Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: November 1993

November 1993

Freedom For Whom?

Regarding the letter (July-Aug. 1993) from the Rev. Anne Baker, an Episcopal priest who wants her subscription terminated because of the way you “bashed” Anne Pilsbury in an editorial reply to Pilsbury’s letter (May 1993): I am very pleased that the editors of the NOR realize that, in addition to allowing readers the opportunity to ex­press their opinions freely, a Catholic publication has a responsibility to standup for truth. Baker may be unfamiliar with truth, and the very fact that she is a “womanpriest” may explain why absolute freedom of opinion should be her prime concern, in that the very validity of her priesthood is a matter of opinion, even in her own denomination.

I am very familiar with the so-called intellectual freedom which is thought by some to flour­ish in the Episcopal Church. As a Roman Catholic, I took ecumeni­cal liberties by allowing myself to serve as a reader and intercessor at the Episcopal parish where I have sung in the choir since 1985. Last December I was moved to include a prayer for the unborn in the intercessions. The following day the interim rector informed me that he had removed my name from the schedule of intercessors, because a woman in the parish told him she was offended by my prayer.

It is now over eight months later, and the new rector has still not put my name back on the schedule; nor has he dared to say the word “abortion” in any of the conversations I have attempted to have with him on the subject. In­stead, he tried to transmit an im­pression of what might be his view on the issue by sending me a copy of a newsletter containing a prolife article. Having failed to win my confidence thus, he recently gave up and angrily suggested that my prayer for the unborn may be been an attempt “merely to make people angry.” This is a lot to put up with for good acoustics.

Richard Yonkoski

President, Franciscan University

Scranton, Pennsylvania


The debate over the Vanauken article “Choosing a Church” having degenerated into an etymology lesson on Matthew 16:18 (letters in the June, July-Aug., and Sept. 1993 issues), I feel compelled to add my two cents. The writers, including Vanauken, have lost sight of the forest for the trees. Whether the words in question are petros and petra or kepha and kephas is neither significant nor compelling. What has been forgot­ten is that this entire statement is a metaphor; Peter is not a “rock,” and nothing was “built” on him. Metaphorical speech is the lan­guage of the Bible and particularly the language of Christ. To discuss it in such literal terms is to mini­mize it.

We all know that Jesus meant that Peter would be the leader of the church. The debate should focus on whether the metaphors which follow imply that all of Peter’s successors would be the only and exclusive leaders of the church, and whether or not the church has some claim to infalli­bility based on some dominion over the Holy Spirit. Personally, no one has convinced me that Jesus meant either one of those two propositions in any of His statements, metaphorical or oth­erwise, but if others wish to believe that, I have no objection.

The question of whether or not the doctrine of the Catholic Church is sound and sensible in our current world is merely an­other sign of the cultural addic­tion we all struggle from, includ­ing the church, Catholic and Prot­estant. It would be an act of faith if all Christians could quit quib­bling over their dominion on earth and start praying and working for the Kingdom to come.

James E. Burnside

Austin, Texas

Ed. Note: No one who interprets Matthew 16:18 literally believes that Jesus literally turned Peter into a rock, into an inanimate object.

Dept. of Philosophy, Providence College

Personhood Always Incomplete

In his column commenting on Ronald Dworkin’s Life’s Dominion (Sept. 1993), John Warwick Montgomery discusses Dworkin’s refusal to attribute personhood to the unborn, but fails to rebut with the most obvious argument.

If the “fullness of personhood” can be defined as fully con­scious self-awareness, it consti­tutes a state that none of us expe­riences as an uninterrupted con­tinuum. Rather, we experience it as punctuated episodes when we are not obeying the imperatives of sleep, anesthesia, or a bump on the head. During these latter con­ditions, the most that can be said about us is that we are entities possessing the potential for the fullness of personhood. This po­tential is no different in kind from that possessed by unborn persons.

As such, killing an unborn child can no more be justified than fatally bludgeoning a “dead to the world” homeowner during a 2 AM burglary.

Thomas Kleist

Wauwatosa, Wisconsin

Truly Lost

As one engaged in a modest street ministry in New York City to encourage people to stop watching television, I am always on the lookout for others who share my radical view of the dan­ger of this addiction. I was hugely dismayed to come across B. An­thony Gannon’s off-hand refer­ence (letter, Sept. 1993) to the possibil­ity of the government’s trying to decrease television viewing. Why do so few realize that, unlike the case of the internal combustion engine, each and every one of us has the power to cease using tele­vision now without disrupting our practical lives in the slightest. If we need to look to our utterly be­nighted government to save us from this insidious evil, we are truly lost.

Linda A. Morrow

Bay Shore, New York

A Hay Wagon for Vanauken

While I sympathize with Sheldon Vanauken’s antipathy toward much of what is hailed as “progress” in modern culture, his contempt for the automobile (let­ters, Sept. 1993), pace George Kennan (article, June 1993), is a shade too sug­gestive of Al Gore’s Pleisto­cenianism. In 1986 both Vanau­ken and I attended a conference sponsored by the NOR. We shared transportation back to the airport — and, if memory serves, it wasn’t in a hay wagon pulled by a team of Belgians.

Stephen Settle

New Holstein, Wisconsin


If Catholicity is the formal principal of Christianity, then departures from Catholicity — I mean alteration-making revisionism in one direction, fundamentalism in another — are deviations from what Mark Lowery calls “the full truth” in his September 1993 article.

To reduce the Church’s catholon to one or another set of fundamentals is a contradictory feat. Which is to say: The phrase “Catholic fundamentalism” is a contradiction in terms. Lowery is right: We should drop the phrase from our vocabulary. Oddly though, Lowery still wants to highlight “the deficiencies of Catholic fundamentalism.” But is it a matter of accidental deficien­cies? I do not think so. Essentially, no cognizant Catholic can deem himself a fundamentalist.

At the same time, the cap­tious use of the term “fundamen­talist” (against Muslims and Catho­lics) is on the increase. The term is a device ticket-thinkers are using in an attempt to neutralize Catho­lic Christianity — and Islam — on the model of the historical neutral­ization of the old-style Protestant fundamentalism of the 1920s.

John F. Maguire

Richmond, California

Catholic Higher Education

I want to compliment you on your September 1993 issue, which was focused on higher education, and Catholic higher education in par­ticular. I believe you are making a valuable contribution, as always, but especially in regard to the na­ture of a Catholic university. This, of course, has been my preoccupation for the past 19 years. We have recently published a Mission Statement for Franciscan University, which I enclose. Additionally, we have challenged the faculty to de­velop a companion document on how the values of the Mission Statement are implemented in spe­cific courses and general degree requirements while also meeting the needs of our student body.

I recognize that our univer­sity is not a research university, but rather either a teaching uni­versity or a comprehensive col­lege. We have six healthy gradu­ate degree programs, plus a nurs­ing school, but we explicitly do not want research to eclipse the pri­ority of teaching at any point.

The Rev. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R.

Steubenville, Ohio

Ed. Note: Franciscan University is a solidly Catholic university with a commitment to what it calls “dynamic orthodoxy” and with a unique stress on evangelization. Those who would like to receive a copy of “The Mission of Franciscan University of Steubenville” should write Fr. Scanlan at: Office of the President, Franciscan University, Franciscan Way, Steubenville OH 43952.

The Fulminating Professor

Unlike the fulminating Pro­fessor Edwin Fussell (review, Sept. 1993), I teach at a Catholic col­lege. Student attendance at Mass is good, without the compulsion Fussell proposes (and the hypoc­risy and resentment such compul­sion invariably creates). And our faculty contains many excellent men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic, who do something toward realizing the ideals set forth by Tom Cornell in the same issue of the NOR. It is profoundly un-Christian to use religion as an in­strument for humiliating others — requiring faculty to read and expound Scripture “on their knees”! And it is in every sense imprudent to play into the worst stereotypes about Catholic intellectuals.

Prof. Philip E. Devine

Providence, Rhode Island

Catholic Universities: Worse Than Others

While reading Edwin Fussell’s book review on Catholic higher education (Sept. 1993), I recalled an article by Msgr. John Tracy Ellis published 40 years ago where the monsignor bemoaned the lack of scholarship from Catholic colleges and universities, and suggested that the emphasis on moral education might be directed to the in­tellectual as well. As the father of two recent graduates of a Catho­lic university, I can report that the emphasis on moral education is no longer there either.

If a Catholic university no longer stresses God, Church, and man, of what use is it?

H. Francis Husmann

Springfield, Missouri

Georgetown Did It

As a recent graduate of Georgetown (1987) and an even more recent convert to Rome (1992), I was tickled by Edwin Fussell’s remarks on Catholic higher education (Sept. 1993). Many of his ideas were impressive. How­ever, I must remind him that Catholic universities provide a needed bridge for non-Catholics to be exposed to the faith. George­town in particular provides a strong Catholic presence within an academic environment that chal­lenges everyone. Catholicism is presented carefully, nonthreateningly. Undergraduates are en­couraged to explore their personal faith, and my exploration led me to join my alma mater by the rock of Peter.

Kristen West McGuire

San Clemente, California

Will the 'Fighting Irish' Fight for Catholicism?

In your September 1993 issue you had two intriguing articles, one titled “Why Catholic Orthodoxy Is Not ‘Catholic Fundamentalism'” by Mark Lowery and one subtitled “The Challenge to Notre Dame” by Craig S. Lent. My grandson, who was born and raised in Michigan, can’t understand my attachment to Notre Dame. He doesn’t under­stand that I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, during the 1920s and 1930s. The only major university, Ohio State, was con­sidered communistic (Catholics who wished to attend were cau­tioned by their pastors to beware). Notre Dame was that little school in the Midwest that had a great football team referred to as the “Fighting Irish,” with a remark­able coach named Knute Rockne. As a boy, Notre Dame symbolized Catholicism for me. I attended Loyola University in Chicago and am still a Notre Dame fan.

If the good Fathers at Notre Dame (and some Jesuit schools as welbp”must confront the threat of secularization directly and honestly,” as Lent says, then they must exam­ine their theology departments. No one is more “revisionist,” to use Lowery’s term, than Richard McBrien at Notre Dame. To me, revisionism in Catholic academia equals secularization.

Here’s to more orthodoxy!

Paul C. Hussey

Rochester Hills, Michigan

Notre Dame: Beyond Hope

The idealism of Craig S. Lent’s “Can a University Be Both Great & Christian?: The Challenge to Notre Dame” (Sept. 1993) exerts enormous appeal, but his idealism is misplaced. According to Lent, an intellectual community of shared religious belief is what will keep Notre Dame Catholic as it strengthens its commitment to becoming an authentic research university. This view presupposes that there is, or can be, a Catholic in­tellectual community at Notre Dame. However, relativism and academic freedom, interrelated forces unex­plored by the author, render the for­mation and persistence of such a community problematic.

The article suggests that “ex­plicitly Catholic beliefs” will sus­tain an intellectual community at Notre Dame. Sad to say, the en­croachment upon doctrine by relativism and academic freedom has increasingly made Catholic belief so ecumenical and tolerant of diversity that conversation about it is all but incoherent.

Over the past 30 years, with the roots of the situation going back at least a century, the Catho­lic intelligentsia, at Notre Dame and elsewhere, has lost much of its common ground. Beliefs that Lent sees as “statable” to the sat­isfaction of all become, in the world view of theological relativ­ists, so conditioned by the culture of their genesis as to resemble in their impermanence those “mush, bland ‘values'” Lent rejects as a basis for community.

The Catholic conversation he would establish at Notre Dame risks being stillborn on account of the radical incommensurability between the mindset of those who are convinced that Catholic propositions are fabrications of time and place, perhaps a major­ity in the seminal departments of theology and philosophy at Notre Dame, and that of those for whom such doctrines are immune to the vicissitudes of history. To believe that Catholic intellectuals any longer share a body of understand­ing concerning the nature of God, Jesus Christ, sin, salvation, and the human person is to ignore the epistemic division between those for whom doctrine is fluid and those for whom it is solid.

Catholicism at Notre Dame offers a meager defense against the secularization of its intellectual life because that Catholicism has it­self already been secularized. As is often the case, the subversion has been from within rather than from without. More than the non-Catholics on its faculty and staff and in its student body, it is a hu­manized Catholicism, short on the supernatural and long subject to the predations of the worldly and the temporal, that imparts an increasingly secular cast to the campus in South Bend.

In tandem with relativism, a nearly unrestricted academic free­dom threatens whatever Catholic orthodoxy may remain at the place. The implications of a sub­scription to academic freedom, de rigueur for “institutional respect­ability,” become apparent with the asking of a few questions.

What does the administra­tion of the University do when one of the faculty members in its Department of Theology concludes, after inquiry and a peer review that turns up no insurmountable objections, that Christ was not di­vine, but only magnificently hu­man, a neo-Arian thesis? Doesn’t it have to permit the publication of that result — with its author clearly identified as a member of the Notre Dame faculty — and classroom transmission of the idea to the students at the Univer­sity? Such is the Catch 22 of a uni­versity that proclaims itself Catho­lic while endorsing academic free­dom. That precept, so wonderful in the abstract, is forever poised to erode Catholic intellectual com­munity, often serving to insulate from administrative objection the most disastrous examples of doc­trinal relativism.

A truly Catholic institution of higher education, like other Church organizations, must have as its central goal the salvation of immortal souls. A Catholic univer­sity does that, in the brilliant conceptualization of John Henry Cardinal Newman, by explicating, or making ever more explicit, those unchanging, but often ex­tremely implicit, theological truths that have been available to the Church since the closure of public revelation. And it also does so, in disciplines other than the­ology, by inquiring after those “truths” which, as Karl Popper so convincingly argued, remain pro­visional because they can be refuted, but not confirmed.

A Catholic university con­tributes to the salvation of souls by pursuing that research which results in the progressive illumi­nation of the truths bequeathed to us by divine revelation, eschewing in the process substantive inno­vation or novelty that could un­dermine dogma. A Catholic uni­versity that does not oppose the relativization of the core doctrines of the faith cannot hope to ad­vance, however impressive its nontheological research may ap­pear to be, salvation.

As an alumnus, I would be delighted with a Notre Dame resis­tant to secularization. But the University is not up to it. The horse seems to be out the barn door. If anything, its Catholicism seems less firm than the Protestantism of turn-of-the-century Princeton, the contemporary version of which longtime Notre Dame president, Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh, always hoped his University would be­come a Catholic variant of.

Dan Bergen

Hamilton, New York

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