Volume > Issue > Briefly: July-August 2011

July-August 2011

Psalter: A Sequence of Catholic Sonnets

By William Baer

Publisher: Tru­man State University Press

Pages: 66

Price: $15

Review Author: Micah Mattix

When God created the world, He did so, as the Church is fond of saying, ex nihilo. Matter and form were created simultaneously out of the nothingness of spacelessness. It is one of the few original acts of the finite universe, and since at least the vers libre of Baudelaire, it is one that poets have longed to replicate. Ezra Pound once commanded other poets to “make it new,” and William Carlos Williams expressed hope in his book of poems Spring and All that “there is work to be done in the creation of new forms, new names for experience.” Each poem, both Pound and Williams believed, should be sui generis — autonomous, original.

In his new book of poems, Psalter, William Baer identifies the root motive of this desire to “make it new”: Satanic pride. Baer is the founding editor of The Formalist and author of four previous volumes of poems. Psalter is a series of sonnets keyed to passages from the Bible, from Genesis to the Apocalypse, and one of the principal themes of the volume is God’s redemption of His created order following its physical, spiritual, intellectual, and moral perversion.

In the first sonnet, the mind of God is present in the very spaceless­ness and timelessness that He encompasses, and it is into this void that He speaks into existence His thought of “something new”: “a corporeal universe, with dark and light, / with stars, and with a whirling spot of blue, / with countless creatures of the day and the night, / in which there was, beneath the skies above, / a creature, in God’s image, yet not alone, /a male, a female, with understanding and love, / with a deathless soul, with free will of its own.”

The simple beauty of God’s creation, of day and night, of male and female, however, is rejected in the next sonnet. In “Snake,” Satan admits to Adam and Eve that they have “a lovely garden here.” Yet, he continues, “you lack a certain acuity / a comprehension of all lies within, / of good, of evil, of ambiguity, / of death, and the leprosy of sin.”

Baer follows Milton here in presenting Satan’s rejection of God’s authority in terms of intellectual refinement. The beauty of God’s original creation, in other words, is fine for simple-minded folks, but those who have the capacity for “ambiguity,” nuance, or what today we might call “open-mindedness,” need a world to match their own divinity. Adam and Eve, of course, bite, but Satan’s promise of becoming “as gods” and transforming into something “new” is only partly fulfilled. They are transformed — but into beasts, not gods.

This rejection of God’s hierarchical order out of intellectual pride is the source of all societal and aesthetic chaos. In “Core,” a sonnet on Korah’s rebellion, Baer asks: “What becomes of a scheming innovator / who falsely sacrifices before our feasts, / who coun­termands the will of his creator / and claims that all are holy, and all are priests?”

The answer is that he brings catastrophe and judgment on himself: “The earth will open, and those who still rebel / will tumble into the flaming pits of hell.”

The word “countermand” in the previous passage is perfect. All sin is merely a rejection of God’s commands as opposed to an independent, self-existing command. All sin is parasitical, and this parasitical countermanding of God’s hierarchy is also the source of what Baer sees as the aesthetic chaos of contemporary art and poetry. In “Adam,” we see the original earthly poet, who had named every living thing, unable to name this “thing,” death: “Of course, he’d seen this ‘thing’ before, but never /like this. After Eden, he’d found a swan / lying motionless and silent forever, / rotting, irretrievable, and gone. / But now, it’s his boy, the brother of Cain.”

Baer sets the word “thing” off in quotes to express both Adam’s creative incapacity and the thinglessness of sin and death. Yet, after Adam is confounded by death, he looks to God and trusts that “God both could and would undo the dead.” The nameless, indefinite “thing” of death is overthrown by the mystery of heavenly paradox — God will kill death — and Adam’s turn to God at the end of the poem frees his tongue to express that mystery in metaphor: “Once, Adam had named the names, and named his own / two sons, and named this curse, which nullifies / and terminates, as ‘death.’ But he who’d known / the awesome power of God looked to the skies, / knowing, without a doubt, though nothing was said, / his God both could and would undo the dead.”

Indeed, this “One who is come” will restore not just the moral and aesthetic order of the world, but the civic and geographical order as well. In “Jeremiah,” for example, we see the prophet sitting in the “smoldering ashes” of Zion, looking, in his mind’s eye, to that future, indestructible city.

The subtitle of this volume is A Sequence of Catholic Sonnets. The volume includes sonnets on passages in the Apocrypha — Tobias and the Maccabees in particular. It also reminds readers of essential Catholic doctrines — the Immaculate Conception, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and Peter’s appointment as head of the Church.

In “Theotokos,” for example, which opens his section on New Testament passages, Baer rightly sees God’s conception of creation and redemption as taking place in the mind of God at the same instant: “Before eternity, in spaceless space, / in timelessness, in time before all-time, / the mind of God, with enigmatic grace, /conceived the Panagia, the paradigm, / the goal of generative history, / the masterpiece, of whom God said / that she and her seed, that fathomless mystery, / would crush the serpent’s bloody head.”

This masterpiece of God’s grace, furthermore, is the “Panagia” of all other masterpieces, and, thus, the poem ends fittingly with Mary “singing her silent Magnificat.”

Like Frost, Baer can be deceptively accessible, but these poems are subtle, keen, and insightful, and reward multiple readings. Baer is faithful and deep, and Psalter is a hymn of praise to the beauty of God’s redemptive work.

The Stigmatist

By Hurd Baruch

Publisher: Mystic Publications (6578 E. Ventana Crest Pl., Tucson AZ 85750; www.thestigmatist.com)

Pages: 472

Price: $14.99

Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman

Throughout history and across cultures, mankind has looked for supernatural signs in hope of discerning future occurrences, and Hurd Baruch’s new novel, The Stigmatist, delivers the goods — signals, warnings, and foretold events. The book is a futuristic tale complete with threats from a furious, fed-up God ready to rain down terror on the just and unjust alike. It opens in 2014 as pilgrims to a Marian shrine in Spain experience visions of sadistic punishments awaiting them based on their unconfessed sins. Baruch’s gift for gore proceeds with scenes of graphic, ghastly, and often gratuitous horror as specialized tortures are tailored for specific sins.

Fr. Martinez, the pilgrims’ leader, is contrite after his vision, and he visits the local Spanish bishop, who is dismissive of both priest and shrine. Baruch offers vivid contrasts between the trappings of European and American hierarchies, and his picture of the vain Spanish bishop is a delight of descriptive prose. Baruch also provides a solid grounding on the politics and benefits (economic and ecclesiasticabpof Marian apparitions.

News of these goings-on reaches Pope Benedict XVI in 2015. Fabricating the thoughts, words, and deeds of a living Pope, however, is presumptuous and therefore problematic. The author asserts that all other characters are fictional, like Msgr. John Ireland of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His former student, Fr. Anthony San­torelli (most names are evocative and allusive), languishes as a California prison chaplain, a penance for offending his bishop’s pro-abortion political friends. Msgr. Ireland is leery of being drawn into investigations of Marian apparitions, so he sends San­torelli to the site of the Spanish appearances; the priest receives a message from our Lord along with the stigmata. Visions of personal sins and punishments are now visited upon folks globally, and there is talk of a technologically launched mind-control conspiracy. Baruch skillfully constructs a white-knuckle drama as governments, emergency services, and talk radio are besieged by supplicants begging for relief.

The author unveils a venal, pompous, self-serving good-old-boy network of power-mad, mercenary cardinals and bishops. During a television appearance, Miami’s Seymour Cardinal Lazard states that a new pope will facilitate a “major realignment of doctrine to match practice — an updating of the theology textbooks to reflect how people actually live their lives in this very complex and nuanced society, where truths are relative, not absolute.” Vatican Secretary of State Giuseppe Cardinal Mala­pensa, heir to a family fortune, scorns Marian apparitions as obstacles to a “universal religion by consensus with other faiths.” The European Union blames the Vatican for the visions, and Malapensa hopes that an EU quarantine of the Vatican will rally cardinals “to remove Ratzinger as Pope, and then elect a Pope who would bring about a grand accommodation of the Church with secular society….” Baruch launches a brief, odd discussion of a clandestine Freemason movement within the hierarchy that seeks to remove Benedict. (Cardinal Malapensa is a Freemason.) As the “next head of the Catholic Church, he [Malapensa] surely would take his place in the ranks of the secret Masonic rulers of the world — the circle of Adepts!”

Baruch goes so far as to concoct Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic letter concerning the visions, along with plans to secure Vatican holdings off-site. (He knows Vatican City well and chronicles many of its treasures — a bright spot in the book.) Conspiratorial cardinals fumble the Pope’s kidnapping just before a papal radio address, and the deadly caper is broadcast live. A spell-binding account of a Muslim terrorist’s atomic bombing of the Vatican during the Pope’s funeral chronicles the deaths of 300,000 people, including thousands of bishops, cardinals, and civil leaders.

The remaining 22 cardinals elect the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples as Pope Paul VII. He tackles the hidebound bureaucracy: “I do not propose…to reconstitute the administrative structure of the Church as it was prior to the explosion. We have a window of opportunity to consider whether the Curial Congregations, the Pontifical Commissions and Councils, and the other institutions that have grown up over the centuries are the best way to govern the Church in these times.” Furthermore, he hopes to follow St. Peter, “whose primary roles were evangelizing and acting as the touchstone of unity for the particular churches spread throughout the world.”

Readers might think that the Vatican’s destruction and the election of a new pope would provide a logical wrap-up to the novel, but there is much more in store. Nuclear conflicts spread like viruses through the perennial pestholes of war across Europe and the Mideast: “More than fifty million people were dead and half a dozen countries had permanently ceased to function, Israel among them.” San­torelli is asked to take up Christ’s cross, even unto crucifixion, to save the world. He is kidnapped by Russians who are happy to facilitate his sacrifice. Terrible pages fly by; a strong libation is recommended to fortify oneself through the rest of the book.

This sensationalistic fable concerning a corrupt hierarchy’s lust for power and earthly possessions takes brazen liberties with God’s motives and the future, imagined actions of a living Pope. Thus, The Stigmatist may draw censure despite its worth as a well-written thriller.

The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice

By Christopher Kaczor

Publisher: Routledge Annals of Bio­ethics

Pages: 246

Price: $39.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

In The Ethics of Abortion, Chris­topher Kaczor surveys the various positions taken by philosophers on abortion, pro and con, and evaluates them from a strictly philosophical viewpoint, without recourse to religion. Yes, reason alone suffices to show how wrong abortion is.

So as not to offend his adversaries, Kaczor uses terms like “pro-choice” and “human fetus,” yet he makes it perfectly clear that the distinction made between “person” and “human being” by defenders of abortion is invalid. In the end, “all human beings are also human persons.”

While polls reveal that women as a group are less likely to support abortion than men, many women in philosophy departments continue to make outrageous claims about the worthlessness of the preborn child. In this book we find Eileen McDonagh contending that the fetus is an aggressor who imposes injuries on the pregnant woman and may be repelled with deadly force; we find Mary Anne Warren asserting that a fully developed fetus is “considerably less person-like than the average mammal, indeed the average fish”; and Bonnie Steinbock insisting that the fetus should be “respected as a symbol of human life” only if “this respect does not interfere with the real interests of actual people.” Kaczor does not dismiss these claims as pure feminist ideology (as I would), but gives sensible replies, such as that “abortion does not give a woman the chance to decide not to become a mother, but like infanticide gives the woman the choice not to continue to be a mother in the biological and gestational senses.”

To start with, Kaczor refutes the defenders of abortion who, like Michael Tooley, find infanticide permissible up to a week after birth, or, like Peter Singer, up to a month. Nicole Hassoun and Uriah Kriegel, who also regard infanticide as permissible, find proof of a baby’s consciousness in “mirror self-recognition,” an ability acquired at 18 to 24 months after birth. Kaczor replies: “Although almost everyone rejects the killing of innocent children up to two years of age, the view that personhood requires conscious self-awareness pushes us to this absurd conclusion, which is good reason to reject this view of personhood.” Indeed this view leads to another equally chilling “modest proposal”: Jeff McMahan’s offer of an “untapped resource” in healthy orphaned newborns, whose organs could be harvested to cure “‘real’ human persons.”

Kaczor then turns to those who argue that “conscious desires” are needed for the human fetus to acquire personhood and moral worth. Daniel Boonin claims that abortion matters morally only when the fetus has “conscious desires” of the sort that arrive around 32 weeks after conception. In reply, Kaczor notes that each year in the U.S. more than 77,000 babies are born prematurely before 32 weeks, so under Boonin’s definition these would not be “persons,” nor would Buddhist mystics be who had succeeded in eliminating all desires.

Other defenders of abortion argue that acquiring “sentience,” the capacity to experience pleasure and pain, is necessary for personhood. They say that “sentience occurs very late in pregnancy and so, in their view, 99% of abortions do not in fact harm a sentient being.” Ronald Green, for one, claims that sentience arrives only at 30 to 35 weeks after conception. Kaczor counters that since the cerebral cortex develops at five weeks, the brain is functioning in the first trimester, and the fetus is already responding to stimuli, early sentience cannot be ruled out. We are not absolutely sure when sentience arrives, so “it is hard to see why we should not grant the right to life to the human being in utero from conception onward, if protection of human life is the default position when lacking definitive knowledge.”

In the above arguments, defenders of abortion embrace a “performance account” of moral worth. They hold that human beings deserve respect only if they are rationally functioning, sentient, consciously desiring, and continuously self-aware. To this “performance account,” Kaczor opposes the “endowment account” embraced by philosophers like Robert Spitzer, John Kavanaugh, and W.N. Clarke, who hold that human beings have moral worth because of the kind of being they are. The problem with the “performance account,” Kaczor observes, is that it bases moral worth on unequal properties and leads inexorably to the denial of equal rights: “If the performance account is accepted, it is unclear how one could ever affirm that all human persons are equal before the law or morally equal other than by an arbitrary fiat that can be just as arbitrarily rescinded.”

Still other defenders of abortion, like Jane English, argue that the fetus should be accorded a level of dignity corresponding to its appearance and size: At the start it may be treated as a bit of protoplasm, later as some sort of animal, and still later as a human person, when at last it looks like one. Kaczor responds that a “burn victim whose charred appearance renders him revolting” has the same “right to life as any supermodel.” Judith Jarvis Thomson dismisses the human zygote by saying that it is to an adult what an acorn is to an oak tree. Kaczor retorts that the growth from acorn to tree “involves no substantial change,” only “development.” He then gives us Alfred Cioffi’s powerful argument that the genome of the human zygote, “though tiny, consists of thirty-nine thousand genes, made up of 3.2 billion base pair sequences that, in terms of information directing the growth and development of a human being, has been compared to 200 New York City phone books.” To this he adds Maureen Condic’s explanation that the cells of the human embryo are already functioning together as an organism whose development is internally directed toward “maturity as a member of the human species”; and Patrick Lee’s description of the human embryo as not merely the “blueprint of a house that will be built,” but “a tiny house that constructs itself larger and more complex through its active self-development towards maturity.” Besides this, he cites Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefson, depicting the human embryo as actively working to prevent other sperm from fertilizing the egg, moving into the uterus to implant, and overcoming various threats to its existence. In short, the embryo is already a person constitutively and ontologically. From zygotic to geriatric, Kaczor ringingly declares, a human being enjoys the same “fundamental rights.”

Defenders of abortion taunt prolifers with inconsistency: “If abortion is really unjust killing of an innocent human being, then violence against abortionists in order to stop abortion would seem to be a moral duty.” Kaczor answers that when war protestors do not kill those waging an unjust war, no one accuses them of inconsistency. If the war and the abortions are “legal,” it would be an act of “vigilante justice” to stop them by assassinations.

On the physical harm that may happen to women from abortion, Kaczor mentions cervical injury, a perforated uterus, sterilization, cancer, and death. In saline-injection abortions “women have died when the injection missed its mark.” On the psychological harm, he cites studies showing a link between abortion and eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. Grief over abortion may “extend over decades,” with groups of women publicly lamenting their abortions. Finally, abortion harms women in general: It is connected, Thomas Strahan shows, “with increased violence against women,” and sex-selection abortions, which usually discriminate against women, are legal in many places, including the U.S.

In a brief review, one can discuss only a few of the many arguments sifted and weighed in Christopher Kaczor’s Ethics of Abortion. This excellent book surely deserves a place of honor among the learned works published in the past forty years in defense of the culture of life.

American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll

By Bradley J. Birzer

Publisher: ISI Books

Pages: 230

Price: $25

Review Author: Matthew Anger

John Adams predicted that Charles Carroll (1737-1832) would be one of the “most remembered” of the founders of our nation. In Carroll’s final years, grateful Americans paid frequent tribute to the Catholic senator from Maryland who was the longest-lived signatory to the Declaration of Independence. Yet, for more than a century, he languished in the penumbra of history. Fortunately, Bradley Birzer of Hillsdale College, author of studies on Christopher Dawson and J.R.R. Tolkien, has addressed this omission in a book full of unique and durable insights.

American Cicero is as much a history of religion in the colonial and revolutionary period as it is a study of politics. It was a theological controversy that initially led Maryland to seek independence from Britain. In 1772 Royal Governor Sir Robert Eden imposed new “fees” that would be used to provide salaries for Church of England clergy. This rankled both dissenting Protestants and Catholics. Charles Carroll, who had already opposed the Stamp Act of 1765, emerged as a gracious but determined patriot spokesman under the nom de plume “First Citizen.” In debates published in the Maryland Gazette, he argued that taxes could be levied only by properly elected representatives and not through an act of executive fiat or rule by special interests.

Early in his career, Carroll sought to neutralize anti-Catholicism through high principles and exemplary personal conduct. It would require patience and charity, since his “papism” was held suspect by patriots and Tories alike. Birzer notes that anyone educated by Jesuits abroad was presumed a supporter of autocracy and religious oppression. This latter point was tinged with sad irony. Carroll’s French professors at St. Omer College raised him in the Scholastic traditions of Francisco Suárez, Juan de Mariana, and Robert Bellar­mine, who opposed “divine right” kingship and favored rule by consent of the governed. But such views were not widely appreciated by English-speaking Protestants. More importantly, Maryland Catholics were denied voting rights and faced discriminatory tax policies until just before the Revolution. A lifetime of such harassment had embittered Charles’s father, who at one point considered emigrating to French Louisiana.

Against such a background, it is not surprising that controversy erupted in 1774 when Parliament extended religious liberty to French Canadians, who had become part of the British Empire through conquest a decade earlier. (It was a purely diplomatic move, since such freedoms were conspicuously denied to Catholics in England and Ireland.) This was termed one of the “Intolerable Acts” by patriots who began organizing the First Continental Congress. Americans were predictably suspicious of religious freedom for Catholics, and even Harry Lee of Virginia, well acquainted with Carroll, was among the many who shared such prejudices. But in the long run, the dedication of Maryland Catholics to the cause of independence earned the respect even of some of their most skeptical neighbors.

From the earliest beginnings of Christianity there have been tensions between faith and popular culture. America was no exception. Nevertheless, Carroll believed that his countrymen had great potential, including the possibility of attaining genuine tolerance, which Catholic minorities desperately needed, without throwing away religious belief altogether. Many would argue that the first “revolutionary” nation, which contemporary Europeans envied for its innovation and novelty, has shown itself to be a greater respecter of tradition than the culture it left behind. In later years European states would embrace militant forms of secularism, while the overtly anti-Christian tendencies of Paine and Jefferson in this country were mitigated by widespread popular religiosity. That said, Carroll believed such strengths should never be a matter of pride but, rather, one of humble gratitude.

It was Carroll’s political prudence that earned him the disdain of contemporary ideologues who would embrace the French model of revolution. He understood that while a nation should be built on laws (and not on the caprice of its rulers) those laws must be upheld by virtuous “manners,” lest they become dead letters. Carroll wrote in 1788: “Such has been the destiny of every People, once free, but who knew not how to enjoy the blessings of freedom; who, suffering their liberty to become licentiousness & disregarding all order & decorum at the instigation of faction or necessitous leaders, passed laws subversive of every principle of law & justice to glut their resentments & avarice.”

This is perhaps the key to the later neglect of the Maryland statesman — this and not his religion, as Catholics became a larger and more respected presence in American culture. Censure by liberals came about because of his repeated admonitions about the excesses of egalitarianism. Charges that he was an elitist “aristocrat” are, of course, thoughtless and inconsequential. Carroll avoided all pomposity in his dealings with others. He was approachable and charitable. Like George Washington, whom he admired and befriended, he was also an early proponent of abolition. According to Birzer, the Maryland senator “saw the evils inherent in slavery” and “advocated its end as an institution.” Though his approach was gradual and moderate, he manumitted many of his own slaves.

Not only does Birzer’s chronicle of the Catholic founder offer a fresh alternative to the well-worn narratives of textbook history, it helps us to better understand the philosophical and religious factors at work in our society since its bid for independence over two centuries ago.

Enjoyed reading this?



You May Also Enjoy

The New Islamophobia

While mainstream journalists and academic talking heads exhibit a different kind of Islamophobia-- an inordinate fear of Islam-- they have no problems at all with shortchanging Christianity.

The Battles Ahead

We are pleased to announce that we have reached our fundraising goal and slightly exceeded…

The Roman Catholic Church in Central Europe

The heavy-handed Russian attempt at easternization made central Europeans far more conscious of their Western heritage.