Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: July-August 2015

Letters to the Editor: July-August 2015

The Liberal Catholic/Conservative Protestant Alliance

I read with great interest “The Perils of Ecumenical Straight-Talk” (May) by my friend David Mills. While I would argue that conservative Protestant opinion on remarriage after divorce is perhaps more divided than he allows, his comment that we Protestants are allied with liberal Catholics on clerical celibacy and contraception is entirely accurate. Even on the matter of homosexuality, agreement between conservative Protestants and Catholics is rooted in somewhat different assumptions, since the inseparability of the unitive and procreative functions of sexual intercourse (which we deny) is foundational to the Catholic moral case. So Mills actually does not go far enough in highlighting the alliance between conservative Protestants and liberal Catholics on these specific issues.

This raises the question of why Mills’s correspondents were so angry with him. One might speculate about their denominational affiliations, but it seems likely to me that one of two things is at work here. It may be that the individuals are members of churches that aspire to seeing themselves as equal players with the Roman Catholic Church, and thus themselves as co-belligerents with conservative Catholics. To be told that they are not so is a reminder of their (from a Catholic perspective) sectarian status — a painful thing for those who take pride in their catholic ecclesiastical spirit.

Alternatively, their reactions might be representative of an interesting cultural phenomenon: the need American evangelicals apparently feel to cast anybody they admire as essentially one of their own, a kind of evangelical equivalent to posthumous baptism in Mormonism. Thus, C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have both been posthumously canonized as American evangelical saints, despite the obvious historical and theological problems that entails.

As one who embraces his Protestant sectarianism and feels no need always to see his own reflection in the face of theologians whom he finds delightful and useful, I am happy to report that I am one Protestant who thinks Mills’s points are entirely legitimate.

Carl R. Trueman

Westminster Theological Seminary

Glenside, Pennsylvania

A big part of the problem David Mills and other Catholics have encountered when explaining the differences between Catholicism and evangelicalism is that the evangelical world is hopelessly diffuse. Another way of saying this is that the word evangelical is about as clear in meaning as the words Christian and love. No longer can we assume that we know what is meant when we or others use the word, given that “evangelicals” run the gamut from fundamentalists to radical liberals.

I think the reason why Mills’s evangelical friends get testy and even hostile when he explains why some of their views are liberal is that the vast majority of self-proclaimed evangelicals pride themselves on not being liberals. So they meet the statement that their views are often similar to those of liberal Catholics with incredulity and anger; this is especially true of those who still hold to orthodox views of marriage. Most of these evangelicals do not realize that they have come to positions that disagree with Rome because they have adopted the liberal Protestant method, and that the consistent use of that method over time will produce liberal views even on sexuality and marriage.

What is the liberal method? It can be summed up crudely as follows: “Since the most important thing is having warm fuzzies for Jesus, everything else — such as doctrine and ethics — is relatively unimportant.” This was the method of the original liberal Protestants in the U.S. who came out of the evangelical social-gospel movements of the later 19th century. It is also the method used by many evangelicals today.

Gerald R. McDermott

Beeson Divinity School

Birmingham, Alabama


I’m grateful for the responses from two men prominent in their traditions, Carl R. Trueman among the Reformed (Presbyterian) and Gerald R. McDermott among the evangelicals. I am friends with both, maybe in part because we’re all disposed to deal with differences in the same way, but I think this exchange shows how easy ecumenical discussions and friendships can be.

All everyone has to do is recognize that we differ on very important matters yet our differences don’t require personal judgments. We don’t know why someone has come to the place he is, but charity and prudence require that we assume he’s as honest and courageous as we are. If he’s wrong, he’s sincerely wrong, and God will deal with him in His good time, as He’ll deal with us.

I could say to Carl or Gerry, “I think you’re wrong about this,” and they would say, “Of course you do; you’re a Catholic.” We could then talk about the matter or reflect together on the qualities of the ale in front of us or tell stories about our children. Some other people I’ve dealt with would respond with charges of uncharity, arrogance, ecclesial imperialism, unkindness, slander, presumption, etc. Some of them would snarl or growl as they said it.

From my long experience with and among mainstream evangelicals, I agree with both Carl and Gerry in their explanations of the reasons for the angry response I described in my article. I’d only add three things. First, every tradition has its problems, and similar observations could be made about the Catholic Church in the U.S. Apologists tend to forget this, but knowing one’s vulnerabilities encourages tolerance. Glass houses, etc.

Second, the Catholic finds the evangelical appropriation Carl describes to be annoying. The way many evangelicals speak, bad Catholics are bad Catholics and evidence against the Catholic Church, but good Catholics are good Christians and belong to everyone. They use the broad meaning of the term evangelical to score points for evangelicalism narrowly defined.

Third, the pride in being anti-liberal that Gerry describes I saw offered as a rebuttal to my argument. One friend said (I quote from memory), “We can’t be like dissenting Catholics. We’re against liberalism.” He was stomping through all sorts of distinctions without realizing it because the reality of his daily fight against liberalism kept him from seeing them. I would say that such evangelicals favor a 16th-century liberalism that wanted to liberate men from Church authority and reject the 21st-century liberalism that wants to liberate them from traditional Christian doctrine and morals. That’s a legitimate position, but one that puts them in agreement with today’s dissenting Catholics.

I thank Carl and Gerry for their responses, and for being two men who so enjoyably demonstrate the pleasures of cross-ecclesial friendships.

The SSPX & Selective Excommunication

During the long pontificate of John Paul II, only five people were excommunicated: Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and the four men he consecrated as bishops. Yet, during this same pontificate, there were certain priests and theologians who were preaching and teaching blatant heresy. Why weren’t they excommunicated? Why were they allowed to go on year after year spreading heresy? Think of all the souls that were lost because of them.

Archbishop Lefebvre could not accept some of the errors of Vatican II. He had to be true to his conscience and adhere to the Catholic religion handed down to him by Jesus and the Apostles. Because of this, he and his followers have been treated like lepers, while the heretics have been exalted and honored.

Donna Kruger

Lincoln, Nebraska

I was sorry to encounter the negative comments about the SSPX (ed. reply to Donna Kruger, May) as there is a great deal more that can be said about this exceedingly complex situation. Such bald statements as “Lefebvre’s refusal to submit to Pope St. John Paul II, who warned Lefebvre against consecrating bishops without a papal mandate, qualifies as an act of schism” are misleading mainly because they leave out so much of the reasoning behind the archbishop’s actions. Obviously one does not, out of the blue, suddenly decide to start a schism. Indeed, no Catholic in his right mind would even consider such a thing — and this, as anyone who has read the archbishop’s writings would know, was very far from his intention.

To this day, the Society has been and is extremely careful to avoid schismatic acts, and it remains loyal to the pope, though it is unable to obey proclamations that run counter to conscience and the collective teachings of the popes up to Vatican II. I know this is an emotionally charged issue and there are some very angry people out there, people willing to suspend the current vogue for ecumenism and tolerance in the case of the SSPX. A reasoned debate, conducted in all charity and good will, would be most welcome.

Colleen Drippe

Brighton, Missouri


The question Mrs. Kruger puts forth — why were Archbishop Lefebvre and the four bishops he illicitly consecrated the only ones excommunicated during John Paul II’s papacy while so many other Catholics preached heresy with abandon? — is one that makes the rounds quite frequently in traditionalist discourse. The question is often asked rhetorically, in a way that reinforces traditionalists’ sense of victimhood.

The answer, however, is simple: None of the so-called heretics, or any of the most notorious dissenters — neither Hans Küng nor Charles Curran nor Richard McBrien nor Richard Rohr (Catholic priests one and albp— ever attempted to interrupt apostolic succession or usurp papal power by consecrating their own bishops without approval. Marcel Lefebvre did, in defiance of a direct order from the Pope. And it was this act of disobedience, this act of schism — and it is indeed an act of formal schism, according to official, verifiable Church sources, as laid out in our May reply — that caused his excommunication. Lefebvre and his followers aren’t the victims in this drama; Catholic unity is.

To be clear: Pope John Paul II never excommunicated anyone. A number of people did, however, incur automatic excommunication during his papacy, among them Lefebvre and his four bishops in 1988; the schismatic “Danube 7” in 2002, a group of women who claim to have been “ordained” as Catholic priests by a man who had himself incurred excommunication in the 1970s; and radical modernist Fr. Tissa Balasuriya in 1997 for, yes, heresy. In these cases, the Vatican announced each party’s automatic, ipso facto excommunication in a formal declaration.

Anyone who engages in a schismatic act incurs ipso facto excommunication, regardless of the “reasoning” behind the act. In other words, the schismatic automatically excommunicates himself. No formal declaration by a pope is necessary.

Yes, yes, Lefebvre had his reasons for doing what he did, and in his mind his “intentions” were probably perfectly legitimate. Then again, Martin Luther also had his reasons for posting his “95 theses,” and he too likely felt the same way about his intentions. Both men were simply being “true to their consciences.” In so doing, both ruptured Catholic unity, both incurred ipso facto excommunication, and both created their own shadow churches. At least Luther was honest enough not to claim that his church was more Catholic than the pope’s.

In his apostolic letter announcing Lefebvre’s automatic excommunication, John Paul II wrote that the archbishop’s “act of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff in a very grave matter… — which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy — constitutes a schismatic act.” This hardly sounds like “loyalty to the pope.” Ultimately, for Luther and Lefebvre, the question is one of authority and obedience: Is the pope endowed with the authority to govern the Church, and are we to act in obedience to him, or are we authorities unto ourselves who owe obedience to no man?

Lest anyone think otherwise, we don’t presume to be writing the final words on this (or any) subject. We acknowledge that the SSPX today is in an irregular canonical situation, not a formally schismatic one, and we too pray for unity and the reconciliation of the Society to the Church. That’s why we ended our May reply with the words of Gerhard Cardinal Müller, prefect of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei: “The canonical excommunication for the illicit ordinations has been lifted from the bishops, but the sacramental de facto excommunication for schism remains; they have departed from communion with the Church. We do not follow that up by shutting the door, we never do, and we call on them to be reconciled. But on their part too, they must change their attitude and accept the Catholic Church’s conditions and the Supreme Pontiff as the definitive criterion of membership.”

We too would welcome a reasoned debate on this topic, conducted in all charity and good will. Those who would like to argue either side of the debate may contact the editor with article proposals via e-mail at pietervree@newoxfordreview.org.

A Low Opinion of High Praise

I was surprised to read J. Mulrooney’s laudatory review of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s Welcome to the Orthodox Church (May). What surprised me is that Mulrooney did not seem to think that he needs to exercise much critical judgment of a book that appears to be a frank effort to attract converts, including Catholics, to Eastern Orthodoxy. This is, of course, a logical thing for Mathewes-Green to do, but one would have expected some reserve on the part of a Catholic reviewer. Surely Mulrooney is aware that there are many Catholics who have left the Church and embraced Eastern Orthodoxy, and as a Catholic himself, he no doubt deplores this fact. But instead of a cautious appraisal, we are treated to a generally rapturous account of Mathewes-Green’s virtues as a writer, theologian, and spiritual guide.

Mulrooney might have asked himself whether Mathewes-Green’s “semi-fictional” account of a “representative American parish of the Orthodox Church” is not only semi-fictional but idealized as well, and whether it glosses over the many theological, liturgical, and even spiritual problems present in the Orthodox Churches. Moreover, I wonder whether it is wise to recommend to Catholics that they read “a quick summary of the controversy over the double procession of the Holy Spirit” written by an Orthodox schismatic. I would no more do so than I would advise Catholics to read a quick summary of the doctrines of grace or justification written by a Protestant heretic.

Mulrooney does, of course, point out Mathewes-Green’s negative comments about Latin saints and theologians, but this single caveat is dwarfed by the praise he heaps on the book, and especially on the author. Is this really the best way for a Catholic to present such a book in a Catholic journal and to a largely Catholic audience?

Thomas Storck

Westerville, Ohio


I find myself forced to agree with Thomas Storck’s assessment of my review. A good many things have gotten away from me lately, including some of my original notes on this book. I see in the margins of my review copy the note “my child is high-spirited, yours misbehaves,” commenting on Mathewes-Green’s tendency to give all benefits of all historical doubts to the Eastern side of the story. Somehow this did not make it into the final review. I find other such marginalia — indeed, some passages of the book made me positively grouchy. What stylite was I sitting on when I wrote such an effusive review? But a writer has no excuses, and I accept Mr. Storck’s salutary chastisement.

I fear I was also unclear as to the virtues of the book. The pleasure of Mathewes-Green as a companion, Eastern Orthodox though she may be, is in her insistence on Christianity as a Way and a Life. Serious Catholics are often afflicted with too much C.S. Lewis, terrific on Christianity as the Truth, but not so hot on the other two. As the Orthodox say, the mind must be in the heart. It is her insistence on this, and her spirited defense of liturgy and ritual against the guitar-slinging forces of low-church spontaneity, that should recommend Mathewes-Green to a Catholic.

An Accurate Connection to What Is Objectively True

I read with great interest Cecilia Huckestein’s critique of deconstructionism as championed by Jacques Derrida (“On the Deconstruction of Language,” May). I certainly want to engage her thoughts fairly and objectively; it is too bad that followers of Derrida would never do so themselves. Every piece of writing is an author’s attempt to engage readers with ideas. That is why authors write!

I am sure Dr. Huckestein would hope that readers would want to accurately engage her mind, her motives, and her ideas fairly and objectively. Yet what happens if people believe that the very language of communication itself is suspect? What happens to communication if the author’s ideas are instantly discounted by a reader’s bias? That is what Huckestein correctly describes as a problem specifically brought about by Derrida. He posits that any text is independent of the author and so the worldview of the reader is on a footing equal to or even higher than the author’s.

On the contrary, Martin Heidegger famously described truth as aletheia, or an “un-covering” of a reality that is already present and independent of observers. This corresponds with the definition of sanity as having an accurate connection to what is objectively true in the real world.

Fr. Dave Heney

Calabasas, California

Cecilia Huckestein’s concise synthesis of the fatal blow to reason’s ability to seek “the Truth” as the only genuine source of thought and language is very compelling. She aptly describes the maze of non-referential texts that postmodern philosophy, and especially the French deconstructionist movement, has consigned us. The instituting of a Hegelian intellectual culture in our universities and educational system in general has contributed greatly to the diminishment of human reason. Many young students emerge from their years of schooling with what Henri Bergson describes as “a closure of the soul,” with no ability to experience transcendence, and with it aspirations to the transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness.

How could this happen to philosophy, Plato’s “first science”? I think the roots of this malevolency extend past postmodernity into modernity. This latter philosophy abandoned the medieval model of faith and reason — i.e., Anselm’s fides quaerens intellectum — as the only adequate standard for human acts of reflection. Modernity, beginning with Descartes, sought certainty and proof, and hence bracketed faith as irrelevant to human realizations of truth, choosing instead the scientific paradigm of truth. Descartes was indeed fooled by the Deceiver because he believed that human beings could access “the truth” without a connection to the Truth — i.e., with the powers of human discursive reason alone. Thus, Descartes began the grand human experiment of the exercise of reason without God, a counterpart to humanity’s experiment to be morally good and just without God.

The medieval model of faith and reason for the philosophic act is a restatement of the classical Greek experience of human reason. In this experience, as philosopher Kenneth Schmitz has written, the universe is not a “given” but a “gift,” and human reason in nascent faith seeks out the Giver of this gift — Truth Itself and the source of truth — revealed to reason in what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the first revelation,” which is creation. Faith enables higher-order reason to gaze on this truth. And discursive reason, with all its many talents, then explores and articulates the truth and the understandings offered to it in the fullness that is this first disclosure of reality to reason by the Creator. Faith enables reason’s gaze on the Truth in this paradigm of knowledge.

This medieval model is faithful to the Greek philosophers’ explanation of human reason. They defined reason as arising in experiences of questioning unrest and wonder as the human power to know reality. First, they recognized in this tension a response of their own nous as the human faculty endowed with the power of the vision of Being to a beckoning great Nous. Hence, Aristotle defined the human being as zoon noun echon, the living being with nous. But the classical philosophers also recognized the human endowment of logos, reason’s power to analyze the content in the human intellect’s vision of being. This classical understanding of how reason can realize its telos to truth is the core content of the medieval model of faith and reason as the task for philosophy.

Catholic scholars in recent philosophical history have attempted to restore education’s renewed discernment of how human beings know the truth. I will mention two. First, the Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper asks, “What is philosophy?” His succinct and clear explanation returns us to the medieval and classical Greek explanation of human reason as the work of its two powers of faith and reason: “The ancients, then, understood man’s faculty for knowing as a unity of ratio and intellectus [logos and nous] and the act of knowledge itself as a simultaneous functioning of the two.” (Many of Pieper’s essays are available in a volume of his writings titled For the Love of Wisdom).

Second, Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II), who wrote his dissertation on faith according to St. John of the Cross, specifies faith as the proper means of uniting the intellect with God. Faith creates a proportionality between human and divine reason. Faith makes God known to the intellect by facilitating the receptive vision of the intellectus — “a listening to things,” through the mind’s union with the Divine Reason born in faith.

Unfortunately, even in many of our contemporary programs of Catholic philosophy, this medieval/Greek understanding of philosophy as the joint endeavor of nous and logos (or intellectus and ratio) — that is, faith and reason — has been forgotten or abandoned. Philosophy is treated as an independent discipline, the real work of the intellect apart from faith that can serve as an aid to theology’s discernment of the doctrines of revelation. As such, philosophy is consigned to the operations of discursive reason or the ratio, without its medieval companion, the intellectus, that gazes in faith on Being. There is an urgent need for Catholic philosophy to lead the way in a recognition of the exercise of both faith and reason as integral to all human acts of knowing.

Dr. Huckestein explained very well the downward spiral into relativism that postmodern philosophy has wrought. But modernity started this madness! In contrast, the medieval and classical philosophers did not believe that truth could be accessed by human reason if it were not in a union by faith with God. A first ascent out of the deconstructionist insanity may well be Catholic philosophical retrieval of its Anselmian roots of fides quaerens intellectum, the medieval model of cognition as the joint work of faith and reason.

Macon Boczek

Novelty, Ohio

Cecilia Huckestein repeats some of the common stereotypes of G.W.F Hegel. She says that reality, for Hegel, is “a systematic progression of colliding contradictions organized in triads of thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” It is not Hegel who uses these terms but his contemporary, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, whose system Hegel disagreed with. Both Hegel and Fichte, however, were concerned with correcting the 18th-century idealism of Immanuel Kant, which rendered morality completely subjective and held that metaphysical consideration of God and the soul was impossible.

Huckestein cites Hegel’s “triad of existence” in his Science of Logic as going from being to non-being to becoming. What happens is that Hegel analyzes the common concept of “being” as complete indetermination (not any specific being), concludes that this is equivalent to nothingness, and finds becoming as an intermediate synthesis (just as Aristotle posited “potency” as a quasi-actuality). But this is just the first minuscule section of Hegel’s Logic, which he describes, rather ambitiously, in his introduction, as a philosophical analysis of the attributes of God before the creation of the world.

After hundreds of pages, Hegel’s Logic examines the philosophy of nature, then the philosophy of Spirit, then Christianity as the “Absolute Religion,” then the modern liberal state with Christianity as its basis, and then “Absolute Spirit,” a philosophical conclusion Hegel thought overcame the dichotomy produced between subjectivity and objectivity by such predecessors as Descartes and Kant.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels thought they could purloin what they called Hegel’s “dialectic method” and apply it scientifically to social evolution in the world — which was the furthest thing from Hegel’s mind.

It is true that Hegel, unlike the Scholastics, did not consider philosophy the handmaid of theology but considered theology the main source of true philosophical contemplation. He writes, “The inwardness of the heart’s worship and our pictorial thinking is not the highest form of inwardness. As this purest form of knowledge we must recognize untrammeled thinking in which philosophy brings to our minds the same content [as in religion] and thereby attains that most spiritual worship in which thinking makes its own and knows conceptually what otherwise is only the content of subjective feeling or pictorial thinking.” Most important, Hegel was in no way a relativist.

Howard P. Kainz

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Context Shades Interpretations

I enjoyed Richard E. Gallagher’s article “True & False Possessions, Revisited” (May), written in reply to Stephen J. Kovacs’s review of the re-release of Jean Lhermitte’s 1956 book True or False Possession?: How to Distinguish the Demonic from the Demented (Jan.-Feb.). Dr. Gallagher acknowledges that Lhermitte’s book has much to offer, and that it has historical significance. He cautions us, however, not to forget the historical context in which the book was written. This context shades Lhermitte’s interpretation of events and makes the book somewhat less pertinent to the 21st century.

That said, both Kovacs’s review and Gallagher’s article prompted me to consider a couple of things. First, it is important for us to be reminded of the demonic, especially at a time when the predisposition to use psychopathology as the ultimate explanation of all unusual behavior is so prevalent. While it is not healthy to obsess about the demonic, an occasional reminder does the soul good.

In addition, I was reminded that humility and patience are two virtues that are especially important in approaching apparently demonic situations. Both hastiness to pass judgment on a situation and grandiose overconfidence play into the hands of the Prince of Darkness. And, sadly, both humility and patience are undervalued in our self-absorbed, microwave culture.

Mark Albanese, M.D.

Somerville, Massachusetts

In approaching any topic scientifically, one is cautioned to stay close to the facts. Facts are reproducible observations, usually discovered by mechanical means like observation and measurements. If only science were so easy! When one enters into the realm of the soft sciences — like sociology, anthropology, and, unfortunately, psychiatry — measurements become limited. As Harry Stack Sullivan pointed out regarding psychiatric phenomena, the observer influences the observed, and one’s findings must be held cautiously.

One aspect of the observer’s limitations is his historical period. Dr. Gallagher provides an excellent review of both the accomplishment of Dr. Lhermitte’s book and its limitations. Dr. Gallagher’s caution to contextualize Lhermitte’s findings is well founded. One’s historical period influences one’s ability to observe.

In our increasingly secular culture, the marginalization of religion encourages even honest scientists to dismiss phenomena involving the supernatural. One must be scientific enough to be open to the possibility that in some cases of mental illness the diabolic may be involved. As Louis Pasteur noted in 1854, Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits prepares (“In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind”). Pasteur’s statement is still true today. The key question today is, “Is it possible?”

Dr. Gallagher is a practitioner, and like most physicians, he lives in a real world full of suffering people. Ruling out complex neurologic and psychiatric disorders is the first step in helping those whose symptoms include unusual phenomena of a spiritual nature. Having worked with what appears to be the genuine article in the attempted exorcism of “Julia” (recounted in his NOR article “A Case of Demonic Possession,” March 2008), and having a solid spiritual background, his prepared mind has a clear approach to a difficult topic. Psychiatry joins its sister fields in medicine when it speaks of diagnostic criteria, etiology, pathology, incidence/prevalence, and treatment. Dr. Gallagher highlights some of the diagnostic criteria, including dramatic phenomena like the patient speaking in foreign languages and having seemingly superhuman strength. His comments on typology and classification are also important, and he distinguishes different kinds of demonic involvement like possession and oppression.

One element that makes this realm difficult to work in is the relative scarcity of clear-cut cases. Hospitals are not filled with levitating patients. Another element that makes this area problematic is the inadequate number of persons trained in psychiatry who have a disciplined spiritual dimension and who are seriously willing to entertain the possibility that the demonic exists.

Those too credulous are as bad as those too skeptical. Balance in the area of the psycho-spiritual is a rare find. Dr. Gallagher’s article achieves that balance.

Frank Pastore, M.D.

Peekskill, New York


It is nice to see the increasing number of physicians able to recognize demonic phenomena and conditions distinct from much more common medical pathology. I thank Drs. Albanese and Pastore, obviously independent-minded and thoughtful psychiatrists, for their generous comments about my article, as well as their added reflections, with which I agree wholeheartedly.

Reasonable Doubts About Abolishing the Death Penalty

In the title of her article “Is There a Biblical Basis for Capital Punishment?” (Aprib| Anne Barbeau Gardiner asks a question that can readily be answered “yes” from the examples she cites. But she concludes by answering a modified question: “There is absolutely no warrant from divine revelation for the death penalty as it is practiced in America” (emphasis added).

It might seem that, if anything, capital punishment in America is more restricted than it was in ancient Israel, for Gardiner notes that there is biblical warrant for capital punishment for over 30 crimes besides murder. However, she goes on to enumerate ways in which she believes it was more restricted then, beginning with the proposition that in capital cases an ancient Jewish court would have required “absolute certainty of guilt.” Is that test really different from our requirement that guilt be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”? (If there is a gap, what would be in it? An unreasonable doubt?) The fact that innocent people have occasionally been executed in modern times does not show that the standard does not exist or is not applied — only that there were errors not caught by the judicial process in particular cases.

There appear to be far fewer restrictions on who can testify in a capital case now, but on the other hand, an accused is entitled to have counsel — free if he cannot afford his own — whose job it is to cross-examine witnesses and challenge physical evidence. Counsel has access in advance of trial to testimony and other exhibits that the prosecution intends to introduce, and while circumstantial evidence is admissible, there is a stringent requirement that it be relevant to the point for which it is introduced.

Gardiner impugns the American system of justice by quoting a phrase from a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that “racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty” are “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” That makes it sound like we turn a blind eye to prejudice in sentencing. That’s not so. There was no doubt of the defendant’s guilt in that case — the murder of a policeman in the course of committing a robbery. The Court refused to set aside his capital sentence merely because he had statistical evidence that blacks who killed whites had the highest rate of the death sentence being applied. The Court noted that in each such case there had to have been a detailed review of the exact circumstances of the crime and the defendant, and a judgment that the death sentence was warranted.

It is true that there is room in our system for prosecutorial misconduct, and that some prosecutors, and even judges, are motivated by a desire to obtain convictions to further their own ambitions. In contrast, Gardiner says that “judges in biblical times had to fear God and be wise, humble, disdainful of monetary gain, and lovers of truth and their fellow men.” Really? What of Jesus’ parable about the unjust judge (Lk. 18:1-8)? Would He have told it if He did not expect it to find resonance among His listeners (cf. Ps. 94:20-12; Dan. 13:52-53)?

Gardiner also asserts that in biblical times persons with mental disabilities and those under the age of 20 could not be executed but that they can be under our system. Well, yes and no. The Supreme Court has ruled that persons cannot be executed for crimes they committed before the age of 18 — and as we well know, anyone who commits a capital crime will spend many years on death row before a sentence is carried out, so no one who is 19 or 20 years old will be executed. Moreover, persons who are insane cannot be executed, nor can persons who are severely mentally retarded (and IQ tests are not the sole criterion).

Even though I would answer the title question “yes,” there is more to be considered. It seems to me that the real debate should focus on paragraphs 2266-2267 of the Catechism, specifically, “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor…. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm…the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'”

While I am willing to have capital punishment become very rare, my reluctance to give it up completely is based on my prudential judgment that it is factually wrong to say that there is no need whatsoever for capital punishment to protect society — that incarceration, or the threat thereof, can always do the job. And I suggest consideration of three categories of murders, in this progressively more troubled time.

First, the legislative and judicial limits on how prisoners can be treated preclude absolute safety for guards and fellow prisoners. In prisons, fights, rapes, and murders occur — including the killing of prison guards. If an inmate kills a guard, hasn’t he demonstrated that he presents too great a risk to be allowed to live, even in confinement? Second, we may find that terrorism needs to be fought with the death penalty to prevent allied terrorists from kidnapping innocent people and using them as bargaining chips to secure the release of their comrades. Third, in order to protect the system of criminal justice, it may be appropriate to impose the death penalty for the murder of police, prosecutors, and judges.

Hurd Baruch

Tucson, Arizona

I would like to toss my two cents into the discussion of the death penalty, as I had a part in its re-establishment in Arizona in 1979. Although most of the treatises on the topic get wrapped up in Bible quotes and moral justification, no such testimony was brought before the state senate when we voted to put the death penalty back in statute after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled it unconstitutional in 1972. The issues before us were strictly “secular.” (I might add that the numbers in favor of the death penalty were higher than they are now, and a Democratic governor, a Catholic, signed the bill after it passed on a straight party line in the GOP, of which I was a member.)

The first issue we faced, most important at the time and still relevant today, was that too many murderers with life sentences escaped from prison and committed more murders on the outside, or committed more murders while in prison without fear of retribution by the state since a convicted killer couldn’t be sentenced to more than one life sentence. We wanted to see to it that these repeat offenders didn’t have more opportunities. A few years earlier, a couple of murderers escaped (one of whom had murdered a prison guard) and went on a killing spree, murdering a Marine, his wife, and their baby near Yuma, and a honeymooning couple in Colorado, among others. If we’d had the death penalty, those victims would still be alive.

Another prisoner had murdered a fellow prisoner and a guard and carved “Banzai” into their backs, as his signature, I suppose. I saw him on an Appropriations Committee tour right before he finally got the death penalty under the new statute. He had dead eyes; there was no window into his soul, that’s for sure.

The second issue we faced, which has been debated by death-penalty opponents, is the cost to taxpayers. It is costly to keep a prisoner with a life sentence in jail for 40 or 50 years; it is cheaper to end that cost with the death penalty.

Perhaps Arizona is still part of the Wild West of frontier days, and thus we get a worse category of murderers, but the death penalty has saved countless lives and prevented untold injuries and rapes of our citizens. Plus, less of their treasure is taken from them in the form of taxes to fund more prisons.

Jeffrey Hill

Tucson, Arizona


The core principle of the biblical death penalty is the command that “the innocent and the just you shall not put to death” (Exod. 23:7). This standard looks to actual, factual innocence. The reality in the U.S. today is that there is no constitutional right not to be executed just because one is factually innocent, so long as the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt has been met in a trial with constitutionally required procedures.

This standard, most likely an inheritance from the evolution of common law and the Age of Reason, has nothing to do with meeting the strict standard of Scripture for the imposition of death. As noted in my book The Biblical Truth About America’s Death Penalty, at the time of the re-instatement of the death penalty in Arizona and other states, the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code provision for capital-punishment statutes provided for a requirement of an absolute certainty of guilt. None of the states passing capital-punishment statutes at the time included this provision. Moreover, as also noted in my book, the efforts by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating to raise the death-penalty standard from beyond a reasonable doubt to a moral certainty of guilt did not succeed in the state legislature. Clearly, for those involved in the death-penalty industry in America, there is a huge difference between the American standard and the biblical standard.

Quite appropriately, Hurd Baruch invites us to focus on paragraphs 2266-2267 of the Catechism, but he fails to quote the crucial threshold requirement set forth in paragraph 2267: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty…” (italics added). Quite simply, that assumption is not met in a system that does not require absolute certainty of guilt.

The American system also fails miserably in terms of moral culpability, especially with respect to the mentally ill. Baruch’s statement that “persons who are insane cannot be executed” begs the question without addressing it. Basically, competence to be executed in the U.S. simply requires that the defendant know two things: What it means to be dead, and that he will be killed because he did something bad. The condemned does not even need to know who he is.

Finally, Mr. Baruch posits three situations that he believes require us to continue using capital punishment. The first is to deter murders in prison. That argument might have been a good one 40 years ago, but it no longer obtains. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “The homicide rate in state prisons fell from 54 per 100,000 prisoners in 1980 to 4 per 100,000 in 2002…. During 2002 there was a higher homicide rate among the U.S. resident population (6 per 100,000) than either in state prison (4 per 100,000) or in local jails (3 per 100,000)” (“State Prison Homicide Rates Down 93 Percent: Jail Suicide Rates 64 Percent Lower Than in Early 1980s,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, Aug. 21, 2005).

The second situation he presents is terrorism. When speaking in Catholic churches in Wisconsin during that state’s attempt to re-instate the death penalty after the horror of 9/11, I encountered the same wishful thinking that capital punishment can deter terrorism. Although Wisconsin had abolished the death penalty in 1853, some state leaders argued that it needed to be re-instated to ensure that a 9/11 attack never happened there. In church after church, I responded to this assertion with the question, “How does capital punishment deter a suicide bomber?” Invariably, my questioner had never thought about that. I once asked a person from Israel who is involved in security why there is no death penalty for terrorism in his country. He shrugged and answered simply, “If it worked against terrorism, there would be.”

The same false sense of security applies to the final situation Baruch proposes: protection of police, prosecutors, and judges. I haven’t found any credible evidence that the death penalty deters homicide, not even with respect to specific groups. Most of the studies that make such claims are terribly flawed, and some even assume that the death penalty is a deterrent and then go on to calculate the number of lives saved based on that assumption.

In addition to the murder-in-prison and deterrence argument, Jeffrey Hill goes directly to two of the most popular myths about the death penalty. The first is cost. Every reputable study shows that a death sentence costs a great deal more than a life sentence — often more than three times as much. For instance:

– According to the State of Kansas’s Department of Corrections, capital cases are 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-capital cases. The DOC’s “Performance Audit Report: Costs Incurred for Death Penalty Cases” (Dec. 2003) counted death-penalty case costs through to execution and found that the median death-penalty case costs $1.26 million. The audit found a median cost of $740,000 for non-death-penalty cases counted through to the end of incarceration.

– According to state and federal records obtained by the Los Angeles Times (“Death Row Often Means a Long Life,” Mar. 6, 2005), maintaining the California death-penalty system costs taxpayers more than $114 million a year beyond the cost of simply keeping the convicts locked up for life. This figure does not count the millions more spent on court costs to prosecute capital cases. The Times reported that it costs $90,000 more a year to house one inmate on death row, where each person has a private cell and extra guards, than in the general prison population.

– A study released by the Urban Institute estimates that the average cost to Maryland taxpayers for a death sentence is $1.9 million more than the cost of a non-death-penalty case. This figure includes investigation, trial, appeals, and incarceration costs. (“Death Penalty Costs Md. More Than Life Term,” Baltimore Sun, Mar. 6, 2008). At every phase of a case, according to the study, capital murder cases cost more than non-capital murder cases.

– An audit commissioned by the Nevada legislature found that the average death-penalty case costs half a million dollars more than a case in which the death penalty is not sought (“Audit: Death Penalty Nearly Doubles Cost of Nevada Murder Cases,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, Dec. 2, 2014). The legislative audit was based on a sample of Nevada murder cases and included the costs of incarceration.

The second popular myth referenced by Mr. Hill is that people — as opposed to actions — can be intrinsically evil or beyond redemption. His way of expressing this is: “He [the condemned killer] had dead eyes; there was no window into his soul, that’s for sure.” Under Catholic magisterial teaching, no human being is intrinsically evil, and no act committed by a human being prevents that person from susceptibility to redemption through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One of the strongest faith-based arguments against execution is that no one should shorten the time that God is willing to give to a man or woman to find salvation.

Satan's Greatest Victory?

Alice von Hildebrand writes, regarding Satan, that “abortion is his greatest victory since original sin” (letter reply, May). May I demur? Artificial contraception is. Why? Because it repeats the original sin of Adam and Eve, the source of all human sins. Original sin is the desire to be like God without obeying and loving Him. God’s greatest gift to mankind is allowing us to participate with Him in creating new human life, in propagating the human race over space and time until the end of the world. The contraceptive pill has the single intention of denying God that creative role in His own creation.

Natural family planning (NFP) cooperates with the healthy functions of the human body, is effective in regulating births, is free, and has the specific intention of allowing God to create new human life even if we have reservations. The pill and all other artificial contraceptive methods have the direct intention of denying God any participation at all. Practicing NFP recognizes God’s pre-eminence in creation, despite our reservations. In using man-made contraceptives, we insist on our pre-eminence in creation, the only creation we know still takes place: Creation of our immortal souls when our bodies are conceived.

What are our reservations? We just aren’t “ready” for more (or any) children; we need to pursue an education first; children would hinder advancement in our careers. These are nothing compared to working with God to create, and then nurture, new human beings with whom God intends to spend eternity in Heaven. Abortion doesn’t slam that door shut. Contraception does, and we want it to. That’s very close to original sin.

Von Hildebrand is right about one thing. Satan hates us and hates women in particular because the Son of God made it possible, with the obedience of His mother, for us to occupy places in Heaven that God also intended for all His angels, and which Lucifer-become-Satan and those angels-become-demons rejected out of pride. Satan is giddy with glee whenever an abortionist rips into a pregnant woman’s womb to cut her living baby into pieces and then yank them out of her. Every time he thinks, “That woman is the Mother of God and that baby is Jesus Christ!”

Satan also knows that the pill is a powerful steroid that over time damages a woman’s overall health (not just her reproductive system), making women vulnerable to various fatal cancers (notably breast cancer) and a host of other ailments and diseases.

With artificial contraception, we acquire the mindset that abortion is available if contraception fails. Though abortion is the most obvious sin directly resulting from artificial contraception, there are many others, as Bl. Pope Paul VI warned in Humanae Vitae. The first is reducing women to sex objects, followed by the destruction of marriage and the family as the fundamental institution of human society, and religion as the ultimate support for marriage.

Man-made contraception ushered into American society a war against God, and has replaced a culture of life with a culture of death, as Pope St. John Paul II told us it would. We need to remember what price the Incarnate God paid to make it possible for us to spend eternity in Heaven with His Father, His mother, and His Holy Spirit.

Terence J. Hughes

Fort Pierre, South Dakota

Judging Francis

I was enraged by Janice Hicks’s contribution (letter, May) to misunderstanding the fine example set by Pope Francis. Hicks incorrectly, and in an incredibly vicious distortion, asserts that the Pope’s quip “Who am I to judge” was made “in reference to homosexuality.” In fact, as any informed Catholic should know, Francis’s remark was made in reference to homosexuals, and he models the exact attitude Jesus commanded us to have toward our neighbors: “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven” (Lk. 6:37).

Both the command of Jesus and the correct Catholic response Pope Francis gave are with respect to the moral state of the person, not to the moral nature of the person’s act.

It is unfortunate that Francis did not say, “Who am I to judge another person’s soul.” But the moral fault in the defective criticism of the Pope’s words far exceed any fault in his failure to speak so precisely as to exclude all possibility of his words being misunderstood, especially when there is bad faith on the part of the hearer.

Not unlike Jesus, Pope Francis has a startling knack for drawing attention to serious moral faults that set the teeth of his hearers on edge. Yes, the Pope is sharp, terse, and abrupt, but it seems that his worst fault is expecting Catholics to understand the point he is making, or to grow in faith until they do.

James J. Harris

San Diego, California

Dennis Wichterman’s letter (May) presents a succinct picture of the problem I have with Pope Francis’s manner of speaking. If I were to have the opportunity, I would ask the Holy Father this: “Would you please find a translator who can do a better job of telling the English-speaking world what you are really saying? Barring that, would you please just say what you mean, without using slang or ambiguous language, so we don’t have to spend so much time trying to decipher what you say?”

Miriam S. Dapra

Hartville, Wyoming

I was enthusiastic when Pope Francis was elected. The need for a Pope from Latin America was obvious, and the fact that he is an Italo-Argentine seemed to be a masterstroke.

Since those heady days of 2013, I’ve tried to make sense of the Pope’s shenanigans. Sometimes I feel angry over the latest papal remark. Pope Benedict’s scholarly precision was most appealing. But Francis was a parish priest, a man acquainted with the struggles of workers, the handicapped, the destitute.

Clearly, it is too early to make any historical judgments about Pope Francis. Style does not always reveal substance. Francis is not the type of pope I hoped he would be, but we need to support him in the areas in which we agree with him, and mute any desire to attack him openly or aggressively.

Let’s give him time. The judgments of history are far in the future. It took 50 years for the mischief unleashed by Vatican II to run its course. It may require another half-century to restore the Church to what she is: Roman, apostolic, and universal.

Michael Suozzi

San Diego, California

Word from Across the Bay

Your New Oxford Note “The Beginning of the End?” (May) nicely sums up the state of affairs here across the Bay Bridge. Please keep us all in your prayers, as the pushback is more thorough than we thought it would be.

Fr. Joseph Illo, Pastor

Star of the Sea Church

San Francisco, California

Are Christians Really Marginalized?

As a longtime reader of and subscriber to the NOR, but not a Catholic or a believer at all, I have a question. A recurring theme in the NOR, and in other publications, is the marginalization of Christians in our culture. Many insist that Christians are disdained or even persecuted for their beliefs. I’ve read in your letters sections the idea of withdrawing into the catacombs of antique Christian culture. Usually, this response is prompted by a reference to the legalization of same-sex marriage or assisted suicide, etc.

My question to all of you is simply this: How is your freedom to believe what you want, practice your faith in whatever way you choose, or live your life in whatever way you choose, in any way inhibited or abrogated by someone else choosing to live his life a different way? To take the most obvious example, how does allowing gay people to marry in any way interfere with anyone else’s marriage? How does providing contraceptives interfere with anyone else’s right not to use them? How does allowing someone the right to choose to end his life interfere with anyone else’s right not to do so?

It seems to me that for a very long time Christians have taken for granted the right to impose their unique views on everyone else, and now that others are insisting that they too have rights, Christians are calling this a “war on religion” or a “war against the church.”

I’m ready to be enlightened. Answers, anybody?

George Carney

San Gabriel, California

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“Does the darkness cradle thee Than mine arms more tenderly?”

— Willa Cather