Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: March 2015

March 2015

Fisticuffs with Fascists

John F. Gaski’s description of attempts by militant secularists to ban Christmas (“Enjoy Christmas — While It Lasts,” Dec. 2014) is an accurate account of this annual madness. I would add that these cultural fascists are deeply and personally terrified of Christianity, and were it not for the high number of equally mad psychiatrists in the profession — most of whom are secularists themselves — I would recommend counseling. In its place, I recommend they avail themselves of a Catholic League training session. All they have to do is bring boxing gloves — I will happily provide the ring.

William Donohue, President

Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights

New York, New York

Hubris & the Rule of Technology

Thank you for publishing Stanley T. Grip’s excellent article on the film Fail-Safe (“Through a Lens, Darkly,” Dec.). I enjoyed it very much and found it to be a nice break from some of the heavier Vital Works entries. This is not to say that Grip’s examination of the film and its message has no heft. On the contrary, the hubris of man is all too easily forgotten in modern cinema, and Grip’s look at Fail-Safe is a timely reminder as man allows technology to rule his life more and more.

Jacob Copper

Editor, The Catholic Response

Iowa City, Iowa

Ed. Note: Stanley T. Grip’s article was the 39th installment in our ongoing Vital Works Reconsidered series, but only the second to look back at a motion picture. The first was John Martin’s article “The Third Man & the Third Millennium” (May 2011; installment no. 23). Mitchell Kalpakgian’s article “Average Is Not Normal” (Jan.-Feb.) was the 40th overall. Each Vital Works entry from 1990 onward is archived online. Additionally, we have gathered them all together under one heading, “Vital Works Reconsidered,” in the Topical Dossier section of our website, www.newoxfordreview.org, for easy browsing and perusal. We have also created a separate dossier, “At the Movies,” that culls all NOR articles on motion pictures in that time frame, including both Grip’s and Martin’s articles and a host of others. We have yet another dossier, “Pop Culture & the Entertainment Industry,” of NOR articles that examine pop-culture and entertainment trends and the forces that drive them. Enjoy!

Hurd Baruch

Professor of Philosophy, St. Patrick's Seminary

Tucson, Arizona

I congratulate Stanley T. Grip for a masterful appraisal of the film Fail-Safe as a dramatic success and as a politically provocative tale — which he accomplished without revealing its stunning climax. How many memories he has evoked in me!

As an International Fellow at Columbia University in 1961, I attended a lecture by the redoubtable Herman Kahn, whose book On Thermonuclear War was a must-read for strategic thinkers at the time. He was a very large, but not at all jolly, man who did inject one bit of humor into his otherwise sobering talk: He recounted that in a lecture to the public, when he had recommended that everyone stock up on soybeans in their bomb shelters to ride out the famine in a war-torn land, a lady had objected: “I’m not going to eat soybeans!” His response to her was: “Fine, so much more for the rest of us!”

A year later, during the Cuban missile crisis, I was ordered to the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, and rented a room just up the street. A couple of nights after my arrival, I was awakened from a sound sleep by the wail of a siren — the kind from a building, not a vehicle. My first thought was, They’re about to nuke the Pentagon — and I’m a goner too. It took about three long minutes for me to figure out there must be a fire station nearby.

A few years later, I was a special counsel at the Securities and Exchange Commission, trying to understand how the initial computerization of Wall Street had caused operational chaos when all control over customer funds and securities was lost. I saw what enormous consequences could flow from a simple, tiny coding error in a computer program at one of the largest brokerage houses: All of the fully paid-for securities, which should have been held safely for customers, had instead been put in the bin eligible for pledging, and vice versa. Shades of the coding error in Fail-Safe

Stephen Hawking is now warning of a dire threat to humanity in the development of artificial intelligence. I’ll at least go this far: There’s no way any machine could arrive at the astounding solution the U.S. president took to resolve the threat of all-out nuclear war in Fail-Safe — unless, of course, the machine had been shown that film.

The Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas

St. John's College

Pine Beach, New Jersey

Newman's Dispensation

I was pleased to read Clara Sarrocco’s lovely article “Newman in Italy: From Tourist to Pilgrim” (Dec.). It brought back happy memories of having guided the dissertation of Dr. Joanne Sylva at Drew University on the Italian influences on Cardinal Newman. That work was subsequently published as a book by Newman House Press (www.newmanhousecatholicbooks.org; 723-914-1222) under the title How Italy and Her People Influenced Cardinal Newman — which work I would heartily recommend to any readers who wish to pursue the themes highlighted by Miss Sarrocco.

One small corrigendum, however: The author asserts that Newman was one of only a few men to be elevated to the cardinalate without episcopal consecration. That is not accurate. Prior to the mid-20th century, many cardinals were not bishops; indeed, more than a few were even laymen! The “dispensation” of Pope Leo XIII on behalf of Newman was, rather, that he did not have to reside in Rome, as did all other non-diocesan bishops who were members of the College of Cardinals.

Rick Bohler

Jacksonville, Florida

Ed. Note: The 1917 Code of Canon Law decreed that from then on only priests and bishops could be chosen as cardinals, thus officially closing the historical period in which laymen could be made cardinals, as noted by Fr. Stravinskas. Pope Paul VI was said to have wanted to appoint French philosopher Jacques Maritain as a cardinal but was prevented from doing so by canon law. The revised and updated 1983 Code of Canon Law reiterated this exclusion.

Tamra Nygaard

Mazomanie, Wisconsin

Drowning in the Sea of Political Correctness

Once King Henry VIII severed the moorings with the central authority of Rome, it was just a matter of time until the HMS Anglican Communion listed to port and quietly sank beneath the waves. The thin broth and pabulum dished out from Anglican pulpits under the guise of “Christianity” have proved less than filling and lack the nutrition and grist needed for the journey to the Heavenly Kingdom. Serious Christians need heartier fare to grow and thrive.

Though many Catholic prelates are following similar currents and siren wails, there are still some brilliant beams shining from beacons of resistance in the Roman camp. Though vilified, Raymond Cardinal Burke exemplifies the resilience of those who refuse to relinquish their heritage of the truth of the Gospel in its fullness (including, and indeed, especially its political incorrectness). Being a disciple of Christ comes with a hefty price tag, and the dry martyrdom of this Prince of the Church awaits all who fight the good fight to restore Christian teaching and worship to its proper dignity, a dignity conjoined to the veritatis splendor.

Jerry Bergman

Montpelier, Ohio

Ed. Note: Mr. Bohler responds here to two recent events: The Anglican Communion’s decision to consecrate women bishops, and Pope Francis’s re-assigning Cardinal Burke as patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Cardinal Burke had previously been prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the top cleric in the Church’s highest court of canon law. According to the National Catholic Register (Nov. 8, 2014), “The move means that Cardinal Burke, 66, is completely removed from the Curia and holds a purely honorary position without any influence in the governance of the universal Church. Given his age and seniority, such a move is unprecedented and many therefore view it as a demotion.” This comes on the heels of Pope Francis’s removing Cardinal Burke from a committee of the Congregation for Bishops, a body that advises the Pope on episcopal appointments, in 2013.

Charles James

Menlo Park, California

The Unicorn in the Sanctuary

Apropos your New Oxford Note “Aberrations, Confusion, Synodal Machinations” (Dec.): In light of the results of last October’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family, all of which we have yet to see, it is my considered opinion that the Church can do nothing more harmful to the faithful than to make changes to “welcome” homosexual couples, or to offer Holy Communion to public adulterers. If the Church turns her back on the faithful in this way, she will lose them to other congregations or to breakaway Catholic groups like the Society of St. Pius X. And should she continue in this fallacy, she will be hard-pressed to convert the hearts of the lukewarm. All she would accomplish would be to let the unicorn into the sanctuary once and for all, and the Church would cease to exist in any recognizable form. Since our Lord specifically said that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against her, I assume a remnant would remain, but I have no idea what that would look like.

I do not presume to know what Pope Francis has in mind, but I have a pretty good idea what Walter Cardinal Kasper and his cohort think, and it would be our damnation to give them free reign over the upcoming World Meeting of Families, to be held this September in Philadelphia.

Frederick W. Marks

Forest Hills, New York

I Speak for Myself Alone

At least one faculty member and two administrators at Northwest State Community College where I teach do not want the college to be associated with my letter “The Indoctrination of the American Masses” (Dec.) because they feel that it might imply that the views therein were the college’s, when they were, in fact, my own. This letter serves to confirm that fact.

Charles F. Turner

Waterbury Center, Vermont

Ed. Note: When we print letters, articles, book reviews, etc., that identify their authors with institutions or organizations, mention of such affiliation in no way implies or suggests any official endorsement of the author’s ideas. In case this wasn’t already obvious, we hope it is now.

The Rev. Philip M. Stark

Cumberland, Rhode Island

A Shortage Not of Facts but of Faith

Hurd Baruch’s article “The Crisis in Biblical Scholarship” (Dec.) was concise and honest. The materialistic empiricism of David Hume has obviously triumphed in our time; a scientific (and narrow) approach to the Bible has captured the fascination of biblical scholars. Many of these scholars appeared in our seminaries, where their methods of biblical study were unquestionably imbibed by their students. Rather than emphasizing what the Church calls the “spiritual meaning” of the text, the result of their “study” of Scripture left seminarians with no more than the niceties of biblical history, linguistics, grammar, and exegesis.

The present-day situation remains the same. Sadly, this approach to Holy Scripture promotes doubt concerning the Bible’s divine origin (inspiration), practical application (edification), and missionizing motive (evangelization).

Science alone will never understand Scripture because Scripture itself is miraculous. The Catholic knows that Scripture, like all the works of God, far exceeds the reach of science, not because science awaits further sophistication but because science cannot understand what it cannot sense.

When we approach Holy Scripture as an object of empirical investigation, we limit our spiritual discernment of its message. In the end, the “crisis” in biblical scholarship is not a shortage of facts but of faith. We do not critique the Bible; the Bible critiques us.

Andreas Loeffler

Portland, Oregon

Hurd Baruch’s article is magnificent in almost every respect. He is absolutely right about the grossly inferior quality of what has passed for “biblical scholarship” since the 1960s. Allegations of error and contradiction run counter to the teaching of Vatican II (Dei Verbum), and the welcome they have received at Catholic universities and seminaries has been an unmitigated disaster, one that has hobbled Bible study and all but shut down evangelization. Baruch reports that we are on the road back to sanity. I would hope so, but it will take time for the “good news” about the “Good News” to penetrate.

Nothing in the past half century has done more to damage the faith and discourage potential converts than Catholic-sponsored biblical skepticism. There is no way of knowing how many parishioners have bolted to evangelical Protestant congregations in order to hear the truth about Scripture and evangelization. Again and again, Catholic homilists have stressed evangelization “by example” as the way to make converts, ignoring the importance of verbal testimony. Over and over, they have quoted St. Francis of Assisi as having said, “use words if necessary.” Franciscan scholars tell me that the founder of their order never said anything of the kind. But even if he did, one thing is certain: St. Francis trained his men to be street preachers — often at the risk of their lives!

I must, however, take issue with Mr. Baruch’s implied claim that the Gospels contain “incidental details” that are inaccurate. This, it seems to me, is yielding a lot more ground to skepticism than is necessary or proper. No one has ever been able to offer conclusive proof of a single factual error in the New Testament. Granted, there are “copyist errors” in the Old Testament, but they aren’t errors in the strict sense of the word because they cannot be attributed to the original texts, which are no longer extant. These “errors” are also detectable and correctable. If by “incidental details” Baruch is referring to skewed chronology or cases of abridgment, we have no call to fault the evangelists for inaccuracy because historians of the period were not expected to put events in chronological order.

The Church has upheld the notion of biblical inerrancy for two thousand years, and its upholders — Eusebius, Jerome, and Augustine, for starters — have been far more able than any of our modern-day “experts.” When Scripture is announced on Sunday as “the Word of God,” it should make us sit up and think. God does not err. God does not contradict Himself — even in the matter of “incidental details.” Those who are not familiar with Gleason Archer’s International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties should get hold of a copy. They are in for a treat. Although Archer is a Protestant, there is little, if anything, in his encyclopedia that is objectionable from a Catholic standpoint. On the positive side, he eviscerates just about every allegation of error and contradiction one is ever likely to come across.

Mike Spaniola

Minturn, Colorado

Hurd Baruch gave us a brilliant summary of the visions of a mystic, Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, in his 2008 book Light on Light. But his recent fine article, “The Crisis in Biblical Scholarship,” lacks reference to another mystic, the Venerable Mary of Agreda, who gave us exact dates for the writing of the Gospels in The Mystical City of God, Vol. 4: The Coronation (trans. by Fiscar Marison, TAN Books). The Blessed Virgin Mary told her that Matthew wrote his Gospel in A.D. 42, Mark his in A.D. 44, Luke his in A.D. 48, and John his last in A.D. 58. Now, nearly four centuries later, Mary of Agreda remains incorruptible. That’s certainly a divine blessing and better than an imprimatur.

Mike Hargadon

Emmitsburg, Maryland

In attempting to clarify “The Crisis in Biblical Scholarship,” Hurd Baruch succeeds only in adding to it.

(1) Benedict XVI is firmly on the side of historical criticism, but Mr. Baruch’s quotations of our Emeritus Pope are highly selective, as if he were trying to convince us otherwise. Anyone who reads the full introduction to Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives will see what I mean. Speaking of the Infancy Gospels, I must insist that Fr. Raymond E. Brown, in his book The Birth of the Messiah, does not try to debunk them, as Baruch suggests. There again, if one reads it (not easy to do, admittedly), the truth will emerge. This same Fr. Brown, in contradiction to Baruch, says elsewhere that “there is no official Church statement in force that the birth narratives are literally historical.”

(2) The two-source hypothesis is a perfectly valid scholarly tool (not withstanding its German Protestant origin).

(3) All serious scholars recognize that Q is a hypothetical document — but it is the best hypothesis for resolving some of the questions.

(4) The majority of scholars recognize the late first-century composition of the Gospels; this in no way disparages their divine inspiration or inerrancy.

(5) Baruch is quite right that there is a lot of chicanery, dishonesty, modernism, etc., in contemporary biblical criticism. But what he fails to note is that there is also — and so little appreciated because it lends itself so little to publicity — a perfectly sound, honest, Church-approved stream of Scripture criticism, research, publication, teaching, and preaching. Fr. Brown and his disciples are in this mainstream. I find myself so often coming to his defense simply because he is so often vilified. He has never been condemned by any Church authority (nor was John Henry Cardinal Newman, who was also criticized incessantly during his lifetime), and none of his writings, in spite of various attempts, have been shown to be unorthodox.

Certainly there are “bad guys” out there: The notorious Jesus Seminar is one of them; it has no respectability whatever.

Mario Rubino

Enfield, Connecticut


I thank all the correspondents for the attention they paid to my thesis (summarized in its title). Dr. Marks makes a point about biblical inerrancy, seeing an “implied claim” on my part that the Gospels contain incidental details that are inaccurate. I hesitate to say that anything in the Gospels is inaccurate, but I have to strive to harmonize various passages because of seeming inconsistencies, for example in the timing of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. The synoptic authors clearly set it before Jesus’ final Passover, after His climactic entry into Jerusalem, while St. John relates it at the first Passover of Jesus’ public ministry.

Mr. Turner’s mention of Mary of Agreda’s manuscript of her visions, The Mystical City of God, is welcome — it is a very worthy mystical work. What she saw and heard, and recorded by hand, was very different in style and scope from the recorded visions of Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, for example in relating in minute detail the instructions Our Lady gave her for living a holy life in her convent. The dates the Blessed Virgin gave to Mary of Agreda for the Gospels were the start dates — I’m not aware of completion dates — and I think that the case for Mark’s borrowing from Luke is a good one. In any event, if Mary of Agreda’s account accurately reflects the sequence of completion, it negates the two-source hypothesis that there was an underlying Q document and that all the other Gospels, including Matthew’s, can be dismissed as later embellishments of Mark’s Gospel.

In reply to Fr. Stark, I agree that Pope Benedict XVI was in favor of using the historical-critical method — but only as one limited aspect of biblical interpretation, as he makes plain in his critique of it in the 34-page foreword to his book Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. As to Fr. Stark’s defense of the late Fr. Raymond E. Brown, he most certainly did try to debunk the Infancy Gospels by challenging the historicity of these aspects: the dialogue between the Archangel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin Mary; Mary’s vow of perpetual virginity; the dialogue between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth; the virginal conception of Jesus; the visit of the Magi; and the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the Holy Innocents (in sequence, at pp. 307 n.35, 304, 340, 525-527, 188, and 227 of his book The Birth of the Messiah; 1979 edition). If those aspects are dismissed as not historical, what’s left of the Infancy Gospels?

Andrew M. Seddon

Billings, Montana

Debating the "Debacle"

I feel the need to score the editor of the NOR for his poor form in his reply to Craig Mc­Ewan’s letter “Who Is Responsible for Our Failures in Iraq?” (Dec.). Clearly, the editor has every right to argue his position regarding the justification, or lack thereof, for the war in Iraq. However, he had ample opportunity to argue his position clearly, and in many ways persuasively, in the New Oxford Note “The Blood Crying Out from the Ground” (Oct.). The urge to re-argue that Note in reply to McEwan shows a surprising lack of respect for the arguments offered in opposition. He may not like the reasons offered in defense of the U.S. going to war, but I find them in many ways persuasive. His reply seemed to suggest that there is no prudential judgment involved in such matters, or at least in war. History proves otherwise.

A small amount of humility when assessing what we know about war and its justification would have illustrated the editor’s better judgment. A re-reading of General Dwight Eisenhower’s notes in the event of a failure of D-Day would be instructive.

Eva Brann

Annapolis, Maryland

Ed. Note: Yes, obviously the Catechism (no. 2309) reserves “evaluation of the conditions for moral legitimacy” of war to the “prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good” (in our case, elected politicians). Unfortunately, whatever one’s personal feelings on the subject, history has proven — amply and abundantly — that our leaders’ judgment in the case of attacking Iraq proved to be more precipitate and pernicious than prudential. This isn’t merely our opinion, a “position” we’ve chosen to “argue”; it was the conclusion reached by Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI (and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), which we are compelled to amplify. If pointing out our leaders’ lack of prudence is a sin against humility, then the Popes are as guilty as we are.

Richard J. Weiland

Northfield, Minnesota

I cringed when I came across the New Oxford Note “The Blood Crying Out from the Ground.” I was further dismayed when I saw the editor’s lengthy reply, in part nearly vitriolic, to Craig McEwan’s letter. To paraphrase an adage: There’s no fury like an editor who senses vindication.

I know the NOR and its editors took a lot of heat for their stance against the Iraq war. But please, let go of the Iraq issue.

(Name Withheld)

Ed. Note: The “Iraq issue” is perhaps the defining historical event of the past decade (closely followed, we’d argue, by the sex-abuse-and-cover-up scandal in the Catholic Church), one that’s still rocking the world. It’s no longer a focal point of our witness, but why should we ignore it?

The editor’s response to Craig McEwan’s letter was the most honest summary of what is wrong with U.S. foreign policy. I thank him for speaking the truth. Most others in our Catholic media seem to be content regurgitating our government’s war and crisis de jour propaganda. Our government’s decision to engage in this unjust, undeclared, preventive war, and the anarchy we facilitated, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians, has been an unmitigated disaster.

As a Catholic, it’s even more disturbing to witness the lack of critical thinking among our co-religionists, and the lack of awareness that our government and its allies have used deceptive tactics to sway public opinion and sell their agenda. Instead, most Catholic media outlets, like EWTN, uncritically accept government reports and disperse them on weekly and nightly “news” programs. Many still give voice to Bush’s Catholic war promoter, George Weigel, even though he was key in selling the Iraqi genocide to Catholics.

Ed. Note: Weigel and other Iraq war promoters found a friendly pulpit in First Things, where they argued at length in favor of pre-emptive military action in Iraq, even trying to pass it off as a just war. A provocative blog post by Artur Rosman from last year titled “To What Degree Is First Things Responsible for Iraq?” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cosmostheinlost/2014/07/23/first-things-iraq/) is still making the rounds in the Catholic blogosphere and is worthy of a read. Please know that this is not an endorsement of this blog post; we merely offer it for consideration.

Craig McEwan and the editor of the NOR have differing viewpoints regarding who should be held responsible for the “debacle” in Iraq that created greater instability in the Middle East and has led to the loss of countless Iraqi and American lives. Mr. McEwan places the blame on the media and the Democratic Party; the editor places more of the blame on the neoconservatives. Both raise valid points. Maybe culpability for the “debacle” in Iraq lies with the media and both parties.

The media and our liberal establishment both displayed naivete’ in their belief that the U.S. would be safer and more secure if it became less involved in world affairs. “Leading from behind” has created the power vacuum that ensured the rise of extremist elements seeking to fill the void. This is currently evidenced by the expansion of China’s and North Korea’s ambitions in the Pacific, Russia’s expansion into Ukraine, and the growth of extremist Muslim organizations such as ISIS.

The naivete’ of our right-wing establishment, on the other hand, led to the idealistic belief that our democratic system of government could be exported abroad and nations could be built that fit our democratic mold, even if such nations lacked the history or the institutions necessary to support such an enterprise. Our effort to build a nation in Iraq that would fit our mode of government and spread democracy and freedom to the rest of the Middle East only led to the chaos and mayhem that followed, once Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed and his military was too quickly disbanded.

Saddam committed evil atrocities and played a cat-and-mouse game with UN inspectors sent to Iraq after the first Gulf war ended. While U.S. intelligence proved incorrect in assessing the level of weapons of mass destruction stored in Iraq, Saddam failed to comply with the terms of his surrender, in which he agreed to allow open inspections of potential chemical-storage sites. As a result of his noncompliance, the consensus at the time was to invade.

One could argue that after the 2007 military “surge” in Iraq, General David Petraeus had won the confidence of the various ethnic tribes in Iraq and that these tribes felt secure enough to challenge and oust al-Qaeda from their regions with the backing and support of our military units. But when President Obama unilaterally declared an end to the war in Iraq and pulled our troops out without leaving a contingent force, these tribes felt abandoned. The Iraqi military (not the Kurds) is not capable of protecting them, and extremist groups returned to fill the power vacuum created by our military departure.

The editor states that war should be a last resort. No one would argue this point. He goes on to say that only a defensive war is just. This is problematic; life is not so clear-cut. A situation may arise in which we learn of a plot to launch a “dirty bomb” in a major American city, or of a possible cyber-attack on our electric grid or financial system. In such a scenario, do we sit and wait for this to happen before we are justified in striking back, or do we have the right to strike pre-emptively to prevent such a scenario from taking place?

Pope Francis, the symbol of our Church and figurehead of peace and non-violence, has even acknowledged that physical force could be justified in protecting those innocent Christian martyrs who are victims of Muslim jihadist oppression. The genocide of Christians in the Middle East needs a response, and preventive measures must be undertaken to avoid further mass slaughter. Yet nothing is being done.

Forfeiture of U.S. responsibilities and Obama’s non-interventionist policy has made the U.S. appear weak in the eyes of the world, which in turn allows extreme and tyrannical groups and nations to fill the void created by the abdication of our current role in the world. Yet, one must also be wary of the well-intentioned hubris of President Bush in trying to make the world fit our image of what it should be.

The blame falls on all of us for the blood that is being shed in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the repercussions of our failed policy will be felt for many generations to come. It would be morally reprehensible for America to abandon the region now, especially since we helped create the instability that exists there. By abandoning our role as a super power, we could be establishing a new balance of power that would have dire consequences for us and the rest of the world.

Ed. Note: Indeed, as Mr. Rubino states, life is not always clear-cut. That’s why the Church’s perennial teachings are such a treasure. They provide the faithful with a practical toolbox for working through the complexities and confusions of real-life situations. As we’ve had to repeat ad nauseam over the past 10 years, the Church’s just-war doctrine stipulates that only defensive wars can be just. (Again, this isn’t something we merely “stated” of our own accord; it is a doctrine of the Church, and it can be found in the Catechism, no. 2309.) The examples Mr. Rubino gives of situations in which a pre-emptive war might be considered just do not obtain: military strikes generally aren’t necessary to prevent or diffuse “dirty bombs” — and they certainly aren’t warranted in response to, of all things, a cyber-attack. We certainly hope Mr. Rubino isn’t suggesting that a pre-emptive military strike against, say, North Korea would have been justified in response to last December’s “Sony Hack” cyber-attack, which caused a delay in the release of Sony Picture’s The Interview (there was even talk that the film might never be released) and which U.S. intelligence linked to North Korea. Let’s admit it: The movie industry represents a sizable component of our “financial system.” Is Mr. Rubino willing to disregard a doctrine of the Church in order to pre-empt something as meaningless (yet financially damaging) as the delay of a movie premiere?

Pope Francis, in his call for the protection of vulnerable Christian communities in the region from ISIS attacks, never suggested or even intimated that pre-emptive strikes might be justified. That’s a moot point anyway because ISIS is already on the aggressive, committing crimes against humanity; and as Francis said, very much from within just-war tradition, “it is licit to stop an unjust aggressor.” To be clear: The Pope did not turn just-war doctrine on its ear by saying that we should become the aggressors. Actions against ISIS in defense of vulnerable populations would, by definition, be defensive in nature.

Marathon Men

There is much to agree with in Frederick W. Marks’s article “The Apotheosis of Sports” (Oct.) regarding the craze for sports and how sports are assuming the place of religion in Western society. What can one say when even priests encourage the faithful to wear their team colors to Sunday Mass when there’s a big game?

I would, however, like to rise to the defense of marathon runners. Dr. Marks complains that marathons “close down entire neighborhoods,” require the utilization of police resources, divert people from celebrating the Lord’s day, and even cause churches in upstate New York to cancel services for the annual Ironman Triathlon.

I have run 24 marathons of varying types, from big cities — New York, Boston, New Orleans, Dublin — to smaller cities and towns, to trail runs and places off the beaten path. Some runs involved thousands and thousands of runners, some only a few hundred. Most — but not all — marathons are run on weekends; which is logical since the majority of people work on weekdays. The Boston Marathon, which Dr. Marks mentions, is run on a Monday. We Catholics have the advantage that, for races run on a Sunday, there is the Saturday Vigil Mass; at a number of the ones I have attended, the priest has offered prayers for the safety of the runners on the following day. Marathon running does not have to mean neglect of the Lord.

Runners, of course, run for all sorts of reasons. The fastest run to win; others to achieve a “personal best”; others for fun. Many run for charitable causes or to honor a loved one. Much good is done by those running for any number of worthwhile causes. For these runners, a marathon is not done for selfish reasons but to benefit others. A number of Christian running groups exist.

To be sure, there are some runners who become obsessed, running marathons every Saturday and Sunday. But obsessions can occur in any area of life, not merely sports.

As for closing down entire neighborhoods, well, yes, this can happen for the biggest runs — New York with its 45,000 runners, or Boston with 27,000. But this is for a few hours once a year, since most marathons are run annually. And, to judge from the many thousands of spectators lining the course, the cities don’t mind. The marathons are community events, bringing the populace together for a citywide celebration. In smaller cities and towns, the disruptive effect of a marathon is negligible.

If Dr. Marks has never run a marathon, I invite him to do so, and to experience the camaraderie that results from people from all around the country and around the world, of diverse backgrounds, coming together in friendship to participate in an event. He will meet some of the nicest people in the world, who run not only for fun or physical fitness but to do some good for their fellowman.

Universal, Not "Catholic," Art

I hope Kenneth Colston will think I’m enhancing rather than harming his thesis in “The Catholic Dramatist in a Protestant Land” (Dec.) if I widen its scope. It seems to me that the rubrics, under which he so instructively shows that Shakespeare was a Catholic playwright, delineate a whole class of catholic (lower case) writers.

Here’s my summary of the Catholic elements Colston finds in Shakespeare: This author is humble; he does not play the intrusive creator but lets his characters be; he gives them free will and so the possibility of being evil. Hence, he is a realist who allows the actual world to inform him; he does not construct it. He is therefore a maker of concrete images rather than a deviser of abstract constructs. He views this world with lusty irreverence and saves his reverence for the Beyond. He is not caught up in anxious faith but in the exhilaration of a world permeated by grace. He respects treasured tradition, elevating ritual and dignity-bestowing hierarchy. He acknowledges a law-giving nature presiding over human convention. He conceives of love as the inner-worldly source of motion and of God as immanent rather than hidden.

Now, it seems to me that, constructed secularly, all these marks define the art that is greatest, be it pagan poetry or 19th-century novels. The Greeks rejoiced in image-making; their gods walked visibly among them. Homer’s gods made no oppressive demands on human faith; they were simply, undeniably present. Aristophanes presents the world as lustily comic — for the sake of a reverenced tradition. The tragedians depict the world as uncircumventably, tragically real. Aristotle’s divinity engenders “the love that moves the sun and other stars” (Dante).

It may well be — Colston is very persuasive — that Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic. But it may also be that there is a universal art, always and everywhere, from Neolithic cave paintings to some contemporary novels, that can be delineated by catholic marks — and it is the truest art. If so, there is a conceptual connection here worth working out, and Mr. Colston might be the man to do it.

Kenneth Colston’s outstanding article “The Catholic Dramatist in a Protestant Land” awakened my dramatic impulses as a former drama director and professor at the college level. What follows are a few observations on the nature of comedy as developed by the great French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière.

Unlike Shakespeare, Molière was not engaged in a Protestant environment. But he was living in a world alienated from Catholics, as demonstrated when Church authorities denied him the last rites due to his personal life and theatrical mischief. Unlike Shakespeare (or his alter ego), who masked his Catholicity, Molière flaunted his scandal-laden lifestyle by cavorting with and then marrying the daughter of his mistress, and drumming up plays that ridiculed dignitaries from society, including Church leaders (Tartuffe), physicians (The Physician in Spite of Himself), pseudo-scholars (The Would-Be Gentleman), those of excessive virtue (The Misanthrope), and those who have false wives (The Imaginary Invalid).

Molière’s use of dramatic action was very different from the likes of, say, the Marx Brothers. The Marx Brothers tend to emphasize the physical — the externals of farce, or the effects of farcical action — whereas Molière employed dramatic elements on a higher level of human experience. He too used the externals of farce but he always (in his best plays) stressed its cause — evil, or a serious dramatic conflict that, in his best farces, reaches the level of a serious moral abnormality.

It is interesting to compare this type of conflict to the obsolete definition of farce as it relates to cooking: to stuff. It appears that the “lower farce” of Groucho et al., tends to have as its subject matter a trivial level of human experience, which it “stuffs” with physical gimmicks to get audience guffaws. In “elevated farce,” the stuffing consists of an overblown vice, obsession, or eccentricity that is made palatable for the audience through the use of theatrical techniques (such as leaping onto a soon-to-be shattered harpsichord in The Would-Be Gentleman).

Great dramatic artistry — such as the tragedies of Shakespeare — depends on the interaction of the inner nature of a character to external stimuli, and not only what happens to the hero due to external forces. To a great degree, the nobility of a work’s character is related to the character’s “inner nature” or scope of consciousness. Consciousness, here, refers to more than a character’s ability to conceptualize. Consciousness involves an awareness, in addition to the penetrating powers of the sensitivities of the protagonist. It involves the potential, or capacity, of the intellect and will to interact and choose. It provides an opportunity for intensified interaction between what Aristotle called dianoia and moral character.

This concept of the “inner nature” of man reacting to external forces (and vice versa) is more than just a dusty Aristotelian notion. Reality — God, world, society, self, and fellowman — presents the dramatic character with the opportunity to make a decision. It is the dramatic character’s responsibility to accept reality and do something about it because, as a human being, he is free to do (or not to do) something about it. A conscious character with an awareness of reality and the capacity to choose will tend to suffer the greatest trials (remember King Lear in Colston’s analysis). In real life, this concern for one’s fellowman, social institutions, concepts, principles, lesser living creatures, physical realities, etc., contributes to a life of mysterious misery, a life of conflict.

The less-conscious character, however, who has a lesser awareness of reality, will suffer less. His univocal view of the world limits his sense of responsibility. He finds no great need to be concerned by or feel responsible for his fellowman, institutions, concepts, principles, and all those wonderful/horrible things in Teilhard’s noosphere. The less-conscious person will have fewer conflicts in life and fewer difficult decisions to make. His view of life is one-dimensional and less complex, less mysterious, and hence more comfortable. This type of person or character tends to live an artificial life of inner non-conflict.

The pinnacle of great farce is a play packed with evil, but an evil already locked in the characters’ souls by the time the curtain opens. Harpagon in The Miser is consumed by avarice; the title character in Tartuffe is overwhelmed by lust and greed; Argan in The Imaginary Invalid is already overcome with hypochondria and self-love by curtain time; Monsieur Jourdain in The Would-Be Gentleman is locked into his persona of a pompous fool before the lights go up; and Sganarelle in The Physician in Spite of Himself is a full-blown hedonist way before he battles with his wife in the opening scene.

Farce features no “battles within” the human psyche. The leading characters will consistently battle with external forces such as wives, family, lovers, servants, and other forces of normality to better portray their villainy and make the dramatic action speed merrily along. The inner struggle of the human soul to choose good over evil is not evident in Molière’s best farceurs (except in The Misanthrope, which is another story). The audience detaches itself from this detached comedic character, and this aesthetic, objective experience achieves the ultimate purpose of the comic dramatist: to expose the follies and foibles and sins of mankind — and still get a laugh!


Eva Brann’s succinct summary of my “field identification markings” of a Catholic dramatist, and her imaginative call for a survey of the ways in which great Catholic art moves within a great tradition of Western art, remind me of certain brilliant preliminary efforts to show the Catholic/catholic overlap. Simone Weil’s Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks treats Achilles and Antigone as pagan types of Christ, and Aristotle’s “Thought is the thought of thought” as an anticipation of the Trinity. Werner Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams and G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man see the full-blown human person, more than a clever primate, in early man’s exquisite cave drawings (“Art is the signature of man”). Indeed, Chesterton goes further in his musings on the God-man and finds in primordial clothing the first of my marks, original sin, which Brann did not mention. Is that the essential Christian sign? Aristotle’s hamartia, a missing of the mark, is not quite the same, is it? The philosopher does not demonstrate in the Poetics that Oedipus’s pride is a ubiquitous, inherent sine qua non of humanity; in his Nicomachean Ethics, vice has no other explanations than poor habituation in virtue or the preference of a more immediate but less flourishing good for a more lasting and worthier one.

The notion of unshakeable sin also emerges in Richard Weiland’s illuminating reflections on farce. He seems to suggest that the tragic hero is aware of the good that he chooses to avoid, unlike the farcical protagonist, who is mindlessly stuck; both types act helplessly under the deep hold of sin. The Christian tragic hero, however, as I read Lear, glimpses, on this side of eternity, supernatural gift-love as a brief overcoming of sin — as Christ reveals His identity momentarily to Luke’s two pilgrims on the road to Emmaus.

No Mountain too High, No Valley too Wide

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