Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: May 2014

May 2014

The Greatest Novel You've Never Read

“The Catholic nations,” G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “are very national, but each has specialized in some spiritual truth.” Chesterton’s comment might be applied with equal truth to the variety of literatures among Catholic nations. Cervantes’s Don Quixote, for example, expresses the ironic chivalry of the Spanish nation; Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz a distinctively Polish notion of valor; and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a humor that is quintessentially English. So too with the key work of literature in Italy. Everything distinctive about Italian Catholicism is found in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed.

First published in 1827, Manzoni’s novel is, in many ways, a typical product of the early Romantic era. Like Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, The Betrothed possesses a strong sense of an historical period. Set in 17th-century Italy, it gives the reader a convincing account of what everyday life must have been like for ordinary Italians living centuries earlier, at a time of political and social chaos. But its most impressive achievement is its convincing portrait of a saint. Federigo Cardinal Borromeo is the dominating figure of the novel, and his holiness defines the novel’s meaning. The cardinal embodies the mystery of divine mercy, and the theme of the novel is concerned with the way in which mercy is able to overcome evil. That is why the very reading of the book is itself a transforming spiritual experience. No wonder, then, that Pope Francis acknowledges with gratitude his own debt to the novel. He recalls that it was first read to him by his grandmother, and he adds quite simply, “Manzoni gave me so much.”

The Holy Father’s love for Manzoni’s novel, which Francis J. Manion explores in his article “Reading Francis through Manzoni” (March), and ignorance about the novel among contemporary American students of literature, which Manion touches on, draws attention to one of the shortcomings of American Catholic education. Some 60 years ago, when Christopher Dawson was installed as the first professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard, he commented on what he regarded as the peculiar weakness in American Catholic higher education. In his view, Catholic colleges fail to put their students in touch with their European intellectual inheritance. He pointed out that, at a typical American Catholic college, the literature of the students’ Catholic ancestors is seldom included in the college curriculum. Instead, students are asked to study an exclusively English literature, which, of course — as Newman once remarked — is a largely Protestant literature. Is it not time for this mistake to be corrected?

Fr. Ian Boyd, C.S.B.


South Orange, New Jersey

Francis J. Manion’s “Reading Francis through Manzoni” was a pleasure. Yes, to know who Pope Francis is, journalists should read what Francis loves best; and how much better all journalists would be if they spent more time with books with big, lofty truths, such as Manzoni’s The Betrothed, than with whatever they are taught in journalism schools — which, by the way, Edward R. Murrow, Edgar Mowrer, and Charles Krauthammer never needed. As Francis has said to teachers, “The truth is a gift that remains large, and precisely for this reason it enlarges us, it amplifies us, it elevates us.” And truths that awe you will make you careful to ascertain all the important small ones that render “current affairs” a long trial for us all, with no presiding judge to help us jury of citizens.

Manion’s article stresses just the right things about The Betrothed and about our Pope, and for a reader who has never read the book, or even heard of it, he quotes choice passages and narrates very skillfully what is between, with deft touches. Tolle lege! Surely some readers will be encouraged to read the book. And to that end let me offer some additional encouragement.

Can you tell a man by what books he loves? Are there loves that are so telling that you know what they foretell? The narrator of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling shows all his sympathy for crippled Richard III and not the Anne whose will he rapes, the spritely boys he murders, or the country he tyrannizes. Would you trust a young teacher who championed Richard? By contrast, when asked what part in all of Shakespeare he would prefer to play, C.S. Lewis responded immediately, “the servant in King Lear.” This is the unnamed one who, upon seeing Gloucester’s eye put out, draws his sword against his master and perishes. It says a great deal about literary studies in our time that, though director Peter Brook cut this scene from his 1971 film adaptation, he is still celebrated, not reviled — perhaps as much that the book Pope Francis loves, has read three times, and started again as he felt the weight of election upon him, is not much read.

The Betrothed gives the best portraits of daily cowardice, saintly prudence, and astonishing conversions I know of. The rapid conversion of the mighty and evil “Unnamed” to the good is more remarkable than Augustine’s. The other conversion, of frailty turning gradually into evil, is truly unique, greater than confident Othello into tormented executioner. We can barely believe it is happening, but we do not doubt it. And I think it is impossible, reading of Cardinal Borromeo, so strong and so loving, not to want to visit him as soon as possible. I can imagine such an encounter converting a soul. His existence refutes all those, such as Machiavelli, who hold that no statesman could be a saint, and all those, such as Tolstoy, who claim that no saint could be a statesman. Still, it is a nice question whether prudence or courage is the comprehensive virtue; and how they are related to faith, hope, and love is not easy to say.

Notable too are the vices: The evil of the Unnamed shines with what one must admit is greatness; and yet the evil effects of weakness are as notable. The habitual daily cowardice of the vicar, who rises each morning already concerned with making it back to supper and bed, may convince even the bravest readers that they are not free of weakness. As many contemporary clerics were as offended by the trembling Don Abbondio and suspicious of the author’s friendship with Rosmini as contemporary patriots were offended by the courage of Fr. Cristoforo and the goodness of Cardinal Borromeo. (A good journal, thought Charles Péguy, ought to offend a different quarter of its readers, every issue.) The wretched condition of divided and oppressed “Italy” portrayed in the novel so called for self-governing unification that Verdi wrote his Requiem for Manzoni. Yet how can this be, for The Betrothed teaches that the irremediable sorrows of our lives, in the extremes of famine, war, and plague, which kindle charity in some and malice in others, calls for the Risorgimento of Christ in all. Would Manzoni have us sing “We Shall Overcome” or Kyrie Eleison? And if both, how do they go together?

There is a great deal in this book that calls us to individual self-examination. No book shows how much rumor sways us, how little we care to find out the truth — journalists take note, please — and how foggy in our individual lives we are, at bottom just as frightened and furious as we become in a murderous mob. And yet Manzoni understands everyone individually, feels for them, and rejoices in how virtuous we can be, and even to the most evil he extends an understanding that has love in it, as God’s must for us.

It is a wonder to me that while many of my fellow Catholic teachers love The Betrothed and agree with my contention that it is great, I know of no Catholic college that requires it as a core experience for all students. What a deprivation for the rest of their lives, especially if they travel, as they should, to the Italy Manzoni helped unify on an elevated basis. Though Italians study the book in school, they do come to love it. Thus, if you know Dante, they will consider you educated — ah, but if you know Manzoni, they will love you, and if you are on a train, they will open that fragrant basket, and bid you eat, and bid you drink.

Michael Platt

Professor of Philosophy, Statesmanship & Literature, George Wythe University

Salt Lake City, Utah

Ten years before he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood, The Betrothed was recommended to Bl. John Henry Newman by his sister, Jemima. Newman felt that the character of Fr. Cristoforo was the epitome of a godly priest. Newman had hoped to be able to meet Alessandro Manzoni but, unfortunately, such a meeting never took place.

Clara Sarrocco

Marketing Director, Ignatius Press

Glendale, New York

The Queen of Heaven on the Silver Screen

Thank you for your review of Mary of Nazareth (“Bringing the Gospels Back to the Big Screen,” New Oxford Notes, Jan.-Feb.). As you noted, unlike so many films on the life of Jesus and Mary, this one is “thoroughly Catholic” and “faithful to the biblical narrative,” and yet, like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, it also draws on the writings and visions of Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich. These scenes fill out the story of the life of Mary and add depth to it.

But I take strong issue with the statement that Mary “is bereft of human emotion — she has the same distant, bemused smile affixed to her face at all times.” One wonders if you were paying attention to the second half of the movie!

While actress Alissa Jung often portrays the joy and beatitude of being the mother of the Savior, she also portrays with moving conviction the emotions of the suffering of one whose soul is pierced with a sword (as noted in the scene at the Presentation), the one who “ponders these things in her heart,” and especially the emotions of the sorrowful Mary during the entire last section on the Passion and death of Christ. The film, drawing on the visions of Sr. Emmerich, even shows how Mary shared physically as well as spiritually in the sufferings of Christ, underscoring the profound love she had for her Son.

The review also is off base in saying that Mary does not appear to age during the film. She does indeed age, and it’s clearly noticeable in the second half of the story. But since she was without the effects of original sin, due to the special grace and privilege of her Immaculate Conception, the process of aging is not as evident in her as it is in the rest of the fallen human race.

The overwhelmingly positive response that Ignatius Press has received to Mary of Nazareth has been amazing, and we are thankful to God for the gift of this film. There have been over 500 theatrical screenings of the film across North America, and the e-mails and letters from screening hosts and attendees attest to the strong spiritual impact this film has had in helping so many deepen their understanding of who Mary is, her special role in the story of salvation, her profound union with Christ, and her importance to us as our spiritual mother.

Mary of Nazareth continues to be shown in theaters. For more information on where the screenings are happening, or for information on how a church, organization, or group can host its own theatrical screening, visit the film’s website, www.Maryfilm.com, or phone 1-866-431-1531, ext. 5.

Anthony J. Ryan

Suwannee Correctional Institution

San Francisco, California

Gospel Historicity

There is a great deal of confusion among Catholics about the Bible and how we should understand it. Sr. Eleanor Colgan (letter, March) appeals to “the assertions of the Douay-Rheims translation” against the “newer translations of the Bible.” But these “assertions” carry no authority. No reputable scholar today assigns composition of the Gospels to within a few years of Jesus’ Ascension, as Sr. Colgan tells us the “introductory notes” of the Douay-Rheims Bible do. As for her statement (based on Warren Carroll’s The Founding of Christendom) that St. Matthew wrote two versions of his Gospel, well, that is fantasy. And there is no exact known date for the beheading of St. Peter, either.

Joseph H. Gehringer (letter, March) appeals to the rulings of the Pontifical Biblical Commission of the early years of the 20th century in an attempt to uphold the belief, common among ultraconservatives, that Matthew was an eyewitness to Christ and the author of the Gospel associated with his name. What is not well known is that the rulings Mr. Gehringer cites as being “binding upon all Catholics” were set aside by the same commission in a 1955 “clarification,” in which scholars were granted “complete freedom” in their research and teaching, while still being mindful, of course, of the authority of the Magisterium. Moreover, it should be noted that, after Pope Paul VI’s reorganization of the Roman curia in the early 1970s, the statements of the Pontifical Biblical Commission no longer carry any magisterial authority.

What is perhaps even less well known is the commission’s 1964 “Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels,” which does still carry magisterial authority. Put simply, the instruction sets forth three stages of historical development of the Gospels: (1) the life and ministry of Jesus; (2) the generation or so after His Ascension, when apostolic men evangelized and spread the story of the words and deeds of the Lord; and (3) the writing down of what was preached. Significantly for our purposes, Fr. Raymond E. Brown, in Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible (Paulist Press, 1990), writes that “a key to understanding Stage Three is that most likely none of the evangelists was himself an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus…. This saves us from an enormous number of problems that bedeviled an earlier generation of commentators.” Oral tradition, in other words, explains the apparent discrepancies in the stories.

Mr. Gehringer is quite right, however, when he insists that the effort to distinguish between Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ is “doomed to failure.”

The Rev. Philip M. Stark

Cumberland, Rhode Island

Disquiet on the Western Front

Your New Oxford Note “The Prayers of Moloch’s Modern Priestesses” (March) suggests that more and more Americans are becoming pro-life and that new legislation across the nation reflects this change. That may be true, but in California one would not know it from the make-up of the state legislature or from the laws it has enacted recently. Late last year, new legislation was passed that basically eliminates all regulations regarding early abortions. It was as simple as deciding that aspiration (vacuum) abortions up to 12 weeks’ gestation are not surgical. AB 980 now relieves the sites where these abortions are performed from having to meet surgical-site regulations. AB 154 grants license to certified nurse midwives, nurse practitioners, and physicians’ assistants to perform these abortions directly. Both of these bills were promoted by Planned Parenthood, which will profit enormously from having abortions performed by non-physicians in a non-surgical setting, even on young, vulnerable girls who need no parental permission, or even parental notification, to get abortions.

AB 980 was authored by Dr. Richard Pan, who has a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood. AB 154 was authored by Moloch priestess Toni Atkins, a newly appointed speaker of the California Assembly and partnered lesbian who was an abortion-clinic manager before she worked her way up the legislative ladder. She is one of three female legislators who are members, along with five males, of the California Legislative Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus. They receive full support from Catholic, Jesuit-educated Gov. Jerry Brown.

Interestingly, the California Catholic Conference’s role in opposing these two bills was minimal. Don’t look for positive results in the battle against abortion in California any time soon.

Laurette Elsberry

Sacramento, California

An Uncertain Trumpet?

In taking the NOR to task for daring to criticize Pope Francis in two recent issues, Charles Lewis and Anne Barbeau Gardiner (letters, March) have made two critical mistakes. First, Mr. Lewis states that Pope Francis “was chosen by the cardinals acting with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” The Church has never taught that a papal election is guided by the Holy Spirit, or that the outcome of such an election is divinely inspired. If that were the case, then the Holy Spirit would have much to answer for. We have had popes whose avarice was legendary, popes whose depravity of life was an embarrassment even to renaissance Rome, popes who were moral cowards, popes whose theological knowledge was minimal at best, and one pope who was so totally unfit for the office that his tenure was measured in months.

Dr. Gardiner quotes Bl. John Henry Newman, who insisted on “the interior obedience and submission which the faithful owe to the pope even when he does not speak ex cathedra,” and she excoriates the NOR for daring to call into question the wisdom and veracity of remarks the current Pope has made (and continues to make) in interviews with the media. Cardinal Newman is correct in insisting on the obedience that Catholics owe a pope when he speaks as supreme teacher and lawgiver over the Church, but such is certainly not the case when a pope issues off-the-cuff remarks in media interviews or calls into question, however tangentially, the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church. One need only refer to Galatians 2:11-19, in which Paul recounts confronting Peter to his face over the issue of whether Gentiles first had to become Jews in order to be baptized (Peter had equivocated over the issue, much to the consternation of Paul, the “Apostle to the Gentiles”), to understand that no pope is above criticism, and that when he confuses the faithful with ambiguous remarks or suggests that items in the deposit of faith are open to a “new interpretation,” he can and should be called to account.

Pope Francis might not be guilty of qualifying any doctrine of the Church, but he is certainly guilty of sounding an uncertain trumpet, and in this era, of all eras in Church history, it is not equivocation but firmness in the truth and boldness in proclaiming the Gospel that is desperately needed. Pope Francis has gladdened the hearts of those who actively seek the destruction of Catholic influence in modern life and has sown confusion and despair among those who have kept up the fight against same-sex marriage, artificial contraception, and abortion. The NOR is to be praised, not condemned, for having the courage to confront this situation and to sound the alarm.

Hank Hassell

Flagstaff, Arizona

Charles Lewis (letter, March) is sick of all the press criticism of Pope Francis. He says that Francis was chosen by the College of Cardinals with divine guidance. The Holy Spirit, he says, was not “off doing other things that day.”

This raises the question: Were the papal conclaves that elected Popes John XII, Benedict IX, Boniface VIII, Urban VI, Alexander VI, Leo X, and Clement VII — the most notorious and pernicious men to ever occupy the Chair of St. Peter — also operating under the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Raymond J. Mattes Jr.

Norfolk, Virginia

Some readers of the NOR are unhappy with its editors’ opinions of the Francis papacy thus far. Chene Richard Heady (letter, March) writes, “A hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton complained about the common belief that words most truly express a person’s deepest feelings and convictions when they are uttered spur-of-the-moment and without forethought. The media coverage of Pope Francis operates on the same assumption…. [Francis’s] interviews have been analyzed ad nauseum, in the NOR as elsewhere, while his magisterial documents have been comparatively ignored.”

I doubt Chesterton would agree that his words apply to the Supreme Pontiff, whose every word and action speaks volumes to millions of people. He is the most powerful religious leader in the world. He is therefore responsible for how his words and actions are interpreted.

To much of the world, Pope Francis is the best thing to come along since gluten-free bread. He presents himself as a man who is non-judgmental, philosophically shallow, theologically terse, and morally ambiguous. And best of all, he loves poor people. Who wouldn’t adore such a man?

Furthermore, prominent media figures and many others have analyzed his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Rush Limbaugh, for example, excoriated the Pope for suggesting that a free-market economy inhibits the poor. Other political analysts and theologians have also found his positions untenable, with good cause. It is ridiculous for the Pope to suggest that those who “have” are living off the backs of those who “have not,” especially in the West. Here in the U.S. the opposite is true. Those who work and pay the bulk of the taxes are supporting millions of Americans who don’t work, for whatever reason. Some cannot help it, but most can. That is unjust. It is true that in many places the poor are exploited, but the best chance they have to escape that is through a capitalistic, free society.

Maryann Ragan

Coram, New York

A Magazine's Duty

I am very concerned about what I see in many places as “Francis bashing.” I think the NOR has a duty, as do Catholic theologians, to think with the Pope and help readers understand where he’s leading us. I keep hearing about the trouble with Francis’s public pronouncements, but all I’ve heard from him is mercy and love. He’s right to point out that there is a problem with so many divorced-and-remarried Catholics, but he has never said that he is going to change Church teaching. When Francis spoke about gays moving closer to God through Christianity, he said, “Who am I to judge?” Exactly. All sinners should be encouraged to move closer to God without our judgment. Not that we tolerate everything — that is what makes the Church beautiful and complex.

There is a community of sisters, the Sisters of Life, up the road from me. They help pregnant women who want to have their babies, and they help heal women from the trauma of abortion. When the sisters say they feel love and mercy toward women who have had abortions, they are not saying they endorse abortion. Imagine if Francis said something similar: All the armchair theologians would say he’s about to change Church teaching on abortion!

If, for some reason, someone elevates Francis at the expense of Benedict — the way many Catholics denigrated Benedict in comparison to John Paul II — it is not Francis’s fault. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows that he loves Benedict. As for the idea, repeated by Tom F. Moore (letter, March), that Francis is a media hound, we should be grateful for the attention. Who knows how many people will explore Catholicism and come into the true Church even because of a facile profile? People come to the Church out of a sense of longing, not because of dogma. They learn that later in a way that makes sense. Francis can bring them in the door.

One thing I never hear the naysayers mention is that last October Francis excommunicated an Australian priest who publicly favored female ordination. That hardly sounds like a man about to get rid of doctrine and tradition. In a few months the media will tire of Francis, if they haven’t already.

Charles Lewis

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Please cancel my subscription. Your criticism of Pope Francis is excessive and based on incomplete information, suggesting that you don’t do much research. I am an orthodox and conservative Catholic, and I believe that accusations against a pope that are based on unofficial and unapproved interviews are beneath the decency of a good Catholic periodical.

Thomas Zabiega, M.D.

Bolingbrook, Illinois

More than I Ever Imagined

I am one of the prisoners who receive a free subscription to the NOR, thanks to your Scholarship Fund. I want to let you know that the NOR has helped me, and I appreciate your help and kindness. Thanks to the NOR and those who write for it, I have learned more than I ever imagined I could. My knowledge of the Church has increased, my desire for communion with God is much stronger, and my English (as a second language) has gotten better as a result of your magazine. These are only some of the benefits the NOR has brought to me.

The NOR was my first motivation to strive for knowledge; you gave me the real desire to pursue wisdom. When I started to receive the magazine, I didn’t speak or read English well. I had to use a Spanish-English dictionary more than 10 times for each page! So I started to study English and basic education. At this moment I have reached the ninth-grade level. I am getting ready for my GED, and my aim is to go on to higher education and study theology, Catholic apologetics, the philosophy of religion, etc. This is a very elevated aspiration for someone like me who has never been in school before, but I believe I can make it. The Holy Spirit working through the NOR and its writers has encouraged me and given me power, understanding, and the desire to follow God’s path and the Church’s teachings.

For all of this, and to all of you, writers and contributors both, I thank you!

Arturo Simo

Live Oak, Florida

Ed. Note: Readers interested in contributing to the NOR’s Scholarship Fund can find more information in the notice in this issue.

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