Volume > Issue > Briefly: October 2012

October 2012

Faith, Resistance, and the Future: Daniel Berrigan's Challenge to Catholic Thought

By James L. Marsh and Anna J. Brown

Publisher: Fordham University Press

Pages: 416

Price: $65

Review Author: Terry Scambray

Cults take part of the truth and run with it as far as surrounding society permits. And because we in the West are relatively secure, we tolerate and perhaps even encourage such excess. How else does one explain the confused zealotry propagated in Faith, Resistance, and the Future in praise of the poet, priest, and protester Daniel Berrigan?

Let it be said that I admire Fr. Berrigan as a man of wit, courage, and service. He sticks by his beliefs, has suffered for them, and has been a devoted volunteer helping patients with AIDS. Let he who has displayed more of these virtues cast the first stone at the man.

That said, this collection of essays by academics and activists presents us with the black-and-white world of the utopian true believers who surround Fr. Berrigan. They maintain the predictable enemies list: American consumerist society and American foreign policy; traditional Catholicism, including Thomism and the just-war tradition; the two Bush administrations and their corporate co-conspirators like Hal­­libur­ton and Bechtel; McCarthy­ism; imperialism; bourgeois society; and J. Edgar Hoover.

Opposed to these entities are the “good guys,” including Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende, Manuel Noriega, Noam Chomsky, philosopher John Rawls, and historian Howard Zinn. Jesus is included in this group, though He seems to gain entry insofar as He is an emissary of Zen Buddhism, Karl Marx, and Carl Jung. Anyway, you get the picture.

Noticeably ignored in this division of demons and angels is the threat of Islam, which has been attacking Christianity and other religions since the seventh century, and by means of such aggression has established a most corrupt and unproductive empire. Yet one of the academics in this collection writes, “The waging of self righteous [sic], (so called ‘just’) wars, often in the name of various religions including certainly the Christian religion, has been one of the most salient phenomena in the history of the human race….” Why would a philosophy professor, of all people, write so obtusely? Aggressive countries have certainly justified their brutality in many ways. But using just-war doctrine as a rationalization for aggression has not been as routine as this writer indicates. Besides, only Christianity has a just-war tradition while “various religions” have never quite got around to developing one.

As one would expect, much of this book is devoted to Vietnam, including the French imperialist involvement there followed by our nation’s war against North Vietnam. However wrong or right such involvement may have been, the writers in this collection ignore the atrocities that “Uncle Ho” perpetrated in the name of “land reform,” as well as the butchering of French missionaries, Vietnamese Catholics, and others by his Marxist cadres. Also unacknowledged by these advocates of peace and justice are the murders and genocides of successfully dreadful Marxist states, including the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.

Yet, we are told, it is the U.S. with its “empire and exploitation” that is the cause of geopolitical disruption. For example, under “the American empire” of President George W. Bush there are “more than 20 million people who die per year due to structurally induced starvation,” and there are billions more who are “forced” to live on less than $2 per day. Structural is a word that appears often in these essays as it applies to the “inequities” that capitalism breeds. The opinions of the influential John Rawls are referenced here, since he has acutely described all the inequitable kinks caused by capitalism and, indeed, all the inequities in life itself.

But, according to one of the zealots in this book, even the perfectionist Rawls is found wanting because he disavowed civil disobedience as a pathway to imposing a “just society.” The über-egalitarian Rawls is written off because he makes a “monumental concession to the presumptive legitimacy of existing institutions in bourgeois, capitalist society.”

Insider cant like this appears throughout the book. Some of it is nearly inscrutable: “I argue, for example, for a legitimate, necessary, contemplative openness to the mystery of the natural, human, mar­ginalized, ontological, and religious other, but also that the contemplative articulation has to be complemented by a critique of the socio-economic system that tends to do in that otherness, exploit it, mar­ginalize it, deny it, kill it.” Such rhetorical camouflage reminds one of what philosopher Romano Guardini, who knew Nazism and communism intimately, wrote: “Too often ‘justice’ is used as a mask for quite different things.”

A species of Catholic social-justice teaching is also discussed in these pages, though it is used as a hammer to bash the imperfections of the U.S. Never is Catholic teaching used as a gauge to measure the success of the U.S. in meeting people’s needs, as opposed to the gross inequities in most countries of the world, where individuals’ lives are stunted by class, economic, and tribal divisions. Thus the word fascist is predictably used to describe America. The writers seem unaware that fascism is actually a kissing cousin to Marxism, both being top-down, totalitarian attempts at leveling out society and creating “the new man.” The concept that Marxism and fascism are opposites was ably exploited by Stalin in order to stigmatize his opponents and justify his “liquidation” of millions of people.

This mistaken positioning of fascism and Marxism as opposites represents the disabling weakness of the essays in this book — these writers are like people who arrive in the middle of a movie and attempt to choose the good guys and bad guys. Then, as leftists are wont to do, they demand that the “inequities” that they see be leveled out, albeit according to their cultish standards. This is what the Catholic left means by being “prophetic”: permitting feelings to overrule reason, history, and experience. But this is the religion of Rousseau cum Oprah, not the religion of Jesus Christ.

Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It's Too Late

By James Robison and Jay W. Richards

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 362

Price: $21.99

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

In Indivisible, an evangelical and a Catholic author are engaged side by side in an “ecumenism of the trenches,” united by shared moral and political principles. They face off against the militant secularists who have marginalized the faithful culturally but not yet politically. Congress is not insulated from the electorate: 97 percent of its members identify themselves as either Christian or Jewish. And so Indivisible is a kind of voting guide to help us elect candidates who will best defend the timeless moral principles on which our nation was founded.

Of course, an alliance of evangelicals and Catholics will make secularists protest that Christians want to “impose their morality” on others, but Robison and Richards have a ready answer for them: “Today our greatest danger is not a Christian theocracy, but a secularist atheoc­racy that tolerates no dissent.” Religion has been virtually silenced in the public square, while atheism deafens us with full-throated cries. Today our public institutions “maintain a strict allegiance” to atheistic materialism while refusing even a nod to our Creator. Three hundred million Americans are being browbeaten by a mere hundred thousand secularists who set the cultural agenda. More alarming, these “elites” are acting on the “totalitarian impulse to redefine reality,” reducing human nature, marriage, and the family to “social constructs” they can change at will.

Our Founding Fathers “made the basis for law a document that appealed to a transcendent source — natural rights and nature’s God — rather than to a person or group of people.” Yet today we hear about the “wall of separation between church and state,” as if this had been the groundwork of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. In fact, Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase in 1802 when he wrote in defense of religious liberty and the public display of religion. It can be found in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, who were being persecuted by the Congregationalists, then the established church of Connecticut. Secularists take this phrase out of context and misuse it against religious liberty and the public display of religion.

None of the Founders were atheists. They agreed that it can be known by reason that God and the natural law exist. Even if they opposed a federally established church, they revered God in public on official occasions and spoke of timeless moral principles as public truths. We have the right and duty to apply the same moral principles to politics today, especially now that our nation has reached its nadir, with judges and legislators denying that nature has any objective reality.

First of all, Robison and Richards urge us to defend the universal moral principle of the right to life. The abortion issue involves an act evil in itself and for this reason should have priority in our voting, for “to treat unequal moral issues as equal is immoral.” Why do the defenders of abortion create a space between “person” and “human being”? To justify leaving a pre-targeted group outside the law’s protection. This weakens the law against murder. Already 54 million Americans, 18 percent of our current population, have been killed by abortion; this is “more than the number of worldwide military deaths in World War II.” In the perverse Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court declared that blacks could not enjoy the same rights as whites; likewise in Roe v. Wade the Court declared that the unborn could not enjoy the same rights as the born. Yet Scripture uses the same Greek word for baby for the unborn John the Baptist and the newborn Christ.

In the voting booth we must also defend traditional marriage because it is not a private but a public institution. Civil government has no power to redefine a pre-political reality based on perennial human nature. Far from being unique to Christianity, marriage is as old as the human race itself and can be found in every known culture. The assault on marriage started two generations ago with no-fault divorce, which made marriage less binding than an employment contract. Then came the Pill and legal abortion, breaking the link between marriage, sex, and childbearing. Now a “false definition of marriage” is in danger of being enshrined in our laws, to the inevitable harm of society. Even homosexual activists admit that legalized same-sex marriage will be “radical and transformative” and will obtain the “highest form of social approval imaginable” for homosexuality. Here we see a timeless reality, marriage, being sacrificed to an ephemeral fashion: Homosexuality was formerly an “act” before it was redefined in new­speak as an “orientation” and finally as an “identity.”

Robison and Richards urge defense of the family, another universal pre-political reality now in the course of being redefined by despots in our courts and legislatures. We also need to face up to the scandalous “moral rot” in our public schools and demand school choice. There is no reason why students should be indoctrinated in materialist philosophy at taxpayer expense.

Indivisible contains chapters on war, private property, free markets, globalization, immigration, and environmentalism, each outlining sane principles that could guide us in the voting booth. The authors point out that the term social justice has been hijacked to mean, among other things, gay-marriage and environmental activism. They deplore the bloated welfare bureaucracies that violate the principle of subsidiarity, for help reaches the poor much more effectively from smaller local associations than from distant federal offices.

Robison and Richards rightly depict our government today as a Leviathan. By having swallowed much of what once belonged to society, it has produced unsustainable entitlement programs. More Americans now work in government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, and utilities combined. We must, they warn, “restore the culture before we have to rebuild it.” Either way, we will need “holiness and humility” and “lives of prayer and heroic virtue” to face the coming ordeal.

Dark Faith: New Essays on Flan­nery O'Connor's 'The Violent Bear It Away'

By Susan Srigley

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 212

Price: $28

Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman

To offer a critique of critiques is akin to interpreting interpretations. However, the task here is eased because each of the essays in Dark Faith presents a unique focus on the celebrated second novel of Flan­nery O’Connor (1925-1964). The Violent Bear It Away, written in the Southern Gothic tradition, examines the struggles between faith and secularism through a prophet, a nihilist, a rationalist, and a child — all males of three generations. The novel is awash with religious allusions, imagery, and poetic metaphors, and no moral relativism is found therein, as each of the nine esteemed essayists attests.

Richard Giannone, professor emeritus of English at Fordham University, finds that, for O’Connor, “darkness is the condition of the modern age.” He declares that darkness is part of seeking belief: “All faith is dark. For God, who is incomprehensible, is like the dark to the human spirit.” O’Connor’s haunting symbols of pits, or ditches that suck folks into nihilism, are scattered throughout her book. The novel’s sullen teenage nihilist, educated by an elderly prophet to continue the old man’s tradition, fell into “the godlessness of the modern age” — one of O’Connor’s darkest pits. Giannone observes, however, that darkness enables belief to spring forth from “the ruins of individual human evil and political annihilation.” The darkness of faith is also explored by Professor Gary M. Ciuba of Kent State, who remarks concerning O’Connor’s view of Hell, “Children know by instinct that hell is an absence of love, and they can pick out theirs without missing.” Ciuba observes that ditches motivate the sinner “to assume responsibility in a fallen world.” Both essayists see a thorough scourging at the ditch’s bottom as the impetus that propels one upward. Sin exacts its own penance.

Karl E. Martin of Point Loma Nazarene University discusses parallels between the novel’s elderly prophet and John the Baptist, wilderness men preaching baptism and repentance as escape routes out of the ditch. The nihilist is led by a child who presents “an alternative way of being in the world.” The little one’s baptism and death serve in a sacramental manner to aid the nihilist’s move from a “prophetic kingdom to the messianic kingdom of heaven.” Ruthann Knechel Johan­sen, emerita professor at the University of Notre Dame, posits “an intellectual-spiritual kinship between O’Con­nor and [Simone] Weil” derived from Weil’s essays and O’Con­nor’s novel. Johansen points to O’Con­nor’s depiction of how “three implicit forms of the love of God — the religious ceremony of baptism, the beauty of the world, and the love of neighbor — can be perverted through rebellion, denial, and violation.” These perversions, or ditches, can serve as turning points to faith for errant souls who are well and truly beaten.

Professor John F. Desmond of Whitman College probes the novel’s rationalist character: a condescending, confrontational, and coarse stooge with a mindset acting “as a defense against the vulnerabilities and needs of his heart and the deprivations and confusion he experienced as a child.” A cogent argument finds such rationalism “truly demonic because he uses his crafty intelligence as a weapon to manipulate those around him.” Professor Jason Peters of Augustana College asserts that O’Connor was “thoroughly suspicious” of abstraction or visionary theories derived from objects — the rationalist’s ailment. Peters takes up alienation themes while discussing the “condition of placelessness” that permeates the novel. “Placelessness is not a morally neutral condition for the writer” as it deepens hardship, heartache, and strife.

Associate Professor Scott Huelin of Union University examines the imago Dei, the assertion that humans are made “in the image and likeness of God” through the attributes of reason, will, and love. A tyrannical interpretation of reason surges through O’Connor’s rationalist technocrat, a cool customer who adopts a “perverse asceticism — perverse because it constricts rather than enlarges the heart.” Huelin finds that, for O’Connor, humanity is “constituted by its capacity to enter into meaningful, responsible, and responsive relationships with others, and the unbending of the self, its opening to the other, precisely is the restoration of the image of God.”

Baptism is the “central action of the novel,” according to McMaster University’s P. Travis Kroeker. His essay centers on the conflict between the novel’s rationalist and prophetic visions as an intertwined baptism and murder shout out both worldviews. The dark faith’s “path to life, then, for those with eucharistic vision, must pass through a suffering and death in which Christ gives his flesh and sheds his blood for all — a vision that remains as offensive today as it ever was, world without end.” Susan Srigley, associate professor at Nipissing University, probes the novel’s treatment of self-renunciation and the possibilities of self-fulfillment, seeing a “double movement of renunciation and fulfillment as possible only through an expanded vision of both individuality and community that extends from the living to the dead and back again.” She emphasizes “the relationships between the living and the dead and the spiritual ties that bind them.”

Structural loneliness saturates the characters’ lives in O’Connor’s novel, but this area goes largely unexplored by the contributors to this volume. Where are the neighbors’ visits, religious communities, schools, sporting events, card games, concerts, radio programs, or communions of living saints? A bitter isolation figures into the spiritual pathologies of several ingrown, single-minded, self-absorbed characters. Noteworthy, too, is the fact that O’Connor’s novel remained above doctrinal sectarianism, containing none of that era’s dark, old-time Southern, idolatrous-papist-versus-blaspheming-Protestant stuff.

Literary criticism, a niche pursuit, is often a lofty, parochial sport with many participants drafted from academia. That said, this particular collection of essays reveals the genre at its most exacting as Dark Faith dissects disorderly journeys from ditch to eternal destiny through the offerings of nine admired minds. Mary Flannery O’Connor would be pleased!

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