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Book review: ‘Jesuit at Large,’ by Paul V. Mankowski, S.J.

Paul mankowski

Courtesy of Lumen Christi Institute

Tod Worner - published on 10/29/21

In an age of “woke-ism” rife with trigger warnings and safe spaces, the rapier-like insight of Fr. Mankowski refreshes at the same time that it jars.

Jesuit at Large: Essays and Reviews by Paul V. Mankowski, S.J.

Edited by George Weigel

Let me be the first to admit that my recent jaunt into George Weigel’s Jesuit at Large: Essays and Reviews by Paul V. Mankowski, S.J. carried all of the delights of a guilty pleasure. In an age of “woke-ism” rife with trigger warnings and safe spaces, the rapier-like insight of Fr. Mankowski refreshes at the same time that it jars. From one essay to the next, the puckish-priest-who-pulls-no-punches assured me that bold, clear, and principled thinking is alive and well. But I have to be honest… while reading Jesuit at Large, I felt the unconscious urge to peer furtively over my shoulder just to ensure no politically correct mob stood ready to overtake me; after all, reading essays of sharp wit and holy consequence is liable to get a person in trouble in a prickly and humorless age. Mankowski’s defense of the good reminded me of Chesterton’s quip: “The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.”

But Fr. Mankowski came by his defense of truth honestly. A man raised in the hardscrabble, working class neighborhoods of Indiana, he understood the value of honest labor and genuine character. Educated at the premier institutions of the University of Chicago, Oxford, and Harvard, he embraced the life of the mind without the pretentiousness that often comes with it. And the young Mankowski, like Jacob, wrestled with God (or God’s emissaries) as an overwhelming sense of priestly vocation began to weigh heavily upon him. Even when he insisted “please pick someone else for your priest,” God wouldn’t budge offering an answer that was as short as it was emphatic, “No. You.” And so Paul Mankowski would begin his road to become a Jesuit.

But his road would not be smooth. With a sharp mind that cut cleanly through obfuscation and hypocrisy, Fr. Mankowski would speak and write. On the need for renewed orthodoxy, on the faith as light-bearer in a world of darkness, on the strange and troubling political career of Fr. Robert Drinan, and on the twin need for intellectual honesty and spiritual integrity, Fr. Mankowski would return again and again. Many didn’t like this, but that didn’t quite matter. The truth is what mattered to Fr. Mankowski.

Fr. Mankowski’s style is reminiscent of the charming irascibility of Hilaire Belloc or Fr. Richard John Neuhaus — men who possessed exquisite logic wrapped in fiery passion emanating from the tenderest heart. Time and again, Fr. Mankowski reminded me of Robert Caro’s portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson doing what the most effective Senator in American history did so well — bringing the uncertain into the fold. Caro writes,

Grasping a senator’s arm, [Johnson] would take him off to the side of the [Senate] Chamber for a quiet talk. One of his arms would be firmly around his colleague’s shoulders, and after a while, his other hand would begin to jab, jab toward the other senator as he made his points. The jabs would no longer stop in midair; Lyndon Johnson’s long forefinger would begin to poke into the other senator’s chest. 

While some might be affronted by this style, I find it captivating. With essays such as “In Praise of Conformity: Why Priests Should Stop Fooling Around with the Liturgy” or “The Prayer of Lady Macbeth: How the Contraceptive Mentality has Neutered Religious Life,” Fr. Mankowski’s intent is to shake us from our spiritual torpor. Listen to him speak passionately, not only about Humanae Vitae, but about the Church as the repository of Truth:

If the Church is wrong in Humanae Vitae, the judgment that it is wrong can only be made with reference to some standard. That standard, obviously, cannot be the Church herself; some contend that it is moral intuition, others a more academically respectable reading of scripture or of the history of doctrine; still others some comprehensive system of ethics or logic. But the crucial point is that whatever standard is taken as fundamentally reliable, this standard judges the Church, and is not judged by her.

This simple, but brilliant logic challenges us to ask: if the most important questions in life are not informed by the authority of the Church, then on whose authority will we rely? If the Church’s dogma is not central to our lives, then whose dogma is? Another of Chesterton’s gems apply here: “In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.”

In another essay, considering that many are replacing the last vestiges of the Church’s life-giving asceticism with worldly comfort, Fr. Mankowski pulls no punches, “When we trade in the multiform protections and incentives of a responsible tradition of asceticism for the wisdom of [psychologists] Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, one would expect it to breed maggots.”

Answering critics who feel the Church is impervious to the “reasonableness” of certain political blocs seeking “compromise” on matters of eternal significance, Fr. Mankowski refuses to budge. Where truth and eternity are at stake, priority should not be given to easing modern sensibilities and greasing the wheels of social discourse. “The Church,” he reminds, “is concerned with the prospect of salvation and damnation, and persons with a propensity for a particular sin engage her pastoral solicitude in the degree that the sin is grave and the propensity stubborn. She wants us to get to heaven.”

Perhaps my favorite essay in this collection is “Waugh on the Merits,” a review of Philip Eade’s Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited. The enigmatic, curmudgeonly Waugh is captured in all of his literary genius (“He was all but incapable of writing a boring sentence.”) and his misanthropic tendencies (“His satire was subversive, and deliberately so.”) On Waugh’s shocking conversion and fidelity to the Catholic Church, Fr. Mankowski explains,

Waugh does not deny that the Catholic Church has aesthetic splendor to offer; what he denies is that such splendors provide a reliable basis for accepting the Church’s claims as true…Rather it is the ordinary daily Mass, the opus operatum, performed and assisted at out of duty rather than desire, that points to the objective reality of a universal immutable faith: your preferences have not been considered. 

Fr. Mankowski never likened himself to Flannery O’Connor, but what he observed about ingenious Catholic novelist could well be applied to him.

Flannery O’Connor…knew she had to work to earn a hearing, and that she would be facing cultural headwind all her life. It was a challenge she took up with relish. Reviled, scorned, snubbed, and patronized by louts with a fifth of her intellectual horsepower, yet never answering a curse with a curse—she always returned to her own work to polish, to make it clearer, to sharpen the edge of the blade, to make it accomplish the Lord’s work even if it failed to accomplish her own.

Fr. Mankowski writes with faith and fire because he sees life full of grit and wonder where heaven forever awaits. He enjoins us to be vigorous, thinking, faith-filled Catholics. In an age amnestic of its spiritual patrimony and disdainful of our earthly duties, Fr. Mankowski echoes Chesterton’s tough, but salvific reminder, “We do not really need a religion that is right where we are right. What we need is a religion that is right where we are wrong.” Open your eyes and embrace the Truth, Fr. Mankowski implores. But when you do, remember…your preferences have not been considered. 

Just one year ago, at the age of sixty-six, Fr. Mankowski died suddenly from a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. Though this tragedy is still mourned, it means we are all called upon to pick up where Fr. Mankowski left off. Today, we might ask, “Can’t someone else take on the heavy task of defending the Faith, of championing what is right?”

God continues to answer firmly, yet lovingly, “No. You.”

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