Letters to the Editor: January-February 2021
Dripping with Envy
The adage, “We see things not as they are but as we are,” applies to Ewa Thompson’s guest column “Lives that Don’t Matter” (Nov). In it she tells us more about herself than about the fine children’s book she tries to disparage. What does she reveal? Her column drips with envy. “Whenever we push one group to the forefront [i.e., blacks], it is inevitable that other groups [i.e., people of Slavic descent] must recede to the background,” Thompson writes. If her goal is to elicit empathy for Slavic people, she fails completely.
The qualities Thompson reveals are not endearing in any person, but what makes matters worse is that she dresses up — no pun intended — her grievances in her own air of superiority and an I-know-better-than-you attitude. “Why hasn’t it occurred to any of them [countless schoolteachers, some of whom are Catholic] that the book reeks of contempt for a particular ethnicity?” she asks. This last aspect of Thompson’s critique of The Hundred Dresses is its biggest flaw. She treats those who value the book with the same condescension and patronizing attitude she accuses its author, Eleanor Estes, of having toward her protagonist, Wanda Petronski, and, by implication, any person “of non-Germanic, Central European background, primarily those of Polish ethnicity.”
Keeping in mind how I began my letter, I will share why I value this book and even taught it for a few years in Catholic schools, not worrying about what I will reveal about myself in so doing.
At various times in my life, I have been bullied like Wanda: I was tormented for more than a year at a Catholic school, beginning in sixth grade, with the epithet “you’re a virgin” because I didn’t kiss a girl. And I have been the bully like Maddie and Peggy: I grew up in Chicago, where Polish people were often the punchline, and I repeated many of these jokes. I can honestly say that I have more regret and remorse at having been a bully than I have pain from having been bullied, although both have shaped how I try to treat people. So yes, I can understand the importance and necessity of why, as Thompson complains, “At the conclusion of the book, what matters is not Wanda’s fate but the ‘conversion to goodness’ of Maddie and Peggy.” I think therein lies its pedagogical merit, which Thompson misses as she wallows in her Slavic-lives-don’t-matter mentality.
Thompson laments the fact that Wanda’s classmates “bully her mercilessly,” yet “Wanda does not respond; she just absorbs their punishment…. Wanda is only a recipient of the actions of others. Her feelings are of no interest; they are never articulated, even via narration. She rarely speaks; she is a marginal person.” Yet in this lies the book’s potential force and effectiveness, at least in the hands of a wise and skillful teacher, if he keeps in mind Matthew 27:12 (“When Jesus was accused by the chief priests, he made no answer”) and Matthew 12:37 (“By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned”).
Wanda’s portrayal speaks to the condition of any marginalized person or group, in that they are made to feel voiceless and unimportant, that they lack humanity in the eyes of those who consider themselves superior but who are in fact not. If Wanda had spoken out in self-defense, wasn’t “stooped and miserable looking,” had nice clothes like the other girls, and wasn’t the child of a war refugee but was on a higher social rung, then it would be a completely different story. No longer would there be the opportunity for a teacher to get his students to reflect on how they might have denied another person’s humanity by treating him as inferior based on any number of personal qualities. Thompson misses the forest for the trees as she focuses solely on the fact that Wanda is Polish, rather than on how this story can be used to combat prejudice against any type of person or group.
Would Thompson prefer that Wanda were Irish or Italian, Russian or German, or a Jew? Or would she prefer that no stories be written or told in which some person or group is marginalized? If I had used this criterion in deciding whether to teach a novel, then, to use one example, I never would have taught The Outsiders for fear of negatively portraying students from an upper socioeconomic class, the Socs, not wanting to use them as “merely a stage prop in the drama of the more fully realized American schoolchildren’s lives” — i.e., those of the Greasers.
Yes, I have sympathy for anyone who has been wounded by having been made to feel inferior. I do not want to appear flippant by saying, “That’s life. Deal with it,” because that does nothing to alleviate a person’s suffering, even though suffering is an inevitable part of life, regardless of one’s gender, age, religion, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity. Thompson may believe she is helping people of Slavic descent. She is not; rather, she is crippling them by playing the victim card. Yes, let’s fight for justice for all. When used well, The Hundred Dresses can be an effective tool in this fight.
Fort Wayne, Indiana
EWA THOMPSON REPLIES:
A polemic that starts with an ad hominem attack based on a brief review is hardly worth answering. Let me try, however, to explain to Brian Dunne why his personal attack seems ill-directed. Mr. Dunne says that I “drip with envy” and that my column reveals more about me than about the “fine” children’s book about which I wrote. I am not sure whom I am supposed to envy: Wanda, the mistreated Polish girl; the bullying girls, Maddie and Peggy; or the author, Eleanor Estes. I am really at a loss concerning Mr. Dunne’s bad mood.
Attacking the messenger rather than the message is a peculiar way of responding to a critical review of a text, but let me say that it is perhaps inevitable as the first reaction to the defense of a minority that has seldom been defended. If instead of a Polish girl, Ms. Estes’s book featured, say, a black one (and I were black), Dunne’s attack would have sounded bizarre to everyone. To me, it sounds bizarre as is — not to use a stronger word — because I am familiar with many other examples of the situation Estes so callously conjures up. Among books dealing with this issue, I recommend M.B.B. Biskupski’s Hollywood’s War with Poland 1939-1945 (2009).
I should add that I got acquainted with The Hundred Dresses because an outraged American Polish father gave it to me and asked me to respond. His daughters came home crying after being exposed to it in school.
To attribute envy to an attempt to give voice to the voiceless takes me aback, especially as it comes from a person who claims to have taught at a Catholic school. To compare a child being bullied by her schoolmates to Christ keeping silent before the judges indicates a gross inability to make fine distinctions. It is perfectly acceptable for a writer to present characters who treat other characters cruelly, but this is not what my column was about. It was about the attitude of authors like Estes who demonstrate their own “matter of course” prejudice against persons from non-Germanic Central Europe (and please, learn the difference between Polish and “Slavic”).
Right in Line
Pete Jermann’s article “Choose Your Own Eternity” (Oct.) is right in line with Church teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves…. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’” (no. 1033).
Pope St. John Paul II echoed this teaching in his weekly audience of July 28, 1999: “God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely, can unfortunately choose to reject his love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life ‘hell.’”
John Paul II went on to say, “‘Eternal damnation,’ therefore, is not attributed to God’s initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In reality, it is the creature who closes himself to his love. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice for ever. God’s judgment ratifies this state.”
I am inclined to say that we are not punished for our sins but by our sins. Our sinful choices have natural consequences, one of which can be eternal separation from God and the Communion of Saints.
Fr. James Kubicki, S.J.
St. Francis, South Dakota
Pete Jermann’s insightful article raises questions as to the purpose of reward and punishment. Are they ends in themselves to compliment a winner or to rectify injustice? I do not believe that God cares anything about such comparisons. He only wants our love, which is not a function of how we stack up against others. It is a function of our desire to be properly “dressed for the wedding.”
God can control anything He wants except our desire. God’s only desire is our desire to see and love Him in Truth through our free will. I believe that reward and punishment are special circumstances in life that He allows to guide and enlighten our desire to see and love Him who is Truth. Our prayer should always be for God’s help to enhance our desire to accept and return His love. He longs for nothing more.
Truth is relational love — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — for which we, the created, were made to participate in with Him, the Creator. To my mind, Hell exists not as a punishment but as our creation of untruth created by sin. Sin changes the soul to be of its own making, not made in the image and likeness of God to abide with God forever. Therefore, Hell is simply a self-created eternal state of the soul devoid of God.
I confess to being an annual anticipatory viewer of Groundhog Day every February 2, yet not feeling banished to the Underworld should I miss it. There is always tomorrow and tomorrow and….
The movie, nearly three decades old, has a small but perfectly cast group of actors, supported by a townful of extras and bit players. Its director and co-writer, the late Harold Remis, was a humble and joyful man, and he worked the characters brilliantly. The DVD includes his commentary in a special feature called The Weight of Time, as well as praise and accolades from Buddhist, yoga, Jesuit, and evangelical leaders, all of whom attest, “This is exactly what we have taught for ages.”
A Hollywood ending? Sure. But Pete Jermann, in his otherwise substantive analysis, seems to have missed the spiritual growth from selfishness and self-centeredness to selflessness and compassion, so key to Bill Murray’s character.
David Brooks, M.D.
PETE JERMANN REPLIES:
I thank Fr. James Kubicki for complementing my article with references to the Catechism and the words of Pope St. John Paul II. William Forti starts where I start and ends where I end. I think our paths between may be stated differently, but they are essentially the same. Mr. Forti, like me, questions the idea of reward and punishment as part of a divine plan, embraces it as somehow necessary, and yet agrees with me that Hell is not really punishment but “a self-created eternal state of the soul devoid of God.”
He would be right that we can’t quite dispense with reward and punishment, for they are integral to the Bible and to the lives we live. In the Old Testament, reward and punishment serve justice and clearly seem to be part of the divine plan. Yet in the New Testament, Jesus is unjustly subjected to the most horrendous punishment man could devise at the time. Rather than condemning and invoking Hell on the unjust, He dies forgiving those who crucified Him. This seeming contradiction between the Old Testament and the New Testament, however, reflects our own lives. We all live the Old Testament on the way to the revelation of the New Testament. We begin as children living in the gray and gloomy fog that is Original Sin. As children, we cannot fully grasp Christ on the Cross but can clearly understand and respond to punishment and reward. Hopefully, associating pain with evil deeds, and pleasure with good deeds, leads us to desire the good over the bad, which I think is Forti’s point.
Once our desires are properly directed, however, we begin to transcend the fog of Original Sin and, for the first time, begin to see beyond the grayness to the light beyond. We leave the Old Testament and enter the New. When our sole experience is endless gray fog, our imagined reward can only be a variation on the grayness we know. We cannot imagine a light we have never known. But to see the sun, to feel its warmth, is an entirely new experience, one that transcends the fog entirely. No longer do we act to avoid punishments inflicted or rewards offered. We want the light because we know it is good. We want it for the very thing it is.
The New Testament reveals that light in Christ. To see the love of Christ crucified is to understand the words we speak as a congregation at Mass before proceeding to Communion, “Lord, I am not worthy.” To have Jesus is beyond anything we can merit, which “reward” implies. Not to have Him, to be “devoid of God,” as Forti states, is Hell, a state not imposed by just authority in the manner of punishment but one that is self-inflicted.
I appreciate Dr. David Brooks’s comments and did not mean to appear a curmudgeon regarding the joyful ending of Groundhog Day, which I also find both uplifting and thoroughly enjoyable. I wish all who have fallen such a joyful ending. On reflection, though, it is only with the light of Christ that those endings are possible. It is that light that gives all in Purgatory a hope that radically differentiates it from Hell. Without that light and the hope it brings, Phil’s redemption makes for satisfying entertainment but an ending that, I believe, remains theologically suspect.
Against Anglican Stereotypes
Shame on David Mills for his less than charitable description of Anglicans (Last Things, Oct.). As a former Anglican himself, he knows that many of us are not at all as he describes: people who only want “lovely services, music, words, soothing homilies, sherry in the garden afterwards with [others] who also watch PBS and vote Democratic, and no requirements to live much differently than [they] do already.”
If Mills has forgotten that Anglicans can lead the kind of sacrificial lives he thinks are necessary for our witness to this present age, I would gladly introduce him to the young clergy of our diocese who are working day jobs to plant new congregations, homeschooling their several children, struggling to find affordable health insurance, and living on the donations of others who support their work.
While there are undoubtedly many Anglicans who do fit Mills’s description, there are also many Roman Catholics who live similar kinds of lives. What is the saying about people who live in glass houses?
The Rev. David Montzingo
Canon for Clergy Formation, Diocese of Western Anglicans, Anglican Church in North America
San Diego, California
DAVID MILLS REPLIES:
I should have been clearer that I meant mainstream Anglicanism as it actually exists, in the Episcopal Church. I apologize for that. Of course I know, and know personally, examples of the old-fashioned religion Mr. Montzingo describes, and admire them. What I wrote is pretty much the same thing friends and former colleagues who have left the Episcopal Church for new bodies like Montzingo’s ACNA say about the Episcopal Church. It is significant that he and they had to leave mainstream Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church to find the kind of thing he describes.
Admiration & Recognition
I read Christopher M. Reilly’s “On Nurturing Man’s Spiritual Relationship with Technology” (Nov.) with admiration and recognition.
Reilly captures with eloquence the paradoxical relationship that spiritual persons have with technology. Some of us enjoy many of the newest devices (he mentions his Fitbit and digital tablet; I’d add my Rosary app!), while at the same time we feel uneasy, as we know there is no technology that can ever give us anything close to the “existential warmth” we crave as human beings with a God-given purpose.
Reilly nailed the description of our society as “stuck in something like a universal manifestation of a mid-life crisis”; we search for youth and efficiency in slick new gadgets while avoiding the more meaningful realities of our mortality and ultimate lack of control.
It was poignant to consider that his advice for us to bring God to our neighbor “with a firm handshake and a loving smile” is hard to pull off with masks and social distancing, but his point is even more crucial: Especially in these fraught times, we must dedicate ourselves to finding creative ways for authentic and warm human connections, reaching out personally, as he suggests, to our “alienated youth and lonely elders.”
Maria McFadden Maffucci
Editor in Chief, Human Life Review
New York, New York
Historically Fuzzy & Poorly Focused
I bought a subscription to the NOR for a friend, citing its focus on factual and persuasive writing, with its application of valid logic (specifically, no ad hominem attacks). His first issue was October 2020.
Imagine my surprise and dismay, then, to find part of Pieter Vree’s column “The Fires This Time” (New Oxford Notebook) historically fuzzy, poorly focused, and disrespectful. Vree characterizes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reconsecration of a museum into a mosque as a “desecration” of a Catholic church. Vree identifies Hagia Sofia as a building that has been present since A.D. 360, suggesting it had been Catholic since then, when clearly it had been Orthodox since 1054, at least until “marauding Muslims captured Constantinople.” That’s how Vree underplays the centuries-long war between the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires and the 55-day siege that eventually breached the walls of Constantinople in 1453, when the structure became a mosque. It was Kemal Atatürk who turned the mosque into a museum. So Hagia Sofia has not been Catholic for more than half a millennium, yet Vree’s umbrage at Erdoğan’s reconsecration of the building as a mosque made it sound like this was a new desecration. Hardly.
As to Pope Francis’s reaction, I am surprised that he even expressed sadness. I am sure his sadness is more for the people of Turkey, Muslims as well as Christians. In any event, please remain respectful of the Pope. And don’t say silly things like “a historic Catholic cathedral…is stolen on Francis’s watch.” I believe Erdoğan’s actions merit fact-finding and comment. I recommend Vree focus on that, and not offer some poorly constructed strawman, suggesting Pope Francis lost possession of Hagia Sofia.
John L. Dyer
Pieter Vree uses the current attacks on Catholics and Catholic churches to deliver yet another criticism of Pope Francis, saying his reaction to Turkey’s unilateral repurposing of Hagia Sofia back into a mosque is “underwhelming.”
There is good reason for religious leaders to be circumspect regarding this situation, and that is the fate of the Catholic and Orthodox Christians who reside within the reach of Erdoğan’s regime. Consider Erdoğan’s hostile reaction four years ago to Francis’s calling the 1915 Armenian massacre a genocide.
It is not hard at all to see why neither Francis nor Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople strongly condemned Erdoğan’s actions. It is not hard at all to understand that they are prioritizing the living members of the Church over the issue of who has control of a building. Strong condemnations will have no effect on what is essentially a despot’s muscle-flexing but could very well result in further punitive actions against Turkish Christians and the remaining Christian art inside Hagia Sofia.
Some incidents in this pontificate are deserving of criticism, but this is not one of them.
PIETER VREE REPLIES:
It was not my intention to suggest that Hagia Sofia has been a Catholic possession since A.D. 360. In fact, I was careful to call it a “historical Catholic cathedral” (rather than a “current Catholic cathedral”) that “truly and properly belongs to Christendom and is part of the heritage of all Christians” (not just Catholics).
Where I could have been more careful was in stating that “upon reconstruction [after it was torched in 532], Hagia Sofia became the world’s largest and most important Catholic church. And it stayed that way for the next 900-plus years, until 1453, hundreds of years after the Great Schism split Christianity into East and West, when marauding Muslims captured Constantinople for the Ottoman Empire.”
I regret that, in striving for brevity, I glossed over the fact that, after the Great Schism in 1054, Constantinople became Eastern Orthodox, and hence Hagia Sofia became an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. I could have been more specific in delineating this fact, and I apologize for my oversight.
As for Pope Francis, Hagia Sofia does, as I said, truly and properly belong to Christendom and is part of the heritage of all Christians. The Pope, as the de facto leader of all Christendom (whether or not our separated brethren recognize his authority), has a stake in its disposition. Other stakeholders, both secular and religious, openly expressed dismay and outrage at Erdoğan’s blatant provocation — yes, even other Christian leaders, such as Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, whom I cited. Why not Francis?
Perhaps, as we’ve come to suspect, Christian history isn’t a priority to this Pope; hence his reluctance to admit to any emotion stronger than sadness at the reconsecration of Hagia Sofia as an Islamic mosque. (Try convincing the Catholics whom Francis sold out to the despotic Chinese communist regime that he is “prioritizing the living members of the Church.” The communists didn’t give up their “punitive actions” against Chinese Catholics once Francis brokered his infamous deal with the CCP.)
If, as John L. Dyer suggests, the Pope was expressing sadness for the Christians and Muslims of Turkey, Francis will have to come harder than that. Sadness is an inadequate response to the ongoing, vicious persecution of Christians by Muslims in Turkey, a despicable phenomenon that has increased during Erdoğan’s rule, and one that will likely be invigorated by the Turkish president’s latest display of dominance over his purported enemies. As history has amply shown, appeasement is a losing policy.
War: In the Interest of Catholic Civilization?
One might have hoped that after 30 years of bumbling and often unjust U.S. military interventions in various parts of the world — notably the Middle East — the jingoistic type of patriotism, once so common among American Catholics, might have faded away. But apparently not, if Michael Wisniewski’s guest column “How the West Was Lost” (Nov.) is any evidence. Wisniewski celebrates the enthusiastic response by American Catholics in World Wars I and II, without a hint of critical reflection about whether such unthinking responses to a government’s war moves are in order.
It is true that in World War II we faced an enemy particularly evil. And we were attacked as well. But was World War I that clear? Were Woodrow Wilson’s messianic dreams of a world safe for democracy really worth fighting for? Was his historically ignorant insistence on remaking Central and Eastern Europe according to his shallow notions of self-determination really in the interests of Catholic civilization? Does the fact that a ruler of one of the countries we went to war against, Karl of Austria-Hungary, is well along on the path to sainthood not give Mr. Wisniewski pause for thought? Woodrow Wilson will certainly never be canonized, nor will James Cardinal Gibbons, who, upon declaration of war, immediately pledged the full support of American Catholics for Wilson’s scheme.
Wisniewski is worried that no Catholics might be available to fight World War III. He even laments that “our universities…have long sought to breed contempt for American exceptionalism.” I certainly hope so! That would be one good thing they have done in the midst of promoting political correctness and downplaying the Western Christian intellectual tradition.
Wars can be just, yes. But the past three decades have shown us that we need to critically examine the reasons governments give for the wars they want to fight and not unthinkingly throw ourselves, and our young people, into conflicts that are too often stupid and unjust.
What rational young American would answer a call to fight in World War III, given the horrors that have ensued from our nation’s involvement in 125 years of foreign wars? How many of the 661 parishioners of St. Joseph’s in Jersey City, whom Michael Wisniewski references, went to fight in World War I willingly, and how many were dragooned into military servitude by the draft?
What was patriotic about shipping our young men to another continent to die in a war that was needlessly prolonged despite the heroic efforts of Pope Benedict XV and Kaiser Karl to broker a just peace? Were the deaths of 117,000 of them, to protect the War Bond investments of East Coast banking houses, worthwhile?
How can Wisniewski gloss over the bitter fruits of “Woodrow Wilson’s War” — namely, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and the tens of millions of civilian deaths that followed in its wake? Wasn’t World War II a direct result of its predecessor, as predicted by Marshal Ferdinand Foch after the Treaty of Versailles? Didn’t Pope Pius XII say, “Nothing is lost with peace. Everything may be lost in war” (apostolic letter Decennium Dum Expletur)?
Michael Wisniewski’s guest column brought back memories of growing up in Jersey City during the 1940s and 1950s. One of my favorite memories is the annual Holy Name Parade along Hudson (now Kennedy) Blvd., in which the men of the Holy Name Society and other men of each of the many nearby parishes marched proudly, often counting cadence. The Holy Name Society was strong then. Men would commit to a weekly hour — any time of night or day — to come together before the Blessed Sacrament for prayer and adoration. Catholic life itself was strong then. In fact, if someone asked you where you were from, you would simply say the name of your parish; that was a key part of our identity.
As a kid, I loved the Holy Name Parade: So many men, all dressed in suits, ties, and “spit-shined” shoes, coming parish by parish with their church banners and papal and American flags. I was always thrilled and proud when my father came in sight with the men of our parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. We kids would ride alongside on our bikes with streamers wrapped around them and pieces of cardboard attached to spokes by clothespins to make a “motorcycle” sound.
To be allowed to march in the parade, one had to be draft age. I could not wait until I was 18 to be able to join the men and represent my parish. Unfortunately, things had begun to change through the 1950s, and by the time I was old enough to march in 1958, there was no more Holy Name Parade, and many men had left for the suburbs. Soon after, Vatican II sent shockwaves through the Church, and the Beatles and Rolling Stones became the role models for so many young people, especially young men.
It would be a gross overstatement to say that Catholic men totally disappeared, but as America became more and more fatherless, so did the Church, as men abdicated their roles and responsibilities of safeguarding the faith. Today, as in generations past, the Church needs strong men, fatherly men, to stand for Jesus and the Gospel against a militant anti-God, anti-Catholic superculture. Reviving the Holy Name Society might be a good place to start.
Warren, New Jersey
Michael Wisniewski describes some of the problems facing the Catholic Church today: plummeting Mass attendance and the lack of young parishioners. However, he fails to mention a coherent cause.
The number of young parishioners is low because birth control is almost universally accepted, and many Catholic couples use artificial contraception to delay pregnancy until they complete their education or can afford to purchase a home. This diminishes the number of child-bearing years a couple has and results in fewer children than they could have had, as God intended.
As I pray outside the local abortion clinic, I often see pregnant women being driven in by their boyfriends or parents in vehicles with Rosaries dangling from the rearview mirrors. I fear that Catholics abort at the same rate as everyone else.
It is this lack of children that has emptied our churches. Demography is destiny. The solution to this death spiral is forceful teaching from the pulpit that artificial contraception is intrinsically evil and morally unacceptable (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2370 and 2377).
However, I have personally encountered a prince of the Church, a successor of the Apostles, who stated that contraception is a matter of private morality while abortion is a matter of public morality. On checking the Catechism, I found no reference to these two types of morality. Upon further correspondence, it appears he meant that the morality of contraception is a matter of personal conscience.
It is true that culpability for a sin depends on knowledge that it is a sin, but, unfortunately, the aftereffects of sin remain even if there is no culpability. Sadly, many priests have promoted the idea that contraception is a matter of personal conscience. That contraception is a grievous sin is hardly ever mentioned in Sunday homilies, perhaps for fear of losing parishioners and contributions. But the long-term losses are even greater than the short-term losses.
Ballston Spa, New York
MICHAEL WISNIEWSKI REPLIES:
One may argue the ethical merits of the foreign policy of the United States and be surprised at how those same arguments are applicable to every state in history, not to mention ancient Rome. And yet, Our Lord expressed a profound fondness for Roman soldiers. He could have rebuked Rome’s brutal efficiency as a war machine, its reputation for innovative savagery in the business of dealing death, and its cruel leadership. At the very least, Our Lord could have released Rome’s loyal legions from their military duty and called them to a higher, nonviolent vocation. Instead, He marveled at the Roman centurion’s faith.
When soldiers asked St. John the Baptist what they were to do, his answer included “be content with your pay” (Lk. 3:14). Soldiers have a responsibility to duty few civilians can appreciate. Regardless of their leadership, they execute orders with precision and obedience. Perhaps that is also why the Catholic faith flourished so quickly among Roman armies.
In a similar sense, and without arguing the merits of Wilson’s involvement in the First World War (although there is much to be said of life under European imperial rule), we can marvel at the sacrifices of past generations and tremble at the eroding mettle of future ones. Perhaps many of the parishioners of St. Joseph’s in Jersey City who made the ultimate sacrifice disagreed with Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Perhaps some were reluctantly drafted into military service. What should give Catholics pause today is not the benevolence of a particular commander-in-chief but how much Catholics will contribute when they hear the call to serve. “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Or will the battle cry of the next Lepanto be By jingo?
The Phases of Vaccine Development
Regarding Kevin Callahan’s letter (Nov.) in response to Michael S. Rose’s column on John le Carré’s book The Constant Gardener (Literature Matters, Sept.): It was my good fortune to have been invited in 1979 to become a senior scientist at the first pharmaceutical company to be located in Research Triangle Park of North Carolina after it moved from Tuckahoe, New York. Its research teams had already discovered medications for gout, kidney transplantation, malaria, and, fortuitously thereby, the first drugs for leukemia. Until this time, the only drugs useful for infectious diseases were active solely against bacterial organisms (e.g., sulfas and penicillin). The first drugs shown to be active against viral diseases such as herpes came from this company. Their mechanisms of action depended on their ability to inhibit viral DNA and RNA replication. As Mr. Callahan remarks, this heralded the advent of drugs like azidothymidine for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. These discoveries were recognized by the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings in 1988.
To follow Callahan’s concern, in regard to the clinical development of a vaccine for COVID-19, Mr. Rose, while acknowledging that “no one would argue that Africans are not as deserving as those on any other continent of receiving a vaccine to a potentially deadly disease,” objects that “black Africans of the poorest nations [Cameroon, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and the poorest parts of South Africa] are being used as guinea pigs for this vaccine.”
The clinical development of vaccines is a three-phase process. During Phase I, small groups of people receive the trial vaccine. During Phase II, the clinical study is expanded, and the vaccine is given to people who have characteristics (such as the quality of their health) similar to those for whom the new vaccine is intended. During Phase III, the vaccine is given to thousands of people and tested for efficacy and safety. (Many vaccines undergo Phase IV formal, ongoing studies after the vaccine is approved and licensed.) It seems Rose would eliminate all black Africans from any phase of the development of the vaccine for COVID-19.
Thomas E. Williams, M.D.
Canyon Lake, Texas
Kevin Callahan’s claim that pharmaceutical products have “saved countless lives all over the globe” reeks of blind or biased advocacy. Pharmaceutical products often do alleviate symptoms, but except for antibiotics, they do not cure anything.
I’ve been a pharmacist for over 60 years. I know the business inside and out. Today’s pharmacy is a far cry from what it used to be, and should be, before Big Pharma took over the profession.
In pharmacy school, Prof. Cyrus Cox taught us to become practitioners of “the noble and ancient art of the apothecary.” Only a relatively few pharmacists practice that way anymore, and they often suffer ignominy as quacks. Yet people still flock to them after traditional “health care” has failed.
We all know there are potentially dangerous side effects to today’s “miracle” pharmaceuticals, rattled off during creative TV ads. Does anyone listen to those side effects? Unfortunately, those spoken side effects are not the only side effects. Worse, said side effects are glossed over by accompanying warm, enticing visuals filled with puppies, babies, and mom and dad dancing, hugging, or looking lovingly at each other.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, Big Pharma medications cause nearly 130,000 deaths per year, making prescription drugs the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S.
Think about how those drugs are sold. When you are sick, the charming doctor you love and trust may prescribe for you the latest and most fantastic Big Pharma drug. Where did he learn about it? Most likely from a sales rep who regularly visits his office. You take the prescription to your pharmacy, and you receive the Big Pharma med ordered for you by your doctor. Do you get the circular financial picture? In my learned opinion, this isn’t “health care.” It’s big business.
Barbara Morris, R.Ph.
MICHAEL S. ROSE REPLIES:
It is unclear why Thomas E. Williams concludes that I “would eliminate all black Africans from any phase of the development of the vaccine for COVID-19.” I never said that, nor do I have any opinion on the matter. I simply believe — as did John le Carré and his protagonist in The Constant Gardener — that the poorest of the poor should be accorded the same dignity as everyone else in the world. Too often the most vulnerable and desperate are targeted for medical experimentation under the premise that the end justifies the means.
Certainly, pharmaceutical companies have produced many of our modern medications, but that has little relevance to the initial assertion in my column, that the “World Health Organization (WHO) deemed that Africa was most in need of being vaccinated, justifying beginning the trials in those countries. Those clinical trials — as in le Carré’s novel — are being carried out on the poorest black Africans.”
The question, then, is: Why target these countries, especially considering that the incidence of COVID-19 was not nearly as high there as in, say, the United States, the United Kingdom, or Italy? As human rights group Global Voices has noted, the attitude of European COVID-19 vaccine researchers “echoes a long, grim history of medical experimentation and exploitation in Africa, where African leaders have colluded with pharmaceutical companies — often based in Europe or the United States — to conduct trials on the most vulnerable people in society” (globalvoices.org, April 11). This long, grim history is exactly what le Carré dramatized in The Constant Gardener.
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