May 1991

“Escapist” Literature

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the NOR. I live in an area constantly in turmoil, and the arrival of the NOR offers me the chance to sit down and fill up with intellectual fuel, to be a part of some of the spiritual arguments of the day. I don’t suppose you’ve been called escapist literature before, but when it was raining Scuds outside I often warmed up with you.

Jim Crees
Kibbutz Nir David
Israel




Bellah’s Omission

Robert N. Bellah’s article on the rise of market totalitarianism (March) was classic, save for his silence on a most pathetic if not conspicuous exemplification of our “commodification” of life: abortion.

In other words, brilliant social criticism ought not be unequal in application.

Prof. Christopher Nugent
Department of History, University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky




From Bellah to Gramsci

I read Robert N. Bellah’s article on the rise of market totalitarianism (March) with great interest. I agree with Bellah that consumerism is well on the way to dominating our lives. The profit motive as basic value pervades our cultural, educational, and religious institutions to such an extent that we live today in a society much more sophisticated in its totalitarianism than the one depicted by Orwell in 1984. Why? Because society gives us the illusion of freedom and individuality while controlling the parameters and content of such values. The illusion is so powerful that the State has no need to use its repressive apparatus.

I agree with Bellah that the solution is “the renewal of community” and that “the church has a central role to play” in this through Christian education. It is at this point that I want to suggest that Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and his views on the role that intellectuals play in it are of fundamental importance for study and elaboration by Christians and others who hold spiritual, humanitarian, and ecological values. I know this will raise eyebrows, but if one is willing to go beyond the surface of Gramsci as a Marxist revolutionary, one discovers a rich theoretical analysis of the interplay between values and institutions.

I am not advocating the mechanical “transplantation” of Gramscian theory; what I am proposing is that if we are serious about renewal not just as individual experience but as social possibility, then we must address the issue of standing up for our values as an organized movement. This takes us into the realm of culture and institutions, and it is here that what Gramsci says might be helpful to us. The connections between Christ’s Gospel and socio-economic, moral, ecological, and spiritual concerns must be shown and developed; if Christian values are not to die, they must be embraced by living human beings. This requires education, organization, and political work.

We must not content ourselves with the mere criticism of the status quo. If we don’t stand up and fight for our values, we may be passively accepting a ruined earth and a desolate, soulless social order.

Ted M. Shigematsu
San Diego, California




Medjugorje Revisited

When I read John C. Cort’s “Medjugorje: True or False?” (Dec.), I said “ouch” and went on the roof to pray while I stewed over the bitter tone of the column. Little did I know when I read it that I would soon receive a call from my mother informing me that she was joining a pilgrim group to Medjugorje. Being so close, I decided to join her. It was my third time in Medjugorje.

I find myself, as after my first visit there, full of peace and joy. My faith has been strengthened and confirmed once again. And so, in the manner of those who place silver hearts around paintings of the Virgin in token of favors received, I would like to pen a few lines about Medjugorje.

First of all, I have not been appointed judge of the authenticity of apparitions anywhere. And if truth be told, the alleged apparitions are not of central importance to me. The Blessed Mother may be appearing in Yugoslavia; her Son is present in every tabernacle in the world! The apparitions and locutions granted some people are meant to be a grace, a help, to others. But as in the icons of Mary pointing to her Son, so the visions only point to the living of the Christian faith.

In 1985, like many others going to Medjugorje, I was thrilled by the notion of apparitions, and blessed to be in the room during the time of the apparitions. One always hopes one will see something! But lo and behold, as I prayed intensely, what took shape in my heart was the name of an evil spirit I had long been prey to. In that moment of grace, I was shown my sin with great tenderness. That was, for me, a great gift — and as my sin was revealed to me with such love and invitation to repentance, I concluded that this extraordinary grace was indeed a gift from Our Lady, whose rosary I was praying.

This time, as then, I soon found myself hearing confessions, which is what visiting priests tend to do much of at that place of pilgrimage. One can hear more confessions in an afternoon there than one would in a year at a parish back home in the U.S.

Now, as in 1986, I joined a steady flow of pilgrims to visit Vicka at her home. Now, as then, she received us graciously. Indeed, she is utterly amazing. She manages to make eye contact with every person in her courtyard, manages to smile and be courteous to the thousands — and by now millions — who come to her home all too often to gawk and to take endless pictures. On an after-dinner walk, my mother and I ran into her in her village. She prayed over us, spontaneously, graciously — she is a simple young woman who had likely already seen a thousand people that day!

I intend to make no case for or against Medjugorje. I am not a lawyer or a debater. As a Catholic priest, it is my job to learn to taste fruit, spiritual fruit, and so to discern what sort of tree is producing it. I confess I would be shocked and disappointed were the visionaries to be condemned as liars or victims of delusion. I would accept this as the decision of the proper authorities. And I would marvel that God in His providence has been able to bring so much, such overwhelming spiritual good, to so many from so great an evil. But even this is possible. But I suspect the visionaries will be vindicated in the long run, after the visions have ceased, in the passage of the years. I do know that the call to prayer and fasting has fed my soul as a priest, for certainly the call to fasting was one that no one had been issuing, though the Scripture and the Fathers are full of fasting. I and thousands of others were fed bountifully in Medjugorje — fed by faith, by the shared faith of many. Fed by good teaching, drawing us back to the heart of the Scriptures.

I confess that I was shocked that the NOR published the part of Cort’s column dealing with the story of the Franciscan priest “sleeping with a woman whom he eventually married.” Whatever happened there, it was sad and scandalous, and it does little good to broadcast such dirt. It is no secret that all living human beings concerned here are sinners. Even the visionaries. For Cort to insist that the Blessed Mother speak of social justice to a dirt poor parish in the Balkan mountains at a time when the people are being freed from the yoke of oppression strikes me as silly. The local people are in fact rejoicing that the mighty have been cast down from their thrones: But the mighty were those who spoke loudest and longest of social justice, and their downfall is being attributed to the Blessed Mother. The poor, the cleaning women from Queens, who go to Medjugorje are fed, but — and this we have forgotten — “Man does not live by bread alone.”

I do not want to enter a debate on the roots of the Medjugorje phenomenon, the alleged sins of priests in the parish, the alleged mistakes or distortions of the visionaries, the very real ecclesiastical political struggle one hears so much of. This may all, after all, just be manure — at the base of a fine tree. May Our Lady, Queen of Peace, lead us all to the peace her Son brings.

Raymond T. Gawronski, S.J.
Gregorian University
Rome, Italy




Lively Exchange on Eros

The subject of the fifth New Oxford Review Forum, held on February 23 at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, was “Sex, Life, and the Kingdom.” The panelists were Charles Stinson of Dartmouth and Richard Geraghty of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. The speakers provided a lively exchange.

Prof. Stinson, a historian, began by reviewing the Old Testament tradition which contrasts the “celebration of Eros” in the Song of Songs with the legacy of asceticism and celibacy, less known Hebrew traditions evidenced in priestly rules of sexual abstinence, and the voluntary celibacy of sects such as the Nazarites. This tension between the recognition of the goodness of creation, including sexuality and the body, and the ascetic and mystical striving to reach a transcendent, nonphysical love is present at the core of the biblical tradition.

After the destruction of the First Temple, the people of Israel developed a “darker perception” of natural life. A more “apocalyptic” spirituality developed (reflected in the Book of Daniel) which shaped groups such as the Essenes and the “teacher of righteousness,” John the Baptizer, who was celibate. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were opposed to this “other-worldly” asceticism. This struggle, between the Pharisaic “fleshly” affirmation of family and procreation and the contrasting sense of an apocalyptic “end time,” was ongoing at the time of Jesus, whose proclamation of the “kingdom breaking through” led to an increased expectation of the end time. St. Paul subsequently tolerated but minimized sexual reproduction and marriage (“better to marry than to burn”) because he believed the end of history was imminent.

But the “mysterious delay,” the unexpected continuation of earthly life, transformed early Christianity. A “jeering” from those who resisted asceticism began and continues to this day. Perplexed, the early Church faced the possibility of “becoming Pharisees,” as the ascetic rejection of biological reproduction became anachronistic. Life clearly was going on. But the ascetic aspiration was, as Stinson put it, “rescued by the Greco-Roman tradition,” which disdained sexuality, and which fused with the strains of apocalyptic Judaism and the “Kingdom” prediction of the early Christians to become “the Augustinian Synthesis.” St. Augustine’s warnings about sexuality and sensual desire are articulated in his City of God. Once again, as the Roman empire collapsed, virginity and celibacy were held to be of highest value, though they were seen as “means, not ends,” the goal being the purer love of God. Sensual desire was described by Augustine as “the bird lime of lust,” a sticky trap for the soul, preventing its flight.

This recognition of the “dark side” of sexuality was later balanced by the Eastern Church and St. Thomas Aquinas, who recognized the legitimate role of the physical senses. But the idea that sexual pleasure is a good in itself was still rejected. (The notion of romance and friendship between men and women was a foreign idea to the ancients, not conceived until the late Middle Ages.)

The “de-Augustinizing” of Catholic theology didn’t gain sway until the Second Vatican Council, which took a major step in transforming Catholic thought by recognizing that the “unitive side” (the bonding of the marriage partners) is a legitimate aspect of sex. The struggle, however, continues, and sexual issues remain at the center of much Catholic dispute. The “progressivists” have not won. Stinson pointed out that a new “Augustinian” perspective has arisen within the Church in recent years. Alarmed by the hedonism of the times, the decline of the family, and the spread of AIDS, the “traditionalists” have rallied to warn once again about “the dark side of Eros.”

“Sex? Getting it right is hard work! Marriage is tough! Life is tough! The real question is, how are you doing?” Richard Geraghty spoke from a more personal viewpoint. He instructs seminarians in philosophy and is a self-described “Aristotelian Realist.” A “rebel” from an Irish family, he left his New York home at 13, wandered the country, and, increasingly critical of the church, gave his parents a sex manual, hoping it wasn’t too late. He later came to the conclusion that perhaps they knew some things he didn’t.

Geraghty defended Augustine. “I like Augustine! He’s real!” Geraghty sees Augustine as a “master of our obsessions,” a keen psychologist who understood guilt and the need for salvation. Geraghty warned against the “gnostic tendency abroad” which idealizes the intellect. In trying to avoid being “sheep,” we become “rabbits,” rushing from idea to idea. He urged us to listen to the “veterans” of marriage, not to the “talkers.” Marriage, he feels, is like “community.” It is never wholly good but intellectualized “improvements” usually wreck it. What characterizes our times is chasing illusions, and an unwillingness to accept that “heaven is heaven, and earth is earth.”

He asked whether marriage (or sex) could ever overcome the essential loneliness that humans feel. Suffering can’t be avoided or cured by psychology. “Get real!” Geraghty urged.

The subsequent group discussion dealt with issues such as the contrast between the Eastern and Western traditions (John Paul: “we need to breathe with both lungs”), and the controversy regarding women and the priesthood, which led to further questions on the sacramental nature of marriage and the related concept of Christ as “male” and the Church as “female.”

Some commented that an integrated feminine perspective would be more affirmative of genuine sexuality and that much of the denigration of sex comes from a blurred view of love.

The next New Oxford Review Forum will be held in May; the subject will be the writings of Walker Percy.

Ron Austin
Studio City, California




Not Enslaved

In his letter (March), Nathan J. Latta claimed that without legal abortion women are “enslaved” to their “biological reproductive system.” As an anti-abortion, Roman Catholic, home-schooling mother of five, I must say that I certainly don’t feel trapped by my reproductive system.

Sarah R. Buck
Centerville, Louisiana




On the Terms “Diversity” & “Homophobia”

Philip E. Devine’s review of Leszek Kolakowski’s Modernity on Endless Trial (March) perpetuates what seems to be an emerging cause célèbre within certain contemporary ideological camps: the denigration of the terms “diversity” and “homophobia.” In this context, Devine equated the use of those terms with “political correctness…which uses words…to wage war against the very possibility of a coherent culture….” He implied that the truth behind these words is something to be denied.

I find it hard to accept that “diversity” and “coherent culture” are mutually exclusive (the extreme usage of each term may indeed breed that exclusivity). E Pluribus Unum does not mean that becoming “one” totally eliminates the “many,” but, rather subsumes them without denying their reality and worth.

“Homophobia” is another interesting term, the denigration of which is currently in vogue with the more reactionary elements of society. There is a gleeful tendency to transfer rejection of extreme abuses of the word by such groups as Queer Nation and ACT/UP to all uses of the term, and, therefore, deny validity to its very real existence. False generalization results in justifying the continuation of the palpable injustice which exists because of prejudice, the kind that arises from the worst vestiges of original sin found in humanity. This very real homophobia manifests itself quite pervasively in American society, resulting in totally prejudicial denial of working and housing opportunities and fair treatment in employment, to name but two examples. To denigrate the reality of homophobia in order to foster a sense of “coherent culture” is specious at best.

Societies of all stripes have the right and duty to ensure that the common good is protected, defined, and fostered. This does not mean, however, that uniformity should be mistaken for unity or that “cultural cohesion” should be fostered by means of prejudice and discrimination.

Jim McCrea
Piedmont, California



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