Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: December 1994

December 1994


I wish to cancel my subscrip­tion. I have to admit that I must be one of those “cafeteria Catholics” you people so despise.

I find the smug tone of many of your articles very disturbing. I have been a grad student in philosophy so long, studying the En­lightenment in particular, that I guess I must be more Protestant than I have so far been willing to admit. I believe that when I have to face God in the end, He will not accept “the Church said it was or wasn’t okay” as an excuse. I will be held responsible.

Joyce M. Mullan

St James Catholic Church

Brooklyn, New York

And the Winner Is...

I’ve been reading NOR for over 11 years, and have generally found it very informative and enlightening, and only infrequently a little maddening. But Mark Shea’s “The Resurrection & the Priesthood: Only the Real Thing, Please” (Oct. 1994) is the best thing you’ve ever published. It is a masterpiece, and by itself worth every subscrip­tion dollar I’ve paid since 1983.

Shea’s skewering of the pre­tentious excesses of some trends in biblical scholarship is precisely on target. His question, “Is this true, comfort or no?” is of course the ul­timately important question that must always be asked (much as Pope John Paul II asked it in Veritatis Splendor). What made his argument even more compelling to me, a lifelong Catholic, was that he comes from an evangelical background and was truly able to come to grips with Catholic teach­ing on the Resurrection, the Eucharist, and the priesthood.

Fr. Jerry Kopacek

City University of New York

Forest City, Iowa

No Difference Between Churchill & Hitler

The September 1994 issue contains an article by Gordon Zahn entitled “The D-Day Commemorations.” There is much in the article to agree with, but the author skated over some very thin ice in several places. He’s right about some things — the “patriotic hyperbole,” the empty rhetoric of current politi­cians. But there are things in the essay that are objectionable.

One example: Zahn tries to dismiss Fr. Coughlin by giving an anecdote about a loyal follower of Fr. Coughlin who insisted that if the U.S. were allied with Germany (against Bolshevism), no Catholic could be a conscientious objector. Zahn says this man was some­thing of a clown, and he could not tell when he was serious. I knew several followers of Fr. Coughlin, and can assure Zahn that they were in agreement with his clown­ish friend on this issue. When Hitler began his conquests I was in public school (then, still excellent institutions). One teacher, who let us know she was a Catholic, said there was a lot of “nonsense” about German concentration camps. She assured us they were for “genuine criminals,” and if we doubted this, we should listen to the broadcasts of Fr. Coughlin, who could be trusted in this mat­ter. One of my fellow students, on hearing this, said, in a soft voice, which a few of us students, but not the teacher, could hear: “And how would you like to be made into a bar of soap?” Not long afterward, I visited the home of some new friends who warned me that we had to be very quiet, as an uncle living with them had been a resi­dent of a German concentration camp, and was terrified of sudden noises and loud sounds. These were the first inklings for me that something important was going on in Europe. Many stories of this time exist, including those of doc­tors of German descent refusing to treat Jewish children. (That Fr. Coughlin was soon silenced on this topic by orders from the Vatican was certainly not men­tioned by our schoolteacher.)

But now we come to more serious matters. Zahn says: “It is well to remember that Hitler was an evil created by the World War I victors, who, in maintaining the hard provisions of the Versailles Treaty, confirmed [Pope] Benedict’s warning. The rabble-rousing fanatic in the Munich beer hall would never have won the fol­lowing which made him Führer had not the narrow nationalisms of the contending powers confirmed the excesses of his even more fanatic nationalist appeals.” Did German ambitions, which go back much further, play no part in “creating” Hitler?

Zahn continues: “Even so, he had no monopoly on evil. When war came and spread in area and devastation, his appeals and threats found echo in Churchill’s war policy of ‘no lengths of violence to which we will not go’ and Roosevelt’s unwavering commit­ment to total annihilation of enemy forces and ‘unconditional surren­der.’ To that extent, Hitler, the apostle of totaller Krieg, had won.” But the demand of unconditional surrender seems to have been con­nected with keeping Russia in the war. Stalin had admired Hitler, hoping to be his partner. Even after the invasion of Russia, he might have made a separate peace with Hitler. The demand for uncondi­tional surrender seems also to have been based on the idea that the Nazi regime was one of gangsters, to be so treated, especially after having violated so many agreements. Zahn does not distinguish between prac­tice (Hitler’s) and exercises in rhetoric. Had Churchill and Roosevelt made plans to conquer and enslave Europe?

Zahn suggests that the dis­ciples (Churchill and Roosevelt) outdid the master (Hitler): “Months before Normandy, the le­gions of ‘Bomber’ Harris had de­stroyed Hamburg, in the process creating a firestorm that suffo­cated and cremated hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians. Many of those fortunate enough to reach air raid shelters were literally melted and liquefied by the intense heat. So impressed by that success were Harris and his political superiors that they intentionally de­signed the bombing of Dresden to be an improved repeat perfor­mance.” But Churchill and Roosevelt hoped that air power alone could do the job, and that casualties would be less than those that would occur in an invasion. The choice was not between right and wrong, as Zahn thinks, but be­tween a greater or lesser evil.

Zahn writes: “I do not agree that they [the veterans of D-Day] ‘saved’ the world…if only because the world has not been saved. One needed but to turn to pages of the paper reporting the D-Day ceremonies to read of Bosnia, Rwanda, Yemen, etc. The spirit of Hitler — and yes, of Churchill and Roosevelt — still lives….” But it was not their intention to “save” the world in a metaphysical sense, but to do what had to be done as they saw it save the civilization they knew in their own time. They are certainly not responsible for Bosnia, etc. — how could they be?

Perhaps Zahn would con­sider the following words of Cardi­nal Newman, and apply them to the differences between Hitler and Churchill (and even Roosevelt): “I shall console myself with the reflection…that they who are ever taking aim make no hits; that they who never venture, never gain; that to be ever safe, is to be ever feeble; and that to do some sub­stantial good, is to compensate for much incidental imperfection” (The Idea of a University).

The British and American soldiers who struggled and died in Normandy were not there to ex­pand the British or American em­pires. (Hitler did not want to con­quer those empires; he wanted to conquer Europe and Russia for Germany.) Churchill and Roosevelt sent them there to liber­ate Europe and Western civiliza­tion — and Christianity — from Hitler and his oppression. There is no equivalence in motives, pur­poses, thoughts, words, and ac­tions between Hitler on the one hand and Churchill and Roosevelt on the other.

Prof. Robert Lilienfeld

New York, New York

Sorry Characterization

In his letter (Oct. 1994), Philip Blosser of Lenoir-Rhyne College states that Peter Kreeft’s trialogue with Aquinas, Luther, and C.S. Lewis (July-Aug. 1994) was verbally per­formed by Kreeft at Lenoir-Rhyne. Blosser makes reference to “the New York Italian (Mafia) accent of [Kreeft’s] Aquinas.” I don’t know what standard Blosser uses to de­fine a “New York Italian” accent, or how he comes to equate it with “Mafia.” However, that was a sorry characterization.

Robert Taverni

Flushing, New York

The Amish Are Not Natural

Regarding Eric Brende’s ar­ticle favorable to Amish society (Oct. 1994): To assume that nature is an absolute good against which all technological advances can be weighed is to elevate nature to an equal standing with God, who is the absolute good. Nature is a creation, and therefore is subjugated to God. Nature has no existence without God, and therefore is not an absolute. Man is not just a cre­ation of God, but a creature en­dowed with qualities like His. These qualities give us power and responsibilities over nature. Na­ture by itself does not create roads, computers, or farms. Even Amish farms are unnatural.

The genius of the Amish is to evaluate the goodness or badness of particular technologies in terms of their community. The goal is to preserve a lifestyle, but that lifestyle is not natural; it is as con­trived and artificial as one can get. This is not necessarily bad. I derive comfort from knowing that man has it in him to resist the seduc­tion of knowledge, for the sake of something he treasures more.

As Christians, we struggle against our natures in order to comply with the Ten Command­ments. We look forward to a very unnatural conclusion to our lives: the resurrection of our bodies from a natural death. It is our unnatural or supra-natural achievements which account for the success of the Amish.

Jan Smith

Scotts Valley, California

Bozell's Impact

Your editorial, “A Civilization of Love: The Pope’s Call to the West” (Oct. 1994), brought me back to the late 1960s, when, as an Orthodox Jew, I experienced a political epiphany under Catholic auspices. The American conservative movement of the 1950s had deeply impressed me. Its program was mine, with its “Buckleyite fusion” of capitalism, victory over Com­munism, and faith. In my mind, faith and the American Right were somehow linked.

L. Brent Bozell’s orthodox Catholic magazine, Triumph, pub­lished from 1966 until 1976, changed this comfortable symbio­sis forever. It demanded that men of faith subject all their political, social, and economic theories to God’s scrutiny, stripped of paro­chial prejudices. It pointed out that men inspired by faith have lived and thought in places other than those of Anglo-Saxondom, and asked us to consider their example.

From the day I read Bozell’s “Letter to Yourselves” in Tri­umph, the words laissez-faire and democracy would never sound quite the same. It is thus always inspiring to read the NOR, where man’s obligation to his fellow and the community as a whole is taken as seriously as his duty to God.

A cautionary note, though: The neoconservatives are our natural allies on many of the basic religious and moral questions of the age. We should not allow our disagreement with them on eco­nomic matters to blind us to their assent to life’s Basics.

Rabbi Mayer Schiller

Monsey, New York

Economics Written by Poets

If the barricades ever go up, I hope I will have the courage to side with those who signed the joint statement organized by David L. Schindler protesting the material­ist ethos that all too often accompanies modern capitalist societies. The statement was printed in your October 1994 editorial, followed by a fa­vorable commentary from your Editor.

Unquestionably, Catholics should be distinguishable from lib­ertarians. It is true, as the state­ment proclaimed, that there is a “disintegrative consumerism” that seems to accompany free-market capitalism. Your Editor was per­ceptive to call it “a kind of package deal.”

But my question: What comes next after we heed this warning? One must assume that the authors of the statement in­tended their words to be inter­preted as something more than a pious plea for folks like Donald Trump and Hugh Hefner to volun­tarily deploy their fortunes in a more socially beneficent manner. It is not plausible to think that the signers would be satisfied if Trump became more concerned about the environmental impact of his projects, paid his workers more, gave them more generous benefits, and donated more of his for­tune to Catholic charities. No, there is more to the statement’s rhetoric, even if it was not made specific. I submit that the signers of the statement were motivated by a desire for fundamental change in our societal structures. It is no accident that Chesterton and Belloc are favorites with those who take the position about bourgeois culture found in the statement.

Distributism, or some modern variation on the theme, is what the authors of the statement are seeking to place on the agenda. Distributism attracts those re­pelled by the excesses they associ­ate with free-market capitalism be­cause its government-enforced prohibitions against massive accu­mulations of wealth and power seem to be an effective tool to deny the Trumps and Hefners of this world the financial wherewithal to indulge their vices. They view such state intervention as an appropri­ate weapon to counteract what the Editor described as the “radical pursuit of pleasure,” the “laissez-faire culture” of modern capitalist societies that “does not really make people happy.”

In the Chesterbellocian tradi­tion, the same state power used to prohibit abortion would be used to impede dangerous concentrations of wealth and power. The same leg­islative process that outlawed pornographers would outlaw pluto­crats. It is precisely this radicalism implicit in distributism that attracts those revolted by the soul­lessness of bourgeois culture. It is what the followers of Jose Antonio in the Spanish Falange meant when they sang “Face to the Sun.” The meaning of life is not to be found on a corporate balance sheet.

And yet it is at this point that things get complicated. At least that is what has always happened to me when I start to consider how Chesterbellocian economic theory would actually work. Whenever I read Chesterton and Belloc, the imagery captures my imagination: small villages, self-employed craftsmen, religious schools, social life revolving around the local par­sonage, evenings with a pint of ale in a cheery pub. And then I come back to earth. The goal of distributists is to use the state to limit unjust concentrations of wealth; their objective is to use the law to set the framework for a less materialist society, one where home and hearth and family count for more than the lounge-lizard life of the Trumps and certain stock-market gurus.

Well, it sounds great, but, who is going to be in charge of all this social engineering? Who is go­ing to define what it means to be “excessively” materialist? Permit me to give an example of what happens when we move beyond devotional maxims into economic realities.

About a decade or so back, I was sitting around a table with fel­low parishioners in a New York suburb, sipping coffee and assorted other beverages with a now-de­ceased monsignor, one whose judgment I usually respected. There was an illegal teachers’ strike going on in a nearby school district. Ev­eryone deplored the turmoil thrust upon the community.

The monsignor tried to offer the wisdom of Catholic social thought as a remedy for the confrontation. “If only we could get the sides in this dispute to look on the situation from a Catholic perspective,” he said. “We would get the issue of a living wage on the table. Come up with the numbers. What salary is required for a man to support his family in dignity? What is the living wage for an area like this?”

Well, I had no intention of showing up my monsignor — not consciously at any rate. But this was a theme I had brooded about many times before. So I asked a few questions.

“Monsignor, should a teacher be able to buy a decent house in this area?”

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.

“Should he be able to buy something like a Chevy every five years? And even if his wife is a full-time housewife?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“Should he be able to afford to send his three or four kids to the local Catholic high school?”

“Of course.”

“Should he be able to put away enough money to send them to Fordham or Notre Dame when the time comes?”

“Yes, if the kids help out a bit with summer jobs, naturally.”

“Should he be able to save for his retirement? Is that part of the living wage?”


It went on like this for a few questions more, but you get the point. My monsignor’s idea of a liv­ing wage would have turned out to be a salary higher than most lawyers were being paid at the time.

The same thought struck me as I talked recently with a family member about the bills he is going to face after buying a house in a middle-class community in Con­necticut. Since my own children are grown now, and I do not have to face these questions, I was startled when I started to tally up the totals.

This fellow is not buying a yacht or a sports car, or hiring a staff of servants. But decent houses in the area start at about $250,000. Property taxes are over $5,000. The tuition at the local Catholic grammar and high schools is over $2,000 per year. He has two young kids so far. They project that the college tuition at the Catholic col­leges nearby, such as the Jesuits’ Fairfield, will be over $40,000 a year when his kids are of college age.

Let’s cut to the chase: These responsibilities require a family in­come of well over $100,000. Get out your calculator if you doubt me. Probably the young man in question is pursuing his career and portfolio with a determination that Chesterton and Belloc would consider materialistic. But which of these things — house, neigh­borhood, schools — should he give up to become more authenti­cally Catholic?

What exactly would a Chestertonian state deny him? Would he be more Catholic by giv­ing up his corporate position and becoming a social worker in Haight-Ashbury and moving his kids to a walkup apartment in that area? In modern America we do not have Chesterton’s little villages full of bronzed yeoman farmers applying their scythes to their fields as an alternative to the “materialistic” suburbs.

This man’s “needs” are clean streets, safe schools, neighbor­hoods with sports and youth ac­tivities, a little bit of green space in the backyard, a good fire in the winter. But these things, these days, require big bucks, the kind of income one cannot acquire except by dedication to the corporate or entrepreneurial ethic, or perhaps through a generous inheritance.

Of course, the objection might be made I have constructed a straw man, that a distributist would be concerned with massive, corporate wealth, not junior ex­ecutives buying a tract house in Connecticut. But I disagree.

Distributism aspires to a change of attitudes on all levels of society, not just the corporate elite. A low-level employee can be just as consumed by materialistic concerns as the absentee owner of the corporation. In fact, I would bet that many are these days.

Chesterton and Belloc re­main favorites of mine. They are writers of great importance, as are the Southern Agrarians in our country who viewed society from a similar perspective. But what they offer on these issues is closer to verse than prose. Their essays pro­vide an antidote to the preoccupa­tion with money that can overtake us in capitalist societies. They pro­vide perspective on what monied interests can do to the political process. All of that is to be com­mended, without reservation.

But after that? From where I sit, there simply are no position papers for the candidates for pub­lic office to be found in their pages.

James K. Fitzpatrick

Mahopac, New York

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