Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: June 2012

June 2012

The Gift of Adversity

Tom Bethell, in his article “The Culture War & the Catholic Church” (Apr.), importantly and insightfully exposes what I have called the “elephant in the room” amid the HHS contraception-mandate debate: the dissent among many Catholics and Catholic organizations from essential Catholic doctrine on family and sexuality.

The bishops are right to focus all their current energies on defending Rome from the barbarian hordes (i.e., the Obama administration) — and may God bless the efforts of Timothy Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop-Designate William E. Lori! Meanwhile, are the faithful — bishops, clergy, religious, and laymen — preparing for the much greater struggle that must begin immediately after the HHS mandate is no longer a threat? Together we must wage an immense effort to educate Catholics about Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” reawaken Catholics to the fact that contraception is gravely sinful, and demand that Catholic institutions uphold this essential teaching in word and in deed.

The cloud looming over the Church from the Obama administration is still too dark to muster confidence in the near future, yet I can’t help but wonder if the HHS mandate might not prove to be a great gift to the faithful, if it indeed rouses us from general ambivalence about dissent in our institutions and the collapse of the family. Here is where the growing number of faithful schools, colleges, catechists, and evangelizing apostolates can make all the difference, led by our bishops and pastors.

If only out of concern for religious liberty in a secular culture, it would be foolish to ignore that the dissenting Catholics and Catholic institutions (especially our universities and hospitals) put the rest of us in great danger. They invite doubt about the sincerity of our convictions. A religion that seems insincere and hypocritical finds little sympathy from those who might otherwise help defend our religious liberty.

Sandra Fluke, the pro-contraception Georgetown law-school student who has done such damage to the Church’s position, is not one of the barbarian hordes; neither are her Jesuit educators. They come from our own ranks. And so it is with spiritual warfare — the true struggle lies within.

Patrick J. Reilly, President

The Cardinal Newman Society

Manassas, Virginia

It is ironic that the moral truth our bishops have for 40 years steadfastly refused to defend, or even to teach, is the truth they are now forced to defend. And their past timidity has put the Church in a much weaker position from which to conduct the defense. Tom Bethell’s excellent article tracks the blasé attitude of two generations of American bishops, few of whom seem to have recognized that the Church has indeed been at war. Bethell’s article drives home the point, once again, that one cannot make deals with evil or seek to compromise with it, without paying a heavy price. Satan, in the end, will always demand full payment.

Even now the bishops still duck the fundamental moral issue of contraception. They are correct in framing the HHS contraception-mandate controversy as one of fundamental freedom of worship, but they refuse to educate their flocks on the moral doctrine upon which the freedom issue is based. It is true that an attack on one’s beliefs can unite those of other faiths who do not share the belief under attack, and this is why a coalition of faiths so far supports our bishops: They accept the premise that a mandate to fund contraception is an attack on an article of faith of the Church because the bishops say it is, and so they will fight alongside the bishops for the principle of religious freedom, even though they themselves might not believe contraception to be immoral.

But it might prove harder for the Church to enlist Catholics in the fight. Catholics, who have never heard from the pulpit, or from their RCIA catechists, that contraception is a grave moral evil, might understandably ask what all the fuss is about.

In an interview published in The Wall Street Journal, New York’s archbishop, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, agreed that the task of teaching the Church’s moral principles to Catholics who have come to believe something different is a “towering” internal challenge. He acknowledged that the problem stems from the bishops as a group becoming “gun shy” about speaking out on issues deemed “too hot to handle.” Unfortunately, Cardinal Dolan made no mention of a program to meet this “towering challenge” created by the decades of collective silence from our bishops.

Thus, the flock, whom the bishops have for two generations failed to feed, might not only be an unreliable army, but might even undermine the battle by enlisting in the other side of the fight. Case in point: On Holy Thursday, just weeks after some of our bishops plucked up enough courage to do battle, Melinda Gates, wife of multibillionaire Bill Gates, proclaimed herself to be Catholic, pronounced that her Church’s teaching on contraception is “confused,” and announced that her well-funded foundation was initiating a new, worldwide drive to promote universal access to contraception.

Bethell’s analysis, however, is incomplete. He pinpoints the origin of the “disaster” in the period immediately after Vatican II. Indeed, the Catholic revolt against the Church surfaced in public at that time. But it stretches credulity to assume that the priests, nuns, bishops, and laymen who suddenly rose up in large numbers to dissent publicly and loudly from Catholic moral teachings, and seemingly with a united voice, were just part of a spontaneous, grassroots protest by Catholics who simultaneously decided to rebel against the teachings of the Church, which they had formerly accepted. The truth is that the groundwork for the full-blown attack on the Church that Bethell accurately describes began over a century ago.

In his 1899 encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, Pope Leo XIII warned of a heresy sprouting from within the American Church, the gist of which was that there exists no objective moral standard, that Catholic moral teaching must conform to the morality of the times, and that an individual’s conscience, however formed, was the sole determinant of what was true and what was not. Pope Leo named the heresy “Americanism.” His warning, however, went largely unheeded. Eight short years later, when that heresy had matured and spread to Europe, Pope St. Pius X issued a more urgent warning about the cells of dissent and heresy existing in the Church. In his 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, the Holy Father named the heresy “Modernism.” What anguished the Pope was not that the Church was being attacked, but that this attack originated within the Church. The betrayers, the Pope said, are prominent members of the clergy, as well as laity, men whom the Pope branded as “the most pernicious” of the “enemies of the Church” because they are so difficult to detect, like the “wolves in the sheepfold” of which Christ Himself warned. They are industrious, intelligent, knowledgeable about the Church, and possessed by a mania for reform. Disguised as orthodox Catholics, the Pope warned, they obtain professorships in seminaries and universities, “from which they spread the seeds of their heresy through teaching, speeches, books, articles, congresses and the media.”

Over several generations, these “pernicious…enemies of the church” created cells of educated, erudite persons in the priesthood, chanceries, convents, academia, and the media — a “fifth column” of nominal Catholics who believe that man is his own god who can decide for himself, on his own, what is good and evil, or even if there is such a thing as good and evil. The “disaster” Bethell describes so well was based in the seminaries, the universities, and the media.

Could it be that our bishops do not teach Catholic moral truths about contraception, abortion, marriage, and homosexuality because they, themselves, do not believe them? One wonders.

Michael V. McIntire

Mid-State Correctional Facility

Big Bear Lake, California

Tom Bethell’s erudite article on the cultural obsolescence of official Catholic opposition to contraception set me to thinking — always a perilous adventure. My first thought was who is going to care what the bishops have to say about artificial birth control when most of them said nothing about the perverts in Roman collars who were sexually abusing children?

Matthew Terranova

Hackensack, New Jersey

Tom Bethell is surely correct when he cites fear of losing government money as a reason why our bishops do not discipline pro-abortion Catholic politicians, most of whom are Democrats. But that is far from the whole story. It would seem that, since Vatican II, it has been a prerequisite for appointment to the bishopric that a man has to be the type who would be accommodating to the modern world. So, instead of getting courageous men, the U.S. hierarchy has been filled with weaklings at best and dissidents at worst.

This explains not only the abject refusal of the bishops to confront pro-abortion politicians like the Ken­nedys, Nancy Pelosi, Mario Cuomo, Joe Biden, et al., but also their aversion to preaching on things as basic as sin and Hell, never mind Catholic sexual morality.

All this has come at a cost. In the U.S., the non-Hispanic membership of the Catholic Church has fallen dramatically. Where did the Catholics go? Many who were sickened by the Church’s softness and dysfunction have joined the swelling ranks of fundamentalist and evangelical churches. And what of the Catholics who remain? Many had their faith severely compromised by the homosexual clerical abuse scandals and the drool served up to them as Church doctrine.

Government money supports myriad Church social programs. Haven’t the bishops gone wrong here too? Helping the poor is all well and good, but that is not the Church’s primary mission on earth. The bishops seem to think that providing social services takes priority over bringing the light of Christ to the world and standing up to evil.

Mr. Bethell ends by quoting Cardinal Ratzinger’s now-famous line that the Church will likely shrink in the face of growing opposition. I, too, believe that this is in the cards. But it’s not due merely to “external opposition.” That pales in comparison to the damage done by the internal, self-imposed weakness of Church leadership.

Peter Skurkiss

Stow, Ohio

An Inside Look at Islamic Salat

I am a 34-year-old American Salafi Muslim who reads, and thoroughly enjoys, the NOR every month. My Catholic friend and neighbor (an NOR scholarship subscriber) and I have grown steadily closer due to the kinship engendered by our agreement on myriad social and theological issues. From our dismay at the downward spiral of morality in modern American culture and our opposition to contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and Darwinism, to our belief in the importance of good works, veneration of Mary, and love for God, we are consistently — and pleasantly — surprised at just how alike we are.

Much of our similitude was discovered by conversations initiated by articles we have read in the NOR, and this is why I was distressed by Heather M. Erb’s article “Prayer Postures: What They Mean & Why They Matter” (Apr.).

I cannot help but defer to Dr. Erb’s obviously extensive knowledge of all things Catholic, but I do not hesitate to disagree with her conclusions regarding Muslim daily prayer (salat). While it is somewhat outside my purview to comment on her quotations of millennia-old Islamic theologians, I can confidently elucidate the mindset and beliefs of the modern Muslim regarding daily prayer.

If Dr. Erb had taken the time to speak with a real, live Muslim about salat, rather than form her conclusions based on information gleaned from dust-caked tomes, she would have learned very quickly about the concept of khushu. Khushu, which literally translates to “humility,” can be more completely explained as the clarity of mind and purpose a Muslim strives to attain during prayer. Young or newly converted Muslims who are learning to pray are often told to imagine that God is visibly there watching them pray, and that they could see Him while He watched them. Although this may seem difficult to put into practice, it accurately conveys the level of purity of purpose and humility before God that a Muslim should desire to achieve. It is hoped that, by recognizing one’s insignificance before God, one can come to understand and accept complete reliance on God’s mercy.

On a related note, Erb is correct that a Muslim is forbidden from “casting his eyes on any created thing while performing salat.” However, it is not specifically to “avoid the specter of idolatry,” as she asserts, but to avoid breaking one’s purity of purpose and khushu.

Additionally, Erb’s characterization of salat as “an active labor or travail more than a contemplative oeuvre” is diametrically opposed to the actual beliefs of most practicing Muslims. Contemplating one’s love for God, regret for one’s sins, and attainment of the good in this life and in the hereafter is exactly what the average Muslim is doing during prayer. Prayer is never a burden or a tribulation to anyone who loves God, and to suggest so is myopic and offensive.

Erb’s idea that, during prostration, “the sensory enclosure…shuts out the light and turns the self inward toward its own nothingness” is equally incorrect. Prostration is the very time during the otherwise relatively structured performance/recitation of prayer when the Muslim mentally stretches out to God and supplicates spontaneously in joyful anticipation of forgiveness, guidance, strength, help, etc. Erb should brush the dust off the cover of that old book to make sure it doesn’t say “Heideg­ger” or “Sartre” because it certainly isn’t about real Islam.

Although a Muslim’s initial impetus to perform daily prayers may come from the belief that salat is decreed by God, most Muslims, in short order, come to anticipate and cherish their prayers. Prayer becomes something of a guaranteed sanctuary five times a day, during which one can slow down, refocus, and recharge in God from the travails of day-to-day life. Muslims believe that the prescribed prayer, which is so beneficial to mind, body, and soul, is nothing less than a blessing bestowed upon us by divine wisdom. To suggest that salat is an example of God’s “arbitrary sovereign freedom,” as Erb puts it, or of “divine despotism…decreed and imposed without reason by the celestial High Command,” as in her quotation of Jacques Maritain, reeks of blasphemy. God is Love, Wisdom, Hope, and Salvation. To attribute the belief to others that God would be “arbitrary” or “despotic…without reason” is remarkably irresponsible and, I daresay, unkind — especially considering that Erb employs obscure thousand-year-old Ash’arite and Mu’tazilite theologies and attempts to characterize their deviant ideas as somehow representative of modern Muslim beliefs.

Furthermore, Erb fails to mention that Abul Hasan Al Ash’ari, the founder of the Ash’arite school of thought, repudiated his eponymous philosophy later in his lifetime as “youthful ignorance, misunderstanding, and deviance.” He even attempted to reform his previous followers, but many of them remained in their error.

Granted, there are many deviant and extremist sects of Islam (just as there are among Protestant Christians), but moderate Salafi Muslims — that is, Muslims who follow the Qur’an and Sunnah (ways and traditions of Muhammad), as they were understood and practiced during the lifetime of Muhammad and his companions — are the vast majority here in the U.S., especially on the East Coast. We are more like Dr. Erb than she realizes. In this modern sea of unrest, informality, immodesty, immorality, and rampant ignorance, Catholics and Muslims are bastions of sanity and character in their communities. I even venture to say that we need each other. Let us focus on our commonalities and not our few differences. Remember Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 10:32-33, or Qur’an 5:82, which reads, “You will find the nearest in love to the Muslims those who say: ‘We are Christians.'”

Farrad Santa Maria

Wrightstown, New Jersey


Mr. Santa Maria presents what he perceives as a different version of salat than what I present in my article. He explains salat largely from a self-described modern Salafi mindset. My article, in contrast, provides insights into Islamic perspectives by drawing upon more than a millennium of practice and interpretation from various sources used in current Islamic studies and scholarship. Identifying authoritative sources can lead to difficulty in dialoguing across the religious divide, since Islam lacks any real parallel to the Magisterium upon which we Catholics are privileged to draw and too often take for granted. The main tool of navigation used by Santa Maria is the modern turn to orthopraxy or “correct action” espoused by Salafi tradition over speculative theology.

Santa Maria’s objections can be broken down into four main categories: (1) the Islamic concept of khu­shu; (2) the sidelining of the traditional role assigned to the intellectual life in spirituality; (3) the claim of commonality between Catholicism and Islam; and (4) the nature of God and man. I will respond to each of these in turn.

(1) Khushu (the humility that instills the supplicant’s complete reliance on God’s mercy) is not denied by the juridical master/slave topography of Islamic prayer in any way, for it refers to the necessary preparation of soul that in turn conditions the validity of Islamic devotion. Imaginative exercises are used to attain right-ordered thoughts and pious emotions (such as fear and gratitude), visualizations of God, His mercy, judgment, its rewards and punishments, and so on.

The validity of prayer is wrapped up in a series of laborious cultic performances, including ritual ablutions, prayer in the correct language, detailed directives on posture, etc. Khu­shu marks salat as a technique and discipline formative of the inner self — a self that gains proximity to God through a slavehood that draws near to God, not through an inheritance of intimate exchange within the soul made possible through Christ praying in us (Catechism, no. 2740) and as reflected in Christian bridal mysticism.

(2) Concepts such as humility and right ordering of the soul through certain virtues are found in all personal monotheisms. Unlike the modern Salafi approach invoked by Santa Maria, Catholic devotion (itself requiring the practice of humility, which positions the soul properly in relation to God), as developed in the Middle Ages and later schools of spirituality, confidently draws on the vital sources of speculative philosophy and theology in its development of meditation practices, by using the concepts of intellect, will, memory, desire, act/potency, teleology, freedom, etc.

It is indeed true that the founder of the Ash’arite school repented of his earlier Mu’tazilite views, which he came to see as excessively rationalistic. Still, the perennial nature of metaphysics has maintained an appeal among many Islamic scholars (and scholars of Islamic philosophy). Some moderns’ rejection of the Ash’arite system lies in the fact that although the Ash’arites refuted Mu’tazilite rationalism, they went on to develop a speculative theology (kalam) within the framework of Greek dialectical thought, and so remained in the thrall of Western reason (itself considered a deviance or detour). And yet the divine transcendence is extolled, not minimized, through reference to metaphysical terms such as essence/attributes, divine causality, the objective value of justice, regardless of Ash’arite views on divine omnipotence and the obedientialism they inspire.

As a contrast, we could point to a Christian spirituality imbued with metaphysical splendor. The “science of love” developed by St. John of the Cross owes its strength in large part to the rich harvest of philosophy developed by St. Thomas Aquinas. Far from viewing classical metaphysics as a spiritual stumbling block (reminiscent of “dust-caked tomes”), or as a superfluous, deviant luxury, some of the best religious thought humbly turns to the rigorous scaffolding of the science of being for inspiration and terminology, and for achieving its own victory over sensuality and the created order. Unlike the anti-intellectualist portrait of Islamic prayer described by Santa Maria, Catholic devotion is re-grafting itself onto a deep metaphysics, to avoid floundering in a vacuum of sentimentality or its opposite, legalism.

(3) Unlike false versions of Christian ecumenism, the modern Muslim claim to unity of belief among “people of the Book” (e.g., Qur’an 5:82-85; 3:113-115) is not based on a fuzzy post-conciliar identical-God theory, despite the notion that all “people of the Book” worship the “same” God. Such a view would involve the contradiction that the object of one’s worship be both Trin­itarian and non-Trinitarian, incarnate and non-incarnate, and so on. Rather, the Muslim claim to “unity” is reflected in the praise given to those Jews and Christians who accept the Muslim view on the authorship of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures — “Those who rehearse the Signs of Allah all night long, who prostrate themselves in adoration” (Qur’an 3:113-115).

Mutual acceptance of monotheism and the common practice of select aspects of the moral law do exist in some fashion (although with unique meanings and origins). The Catholic Church, it is true, rejects nothing that is true and holy in other religions (Nostra Aetate, no. 2). But one finds among many “open minded” and generally poorly catechized Catholics the temptation to resist the view that the fullness of truth “subsists” in the Catholic Church, and they are quickly led first to entertain, then to actively engage in, religious practices that contravene their Catholic identity. This temptation should not be compelling, however, given the two religions’ different professions of faith, Scriptures, religious cosmologies, and soterio­logical systems, not to mention their radically different concepts of God and the human person, and the fact that false unity engenders complacency, not truth.

(4) The universality of human nature means that all are capax Dei. Catholics interpret this as stemming from the human person as an imago Dei, effected by God’s covenant and invitation to personal intimate union as our destiny — an origin and goal radically different from Islamic anthropology.

Christians view God neither principally as a compassionate albeit distant judge, nor as an abstract principle (even if of goodness or beauty itself), but as a lover whose intimacy with man proceeds from the relation between divine Persons, without compromising the divine transcendence. Catholic adoration reflects the anthropological consequences of Trin­itarian belief and the imago Dei doctrine in its emphasis on receptivity and intimacy with God, enabled by Christ, who has made us “an everlasting gift” to the Father, by drawing us into the divine life.

To summarize, my article draws on well-accepted historical traditions of Islam, as opposed to a modern orthopraxy that flourishes in eras of emergent fundamentalisms. By highlighting some key elements in the metaphysical and theological backdrop for liturgical postures, I make a start at elucidating the diverse reasons for, and ways of, Islamic and Catholic adoration.

Cranston Reid

Lubbock, Texas

Freedom Fighters or Insecure Conformists?

The historical references in Carl Sundell’s article “Atheism Yesterday & Today” (Apr.) are most enlightening, as are his observations regarding the growing threat of universal agnosticism and apathy. Many who claim to be atheists or agnostics do so only out of a perceived convenience fueled by their own laziness or superficial desire to seek peer approval as “individualists.” As many atheists and agnostics who have passed before them have discovered, their resolve will fade as they become older and, one hopes, wiser.

Margaret Finley

Long Beach, California

Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the late foundress of the American Atheist organization, once said, “Prayer is nothing more than stupid people talking to themselves.” She believed that no prayer had ever been answered. Yet Mrs. O’Hair requested that her burial site remain a secret because she was afraid that people might pray over her grave. If she felt that prayers were useless and always went unanswered, why would she fear having individuals pray for her?

Likewise, if one believes that there is no God, and religious practices are mere superstition, why would one feel it necessary to undergo a “de-baptism,” as have many modern atheists recently? It is strange that atheists feel the need to “undo” something they believe had no meaning in the first place, and that they fear that which they claim has no power.

Paula Haigh

Nazareth, Kentucky

I was surprised that Carl Sun­dell would omit from his catalog of atheists a prominent atheist with whom I grew up, so to speak, in the person of my father. He constantly exposed me to the ideology of Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899).

Victor Stenger, author of The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, opens his book with Ingersoll’s famous “Vow.” The man behind this blasphemous “manifesto” was obsessed, if not actually possessed, by the idea and spirit of freedom, especially freedom from the “sanctified mistakes and holy lies” of — you guessed it — the Catholic Church. Ingersoll was a skilled and gifted orator; in fact, he was a fine example of John Milton’s Satan (Paradise Lost, Book IV), who exclaimed, “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven!”

Isn’t that the very essence of atheism?

Don Labonte

Milford, New Hampshire

Could Carl Sundell comment on Pascal’s Wager, and how an atheist might react to it?

Richard Giovanoni

Hagerstown, Maryland


I did not include Robert Inger­soll in my article because I decided to go back no further than Sartre in treating modern atheism. I had originally conceived a much longer version that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. The longer version includes the following remarks about Ingersoll.

“Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899), a veteran of the American Civil War and an accomplished attorney and orator, was the most famous agnostic of the 19th century. He did not allege the nonexistence of God, but challenged every known religion as presumptuous and authoritarian. A typical aphorism of Ingersoll: ‘There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven.’ As if anticipating the verdict of history, Ingersoll remarked, ‘This century will be called Darwin’s century…. His doctrine of evolution, his doctrine of the survival of the fittest, his doctrine of the origin of the species, has removed in every thinking mind the last vestige of orthodox Christianity.’ Thus Ingersoll began the still popular atheist habit of insulting religious people by accusing them of intellectual inferiority.”

As to Pascal, the typical atheist probably would not find his argument any more persuasive than the more traditional proofs. In my talks with atheists, the not-very-logical rebuttal most often given to Pascal is that even if we wager that God exists, we have no way of knowing which of the many gods throughout history is the true God. We might offend the true God by choosing a false god. What if the true god is Zeus, and the false god is Yahweh? Zeus would punish us for choosing Yahweh, so we would be no better off than when we did not believe in any god.

This is not a compelling argument against Pascal, who spends much of his Pensées demonstrating why it is surely more logical to choose the God of Abraham over all other gods. Unfortunately, most atheists do not read any more than Pascal’s famous single paragraph that contains the gist of the wager argument. Finally, the simplistic logic of choosing no god, for fear of choosing the wrong god and offending the true god, has this fatal flaw: By choosing no god one is bound to offend the true God anyway!

Ed. Note: For more on what Pascal has to offer atheists, see James F. Csank’s May 2009 guest column “Inverting Pascal’s Wager.”

William DeMouy

Pensacola, Florida

An Awful Analogy

In the New Oxford Note “The Future of Marriage in America” (Apr.), it is claimed that Mexican civil weddings are “akin to the betrothals of Jesus’ time. The couple isn’t considered, and don’t consider themselves, ‘man and wife’ until the Church has bestowed her blessing upon them.” This is absolutely wrong. By Jewish law, betrothed couples in Jesus’ time were married. See Deuteronomy 22:22-29, the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (commentary on Mt. 1:18), the New American Bible Personal Study Edition (commentary on Mt. 1:18), Bl. John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos (no. 18), and the article by my late wife, Mary Giovanoni, “Two Terrible Translations” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Apr. 2007).

In addition, we can go back to St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas. All made a point of teaching that Mary and Joseph were married at the time of the Incarnation. It is unfortunate that so many priests falsely preach about Mary the “pregnant, unmarried teen” because of this false understanding of betrothed. We should have stuck with the older translation, espoused, which successfully avoided this confusion.

Fr. Edward S. Szymanski

Ellicott City, Maryland


So we referred to the commentary on Matthew 1:18 in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (Second Edition) as suggested by Mr. Giovanoni. It reads: “Betrothal in ancient Judaism was unlike modern-day engagements. It was a temporary period (up to one year) between the covenant of marriage itself and the time when spouses lived together. Because the spouses were legally married during this intervening phase, a betrothal could be terminated only by death or divorce.” The NAB commentary says essentially the same thing (though less eloquently, as befits its less-than-eloquent rendering of Scripture).

A couple clarifications are in order: Betrothals are unlike modern-day engagements. We did not liken Mexican engagements to betrothals. Rather, we likened Mexican civil weddings to betrothals. The likeness occurs in that when Mexican couples join in a civil union they are then “legally married,” as were betrothed Israelites, yet they do not, again like their Jewish counterparts, “live together” as man and wife until a later date — i.e., until the Church bestows her blessing upon their union. In other words, they too observe a “temporary period” between their legal marriage and the commencement of their married life, though without the one-year time frame. Moreover, it is customary, though not universally practiced, for Mexican couples to abstain from sexual relations during this period. Similarly, Mosaic law mandated the sexual abstinence of the betrothed couple. Therefore, if, like Mary, a Mexican teenager were to become pregnant during the intervening phase between her civil and ecclesiastical weddings, neither would she be considered a “pregnant, unmarried teen.”

Based on these similarities, while allowing for distinctions, we believe that it is fair and accurate to say that “Mexican civil weddings are akin to the betrothals of Jesus’ time.”

Edward A. Nowatzki

Tucson, Arizona

Tiger Nuns & Flying Tigers

Richard and Elizabeth Ger­bracht’s article “Requiem for the Tiger Nuns” (Apr.) was right on. It brought back a lot of happy memories of the good old pre-Vatican II days. In addition to the accomplishments listed by the authors, I would also credit the Tiger Nuns with helping the U.S. to win World War II. The Tiger Nuns helped raise a generation of tough, disciplined men who loved both their country and their Catholic Church.

Michael T. Hargadon

Emmitsburg, Maryland

I am always amused when people talk about the “hard discipline” of the nuns of yesteryear — as if there was none of that in public schools in the old days. My father was a teacher in the local public-school system, and my brother and I both went to public schools. Public schools maintained discipline in the 1950s and early 1960s, and corporal punishment was permitted. While in fifth grade, I was “horsing around” one day, and my teacher, Miss K, slapped me on the face and broke my glasses. I deserved it, and I knew it was useless to whine to my parents about what had happened. I have no scars from the experience — either physical or emotional. And I was a good boy from then on!

It is very sad that public schools are such a mess today. Even Catholic schools often leave much to be desired. I suppose that is why more and more parents choose to homeschool their children or set up independent private schools with other disaffected parents.

Christina N. Huth

Lovettsville, Virginia

How the Two-Party System Could Work

In response to the letter from Jeffrey J. Hill (“A Republican Rebuttal,” Apr.), the editor notes that the Republicans who have occupied the White House during the past forty years did nothing but “tinker around the edges” of the abortion issue. He also says that the two-party system does not offer pro-lifers any real options to attain their goals. I take exception to both of those statements. The first statement is simply not true. Regarding the second statement, the two-party system does offer pro-lifers the opportunity to correct the current state of affairs. The issue is not one that the president should or could decide alone. Congress ultimately passes legislation that the president either signs into law or vetoes. From that point of view, the two-party system could work in favor of pro-lifers, but first there needs to be a major overhaul in the way Catholic members of Congress vote.

To support my first contention, I offer the Republican presidents’ position on the so-called Mexico City Policy, in which the U.S. government requires all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive federal funding to refrain from performing or promoting abortion in other countries. The policy was enacted after Reagan took office, and he and both of his Republican successors held it in place while Clinton and Obama have rescinded it. Clearly, the Republican presidents have done more over the years than just “tinker around the edges of the issue,” as the editor states. Even if one considers the Republican presidents’ position on the Mexico City Policy as “tinkering around the edges,” at least they have been infinitely closer to recognizing and addressing the abortion issue than the Democratic presidents.

With respect to my second contention, the real problem lies with the failure of the Catholic bishops to hold Catholic members of Congress personally responsible for voting contrary to Catholic principles on moral issues. Up to now, the Catholic bishops have been hiding behind the hackneyed excuse that they do not want to get involved in politics. Fair enough, but in the current political environment they no longer have that luxury. The lack of strong and outspoken guidance from the Catholic bishops in the past has had a devastating effect on the way many Catholics view moral issues today. For example, many of the Catholic legislators in Congress either have forgotten Catholic moral principles or, to ease their consciences as they vote pro-abortion, use the excuse that “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but I vote on those issues to reflect the views of my constituents.” It was the duty of the bishops to make sure that those consciences were formed correctly in the first place. That duty still exists, but now it is also the bishops’ duty to inform those legislators that votes cast with an erroneous conscience are morally wrong and should not be rationalized away to satisfy some political expedient.

It is a matter of record that the vote of many Catholics in Congress has been pathetic with regard to abortion issues, especially among Democratic legislators. Two examples can be used to illustrate the point. (The roll calls on numerous abortion-related votes are a matter of public record.) In 2007 the Boxer Amendment, which sought to overturn the existing Mexico City Policy, came up for vote in the Senate. It passed with a total of 53 yeas (46 Dems; 7 Re­pubs), 41 nays (1 Dem; 40 Re­pubs), and 6 abstentions (4 Dems; 2 Repubs). Among the abstentions were John McCain, Joseph Biden, Hil­lary Clinton, and Barack Oba­ma, a convenient coincidence in the year before a presidential election. The more astounding part of the roll call was the Catholic vote of 18 yeas (17 Dems; 1 Repub), 6 nays (0 Dems, 6 Repubs), and 2 abstentions (1 Dem; 1 Repub). If all the Catholic senators who voted yea had voted nay instead, in accordance with Catholic moral principles, the final vote would have been 35 yeas and 59 nays, and the Boxer Amendment would have failed overwhelmingly. In short, the two-party system could have worked for the pro-life cause if all the Catholic senators had voted in accordance with their principles instead of their politics.

Similarly, in the House of Representatives, the Smith-Stupak Amendment sought to protect the existing Mexico City Policy. It failed with a total vote of 205 yeas (25 Dems; 180 Repubs), 218 nays (206 Dems; 12 Repubs), and 14 abstentions (4 Dems; 10 Repubs). Here again the disappointing part of the roll call was the Catholic vote of 37 yeas (8 Dems; 29 Repubs), 72 nays (70 Dems; 2 Repubs), and 2 abstentions (both Dems). If all the Catholic representatives who voted nay had voted yea instead, in accordance with Catholic moral principles, the final vote would have been 277 yeas and 146 nays, and the Smith-Stupak Amendment would have passed overwhelmingly. This is yet another example of how the two-party system could have worked for the pro-life cause if all the Catholic members of the House had voted in accordance with their principles instead of their politics.

There are three overriding questions here: How do the American Catholic bishops explain the pro-abortion stance of so many Catholic members of Congress; what are they going to do to change it; and when are they going to start?

Richard M. Dell'Orfano

San Marcos, California


Really now, the Mexico City Policy? Is that the best you’ve got? Defunding NGOs that perform abortions in foreign countries could very well be the definition of “tinkering around the edges of the issue” when over 54 million babies have died by abortion in the U.S. alone since 1973. And while we’re pleased that Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. saw fit to uphold the Mexico City Policy, the heart of the matter is that U.S. law still permits abortions here at home — and this is precisely what these Republican presidents haven’t had the heart to address. (Nobody in his right mind would expect anything of the sort from a Democratic president.) And not only Republican presidents. Since 1973 the GOP has had control of Congress five times, for a total of ten years — four of those years with a Republican in the White House (Bush Jr., 2003-2007). And still no serious effort was made during those years to outlaw the heinous crime of abortion. (The best we got was a partial-birth abortion ban in 2003, a positive development, yes, but still one that qualifies as “tinkering around the edges.”) “Recognizing” the problem and coming “close” to addressing it are a far cry from actually having the nerve to do something about it.

The question isn’t whether the two-party system could, in theory, offer real options to pro-lifers, once there’s been “a major overhaul in the way Catholic members of Congress vote.” If we are talking hypothetically, then the possibilities are limitless. Rather, the question is whether the two-party system does so in actuality. As Mr. Nowatzki has sufficiently demonstrated, it does not. The Democrats are reliably pro-abortion, and the Republicans are simply unreliable.

Robert Hickson

Front Royal, Virginia

A Failed Canonization

Sen. Jeffrey Hill’s attempt (letter, Apr.) to canonize the two-party system, at the belittlement of those principled candidates with ballot access outside our duopoly, is defeatist at best. I worked for two years “getting dirty” in the electoral process, specifically because the Grand Old Party has been a dismal failure in Mary­land. The Republican Party, the “only major party with a pro-life platform,” as Hill put it, ran Bob Ehrlich for governor. This former congressman and governor, who has consistently defended a woman’s “right” to kill her unborn child, who as governor had pushed through state-funded embryonic stem-cell research, and who has the dubious distinction of firing a state appointee for using the Catechism to defend himself against the badgering of a gay activist, is evidently Sen. Hill’s kind of candidate.

This Republican “moderate,” along with the Democratic victor, who just pushed through same-sex marriage in Maryland, both received a page and a half, with photos, in our archdiocesan newspaper’s election insert. Yet this insert failed to give so much as a declarative sentence to the only ballot-access candidate who agreed with the Church’s three essential positions, evidently because he was a third-party candidate. I asked then-Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, “How could this be?” Still no response to date!

A Film That's Unworthy of Our Respect

Erin O’Luanaigh deserves kudos for her efforts in reviewing The Descendants (“Surprise! A Hollywood Film that Treats Fatherhood With Respect,” Apr.). I respectfully submit, however, that this particular piece reflects a youthful lack of discrimination concerning what Hollywood celebrates as “good cinema.” The Descendants is a relentlessly and aggressively secular movie; its main character, played by George Clooney, is a terrible father when the drama begins, and there is little about the film to indicate that the tragedy of his wife’s incapacitating accident has miraculously equipped him to meet the challenges of parenting by the time it ends. The tip-off is his character’s decision to go island-hopping with his two daughters to find their mother’s lover — and to make his promiscuous drug- and alcohol-abusing 17-year-old daughter his chief deputy in this quest. Is this supposed to represent an appropriate father-daughter bonding exercise as they grapple with their wife and mother’s suffering?

And what of the film’s insistent subtheme of euthanasia? This family, and everyone around them who loved the now comatose woman, does not so much as blink an eye at the prospect of “unplugging” her. In fact, they discuss it over white wine and cracked crab at a neighborhood soirée.

Please, NOR, continue to support budding journalists. But vet their work more carefully.


Christina Huth may find fault with the assortment of native Hawaiian foods served at family gatherings in The Descendants, but surely she has no grounds to criticize director Alexander Payne’s otherwise reverent and humane portrayal of Elizabeth King’s final days. The film’s “insistent subtheme of euthanasia” amounts only to Matt King’s decision to free his dying wife from the machines that have unnaturally prolonged her life. On this score, his actions are well within the guidelines delineated in the Catechism: “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (no. 2278).

Surely, Matt King’s decision to tote his daughters along on the quest for his wife’s lover should not secure his spot on the shortlist for “Parent of the Year.” Still, the King family’s unlikely therapeutic method did result in a visible transformation of both father and daughter by the film’s close. I doubt a round of Candy Land would have had the same effect.

The Descendants is a secular film. It is a film about dysfunction and death. It is also a film with a happy ending. Whether Payne realizes it or not, he’s created a small but certain proof of God’s ability to derive good from the worst circumstances and the most jaded hearts.

A Tale of Two Evils

Just before reading Mitchell Kalpakgian’s excellent article “Elemental & Sophisticated Evil” (Apr.), I read Billy Budd and came away with the nagging suspicion that I had not fully fathomed Herman Melville’s allegorical portrayal of these two evils.

In this posthumously published work, Melville displays the great gift of expressing in literature his perceptions of these two evils. The social implications are enormous. Everyone will — in some way or another — eventually taste the gall of social injustice, which is why this novella rings universally true.

Christ promises us His crown of thorns and eternal salvation if we will stand for justice and innocence in this wicked world, despite guilt and fear. We cannot serve two masters. The Israelites watched Jesus die on the cross, just as the mute crew of the Bellipotent watched Budd dangle from a yardarm. We can expect the whole world to stand paralyzed in like dilemma when organizational and personal survival costs weigh into the moral equation of justice for the innocent. This suggests that anyone practicing the hard sayings and disciplines of Christ must eventually run afoul of the world.

The organizational and individual cover up of personal guilt and fear, on the part of the ship’s captain and chaplain, symbolizes exactly the same duplicity perpetrated today by Church and state. The bishops shuffled around known pedophile priests to protect the image and finances of the Church, just as politicians use bland duplicity and deceit to mitigate damage to their personal image and protect the presidential office (Nixon’s “I’m not a crook,” or Clinton’s “I never had sex with that woman”).

Today the state is vying with the Church for dominance in the realm of social justice. The Church is losing her inherent discriminating role because her hierarchy and laity have not had the courage — so far — to effectively reverse this brazen governmental intrusion into what was once her sole purview.

When was the last time we heard a priest preach from the pulpit against artificial contraception in marriage, which would strike at one of the major causes of rampant corruption and marital infidelity? In this way, the Church forfeits her role as moral leader to the state, like the chaplain in Billy Budd who should have challenged the captain’s decision, but who remained tight-lipped. We know what would have happened to the chaplain if he had protested Captain Vere’s actions regarding Budd: He’d have been charged with treason and put in the brig. The captain would not have changed his mind. A similar difficult decision faces the Catholic Church. Would it be better to appease the govern­ment’s intrusion in moral affairs, or boldly protest at the huge cost of federal funding? But, as Melville suggests, with that protest, the Church’s hierarchy, like Budd, should expect a merciless punishment as the state protects its own expanding organization.

That could shrink the Church’s membership — as Pope Benedict XVI has suggested could happen — rather than keep the bloated pretense of one billion faithful members. The Pope might well find himself as the prudent farmer who must prune the sprawling tree of its spindly limbs and feed it nourishing food, so that it bears much larger and sweeter fruit in a new crop of powerful saints, or suffers the axe at its roots.

Mitchell Kalpakgian has deftly underscored the vividly counter­pointed depiction of both elemental, invidious evil and a much subtler form of evil sophistry that corrupts a man’s higher faculties of purposive deliberation in Melville’s Billy Budd. He has shown how a somewhat theologically informed Catholic might well reflect on the novella’s depiction of the mysterium iniqui­tatis. For, in Melville’s text, there seems to be revealed to us gradually an almost mystical hatred of innocence and purity, which is fearsome and has often been considered itself a sign of the insinuating operation of Hell. The insinuation even seems to work upon us drop by drop, as in a contagious titration.

In Melville’s novella, a resentful assault, especially focused on the vulnerable, innocent character of young Budd, seems to be an almost infallible sign of the operation of a dark, mysterious, and perhaps demonic agency. This is suggested initially in Claggart’s degrading vice and darkly corrosive passion of envy, one of the seven deadly sins.

On the premise that contrast clarifies the mind, it may be helpful in this context to consider an important difference between the moral vice of avarice and the even darker “leveling-downward” vice of envy. If someone is avaricious, he eagerly wants to get what you have for himself. But envy goes one step further, in that the envious man, if he cannot get what you have, does not want you to have it either. He might even want to deprive you of a spiritual good, such as the love or respect of another, or your good name and honor.

Sophistry itself, as Josef Pieper understood so well, adds another aspect: It is a permanent temptation of the human mind. But sophistry, as in the cumulative conduct of Captain Vere, also entails a twofold corruption: first, depriving one of one’s access to reality; and second, impeding one from communicating that reality to another.

Vere, however, appears to us more and more viciously bound up in his own tangled web of sophistry. He is living the lie. And he inflicts the lie upon others in his deliberate injustice. Hence the corruption of his higher faculties.

Because he has willingly corrupted his own higher faculties and effectively pressured or intimidated his subordinate officers to do the same, Vere has partaken in great evil, as Dante also showed in the very structure of his Inferno. The greater the perversion of the higher faculties of man, the deeper the place and the degree of punishment — as if to say, Corruptio optimi pessima est. The inverted hierarchy in Dante’s Hell shows, for example, that the sins of spontaneous passion (as in acts of impetuous lust or anger) are punished in the upper circles, whereas the more deliberate and premeditated and slowly planned sins (such as lascivious seduction or perfidy) are punished in the lower circles — with the Perfidians of intentional treachery to be found in the Ninth Circle, where we also see “the congealment of lovelessness” as well as “the corrosion of hopelessness.”

Captain Vere’s perfidy even corrupts the Official Formal Record, as if to exemplify something Joseph Stalin once said so cynically: “Paper will put up with anything written upon it.” We might call this concept the “Philo-Sophistic Theory of History” — where the truth does not matter. Or it changes with the party dialecticians. Melville was spared from such dialectical sophistries of evil — as in dialectical idealism (Hegebpor dialectical materialism (Feuerbach, Marx) — but he certainly saw and tasted, and could vividly depict, dark and malicious vices, such as envy and the more indirect and specious deceits of sophisticated evil, as Prof. Kalpakgian has himself so potently shown.

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