October 1992

Towards a Society that Serves Its People: The Intellectual Contribution of El Salvador’s Murdered Jesuits.  Edited by John Hassett and Hugh Lacey. Georgetown University Press. 403 pages. $25.

The executions of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989 dramatically underscored army brutality and proved a decisive factor in bringing about a peace settlement in that war-devastated country. This vol­ume provides an opportunity for the English-speaking world to study the intellectual contri­butions of three of these Jesuit priest-writers: Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin-Baro, and Se­gundo Montes. (An appended bibliography gives a complete listing of their works; more on their personal lives can be found in Companions of Jesus [Orbis Books].)

Ellacuria, the principal tar­get of the military’s executions, gained prominence as a libera­tion theologian, then as rector-president of the Central Amer­ican University (UCA), and as a mediator between the FMLN and the government. In one essay Ellacuria evaluates differ­ent attitudes toward change — he himself opted for a balanced realism as opposed to naive moralism or fanati­cism — and ways of relating to popular movements, including Marxist ones. While Marxist movements and liberation the­ology found common ground, Ellacuria makes it clear that they cannot be equated. The biblical poor embrace much more than the Marxist concept of the proletariat. Christians may be justified in supporting revolutionary movements, but not if they aim (as Marxist ones often do) at bestowing absolute power on the leaders of a movement, nor if they use terrorism or instill hatred of the enemy.

Another Ellacuria essay contains striking details about the inequities engendered by maldistribution of land. In 1976 the government proposed land reform, a modest plan to affect only one-seventh of agricultural regions. A government study of one region showed that five landowning families controlled some 30,000 acres. Their in­comes (averaging over $6,000 a day) each matched the total income of nearly 7,000 other farm-working families in the area (with average incomes of 87 cents a day). The reform, which Ellacuria strongly sup­ported, failed to be enacted. The landowners rejected it, but so did the Marxists, who in­sisted on collective ownership.

Ellacuria’s other contribu­tions to the volume include a critique of capitalism, reflec­tions on the social role of the Church, and essays on the role of a Catholic university.

Segundo Montes, director of UCA’s human-rights institute, received a human-rights award in Washington just three weeks before his death. Montes argues that any at­tainment of democracy in El Salvador depends on respect for human rights, including socio-economic rights — the right to food, education, med­ical care, work. The constitu­tion of El Salvador guaranteed these rights in principle, but the government impeded their development in practice. Class divisions blocked the realiza­tion of rights necessary for a true democracy.

In one essay Montes analyzes the major socio-eco­nomic impediments to democ­racy in El Salvador. Eighty percent of the population had almost no economic power and was functionally illiterate. Marxist attempts to create democracy in Communist countries, on the other hand, failed because Marxists gov­erned over the poorer classes. In other essays, Montes exam­ines the class structure of El Salvador (less than one percent in the dominant class, 77 percent in the dominated, low-pay, or unemployed lower classes), and studies the dom­inant mode of production in El Salvador (capitalist in its exter­nal trade, but semi-feudal in respect to the majority of the population).

Ignacio Martin-Baro, direc­tor of UCA’s public-opinion institute, focuses on the ide­ologies and types of thinking that predominated in different sectors of Salvadoran society. His essays cover the appeal of the far Right (the ARENA party), the psychological war used by the government and far Right, the need for a consciousness-raising form of lib­eration psychology, and the competing ways that religion was used in El Salvador.

I found the articles tre­mendously stimulating, enlight­ening, and rewarding. They give real insight into how these priests attempted to understand the reality of El Salvador — using very nu­anced neo-Marxist analyses at times, but criticizing Marxist socialism in practice — in order to help their people attain a true social democracy.

- Arthur F. McGovern



Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation.  By Josef Piep­er. Ignatius. 60 pages. $5.95.

For readers who honor Pieper, grateful for his books on leisure, the virtues, and medieval philosophy and the­ology, this new collection shows a genial man who loves inspiring art. Nonetheless, Pie­per is no rival to Jacques Mari­tain for teaching about art and contemplation.

In Only the Lover Sings we find the first premises for a theory of art. Were those premises developed into a comprehensive theory it would still be quite unlike Maritain’s magisterial theory about the creation and contemplation of art. By recalling Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, we can see that he and Pieper differ sharply in their philosophy of art. Maritain’s book, which sets the standard for reflecting on the artist’s creative knowledge, began in his Mellon Lectures given in 1952 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Maritain, of course, had extraordinary preparation for philosophizing about art. When young he had set out to be a painter, and his wife, Raissa, was a poet. He num­bered among his closest friends gifted poets and painters. In his study of creative intuition, he joined primary insights from depth psychology with Thomistic philosophy, and, by adding this synthesis to his in­timate knowledge of the ways in which poets understand their work, he reached an ex­ceptional understanding of the features of spirituality in crea­tive intuition.

Maritain points to similari­ties between poetic and mysti­cal experience. In both, the knower comes to share, through feeling, something of the nature of the object known. This poetic knowledge, coming via emotionally height­ened understanding, can be­come a natural power for healing and spiritual growth. But it doesn’t always have this influence, for in its lower mo­ments the poetic knowledge of artists can become self-centered and prey to mere emotionalism and shallow intellectualism.

For Maritain poetic knowl­edge is “an obscure knowledge through inclination — born in the preconscious of the spirit — in which the world is known in and through…subjec­tivity, grasped both together and inseparably by means of an emotion become intentional and intuitive.” It is a knowl­edge that always reaches out to things, loving them in all their diversity.

Pieper’s assumptions about art are far less incarnational than Maritain’s. For Maritain an artwork reveals a particular artist’s subjectivity in its in­volvement with interesting features of the world. In the creation of an artwork, the artist transforms these features by imbuing them with his own spirit. Though the artwork is the focus of interest, it symbol­izes the creative self who has made it.

Pieper, for his part, says that those who perceive the artist’s intention can touch in contemplation the core of all reality, the domain of the eternal archetypes. He says that all authentic fine arts know how to make transparent the truth that all that exists carries the imprint of “par­adise.” Indeed, “Art flowing from contemplation does not so much attempt to copy reali­ty as rather to capture the archetypes of all that is.”

Though Pieper has written authoritatively about Aquinas, his theory of art is primarily Platonic, even disdainful of worldly things; his interest in art keeps turning toward archetypes and paradise. Mar­itain is much more the Tho­mist. The things of God’s creation are interesting, and so too are artists — in them­selves. Their worth is not pri­marily a capacity to summon archetypes or give us glimpses of paradise.

Does Pieper, then, simply mislead us about art? No. Many of his remarks give us insights into the proper condi­tions for comprehending works of art. He recognizes, for example, that to be receptive to music we need to preserve a certain contemplative silence that allows us really to hear it. The danger is that we will be confused by too many sounds. When this happens, our inner life becomes noise.

- Carroll Kearley



Conversations with Robert Coles.  Edited by Jay Woodruff and Sarah Carew Woodruff. University Press of Mississippi. 249 pages. $14.95.

The most intriguing fact about Robert Coles found in this fascinating book is, to quote from the matter-of-fact Chronology assembled by the editors: He “appears on the cover of Time in February [1972], and in an effort to escape the attendant publicity, moves with family from Mas­sachusetts to New Mexico.”

That seems to capture the essence of the man. But listen to his own words: “Pride, pride. Of course I wonder whether I’ll be an important person and…I wrestle with my greed and self-centeredness all the time.” So here is a very important person who admit­tedly craves that importance and yet is appalled, to the pit of his stomach and to the point of doing something about it, by that craving. No wonder his office where he does most of his writing has been called “Angst central.” No wonder he exclaims, “How dare we call ourselves Christians! It’s only for Jesus to decide whether we are Christians or not. I don’t think He’s made a decision in my case, and I’m afraid that when He does I am going to be sent straight to hell.”

But remember: St. Paul called himself the chief of sin­ners. Robert Coles has been called a saint. But he would never, never call himself one — which is of course one mark of a true saint.

So here we go in circles, mysterious circles.

Coles’s favorite book is The Diary of a Country Priest by Bernanos, the great Catholic writer. Of Bernanos, Coles says: “I think he knew the Devil rather intimately.” As did so many of the saints. As does Coles?

How does Coles differ from, say, the saintly Mother Teresa? Has she done more than he to ennoble the poor? No. The two of them have just done it in different ways. Is she any less of a celebrity than he? No. Does the sin of pride tempt her less than it does him? Probably not.

So what’s the difference? Perhaps it’s a question of Angst. Not unlike Coles, Moth­er Teresa has been interviewed by media sharpies, gone in front of the klieg lights, spoken to throngs, appeared in full color in slick magazines, rub­bed elbows with the powerful. Any Angst in her soul? Proba­bly not much. Why not? Probably because she was personally commanded by the Pope to go out and publicize her work. Why, she’s just re­sponding to a call.

Most people think Coles is Catholic. Not quite — or, not yet. For that he still requires a laying on of hands. And for his life’s work, perhaps he also still requires — if for no one else but himself — a kind of laying on of hands, or some­thing so simple and yet so ar­duous and awesome and humbling as to walk into a confessional and receive, not “counseling” but the Sign of Absolution. No cheap grace there. No, that’s not the same as being deputized by the Pope, but it partakes of the same incarnational essence of the Catholic faith.

Coles understands the cost of discipleship as few others do. But does he fully grasp the call to discipleship? Most ev­eryone who’s read Coles’s spiritual writings knows Who called him. But sometimes he doesn’t seem to know. Why not? Is there a missing sacra­mental link? It’s as if Dr. Coles, who seems to feel the full weight of each and every of his sins, plus some imagi­nary ones perhaps, goes into his closet to confess them to God, but somehow still feels uncleansed, disconnected from the Caller. Is it the case that the doctor/writer who’s healed so many in so many ways cannot quite heal himself? Were he to take his burdens to a deputized successor of the Apostles at the foot of the Old Rugged Cross — as have so many of Coles’s Catholic heroes — things just might be different. Peace at last?

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