Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: December 1985

Letters to the Editor: December 1985

“The Pope Strikes Out”?

Kenneth D. Whitehead’s trenchant analysis of the selec­tive morality of certain key con­servatives (“On the Bishops’ Draft Pastoral on the Economy and the Hostile Reactions to It,” Sept.) brings to mind the “confession” of a former associ­ate of mine, a diehard right-wing­er and lapsed Catholic, who told me of his longing for the liturgy of the “good old days” prior to Vatican II: “I liked it better back when the women would kneel at the Communion rail and the men would stand in the back, staring down and waiting for it all to be over.”

Regarding John Paul II’s Yankee Stadium address cited by Whitehead (where the Pope said, “You must never be content to leave them [the poor of the U.S. and the world] just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance, not just of your abundance, in order to help them”): no doubt the Buckleys, Bethells, and Novaks of this world would like to retitle the address “Bad Day at the Ball­park” or “The Pope Strikes Out.”

Stephen C. Settle

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Disappointing & Puzzling

Kenneth D. Whitehead’s September article on the bishops’ first draft of their pastoral on the economy was both disappointing and puzzling.

It was disappointing be­cause Whitehead, like most of those who have defended the draft, spent more time attacking its critics than expounding its positive content.

The article was puzzling in that some of Whitehead’s own sketchy criticisms touched most of the main objections of the draft’s critics: for example, that it (1) does not attempt to under­stand how wealth is created; (2) does not examine the reasons for the failure of social programs; and (3) does not quantify the cost of its recommendations.

The first point is basically what Michael Novak and William Simon’s Lay Commission argued in its defense of capitalism. Whether or not one agrees with the conservative critics, they took the bishops seriously in try­ing to carry on an argument in terms of the merits of different systems.

Whitehead’s second and third objections should have set off alarm bells: surely it is not the bishops’ duty or function to calculate the cost of social pro­grams.

Dr. James G. Colbert Jr.

Fitchburg State College

Fitchburg, Massachusetts

Moles & Spiritual Illiterates

Kenneth D. Whitehead (Sept.) chides those who criticize our inept activist bishops. Better to chide the moles who sowed the time bomb of Vatican II and the spiritually illiterate priests, nuns, and brothers. When is the last time these people taught the Graces, Kennedys, Cuomos, Moynihans, et al. the pre-Vatican II social encyclicals?

John F. Morrison

Brooklyn, New York

Failing To See the Revolution in Social Teaching

Kenneth D. Whitehead’s de­fense of the first draft of the bishops’ pastoral on the econo­my (Sept.) was a good traditional one. When responding to the politically conservative critics who feel that churchmen should speak only on matters of person­al morality — leaving politics, economics, and other “serious” topics to properly ordained con­servative pundits — one can do no better than to quote from the long tradition of Catholic social teaching to demonstrate their er­ror.

While this traditional de­fense made for a good polemic, it unfortunately failed to uncover the revolution in Catholic social teaching that lies just below the surface of the pastoral. Indeed, the primary problem with the bishops’ first draft is that it is a house divided against itself. On the one hand, the pastoral at­tempts to maintain the Church’s traditional interest in distributive justice, captured in the locution, “a preferential option for the poor.” On the other hand, the pastoral attempts to transcend this traditional interest and come to grips with the revolution in Catholic social teaching that first saw the light of day in John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens and is still struggling to find its full articula­tion.

In Laborem Exercens, John Paul challenged us to discover the “new meanings of human work,” specifically, to under­stand the subjective nature of work and to realize that the first beneficiary of all work must be the worker himself, because it is through his work that he partici­pates in the construction of the New Community and thereby finds self-realization. Hence a concern for distributive justice is no longer enough.

Participation as a subject — rather than distributive justice — has become the pole star of Cath­olic social teaching. And “the preferential option for the poor” includes not only those who lack material goods, but all who do not participate as subjects in the economic system. Hence, the idle rich are united with the idle poor because both suffer from the same type of crippling poverty: the spiritual poverty caused by their idleness. Both spiritual poverty and material poverty are seen to be caused by a system that prevents all men from par­ticipating as subjects in the work of rebuilding the New Commu­nity.

Thus, the primary criticism to be made of the bishops’ first draft, which both liberals and conservatives have failed to make, is that the bishops’ have awkwardly attempted to shoe­horn two different conceptions of Catholic social teaching into one document: the Church’s tra­ditional concern with distributive justice and John Pau II’s new concern with the subjective na­ture of work. To remedy this confusion, the bishops must ei­ther throw out John Paul’s new insights on work; or, after making the appropriate bow to tradi­tion, they must struggle to articulate further John Paul’s as-yet-unrecognized revolution in Cath­olic social teaching.

Prof. Brien Hallett

Department of English, University of Hawaii

Honolulu, Hawaii


I was surprised (and thrill­ed) to see your ad in The New Republic (Sept. 16 & 23), of all places. I hope it was successful.

Patrick O’Reilly

Pepper Pike, Ohio

Ed. Note: Yes, very successful.

Prove Me Wrong

Your ad in The New Repub­lic was sheer Madison Avenue, but without any redemptive slickness.

I’ve yet to find a Catholic periodical that is not bland to the point of being disgusting. Never any surprises. Too full of rank piety and defense of the sta­tus quo. My experience has been that Catholic clerics and layper­sons are timid and feckless.

It is apodictically impossi­ble for a Catholic magazine, whether lay or cleric, to be ob­jective, informative, non-propagandistic, uncensorious, non-authoritarian, and literary. You say you find the “suffocating arms of a Rev. Moon or a Jerry Falwell” unacceptable, but is the inquisitorial, fearmongering, and judgmental embrace of the senes­cent Catholic hierarchy so ten­der?

Nevertheless, I would like to be proved wrong at your expense. Send me a sample copy at your risk and show me you have something unique to offer.

Anne P. Schrader

Queens Village, New York

Ed. Note: We have complied with your unusual request, and await your reply with fear and trembling.

Saving Lives, the Nuclear Way

The 40th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Na­gasaki has provided new forums for those who demand the aboli­tion of nuclear arms. Now Fr. Henri J.M. Nouwen has attempt­ed to provide a spiritual founda­tion for this position (“Peace, A Gift We Receive in Prayer,” Sept.) but he, in his criticism of President Truman’s decision to detonate the atomic blasts, ig­nores the historical realities of World War II. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons accomplished their purpose: to end the war with the least cost in blood.

Japan was effectively de­feated in the summer of 1945, her stolen imperial borders driv­en back to the homeland, but Ja­pan refused to surrender. Plans were developed for an Allied in­vasion under MacArthur, an invasion that Churchill’s intelligence branch estimated would cost the lives of one million American sol­diers, a half million British troops, and 10 million Japanese civilians. President Truman gam­bled that an overwhelming demonstration of destructive power would force the Japanese govern­ment to realize its defeat. This realization required two bombs and 140,000 lives, yet many mil­lions of lives were saved.

One life was that of an 18-year-old Navy seaman on a troop carrier stationed in the Philip­pines. He would have ferried troops into hostile waters and onto bloody beaches in an inva­sion of the Japanese homeland. The bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki sent him away from the terrors of war toward home, where he married and reared four children, of whom I am the old­est. If the United States had not summoned the moral courage to employ its nuclear weapons, would he be one of the millions who would now lie under rows of stark white crosses beside the beaches or sleep in silent tombs deep beneath the seas?

Bryant Burroughs

Canal Fulton, Ohio

Judge Not?

The lessons of what W.H. Auden called “the low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s seem to have eluded Fr. Henri J.M. Nouwen (“Saying ‘No’ to Death in All Its Manifestations,” Oct.). He is strangely silent about the fact that the world could have been spared the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust had Britain and France militarily opposed Hitler’s first tentative aggres­sions. Certain that they would do so and aware of Germany’s rela­tive inferiority, Hitler’s generals were terrified by Hitler’s early predations, until they discovered that his assessment of his oppo­nents’ will to resist was correct. At the helm of the British state was Neville Chamberlain, whose resemblance to Nouwen’s proto­typical peacemaker is uncanny. A good man, genuinely desirous of peace, he refused to “stereo­type” Hitler as an aggressor, choosing to accept his assurances of peaceful intent. The true prophet of the era, whose warn­ings went unheeded until it was almost too late, was, of course, Churchill.

Despite his inherently ab­surd assertion that peacemakers should never judge anybody, Nouwen is quite prepared to de­fend his own judgments by using the intellectually disreputable, but time-honored, tactic of impugning the judgment and/or motives of those who question them. For example, challenges to his sanguine view of the present Nicaraguan government elicit the following comments: “People would say ‘But shouldn’t we be aware that Russia is trying to gain a foothold there and that we are increasingly being threatened by communism?’ Such remarks made me see that long before we start a war, kill people, or de­stroy nations, we have already killed our enemies mentally by making them into abstractions with which no real, intimate, hu­man relationship is possible.” In other words, legitimate concerns that the Sandinista government threatens not only its neighbors but its own people amount to “killing our enemies mentally,” and those who express them are in thrall to “deadening stereo­types.”

One would be tempted sim­ply to dismiss Nouwen’s article were it not that its blend of psy­chologizing, political romanti­cism, and moral arrogance, sprin­kled with snippets of Scripture, today passes for profound reli­gious and social insight among many Catholics, including intel­lectuals. Whatever happened to the idea that the first moral duty is to think clearly? Or must judg­ments of any kind now be con­sidered morally suspect?

Mary M. Ash

Stanford, California

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