Volume > Issue > Briefly: April 1987

April 1987

In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter

By Gordon C. Zahn

Publisher: Templegate

Pages: 277

Price: $10.95

Review Author: Joseph Keppler

Franz Jagerstatter was beheaded on August 9, 1943, for refusing mandatory service in Hitler’s army. Jagerstatter was a devout Catholic. He had a loving wife, three daughters, and a farm to run in St. Radegund. Why, when so many others accepted the call to serve their country, did Jagerstatter adamantly refuse? Gordon C. Zahn first published Jagerstatter’s story 20 years ago during the Vietnam War. In this revised edition, he notes the impact the biography had on the peace movement of the 1960s: the discovery of this Austrian peasant’s moral tenacity was cited by Daniel Ellsberg, for instance, as an encouragement to release the Pentagon Papers.

In Solitary Witness offers more than a static portrait of a 20th-century martyr. Zahn’s portrait of Jagerstatter reveals a sanctifying gracefulness. Jagerstatter guided his prayerful life to nurture the grace given him, and he continually sought out that grace which would enable him to remain steadfastly faithful: “Through prayer we constantly implore new grace from God, since without God’s help and grace it would be impossible for us to preserve the Faith and be true to His commandments.” He preferred to think kindly that those who served Hitler did so for lack of grace; they failed to see the evil surrounding them. Toward them, he truly affirmed a Christ-like morality: “Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us.”

With like forbearance, Zahn guides his careful writing. Professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Zahn realizes what scholarly research can and cannot do: “For there are no sociological tools adequate to the task of analyzing the workings of grace…. ” Yet through circumspect interviews and critical overviews, he thoroughly documents what can be known about Jagerstatter – his adolescence, his marriage, his piety, his writings. Zahn writes with prudent evenhandedness, for example: “Different people saw the same behavior in vastly different contexts. To the family, the rebel’s behavior was accepted and honored as obedience to a moral imperative imposed upon him by his religious commitment – a commitment which, in their eyes, was not excessive, although they certainly recognized it as exceptional. The rest of the village, on the other hand, saw Jagerstatter’s refusal to serve in the army as a thoroughly tragic and ultimately senseless act of religious fanaticism, born of a sadly disordered mind.”

From letters and Jagerstatter’s own writings, Zahn glues pieces of the past’s puzzle back together, and derives evidence of high probity.

Jagerstatter’s writings reveal a beloved, timeless Catholicism, one that rejected any status as a stepchild to secular power. His Catholicism required an arduous commitment to eternity. He prayed often, read inspirationally, and received the sacraments. His religion was a faith about to burst into eternal joy.

With the Nazi horror all about, he neither despaired, capitulated, nor compromised. With his exceptional faith, he decided to let himself be executed and so to reach Heaven. His focus on eternity prevailed, and eternity, no matter what one’s eschatological beliefs, is where he, and countless others, must now surely reside. Compared to Raymond Chandler’s analogy of death as the “Big Sleep,” Jagerstatter’s eternity conveys ecstatic communality: “So unimaginably great are these joys that God has prepared for us in His Kingdom – and the greatest of all is that these joys will last forever.”

Jagerstatter’s few writings provoke thoughts of what to do today, and Zahn builds upon Jagerstatter’s rebellion to confront the terrible nuclear weapons of our time. He, like Jagerstatter, refuses to accept the prevalent political nostrums of the day: “For what is being done is being done in our name; the more democratic we claim to be in our governmental structure, the greater the share of moral culpability to be assigned to each citizen for his conformity (even his silent conformity) to any morally questionable demands of that government.”

Zahn also criticizes the acquiescent role the institutional Church has usually played whenever modern nations have prepared and fought wars. He makes it clear that Jagerstatter’s insights remain unfortunately as urgent today as they were decades ago. That is, there is hardly any need to fear mass persecutions, for Christians will generally yield to political power whatever is demanded of them.

In Solitary Witness portrays not only an unknown hero but also an often forgotten, Christ-like Catholicism.

The Christian State of Life

By Adrienne von Speyr

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 213

Price: $9.95

Review Author:

This book offers “the Christian state of life” as an alternative to our pleasure-seeking society. Von Speyr discusses in detail the difficulties and consequences of this kind of life. She presents the vocations of Jesus, the Apostles, and the saints as models for the “new” life.

I disagree with von Speyr on two points. She writes about three types of Christian existence: religious living in community; the secular priesthood; and marriage. But a lay person who is unmarried by choice or lack of opportunity should not be excluded from dwelling in the Christian state.

Second, von Speyr feels that only religious and priests can know God’s love directly; to the married, God’s love and personhood are manifest through the spouse. Not necessarily. It is possible for a lay person to know divine love directly and for that love to so fill one that it reaches out to include spouse, family, friends, and all living creatures in an amazing way.

Yet, this book is well worth reflecting upon. As von Speyr writes, “Believers are always underway.” The “perfect love” of God can be known to all seekers to the degree that God feels they are ready to bear it. The desire for a closer relationship with God must be the driving force behind the Christian state of life. “One perseveres in a kind of open expectation without pressing for a conclusion. Nothing more!” How simple, how clear, and how difficult!

Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class

By Mike Davis

Publisher: Verso

Pages: 320

Price: $10.95

Review Author:

Although Mike Davis has worked as a meat-cutter and heavy-duty truck driver, he has, to our loss, stripped from his prose every vestige of teamster language and larded it with such words as “parastatal,” “felicific,” “heteroclite,” and “glacis.” His claim to chic being well established, Davis proceeds to stake out a claim to inclusion in one of the parties of radical chic. This appears to be one of the five (?) splinter groups of American Trotskyites, perhaps the International Socialists, since the IS is the only political group that Davis does not favor with one or more dribbles of contemptuous spittle.

Not since Westbrook Pegler, the reactionary darling of the Hearst press of yesteryear, have I read anyone with such a gift for the negative needle. Of course, Davis is not always careful to make sure that the quotes he uses to prove his point actually do prove his point. For example, in trashing the Democratic Socialists of America, one of his favorite targets, and its preference for working within the Democratic Party “on the left wing of the possible,” Davis writes this: “Within DSA Joseph Schwartz and…Jim Shoch appear to have gone furthest in suggesting that left politics must accept part of the terrain offered by Neo-liberalism. As Schwartz put it, ‘the neo-liberal ideologues are at least taking on some tough questions about the transformation of the American political economy. Our role will likely be limited to struggling to get into the public arena a more sensitive, feasible and democratic alternative to their romance with “high-tech” and “picking winners.”‘”

As I see the Schwartz quote, it is actually a refusal to accept part of the neo-liberal terrain – and an insistence, within the limits of the political reality, that DSA should continue its struggle for a more sensitive, feasible, and democratic alternative to that terrain. But political reality and sensitive, democratic feasibility are not qualities that appeal very strongly to types like Mike Davis.

His assumption of more-radical-than-thou superiority leads him into some curious inconsistencies. Having acknowledged that before, during, and after World War II, the Communist Party, USA, was a pathetic stooge for the vagaries of Soviet foreign policy, Davis proceeds to dribble spittle on the decision of CIO leaders like Philip Murray and Walter Reuther to support Harry Truman in 1948 and not to follow the CP into its Progressive Party/Henry Wallace fiasco. Of course, like so many New Leftists of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, unashamed anti-communism is a kind of political BO, bad breath, and dandruff. The radically chic would rather die than be caught with that.

I would not waste this much space on my own brand of negative needling if it were not for the fact that Mike Davis also happens to be one of the most widely-read, informative, and at times even readable critics of the peculiar greed-cum-insanity that has characterized the Age of Reagan. He has a genuine gift for unraveling the tangled skeins of contemporary economics and high-finance-cum-chicanery. If only he would stop trying to write like just another academic Ph.D., and remember that meat-cutters and heavy-duty truck drivers also deserve to have these mysteries explained to them in words they can understand!

There is sober truth in Prisoners of the American Dream, but it would be more convincing to the less radically chic if Davis could not only sacrifice his polysyllables but also refrain from trashing every kind of progressive prejudice but his own.

If you really crave a helping of sober truth about the American labor movement and its politics, you should read American Workers, American Unions: 1920-1985 by Robert H. Zieger.

Unlike Davis, Zieger is fair and objective, and writes in a style that can be read with pleasure and understanding by both academics and truck drivers. And isn’t it too bad that the irritating writer attracts the ink while the more accurate, balanced historian like Zieger gets only this brief tribute? Life, and book reviewers, are unfair.

American Workers, American Unions: 1920-1985

By Robert H. Zieger

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press

Pages: 233

Price: $9.95

Review Author:

“This book has been conceived as a summary of the latest available information and as a presentation of high quality Shroud photographs,” writes Ian Wilson. This is a fair characterization. One might casually place this volume (unread) on the coffee table alongside other artsy photography books. This would be a mistake: the “summary” is detailed and lucidly written, and puts to rest the still-current idea that the Shroud image was made by human hands.

After a team of American scientists in 1978 subjected the Shroud of Turin to the most thorough testing to date, the issue of forgery was raised by Dr. Walter McCrone, a microanalyst who had won fame by detecting famous art frauds. McCrone discerned the presence of iron oxide in samples taken from the Shroud. Since this substance appears in paint, McCrone contended that the “blood” and body image were the work of human fabrication.

X-ray fluorescence analysis and chemical testing performed by Drs. John Heller and Alan Adler refuted this theory. X-ray analysis showed the iron to be fairly uniform throughout the Shroud; McCrone’s theory, by contrast, demanded a high concentration of iron in the “blood” and body image areas. The testing done by Heller and Adler (for this, see Heller’s Report on the Shroud of Turin) proved beyond doubt that the “blood” samples were indeed real blood. Adler’s further investigations revealed that the carmine color of the blood came from bilirubin, indicating that the man wrapped in the Shroud was highly jaundiced. This condition can happen to a healthy person most readily through a severe beating. What of McCrone’s iron oxide? Heller found that the “retting” process by which flax is turned into linen engenders chemical activity that produces iron, calcium, and strontium in the amounts found in the Shroud.

If the blood on the Shroud is real, what of the image? Heller and Adler discovered that the fibrils where the image appears had been degraded through oxidization. The straw-yellow color of the Shroud image is akin to that of yellowed paper after prolonged exposure to sunlight. Oxidization could have occurred only through a sudden, intense application of heat or light that would have scorched the material. But Wilson points out that scorches fluoresce under ultraviolet light, which the Shroud image fails to do.

Here the matter rests. After extensive testing, the scientists on the project eliminated any natural or human cause for the image. They refused to speculate further (at least in print). One wonders why “objectivity” requires such reserve in making logical inferences from facts when those facts point to a supernatural explanation. After all, logical inference is the name of the scientific game, and scientists certainly are not shy of inferences that lead to naturalistic conclusions.

The blood on the Shroud is compatible with the post-mortem bleeding of a brutally beaten man. It flowed from wounds – especially on the back – shaped like those inflicted by the Roman flagrum, a scourge used at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. It streamed from a lance thrust in the side, and from thorn wounds on the head. The evidence of forensic pathology agrees exactly with the crucifixion portrayed in the Gospel of John.

The image could have been produced by a flash of heat or light from the surface of the body. Might one suggest light unlike that which we know about? Cool light? Uncreated light? The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the term “Uncreated Light” in referring to God. This is not subject to the laws of our physics, though it may bear some analogy to the light we know about. Its effect on a piece of linen might be similar to the image on the Shroud of Turin, if it came with equal intensity from every point on the surface of the body wrapped in the cloth. I am suggesting – more than suggesting – that the image on the Shroud is either the byproduct or an intentional effect of the Resurrection. For those who demand scientific evidence to corroborate faith, it is worth noting that only the science of the 20th century could lead to such an inference, by eliminating definitively all natural or humanly artificial causes.

The Mysterious Shroud

By Ian Wilson

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 158

Price: $19.95

Review Author:

For Christians and Jews, unmerited suffering constitutes one of the central paradoxes of the faith. Theologians speak learnedly of “theodicy”; men of less erudition just ask: Why does an omnipotent, loving, and merciful God allow evil to flourish among his creatures? Elie Wiesel, a man who knows intimately the face of iniquity, turns to this age-old question in The Trial of God, a play first published in 1979 and recently reprinted by Schocken. He provides no answer; he can only delineate a fragment of the horror that evokes the question.

The play is set in the town of Shamgorod in 1649. It is the eve of Purim, the celebration of the deliverance of the Hebrews through the bravery of Queen Esther. There is no laughter among the Jews of Shamgorod, for only two remain alive from the pogrom that has exterminated their kinsmen. Berish, one of the survivors cries out: “I waited and waited for redemption, and who do you think came? The Redeemer? No: the killers.” Berish and three traveling minstrels haul God before the bar of justice to try him for abandoning his children. The verdict? Not one to comfort those who seek facile answers: “The verdict will be announced by someone else, at a later stage. For the trial will continue – without us.”

The Trial of God

By Elie Wiesel

Publisher: Schocken Books

Pages: 161

Price: $7.95

Review Author:

Since Thomas Merton’s death in 1968, Fr. Henri J.M. Nouwen has emerged as the most important Catholic spiritual writer in America. Like Merton, he commands a large following among the spiritually hungry, and his books circulate widely. Merton became something of a cult figure and media celebrity, drawing a steady stream of visitors to his hermitage at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Celebrityhood has escaped Fr. Nouwen, not because his writings fall short of Merton’s in acuity, nor because his pronouncements on the issues of the day lack Merton’s moral incandescence. Nouwen has simply avoided publicity and notoriety, choosing instead to pursue his vocation with humility and quiet self-effacement.

Lifesigns and Reaching Out (the latter published originally in 1975, and now available in paperback) reveal the man and the method. Nouwen discloses no spiritual tricks or shortcuts to sanctity. He knows that the path of discipleship is arduous and fraught with pitfalls, that the Christian who longs to experience the transfiguring luminosity of Tabor must also agonize with Christ in Gethsemane. His profound spirituality arises from painstaking and painful self-scrutiny and ascends toward the throne of God; the vehicle of ascension is prayer, “the most concrete way to make our home in God.”

For Nouwen, looking inward leads outward to solidarity with his fellow man. To “live a life in the Spirit of Jesus Christ” means not only to hear the awesome voice of the Lord of Hosts, but also to listen for the whispers of divinity that escape haltingly from the lips of our companions in sin. Nouwen rejects the vicious dichotomies we force upon ourselves: activism versus quietism, individual salvation versus communal redemption, self versus the other. He collapses these opposites and weaves them into a garment – the cloak of Christ – that has no seams. With Christ, we discover the “lifesigns” of love, fruitfulness, and joy; with Christ, we “reach out”: to ourselves in the still center of solitude, to our neighbors through hospitality, and to God in prayer. Nouwen urges the spiritual seeker to find a guide who can illumine the strait way to God; one would not go astray in choosing Fr. Nouwen for that guide.

Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective

By Henri J.M. Nouwen

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 127

Price: $11.95

Review Author:

Despite their multitude of differences, liberal and conservative Catholics agree on at least one thing: John Calvin was a villain. Few Catholics bother to read him, so their animosity usually springs from hearsay and visceral instinct. In recent years Catholics have hastened to borrow from thinkers often blatantly hostile to Christianity. Darwin, Marx, and Freud, for example, have earned respectful readings from some Catholics, but poor John Calvin, one of the seminal figures in the history of Christianity, goes unappreciated.

Eerdmans offers a means to rectify this deplorable situation, for it has just published a revision of Ford Lewis Battles’s 1975 translation of the 1536 edition of Calvin’s Institutes. Calvin worked on the Institutes for the next two decades, culminating his labors with the monumental edition of 1559, but the first version remains the most accessible route into the work. Eerdmans presents this volume (with annotations and a long introductory essay by Battles) as the first entry in the Bibliotheca Calviniana, a series of forthcoming books by and about Calvin.

Although Catholics will find much to disagree with in the Institutes, they will also discover an incisive mind brought to bear on matters of God, man, church, and state. They will enjoy as well a refreshing respite from the drivel that passes these days as serious theological discourse. If Catholics eagerly throw open the door for Marx, then surely they could leave it slightly ajar for John Calvin.

Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

By Henri J.M. Nouwen

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 165

Price: $5.95

Review Author:

David S. Lovejoy, now retired from a distinguished career at the University of Wisconsin, has written a book that exemplifies scholarship at its best: thoroughly researched, fair-minded, and gracefully written, Religious Enthusiasm in the New World both illuminates the past and casts light on the present. Lovejoy tracks down those God-intoxicated sectarians whose emotional urgency and divine ecstasy propelled them beyond the confines of conventional religious organization and practice. He traces the rise of enthusiasm in England in the century after the English Reformation and then follows this surge of fervor as it crossed the Atlantic to America, where it took root and flourished in various guises throughout the colonial period.

Then, as now, what shocked and appalled some Americans proved irresistible to others. As Lovejoy points out, the dangers and abuses of enthusiasm are many. It denigrates reason, promotes emotional excess and disdain for man-made laws, engenders a world-blasting chiliasm, and fragments believers into crotchety little cells of self-appointed saints. But as he also shows, enthusiasm has its merits. It gives hope and voice to the scorned and rejected, the unwashed whom respectable Christians often shun. It rattles the doors of religious establishments grown staid and complacent, and it reminds churches that the religion of the heart will find its own channels of expression if officially prescribed ones are blocked to it. If it threatens man’s laws, it also – as in the Quakers’ resistance to slavery – inspires men to rectify long-accepted wrongs.

Lovejoy’s book should remind Christians to beware those who claim to converse directly with God, but it should also caution them not to dismiss our own “enthusiasts” – whether Protestant pentecostalists or Catholic charismatics – as nothing more than self-deluded cranks.

Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1536 Edition

By John Calvin

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 396

Price: $25

Review Author:

After an especially bruising battle with Congress, Hamilton Fish, Grant’s Secretary of State, was advised to try reasoning with the denizens of Capitol Hill. “Reason with a congressman!” he exploded. “You don’t reason with a congressman; you hit him on the snout with a block of wood.” Anyone who has locked horns with a hard-bitten fundamentalist has felt prompted to apply Fish’s method of persuasion. Wisely, however, Fr. Peter Stravinskas resists the urge to whack the snouts of fundamentalists, choosing instead to respond temperately to their attacks on Catholicism.

The Church has only recently noted the threat posed by fundamentalism. Stridently anti-Catholic Baptists, Pentecostalists, and similar sectarians have loosened Rome’s grip on Hispanic-Americans; young people raised in Catholic homes have fallen under the spell of proselytizers; and numbers of lapsed Catholics have returned to Christianity as hellfire-and-damnation Protestants.

Whatever its shortcomings, this variety of religious experience offers the disenchanted a vibrant, Scripture-centered faith that thrives on emotional responsiveness and doctrinal certainty. Fundamentalists tolerate no demythologizers, existentialists, or liberation theologizers; they shout with the gladness of born-again believers and preach a full-bodied gospel of redemption and salvation. To hope that they will slink back into their piney-woods revival tents and ramshackle city tabernacles is foolish; as Fr. Stravinskas observes: “They are a large and growing segment of American religious life.”

Stravinskas challenges fundamentalism on its home court; quoting Scripture frequently, he shows that Catholic doctrine and practice derive from the fundamentalists’ own Bible. He agrees with the Catholic-baiting evangelist Jimmy Swaggart that “every Christian should find a good Bible-based, Bible-preaching, soul-winning Church where the Holy Spirit prevails.” Sadly, though, the Rev. Swaggart fails to realize “that Catholics have already found such a Church.”

Religious Enthusiasm in the New World: Heresy to Revolution

By David S. Lovejoy

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 291

Price: $25

Review Author:

Christopher Derrick is always a refreshing and clear-headed writer. In this Imprimatur-bearing pamphlet (ideal for your parish tract rack), Derrick, a self-described “conservative in the doctrinal sense,” examines the tensions between doctrinal conservatism (orthodox Catholicism) and political conservatism.

He sees four problem areas: First, conservatism’s exaggerated nationalism. He tells us that “the Nation” as currently understood first arose with the Reformation, and “Catholics of all people,” members of an ancient and international Church, “should not take too seriously” this provincial and modern notion. Doctrinal conservatives should be leery of the ways in which political conservatives piously genuflect to the “heathen deity called National Honor or National Pride.”

The second area of tension is population control, which is “a cause of the rich and powerful against the poor and weak,” and therefore a conservative cause. Derrick wryly notes that when the U.N. held its first major Population Conference in 1974, “the Holy See lined up with the Third World and the Communist bloc, and against Great Britain, the United States, and the affluent West in general…. “

The third area is capitalism, which “institutionalizes the deadly sins of avarice and gluttony” and “resembles Marxism…in the general importance it attaches to economic activity.”

Derrick warns that capitalistic conservatism “easily becomes the cause of the rich against the poor, and that’s hardly a Christian cause.”

The fourth problem area is war. Conservatives tend to wax romantic about warfare, but Derrick insists that Catholics are bound by just-war principles, which are “highly restrictive,” especially where nuclear weapons are involved, whether actually or potentially.

Derrick does not anathematize conservatism or bless any alternative political “ism.” If the 1960s were cursed by those who would fuse Christianity and Marxism, Derrick sees “the present danger” as coming from those who would fuse Christianity with political conservatism. For Derrick, the “integrity of Catholic witness” requires that we be skeptical of such fusions.

The Catholic Response

By Peter M.J. Stravinskas

Publisher: Our Sunday Visitor Inc.

Pages: 119

Price: $5.95

Review Author:

An awkward title and verbiage-laden text don’t make this book an inviting read. Indeed, it could more economically have been titled Caesar Strikes Back. The Reagan Administration has been angry at the U.S. Catholic bishops for years, and this tome is an omnibus attack – sophisticated and “nuanced,” to be sure – on the independent peace witness of Catholics in the U.S.

Its ideological thrust is basically that peace is that which enhances the American way of life and the interests, influence, and power of America in the world. The message is a mirror image of the Soviet approach to peace, namely, that to defend and extend Soviet-style socialism is, by definition, to defend and extend peace. Weigel’s purpose would appear to be to get the bishops to bend the knee to Caesar, and harness the U.S. Catholic Church into playing the “peace” game in essentially the same Caesaropapist way the compliant Russian Orthodox Church does.

One is not surprised to learn (not from this book, of course) that the James Madison Foundation, of which Weigel is the head, has recently received $91,400 in federal tax monies to spread Caesar’s view of peace in the seminaries of our land. Alas, it pays to be a friend of Caesar – as any Byzantine metropolitan will tell you.

Catholics and Conservatism

By Christopher Derrick

Publisher: Liguori Publications

Pages: 24

Price: 50 cents

Review Author:

The NOR would not ordinarily give special attention to the reminiscences of an actor, even one so uncommonly gifted as Alec Guinness. Blessings in Disguise has been widely reviewed and acclaimed. Curiously, though, few of the reviews have mentioned that Guinness is a Roman Catholic, a convert who joined the Church 30 years ago. This omission does not spring from a plot among secular humanists. The typical film or drama critic understandably reads these memoirs mainly for insight into Guinness’s craft.

Guinness found his way to Rome after dabbling in Presbyterianism, Quakerism, Buddhism, and the Tarot. Only Anglo-Catholicism held him for a spell, but this too proved inadequate to his search. He insists that his conversion had nothing to do with coruscating lights, cataclysms of the heart, or theological convictions – “just a sense of history and the fitness of things.” One wonders, though: epiphanies can appear in the most mundane of disguises. Guinness was on location in France, filming a movie in which he played a priest. As twilight settled upon the countryside he set off, still dressed in a soutane, to walk the three kilometers to his hotel. With darkness gathering on the lonely road he heard a child cry: “Mon père! Mon père!” A small boy scampered up and took Guinness’s hand. As they walked along the boy hopped about, chattering and burbling; his own “excruciating French” persuaded Guinness to remain silent. After a distance the boy released his hand, said “Bonsoir, mon père,” and skipped off through an opening in the hedge. Guinness recalls: “I reflected that a Church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable could not be as scheming and creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”

Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace

By George Weigel

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 489

Price: $27.50

Review Author:

Americans entertain two notions about Italians: they are either animated, gesticulating people who brought pizza to these shores, or beetle-browed gorillas who conceal machine guns in violin cases and dump corpses into the East River. Whatever truth these images embrace, they overlook the most salient feature of our Italian compatriots: they introduced America to a form of Catholicism that cuts close to the nub of Christianity.

From the fields and small towns of southern Italy, Italians began streaming through Ellis Island in the 1880s. In East Harlem they re-rooted themselves, and here, in a strange and often hostile land, they established a new home. Crucial to their success was veneration of the Virgin, embodied for the people of Italian Harlem in Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the “Madonna of 115th Street.” They called her “nostra mamma,” and the church that housed her statue, “our Mother’s house.” Each year in July they paid homage to her in a week-long festa, which, in its melding of the sacred and profane, exemplified their conception of Christianity. The Madonna absorbed their griefs and woes, listened to their petitions for graces, small and large, blessed them with her favors, and joined them in celebratory joy. She was their mother, they her children, and they carried her in their hearts and welcomed her into their dark and cramped tenements.

In honoring her with a festa that combined exalted spirituality with fleshly indulgence in freely flowing wine, groaning tables of food, laughter, and dancing, the Italians of East Harlem announced, as Robert Orsi points out, that theirs was an “incarnational faith” that conjoined “intimacy with the divine” and a “sense of a mysterium tremendum.” Other New Yorkers – Catholic and Protestant alike – were dismayed by the noise, crowds, and uproar of the festa, but surely the Madonna must have smiled with delight upon her Italian children who played so exuberantly and worshiped so passionately.

Blessings in Disguise

By Alec Guinness

Publisher: Knopf

Pages: 238

Price: $17.95

Review Author:

This is a rather diverse collection of essays on an undeniably diverse phenomenon: populism. The contributors include such people as Lawrence Goodwyn, Studs Terkel, Barbara Mikulski, Joe Holland, and Sheldon S. Wolin.

Of particular interest to NOR readers are the essays by Robert Coles and Robert N. Bellah. Coles makes a significant distinction between the original populism of the turn of the century and the standard liberalism of New Deal vintage. The latter was “an initiative of the well-to-do academic people, lawyers, and high government functionaries…” who sought “to help the poor, to take from capitalism its rough edges, to respond to the pain of the marginal, the vulnerable, the dispossessed – and to let the intelligentsia, the upper bourgeoisie, go about their thoroughly influential business.”

On the other hand, the original populists “were not organized by patrician politicians or well-off outsiders anxious to make a political or historical point. They organized themselves. They were at once radical and conservative.” Indeed, on economic issues, their vehement opposition to Wall Street and corporate America made them more radical than liberalism. Simultaneously, they were more conservative than liberalism – or at least today’s liberalism – in their embrace of traditional family values, their unqualified patriotism, and their susceptibility to racism.

While original populism is defunct, Coles says its “split heritage” is present in both our major political parties – in the Democratic Party’s concern for economic justice, and in the. Republican Party’s concern for traditional values.

Coles is deeply sensitive to the ambiguous legacy of populism. He is suspicious of patricians posing as populists, and yet appreciative of the economic accomplishments of the New Deal. He is dubious of well-meaning elites who would energize the masses, and yet he is also worried by that raw kind of populism – unaided by the humane instincts of intellectuals – which often sinks into the swamps of racism and other forms of social meanness. He hails the New Deal as a “miraculous political transformation,” and yet notes, sadly, that the ensuing prosperity resulted in a situation where “millions felt themselves newly comfortable and secure, less interested in a government that helps the needy and more interested in a government that might tax the relatively well-off a bit less…. “

Coles is fully aware of the promises and pitfalls of populism, and he has not given up looking for a form of politics that can put back together the “split heritage” of populism – i.e., which challenges the vested interests, retains the common touch, and does not turn its back on the religious and family values of ordinary Americans.

Robert N. Bellah, in his essay, identifies populism’s weakness as its excessive individualism. Populism tends to be “discontinuous, oriented to single issues, opportunistic, and therefore easily coopted, local, and anti-institutional.” It depends on “the moment-to-moment feelings of individuals,” and is therefore “fragile and volatile.” What it lacks is overarching principles. It tends to be geared to “narrow interests,” and thereby loses sight of the “common good.” It lacks the wherewithal to “sustain pressure over time for the attainment of principled political ends.”

Populism, says Bellah, is often a negative, anti-institutional style of politics, failing to show concern for “the development of the counterinstitutions that are the only vehicles for substantive change.”

Nevertheless, two recent populist movements – the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam War – were able to overcome the volatility and opportunism that often beset populist politics. What made these movements successful was their ties to institutional bases – in particular, the churches.

Bellah states that, “One would have to go back to the period before World War I to the Populist and Socialist parties to find significant American third parties that sustained continuity, devotion to principle, and the loyalty of active membership. We have not had for many decades in America anything like a Labor Party or a Social Democratic Party or a Christian Democratic Party that could provide sustained leadership toward well-understood ends…. It is really just because [our] political parties have not provided the institutional basis for a principled politics that the churches and their associated religious organizations have been so consistently central.”

This book offers hope for the birth of a healthy, viable, and authentic populism. As Coles says, “America’s long involvement with a politics of decency and compassion, with a working people’s politics, is by no means over, no matter what we now see prevailing in our capital city.”

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