, however, that they don’t all necessarily hang together quite neatly or at least tightly.

Most interesting to me were the essays dealing with public and ecclesial life. On public life, Weigel reminds us “to be ever attentive to the deeper, long-term trends in our political culture. We are living in a defining moment in our national life — roads are indeed diverging, and the choices taken will have much to do with whether the United States at its tercentenary in 2076 will be a political community in recognizable moral and cultural continuity with its founding.” Put bluntly, “decadence and democracy cannot indefinitely coexist. If the American experiment constantly requires new births of freedom, the birth of freedom we need in the twenty-first century is one in which freedom is once again tethered to both the true and the good.”

That said, Weigel is not interested in some “Benedict Option” of cultural withdrawal, a consolidation into Catholic (or perhaps, more broadly, Judeo-Christian) communities.

Weigel calls for a “Gregorian Option” (following Pope Gregory the Great) and a new “Great Awakening.” Seizing on the central theme of John Paul’s papacy — a new Christian humanism — Weigel wants us to get out and challenge the culture. We should “live in the truth” — negatively, by stopping to acquiesce in the lies, the politically correct circumlocutions, the get-along-go-along approach to culture — and positively, by a full-throated defense of what John Paul called “the whole truth about man,” an integral vision of the human person whose true dignity is under contemporary assault by ersatz versions of that concept.

To do that will require an assured and confident Catholic Church, and Weigel laments how the worst of the immediate post-Vatican II era in sexual morality seems to have returned as rewarmed leftovers. He insists that the undernoted story was how, in the end, the synods of 2014 and 2015 were theologically richer than the press suggested; I’m not sure Weigel isn’t overly optimistic. That said, he rightly notes that “evidence is abundant that the Church’s idea of permanent and fruitful marriage, like the Church’s teaching on the appropriate means of regulating fertility, makes for happier marriages, happier families, happier children, and more benevolent societies than does the deconstruction of marriage and the family that is pandemic throughout the West.”

Whether the Church can surmount intramural arguments to be that “light to the world” is critical to the success of the Gregorian Option — and whether we seize (or fail to seize) the moment in the contemporary struggle for human dignity.

John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.