Merely C.S. Lewis?
I happened to pick up a copy of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity to read as soon as I had consumed the July-August NOR, for I, a Lutheran, was quite startled by Thomas Storck’s article on Lewis in that issue, “Is There Such a Thing as ‘Mere Christianity’?” My immediate thought was, how strange to castigate Lewis for writing on the topic when he was not a Catholic. It would be like cursing my food processor for not laundering my delicate lingerie properly.
It appears that Storck’s fulminations are more than a bit off-track when one reads Lewis’s Preface. The chapters are a rearrangement of BBC radio addresses he made, keeping their conversational tone. His target audience is the general (unbelieving) public. They are intended to draw readers (and listeners) to Christianity, and the purpose is explained in the deeply moving final paragraphs of the Preface: “I hope that no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions — as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in…. When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”
Carol R. White
New York C.S. Lewis Society
The main thrust of Storck’s article is that the notion of “mere Christianity” is incompatible with the Catholic faith and, therefore, no orthodox Catholic should entertain it. If we take into consideration the purpose and audience of Mere Christianity — “the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours,” as Lewis says — Storck’s thesis seems somewhat of a non sequitur: C.S. Lewis is not writing to Catholics, nor Christians for that matter, but to unbelievers. The question of orthodox Catholics entertaining, or not entertaining, the notion of “mere Christianity” is merely tangential. Catholics already have the fullness of the Faith once and for all delivered unto the saints. Lewis never intended to write an exhaustive treatise of dogmatic theology: He simply wanted to put together a pocket-sized vade mecum for atheists and unbelievers on the go. The real question, therefore, is, “Did the book reach its intended audience and did it accomplish its goal of dispelling unbelief in Lewis’s neighbors?” The undeniable evidence is that it did. In view of the expressed raison d’être of Mere Christianity, it would have been foolhardy of Lewis to apply the methodology of pontification to achieve his purpose.
After quoting Lewis’s understanding of “mere Christianity” as “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times,” Storck asks, “How does he know what this belief is?” Since Lewis is paraphrasing the Vincentian Canon (Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est), which limits catholicity to “what is believed everywhere, always, and by all,” the right question should have been, “How did St. Vincent of Lérins know what was believed everywhere, and always, and by all?” St. Vincent, who died before A.D. 450, was most certainly familiar with the doctrines and the influence of Arius and of Nestorius; that, however, did not stop him from speaking about the beliefs common to all Christians always and everywhere. Why, then, blame a good Anglican boy for the sin of an old Catholic saint?
Storck makes the following statement, “There is certainly no ‘mere Christian’ doctrine of Baptism.” True, but baptism is more than a doctrine: it is foremost a sacrament. With a few exceptions, such as Mormon baptism, the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of baptisms administered in non-Catholic settings (requiring a conditional baptism only in some rare occasions). Though there is no “mere Christian” doctrine of baptism, there is a “mere Christian” sacrament of baptism, pace the select minority of sects that may choose to reject it or minimize it.
Next, Storck brings into play doctrinal questions about Holy Communion, Confirmation, Ordination, and fiduciary faith (with a quote from the Baltimore Catechism), plus the conflicting views on redemption that rend Christians apart (with a quote from the Anglican Articles of Religion). As a corollary, Lewis is accused of willfully ignoring the doctrinal question about the nature of the Church. He has not dealt with the question “What is the Church?” and Storck points out that “it is perhaps here where Lewis’s ‘mere Christianity’ most clearly shows its defects.” All I know is that if I were an unbeliever looking for some spiritual answers, a book based on quarrelsome doctrinal matters aimed at proving the exclusive superiority of one group over all others would have set me, permanently, in my unbelieving ways.
The fact that Mere Christianity, a book riddled with such clear defects, has attained universal success is nothing short of miraculous. Words of praise have been showered upon it from all quarters, including reputable Catholic clergy, scholars, and publishers. Fr. Kenneth Myers calls the book “a masterpiece of theology,” and says, “Lewis endeavored in his work to reflect upon those things that bind all Christians together in faith: the Holy Trinity, truth and morality and salvation in Christ…. The careful logic and philosophy of Mere Christianity is echoed in the documents of the Second Vatican Council on the dignity of the human person and the importance of ecumenism….” Sophia Institute Press advertises Mere Christianity as “a book that has won innumerable converts…a fresh restatement of the central truths of orthodox belief.” Peter Kreeft, in the Introduction to his book Fundamentals of the Faith, states, “These essays were written for Catholics by a Catholic. But I believe that nearly everything I say here will be found by the orthodox Biblical Protestant reader to be his faith as well: that solid and substantial core that C.S. Lewis called ‘mere Christianity.'”
The list of those who admire the work of C.S. Lewis is much too long to enumerate. Were all these intelligent and godly Catholics deceived by a spellbinding and pontificating false prophet? Have they, by endorsing an “Anglican apologist,” as Storck calls Lewis, become tainted and, therefore, are no longer fully Christians — i.e., Catholics?
Fr. Federico Serra-Lima, SSC
Our Savior Lutheran Church
Old Chatham, New York
I have often enjoyed the pieces by Thomas Storck in the NOR, but shortly after my July-August issue arrived, for the first time, I felt it imperative to contest his assertions. I refer to his article “Is There Such a Thing as ‘Mere Christianity’?”
I first encountered the works of C.S. Lewis as a high school student in a Catholic minor seminary in 1981. I was at a point in my life when the faith of my childhood needed some adult answers, or I might not have retained it. Lewis’s books provided the defense of Christian faith that I needed, to the extent that since then I have considered him my favorite author, my spiritual mentor. I know that other members of the NOR family (e.g., Sheldon Vanauken and Peter Kreeft) have felt similar admiration for Lewis, so I have reason to believe I am not alone in esteeming him so highly.
My main objections to Storck’s assertions can be summarized as follows: (1) He misses the main point of Mere Christianity; (2) he fails to recognize the extent to which Lewis upheld and defended Catholic teaching in his other writings (including those denied by many “cradle Catholics” today, such as the immorality of contraception, and the all-male priesthood); and (3) while Storck’s entrance into the “Promised Land” of the Catholic Church is certainly to be commended, he fails to recognize the immense value of the “Moses” who led (and still leads) many people there, even if he (Lewis) was never given the grace to enter it himself.
Storck probably does not want to admit it, but the only logical conclusion of the views he expresses is that we cannot apply the term “Christian” to anyone who is outside the Catholic Church. When Lewis sets out to define what “mere Christianity” is, he is defining a core set of beliefs that unite all persons who serve Christ, regardless of their denomination. Perhaps Storck should be reminded of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s statement that the Catholic Church has many whom God does not have, and God has many that the Catholic Church does not have. As Catholic teaching makes clear, the spirit of Christ can be found in other Christian churches (even if it is not found in its fullness). An important point made by Lewis — which Storck seems to have missed — is this: “It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each, there is a something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief…speaks with the same voice” (from the Preface to Mere Christianity).
Storck sets up something of a straw man in claiming that Lewis would hold that all people who would call themselves Christians should be called Christians. Storck mentions the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. However, he fails to recognize that by the very criteria outlined in Lewis’s book, these two groups cannot rightfully be defined as Christian since they do not accept the divinity of Christ and the triune Godhead (which Lewis so eloquently and effectively defended in Mere Christianity). There are several places in his article where Storck does Lewis this injustice, perhaps one of the clearest being his attack on Lewis’s statement that it is wrong to think that Christianity requires teetotalism: “Here is a moral teaching that is certainly not common to all who profess themselves Christian” (italics mine). Lewis never said it was common to all; he said it was common to most Christians at most times, and he was correct.
Storck can find some group of self-proclaimed “Christians” somewhere who would differ with any given statement made by Lewis, but he is missing Lewis’s point: that he is writing on behalf of most Christians, not all Christians. Admittedly, there is a false ecumenism that tries to gloss over differences, which Cardinal Ratzinger has sharply criticized. So, what Storck is reacting against is certainly a real problem today, but he is wrong in thinking that Lewis is guilty of it. Lewis’s book was an effort — and a very admirable one at that — to define what still unites Christian denominations, not unlike the efforts of Pope John Paul II (and, for that matter, the documents of Vatican II). Lewis’s book represents a clear and honest ecumenism; and while there are those who believe that no good ecumenism is possible, the Catholic Church teaches otherwise.
Storck is also incorrect in stating that Lewis “refuses to take a stand…on contraception.” He did not do so in Mere Christianity because it did not fit into the scope of that particular book; however, he did clearly take a stand against contraception in The Abolition of Man. He also wrote a powerful explication of the wrongness of trying to ordain women (“Priestesses in the Church?” in God in the Dock), defended the Bodily Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (in “The Weight of Glory” and in several other books and articles). All three of these positions are disbelieved by many (if you believe the polls, most) Catholics in the U.S. today, but they were ably defended by Lewis.
Another important point ignored by Storck is that there is a wide gulf between the Anglican/Episcopal Communion of today and that of Lewis’s day. Lewis died the day JFK was shot, and did not live to see the swing to the far Left which Anglicanism began to make in the 1970s, beginning with the ordination of women, and culminating in the blessing of homosexual unions and other such nonsense. Lewis was not successful in attempting to influence his own Church to take a path closer to the apostolic faith, which, as Storck rightly points out, is in our day increasingly underwritten by Rome alone. However, he did provide us with a corpus of works that defend the most contested Catholic doctrines far more effectively than many a priest or bishop, who often try to “soft pedal” or ignore unpopular doctrines. Lewis is probably the most powerful 20th-century ally the Catholic Church has at this time, if we will only claim him.
The subtitle of Storck’s article asks, “By What Authority Does C.S. Lewis Pontificate?” The answer is: By God’s authority. Is it so hard to believe that God might use someone to edify His Church — and draw countless people toward it — who never fully entered it during his own lifetime? Is it so unlikely that in the many battles the Church faces today, God may have given her a powerful ally whose writings might still reach many who would otherwise be unwilling to learn from a Roman Catholic author? (And yes, I prefer the term “Roman Catholic” because all the “Americanized” Catholics who deny the importance of Rome are a far greater threat today than Protestants who use the term pejoratively and would condemn us anyway.)
Larry A. Carstens
As a cradle Catholic, I must say that C.S. Lewis’s contribution to Christian apologetics has been enormous. Storck’s analysis forces Lewis into the very constraints he deliberately wanted to avoid. I have always felt that Lewis’s explanation of “mere” Christianity was somewhat akin to the experience of the Apostles after the Holy Ghost descended upon them in the Upper Room. They went on to preach using their native language but their listeners understood them each in his own tongue. No need to fret over nuances.
Clara Sarrocco, Secretary
Glendale, New York
Thomas Storck illustrates in brilliant fashion the danger and falsity of C.S. Lewis’s concept known as “mere Christianity.” As a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, I commend Storck’s article to all those who champion the fullness and completeness of the catholic faith.
At the heart of his article is a central question concerning Christianity: “What is the Church?” My own tradition speaks in terms that would seem to appease both Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession notes, “Likewise, they teach that one Holy Church will remain forever. The Church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the Sacraments are administered rightly…” (Article VII — Latin Text). But this tradition is not meant as a type of Via Media, where Christians can find easy relief and a modest means to reconcile their differences. Instead this tradition only begins to highlight the necessity of proclaiming a faith that is purely and rightly taught, a faith found in its totality only in the catholic Church. Let me explain.
We know and trust with great confidence that the Church will remain forever. It already has, despite those heresies and adversaries within its “own ranks” (those “mere Christians” Lewis alludes to and Storck describes) that have tried so passionately to destroy it, or at the very least undermine its position within Christendom. We also know that it was Christ who founded this Church. And we have witnessed for well over 2,000 years this Church and this faith handed down and taught in an orderly and successive fashion, preserving the beauty and perfection of its origin.
So, what am I to say to those who eagerly preach that all that needs to be “done” to become a Christian is to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior? This, they say, includes them in that “assembly of saints,” and as such makes them members of the Church. But are those who deny Christ’s true and bodily presence in His Holy and Sacred Eucharist really accepting of Him and His Church? Or what of those Christians who decry and defame any veneration of the Blessed Mother of our Lord, that exemplar of the faith to whom all of us have recourse? What about those who ridicule God’s grace and forgiveness in His Sacraments, the mysteries He entrusted to the bishops and priests of His Church? Are they teaching the Gospel purely? Certainly they are not administering His sacraments rightly! These to whom I refer might be Christians, but they are only “mere” ones at best. This is not what I seek to be, nor what any follower of Christ should want. Rather, we should expect nothing less than to be members of Christ’s one Holy Church, where we can be nourished by His Gospel and feast on His Sacraments. Then and only then can we truly be included in the “assembly of saints,” in that Church which was, which is, and which will be forever.
So to any self-professed Christian who is not in fellowship with the Roman See, I say there is only one question to ask, namely, “What is the Church?” Because only in answering this question can we who profess a faith in Christ fully understand and completely appreciate that which has so graciously been given to us. To define the Church is to define our faith. For the Church is our faith — it personifies it, teaches it, and guards it. It does these things because Christ first did them for us. Without Christ’s true Church, without the right grasp of what it encompasses, we will forever remain “mere Christians.” But within this Body — His catholic Church, with His right Sacraments, and with His pure Gospel ? we believers will not just be “mere Christians,” but we will be members of that faith where “there is the fullness of Christian truth.” To this end, we who are separated from Rome are commended and compelled. So I am thankful for Storck’s wisdom, reminding even us Lutherans that we must always, coupled with God’s grace and our might, passionately strive to be “united visibly to Jesus Christ in His Mystical Body.”
Graham Bernhardt Glover, Vicar
Those Crybaby Letters
The tone of crybaby letters to the NOR matches what I see all around me. When it comes to Church and culture-war issues, almost all Catholics have this compelling desire to just — as Rodney King put it — “get along,” and at any cost. Specifically, Gregory Wolfe writes in his letter (“Balthasar’s Cultivated Fans,” Sept.) that “there are times when one doesn’t have to fight for truth and goodness, when other human activities are called for.” Really? Theoretically, he might be right — but certainly not when the enemy is at the gate, as he is today.
A far more accurate statement is that one fights for what he believes in. As for those who only pay lip service to truth or who adhere to principle only when it’s convenient, they will always have excuses as to why “fighting,” especially if it involves them, is uncalled for or counter-productive. I have seen countless examples where people see something they know is clearly wrong, but refuse to speak out about it.
These people act as if they believe being nonjudgmental is the highest virtue attainable by man. Such is the corrosive effect of today’s perverted culture. Take universal salvation. It’s obvious why it appeals to so many in the clergy. It lets them off the hook for the most difficult part of their mission — confronting sinners with their sins. Since we’re all supposedly saved, these weaklings can keep the prestige of a pastoral position and still go along with anything and everything with nobody thinking ill of them. The root of much of this universal salvation nonsense is self-interest at a petty level.
Such people are cowards — whether they are in the pews, in the pulpit as preachers, tenured theology professors, editors of Christian magazines, or in the office of bishop. This is not being unkind or uncharitable. It is judging the tree by its fruit.
Chester Township, New Jersey
A False God
As for this Balthasar business that has so exercised certain letter-writers in the September issue:
Fr. Joseph Fessio’s criticism of the NOR seems right radical. To find an excuse for his knee-jerk reaction, one must understand that Father did his doctoral thesis on Balthasar. Ultimately, Fessio concludes that the NOR has done nothing wrong, has in fact done something quite right in questioning Fr. Neuhaus, Stratford Caldecott, and Gregory Wolfe and noting how they claim inspiration from Balthasar. But Fessio sure had trouble getting to that conclusion.
As for the letter from Gregory Wolfe: He simply needs help. Nobody is knocking beauty. As one who has a couple of postgraduate degrees in the arts, I take the subject of beauty with some seriousness. Look, Mr. Wolfe: Beauty is not greater than truth. Desist from this notion, for the sake of your soul. Our Lord said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He never said “I am beauty.” You have a false god. It’s that simple. Getting this backward works all kinds of intellectual havoc. As for the “culture wars,” please God, we are all professional soldiers ? except perhaps for those who sit on the sidelines and whine about all the unattractive dust and noise.
The Price of Taking a Stand
The Deputy Editor’s Introduction to Preston Jones’s article, “Why Christian Parents Should Abandon Public Schools” (Jul.-Aug.), brought back memories of my 1966 college freshman English class. We read John Updike’s Rabbit Run and listened to several days of lectures by the instructor exonerating Rabbit, and making him out to be a victim. From a Catholic perspective, I saw it differently.
The day of the test came, and I had no doubt what was expected: a parroting of the instructor’s interpretation. I chose, instead, to give my own view, expecting him to react strongly, which he did. My paper was returned with a bright red “F” and a half-page of comments in red ink, none of them complimentary.
I took the paper to the Chairman of Basic Studies in the English Department (his boss), who read the paper, and concluded I had made my case and did not deserve the grade and comments I had gotten. He telephoned my mother to apologize for the instructor’s behavior (yes, parents’ opinions still mattered back in 1966) and assured me he would have a talk with the instructor; however, he was not successful in getting the grade changed.
I kept the paper — the only college paper I kept — and was always proud of it because it represented the first time I had deliberately taken an unpopular stand that defended the values I believe in. I still do that from time to time, but am never under any illusion that there won’t be consequences.
Munroe Falls, Ohio
I’m a seminarian and I’m hereby subscribing to the NOR. But please be careful to send the NOR to the address on the subscription form, not to the return address on the envelope. The return address is my seminary, and it would be better that no one at the seminary knows I am receiving a magazine known for its staunch Catholic orthodoxy.
Los Angeles, California
Stop the Madness
I’ve been debating whether to renew my subscription or throw the renewal notice and your magazine in the garbage. Not only did you attack Oscar Romero, Lynne Cheney, C.S. Lewis, Neuhaus, Caldecott, Balthasar, Kreeft, Catholics United for the Faith, and the National Catholic Register, but you also erased Henri Nouwen’s name as a Contributing Editor. As a graduate student on a Jesuit plantation, I have to endure the less-than-orthodox masters’ ridicule of Ratzinger and the Magisterium. I rely on the people you assaulted (except for Cheney) to counter the hostility and defend traditional Christianity.
When are you going to turn on Avery Dulles, Ralph McInerny, James Hitchcock, the Missionaries of Charity, Crisis, Envoy, and Touchstone? I see that Dulles is no longer a Contributing Editor. Your harassing his friends probably had something to do with that. Doesn’t Vree (the Editor of the NOR) remember a column he wrote in the Register explaining his Christopher Derrick-like approach against bashing bad bishops and instead focusing on the good ones? Granted that an illness needs to be diagnosed before it’s cured. But misdiagnosing non-existent disease in healthy people is ridiculous. Yes, idiot bishops need to be named, but there is no need to go after friends and allies such as Neuhaus. Vree claimed Neuhaus promotes universalism. Neuhaus says no. End of argument. You should accept his interpretation of his own work and stop this stupid quarrel.
Moreover, Janet Holl Madigan’s sneaky insult (NOR, Jul.-Aug.) is right: Vree is acting like a Pharisee. However, she is wrong to think that Vree’s attack is not personal. There might be a number of personal motivations for the verbal violence against Neuhaus. (1) Vree is upset that he was wrong when he said that Neuhaus would probably not convert to Catholicism back when Vree was reviewing the Lutheran Neuhaus’s Catholic Moment (NOR, Sept. 1988). (2) The troglodytes at Chronicles and the Rockford Institute, who are still p—– off at Neuhaus, have brainwashed Vree. This would also explain the uncalled-for criticism of Lynne Cheney and why the NOR would publish that guest column by some Chronicles crony calling certain of our recent politico-military leaders cowardly (NOR, Dec. 2000). (3) Vree is mad at Neuhaus for making fun of the satirical and sometimes mean-spirited NOR ads that have been banned by some other publications. (4) Periodical envy. Vree’s NOR is more than twice as old as First Things, but only has half as many readers. All the big names write for Neuhaus. All the neo-conservative money pours into First Things. Interestingly, a decade ago the NOR warned of the “right-wing foundation money” in an otherwise positive evaluation of First Things while the NOR jumped on the Tikkun bandwagon. Just because Michael Lerner was a friend of Vree’s doesn’t mean Lerner’s magazine was going to be any good. (5) The First Things Web site looks better than the NOR’s. (6) Jean Bethke Elshtain left the NOR masthead but still appears on the First Things masthead. (7) Any combination of reasons 1-6.
I still think Vree is wrong, and I agree with Kreeft’s humorous letter (NOR, Jul.-Aug.). Kreeft’s line about the NOR catching “the Wanderer disease of crotchety old nastiness” is valid. But, to be fair to the nasty folks at The Wanderer, at least they don’t attack other orthodox Catholics on a regular basis.
Nonetheless, Vree did show some testicular fortitude in publishing Kreeft’s letter and Madigan’s brilliant defense of Neuhaus. So I guess I’ll continue my subscription, since Vree presented the other side. Also, the NOR is the least expensive periodical I subscribe to, if you don’t count the Houston Catholic Worker. I’ll only cancel my subscription if Hanink, Kreeft, Vanauken, and/or Wiley disappear from the masthead.
Lastly (with apologies to Pope Paul VI), before the smoke of Satan enters through the cracks of Catholic publishing, someone needs to patch up this fracture between orthodox Christian publications, especially if you share the same readers. According to Vree in a letter in First Things: “Our Reader Survey showed that, among religious periodicals, First Things is the favorite of our readers.” So why assail the Editor-in-Chief of your readers’ favorite journal? Stop the madness. Love one another.
Brewster, New York
DALE VREE REPLIES:
I understand why you would think it madness to criticize the esteemed and influential Editor-in-Chief of our own readers’ favorite journal. But please consider the possibility that commitment to principle overrode calculations about what would be in the NOR’s self-interest. As for “periodical envy”: Right after the NOR was born, we were approached (and I mean unilaterally approached) by neo-conservative “foundation money.” Heady! An offer was made, but with ideological strings attached. Very tempting. Others might have had no qualms about such strings, or might not even have perceived them as strings. We had qualms. And so we walked away from the deal — and the loot — and have had no regrets. No doubt some would consider this crazy too.
I admit to being wrong about Tikkun and Lerner.
As for Jean Bethke Elshtain, I never checked to see if she remains on the First Things masthead. As for the First Things Web site, I’ve never even seen it.
As for Avery Dulles, he asked that his name be taken off our masthead when he became a cardinal, because he became a cardinal, adding that, “I hope that our association may continue in a less formal way.” Cardinal Dulles is a man of extraordinary integrity, and if you knew him you’d never dream of attributing to him the motive that you did.
Since Neuhaus claims he isn’t promoting universalism, you say we should just accept what he says. Now, if one of your “less-than-orthodox” professors told you that he’s actually totally orthodox, would you just take his word for it? Would you?
I was not “upset” at Neuhaus’s conversion to Catholicism. To the contrary! Right after his conversion I wrote him saying that I was “overjoyed,” adding that his conversion had “been in my prayers for a long while.” One doesn’t pray for things that will make one upset.
I am not angry with Neuhaus for “making fun” of our ads. After all, that generates more interest in our ads and our magazine — just as my critique of his book generated more sales for the book. Speaking of which, I’d like to know why it’s wrong for me to critique his book while it was just fine for him to earlier have “made fun” of NOR ads, to have “gone after a friend and ally”?
And then there’s your charge that I may have been “brainwashed.” Geez Louise!
It might have been helpful if you had dealt with some of the issues at hand rather than engaging in ad hominem speculation — which, being a grad student, you should know never defeats an argument.
Still, I do empathize with your situation as a grad student at what I take to be Loyola Marymount University in L.A. I well understand what it’s like to be in a tiny and scorned minority — I got my Ph.D. from Berkeley, for Pete’s sake! Yes, we grad students need our heroes. We cling to them for dear life, lest we shiver in intellectual nakedness before our adversaries. It’s normal. But at some point we need to think for ourselves. It was only later that I realized that many of the thinkers I esteemed, those I took to be wearing white hats, were upon closer inspection actually wearing grey hats. As we grow older, we discover that there are very few authentic heroes. To notice that — even to point it out, if writing be one’s vocation — does not indicate a failure to love. Indeed, it could be a sin against charity not to point it out, lest the brethren be misled.
Finally, I salute you for your moxie in sticking with the NOR.
The Return of Quietism
In her “Defense of Richard John Neuhaus” against NOR Editor Dale Vree (Jul.-Aug.), Janet Holl Madigan asserts: “Christianity, then, really is an end in itself; a way of life chosen for its own sake, apart from any notion of reward and punishment. Vree appears to find this problematic….” Her point is that man can and should love God without any self-centered fear of damnation.
Well might Vree find this proposition “problematic”! Indeed, it was roundly condemned by Pope Innocent XII in 1699. In the entry on “Quietism” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), vol. 12, p. 610a, the following is the first of some two dozen propositions in Fénelon’s work condemned by the Pope: that “there is an habitual state of the love of God which is wholly pure and disinterested, without fear of punishment or desire of reward.” The word disinterested here means that one pretends to love God for His own sake without any selfish motive, such as fear of Hell. What presumption! What self-deluded elitism! The proof that fallen man is not capable of such “pure and disinterested” love of God is that virtually every sermon our Lord gives in Scripture includes a warning about the everlasting fire. Our Redeemer warns insistently that in order to be saved we have to fear damnation so as to cling to Him rather than to the transient pleasures of the world.
Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Janet Holl Madigan’s defense of Richard John Neuhaus (Jul.-Aug.) deserves rebuttal beyond Dale Vree’s effective reply (Jul.-Aug.). In a truly unique interpretation of Matthew 13:30, Madigan says, “As Jesus teaches in the parable of the wheat and the weeds, we should not become overly preoccupied with the question [of who is saved].” She fails to note that in this very verse Jesus emphatically states, “Gather the weeds…and bind them in bundles to be burned.” Not only does this reinforce John the Baptist’s warning that Hell will be “unquenchable fire,” but it suggests that those consigned to Hell will be many since it is hard to imagine a “bundle” of one or a few weeds, and, moreover, our Lord is speaking of more than one bundle.
Madigan says that Neuhaus’s book Death on a Friday Afternoon “is an ode to the cross, and therefore an ode to love, an ode to life, an ode to hope.” This contradicts St. Paul, for the cross is more than that: “The message of the cross is complete absurdity to those who are headed for ruin, but to us who are experiencing salvation it is the peace of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
Madigan seems to rail against universal salvation when she says, “In these days of sappy, sentimental spirituality, this phrase [‘God is love’] has been so drained of its significance that it may evoke images of God as harmless and benevolent, rescuing us from trouble but overlooking our sins.” But she herself evokes such images when she says, “The more we love, the more love overflows, until the world is flooded with mercy, and not a single soul is left dry.”
Madigan’s theology — delivered in a maze of muddled, mismatched metaphors — is wishy-washy, and resembles Neuhaus’s theology, as when he said, “There on the cross the life of every mother’s child who ever lived or ever will live was handed over to the Father.”
John E. Covell
Pleasant Valley, New York
This Movie Is Not Suitable For Catholic Adults
I have a problem with the U.S. Catholic Conference Office for Film and Broadcasting (OFB). I read a movie review of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in a diocesan paper. The review said that the movie “contains nudity, a romanticized depiction of fornication, bloody shootings, some foul language, and gratuitous pot-shots at religion.” But the OFB gave the movie an “A-4” rating, meaning suitable for “adults, with reservations,” not the “O” rating, meaning “morally offensive.” But how in the world can any normal man, young or old, look at a beautiful actress in the nude and watch romanticized portrayals of fornication and not be assaulted by impure thoughts? This movie would be an occasion of mortal sin for most men I know. If the movie had come out in the 1950s, it would have been condemned by every bishop in the country.
As for the Fr. Neuhaus controversy in your pages: I have been enriched by Neuhaus’s “takes” on various things. He is a very skilled writer. He is also quite adept at conciliatory efforts. But when he is wrong and ? as seen in his response to you in First Things (Aug./Sept.) ? he refuses to admit it, such efforts represent little more than damage control.
As for Peter Kreeft: My esteem for the NOR was also enhanced when I saw you go eyeball-to-eyeball with him (letters section, Jul.-Aug.). I have probably read every article he’s written in the past five years. I recall two articles in particular where I said “Kreeft has really hit a home run here.” However, last year I read an article of his where all the words were right, but I sensed that he was being a bit haughty, a bit “all-knowing.” I wrote a charitable letter to the editor about it, but of course it was not published. Your response to Kreeft was right-on. We need to challenge bad information wherever we find it, even if it has been transmitted by one of our icons and living legends.
East Orleans, Massachusetts
Will America Correctly Read the Signs of the Times?
Alas, an editorial in my local daily newspaper criticized the Rev. Jerry Falwell for his remarks on the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But there is truth in what Falwell said: The scourges of abortion and homosexuality in this country have deeply offended God. The editorialist, however, pleaded that members of the clergy such as Falwell (and Pat Robertson, who concurred with his Protestant brother) “should use their considerable authority to promote tolerance not hate.” In other words, our society should tolerate the murder of the unborn and sodomy. I’m afraid it’s this very tolerance of sin that is offending God.
I’m not sure why “hate” is said to be involved in the bold prophetic remarks of Falwell and Robertson. Of course, reminding a culture that it is condoning and facilitating evildoing is always a sore subject ? maybe that’s why “hate” was invoked. It ruins the good feelings people want to have about themselves.
Besides unifying this nation in a patriotic call to arms, that savage, murderous attack on civilians on American soil should provoke a national examination of conscience. The barbarous act of the U.S. Supreme Court in legitimizing abortion in its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling must be condemned by all.
The same goes for our culture’s celebration of sodomy. The defilement of the temple of the Holy Spirit by such acts (see 1 Cor. 6:19) insults our Creator. The mainstream media are guilty of infecting the minds of the nation’s children with the false message that it’s okay to be “gay” or bisexual or whatever f-e-e-l-s good.
The Scriptures tell me God will not be especially tolerant on Judgment Day. Merciful? Sure. But tolerant of those who led His children astray? Methinks not.
Now is the season for repentance.
Ocean City, New Jersey
Hey! Wait a Minute…
I was reading “Pacifying Men & Boys” (New Oxford Notes, Sept.) and saying to myself, “Yeah! Right on! Enough of the sex-role blending!” Then, in the midst of all the unsavory examples you gave, I came upon “men becoming nurses.” Hey! Wait a minute, I’m a nurse.
I wasn’t always. Once I was an officer on an SAC missile crew. Let me tell you something: Nursing is not some cutesy ha-ha joke. I spend my time among people dying of cancer, AIDS, and end-stage lung disease, people who want their morphine now and don’t care who gives it to them. I work on closed head-injury units — mainly young people, mainly motor vehicle accidents — where hope is expressed by crosses, crucifixes, and holy pictures.
Time was, it was women who had a long list of things they wouldn’t do — not “ladylike.” Now it’s the men who have the long list. Nuts. To be a man is to stand up on your two feet and do what needs to be done. You find out about that in the Gospels. Let’s start with the Good Samaritan.
David Light, R.N.
Make That Five Marines
In the interest of accuracy, may I point out that the letter entitled “Six Marines” (Sept.) contains an error. Six Marines did not raise the flag on Iwo Jima; rather, it was five Marines and one Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class. This sailor was John H. Bradley of Antigo, Wisconsin, who is the father of the author of the referenced book Flags of Our Fathers.
John P. Pawley
I’d appreciate answers to my questions.
Current orthodoxy teaches that life begins at conception. Does this also mean that a human egg is ensouled the moment it is fertilized by a human sperm? One-third of human pregnancies end in miscarriage, often without the mother’s knowledge. What happens to the souls of the miscarried who have not received baptism and are therefore not cleansed of original sin? If baptized in vitro would they go to Heaven? Shouldn’t any Catholic woman who misses her period request an in vitro baptism to assure that, in the event of a miscarriage, the unborn’s soul goes to Heaven?
If a human egg is fertilized by a human sperm in a laboratory test tube, then is the fertilized egg still ensouled at the moment of fertilization? Should the fertilized egg be baptized so that its soul can go to Heaven in the event it does not survive? If the fertilized egg is allowed to multiply to the point that it becomes an embryo and is then frozen, is its soul then “imprisoned” for as long as it is frozen, perhaps indefinitely?
Did St. Thomas Aquinas have a deeper understanding than current orthodoxy when he concluded that ensoulment takes place at the “quickening”? If Aquinas is correct, then can abortion still be prohibited before ensoulment takes place? Would it be permissible to destroy a human life before it is ensouled?
Is the soul distributed throughout the human body? In the event of a transplant, does a “portion” of the donor’s soul come to reside in the body of the recipient, and if so, with what consequences?
Ed. Note: We invite our readers to respond.
You May Also Enjoy
Review of Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II's Anthropology
Neocons appear to have suffered a full-fledged rout in the November, 2006 elections. But they've faced the political wilderness before and survived.
The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate Over Inclusive God-Language... The Unbound Spirit: God’s Universal Sanctifying Works... Socialism and America... Gazing on Truth: Meditations on Reality... The Courage to Be Chaste