Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: June 2014

June 2014

Read the Book, Don't Watch the Movie

Ronald J. Rychlak’s article “Cardinal Mindszenty & His Small, Honest Nation” (April) mentions the 1955 movie The Prisoner, in which Alec Guinness plays József Mindszenty. Interestingly, the cardinal himself found the film to be somewhat unrealistic. Here’s what he had to say about the movie in the preface to his Memoirs, published in 1974:

“During my imprisonment a movie called The Prisoner was made…. The story of The Prisoner is as follows: A cardinal, who is approximately as tall as I am and still in full possession of his strength, is arrested after divine services…. His cell is a tiny room in an old castle. But it in no way resembles my cell…. The furniture is actually luxurious, which it hardly is in Hungarian prisons.
“In the movie the interrogation is conducted along the well-mannered lines of good society. The prisoner is even addressed as ‘Your Eminence.’ The mere fact that the guard so much as speaks to the prisoner must seem astonishing to anyone who has been interrogated by Hungarian Communists. In the film the conversations are quite pleasant and genial. Coffee is frequently served; it is first tasted by the interrogator and then drunk by the prisoner. The food is good, the table setting choice, the service gracious. Even the prisoner notices this, and avails himself of further helpings with a better appetite than prisoners generally have.
“The film was given a friendly reception by the critics and the public and was shown throughout the world. But I am sorry to say that the well-meaning script writer did not know Hungary’s communist prisons, and so the movie failed to give any picture of reality. The one thing it had in common with events in Hungary is the presence of a cardinal.
“In my memoirs I want to show the reality as it was. This is the first time I am speaking after decades of silence.
“The reader is entitled to ask whether I am telling everything. My answer is: I mean to tell everything and shall preserve silence only when it is required by decency, by manly and priestly honor. But I am not speaking out now to harvest the fruit of my sufferings and wounds. I am publishing all this only so that the world may see what fate communism has in store for mankind. I want to show that communism does not respect the dignity of man; I shall describe my cross only in order to direct the world’s eyes to Hungary’s cross and that of her Church.”

Frank Grabarits

San Diego, California

Grace not Politics

Regarding Walter Cardinal Kasper’s comments about the possibility of allowing divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion (“The German Question,” New Oxford Notes, April): Is this sacrament a reward for good behavior or a search for God’s grace? In 17th-century France, the Jansenists believed one should avoid Communion until one was sufficiently holy. Their Jesuit adversaries held the opposite view: that sinners need Christ’s body and blood, a source of grace. Ultimately, the Church condemned the extreme Jansenist position and urged frequent Communion.

But while Communion was, in theory, for sinners, in practice the clergy often used the sacrament to enforce their rules and beliefs. In Vichy France right-wing clergy tried to withhold Communion from those Catholics who opposed the “legal” pro-Nazi regime, while they allowed pro-fascist militia members (mostly murderers of Jews and communists) to receive Communion.

As Pope Francis deliberates over what to do about divorced-and-remarried Catholics receiving or not receiving Communion, he — and we — might consider that the sacrament is not for political purposes but for grace.

Norman Ravitch

Savannah, Georgia

A Gesture of No Small Significance

In regard to Rosemary Lunardini’s review of James Monti’s A Sense of the Sacred (April), a book that she says “provides hundreds of examples of how the Church’s liturgy has developed in a systematic way,” an event that occurred over 2,100 years ago, and in a thoroughly secular setting, may help to make explicit and clear the human meaning of one of the novel liturgical rubrics that has come to dominate Roman Catholic worship since Vatican II.

In various of his Lives, Plutarch records the internecine civil and social strife and outright warfare that plagued Rome between the end of the last Punic War (146 B.C.) and the death of Julius Caesar (44 B.C.). Central to some of these contests was the work of Tiberius and Caius Sempronius Gracchus. Plutarch notes that, upon being tumultuously elected tribune in 123 B.C., Caius, in the course of earnestly and passionately arguing for the passage of a law that would dilute or “pack” the senate, exhibited peculiar behavior. Other popular leaders, Plutarch notes, “had always hitherto, when speaking, turned their faces toward the senate house and the place called the comitium.” Caius, on the contrary, “was the first man that in his harangue to the people turned himself the other way, towards them, and continued after that time to do so.”

Plutarch notes that Caius was “earnest and vehement” in temper, “impetuous and passionate” in his oratory, and far more demagogic and “ambitious of popular applause” than Tiberius, his brother, had been.

At the center of our doctrinal and disciplinary struggles since Vatican II stands liturgical change. At the center of liturgical change stand the move to the vernacular and the celebrant’s posture facing the people. The meaning of such changes has been commented on at length and analyzed in depth. Much further comment would be superfluous. One suggested analog on the significance of the celebrant’s direction of address, however, might be apropos. It also comes from Plutarch’s continued musing on the meaning of Caius Gracchus’s innovation.

Plutarch reflects that Caius’s turning about might appear to be a mere “insignificant movement and change of posture”; yet, he continues, “it marked no small revolution in state affairs, the conversion, in a manner, of the whole government from an aristocracy to a democracy, his action intimating that public speakers should address themselves to the people, not the senate.”

It could certainly be argued in terms of liturgical practice that the prayer of celebrant and people ascends to God as speedily from the center of an ad populum congregation as it does from an ad orientem one. Yet speed of transmission is hardly an issue here, and we might do well to reflect upon Marshall McLuhan’s adage that “the medium is the message.” A large part of the medium of concern in this matter is orientation: direction, signified by ordination.

No, the priest is not simply a “public speaker.” Nor will the Church be destroyed by almost any amount of liturgical shenanigans, just as Caius Gracchus’s “insignificant gesture” did not cause the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Classical commentators, however, might well argue that his “change of address” was a symptom of decline, of the passage from an aristocracy or oligarchy to a democracy in the inevitable circuit of man’s political affairs, turning from arbitrary one-man rule through kingship to tyranny to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to mob rule, whence again to arbitrary one-man domination.

And one ought not leap from apparent congruency to geometrical identity. Yet we should beware. Rome did not fall in a day.

John Lyon

Granger, Indiana

Liberalism's Triumph: A Disaster

Having read Christopher Ferrara’s book Liberty, the God that Failed, as well as Christopher Zehnder’s review of it (Jan.-Feb.), and Ferrara and Zehnder’s exchange in the letters section (April), I think Mr. Zehnder has missed the most important point made by Mr. Ferrara in his book: that liberalism’s triumph constitutes its failure. It has substituted its own definition of freedom for Catholicism’s definition of freedom. Liberalism’s “freedom” has resulted in a level of governmental and bureaucratic control of society undreamed of by any past dictatorship. Disagree with liberalism’s “freedom” and you will be fined, jailed, lose your job or business, and be portrayed in the media as a yahoo, a fundamentalist, and a bigot, and told that you are “not welcome” in certain municipalities (as supporters of traditional marriage were by a New York City councilman this April).

Religion is increasingly banned from the public square, just as Locke and Madison desired. For the first time in history, we are witnessing the construction of a society that aims to be completely free of religion. Yes, as Mr. Zehnder says, liberalism has successfully achieved its aims, but even he admits that it is a disaster. And that is why liberty is “the God that failed,” which is the overriding point of Mr. Ferrara’s book.

Carl Gethmann

Reading, Pennsylvania

A Confusion of Terms

I was saddened to read the editor’s reply to Michael Suozzi’s letter (April) defending the accusation of “anti-Semitism” leveled against Protestant pastor Tim LaHaye in “Bringing the Gospels Back to the Big Screen” (New Oxford Notes, Jan.-Feb.). It seems that the NOR has fallen into the same confusion as so many others with regard to just what this term means.

How does the NOR define “anti-Semitism”? A Semite is a descendent of Noah’s son Shem. Not all Semites are Jews, and not all Jews are Semites. But the editor’s reply seems to treat criticism of Judaism as a religion or criticism of individuals who are Jewish as evidence of anti-Semitism. If criticizing Judaism is out of bounds, then we Catholics should simply close up shop, since belief in the Trinity and the Incarnation implies a criticism of the Jewish denial of these truths.

On top of the confusion of terms, the editor’s reply added sloppy reporting. Mr. Suozzi asked for evidence of LaHaye’s alleged “anti-Semitism.” For the most part, the editor only repeated the accusations of third parties. It would have been far better to actually quote statements directly from Mr. LaHaye instead of telling readers what someone else says that he said. Simply show us what he said.

A person can change his religion, but he can’t change his bloodline. Mixing up questions of race and religion under the single banner of “anti-Semitism” obscures the truth and hinders people from coming to know Jesus Christ, who is Truth itself.

Andrew Prizzi

West Newton, Pennsylvania

I believe I am in an entirely different world than that of the editors of the NOR. Potenza province in Italy, where I was born, is a place far removed from the U.S. It was in Potenza, at the ankle of The Boot, that my spiritual and cultural identity was nurtured. In that place, the Greco-Roman world is still fresh. Recent archeological digs reveal Etruscan, Greek, Byzantine, and Roman artifacts — reminders of who we were and what we are. Strangely, it was our separated brethren who welcomed me wherever I met them, on four different continents. It was they who opened their doors to me.

This is why I admire Pastor Tim LaHaye and why I understand the comments he has made in the fiery context of the past five hundred years since an Augustinian priest nailed his theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg. Yes, we need to open ourselves to our separated brethren, even if we receive a slap on the face, for they are one with us in the spirit of Christ the Lord.

The editor provided a pile of non sequiturs and was intent on an indictment of Pastor LaHaye. I reply that his lifelong work for the absolute Christianization of the U.S. outweighs all the indictments of belletrists.

Yes, Pastor LaHaye, your battle for the mind of America will go on! For it is not in divisions that Christendom will be absolutely re-established, but in the upholding of the cross by all of us.

Michael Suozzi

La Mesa, California


How do we define anti-Semitism? The same way the American Heritage Dictionary defines it: “1. Hostility toward or prejudice against Jews or Judaism. 2. Discrimination against Jews.” Despite Mr. Prizzi’s agonized distinctions, the concept is actually quite simple. The example we gave of LaHaye’s anti-Semitism — he said, “Some of the greatest evil in the history of the world was concocted in the Jewish mind” (yes, we did actually cite a direct quote of his; thanks for noticing) — does not qualify as either “criticism of Judaism as a religion or criticism of individuals who are Jewish.” LaHaye’s utterance is not a criticism of anything; rather, it’s an example of hostility toward Jews at large. Imagine if LaHaye had said that “some of the greatest evil in the history of the world was concocted in the Catholic mind.” You can bet your bottom dollar that Bill Donohue of the Catholic League would have been all over that, getting his hackles up over yet another instance of “anti-Catholicism.”

In fact, LaHaye has exhibited anti-Catholic traits too (which was the larger point we made in our April reply to Mr. Suozzi), saying that Catholicism is “more dangerous than no religion because she substitutes religion for the truth…. Rome is also dangerous because some of her doctrines are pseudo-Christian.” If this is the type of non-thinking that will characterize the American mind once LaHaye has achieved his “absolute Christianization of the U.S.,” which Mr. Suozzi so gleefully awaits, then we want no part of it.

Andrew S. Erdélyi

Merrick, New York

Many Monotheisms

The esteemed Dr. Alice von Hildebrand wrote that “when dialoguing with Muslims, the truth of monotheism should be loudly proclaimed: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share this fundamental belief” (letters, April). We must be careful not to conclude that ergo we three monotheistic religions believe in the same God. To the contrary:

— Catholics believe in three Persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
— Jews and Muslims deny the divinity of Jesus Christ and do not believe in the Triune God; therefore, they believe in a different God.
— Most non-Catholic Christians, while believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ and that He was resurrected and was able to pass through locked doors, do not believe that He is able to secret Himself under the appearances of bread and wine; therefore, neither do they believe in the same God that Catholics do.
— Even Zoroaster and the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten were monotheists.

William Diemler

Cincinnati, Ohio

Democracy: Tyranny of the Many

In his article “The Spirit of Democracy & the Threat of Elitism” (April), Robert Lowry Clinton suggests that democracy is a “moral requirement.” This seems to contradict Church teaching as found in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Immortale Dei (1885), in which he states, “The right to rule is not necessarily…bound up with any special mode of government. It may take this or that form, provided only that it be of a nature of the government, rulers must ever bear in mind that God is the paramount ruler of the world, and must set Him before themselves as their exemplar and law in the administration of the State.” Moreover, in his encyclical Graves de Communi Re (1901), Leo states that the term “Christian Democracy” is “objectionable” because “it seems by implication covertly to favor popular government and to disparage other methods of political administration.”

Dr. Clinton even provides evidence against favoring democracy with his quote of John Adams, who said, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Is it really a moral requirement to favor a form of government that “murders itself”?

Even if Dr. Clinton’s first “deep truth” of democracy, that “no man is really fit to govern another,” is true (and I do not entirely concede the point), this still doesn’t lead one to favor democracy. If I don’t want to be governed by one unfit man, why should I want to be governed by many unfit men? Is a tyranny of many any better than a tyranny of one?

With regard to Dr. Clinton’s other “deep truth” of democracy, that “people ought to have a meaningful say in the decisions that govern their lives,” the question is: How do people exercise a meaningful say in governing their lives? Democracy is not the sole form of government in which people have a meaningful say in the governing of their lives. The most important way of having a say is quite simply for each of us to see to our own growth in virtue and talent, and to exercise these as best we can in our work; in our roles as sons and daughters, parents, husbands and wives; and as good citizens of our country and faithful disciples of our Lord. This is a key point, which Dr. Clinton seems to have overlooked. He focuses solely on the fitness or unfitness of men to govern, but he ignores the huge importance of the fitness of men to be governed.

As one who has spent some very rewarding time in a monastery, I would suggest that we could all learn much from the admonitions contained within many monastic constitutions. They do not focus only on those who govern or, on the contrary, only on the governed. The abbot is admonished to govern as a father who truly cares for his sons and has concern for their souls as well as his own, and the monks under his authority are admonished to be obedient out of true concern for the good of the entire community and also for their own souls.

If democracy is a moral requirement, why do we not find it modeled or proposed to us in Scripture or Tradition or in the Church or any of her institutions? Perhaps because, much like monasteries, the governance of society has as its best model God as Father; and we are called to be sons and daughters who fear God and are “subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

Thomas Zabiega, M.D.

Bolingbrook, Illinois


I appreciate Mr. Diemler’s careful attention to my article. I fear, however, that he may have misunderstood my central meaning. My article was designed primarily to establish a hypothetical: If it is true that no man is really fit to govern another, and that all men are entitled to a meaningful say in how they are to live their lives, then it follows that some form of democracy is a moral imperative. If, on the other hand, one holds that some men really are fit to govern others, and that not all people are entitled to a meaningful say in how they are to live their lives, then it follows that democracy is not a moral imperative. That is the question that I left to the reader to decide at the conclusion of my article. It is a question upon which reasonable people can disagree.

My article is not a treatise on “forms of government,” yet Mr. Diemler appears to think that I am talking about something on the order of “pure,” “direct,” or “populist” democracy. I am not. There are many forms of government that have a sufficiently large democratic component to be plausibly claimed “democratic.” The American republic is one of those, even though it is not — technically — a “democracy.” Beyond that, the moral requirement of which I speak in my article is that whatever form a government takes, it should be such as to allow all its citizens a decisive measure of freedom and influence over how they are to live their lives because no man is really and truly fit to govern another. That is why the virtue most important for anyone purporting to govern anyone else is humility — the pre-eminent Christian virtue.

Mr. Diemler cites Pope Leo XIII’s statement that the right to rule is not necessarily “bound up with any special mode of government.” True enough, and I acknowledge at the outset of my article that my thesis is not about any particular form of government, but is rather about two deep truths underlying all forms that are motivated by the democratic spirit. Likewise, I have no argument with the principle that all rulers should acknowledge God as ruler of the world and our exemplar in matters of law and politics. This is as true for democratic leaders as it is for emperors.

As to Pope Leo XIII’s statement about the phrase “Christian Democracy,” a careful reading of the entire text of Graves de Communi Re will show that the Holy Father’s purpose is to distinguish clearly between Christian Democracy and Social Democracy, the latter of which he regards as socialism, and which “is carried to such an excess by many as to maintain that there is really nothing existing above the natural order of things, and that the acquirement and enjoyment of corporal and external goods constitute man’s happiness.” Far from stating that Christian Democracy is “objectionable,” Leo’s clear purpose in this encyclical is to save the phrase from those who regard it as a contradiction.

I think also that Mr. Diemler misunderstands John Adams in much the same way that he misunderstands my central point. Adams, writing against John Taylor’s more radical idea of democracy, was not saying that we should scrap the American republic and its representative institutions in favor of monarchy or oligarchy. He was cautioning Americans about the great difficulties encountered throughout history by those trying to establish and maintain stable popular governments — difficulties I noted in my article.

As to Mr. Diemler’s astonishing suggestion that it might be better to be governed by one unfit person than by many, I can only register a respectful disagreement. A tyranny of many seems to me much better than a tyranny of one, though again, that is not the point. The central point is that we are — like it or not — going to be governed by “unfit” men and women because no one is really “fit” to govern another, for the reasons given in my article. Most importantly, the fitness of one to rule another cannot be a function of the unfitness of that other. This means that our choice is not between being governed by fit persons or unfit persons. It is between being governed by one or two unfit persons or many more unfit persons. Faced with that choice, I’ll take the latter, since each unfit governor will serve to diminish the power of each additional unfit governor. If I seem facetious here, I do not mean to be. This is one of the most important justifications for institutions like separation of powers, federalism, and popular government more generally.

Finally, I have no problem with Mr. Diemler’s statement that participation in governing institutions is not the only way people exercise a meaningful say in their lives. As I said in my article, all government begins with self-government, or virtue — and this is the most important government of all. The fact that human beings are capable of self-government in this sense is the reason that human societies can (and should) be governed democratically. I don’t believe that this conclusion contradicts Christian philosophy or Catholic doctrine. Rather, I believe, with Jacques Maritain, that “the democratic impulse burst forth in history as a temporal manifestation of the inspiration of the Gospel” (Christianity and Democracy).

Like a Good Father, Pope Francis Is There

The NOR has gone far below the standards of good Catholic journalism with its relentless attacks on Pope Francis. The silliest criticism is that Francis is not a good pope because he criticizes the faithful but not outsiders (“Pope Francis: Put-Down Artist?” New Oxford Notes, April). Really, didn’t Jesus criticize the pious Pharisees, His Jewish brethren, rather than the pagans, tax collectors, and prostitutes? Pope Francis is simply being a good father, and the NOR is acting like a spoiled teenager.

As a father, I will criticize the behavior of my children so that they will behave better — something I wouldn’t do with someone else’s kids, even if those kids behaved much worse than my kids. I have a high standard for my children, and Pope Francis has a high standard for his children, his flock. He wants us to become more joyful and more energetic Catholics, so we can spread that joy and energy to others. Criticizing someone’s behaviors rarely changes him (therefore I don’t expect the NOR to change). Bringing the joy of Christ makes a person think, “I want what they have.” Then that person will come closer to the Church and start changing his thinking and behavior. That is the essence of evangelization. Pope Francis gets it, while the NOR has no clue.


All we can say is that Dr. Zabiega must not have read through to the end of that New Oxford Note, or else he didn’t read it carefully, for we said there essentially what he says here: that Francis is modeling Jesus and acting like a spiritual father concerned for the welfare of his children, the Catholic flock. We wrote: “An argument could be made that Francis is…behaving ‘like Jesus.’… Our Lord saved some of His greatest words and acts of mercy for ‘outsiders’ — tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, Gentiles. And He directed some of His greatest diatribes against His co-religionists, particularly the clerical class, the Pharisees and Sanhedrin…. We think we know what Francis is trying to accomplish with his verbal scourging of the flock…. He wants to keep our feet to the fire, mindful of the need to stay awake and alert, aware of the many pitfalls into which the spiritually superficial, and the supposedly spiritually ‘superior,’ might easily fall. He doesn’t want his charges to become too comfortable or complacent in the faith, or to stop seeking spiritual growth or become lax in religious discipline.”

But hey, maybe Dr. Zabiega is right that we “have no clue.”

Clued in or not, we did not say, nor did we intimate, that Francis “is not a good pope.” We don’t see on what grounds such a statement could be made since, as mentioned above, we suggested that a case could be made that Francis is acting “like Jesus.” Obviously, a pope who acts like Jesus would automatically be a good one!

What we did say was that Francis’s “approach” — insulting and berating the flock in an apparently abusive manner — “is often puzzling and at times comes across as highly irregular (or un­professional, in American terms).” Nevertheless, we concluded that the “effectiveness” of such an approach will “ultimately be determined by our willingness to be knocked down a peg or two by a Pope who pulls no punches” — i.e., by the receptivity of the flock to what, in biblical terms, is often described as “chastening.”

We don’t mind being taken to task for the things we’ve said — we don’t ask anybody to agree with us on every single point we make. But we do mind being taken to task for things we haven’t said. We therefore ask that you read through to the end and read carefully.

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