The Glorious & the Grotesque
Lucy E. Carroll clearly articulates the sad state of much of the modern hymnody used in many of our parishes today (“In Praise of Honest Sentiment,” June). What has been lost over the past few decades is a sense of the mystical presence of God in the sacred liturgy and, moreover, sound Catholic theology. Although many of the older hymns may seem saccharine, they certainly express the longing of the creature for God and all things divine. Regrettably, much post-conciliar “sacred” music tends toward dragging God down to earth rather than lifting us out of our depravity and pointing us toward heavenly realities. What happened with the International Commission on English in the Liturgy’s 1974 translation of the Roman missal essentially happened with sacred music: It was stripped of eloquent, theologically rich language that emphasized the solemnity of the mystical event in which we were participating. Dr. Carroll understands well the unfortunate fallout of decades of lousy humanistic folk music that has done little more than make us feel good before God.
We are fortunate in my parishes to have a superb choir director, accompanied by a fine young organist, who truly appreciates sacred music. The choir appreciates their leadership and music selections for Mass and other services. Moreover, the parishioners seem to appreciate the fact that the music is not from the City of God or Glory & Praise hymnals. To illustrate the “payoff” of using good music, we just had our first annual Corpus Christi procession from one of my two churches to the other. For one-and-a-half miles, we sang Pange Lingua, Laudate Dominum, Ubi Caritas, “O Sacrament Most Holy,” and “Holy, Holy, Holy.” At benediction we sang “Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All.” Imagine nearly 125 Catholics parading through the streets of Mount Airy (Philadelphia) singing these hymns. It was beautiful! Most importantly, the parishioners were delighted and spiritually enriched.
But not all of them. A few weeks ago I received a letter from a parishioner who said she was being “led by the spirit” to leave one of my parishes. She felt that the occasional Latin entrance or communion antiphons were an attempt on my part to make the parish pre-conciliar. She could not “fully participate,” after all, if the Mass were not entirely in the vernacular. My few homilies addressing the U.S. government’s contraception mandate were the proverbial “icing on the cake.”
Please forgive the long diatribe, but Dr. Carroll’s article struck a note with me. It is not my intention to criticize those who like Glory & Praise; it has its place. Like the young man Dr. Carroll mentions who was touched by “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother,” we are selling ourselves short by not reintroducing the “oldies but goodies” that speak not only to our hearts but to the very Heart of God Himself. With the new translation of the Roman missal, perhaps songwriters will grasp more deeply the inherent mystery of the sacred liturgy and seek to write songs that express authentic Catholic theology and religious sentiment. When they see themselves as catechists entrusted with helping to form the faithful, then and only then will they take a fresh look at what sacred music can and should be. In the meantime, we have a rich treasury sitting in the vault, and the door is wide open!
Fr. James M. Cox, Pastor
St. Madeleine Sophie and Holy Cross Parishes
Words and images convey the thoughts and sentiments of their author. Since we are made in the image and likeness of God, we also express our thoughts and sentiments in words and images. Lucy E. Carroll addresses the alteration of an author’s thoughts and sentiments. Authors fall into various categories. Writers, musicians, poets, painters, sculptors, and architects have accomplishments that deserve protection from unscrupulous intrusion.
Consider the authors of the Divine Office. This continual unbroken prayer of praise is sung or recited in cadenced phrases composed with poetic imagery. Unauthorized changes seriously impair not only the poetic beauty and metered rhyme but reflect disunity in the very prayer that is supposed to be said with one voice. Even the transcendental element of mystery can be denied by pragmatists.
Visual artists are also vulnerable to alterations and misrepresentations. Michelangelo, for example, found it necessary to sign the Pietà when he learned that another sculptor was credited with the masterpiece. His work on the Sistine Chapel was also altered over the years until Pope John Paul II had it restored to its original state. Integrity is needed for the preservation of an author’s work.
Visual images in a worship space are essential for creating the proper environment for prayer. Dr. Carroll recalls her joy as a child in watching the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa appear when the curtain covering it was drawn before Mass. Her experience reminds me of a visit I made to Our Lady of Guadalupe National Shrine in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2005. An excellent reproduction of St. Juan Diego’s tilma had been exposed to sunlight from nearby windows, and its delicate colors were fading. Had the image been protected with a drawn curtain, this unfortunate damage could have been avoided.
Sentiment holds a significant place in human relationships. Consider the conversation between Juan Diego and the Maiden he met. How tragic it would be if the Mother of God’s words to him, or his to her, were censored due to a lack of appreciation for the sentiments they contain. Juan Diego’s description of the preparatory environment he encountered prior to the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe is filled with tender sentiment. Overwhelmed by the unusually sweet sound of singing birds, he exclaimed with wonder, not knowing if he were dreaming. Juan proceeded to follow the sounds, only to find a Maiden with clothing that was shining like the sun. Her words to him were filled with sentiment. Juan’s response was equally returned with praise and sincere sentiment. The beautiful Maiden spoke in such tender words to the humble Indian, to allay his fears of not being able to communicate her wishes: “Are you not in my shadow and under my protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more?” These words can be addressed to us today. Our heavenly Mother is Queen of the Americas and watches over us with tender compassion every day.
Hymns of praise and beautiful imagery ought to be left alone, especially those composed prior to 1923. After 1923 copyright laws protect authors. Those who object to an author’s words, music, or visual images ought to use their own ingenuity to offer worthier contributions to the repository of sacred sounds and images. The cacophony of some compositions barely has the ability to transport one’s spirit past the page. Some liturgical images are so deformed and divested of grace and beauty that one wonders where they came from. If our churches are empty, we may have driven away the flock with sights and sounds that obscure the magnificent mystery we profess.
Sr. Mary Paula Beierschmitt, I.H.M.
Founder, American Academy of Sacred Arts
As an ex-Protestant, and an evangelical at that, I am much interested in hymnody, hymn-singing, and music ministry in general. And I have long deplored the low quality of Marian hymns in the Catholic Church. “Mother Dearest, Mother Fairest” just about hit the nadir and seems now to have been mercifully laid to rest. The same cannot be said, however, about all the bad ones. My candidate for the worst Marian hymn still making the rounds is “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother.” So when Lucy E. Carroll dragged this thing in — and even quoted the first stanza — it hit me like a slap in the face. Mention of the young man rhapsodizing over this “chestnut” just poured salt on the wound.
Consider these points. The tune of “On This Day” sounds like a thinly disguised Irish jig, inappropriate for sacred use. And then there’s the line, “On this day we give thee our love.” What? Do we give her our love only on this day — or, alternately, are we to sing the hymn every day? It gets worse: “Near thee, Madonna, fondly we hover.” Madonna is a term never used in addressing our Lady. Have you ever done so? It is confined to art criticism. Hover does not rhyme with Mother. Besides, it has strong pejorative overtones. To think of “hovering over a mother” is grotesque. But the grand, smashing climax is reached in the last line: “seeking thy gentle care to prove.” Will somebody tell me what that line means? It strikes me as gibberish. Why are we asked to sing this nonsense? Does it honor our Lady?
May I suggest, on a positive note, something of solid substance like “Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star,” a hymn of German origin, with imagery from St. Bernard, in good 3/4 time.
Dr. Carroll is certainly a well-qualified musician and her article is excellent — with this one major blemish.
Fr. Philip M. Stark
Johnson State Prison
Cumberland, Rhode Island
I agree with the views expressed by Lucy E. Carroll; her article certainly exhibits a great deal of orthodoxy. However, I found it somewhat ironic that, in alluding to the Trinity, she used the term Creator in place of the correct and orthodox form of the First Person of the Trinity, Father. Does she have any particular reason for using this term while expressing her otherwise enthusiastic and most welcome support for a renewal of the artistic?
Louis A. Leppert
LUCY E. CARROLL REPLIES:
When the topic of hymns arises, battle lines are quickly drawn. One of the sisters at the Carmelite Monastery where I am organist, upon reading my article, said she wished we could do without all hymns at Mass (“too Protestant,” said she); we should return to chant. Another friend told me, “It’s all a matter of taste.” To some extent, taste will enter in, but whose taste? In any parish there will be classical-music lovers seated next to those who prefer country or rock or easy listening or Broadway or — Heaven preserve us — rap.
To address the above letters, a very generalized history is needed. There are no hymns, as we define them, assigned to the body of the eucharistic liturgy. When the Novus Ordo was being installed, the “prayers for the day” (formerly known as “propers”) had no music prepared, and there were so many of them that it was unrealistic to have music ready (unless they were psalm-tone-chanted) in time for the launching of the New Mass. Therefore, the bishops allowed hymns to replace the prayers for the day.
By now the hymns have taken root and the people in the pews think that the Mass “contains” hymns. The entrance, or processional, hymn (not a part of the Mass) has melded together with the opening prayer for the day, although in some places that prayer is now separately chanted by the choir. There is no music called for after the dismissal, although it is prudent to sing a recessional hymn so that folks don’t hurry out of church before the priest and sacristy crew!
The early Catholic hymns were chant and were written for the Divine Office and for devotional events (benediction, etc.) by theologians, scholars, and religious. To this day, nothing can approach the beauty of the text and melody of Adoro te Devote and Pange Lingua in their original Latin. Fr. Cox’s congregation walking down Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy and singing the magnificent Latin text of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Pange Lingua must have been a foretaste of Heaven.
It was during the Protestant Reformation that hymns, as we now know them, proliferated. They were a personal response to God’s Word, and they were written by the laity in the vernacular and in popular styles. By the 18th century there were tens of thousands of them in Germany alone. They were greatly influenced by national and cultural issues and styles, and continue so to this day.
The first Diocesan Synod of Baltimore in 1791 permitted hymns and prayers in the vernacular for vespers and benediction but not for Mass. As late as 1829 the ban held, although it was largely ignored. Today, while hymns remain as adjuncts or substitutes for the prayers of the eucharistic liturgy, they have overtaken chant just as they did in the early Protestant services. Cultural issues remain.
The great body of Marian hymnody is a special case in point. There are no hymns to Mary outside Catholicism. Fr. Stark’s angry response to “On This Day” grows not just from his evangelical background and a matter of taste (I can cite many lesser pieces) but from cultural differences. Growing up a Polish Catholic meant intense devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa, as I mentioned in my article. She is Matko Boze, Królowa Polska — Mother of God, Queen of Poland. Back in the day, the kings and queens of Poland bowed in obeisance to her image and furnished gold and precious gems for her crown. The Polish Pope, Bl. John Paul II’s motto was Totus tuus — “(I am) all yours” — and it referred to his relation to Mary. In the Spiewnik, or hymnal, of my youth, there were a multitude of Marian hymns, simple in style, simple in text. I mentioned that it was her image above our tabernacle, even though the church was named after a saint.
The Marian sodality movement, approved by Pope Gregory XIII in 1584, was first established in America in Philadelphia in 1841. Three years later, and for decades after, collections of Marian hymns for meetings and devotions were printed here. (Many of those hymns make “On This Day” seem almost Mozartean!) Marian hymns were thus an important part of Philadelphia Catholic culture. At our monastery the nuns are fond of saying, “Carmel is all Mary’s.” Carmel was the first order in the Church dedicated to Mary. Thus there is the strength of the Marian culture here as well. In the pre-conciliar Church there was a separate Carmelite rite in which the Salve Regina was sung just before the Last Gospel.
Marian hymns belong primarily at Marian feasts or special votive Masses or devotional events. And because the event is special there can be a little leeway.
Perhaps Fr. Stark will recall that I am the one who sniffily called “On This Day” an “old chestnut.” Though that is an apt descriptor, I realize that the hymn does have a place. Crowning an image of Mary, for instance, is an appropriate place. The feast day of Mary in a church named for her is another, or any time that “this day” is a special day. We use it once, maybe twice, a year at the monastery, and the sound of the congregational singing bounces off the stone walls.
Will the text win any poetry awards? Hardly; it is a product of its time (text, 1857; music by Louis Lambilotte, S.J., 1796-1855). The music is extremely singable, in a slow three-quarter quasi-waltz style. No, it is not an Irish jig. The text is childlike rather than childish. Today it takes a great deal of humility to sing it and to place oneself in childlike petition before the Queen of Heaven. Unlike too many modern hymns found in our parishes, there is no questionable or confusing theology, no confusion of first and third person, no vox Dei confusion, just simple praise and petition. It is not for everyone, but in places like Philadelphia and Carmel, on rare special occasions, it can bring folks to Mary and ad Jesum per Mariam — “to Jesus through Mary.”
As to the hymn that Fr. Stark mentions, if he means “Hail, Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star,” we have that hymn as well. The text is based on Ave Regina Caelorum, the music is by Henri Hemy (1818-1888). I personally find the music slightly less well-crafted than “On This Day.” What Fr. Stark means by “good 3/4 time” I can only guess; it seems awfully subjective. And here personal taste enters in. If you like that hymn, by all means use it.
Louis Leppert asks why I used the term Creator. I was not referring to the Trinity per se but to groupings of texts. For the Trinity I certainly use Father/Son/Holy Spirit. In fact, in our hymnal we do not use the translation “Sing Praise to Our Creator.” We use the earlier “God Father, Praise and Glory” by John Rothensteiner (1860-1936). It is a better translation of the German Gott Vater Sei Gepreisen. Each verse uses the terms Father, then Son, then Holy Spirit.
Finally, to Sr. Paula: This excellent artist (sculptress) and head of the Academy of Sacred Arts in Philadelphia is doing magnificent work in returning beauty and sacredness to our churches. She understands that our true and honest feelings bring us, as Fr. Cox wrote, “to the very Heart of God Himself.”
So I repeat: There is a place for honest sentiment, even though the dividing line may be blurred at times, and in places, and in the hearts of us all.
Terence J. Hughes
Fort Pierre, South Dakota
Riders on the Storm
Elaine Hallett’s article on Act 3 of King Lear (“Shelter From the Storm,” June) was most impressive. It reminded me of Mary of Agreda’s account of Lucifer’s fall in The Mystical City of God (vol. 1, ch. VII- XI), as revealed to her by Mary, the Mother of Jesus. First, Mary explains why the One God exists as a holy Trinity. She tells us that God has three spiritual attributes — intellect, will, and empathy — that manifest themselves in three divine Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person has all three attributes, but intellect is identified primarily with the Father, will with the Son, and empathy with the Holy Spirit. The perfect definition of Father is “He who instructs His Son out of love for Him.” The perfect definition of Son is “He who obeys His Father out of love for Him.” This infinite and perfect exchange of love between Father and Son causes divine empathy to soar to infinite and perfect love, personified in the Holy Spirit. The One God has the spiritual attributes of the human family: a father, a mother, and children (because we exist in time, love can be “personified” many times).
Angels and men are spiritual creatures who also have these three spiritual attributes. We become sinful when we alter the divine order of these attributes, most commonly when our will displaces our intellect. Then empathy descends to enmity and ends in unquenchable hatred. Here Lucifer and King Lear have something in common.
God revealed to Lucifer and the other angels that they owe their existence to Him, that He exists as a holy Trinity described above, that He created the material universe, which He revealed to them in all stages of creation, and that He created Heaven as a permanent home for those who love and obey Him and Hell as a permanent home for those who hate and disobey Him. God then ordered the angels to acknowledge that He created them and to worship Him. They all did, Lucifer primarily with his intellect because he had no better explanation for his own existence, but his will insisted on his self-earned superiority as the highest of angels.
Then God the Father revealed that the Son would become incarnate as a human being with the goal of leading mankind to permanent union with God in Heaven, the same goal God willed for the angels. Lucifer argued that this was beneath God’s dignity because men were created from the dust of the earth. Better that he, Lucifer, become incarnate because he was a superior pure spirit but also was a created being. Here Lucifer’s will was beginning to override his intellect. Finally, God the Father revealed that His Son would be incarnate through a woman, and He commanded all the angels to acknowledge her as Queen of Angels exalted above them because she was the Mother of God. Exalting the lowly but obedient above the high and mighty is a constant theme in the Holy Bible. This was too much for Lucifer. He convinced one-third of the angels to rebel with him and thereby descend into Hell forever.
King Lear’s two daughters, Goneril and Regan, had rebelled against him, driving him from his castle and then pursuing him with the intention of murdering him. Lear had “created” them and loved them, and had done nothing to justify such hatred from them. The “tempest scene” was Shakespeare’s way of showing us the tempest raging within Lear due to their betrayal, an internal tempest so great that Lear welcomes nature’s tempest as the only way to slightly convey his internal torment. Even his closest friends cannot console him and convince him to seek shelter from the storm.
The source of Lear’s torment is his continued love for his daughters, which goes unreturned and which has become incompatible with his strong sense of justice. Here we see in stark terms the consequence, even in King Lear, a just man, of putting one’s will in conflict with one’s intellect. Empathy for his daughters causes love to descend to enmity, and Lear even condemns them in a mock trial. King Lear is not God; he is a created being and, though much more noble than Lucifer, he is also subject to the same sin.
We can see in The Tragedy of King Lear the Roman Catholic mind of William Shakespeare at work in a most compelling way, whether he saw himself as a Catholic or not. He lived in a time when England and much of Europe was undergoing Lucifer’s prideful rebellion, following from the prideful rebellion of Adam and Eve when subjected to Lucifer’s temptation to “be as God” by disobeying God. It is the human condition and we see it at work all over the world, from Washington D.C. to Moscow to Beijing. We see it in the Church and in the state. And we see it in our own hearts.
Amherst, New York
Stranger Than Fiction
To my mind, the key element of the epistolary exchange between Evelyn Waugh and John Cardinal Heenan, as recounted by Philip Blosser in his review of A Bitter Trial (June), is the queerness of it. At one end of the table, you have a man of extraordinary literary gifts, whose personal relationships, according to some of those to whom he was closest, were often a shambles. At the other is a shrewd and politically astute man of the Church, no friend of the nouvelles, a man with an ego sufficient to support a two-volume autobiography and to entitle the second volume depicting his personal trials A Crown of Thorns. One would not expect an exchange between two such men to be a festival of humility, but one would expect some sharp insights into the course of the post-Vatican II Church. But those insights appear to have been one-sided.
As Prof. Blosser’s review shows, Waugh was quick to catch the drift of what was about to happen to the Mass. He had taken in all of the good vibrations of Vatican II and, like many Catholics of the day, was distressed. He appears to have had considerable confidence that Heenan shared his concerns about the coming liturgical makeover, and Heenan said as much to Waugh and to others. But for Cardinal Heenan, these fears and concerns seem to have evaporated rather suddenly. Doubtless, as Blosser says, his encouragements “rang hollow” to Waugh. And why not? Nearly everything Waugh feared came to pass. Nearly all of the reassurances of the men of the Council melted away in the time of post-conciliar afterglow known as “the spirit of Vatican II.” Waugh feared that Catholics had been sold a pig in a poke by those men. Heenan’s assurances seem to have amounted to little more than that it was a really good pig in a really good poke, just wait and see.
Heenan was, in the end, a political realist who saw, as did Waugh, that the Catholic Church had slouched into a new age, an age of ecumenical delicacy, reflexive self-abasement before any accusation thrown into the air by non-Catholics, and profound embarrassment about the prayers and disciplines of the faith. Apparently, Heenan felt he could do nothing about it, and was unwilling to squander ecclesial capital on futile gestures, whatever the cause. There were far too many like him in that respect. And if men like Heenan were (or chose to appear) powerless, how much more so the skeptical and somewhat shell-shocked laymen, who had special envoys from the diocese standing in the pulpit and telling them, with very little subtlety, to shut up and get on board with the new liturgy because the old one, of saints and centuries, was officially road kill.
We are now fifty years into the reign of the nouvelles. We know now that the concerns and fears of the laity were not uppermost in the minds of Vatican II-era leaders — it was more important to strum our guitars, pose for the cameras, and step boldly into the theological renaissance. Humani Generis and Mediator Dei remain at the bottom of the Vatican’s Well of Forgetfulness. Bugnini’s anti-liturgy dominates the liturgical landscape. If Waugh were still alive, he would roll over in his grave.
Theater of the Absurd
Christina Huth writes a letter to the editor (June) “respectfully” critiquing a young reviewer’s take on George Clooney’s latest flick, The Descendants (Apr.). Her effort to be constructive is clear, yet in return she gets a public slapdown from the reviewer, with the snarky line, “I doubt a round of Candyland would have had the same effect.” Then Miss O’Luanaigh has the temerity to talk of jaded hearts? How much fun!
I saw the movie in question and could not agree more with Huth. We can argue the fine points of euthanasia all day long (the NOR sure did not seem shy about Terri Schiavo). But as for the review in question, it was of the same stuff as the reviews now routinely posted at ChristianityToday.com, where they even manage to find redemptive value in American Reunion and The Kids Are Alright.
If you want to pander after the millennial readership, go for it, but snappy lines aren’t the same as incisive thinking, little of which was on display in O’Luanaigh’s review of The Descendants. Yes, God can bring good out of anything, but does that mean His ministrations necessarily warrant a public screening?
Oh, and please warn me if I am to get a similar public dressing down from Miss O. I’ll wanna have my water-blaster handy!
J. Francis Bernard
Port St. Lucie, Florida
The Mother of Madness
They say you can’t know where you’re going unless you first know where you’ve been. That goes for pro-choice America as well. So, what better place to begin than with their illustrious leader, Margaret Sanger, who gave birth, if you will, to the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
The word eugenics, which means “well born,” was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, another great pioneer in our godless quest for human perfection. Among the goals of the eugenicists was to improve humanity by eliminating, through force if necessary, unfit people such as the sick, the poor, the disabled, the feebleminded, and the insane. This was called “negative eugenics,” and was later popularized, quite successfully, in Nazi Germany.
Ms. Sanger embraced this form of eugenics, almost as much as she did drugs and alcohol, realizing — notice how ahead of the times she was — the need to eventually merge eugenics with birth control. “Eugenics without Birth Control seems to us a house built upon the sands,” she once said. In other words, there was a method to her madness.
Like all progressives, Ms. Sanger had a novel, albeit prejudicial, solution to this age-old problem. She instigated the “Negro Project” to weed out the “unfit” from the black population, which is precisely why Planned Parenthood is so prevalent in African-American communities even today. Naturally, Martin Luther King Sr. would’ve been an ideal candidate for our fearless feminist’s pet project back then; but, fortunately, he’d already been born.
And so we’re here today to celebrate Margaret Sanger, the mother of modern infanticide, along with the tens of millions of aborted babies who, in her own maternal and nurturing words, “should never be born at all.”
Howard P. Kainz
Natural Law Appeals
Melinda Selmys, like many contemporary ethicists, is pessimistic about the natural law which, she claims, is a “dead letter” that needs to be bolstered by appeals to aesthetics (“Is the ‘Natural Law’ Concept Obsolete?” June). She despairs of trying to “move from general principles to specific applications.” She mentions St. Thomas Aquinas’s three precepts of the natural law but finds all sorts of misinterpretations possible for the three. But clear applications are not that hard to make. In my 2004 book Natural Law: An Introduction and Re-examination, I show that each of Aquinas’s three natural precepts is also a natural right, and that a natural reciprocity between duty and right emerges. The duty of self-preservation is also the right of self-preservation, the duty to procreate the species is also the right to procreate, the duty to seek the truth is also the right to seek it, the duty to work for rational social relations is also the right to work for it.
Some easily identifiable applications emerge: Self-preservation includes avoiding unnecessary risks to the health and property of oneself or others. The duty to propagate the species implies the duty to nurture one’s offspring and not kill them off, as well as the right of Chinese women to propagate in spite of their nation’s “one child” policy. The right to know the truth involves educational policies and the duty to avoid brainwashing with ideologies. The duty to work for social improvement certainly has something to do with voting in democratic societies, and the right to do this certainly militates against the use of obstructive tactics for voters. And so forth. This is just the tip of the iceberg of clear applications that can be made while ignoring pseudo-issues like “what about my sexual identity?” or “what about the overpopulation crisis?”
Fr. George Ryan, C.S.P.
Port Richmond, New York
Despite providing some useful summations of natural-law concepts, Melinda Selmys is unnecessarily dismissive of its effective use in convincing the secular world to rethink its acceptance of such matters as abortion. She describes these efforts as a calculated “Trojan horse” in the culture wars. She prefers instead to endorse the view that moral understanding occurs as a collective, evolutionary, intellectual process, which can and should include teaching an appreciation for “diversity.” But she seems oblivious to the fact that diversity itself represents a contemporary Trojan horse smuggled in by secular forces seeking to undermine an honest understanding of universal, unchanging divine truths about the human condition. Cultural and moral relativism have come to be assumed by many who think of themselves as intelligent.
We can try to deny it, but God has given us the innate faculties to be able not only to recognize moral truth but also to recognize the moral consequences of our conceited avoidance of moral truth, insights that God has never withheld from any people, regardless of their educational background or location in history or geography. God is not a fool who delays revealing what is necessary to live morally. But we can be fools when we assume that we never delude ourselves about our intentions.
There is little consideration in Selmys’s article of sin (self-worship) and the cultural consequences of how ideas are often formulated in order to deny the reality of particularly favored sins at a given time or place in history. Her summation instead suggests that because there do not seem to be indisputably implicit or derivative particulars in the natural law, universally recognized in all human cultures, the theory is insufficiently descriptive of the human condition.
The failure to find universally articulated moral precepts hardly indicates the nonexistence or inadequacy of a divine endowment. Instead it provides overwhelming evidence for willful transgressions of moral truth and the cultural responses a fallen humanity creates when it attempts collectively to deny these transgressions.
The dumbest phrase ever concocted in the whole of human history, in any language, is pro-choice. One cannot be “for” an innate faculty of being human any more than one can be pro-eyeball or pro-earlobe. Yet this ridiculous phrase is widely expressed as though it makes perfect rational sense. This is truly a sign of a desperate cultural sophistry implemented to justify a crime against humanity that has effectively seduced hundreds of millions of minds in an era of history with hundreds of millions of university graduates. Obviously Plato was absurdly wrong about education being a cure for bad ethics. Education can just as easily encourage the cultivation of moral cowardice. Education or social engineering cannot displace the mysteries of the divine drama, the continuing conflict between good and evil that defines the personal pilgrimage of every human life.
Selmys is right about opportunities to re-articulate Christian precepts in creative ways and that an emphasis on the beauty of all truths about the human condition is a proper starting point. But she is wrong to downplay how God’s constant involvement in the life and mind of every individual in natural ways can be made obvious to anyone, even those without degrees in philosophy. Among the phenomenological insights of Bl. John Paul II was an emphasis that the capacity to discover, understand, and enjoy truth, including moral truth, is an experiential process in the lives of the uneducated as much as the educated. This can only be due to its origin in the mind of God. Failures to find truth originate in dishonest human pride, individually and collectively. Demonic levels of cultural mendacity are necessary to arrive at the conclusion that crushing the skull of an inconvenient baby is an acceptable “right.” And the real reason many people are so anxious to embrace overpopulation myths has nothing to do with serving long-term human interests and everything to do with providing a means to make individual consciences, repressed from having reduced life to a utilitarian commodity, seem reasonable.
Everyone gets angry, even those progressive “theologians” who sometimes pretend that the notion of sin is a contrivance of old men trying to make the young miserable. But what is anger other than the emotional expression that everyone has, has a right to have, and cannot help but have moral expectations of everyone else, an insight clearly endowed by providence? Selmys points out the irony of pseudo-philosopher Nietzsche’s moral assumptions while he simultaneously denounced objective morality but glosses over its significance. The very existence of human smugness reveals that we love to lie to ourselves. But sooner or later rationality enters the minds of those who assume the sinfulness of those preaching the concept of sin, and they come to realize their own incoherence. God provides graces even to nonbelievers.
To an age in which the word change has become a mindless mantra, our Lord asks, “How was it from the beginning?” Truth and the natural law, being entirely a reflection of the mind of God, exist from eternity to eternity. Teach the aesthetics of truth but never forget that, at times, despite the unpleasantness, the natural law needs to be presented in terms that explain that our hatred for it corresponds to our misguided love of self. This is necessary for the salvation of souls and the saving of inconvenient lives. There can never be anything “sterile” about this.
The Clarke Family
Sun City, California
At the end of her article, Melinda Selmys says that the cultural-wars mentality often causes conservatives to focus myopically on such issues as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. But does that necessarily detract from a respect for the inherent rights of the person, the beauty of human diversity, and the importance of individuality and authenticity?
She suggests that conservatives must find a way to appeal to the truths about the human person that the postmodern age has brought to the forefront. Certainly she doesn’t mean that we are supposed to start accepting abortion, contraception, and (practiced) homosexuality, which are deviations of the natural and supernatural law. The important issue here is how to love the sinner but hate the sin. How does she define that?
MELINDA SELMYS REPLIES:
I don’t despair of moving from general principles to specific applications; I merely agree with Aquinas that as to “the secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out from the human heart” (Summa II, q.94, a.6). The “clear applications” referenced above by Howard Kainz are not that clear to people who erroneously believe that population control is necessary for the survival of the species, or that their ideology is, in fact, the truth. The applications favored by Christian interpretations of the natural law are only clear, rational, and universal in reference to an a priori ideal of human flourishing found in the person of Christ.
I agree with Fr. George Ryan that it’s important to present those truths that flow from the natural law. My objection is that this cannot be done by referring to the natural law in public discourse. Arguments from the natural law have no clout in the public sphere because (a) there is no agreed-upon definition of human nature, or indeed of nature as such, (b) there is no recognition of a natural Lawgiver in whose authority the precepts of the natural law might be secured, and (c) the word nature has been completely sapped of all of its philosophical and theological meaning. Natural does not mean “in accord with the nature of a thing” anywhere outside of a philosophy department or a Catholic periodical. It may mean “not artificial,” “not tampered with,” “automatic,” “instinctive,” “biologically determined,” “organic,” “easy,” “not supernatural,” “uncivilized,” “rational,” “simple,” “not corrupt,” “not conventional,” “not yet perfected by grace,” to name a few. It appears most commonly as a marketing term, used in advertisements to imply that a product is being targeted toward environmentally conscious, health-savvy consumers. Attempts to assert a univocal meaning alien to common usage only lead to confusion and to endless circular arguments and miscommunications. The precepts of the natural law must therefore be translated into an idiom that is accessible to the postmodern ethos — and this must involve the promulgation of a positive and appealing image of the moral subject and his relationship to the truth.
The “love the sinner, hate the sin” formulation referenced by the Clarkes is problematic because it identifies the person first and foremost with his particular sin. This leads to an approach whereby love for the person is expressed largely through opposition to his sin, which is ultimately condescending and paternalistic. What is required is an attitude of humility toward the other, recognition that people have the right to be addressed as equals and to be valued in terms of their intrinsic dignity. Hatred for the sin is good when it arises in the context of a genuine, affective love shared between people. In such a context, hatred for the sin is bolstered by recognition of the real harm it does to a particular individual, rather than by a generalized and abstract sense of harm that turns the individual into a stereotype or a symbol of some social ill. Only within a personal relationship is it possible to offer fraternal correction gently and respectfully, in a way that clearly and practically demonstrates charity and love.
Ed. Note: For further discussion of the contemporary effectiveness of natural-law theory, see the article by Donald DeMarco in this issue, and Melinda Selmys’s reply that follows Dr. DeMarco’s article.
Richard J.T. Clark
Antidote to Anti-Logic
I have just taken out a subscription to your inspiring publication. Although I am a Presbyterian by birth and through enthusiastic indoctrination, I have come to believe that my branch of Protestantism has been murdered by the anti-logic virus that has infected Western thinking for decades now. Further, as a lifelong, devoted fan of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, I applaud your efforts and pray diligently for your success.
You Catholics saved Western civilization once before, so please have at it!
A Prison Scholar's Special Thanks
I would like to express my thanks once again to the NOR for the free subscription I have been receiving for the past year, and to those readers who have so generously donated to the Richard J.T. Clark Scholarship Fund, c/o St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries, allowing me to begin graduate theology studies via distance education from Franciscan University of Steubenville (see my Nov. 2011 letter, “A Prison Scholar’s Special Plea”). I recently completed my first course, “Philosophy of the Human Person,” taught by Dr. John F. Crosby, himself a student of the inestimable Dietrich von Hildebrand. This summer I began two more courses, thanks to the NOR and its readers, as well as my other benefactors. I couldn’t have done it without your help!
A Time to Speak or a Time to Keep Silence?
I am a member of a parish that I wish to leave because I am unimpressed by its catechetical program, which I need for my young daughter. I am also uncomfortable with my perception that the curate is too laid back and leaves the running of the parish largely to lay officers who are focused more on fundraising than religious instruction and witnessing to the faith. The curate himself is a decent enough fellow, but I don’t think he knows how to run a parish. I like him well enough not to want to offend him or hurt his feelings. So I intend to resign from his parish without explanation. Is this the right move, or should I tell him my real reasons for leaving? I will, of course, register at another parish.
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