Crashing the Gate at Legatus

I am stalking George Weigel.

His trail is very warm, let me add. The lion of the Catholic Right, the latter-day sage of Baltimore, former intimate of Blessed Pope John Paul II and author of A Witness to Hope, is standing big as life at the end of my pew in Phoenix’s Church of St. Thomas the Apostle. With the light from the chandeliers dancing a mazurka in his tortoiseshells, he looks just like he looks on In the Arena, and the sight of him is playing havoc with this very marginal Catholic media figure’s heart.

Turning on his heel, Weigel marches out of the chapel. Through the plate glass at the back of the nave, I see him head for the south exit. Now is my chance. My sources have informed me that he’s a heavy smoker. If I can catch him lighting up, the two of us may bond yet. “You know what they say, Doc,” I’ll tell him, as I produce my own pack of Pall Mall 100s, “Wherever two smokers gather together, it’s the smoking section.”

Weigel will laugh that baronial laugh of his — smoky, rich, and cool, like ancient Scotch pouring over rocks — and say, “Mr. Lindenman, you’re quite the savant sauvage.” He’ll start linking to my blog, and I’ll blow right up.

In a twinkling, I egress from the chapel. Rather than follow at the great man’s heels like a shih tzu, I shoulder my way past half a dozen Dames of Malta, looking witchy in black satin cloaks, and leave through the north exit. Creeping round the stone patio, I see Weigel. He is talking on his cell phone with no cigarette in sight. I abort my mission, feeling — not for the first time that day — completely out of my element.

We — that is, Weigel and I and the Dames, plus a somewhat harried-looking usher — are here to attend a special Mass for Legatus. A highly exclusive association of Catholic business owners and their spouses, Legatus is the New York Athletic Club with a charism. The Mass is open to be public, but Weigel’s the closest thing I have to a peer, and I’m not even sure he’s a member.

It’s just my luck that I learned about this gathering — from a source whose identity I shall conceal — hours after sending all my decent clothes to the dry cleaner. I am left standing on the patio in a pair of jeans, and a sweater made — according to the label — from “Italian yarn,” whatever that is. The only bow I can make in the direction of elegance is a brown leather blazer very much like the one Ray Liotta wears in Goodfellas, in the scene where he pistol-whips the would-be date rapist.

That jacket and that association cut to the very reason I’ve come here, on foot, when I could be writing press releases for at least a nominal sum. Never in my life have I seen the quality. On the corporate ladder, I got tangled up so low that I could see no higher than the twitchy yes-men in middle management. The start-up owners I’ve worked for were those Lexus-driving, gaud-flashing, subpoena-ducking dinks who give the lie to the aphorism that nouveau riche is better than no riche at all. When called upon to put on the dog, I take my cues from gangster movies. I’m here, finally, to learn from my betters.

Judging from the people now trickling from the chartered buses, most of my betters are old, or at least older than I am by a decade or more, which is getting to be the same thing. I see lots of bellies and silver hair, and at least one perfectly awful toupée. Legatus, it seems, has yet to attract any brash young Catholic Zuckerberg. Maybe this isn’t for lack of trying, but I like to think of Legatus being biased in favor of age and stability. Since I can stand to envy a person for only one reason at a time, this is good news.

Dress is subdued, though not funereal. Men favor dark suits, or dark jackets with khaki slacks. Among the women, I see a few in bright pastels. Sporting a gray suit, Weigel is almost festive. One guy, who’s matched a cream-colored jacket to cream-colored trousers and a cream-colored fedora, looks like he’s trying to evoke a Catholic Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese. I’ve always heard that well set-up men, who have their clothes made instead of buying them off the rack, ask each other, “Who’s your tailor?” I realize I’m too ignorant about tailoring to know who I’d ask that of. My shriveled prole eye responds only to Rolex and Porsche logos.

I suppose what I’m really looking for is some sign of gaiety, or even decadence. In his blog, Reditus, former SSPX seminarian Arturo Vasquez writes that “right-wing Catholics are far more pagan and enjoy their religion more [than other Catholics].” I’ve never heard anyone put it quite like that, but I’ve long suspected that conservative Catholicism endorses a hierarchical social order by giving little passes to whoever ends up at the top of it. Think of the meanings of the word cavalier – carefree and loftily dismissive on one hand, partisan of an allegedly crypto-Catholic king against a puritan Parliament on the other — and you’ll get the idea.

But the cavaliers and ladies of Legatus seem to be off their horses and on their best behavior. Wives cleave to husbands and vice-versa. Most everyone files straight into the chapel and into their pews, making only the dullest buzz. Compared to Barry Goldwater’s pumped-up memorial service, which I attended (long story), the mood is downright soporific. Maybe I’m being naive again. This is a Mass, after all, one where four — count ‘em, four — bishops will be at the altar. Even after his courtiers got into the habit of poisoning one another, Louis XIV remained a stickler for decorum.

I reach the door about 20 paces ahead of two couples in their mid-50s. Feeling an obscure need to justify my presence, I open the door and hold it until the last of them passes through. Each of them gives me a tight-lipped smile, reminding me I’ve put them out by making them hurry. This is pretty much the reaction I’d get at Red Lobster, and I take it as a sign that Legatus folks are not without a common touch. If they took their Olympian status to heart, they wouldn’t notice me at all.

In fact, checking plutocratic complacency seems to be a big part of Legatus’ mission. Its founder and chairman is former Domino’s Pizza CEO and Detroit Tigers owner Tom Monaghan, a man with the same sludge in his veins as the average American, a man whose widowed mother placed him for some years in a Catholic orphanage. The idea for Legatus came to him in 1987, after experiencing fame and fortune convinced him these things “aren’t that important.” What is important, he says in the same promotional spot, is to “study the faith, live the faith, and spread the faith.” By following this formula, CEOs become legates, or ambassadors, for Christ. Legatus also binds them closer to their families, or as member Paul Lawless puts it, gives each member an opportunity to have a “spiritual date” with his wife.

This isn’t precisely noblesse oblige or Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth — Legatus’ website omits any specific reference to the use of private fortunes for the less fortunate or the community. But it’s a far cry from Objectivism, and just as far from the paganism that amuses Vasquez. Best of all, it exists in a separate moral universe from the rapacious douchebaggery I experienced in home finance. Monaghan, remember, founded Ave Maria Unversity. Carnegie would have approved. Howard Roark? Not so much.

In his 1983 study of American social distinctions, Paul Fussell describes a “top-out-of-sight” class, whose members inherit their money and live entirely on interest. They sequester themselves from an envious populace behind endless driveways or on Caribbean Islands. Instead of these lucky duckies, Legatus seems to attract people from the next class down — the regular upper class. These people may have inherited something, but they tend to work for the rest. This class, writes Fussell, furnished the nation with its ambassadors, back when ambassadors were amateurs. After the Great Depression, when the very top thought it best to duck out of sight, the regular uppers carried the standard for all the better sort of people. Legatus, then, has plugged itself into a fine tradition.

I’ve been in and out of the chapel several times by now. Finally, I see the usher closing the door behind me — Mass is to begin directly. Both the Mass and the chapel itself seem well geared to this particular crowd, as neither is quite top-out-of sight. With its candlesticks and thronelike cathedrae, St. Thomas’ takes a stab at grandeur, but the stained glass in the windows features a very basic and repetitive grapes-and-wheat motif. Nobody seems to mind. The Mass is a Novus Ordo, and I notice a few people holding hands during the Our Father.

The young woman sitting next to me — who is wearing a name tag, but might be a guest rather than a full-fledged legate — films Bishop Olmsted’s homily on her Smart Phone, an act for which she might have gotten her throat cut in several parishes I could name. Right before the Sign of Peace, the priest sitting on the other side blows his nose loud enough to summon Charlemagne’s army. When I offer him a peace sign instead of a handshake, he grins appreciatively and shoots me a thumb’s up.

The priest’s exact position is unclear to me, but still, in all my time in the Church, I can’t think of five moments that exalted me more. With these tiny, harmless gaucheries, the cream of the American Church and its servants are reminding me that they, too, are dust and shall return to dust. It’s not quite as good as sharing a smoke break with George Weigel, but a man in my reduced circumstances can’t be too choosy.

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  • Michael Liccione

    Max, the way you felt at that occasion is exactly how I would have felt. And I once worked for George Weigel. :-)

    Oh, and I love that line about the sludge in Monaghan’s veins.

  • Mark

    I have to say, this post really brings out why I can’t get on the Max Train. These people are not human beings to you. They are objects brought together for you to observe and characterize from afar (even though you’re in the same room, your lack of interest in them as they are means you are, indeed “afar.”) and exercise your writing skills on. It’s ultimately all about *you.*

    I’m uninterested in your superficial, allusion-laden observations on this or any group. I’m interested in how other human beings think and feel, how they relate, how they get on in the world, why they belong to this group and not another, why they are here and not there, what gives them joy and what makes them grieve…what they are about.

    *Talk to people. Ask them questions. Explore who they are instead of trying to show off by riffing on who you think they might be.*

    This left a very, very bad taste in my mouth but I’m grateful because it clarifies my dissatisfaction with your writing.

    [Mark: For one thing, there is no Max train. I remain obscure, maybe deservedly so, and maybe for some of the reasons you listed. Your feedback was very intelligent, and I appreciate it.]

  • Woodeene

    The photo you used is particularly evocative.
    Nicely done. Nicely done.

  • J Murphy

    Are you a homosexual? Your writing style and tone suggest it.

    [Make me an offer, sugar, and we'll see, won't we?

    Seriously, so what if I did turn out to be gay? How would that affect your opinion of this piece? Would you like it more or less than if I turned out to be a straight guy with campy sensibilities?]

  • Elaine S.

    Here’s my George Weigel story. Years ago I used to constantly confuse George Weigel with George Will because of their similar names, their somewhat similar appearance (haircut and glasses), and the fact that both were erudite conservatives and diehard baseball fans. Well, one day in the fall of 2001, IIRC, Weigel came to speak at a Catholic event in my area and I went. Afterward he was signing books and I asked him “Do people ever confuse you with George Will?” And he said “No, because George Will makes a lot more money!”

  • Christian

    We’re about to walk out the door, he’s speaking this morning at my parish.

  • bill bannon

    I don’t like that in the beginning of “Witness to Hope” he called John Paul II the most informed man on earth despite John Paul not reading newspapers; yet in the second recent book on John Paul II, Weigel says John Paul II didn’t realize the extent of the priest sex abuse til 2002 when a newspaper reported it. It broke into the media in the mid 1980′s with Diane Sawyer doing a long piece on it on TV running after a priest to his car who saw a sodomy by another priest and did nothing but would not speak to Sawyer. Both books have little on that major matter and only the second finds fault with John Paul being blind on Marcial Maciel Degollado as though the buck does not stop where Truman said it did… but somewhere lower.

  • Fr John

    I don’t normally read the comment thread on this blog. Is it always this varied and interesting? Wow!

    I must say, it’s almost like there are two guys writing under the same name. One has a strained relationship with the Church, or at least straddles two apparently irreconcilable worlds of culture and thought: American Catholicism and American liberalism. The other guy is enthralled with the Church and displays not so much a convert’s zeal as a small child’s wonder.

    They both write great essays.

  • woodrow wontson

    Maybe it’s a Phoenix thing, but the Legatus I was marginally familiar with in a more eastern metro area was not quite all that. They were salesmen and small business owners … hardly the corruptocrats you seem to want to describe here, plutocracy forsooth … wondering about that …

    [Either that or I believed the hype. I looked at Tom Monaghan, who's a genuine baller, and at the members of the various chivalric orders, who must have donated an awful lot of money to somebody at some point, and thought, "Yep -- those press releases must be right on target."]

  • Maryette

    First of all, twitchy yes-men in middle management? Ahem. It’s been my experience that a husband employed as a middle manager only twitches only when the wife is one of her moods. Said husband still refuses to say ‘yes, dear’ as he should. The only difference between the no I hear and the one his bosses hear is the amount of diplomacy surrounding it. Ahem again.

    Now, while I feel that Mark of the Second Comment was quite uncharitable, I do agree that maybe you should just talk to people. In the Weigel case above, I would have lit up at a respectable distance at tried to catch his eye at an opportune moment. Or even a not-quite opportune moment. It’s hard for a natural introvert to just strike up conversations with random folks (I know!), but I’ve found that it’s worth the effort. Even if Weigel had proved elusive, I’m sure that you would have enjoyed any number of conversations with just about anyone there. I’ve always thought the one of the worst things about being ‘rich,’ or ‘important’ or ‘famous’ would be that so many people would see one as unapproachable. God made us all equal in His eyes, Max—one hopes that the people at this Mass would have been just the type to realize that the homeless guy on the corner may be ahead of them in the heavenly line.

    [Critics don't have to be charitable. If they don't like something, they ought to say so. Since I'm the one filtering these comments, and because those comments happen to be about me, I expect that they not be abusive. Mark's weren't.

    But I don't think either of you has completely thought through the implications of what you're asking. To make absolutely certain I was getting people's words just right (and protect myself and Patheos from legal action), I'd have had to write them down; to ensure they didn't feel blindsided later on, I'd have had to inform my subjects up front that anything they said might end up on a fairly well-trafficked blog. I'd have had to identify myself, in short, as a member of the press. Maybe that would have gone over fine, but even more likely, it would have made people uncomfortable. They were, after all, at a Mass, one that had been scheduled especially for them, even if the church hadn't been cleared and sealed.

    Given those difficulties, I went for the prole-on-the-wall perspective. Readers were meant to understand that my perspective was limited and informed by my own prejudices. With that understanding, they can take it or leave it.]

  • Rudy

    Max, they weren’t asking for quotes. Mark and Maryette (well, especially Mark) seemed to be saying that YOU need to find out who these people are before you tell us who you think they are. It isn’t about journalistic integrity: it’s that your egoism comes through in your writing to a degree that makes it distracting and unenjoyable. In your writing, we’re never finding out anything about anyone and their life but Max Lindenman and his. And often what you project on the people you write about is somewhat warped and caricatured and ugly. If I were the people at this Mass, I would rather be blindsided by reading a word for word soundbit of what I actually said than some stranger’s speculation on what they think I probably think or say.

    In other words, your description of these people, and people you’ve written about in the past say whole volumes about you, and almost nothing about the person you’re actually talking about.

    [A couple of things. First, bear in mind I never pretended to have the last word on Legatus or anyone in it. I'm not that dumb or that arrogant. Second, yes, my observations DO say lots about me. I meant them to. The first word in the title of this blog is "Diary"; that's my warning to readers that I and my experiences are going to be foci of a lot of the material here. To put it another way, I'm the main character, and I mean that in the literary sense. By emphasizing certain personality traits -- usually the comical ones -- over others, I'm trying to offer readers a synthetic, digestible, hopefully marketable version of me.

    [It may not work for you, sir. You'd be perfectly justified in asking, "Who is this Max Lindenman that I should care what he thinks about anything?" But, for whatever it's worth, a certain number of readers do seem to like what I'm putting out. They're able to spot something universal in the experiences I describe. Or, at the very least, they find themselves able to identify with me personally.]

    [As for my observations, ugliness is in the eye of the beholder. The whole point of this little travel piece was how much better able I was to identify with these people once I spotted cracks in their dignity. And, though I won't presume to say that you'd have slapped your thigh and howled like a baboon and sprayed beer on your screen and declared me prophetic if I'd described, say, LCWR sisters in terms that damned them unequivocally, you'll admit, if you're honest, that plenty of people would have. Still, I guess the rich need champions, too. So good on you.]

  • Sheila Gray

    I really enjoyed this article – on many levels. First, I thought it was hysterical. I actually laughed out loud a few times. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of clothing that you brought in because clothing/attire are so obviously a big deal in The CC. I also enjoyed it because you accomplished a difficult task for a writer; to make us laugh, think and feel, all in the same piece!

    It also brought to mind a very strange Conservative Catholic scene that I witnessed at the Grand Rapids, Michigan airport in 1998. My daughter and I rented an upstairs apartment for two years from an elderly Polish Immigrant couple, who lived below us, outside Saugatuck, Michigan, located in a rural yet rich county in SW MI. These people were the “heaviest” Catholics I had ever met in my life, and that’s saying a lot because I attended The Convent of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills, MI for 12 years from 1958-1970. These people thought Pope John Paul II was too liberal!. The old man handed me his business card when I met him, and it stated under his name: “Former Member of the Polish Government in Exile.” I thought for a minute I was somehow inside a John LeCarre novel. To make a long, interesting story about conservative old people who chain-smoked and drank scotch day and night short; one day in 1998, I offered to drive them to the airport in GR because the weather was bad, and they needed to pick-up their one and only child, a son, who lived and worked in DC. I was looking forward to meeting this dude! When the son, dressed in a black business suit and carrying a black briefcase (I swear!), approached the old man when he first walked off the plane, he actually knelt down on the ground and kissed a ring on the old man’s hand. Then I knew… I wasn’t in a Le Carre story, I was in one written by Tolstoy.

    [Aw, thanks, Sheila! But don't touch that dial -- I'm about to write on an SSPX counter-demonstration against marriage equality. Before I was looking for Versailles; now I think I've found it.]

  • Greg Metzger

    What a delight of an article! Great work.