Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: April 1990

April 1990

Salvaging Teilhard de Chardin

In spite of wincing a bit at Will Hoyt’s occasional slur (e.g., referring to Teilhard de Chardin’s thought as “sopho­moric”), I found his essay on Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (Jan.-Feb.) thoughtful and provocative. Yet in the end Hoyt was better at showing us the limitations of Chardin’s thought than at suggesting what might be of lasting value.

Essentially, Hoyt seems to have four objections to Char­din’s theory. First, he points out that Chardin suffers from the general liberal, “enlight­ened” tendency to take sin too lightly. Liberalism fails to see clearly the sinful distortions of the modern mentality. That Hiroshima, the Gulag, and the Holocaust “stand in a more integral relationship to the ener­gies of science and reason and enlightenment than Teilhard might want to admit” is a point well made. Second, he cautions us that one possible outcome of Chardin’s type of thinking might be a very un­savory type of social Darwin­ism. Yet, while this seems possible, we might arrive at a very different outcome if we were to hypothesize that the culture most fit to survive is the one that best incarnates the reality of love in the social order. Third, he questions Chardin’s optimistic view that, “There is no question of ship­wreck.” Of course, many shipwrecks are possible. Fourth, he warns us against believing in the salvific role of science and technology. As a “mental health” professional, I could not agree more with his judgment that “handing over the welfare of society at large to scientists is frightening.”

Agreeing in large part, then, that the bath water is in fact rather murky in places, and perhaps even toxic, I would nevertheless suggest that there may still be a baby in Chardin’s writing that is worth preserving. Chardin confronts us clearly and force­fully with two of the most central tasks that must be addressed if Christianity and culture are to enter into a pro­ductive and meaningful rela­tionship. First, we must some­how overcome the estrange­ment between the outer and the inner, between fact and meaning, if our individual and collective psyche is not to con­tinue in a state of almost psychotic bifurcation. Second, we must accept the facts of evolution (but not necessarily the modern reductionistic in­terpretation of them), and ex­plicate the inner spiritual sig­nificance of these facts through a process that is hermeneuti­cally sound. As Ezekiel inter­preted the meaning of the exile in the image of the dry bones, for example, so we must interpret evolution in terms of Christian images that disclose its meaning for us. Although Chardin has not ac­complished these two tasks with complete adequacy, he has provided us with some useful points of departure.

It is my conjecture that much of the fragmentation of modern life derives from a lack of understanding of how language systems work. The language of science and tech­nology is the language of fact. But fact stripped of meaning is useless. Fact enables us to manipulate, but not to set or critique goals. To live meaningfully we also need the lan­guage of prophecy and poetry. We must learn to bring both language systems into focus on a single subject — such as Chardin attempted to do with evolution.

Jim Hunter

Church of St. Jude

Lincoln, Maine

Exciting Horizons

As a consequence of read­ing your editorial (Jan.-Feb.) entitled “The Crumbling of Communism: Good for the Catholic Church?,” I have de­cided to decline a subscription to your magazine.

The predominance of quo­tations from Cardinal Ratzinger immediately alerted me to the nature of the editorial as tak­ing a defensive attitude toward the Church, and as not at all being in the generous and open spirit of Vatican II. So it is logical that “free choice and pluralism” are understood as threats rather than as invita­tions to more deeply appreci­ate how the Lord continues to reveal Himself in the living experience of His people, the starting point of all theology.

Furthermore, the editor rejects the priority of con­science as the ultimate guide for moral choices, and suffers from a severe lack of discern­ment by lumping together the moral issues of abortion, ho­mosexuality, remarriage, and alternate lifestyles. For exam­ple, is it not possible for two persons of the same sex to live and love together in the con­text of Christian commitment and yet be opposed to abor­tion?

Rather than an anxious Church that “relentlessly gazes at the sirens on waves ahead,” may we walk across the waves with the assurance of a Christ whose hand is always extend­ed in the challenge of new and exciting horizons.

James Andrew

Karen Catholic Worker House

Somerville, Massachusetts

The NOR’s Jan.-Feb. edito­rial connects consumerism in the West with Protestant Christians who “shop” for the church that pleases them. I don’t think the two are con­nected.

The “consumer sovereign­ty” enjoyed by Protestants is more aptly portrayed as the quest for appropriate socio­cultural expressions of belief in the reality of Christ.

Peter Loan

Washington, D.C.

Truth Not Cost-Effective

It is one of those great moments when you read an essay and sense that another pilgrim has seen what your eyes, your heart sees. The NOR’s Jan.-Feb. editorial was such a moment for me.

When a disciple of the revealed Lord Jesus attempts to live out the gift of faith with a heart “schooled” by our consumerist culture, conflict will arise. During my three years of seminary, this conflict offered us all, students and faculty, a steady dose of ten­sion.

Dealing with various tensions is part of living, and must be part of priestly for­mation. The tragedy is that many who have been given the opportunity to form new priests in the living faith of the Church do not realize what your editorial asserts: that the Way of the Lord Jesus is given from beyond us. Our proclivity to regard truth in cost-effective terms betrays what revelation is all about.

Fr. David P. Talley

Atlanta, Georgia

On Pacifism & Anarchism

Stuart Gudowitz’s review of my anthology, A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catho­lic Worker (Dec.), deserves some correction.

In his attempt to critique the pacifism and anarchism of the Catholic Worker move­ment, Gudowitz writes: “Curi­ously, in their essay, ‘Houses of Hospitality: A Pilgrimage in­to Nonviolence,’ Angie O’Gorman and Patrick Coy state that, even at the New York City Catholic Worker dur­ing [Dorothy] Day’s lifetime, police were occasionally called in to deal with violent guests.”

Gudowitz would evidently have the Worker throw out its commitment to pacifism and anarchism simply because individual Workers have often met with failure in their appli­cation of these principles in the often violent atmosphere of hospitality houses. Gudo­witz apparently requires paci­fism and anarchism to be mistake-proof.

The nonviolence of paci­fism and the individual re­sponsibility of anarchism do sometimes fail. Few know this truth better than those en­gaged in experimenting with these principles in hospitality houses. As Angie O’Gorman and I reported in some detail, when failures occur, Workers do on occasion turn to physical force, coercion, and the police to restore order, if not to ob­tain resolution leading to rec­onciliation. Since violence and state power also frequently fail, logic suggests that Gudo­witz would demand that they be abandoned as well. Is he ready to do so?

More serious is Gudo­witz’s assertion that “not even their own experience seems to have caused the Workers to re­think their pacifism or anar­chism.” Even a cursory glance at our chapter shows it to be an attempt to do precisely that.

Not only do Angie and I do so, but we include example after example of past and present Catholic Workers re­flecting, in interviews with us or in the pages of their respec­tive house newspapers, on the successes and failures of the Worker experiment with non­violence and individual re­sponsibility. Sifting through a long and rich experiment, we probe for patterns as to when nonviolence works and when it has failed, and what dynam­ics contribute to bringing a particular success or failure in­to being.

Unlike Gudowitz, the Catholic Worker movement is not ready to abandon what it perceives to be the gospel call to nonviolence and individual responsibility simply because it may sometimes fail. But for the reviewer to maintain that the movement has been un­willing to reflect on its daily application of the theory is to demonstrate an ignorance of not only the movement, but of our chapter as well.

Patrick G. Coy

St. Louis, Missouri

To Fight a Nuclear War

Regarding C.H. Ross’s review of my book, A Fighting Chance (Jan.-Feb.): Ross is right that the “decisive question” in the debate over nuclear weap­ons is whether a policy of de­terrence “necessarily involves the intent to launch a nuclear attack against the enemy’s ci­vilian population.” However, at this point the book I wrote, and the book Ross evidently read, differ as night from day.

I tried to make clear that the execution of such an attack is both immoral and unneces­sary. Beyond that, I tried to make clear that while the threat of such an attack might be moral (I really did not argue either way), the effect of such a threat would be to drive moral people out of our military services. Therefore, I argued, we should not make such a threat, both because of its detrimental effect on our military, and because we could not morally execute it should we be attacked.

Despite what I actually wrote, Ross describes me as “highly impatient with the suggestion that deterrence is possible without such intent.” I plead not guilty. On the con­trary, I am highly impatient with those who take it for granted that deterrence requires a threat against civilians.

If we don’t threaten ci­vilians, then who or what should we threaten? Ross did get it right this time. I do ad­vocate a “war fighting” posture. I argue that we can best deter war by being prepared to de­feat an enemy before we are annihilated, rather than threat­ening to annihilate him after he has annihilated us.

The requirements for such a posture include weapons which can be used in a dis­criminating and proportionate manner, and a Command and Control system capable of di­recting their use in that manner. I considered these topics so important that I devoted a chapter to each.

I argue that these con­ditions are difficult to meet, but that we can meet them if we try. Ross evidently believes otherwise. He postulates a scenario in which a “harried, outnumbered” NATO com­mander is surrounded and in danger of being overwhelmed, and suggests that the com­mander may decide to inciner­ate, say, Prague.

Two points need to be made. First, such a com­mander is unlikely to possess weapons which can reach Prague. Those long-range weapons will be based to the rear, out of immediate danger. He will instead possess short­-range tactical weapons. Sec­ond, what good would it do him to incinerate Prague? His immediate problem is the enemy troops in contact with his forces. It is against those forces which he can and must direct his nuclear weapons. The real danger is not that he will incinerate Prague, but that he will incinerate some small village a kilometer or two away from him, because an enemy tank column is passing through it. It is against this possibility that we must guard.

Here Ross seems unnec­essarily pessimistic. He asserts, “the battlefield is a notoriously poor breeding place for ration­al moral decisions.” This de­pends on the kind of people we recruit for our military ser­vices, and the kind of training we give them before they reach the battlefield. To argue that no one can make moral decisions in the heat of battle (i.e., don’t kill prisoners; make an effort to avoid killing civil­ians) smacks of an unwarrant­ed determinism. Traditions of chivalry, and of sanctuary for noncombatants, have been ob­served in the past. We are obliged to try their equivalents today, rather than give up in despair.

Finally, Ross asserts that I haven’t told the reader how to “bell the cat,” that is, I haven’t prescribed in detail how to use nuclear weapons in a discrimi­nating and proportionate man­ner. I have provided more de­tail than his review gives me credit for, but essentially he is correct. There were two rea­sons for this shortcoming.

First, the almost uni­versally prevalent opinion is that deterrence necessarily means threats against civilians. Even John Paul II, in his public statements, assumes that “nuclear war” means at­tacks on cities. He states that “deterrence,” based on such a threat, is tolerable only as a step toward complete disar­mament. In short, I saw as my chief task the need to counter this idea; to argue that nuclear weapons need not be used against civilians but can be used in a discriminating and proportionate manner against purely military targets.

Second, because of this prevalent assumption, little thought has been given to “war fighting.” The very idea of preparing to fight a nuclear war is immediately condemned as “making nuclear war think­able,” or worse, as trying to provoke a nuclear war. We need to think about how to fight a nuclear war: weapons, tactics, Command and Control, political restraints. This won’t happen unless we first recog­nize that “war fighting” is both possible and necessary.

Joseph P. Martino

Sidney, Ohio

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