September 2013

Boring & Irritating

I think I finally have figured out why religious publications like the NOR, Commonweal, First Things, and others both bore and irritate me. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s article “Living the Christian Faith in a Postmodern World” (NOR, June) gave me the needed clue. All discussion of how to live the Christian life is otiose, whether in the modern, the postmodern, the ancient, or any other world. For 3,000 years people have thought about living the Judeo-Christian life — without success. The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, does not really tell us how to live, but how to avoid living the evil life of the world and how to await redemption in the next life. I don’t often quote Martin Luther, whose work I generally disapprove of, but I agree with him that Satan rules this world and we cannot really do much about it except to escape it through faith in Christ and His redeeming power.

Norman Ravitch
Savannah, Georgia




THE EDITOR REPLIES:

Jesus instructed us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” Although the “whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19) at this stage in history, we Christians are called to apply ourselves to the task of building up the Kingdom of Christ in the here and now, despite the apparent obstacles. This critical aspect of the life of faith cannot be dismissed by turning one’s back on “the world,” which is made up of our fellow men who need to be confronted with the saving truth of the Gospel. To seek to “escape” it is to edge dangerously close to the Manichaean rejection of the material world as inherently evil.

Contra Martin Luther, the Catholic view is not so overwhelmingly negative. As stated in the Catechism, “We firmly believe that God is the master of the world and of its history” (no. 314). And, “in order that the message of salvation can show the power of its truth and radiance before men, it must be authenticated by the witness of the life of Christians” (no. 2044). What this means practically is that, “by constantly evangelizing men, the Church works toward enabling them to infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and mores, laws and structures of the communities in which they live” (no. 2105). In this way we help hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God.

:New social conditions and new philosophies — specifically those nurtured in the postmodern world — require new modes of communicating the “message of salvation” and the “power of its truth and radiance before men” so as to build up the Kingdom. Frankly, we don’t see how figuring out such a monumental Christian task undertaking laden with eschatological significance, as Archbishop Cordileone has done, could be shrugged off as a “bore.”





The Aesthetic Criterion

Apropos James G. Hanink’s article “Can Beauty Save the World?” (June): One of the distinguishing characteristics of European or Western culture is the aesthetic criterion, a gift to later generations from the early Greeks. While other cultures encourage their members to pursue the good and search for truth (unless provided by revelation, as in Islam), only Western culture gives equal honor to beauty. Indeed, as Europe became Christian, most of its “pagan” culture was preserved — despite its linkage to polytheism — because of its beauty. This could occur only because the Christian faith acknowledges the inherent goodness of creation as it flowed from the hands of its Creator. Thanks to this aesthetic predisposition, Christian Europe was open to the contributions from classical culture to discern a more profound understanding of the nature of goodness and truth, guided by revelation.

Richard B. Rose
Berkeley, California




Canine Companions in a Disposable Culture

“The New Frontier in Family Life” (New Oxford Note, June) provoked interest on at least two points. The first has to do with the increasing number of people who prefer pets (primarily dogs) to human children. It is a developing trend not only in America but in other countries as well. Why is this?

One reason, I would suggest, lies in the difficulty of raising human children, particularly in modern societies that often lack the level of social, religious, and other supports found in earlier eras. We’ve witnessed a breakdown in the marriage commitment, leaving many single parents juggling work and child-raising on their own. For others, enjoying an affluent, unencumbered lifestyle is the goal. Even among married couples, while the vast majority of parents would undoubtedly say they love their children, how many actually like having them?

A not insignificant number of parents are overwhelmed, over-burdened, frustrated, stressed-out, worn-out, even depressed by the trials and difficulties of raising children, from the early days of fussiness and sleepless nights to the tantrums of the terrible twos, to struggles with ADHD, to the rebelliousness of adolescence and the myriad crises of the teenage years. Some parents opine that those who don’t have children are lucky. Others say they would never do it again. Still others long for the retirement they’ve had to defer in order to fund their children’s sports or higher education.

Along with the joys and good times, parenting comes with a multitude of physical, psychological, and financial strains. Parenting, in short, isn’t easy.

And so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that some people choose to forgo those burdens, and instead content themselves with canine companions — dogs, after all, have been “man’s best friend” for some 10,000 years or so. They’re less expensive (though not cheap), come with fewer problems (depending on the breed and especially the owner’s commitment to good training), and are unconditionally loving. That’s hard to beat.

Having canine companions is one thing; having canine children quite another. Those who treat their dogs as if they were human children — dressing them in clothes, pushing them in strollers, sitting them in highchairs for meals — have surely gone too far. Dogs are dogs — canis lupus familiaris — a different species. They aren’t human; never were, never will be. And people who treat them as humans — projecting human needs onto them rather than treating them as dogs with canine needs — do them a disservice.

The Catechism wisely enjoins respect for, and kindness toward, animals — we even owe them kindness because they are God’s creatures. We are allowed to love animals, but we “should not direct to them the affection due only to persons” (no. 2418). The New Oxford Note rightly protests the “inordinate love of creatures”; but in our wayward, sinful society, prone to inordinate love of many things, such inordinate love is understandable, if not defensible.

The second point concerns the possibility of an afterlife for our animal companions. Revelation 22:14-15 (a sidebar quote accompanying the Note) is surely not singling out dogs for exclusion from the New Jerusalem. (What about cats, historically associated with evil?) Entire books have been written on this subject, but I would like to offer only a few thoughts.

Objections to animal afterlife typically revolve around one of several points. Either animals don’t have souls or, if they do, they are purely temporal, not eternal. Animals are not rational, moral beings in the sense that humans are, and so cannot enter into a relationship with God (although they can with us!). One Catholic apologist made the absurd claim that, since dogs don’t love as humans do, they can’t enter Heaven.

Rather than concentrate on the characteristics of animals, why not focus on the characteristics of God? After all, to reiterate, the Catechism says they are God’s creatures: “he surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory” (no. 2416).

God is Love. If we, with our flawed, limited, human love, love our canine companions, how much more does God, who is Infinite Love?

God is just. The Catechism says that “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly” (no. 2418), yet abuse and injustice are common, and are not only an offense against human dignity but against the justice of God. Surely divine justice demands recompense to the victims of injustice.

God is Redeemer — not only of humanity but of the whole created order. Romans 8:21 reveals that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Surely dogs — who, as part of the created order, “bless [God] and give him glory” — will be included in that redemption and freedom.

God the Creator is an Artist of sublime proportions. Can we envision Leonardo defacing the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo taking a sledgehammer to David, Beethoven ripping up the score of the Ninth Symphony? Why would God consign to oblivion His handiwork? Especially handiwork that is alive, that has personality, mind, and emotions, and the ability to relate.

God is eternal. We live in a culture of the disposable. Styrofoam cups, cheap Chinese goods, built-in obsolescence. Even pets are sometimes treated like junk. Forget about responsibility and commitment. Don’t want Fido anymore? Kill him, dump him, send him to the shelter. God doesn’t make cheap temporal junk; would He allow anything good in His universe to be lost forever?

The beatific vision for animals? Perhaps not. But surely, based on the characteristics of God, there is a place in the New Heaven and New Earth for the beloved animal companions — God’s creatures — that have enriched our lives on earth.

We hope for afterlife for our pets, not for our own sakes, not because they belong to us, but for their sakes, because they belong to Jesus Christ, created by Him and for Him, who is Eternal Love.

Andrew M. Seddon
Billings, Montana




Glory in Print & on Film

F. Douglas Kneibert provided an insightful appreciation of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (June). Mr. Kneibert is correct that it is essential for a reader of this great novel to have an understanding of the social and political climate in Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s to fully appreciate Greene’s work.

There is now a visual way to gain that understanding: last year’s commercial film For Greater Glory, starring Andy Garcia, Peter O’Toole, and Eva Longoria, now available on DVD. It provides a vivid account of the Cristero War in Mexico during that period, in which over 90,000 people perished, as Catholics resisted by force the Mexican government’s persecution of the Church. By Hollywood standards, the movie is quite accurate, historically. I wonder if the producers of the film had Greene’s work in mind since the titles of the movie and the book are similar.

The film portrays the martyrdoms of both St. Cristóbal Magallanes, a priest, and Bl. José Sanchez, a 14-year-old boy. Ann Ball has written a nice short biography, published by TAN Books, of Bl. Miguel Agustín Pro, the courageous Jesuit mentioned by Kneibert, and the only person I know of whose martyrdom was recorded on film.

The film and Greene’s novel are reminders, applicable to our own times, that the defense of our religious and political freedoms may come at a price.

¡Viva Cristo Rey! ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!

Clarke N. Ellis
Bethesda, Maryland






F. Douglas Kneibert’s article on Graham Greene’s masterpiece The Power and the Glory is exceptionally thorough and perceptive. It vividly brought back to mind the novel which I read three decades ago. It deserves all the praise Kneibert gave it, though I was dissatisfied with the book's ending.

The unnamed “whisky priest” hero is limned in gray tones, between the black of Padre José, a truly failed priest, and a child’s storybook hero called Padre Juan (in reality Bl. Miguel Pro), who went to his death before a firing squad crying out, Viva Cristo Rey! The whisky priest’s capture is related in such a way as to leave no doubt that, for all his grave failings, he was in fact heroic — indeed, at the very end, another priest, who comes out of hiding to enter a safe house, proclaims that the dead one was a hero and a martyr of the Church. This would lead the reader to draw the conclusion that, despite his grave failings, the priest was a saint who would “go straight up,” as the saying goes. I found this “feel good” ending problematic as it is clear that the priest was unrepentant about his mortal sin of fathering an illegitimate child: “He tried to think of his child with shame, but he could only think of her with a kind of famished love.” This, despite the fact that, in confessing a penitent, he himself had the thought that “when we love our sin then we are damned indeed.”

The French stigmatic and mystic Marthe Robin, whose cause is under consideration by the Vatican, counseled a troubled visitor that if she could not be sorry for a particular sin, she could at least be sorry that she was not sorry. Yet even that work-around was precluded by Greene. As the priest explained to a woman being held in prison with him: “He said in hard accents, ‘I have a child.’” And he thought: “What a worthy woman she [the one in the cell] was! Her voice pleaded in the darkness; he couldn’t catch what she said, but it was something about the Good Thief. He said, ‘My child, the thief repented. I haven’t repented.’… He couldn’t say to himself that he wished the sin had never existed, because the sin seemed to him now so unimportant and he loved the fruit of it.”

The ending raises the question of whether baptism, even the baptism of blood, overcomes true impenitence of a mortal sin. Kneibert put his finger precisely on the problem by quoting the line immediately following the one set forth above: “He needed a confessor to draw his mind slowly down the drab passages which led to grief and repentance.”

Hurd Baruch
Tucson, Arizona




Penalty & Protection

On reading Anne Barbeau Gardiner’s review of Fr. Paul Jones’s book A Different Kind of Cell (June), I was filled with admiration for what prisoner Clayton Fountain had become, and was happy that he is almost certainly with God — or at least well on his way via Purgatory. Mr. Fountain’s story certainly does show that no one is beyond redemption, and that is good news for all of us.

I must, however, take exception to Fr. Paul’s statement that he has “no choice but to stand resolutely against the death penalty….” In this country there has long been a debate about the purpose of the criminal justice system. Is it meant to punish or to rehabilitate? I submit that it is neither. The purpose of the criminal justice system is to protect society.

There has likewise long been a debate about the effectiveness of the death penalty. It is claimed to have little deterrent value. With today’s 25-year appeals, the death penalty may in fact have no deterrent value; but I submit that deterrence is not its purpose. Its purpose is the protection of society. There is no doubt whatsoever that extinguishing the life of a criminal will prevent all of his further offenses.

Where there is no death penalty, a life sentence gives a prisoner a license to kill, as was proven by Fountain’s murder of three prisoners and a guard.

I am happy for Fountain — happy that he lived long enough to make his peace with God. But what about the four men whose lives he snuffed out while in prison — had they made their peace with the Lord, or did they die in vain? Would they have made their peace with the Lord if they’d been allowed to live a little longer? Preserving Clayton Fountain’s life cost four others theirs, and maybe their immortal souls as well.

J.R. Dunworth
Holly Springs, Mississippi




An Extreme Disservice

The NOR has done me an extreme disservice by printing Crescente Villahermosa’s letter (June) in which he implies that I am not necessarily Catholic because I agree with Ayn Rand’s views on government altruism.

Villahermosa’s letter smacks of the tactics used by those Democrats who personally attack the messenger when they can’t rebut the message. (No, I am not a Republican.) Since I have never met Villahermosa, I don’t know how he knows my religious beliefs when I was primarily discussing a political matter. Since Rand was a Jewish atheist and he apparently doesn’t like her, I suppose I could say that Villahermosa is an anti-Semite, but that would be equally erroneous and unkind.

Cancel my subscription. If there is any money left over, send it to President Obama since he is best qualified, more so than us individually, to determine which of the poor is best deserving of our money.

Gerald Gelazela
Surprise, Arizona






Ed. Note: In your original letter (April), you stated, “I side with [letter-writer] J.R. Vazzo, Ayn Rand, Jesus, and common sense regarding charity — and not with the Church or the NOR.” It was this statement of yours — that you do not stand with the Church — that led Mr. Villahermosa to his conclusion. What else did you expect to be inferred from such a statement?






Applying Flea Powder

If your readers can stand one last note on the continuing discussion of Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged, I must reply to letter-writer Jeffrey D. Tiner (“Lie With Dogs, Catch Their Fleas,” June), who condemns my lengthy April letter. Somehow, he thought my letter “excused” Rand’s atheism, or tried to “reconcile it with Catholicism.” Even Donald DeMarco’s reply (April) challenged me to do that obvious impossibility.

Actually, I thoroughly condemned her invincibly ignorant atheism throughout, just as I might have condemned her wretched taste in music, ignorance of history, or other irrelevant, wrong opinions. All I praised was her, and Koestler’s, Orwell’s, and Huxley’s political and philosophical commitment to freedom from tyranny, which freedom was the true focus of DeMarco’s attack (“The Invalid Identification of Contraries with Contradictories,” Jan.-Feb.).

My “crystal ball” for speculation about Rand’s thoughts was my personal, intimate, 20-year acquaintance with her, as well as having read everything she ever wrote.

Though some great philosophers of political freedom have “fleas,” we should all still “lie down” with them. Of course, we must ignore their incidental musings about theology, especially if they spent their formative years as theologically deprived Soviet citizens. We can always use flea powder — prayer, fasting, the sacraments, Scripture and magisterial documents — afterward.

Egon Richard Tausch
San Antonio, Texas




The Real Message of Fatima

The June letters section consumed over five pages of print hashing over the past dealings with the message of Fatima. Finally, Howard P. Kainz hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “The important response to Fatima is not to obsess over the consecration of Russia, or to force the Vatican to admit that it lied about the ‘third secret,’ but rather to consecrate ourselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, say the rosary daily, and make the five First Saturday devotions, as Our Lady requested.”

Many people who make the First Saturday devotions every month, or several times a year, do so to make up for the people who never make them.

Treacy Gibbons
Naples, Florida




Sterile Platitudes for Exclusive Congregations

Kudos to Maryann Ragan (letter, June) for her incisive comments on Timothy Cardinal Dolan. While his heartiness and affection for all of God’s people are undeniable, one could question his reticence to criticize someone like Gov. Cuomo, who clearly pushes the envelope on what are some of the most important social issues of the day. So many of our priests do much the same in their Sunday homilies — less heartily and affectionately, I might add — repeating the same pious but sterile platitudes to their increasingly exclusive congregations of senior status. Their worst dalliances with “current affairs” is when they exhort “sinners” to come to confession. The whole scene every week is reminiscent of the classroom teacher who shows his might by going after the “good kids” who will never give him any problems.

Come on, guys, go after the weasels in the weeds and leave the old ladies, myself included, to continue the good fight on their own. It’s called “preaching to the choir,” and though it is patently easier than breaching p.c. guidelines, it is perilously close to cowardice.

Joan Martin
Yonkers, New York






Ed. Note: The choir too needs instruction and admonition. No layman can adequately fight the good fight on his own; each one of us is a “sinner” who needs recourse to confession. As such, priests do no wrong by exhorting the faithful who fill the pews to avail themselves of the sacraments. Preaching to an audience that isn’t there — the “weasels in the weeds” — would be a fruitless exercise. But that is precisely why the faithful, clergy and laymen alike, need to present a higher profile in public life.





The Wrong Cuomo

I would like to correct my June letter, wherein I referred to a letter written by Gov. Mario Cuomo as written by his son, Andrew Cuomo. I criticized the younger, ostensibly Catholic, governor for his hypocrisy pursuant to his unbridled support for abortion and same-sex marriage, and his openly adulterous relationship with his girlfriend, who lives with him in the governor’s mansion. He receives the sacraments.

His father, Mario, once said that “our public morality, then — the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives — depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not — and should not — be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus.”

I may have mistaken one Cuomo for another, for which I apologize, but it is clear that Andrew is a huge chip off the old block. Dad should be proud.

Maryann Ragan
Coram, New York




Farewell to a Maverick Priest

In the history of the modern Church, there has never been a more maligned priest than Fr. Andrew M. Greeley, who passed away on May 29. He was condemned as a reactionary liberal, but he was also a visionary who warned about Church failings. He was the first to sound the alarm about priestly pedophilia in his home archdiocese, Chicago, which started the exposure and clean-up across the country (he coined the term “Lavender Mafia”). He wasn’t maligned for breaking his priestly vows (as was his archbishop, John Cody) or for stealing Church treasures or for preaching a new gospel, but for his many novels that describe the sexual exploits of their protagonists, and for his liberal opinions, such as calling for the elimination of priestly celibacy and the election of the pope by the laity.

At first relatively unknown, Fr. Greeley burst onto the national scene with his 1981 novel The Cardinal Sins, a story about two Chicago friends who enter the priesthood. One becomes a cardinal who engages in sexual encounters, while his priest friend criticizes him for breaking his vows. Fr. Greeley was ostracized by his archdiocese for continuing to publish racy novels, so he fled to the University of Arizona to teach sociology and to conduct research on various ecclesial issues. His novels were so popular and lucrative that he offered the Chicago Archdiocese a million dollars to aid needy parish schools. When this gift was rejected, he established a private charity to distribute the funds himself. He donated most of his earnings to Catholic charities and other causes, including to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Fr. John Shea, a friend and mentor, suggested that Greeley write a new catechism: Instead of applying religious truths to life, he would search in life for hints that point to religious truths. And so in 1976 he published The Great Mysteries: An Essential Catechism, which was roundly criticized by the hierarchy. In 1989 he published a more profound, reverent, and spiritually enhancing book, Myths of Religion: An Inspiring Investigation into the Nature of God and a Journey to the Boundaries of Faith, which was more readily accepted.

While his novels explored sexual misconduct, he remained celibate and true to his priestly calling. He stressed forgiveness through repentance, and the endings of his novels carried that message. He also inserted in them profound spiritual instruction that simplified the teachings of Christ — mainly, how we are to live prudently so as to gain access to His Father’s Kingdom.

Requiescat in pace.

John P. Gawlak
Stamford, Connecticut



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