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God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling Paperback – July 1, 2005
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About the Author
Judge's work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Weekly Standard and other publications.
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"God and Man at Georgetown Prep" is a compelling read. It is also sometimes a haphazard and contradictory mix of the intellectual and the glandular; of the cogent argument and the primal scream; of the open minded discourse and the conservative rant.
And when it degenerates into rant mode, it unfortunately brings along much of the baggage associated with such a paradigm. That baggage includes looking at the world in stark black and white and pigeonholing people as heroes or villains based on little more than stereotypes. It lives in a world that is less populated by characters than by cartoons.
Coming to terms with one's own belief is challenging enough for an individual, and Judge makes a great case for his own spiritual renewal. His storytelling talent is so good that it comes dangerously close to seducing the reader into missing the underlying thrust of the book. In essence, "God and Man at Georgetown Prep" falls in line behind a long line of philosophers and theologians who attempt to make the case that their version of God and religion are the right-and perhaps only-one.
Trying to take that personal belief and argue its universal merits (or at least convince anyone who picks up this book) is a task of, if you'll excuse the pun, Biblical proportions. Over two centuries ago, the philosopher Voltaire summed up the hazards of the task when he quipped, "If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated."
One could almost even argue that the Bible itself isn't up to such a task, given that its text is the basis for dozens of religious sects and even cults to empower themselves and trumpet their own mutually exclusive version of the "truth."
At their best, such attempts made in good faith spur thoughtful dialog. At their worst, they deteriorate into self-indulgent arrogance and gratuitous vilification of opposing views. Where "God and Man at Georgetown Prep" most needs to have an underlying tone of sincere theological discourse, it feels more like a theological smackdown.
"God and Man at Georgetown Prep" paints a picture of an almost fascist "liberal"education the author endured during his high school years (not everyone there at that time walked away with that conclusion, nor 25 years later, do they see it that way-see below). Given that we all experienced life through the myopic vision of adolescence, and that there could be at least a little truth in that assertion, this writer will gladly concede him that point. (Let it also be noted that there are many reasons for alternate viewpoints to be included in education-especially from a school that makes public expectations that its graduates be "open to growth", but the merits of that argument are beyond the purpose and space limitations of this review.)
However, there is a common and tragic misconception that the opposite of a flaming liberal viewpoint (if that indeed was the case) is an equally conservative polemic. This writer would like to make a rather bold observation: The liberal extremist has convinced himself beyond a shadow of a doubt of his self-guilt and is obsessed with imposing it on everyone else around him. The conservative extremist, however, is equally obsessed with his own self-righteousness/salvation and equally driven to impose that on everyone else around him.
And, here's the dirty little secret: both are cut from the same cloth: there is a common thread and it is extremism. The true antithesis of extremism is not the corresponding point on the other end of the bell curve: it is balance found in the center. Balance makes for convincing and airtight arguments; balance can handle characters in their complexity without having to beatify or demonize them; balance is also a pretty nifty rhetorical tool for a writer trying to convince the reader of his absolute moral authority when he attempts nothing less than the Herculean task "God and Man at Georgetown Prep" tries to accomplish.
The basic argument of "God and Man at Georgetown Prep" would have been helped by a more objective and sociologically driven approach with the observation that the early 1980s were part of the reverberation of the 1960s plummeting out of control, that the pendulum is constantly swinging, sometimes from one excess to the other. Mistakes-and course corrections-are constantly necessary for a living breathing entity, whether it is a fully formed human being or an educational institution 200+ years old. There is a term for this-the magis, the continual search for the greater, something Georgetown Prep articulates in its goals and expectations. As Mr. Judge chronicles his own growth out of the intellectual primeval mud, he fails to acknowledge that others-even the radical teachers he disdains, not to mention those dreaded hippies-may also have been on similar journeys. And, those journeys may also legitimately have taken them to different places, including different spiritual directions.
As with other arguments of this type, some of the charges "God and Man at Georgetown Prep" levels against the enemies it creates can be leveled back at itself. For example: it's more than a little disconcerting to see him relate his own discovery of the love of God beginning during a beach week liberally marinated with chasing girls and lubricated with large amounts of alcohol. This sounds alarmingly like the free love and mind altering substances of those awful people he quickly backhands and dismisses. This writer can appreciate his conclusion that perhaps in that environment came the "discovery of new modes of love". This writer also observes that the Jesuitical concept of "finding God in all things" is apparently not afforded seekers whose personal visions take them down other paths.
In the interest of full disclosure, this writer personally knew most of the characters mentioned from Georgetown Prep and happened to be a part of campus around the same time as the author. He has to make the observation that to try to capture wonderful priests and complex human beings such as "Fr. Moon SJ", "Fr. Hart SJ" and "Fr. Boxer SJ" in the almost trashy anecdotes and quotes cited does them-and Judge's larger target Georgetown Prep-a gross disservice. It's quite possible that some of the most outrageous moments Judge narrates happened just as he described. However, they are tiny snapshots in a much larger, richer picture. Georgetown Prep is almost as old as the United States. Common sense dictates that an institution that old with as little to offer as intimated in Judge's world would have died a natural death long ago.
Judge makes a valiant attempt to argue his vision and this reviewer has little doubt about the sincerity of the author or the power of his experience. He makes a wonderful case for himself. He is stepping into a particularly hazardous minefield when he attempts to impose those constraints outside of his own scope.
I would be glad to wager that there are many Buddhists, Muslims, non-Catholic Christians, Hindus, (not to mention other Catholics who don't take his sharp turn to the right), etc. who would be more than happy to sit him down and elaborate on the power of their own spiritual journey and argue that their experiences are just as powerful in a different way and that--horror of horrors--their pathway to God is just as valid. There is an entire universe of philosophers and theologians who are just as eloquent and powerful in their own-and alternate-views of God and Catholicism as those Judge quotes.
It is quite telling-and also a shame-that one of the first things Judge does in the introduction of this book is immediately dismiss Buddhism--which has a core principle that there are "a million pathways to God." That raises the stakes by immediately turning his argument into "all or nothing". That would be an awesome task under the best of circumstances. The underlying thesis suffers too many self-inflicted wounds to be one of them.
"God and Man at Georgetown Prep" is an entertaining read of a compelling spiritual journey. But, it is only one of them. The reader should keep in mind that there are at least 999,999 other ones.
However, what I find more disturbing are the cases of faculty members who have left because of inappropriate contact with students and recent graduates. One was a Jesuit and it is very public and out in the open with the press, etc. Another was with a female faculty member who left mysteriously in mid-September, the consensus among students and parents was that it was sexual contact with a 16 year old student, but the school was completely silent on the matter. This was at the height of the Church Abuse Crisis in Boston. So to say there were problems at prep is an understatement. I hope they have been rectified.
As far as the book is concerned, I think Judge gives a good overview of the problems with the Catholic faith in the United States. The faith was often sacrificed to fit it and this negatively impacted Catholic schools. Today, I fear the American Church is more confused and divided than ever and it is in part due the phenomenon he describes. Georgetown Prep is only example of this troubling phenomenon