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