Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: September 2001

September 2001

Fan Mail From Hell

Loved your piece about Stratford Caldicott and his “goofy” mentor, Hans Urs von Balthasar (“Folks, Here Are Your Orders,” New Oxford Notes, Aprib~ Hammer away at the Enemy’s Body, using inverted commas, [sic], and distorting paraphrases! Make it absolutely clear that the Enemy is never “intrinsic” to our territory, for then the battle would have been lost at creation. Teach your readers that political endeavours matter much, much more than (pass the sick bag) “love” and “grace,” and do your best to make them forget that disgusting incident which “Marian receptivity” (yuuch!) permitted. What I liked so much about your piece is the way you conceal the nausea that the word “grace” brings up in you behind an impeccable front of orthodoxy. Keep up the good work!


Screwtape Halle, The Ninth Circle



Dear Wannabe Clone of C.S. Lewis:

What’s wrong with “inverted commas”?

“Distorting paraphrases”? Why don’t you cite any?

We refrained from putting “[sic]” behind your “Caldicott” and your “yuuch.” So please be advised that his name is spelled Caldecott, and that that slang term is spelled yuck or yuk.

We didn’t say Balthasar was “goofy.” We said “we wonder if he [Balthasar] was really as goofy as certain of his disciples and fans make him sound.”

You believe God is “intrinsic” to the Devil’s territory, to Hell? Are you a believer in universal salvation?

You think political endeavors don’t matter much. Oddly, we agree with you, generally speaking. But the political endeavor we referred to was the prolife movement, and we plead guilty here. We do think that opposing abortion politically matters a lot.

If you think we slighted love and grace and Mary’s receptivity, you have a wild imagination. Indeed, you say we “concealed the nausea that the word ‘grace’ brings up” in us. If we concealed it, how would you ever know that?

Ignatius Press

San Francisco, California

Balthasar's Fighting Fans

“What is it about the fans of Hans Urs von Balthasar? (Not all of them, of course.)” Those are the opening lines in your New Oxford Note titled “‘Beauty’: An Ugly Excuse for Copping Out” (June).

Well, in view of Marcion, Valentinus, Pelagius, John Hus, Martin Luther, George Stallings, and Reverend Moon, “What is it about the fans of the New Testament? (Not all of them, of course.)”

Gregory Wolfe, the subject of your Note, demonstrates that he reached at least the second page (his quote is from page 18 of the Introduction which begins on page 17) of the first of a 15-volume theological work by Balthasar whose organizing principles are the three transcendentals: the Beautiful, the Good, and the True. From Wolfe’s citation of Balthasar to justify his defection from cultural conservatism you move to speculations about Balthasar: “We do wonder if Wolfe can, or Balthasar could….” “At his best, Balthasar was, we think, saying that….” “Maybe that’s a situation that didn’t present itself to Balthasar….”

Then you add, apparently from your own experience: “Which reminds us that we’ve noticed other Balthasarian aesthetes shrink from theological combat and moral battle too.” Well, maybe you’re covering yourself by limiting the group to the subset of Balthasarians who are aesthetes.

But let’s look at some of the other fans. I apologize if, for the sake of defending Balthasar, I drag myself into this. But whatever else I’ve been accused of — and the list is not negligible — I haven’t yet been accused of “shrink[ing] from theological combat and moral battle.” I did my doctoral thesis on Balthasar and in so doing read all his works, with the exception of his 3-volume doctoral thesis Die Apokalypse der Deutschen Seele. Perhaps if my fighting spirit hadn’t been so dulled by this, I could be a match for the NEW OXFORD REVIEW.

But Balthasar has some other fans whom no one would label theological pacifists.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger — who, incidentally, directed the first thesis referred to above — has for years admired and defended the writings and the person of Balthasar. He organized a high-profile public tribute for Balthasar, in Castel Sant’ Angelo, for Balthasar’s 70th birthday. He gave the homily at Balthasar’s funeral Mass. He, unprecedentedly, published with only the most minor corrections Balthasar’s text on “Christian Meditation” as a document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He helped found and has been the cardinal protector of Casa Balthasar, a Roman house of formation and discernment dedicated to forming young men in the spirit of Balthasar and using Balthasar’s writings as fundamental texts. Of course, Cardinal Ratzinger got beyond the second page of Balthasar’s magnum opus.

But maybe Ratzinger isn’t tough enough by NOR’s standards. How about the Holy Father? He cited Balthasar in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, named him to receive the Pope Paul VI Award for theology, named him a cardinal. He also paraphrased Balthasar in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, which led one nervously suspicious critic to conclude that this was inserted into the Italian text without the Pope’s knowledge. But maybe the Pope doesn’t know much about Balthasar’s writings, or admires him for other reasons while being critical of his theology. I suppose that’s theoretically possible — though implausible in light of the above facts. But for the theory to be true the Pope would have to be a liar. I personally heard him, at great length and in the most enthusiastic terms, praise Balthasar as one of the greatest theologians of the modern era.

The real issue, of course, is the value and Catholicity of Balthasar’s writings. I am as chagrined as you are by anyone who claims inspiration from Balthasar as an excuse for cowardice. I don’t find a basis for that in his writings or in his life — and I think I can say without immodesty that I know more about both than any of the three people you referred to (Fr. Neuhaus, Stratford Caldecott, or Gregory Wolfe). Maybe you’ve hit on a peculiar anomaly. But I don’t think it is just to implicate Balthasar by mere speculation on the basis of people who claim to be inspired by him.

Interestingly, when you do speculate about what Balthasar might have said that could bear an orthodox interpretation, you succinctly and accurately summarize what Balthasar did say in the matter of universal salvation, which Balthasar explicitly and emphatically does not maintain (Dale Vree, “If Everyone Is Saved…,” Jan. NOR). You succeed again in your June New Oxford Note on Wolfe in the matter of beauty: “At his best, Balthasar was, we think, saying that beauty must not be separated from truth and goodness. He was not saying — was he? — that beauty trumps truth and goodness.” Just so.

Then why am I complaining? Because the effect of what you say — and for those whose profession is writing it is surely an intended effect — is to cast suspicion on Balthasar, and I think that suspicion is unfounded. Because of that, I believe his reputation is being unfairly tarnished and the good he can do for the Church through his writings wrongly compromised.

That does not mean, of course, that Balthasar is infallible or above criticism. But there is plenty of evidence — internal and external — that Balthasar was an intellectual giant of the Catholic Church, and a fighting giant at that. I am certain that both Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II would subscribe to that view.

Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.

Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion

Seattle, Washington

Balthasar's Cultivated Fans

A classic essay by Francis Bacon begins with the sentence: “‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate and did not stay for an answer.” I thought of this when I read the June New Oxford Note “‘Beauty’: An Ugly Excuse for Copping Out,” because it asks a question — “What is it about the fans of Hans Urs von Balthasar?” — but fails to hang around for an answer. Instead, it proceeds in fine polemical fashion, indicting a number of Balthasarians for going AWOL from the culture wars, using as primary evidence an essay I wrote for Commonweal.

New Oxford Notes and letters to the editor are hardly adequate places to deal with issues as profound as the theology of Balthasar or the relationship between the true, the good, and the beautiful, but for the sake of the record, here’s the barest outline of an answer to the question in that New Oxford Note. (I don’t have the space to correct its misrepresentations of my essay, but for those who are interested, it’s in the March 9, 2001 issue of Commonweal and on their Web site.)

With regard to Balthasar, I’m afraid that the NOR’s worst fears and suspicions are justified. There is, as the NOR knows, the controversy surrounding Balthasar’s ideas about “universal salvation.” (Even using that two-word phrase to represent the range of his ideas on the subject is unfair.)

But there are other reasons why the NOR should cross Balthasar off its list of Good Guys. Take, for example, the question of “modernity.” In my Commonweal essay I suggested that modernity was not a monolithic thing, and that I found much in modern art, culture, and thought that is deeply congruent with — or open to — the truth of the Catholic faith. On this score, what would the NOR make, I wonder, of this statement from Balthasar’s book Razing the Bastions: “The intellectual situation of the church has perhaps never been so open, so full of promise and so pregnant with the future at any time since the first three centuries.” That book was published in 1952 and Balthasar publicly stood by it in 1985, just three years before his death. The very title of the book ought to make the NOR nervous.

It gets worse. To answer another question in that New Oxford Note: Balthasar does believe that “beauty trumps goodness and truth.” In his book My Work in Retrospect, Balthasar summarizes the theological insight at the heart of his massive, multi-volume series The Glory of the Lord in this way: “God does not come primarily as teacher for us (‘true’), as purposeful ‘redeemer’ (‘good’), but for himself, to display and to radiate the splendor of his eternal triune love in that ‘disinterestedness’ which true love has in common with true beauty.”

I am hardly alone in thinking that Balthasar is the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century, that he stands in relation to his time as Newman does to the 19th century. But any attempt to transform this enormously cultured man into a culture warrior is doomed to fail. And that brings me to the next point.

The gravamen of the New Oxford Note’s argument is captured in this statement: “There are times, alas, when one must fight for truth and goodness.” Of course there are. But the very phrasing of that sentence implies that there are also times when one does not have to fight for truth and goodness, when other human activities besides fighting are called for.

One of the besetting problems of the culture wars is that those who become professional soldiers in this conflict have forgotten when to put down their weapons and return to the fields to plant a new crop. War is an expensive, wasteful, and coarsening experience, one that is always a last resort. In peacetime we rely on diplomacy, and the hope that we can win others over to our side through example and friendly competition. But many culture warriors today seem to espouse Trotsky’s concept of “perpetual revolution”: It’s war without end, amen. (And let us not have any cant about this being a particularly terrible time, requiring constant warfare; all times are particularly terrible times.)

Some of us feel that our vocation lies in the realm of culture itself, in the work of cultivating. Culture — including art, myth, story, and liturgy — is grounded in beauty, in that disinterestedness about which Balthasar speaks. To believe this — along with every major thinker in the Church from Augustine to Balthasar — is hardly to turn oneself into a cowardly aesthete. Those who style themselves as defenders of Catholic orthodoxy would better serve the Church if they eased up a little on the polemics and spent more time making beautiful, disinterested things, like poems, paintings, and books of theology. To the extent that I have a polemical thesis, it’s that we need to achieve a healthier balance between fighting and cultivating.

The underlying prejudice seen in that New Oxford Note — that attention to beauty detracts from truth and goodness — is an ancient idea, but not a particularly Catholic one. It runs from Plato through the Protestant Reformation to Marxism and beyond. It certainly is not espoused by Pope John Paul II, upheld in that Note as a fighter. Yes, the Holy Father fights when he has to, but he was a poet, playwright, and actor before he was a bishop; the author of a dissertation on poet-mystic John of the Cross; a believer in the need for Catholic theology to absorb truth from modern philosophies such as existentialism and personalism; and the guy who named Hans Urs von Balthasar a cardinal just days before the cardinal-designate’s untimely death.

Gregory Wolfe, Editor

University of Steubenville

Ellicott City, Maryland

Ugliness Takes Its Vengeance

Regarding your “‘Beauty’: An Ugly Excuse for Copping Out” (New Oxford Note, June), where you ask questions about Hans Urs von Balthasar: I recall Balthasar saying that when beauty is separated from truth and goodness, the result will be “some mysterious act of vengeance.” Suppose we transformed our desultory liturgies into their former glory: Would belief in the Real Presence return?

In Ode to a Grecian Urn, Keats said: “Truth is beauty and beauty is truth. That’s all ye know and all ye need to know.” Wasn’t Balthasar saying the same thing? I think you arrived at that correct conclusion at the end of your Note, where you said, “The stooped figure of that indomitable fighter, John Paul II, is beautiful [and] the wrinkled face of the fiercely prolife Mother Teresa was gorgeous,” though you might have stressed more clearly that their beauty derives from their bold stands on behalf of great truths.

Martin Lobert

Calvin College

New Hyde Park, New York

Six Marines

Regarding the New Oxford Note, “‘Beauty’: An Ugly Excuse for Copping Out” (June), please be advised that your reference to the “four G.I.s [who] raised the flag on Iwo Jima” is incorrect. Six Marines raised the flag: John Bradley, Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon, and Mike Strank. In the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph for The New York Times, two of the flag raisers are on the other side of the pole, blocked from view by the backs of four Marines facing the camera. The monument in Washington, D.C. depicts all six flag raisers in their correct positions. Please refer to a most moving account of the flag raising, Flags of Our Fathers (Bantam) by James Bradley, the son of John.

Kenneth Messer

St. John's, Newfoundland

Cast Into the Furnace of Fire

Regarding the controversy about Fr. Neuhaus and universal salvation in your pages: What disturbs me about Neuhaus’s universalism — his wishful thinking — is that it directly contradicts the teachings of Jesus. For example, “So shall it be at the end of the world; the angels shall come forth and sever the wicked from the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13:49-50).

Has it become fashionable now for theologians to contradict the very teachings of Jesus?

Gene Malone

Salisbury, Maryland

Influential Icon

Lay off Lynne Cheney! (I’m referring to your April New Oxford Note, “Put Not Your Trust in Vice Princesses,” and the Editor’s comments in the June issue, pp. 11-12). As a public figure, writer, lecturer, and conservative icon, Lynne has influenced America in ways not available to provincial curmudgeons such as the editors of the NOR. Until George W. Bush selected Dick Cheney to validate his ticket, Lynne was much better known and influential than her husband.

Forget about the way Time magazine and the feminists have exploited Lynne! Do you really think she would be of better service to the families of America presiding over formal teas in the V.P. mansion? Then there was your dirty crack about possible inattention to her husband’s health due to her continuing career.

For your penance, you will write her a letter of humble apology and read the Book of Ruth.

Robert G. Emond

Steubenville, Ohio

No Time for Hugs

Again it has happened! As I was eagerly reading the letters to the editor in the June issue I found that another subscriber has decided to cancel a subscription to the NOR. It seems that the NOR is too much for certain people to handle. Unfortunately, they have not fully grasped the scope of the battle we are involved in to save the Catholic Church in the U.S. We no longer have the time or convenience to give out hugs until the “progressives” see things the Church’s way. We must face every attack on the Faith with the unabashed Truth, with no apologies or equivocation.

Also, we do not have the authority to, in the letter-writer’s words, “give a little” in order to make peace with those who oppose orthodoxy. Everything we believe and practice is supported by the Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church.

The Church’s history is replete with martyrs who gave their lives as witnesses to the Faith. Who are we to temporize, to tell all those who died defending and proclaiming the Faith that, oops, they didn’t really have to go to such extremes?

I will keep my subscription and my adherence to the Faith.

Paul Sinsigalli

Port Orchard, Washington

A Big Splotch of Grease on A Starched White Collar?

In reply to Donna Kruger (letter, June), who wrote to draw attention to the sartorial deficiencies of us Novus Ordo bumpkins and hicks: There are those of the plebian classes — of whom I am one — who have to earn their living by working. Some must even work on Sundays, and at jobs that require manual exertion and elicit perspiration. I have tried leaving Mass and going to work in my wingtips and white shirt, but you have no idea what a big splotch of bearing grease can do to a starched Brooks Brothers collar.

Oh, and if President Bush timed his dinner invitation like our parish times Mass — with no time to change clothes — I would indeed wear my coveralls to the White House. And I think Mr. Bush would shake my hand and understand completely — unlike some fellow Catholics.

Charles Olsen

Queenstown, Maryland

Stand — or Else!

While visiting southeastern North Carolina for vacation in May, I went to a weekday morning Mass at a local Catholic church. I was surprised that there were no kneelers for prayer, but was more shocked by the rudeness of the priest.

During Communion, I approached the priest reverently and knelt to receive the Body of Christ. The priest loudly requested (with the microphone on) that I rise before he would serve me. I find it supremely cruel that any priest would deny me Christ because of such a simple act of adoration. I did obey, but was very dismayed.

There were less than a dozen people at Mass, so I find it difficult to believe that there was any inconvenience for him. He did not appear to have a handicap or infirmity that would restrict his hand being lowered to my mouth. Therefore, I am left to believe that either this particular priest does not believe in the Real Presence and thus believes there is nothing to adore (i.e., Jesus is not physically present) or he has a personal prejudice against adoration during Communion and thus lacks reverence for Christ and respect for a little-used, but long-standing tradition in the Catholic Church.

God deserves our attentiveness and adoration, and we should not be afraid to give ourselves completely to Him in spite of the personal views of any priest. This priest’s act of insolence cannot be ignored. Next time I will not rise. I am committed to adoring the God who died for my sins.

By the way, on past visits to this parish this same priest made comments during the homily in favor of the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Amy Leaberry

Grand Rapids, Michigan

You've Broken the Rules

I have always had the greatest respect for the NEW OXFORD REVIEW, occasionally citing articles from the journal for some of my academic work, etc. Thus it was a great disappointment for me to read “Sticks & Stones May Break My Bones, But…” (New Oxford Notes, May), which was about an article in The Banner by Prof. Helen Sterk of Calvin College. Within scholarly circles there are certain standards for editorial debate. Included among those is that the debate must take place within a scholarly community, usually a journal. Otherwise those reading the editorial will not have read the original piece and thus there is no real debate at all, but just a one-sided diatribe. Likewise no sound journal would publish a letter to the editor that was entirely devoted to a critique of an article published in another journal, especially a journal that the readers are unfamiliar with and unlikely to read. You have broken the rules for fair debate on this account. Surely The Banner, the denominational magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), is not read by all the readers of the NOR. If I’m any measure, I’m a member of a CRC church but don’t read The Banner but do read (or did read) the NOR. In addition, I doubt that the editors of the NOR are familiar with the debates within the CRC — the context of Dr. Sterk’s piece. This is because the article was taken out of the context of its own constituency and their discussions.

And you have broken a second rule of engagement among scholarly circles. When an article is critiqued within a scholarly community, the author of the original article is allowed to respond, thus encouraging useful and lively discussion, as well as fair play. Dr. Sterk did not even know of that New Oxford Note until recently, and this knowledge certainly did not come from the NOR.

Probably the most disturbing of all to me is that the person you attack, since clearly you had no interest in debate, was a long-time member of the faculty of a Catholic university and in that position she spoke up for many positions that would have found sympathy with your readers. Her research and writing continues in areas of great interest to your readers, but you can be assured that she will never be inclined to officially contribute to debates in your journal after unofficially and unfairly being forced into it. For my part, I will no longer read or cite anything from the NOR. And I will ask Calvin College to consider not renewing its subscription.

Janel M. Curry

New York, New York


As a matter of fact, I am quite familiar with the debates in the Christian Reformed Church, originally known as the True Dutch Reformed Church. Although I am a Catholic, I was born in the Dutch Reformed community, was baptized in the CRC, was catechized (by the legendary James Daane) in the CRC, and have maintained a lively interest in the CRC ever since. For example, I long subscribed to the CRC-related Reformed Journal, until its demise in 1990, and even wrote for it on several occasions. Also, I have been reading The Banner on and off for the past thirty-five years (boy, has it ever changed!), and was friends with many of the key professors at the CRC’s Calvin College back in its glory years (the 1970s).

I know very well that the CRC has been suffering significant losses in membership of late, and that a primary reason for that is the “gay”-friendly and feminist atmosphere of today’s CRC, as exemplified by Prof. Sterk’s article in The Banner.

As you well know, neither The Banner nor the NOR is a “scholarly” journal, so your appeal to scholarly rules is totally irrelevant — and I am truly puzzled as to why you would want to throw up that smokescreen.

We at the NOR know that when we comment on someone, that person soon finds out about it. You yourself acknowledge that Prof. Sterk learned of our commentary. So why didn’t she write us a letter addressing the real issues? (Your jargon about “officially” and “unofficially” is, again, totally irrelevant.) As any reader of the NOR knows, our pages are open to debate and rebuttal, and not only in the letters section.

As the Dean for Research and Scholarship, you are presumably interested in the free exchange of ideas and the pursuit of truth. How odd, therefore, that you would react by saying you will no longer read the NOR (which you admit you have found useful in your own work) and that you will ask the College to consider not renewing its subscription. Jeez Louise!

Holy Week in Seville

We returned from Barcelona, Valencia, Cuenca, and (best of albpSeville, which was celebrating Semana Santa, Holy Week! We arrived in Seville on Holy Thursday and attended processions through Easter Sunday. There were five or six per day, each with hundreds of hooded penitents marching to the accompaniment of mournful band music. Each procession had two floats, not on wheels but carried by a team of 24 strong men — a Jesus float, which contained an episode from the Passion, and a Mary float, which contained the Madonna in tears, mourning the death of her Son (they call her the Dolorosa). Each procession was in effect a Way of the Cross in itself. People attending dressed in black, and many Sevillian ladies wore the traditional black lace mantilla. I often saw spectators weeping as the floats passed. The carved, polychromed figures on the floats were life-size and were dressed in real clothing (all of the Madonnas had velvet brocade cloaks, with trains of more than wedding-gown length), and every float had elegant silver or gold candelabras as well as masses of candles on all four sides, candles that were four feet tall and four to five inches in diameter. Nor was there a shortage of incense. Each float was followed by a band, in which tubas, trombones, trumpets, and drums combined to create an unforgettable dirge. It was splendid to see.

The most elaborate procession was from the Church of the Macarena, which set out from its starting point at 1 a.m. the morning of Good Friday and wound its way to the Cathedral and then back home by another route. The walk would keep the penitents on their feet for 11 hours: It would be noontime before they got back to their starting point. This church owns two magnificent floats. One presents the sentencing of Jesus: Pilate sits in the background on a throne, while Roman guards in plumed helmets surround the central figure of Jesus, who stands listening to the sentence being read from a scroll. The mourning Madonna, which occupies the other float in this procession, has the official title of Nuestra Señora de Esperanza, Our Lady of Hope, but is popularly called the Macarena. This particular representation of Mary, carved in the 17th century, is much loved by the people of Seville. We found a station on the route at around 11:30 p.m. to await the arrival of this procession, and we watched it from beginning to end, getting back to our hotel at 5 a.m. Imagine seeing 2,400 hooded penitents marching two by two over a stretch of miles, and by candlelight. It was marvelous! We saw four more processions on Good Friday after resting up a bit from the Macarena procession. On Saturday one of the Jesus floats was the Descent into Hell. And of course the Sunday parade (only one on Easter) was the Resurrected Jesus. Taken all together, it was like living through the events of Passion Week.

In between processions you could go to the individual churches and see the floats on display, so every church was open all these days and filled with “staged” scenes like the Entry into Jerusalem, the Kiss of Judas, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Disrobing of Jesus, Jesus Carrying the Cross, the Three Falls of Our Lord, Jesus Crucified, the Deposition, and the Pietà.

One of the most moving processions, in which all the dignitaries of the city and the Archbishop of Seville participate, was that of the burial of Jesus. The prone image of Jesus for this procession seems to have been modeled on the body imprinted on the Shroud of Turin. It is resting in the sepulchre (for this float, they used a glass coffin much adorned with gold, and there were living soldiers guarding the coffin). We happened to walk into the church that sponsored this particular procession on Saturday morning, and the sepulchre float with the coffin on it was in front of the altar, with three Roman centurions in front of it. This procession also had the Death float, on which a grisly life-sized skeleton sat grinning, a dragon at its feet. You had to do some serious thinking when you came upon that. Every 15 minutes there was a changing of the guard. When I first went in, I thought the guards were statues, they were so strictly standing at attention. It was not till the changing of the guard that I realized they were alive.

The whole experience was absolutely amazing!

Elaine Hallett

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