Just the Facts
As a middle-school teacher at a neighboring Spiritus Sanctus Academy, I can readily appreciate the situation that Edmund B. Miller bemoans in his article “On the Fundamental Evil of Fragmentation” (Sept.). I find that my students have trouble not only composing — the “skill of putting together,” as Miller calls it — but also making proper distinctions. They only grasp “facts,” which are really arbitrarily isolated pieces of knowledge. I do think that my students, especially those who are actively trying to live their faith, at least implicitly feel the need for coherence, a vision of the whole. But the fact that they cannot make meaningful distinctions prevents them from an intelligible composition, for composition naturally follows upon division.
For students at this age, we are obviously still speaking mostly about mental habits rather than a scientific grasp of logic. As Mr. Miller points out, these habits are being formed by our technologically driven culture, one that is marked by arbitrarily formed “communities” and compartmentalized commitments. Having little to no meaningful experience of a common life, it is no wonder that our students have trouble thinking beyond their own little worlds. Never mind seeing a connection to “the greater expanses of the world and the Church” — these are pure abstractions in their minds, unless they see them “in miniature” in a localized Catholic way of life.
Of course, these problems demand a radical and difficult response, and realistically as teachers, as we engage in the sort of reflections that Miller offers, we at least ought to be led to ask fundamental questions with regard to the proper nature and role of a Catholic education.
Michael J. Sauter
Whitmore Lake, Michigan
Concubinage, Old & New
Alice von Hildebrand properly skewered her respondents with the reminder that victims of rape do not enjoy the sexual experience (letters & reply, Sept.). I’d like to add my thoughts.
Jacob’s wives’ maids were anything but abused — they were happy to provide sons when the wives could not, and to bask in the position of authority and superiority they gained thereby.
The letter writers who posit that Jacob enjoyed the experience have no evidence thereof, so I have equal authority to posit another scenario: that neither party (Jacob or the maid) enjoyed the act, but were performing it for reasons that have nothing to do with sexual pleasure. I can imagine that they both got thoroughly drunk, did what had to be done, and went on with their separate lives.
I would also point out to people who want to compare Old Testament culture to today’s: Then, concubines were expected (Solomon had them by the dozens), so frequent divorce as a way to obtain new partners was unnecessary, and there was no other way to impregnate multiple wombs to produce multiple sons. Today, a single vial of sperm can impregnate innumerable “concubines.”
An "Open Letter to Michael Sam"
Your New Oxford Note “The Kiss Seen ‘Round the World” (Sept.) mentions Michael Sam, the first “openly gay” football player to enter the NFL draft. The following “open letter” was sent by Americans for Truth about Homosexuality not only to Mr. Sam but to the owner, executives, and coaching staff of the St. Louis Rams (the team that drafted Sam), as well as to a dozen sports writers. The letter was also sent to the Miami Dolphins, the management of which sentenced to “re-education” a player who had the chutzpah, as detailed in your New Oxford Note, to criticize the broadcasting of a video of Sam and his boyfriend kissing.
“Michael, we don’t have to tell you that, especially with your current publicity, you are a role model because of your athletic prowess, but since ‘coming out’ you are also modeling a lifestyle, the cost of which has been unpublicized but is appalling — for those living it and for society at large. The troubling fact is minorities are suffering most and in growing numbers. The evidence:
“- Black youth — your fans among them — ages 13-24 are twice as likely to get HIV/AIDS than those of other ethnic groups.
“- According to the Centers for Disease Control, 94-95 percent of all HIV cases in 2011 among boys and young men ages 13-24 were linked to homosexual sex.
“- Youth 13-24 incur 26 percent of new HIV/AIDS infections each year.
“- An estimated 60 percent of 13-24-year-olds are unaware that they’re infected with HIV; such ignorance can be a death sentence.
“- Black men who have sex with men (MSM) accounted for 39 percent of all HIV/AIDS diagnoses in 2010.
“Secondary to the toll in pain and death among MSM is the drain on U.S. medical and financial resources; for example, anti-viral drugs that can prolong the lives of MSM who have HIV/AIDS about 20 years cost over $24,000 per year…. To treat an HIV/AIDS victim costs $400,000-$600,000 from infection to death. In total, the HIV/AIDS epidemic costs the country around $5 billion per year, says CDC Director Dr. Tom Freiden.
“Believe it or not, no one is born ‘gay’; molestation, emotional deprivation, parental or peer rejection, or other traumatic factors can foster same-sex attraction — but many men and women have, however, managed it, diminished it, or eliminated it altogether. Most accomplished this through Reparative Therapy, despite the relentless, unwarranted condemnation of and campaign against it by self-serving ‘gay’ activists.
“What we hope for from you, Michael, is that you don’t make your feelings, well-publicized as they have been, your claim to fame. Your achievements on the football field will earn you a legacy you can be proud of; your ‘coming out’ as one celebrating homosexuality as normative can earn you only regret, as well as notoriety among millions of us.”
Americans for Truth about Homosexuality can be reached at:
P.O. Box 5522
Naperville, IL 60567-5522
John J. McCartney Jr.
Ed. Note: Michael Sam was cut from the St. Louis Rams’ roster prior to the start of the regular season. Two days later, the Dallas Cowboys signed him to their practice squad (meaning he won’t see game action unless an injury forces his promotion to the team’s active roster). During the NBC pregame show for the 2014 NFL season opener (Sept. 4), Peter King, a writer for Sports Illustrated, reported that, during those two days, league officials had “contacted multiple teams” to see whether they would be interested in signing Sam, and the league “avoided a nightmare situation” when Sam signed on with the Cowboys. The league’s behind-the-scenes campaigning on behalf of Sam — evidently something that stands apart from the standard protocol — was also reported by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who said during a broadcast of First Take (Sept. 3) that having openly gay players is a “movement” the NFL is “gearing for,” and is “ultimately something [Commissioner] Roger Goodell and the NFL supports and they want their teams to support.” As we wrote in that New Oxford Note, the NFL is acting like “an institution invested in [Sam’s] future in football.”
To put this in perspective: The NFL is “by far the most popular and lucrative sport in America,” according to CNN (Feb. 1, 2013), and Forbes ranked the Cowboys as “the league’s most valuable franchise” for the eighth year running (Aug. 20, 2014). Worth an estimated $3.2 billion, it’s not for nothing that the Cowboys refer to themselves as “America’s Team.”
Monsey, New York
The Central Ailment of Modern Society
Thank you for the continued publication of the NOR, which I consider to be among the best of its kind, period. The NOR is easily worth twice the subscription price!
These days the subject of sexuality is gaining increasing dominance on the public stage. This should come as no surprise, for in a time of spiritual atrophy, the physical naturally comes to the fore. That being the case, the sexual act, which is in many ways the ultimate physical experience, consumes the thoughts of modern society. However, since the rudder of the spiritual side of man is left unattended, we drift into a perverse and monstrous perception of sexuality.
That the sexual act is good as ordained by God needs no further proof than its end in perpetuating the human race. That it is also a pleasurable act is a clue and further confirmation of its rightness when coupled with its generative end. However, once divorced from procreation, it loses sanctity and turns into a trap.
I have in my life done two things that gave me a “sinking feeling,” as it is called in literature. That is an apt description, since one feels like one is falling into an abyss in a very real way. The first instance was when I killed another human, an act for which I will likely reside in prison for the rest of my life. The second was performing the sexual act with another of my gender. In both cases, I realized my error instantly but had, so to speak, irrevocably crossed the Rubicon. In the first instance, I acted in a bestial manner, in the second, in a way that not even beasts act.
Both of these things I did prior to my ongoing conversion, largely due, I suspect, to not having had any sound guidance in faith and morals. In the first instance, human life held no particular value to me, for my outlook was essentially pagan. In the second, it was simply a case of the ends justifying the means. I had an urge that (to my mind) needed attending to by whatever means were at hand. I would guess that at its base my primary sin was one of selfishness; I had not matured to the point that I could properly empathize with another.
One of the central ailments of modern society might be that we have forgotten empathy. Essentially, we have turned in upon ourselves with our technology and our debased philosophy. We approach the world no longer as “we” but as billions of “I’s.” As our great divorce from the rest of humanity spirals to its ultimate conclusion in Nietzsche’s “last man,” the “superman,” or Antichrist, will come to dominate the ignorant masses. Unless a profound conversion takes place, we have a very dark future looming before us, of which we now experience the birth pangs in the form of terror, chaos, and confusion.
This conversion starts in the heart of the individual, and from there hopefully blossoms into a life-giving example for others. Pray the holy rosary as if your life depended on it, for truly that is the case for us as individuals and for society as a whole.
John P. Moench
Ed. Note: This prisoner, who has requested that his name and location be withheld, is a recipient of a gratis subscription to the NOR thanks to the generosity of readers who donate to our Scholarship Fund.
In another of her “tightrope walks” between Christianity and its assailants, Melinda Selmys offers a defense of an openly aggressive critic of God and religion, a philosopher whose ideas are often identified with those of Nietzsche and Marx (“Redeeming Foucault,” Jul.-Aug.). This time her subject is an iconic example of a philosopher turned rogue, a man who embraced all the gods of the postmodern era: atheism and its corollary, the marginalization of religion; abortion; homosexuality; and sadomasochism, among others. Conservative writer and philosopher Roger Scruton has tagged Michel Foucault as a “fraud” insofar as he exploited known philosophical pitfalls so as to “disguise unexamined premises as hard-won conclusions.” Even Foucault’s fellow postmodernists, Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty included, have been openly critical of him. German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler charged Foucault with being “an intellectually dishonest, empirically absolutely unreliable, crypto-normativist seducer of Postmodernism.”
In the face of this overwhelming challenge presented by both Foucault’s natural antagonists on one hand, and his friends turned hostile on the other, Selmys sets the stage for her subject’s rehabilitation with a demurring description of Foucault’s foibles. Presented in 15 short words delivered in passive voice, it is virtually the last criticism of the man you will see in her entire article: “He [Foucault] is associated with relativism, social constructivism, homosexuality, and the breakdown of Western social institutions.”
Those familiar with Foucault’s work will know that he was a dedicated supporter and propagator of these principles. Yet Selmys cleverly covers Foucault’s mischief by referencing him as “a philosopher of fallen nature. His thought traces the development of truth through the historical period, revealing the disequilibria, tensions, and exploitations that arise from the relationship that was forged between power and knowledge as a result of our first parents’ appropriation of the right to ‘know good and evil.'”
One might say that Foucault’s idea of “the development of truth” originates with the fallen state of Adam and Eve after the apple was eaten — i.e., after they “appropriated” the knowledge of good and evil. All of the following history, and the verisimilitudes Foucault professes it demonstrates, has been the product of power as applied to that knowledge. Selmys ignores the obvious deviation between the biblical description of the Fall and Foucault’s interpretation, and she attempts to further enhance the latter’s version by drawing inferences from it to Pope St. John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” True, there is a commonality between the two in that neither supports “radical individualism,” but there the similarity ends. Her claim that they both support the concept of intersubjectivity overlooks the fact that each interprets the word differently. Whereas Foucault takes it as a synonym for relativism, John Paul identifies it with the notion of a psychological bond between people, and certainly not as a denial of the existence of absolute truth.
Overlooking the above considerations, Selmys writes, “Although Foucault is guilty of numerous errors, there is a great deal of genuine value to be gleaned from his philosophy.” The same, of course, could be said of any person’s philosophy — including that of even the worst in history. Her example of Aristotle and Plato’s isolated failures, which didn’t prevent the acceptance of their sound philosophical positions, is amusing. Both men have philosophical reputations long associated with virtue and traditional morality, qualities that Foucault relegates to the dustbin.
Selmys goes on to say, “Philosophy has always been the work of imperfect men fumbling toward the truth. Insofar as Foucault is different, he is different because he does not propose a systematic philosophy but presents his thought as a ‘toolbox,’ inviting thinkers to take whatever is useful and ignore the rest.” Comparing the contributions made to civilization by so-called fumbling philosophical giants (Aristotle and Plato evidently included) with the dwarfism of a Foucault “toolbox” — an eclectic offering of “whatever is useful” — is like comparing the systematic medical disciplines of Jonas Salk with the “medicine bag” of cures tendered by a voodoo witch doctor.
Selmys’s exculpatory effort on behalf of Foucault can be summed up by her bold declaration that “the truths within Foucault’s work are attractive, they are particularly appropriate to our culture, they solve some of the deepest problems confronting the postmodern world, and they therefore have a wide social currency.” She goes on to say that “simply attacking his errors is, therefore, not sufficient. Christians must understand Foucault’s work and acknowledge what is true within it, in order to formulate an adequate response.” Are we, as Christians, obliged to sift through layers and layers of unattractive and unnatural behaviors, ideological aberrations, vacillating allegiances, and outright hostility in any philosopher, so as to uncover in his résumé a stray fragment of what someone tells us is truth, if only to appear “open-minded”? Please, Mrs. Selmys, show us just one of the “deepest problems confronting the postmodern world” that Foucault has solved.
In light of the unrelenting enmity Foucault has evidenced against Christianity, I submit that Christians have no obligation to pick out alleged slivers of truth from the overwhelming preponderance of falsehood in his works. We do have the obligation to recognize him — and all other human beings — as made in the image and likeness of our Creator, and as such, personally worthy of our respect. But there is no reason we should dignify Foucault’s radical thinking and obscene behaviors by ignoring them in favor of some alleged iota of truth buried somewhere in the debris of his life.
MELINDA SELMYS REPLIES:
Are we, as Christians, “obliged to sift through layers and layers of unattractive and unnatural behaviors, ideological aberrations, vacillating allegiances, and outright hostility in any philosopher”? As individuals, no, obviously not. As a community? Yes. Christ has sifted the heart of each of us, searching out that which is good, beautiful, and true from amid layers of unattractive and unnatural behaviors, ideological aberrations, vacillating allegiances, and outright hostility to God and to His Church. This isn’t a vain exercise in open-mindedness; He does it for the sake of love.
Mr. Moench rightly points out that Foucault is a man made in the image and likeness of God. This means that if we’re going to read him or engage with him at all, we should do so with a willingness, even eagerness, to encounter God, and therefore truth, within his thought. His works represent a sincere attempt to make a gift of self to the world, and we are obliged to make every attempt to receive that gift for the good of the whole communio personarum. It is a gift marred by sin and distorted by concupiscence, certainly, but we can acknowledge that without dwelling on it. The Christian has an obligation, as the Catechism expresses it, “to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it” (no. 2478).
With respect to Foucault, orthodox Catholics have been very vigilant in condemning his errors but somewhat lax in avoiding rash judgment and exercising the kind of charitable discretion demanded of us when choosing to reveal or discuss another person’s sins.
Foucault’s errors are significant but they really don’t constitute the bulk of his thought. I’ve read four of his books, and none has contained a defense of atheism, a systematic denial of objective truth, or overt hostility toward the Gospel. Although Marxist and Nietzschean influences are evident, Foucault does not take the worst of Marx and Nietzsche and then plunge further into error. He takes from them an analysis of power and class but discards such notorious errors as the exaltation of the Übermensch or the deterministic rise of the proletariat. When Foucault raises criticisms of the Church, or of Christian thought (which he does occasionally), I’ve found that he is respectful and that many of his criticisms are well placed. Few of us, for example, would attempt to justify the harsh penal practices of many medieval monasteries, or the excesses that were often perpetrated against criminals in the name of restorative justice. Perhaps there is less truth and more error in the works that I haven’t read, but if that is the case, then Foucault ought not to be dismissed on the basis of his worst work.
What is there potentially to gain by studying Foucault? First, Foucault takes on a lot of pervasive modernist errors, and often his critique is more incisive and effective than that offered by Christian thinkers because he is better able to engage modernism on its own terms. Foucault’s refutation of the notion that Victorian sexuality was “repressive,” an idea that provided much of the theoretical basis for the sexual revolution, is a good example.
Second, many of Foucault’s analyses are astute and accurate. The problem with social constructionism is not that it commits constant error but that it commits the single major error of rejecting ontology. The solution is not to reject social construction but to develop a framework for reconciling social construction with ontology — similar to John Paul II’s attempt to redeem phenomenology by resituating it in relation to metaphysics. Such a project is necessary if we’re going to respond adequately to postmodern philosophy, but it can’t be undertaken if we don’t first read, understand, and take seriously the thinkers whose errors we wish to correct. It also can’t happen if we deny the truth within postmodern thought. Dialogue, like sex, demands reciprocity, mutuality, and complementarity — a two-sided exchange of gifts — if it is to be fruitful.
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