December 1988

Mere Truisms?

I would be interested in learning with what credentials Paul Miller considers himself au­thorized to speak and be heard in reviewing a book by someone universally recognized as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century on someone even more universally recognized as the greatest theologian of the 19th century. I refer to his re­view of Fr. Louis Bouyer’s book Newman’s Vision of Faith in your September issue. “Newman we know and Bouyer we have heard of, but who are you?”

I would also be interested in knowing how many of your read­ers would agree with Miller’s eval­uation of Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons as “a kind of minor league Newman uttering splendid commonplaces.” If that is “minor league,” then I say Paul Miller should not be allowed to play stickball in the streets.

Fr. Bouyer’s references to Newman’s “astonishing capacity” and “penetrating analysis,” etc. are criticized by Miller for intro­ducing only “a completely unre­markable truism.” If what New­man has written in these sermons are perceived by Miller as mere truisms, he must truly be of some superior race. Again, I’m surprised no one has heard of him.

Let the readers judge the last sentence of the review whose criticism is essentially directed at Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons and not at Bouyer: “The first-time reader of Newman, ea­ger to come to grips with his un­deniable greatness, will find little of importance here.”

Newman is, of course, only a mortal like the rest of us. But anyone who has not been deeply moved by these sermons of New­man, anyone who does not rec­ognize in them a profoundly Christian mind with a gift of ex­pression hardly if ever paralleled in the English language, needs no one to pass judgment on him. He has passed judgment on himself.

Joseph Fessio, S.J.
Editor, Ignatius Press
San Francisco, California

Sheldon Vanauken Is No Saint

Subject of course to the au­thority of the Catholic Church, which may decree otherwise, I must contradict a statement in Kevin Buckley’s letter in the Sep­tember issue. Actually, Sheldon Vanauken is not a saint.

What has Catholicism come to if a man who has left another communion on doctrinal grounds, because he perceived it to be in schism or heresy, though it was beloved to him and deservedly so for many reasons, is then called by other Catholics a “saint” be­cause he simply adheres to the Catholic Church’s teachings?

If the 15-year-old girl next door “accidentally” became pregnant, would we call her a “saint” if she chose to obey Catholic teaching and not abort her child? Having an illegitimate child never used to be a mark of sanctity; perhaps it has now be­come, in current circumstances, an act of heroic virtue.

If Vanauken wanted to con­tinue to pick and choose between the Church’s teachings, he would never have become a Catholic.

He would certainly not have done anything so illogical, as well as distasteful, as to leave the An­glican communion; nor would he have been received into the Cath­olic communion, at least certain­ly not by me.

It may be just as well, be­cause of the judgmental over­tones, that the words “schismatic” and “heretical” are not used so often nowadays, but the real­ity still exists, in contradiction not only to the “saint” but also the “simple Catholic.” Thank God Vanauken has become one of the latter, simply a Catholic, consciously and deliberates just that; but it’s going too far to in­flate that into sanctity.

I’m glad my friend deserves such an epithet in anybody’s eyes (if it turns out to be correct, so much the better for me: the only way my name wood ever get into a work of hagiography would be as a close friend of the subject), but if it’s really true that Catholics (whether converts or “cradle”) whose speech or writings reflect loyalty to the Church’s teachings stand out so far in contrast that the rest con­sider them “saints,” then the rest are in a sorry state which may not be even “simply” Catholic, either in reality or in the judg­ment of future historians.

Dom Julian Stead
Portsmouth Abbey
Portsmouth, Rhode Island


I am incredulous.

I have just emerged from a bruising discussion with a col­league about Michael Levin’s dustjacket for Feminism and Freedom, which I found offen­sive because it termed women’s oppression “imaginary” and de­picted women’s radically unequal status in society as due to biology. It literally never occurred to me that I would turn to the ref­uge of the NOR, the place where I expect kindred spirits, to find John C. Cort’s deeply offensive return to menstrual cycles as ex­planation of women’s natural sub­jection (Oct.). I know when I will have a day when my mood is dif­ferent. Cort’s hormones, sadly, are much less well-charted, and in their disorder produce the kind of ravings which Richard Goodwin reports of LBJ, and the kind of vulnerability which the American people were too afraid to face in Ed Muskie’s tears.

If you continue to publish such biological determinism in­nocent of the “difference” de­bate (which suggests that the dif­ferences which there are do not justify attributions of inferiority, and Cort’s portrait is of inferior­ity justifying oppression) or an intelligent response, I will cancel my subscription. I know I won’t get such insensitivity in Sojourners, much less in the feminist re­ligious journals.

Cort is politically astute. The geographical and vocational subjection of women within mar­riage is indeed the place where the last of the most unseemly male self-serving oppression resists granting us full humanity, and accepting the full humanity it of­fers men. I hope Cort can free himself from his delusions, and risk becoming a full person.

Prof. Emily Fowler Hartigan
University of Nebraska, College of Law
Lincoln, Nebraska

Mark C. Henrie

What is one to make of Phil­ip E. Devine’s article on Allan Bloom (Oct.)? How is it possible for Devine to interpret an author who begins his book with a whole­sale condemnation of the easy relativism of today’s students — because such relativism amounts to nihilism — as himself being an atheistic nihilist?

In the first paragraphs of his article Devine seems to agree with much of Bloom’s polemic against trends in the modern American university, but then he says that the enmity Bloom has generated in certain circles “would be inexplicable if his conclusions were limited to…[such] plati­tudes” about the shallowness of modern “lifestyles” and the need for the Great Books. On the contrary, criticism of Bloom is entirely explicable on these very grounds. Reaction to Bloom has been so bitter in academic circles because in the past nihilistic aca­demics have been able to dismiss such indictments against them as platitudes dreamed up by narrow-minded Babbitts. Since a noted scholar like Bloom cannot so eas­ily be dismissed, he presents a grave threat to academic pieties and must be attacked morally. Bloom has been fiercely criticiz­ed because he thinks some things are better than others and that we can know what these are: this is seen by many within the aca­demic community as a fascist po­sition threatening the foundations of liberal democracy. With the academic establishment attacking Bloom precisely because he does not share their nihilism, it is Devine’s article which is inexplica­ble.

Devine accomplishes his feat of inverting Bloom’s intention by introducing the old Straussian in­terpretive device, “secret writ­ing,” and using this as an excuse to interpret Bloom to mean the opposite of what he clearly says. This is itself a misinterpretation of the Straussian hermeneutic; Strauss never argued that “secret writing” consisted of lies dressed up in rhetoric. Basing his argu­ment on this contentious under­standing of the Straussian project, however, Devine strangely im­putes Richard Rorty’s well-known Nietzschean nihilism (which does deserve our strongest condemna­tion) to Bloom. But surely Devine knows that it was Richard Rorty himself who wrote one of the most scathing reviews of Bloom, in The New Republic (April 4, 1988). Surely Devine knows that Rorty attacked Bloom precisely because Bloom thinks he knows Truth (capital T), a Truth which is not Rorty’s nihilism.

Throughout his article Devine seeks to ally himself with “ordinary folk,” and seems par­ticularly annoyed at the “elitism” in Bloom’s argument which comes through loud and clear in the text (no secret writing here). It is true that Bloom is an “elit­ist” — in the sense that Plato was an elitist. But Christian Platonists from Origen to Augustine have also had a strongly anti-egalitar­ian bent to them of a kind analo­gous to Bloom’s. “Elitism’’ is no reason to reject Bloom, however annoying it may be.

Finally, Devine also claims that Bloom is an atheist. He bases this claim on his penetration of Bloom’s “secret writing.” Accord­ing to Devine, Bloom reads Socra­tes as an atheistic nihilist who used clever rhetoric proclaiming his piety to cover up his very real atheism. Since Devine also thinks that Bloom sees himself as a latter-day Socrates, this means Bloom must be an atheist as well. But while Socrates may have been in conflict with the “gods of the city” (i.e., with divinized civic customs), he obviously dis­played a kind of faith: how else would one make sense of Socra­tes’s decision to drink the hemlock rather than escape? Bloom knows as well as we do that Socrates en­gaged in a peculiar form of iron­ic rhetoric at his trial, but also that Socrates decided to accept the city’s punishment because, as he tells his friend Crito, “God points out the way” (Tre­dennick translation). This is no nihilist decision, and no nihilist rhetoric (remember, he is here talking with his friend Crito and not addressing the Athenian As­sembly). Asa Platonist, it is true, Bloom is not a theist. But also as a Platonist, he appears to believe in the existence of a nonpersonal Absolute (“the Good”) whose es­sence is ultimately unknowable, yet which is approachable. As Christians, we have knowledge of the Absolute revealed in the per­son of Christ Jesus which Bloom does not possess. For us as Chris­tians, therefore, Bloom is insuf­ficient, but he is no nihilist. And because he is no nihilist, no rela­tivist, he is one of the few ser­ious political thinkers of recent years on which Christians can legitimately build.

To conclude, Bloom’s book is profoundly disturbing and is intended to be no less. Probably no one will agree with all of his reasoning and all of his conclu­sions. But if in the end Bloom serves as a modern Plato (or Soc­rates), and succeeds in opening up the modern mind, sunk in rel­ativism, to the possibility of the Absolute, he deserves our limited praise — limited, while we await the modern Augustine to accom­plish the synthesis of Bloom’s Platonic insights with Christian revelation.

Mark C. Henrie
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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