Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: May 1992

May 1992

To Be Picky

Just a “for what it’s worth” picky point on the excellent article by Charles Wilber and Laura Grimes on Christianity and economics (March): They say Christian defenders of free-market capitalism “embrace a ‘slippery slope’ argument — either completely free markets or central control of a nation’s economy.” As stated, what Wilber and Grimes call a “slip­pery slope” argument should really be called a “false dichot­omy.”

Gerald J. Williams

Harvard Law School

New Providence, New Jersey

Old Heresies Dead?

John T. Noonan Jr., in his article “The Catholic Communi­ty at Harvard” (March), says, “The old heresies — Gnosti­cism, Manicheanism, Arianism — are dead.” But are they tru­ly dead? I am a member of the Rosicrucian Fellowship. Many of the original Rosicrucians were Lutherans, yet they were also very interested in esoteric things like Jewish kabbala and Gnostic systems. Every week I get a copy of The Watchtower, put out by the Jehovah’s Wit­nesses, who may not be Arians exactly but who certainly aren’t Trinitarians. And don’t the Monophysite churches of Egypt and Ethiopia have Gnostic tendencies?

Neil Kaufler

Ascension Lutheran Church

Madison, Wisconsin

Serious Questions

Regarding Philip Devine’s review of my Rights Talk (March), he may be pleased to know that the review raises serious questions about com­munitarianism with which I am trying to grapple. For me — a communitarian in the sense that a proper conception of the human person includes a social dimension — Catholic social thought remains the most fruitful context within which to try to approach the issues of the day.

Prof. Mary Ann Glendon

Dept. of Sociology, City College, City University of New York

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Don't Blame Luther

I was really turned off by some of Charles Coulombe’s remarks in his review of Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity (March). Cou­lombe’s attempt to put Ellul and Martin Luther in the same “private judgment” bag is al­most comical. Luther’s private judgment was always tem­pered by his high regard for Scripture. Maybe Ellul doesn’t believe in miracles, Hell, or Satan, but Luther certainly did. There are many Roman Catho­lics who would disagree with Coulombe’s blaming Luther for Ellul’s sometimes strange ideas.

The Rev. Edwin T. Heyne

Dept. of English, The King's College

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Homosexual Malice

In his March column, Rob­ert Coles discusses not only AIDS but the moral condemna­tion of certain people with AIDS by others (particularly one unemployed man), whom Coles dismisses as being af­flicted with “smugness and malice.”

Last term I was assigned to teach a course on Social Problems. Among other books, I assigned William Dannemey­er’s Shadow in the Land and Donald DeMarco’s Biotechnology and the Assault on Parenthood. We had not proceeded very far into the course when a young man stood up, announced himself to be “gay,” and de­nounced me for using these “terrible” works. Actually, I had not yet even reached those books. Several things then happened. First, he was ridi­culed, not by me but by many members of the class; then, both the dean and chairman of my department demanded to see the “terrible” Dannemeyer book, and I began receiving phone calls at 2 or 3 AM from nice gentlemen who suggested that we get together for a very good time. Fortunately, the phone calls stopped after a few weeks, and it turned out that the young man who had de­nounced me never appeared again in the class. But a few weeks later a bulletin went around indicating a special meeting would be held, which all students in my class had to attend, as I had given out mis­leading information which could lead to AIDS! I informed the class of this; they voted (I was not present at the vote) not to attend this meeting. The administration then resched­uled the meeting, since I had clearly neglected to inform the class. The second meeting was held on the last day of the term, and again the students decided not to attend. And that is where it stands at the moment.

Perhaps these people are not as harmless as Coles im­plies them to be.

Prof. Robert Lilienfeld

New York, New York

Moral & Political Criticisms of Art

I read with interest Ronald Austin’s article on Jacques Mar­itain’s Art and Scholasticism (Jan.-Feb.), and I commend him for his recognition of the value of Maritain’s work, espe­cially where the relation be­tween artistic beauty and God is concerned. Austin’s analysis of Maritain’s distinction between art and morality, how­ever, invites clarification inso­far as it implies that Maritain denies the validity of the moral (or politicabpjudgment of art.

As Austin points out, Mar­itain’s view of art as “amoral” is based on Aquinas’s insight: “art does not require that the artisan’s act be a good act, but that he should make a good work.” Far from denying that the making of the work of art has moral implications, Aqui­nas here acknowledges that the making of a good work of art may be a bad act morally speaking, which is to say that the effect of the work of art may be bad. As the “Art and Morality” section of Art and Scholasticism makes clear, Mar­itain follows Aquinas in this regard. Thus, immediately after asserting, “The sole end of art is the work itself and its beauty,” he adds, “for the man working, the work…itself comes into the line of moral­ity.” In other words, he ac­knowledges that the artist’s actions necessarily have moral implications.

In discussing the relation between art and morality (or prudence), Maritain distin­guishes between the Artist, whose sole concern is the work to be made, and the Prudent Man, whose sole concern is morality (i.e., the good of the human being). It should be noted that both are abstrac­tions. Maritain’s Artist is by definition concerned only with the work to be made; his Pru­dent Man is likewise concerned only with morality — whereas in reality the most committed artist (insofar as he or she acts) is necessarily concerned with morality, and the most pas­sionate moralist undoubtedly has some concern for art. This qualification needs to be kept in mind when Maritain makes assertions like the following: “The Prudent Man…as such, judging all things from the angle of morality and in rela­tion to the good of man, is absolutely ignorant of every­thing pertaining to art. He can no doubt, as he ought, judge the work of art as it affects morality: he has no right to judge it as a work of art.”

Austin is on firm ground when he concludes from such statements that Maritain’s view of the end of art narrowly construed (i.e., stripped of its moral implications as a human action) “disallows the extrane­ous [i.e., morality] as a basis of aesthetic judgment” (emphasis mine). But he risks obscuring Maritain’s thought when he also concludes that Maritain’s view effectively “defends art from both its patrons and its critics who would burden it with moral lessons (or, per­haps more contemporaneously, political ones)” — at least insofar as this statement is intended to mean that any judgment of the moral and political implications of art is somehow illegitimate.

To the contrary, Maritain acknowledges that the work of art is “the object of a conflict between the virtues of art and the virtues of morality.” He also claims that, “To form a good judgment on the work both virtues are necessary.” I take this to mean that the good literary critic will do justice to both aspects of the work of art. He or she will be alive, for example, to the fact that a poet like Ezra Pound, in writing The Cantos, could make a fine work of art which nonetheless en­courages a hateful, and there­fore immoral, view of the Jewish people. This sort of awareness on the part of the critic, far from disposing of moral criticism of art, provides a framework in which the moral implications of a work of art can be evaluated together with its aesthetic value.

I recognize that Austin objects specifically to those who impose their moral and political concerns on art, and I agree with him that to burden art with moral or political lessons it cannot bear is irre­sponsible criticism. But criti­cism which acknowledges that works of art have moral impli­cations is merely responsible criticism of the kind that Maritain’s book advocates. When such criticism defends art against its detractors, it does so not by denying the validity of moral or political judgment (thereby implying that those who make such judgment are simply philistines or “yahoos”), but rather by affirming the need to balance moral and political reservations about art with recognition of art’s intrinsic virtues.

Prof. Paul M.L. Vanderham

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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