Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: January-February 2024

Letters to the Editor: January-February 2024

Integral Parts of Parochial Life

John M. Grondelski’s article “The Demise of the Parish Cemetery” (Nov.) is spot-on, for a number of reasons. First is the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, by which things ought to be done at the lowest level of the social ladder as possible. Why? Because those on the ground know best, and their “clients” feel most connected to the situation.

Second, the author links the parish cemetery to other parish realities, such as schools. Fifty years into all kinds of concoctions, the parish school is still the most effective model. Why? Because parent-parishioners see it as theirs. Likewise, parishioners without children regard the parish school as an integral part of parochial life and are thus more readily disposed to support the endeavor. Grondelski also mentions the regrettable demise of most parish high schools. Interestingly, in one diocese with which I am familiar, the two remaining parochial high schools are thriving. Again, because of the “buy-in” aspect.

Third, our author notes the unfortunate rise of cremation. More than 40 years ago, the Church opened the door to this possibility, originally with a number of caveats, among which was the requirement that cremation could only occur after the Mass of Christian Burial; in other words, a body had to be present for the Funeral Mass. Foolishly, that stipulation was lifted, so that “cremains” can sit on a stool in the center aisle as we pretend that some semblance of the deceased is there. I celebrated one such Mass and swore I would never do it again — and I haven’t. The Church must return to her former cautious approach to cremation.

My own family is testimony to what Grondelski highlights; they are buried all over God’s green earth. For myself, I don’t want a parish cemetery; I want to be entombed in a basilica!

Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas

Editor, The Catholic Response

Pine Beach, New Jersey

I read “The Demise of the Parish Cemetery” with sad sentimentality. So important was the cemetery in the small, rural parish where I grew up. The parishioners assumed the upkeep, and those buried there were still part of our assembly. I often visit the cemetery of churches as I travel; dates retell the exploits of Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers, children’s graves remind us of times of plague, and the sheer size of cemeteries says the dead now outnumber the living who attend Mass.

“Once upon a time, maintenance of parish cemeteries was a do-it-yourself affair,” writes John M. Grondelski. As congregations grow, involvement in maintenance decreases. Cleaning the church was the women’s job, and caring for the grounds was the men’s. We ladies swept, vacuumed, and dusted while men cut the lawn, trimmed the shrubs, and weeded the gardens. I don’t know how many altar linens I’ve washed and ironed, but they were always back in place by Saturday. Now, as work is hired, there is less commitment to the parish. It’s easier to increase the offering and hire outsiders to do the work.

I do have one addition to the article: Mr. Grondelski compares burial and cremation and discusses the growing trend toward the latter. But there is another option: donation of the body (after, of course, donation of the organs). We all profit from the skill of doctors and surgeons who’ve received training on cadavers. Dissecting dogs and monkeys only goes so far; an actual human body must at some point be used in advanced training. To donate to a research university is the final act of giving we can make, and the cost is zero. I asked my parish priest if the Church is amenable to this, and he said, “I’m donating my body,” so that’s an affirmation. After all, you can’t take it with you.

Loretta Bedford

San Augustine, Texas

JOHN M. GRONDELSKI REPLIES:

Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas voices concern about the readiness with which Catholics seem to accept cremation, saying, “The Church must return to her former cautious approach” to that practice. Alas, the recent “Note” from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (Dec. 9) does just the opposite, suggesting some unspecified “minimal” part of a deceased’s ashes might be retained by the family under certain conditions. Undoubtedly, some might regard this as a sensible resolution. I simply propose a thought experiment, which, I think, shows how qualitatively different cremation is from burial (and how we think about each): If the family burying a relative wanted some “minimal” memento, would we think it normal were they to lop off, say, half a toe before closing the coffin?

Loretta Bedford reminds us that we can donate our body after death for medical research, an act normally unobjectionable, even laudable. Notice, however, how we speak: It is “our body,” not our cadaver. We attach importance to embodiment in ways the absence of a recognizable physical body diminishes. My sole caveat regarding donation is, of course, that we really be dead. I am concerned about the “technical proficiency” mentality in some parts of medicine (“if we can do it, we can”), coupled with an acceptance of the culture of death, which is ready to “harvest” bodies or body parts before death, arguably sometimes even contributing to the latter.

A new Virginia parish (the Diocese of Arlington still builds rather than closes parishes) recently decided to buy land for a parish cemetery. That is certainly something brick-and-mortar pastors should consider doing.

Trinitarian Implications

What a beautiful article by Randall B. Smith (“The Trinity & the Moral Life,” Nov.), and such a moving story about the French villagers who harbored and protected Jewish refugees during World War II. And then a wonderful account of how a master pedagogue such as Smith weaves the tale into his larger point of the Trinitarian implications of thinking about charity. We need more college teachers like Smith who convey such a profoundly emotional and sound theological lesson to students.

Richard Gallagher, M.D.

White Plains, New York

An Act of Positive Defense

Charles R. Splawn argues (letters, Nov.) that pro-life rescues such as those “championed” by Jonathan Darnel in his article “The Case for Reviving the Rescue Movement” (Sept.) are “morally defective and strategically flawed.” As someone who has organized and participated in dozens of rescues since 1978 — and who last year served a 34-day jail term for an April 2022 Red Rose Rescue — I believe I am qualified to respond.

Mr. Splawn calls rescues “immoral” because they employ “physical force against pregnant women.” When women scheduled for an abortion show up at a clinic, their unborn children are about to be cruelly and violently exterminated. When a group of people simply stand in front of the door to the abortion clinic, they nonviolently block access to the extermination rooms, in an act of positive defense of those about to be murdered. This is hardly an act of “physical force.” Indeed, if an unjust aggressor were about to stab Mr. Splawn, surely he would be grateful if someone physically stood between him and his aggressor and pleaded for his life. Why are the innocent unborn not to be granted this same gesture?

Splawn argues that rescues as “defense of others” is inapplicable because “under current law in many states, abortion is not an unlawful act that physical violence may lawfully be applied to prevent.” Again, simply standing in front of the door to an abortion clinic is not an act of “physical violence” against anyone — it is an act of defense. Splawn’s argument actually highlights the very injustice endured by the unborn, who are not recognized as “others” When pro-lifers defend the unborn, when they are arrested for this act of love, stand trial, are convicted, and endure unjust jail terms, they are rejecting this lie! They are saying with their very bodies that the unborn are “others”: equal members of the human family. When we pro-lifers go to court, on principle we ask for a “defense of others” or a “defense of necessity” because we are confronting the unjust law that facilitates the killing of the unborn. In this, pro-lifers are witnesses to the truth.

Oddly, Splawn believes that “societal laws” — even unjust ones, as is the case with legalized abortion — should be obeyed. This is hardly the teaching of the Catholic Church. Splawn believes that since the woman scheduled for an abortion and the abortionist’s actions are following a “lawful path,” pro-lifers’ blocking that path by placing their bodies in the way is “neither peaceful nor conducive to peace.” He’s got the whole thing backward! It’s the law permitting the killing of the unborn that is contrary to peace. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that “insofar as human law deviates from reason, it is called an unjust law, and has the nature, not of law, but of violence” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q.93, a.3). Pro-lifers who participate in rescues are not attacking or assaulting anyone — they are preventing violence.

Splawn accuses the pro-life rescuer of “substituting his will for the will of another and physically forcing that other person to comply.” Assuming, per Catholic teaching, that we have a duty to disobey unjust laws, simply blocking the assault of an unjust aggressor is hardly immoral.

Perhaps when all is said and done, Splawn simply has an overdeveloped respect for “societal governance” and positive law. I wonder what he would have done under the “societal governance” of the Third Reich. He argues that abortion will be overcome by working within the “democratic process.” I agree that we must be involved in politics to end legalized abortion. But Splawn’s argument that this must be the strategy ignores the fact that abortion actually kills real people who, under the law, are exterminated every day. This is the reality of abortion, and the unborn need someone to stand in the way of their murderers — as we would want someone to stand in the way of ours should our lives be legally forfeit.

Splawn does not take into consideration that there is a form of pro-life rescue that does not involve using one’s body to block the path to the extermination rooms. It’s called Red Rose Rescues, in which a small group of pro-lifers enters an abortion clinic, sits down quietly in the waiting room, and tries to speak to the mothers who have abortions scheduled that day, offering them roses as a sign of life, hoping to persuade them to choose life for their child. Red Rose Rescuers do not block anything and thus are not subject to prosecution under the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. If any mothers are still intent on going through with the abortion, at least some of the rescuers remain in the clinic in solidarity with the unwanted children who are about to be murdered, continuing their witness to the innocent unborn. This, of course, is where the possibility of arrest comes in, as well as continuing our witness in court and even in jail should that be the outcome, though it not always is. Perhaps Splawn would approve of Red Rose Rescues because “physical force” is not employed. However, his belief that unjust laws should be obeyed may prove an obstacle to such approval.

Do rescues save lives? Consider this example. With four others, I participated in a Red Rose Rescue on December 2, 2017, at an abortion clinic in Michigan. The clinic manager, Pam DiMaggio, filed a complaint against us, seeking restitution for loss of income due to our rescue. She testified under oath, complete with a chart, that no fewer than 12 women opted not to keep their scheduled appointments that day. Her chart indicated that one of the women actually left the clinic after rescuer Patrice Woodworth spoke with her. DiMaggio even stated that all 12 women were called by clinic staff, and none of them rescheduled! This means that 12 unborn children were given a reprieve, and, at the very least, their mothers had time to reconsider their decision to abort. By the way, the judge ruled against DiMaggio.

Monica Migliorino Miller, Director

Citizens for a Pro-Life Society

South Lyon, Michigan

A Modern Warrior Pope

Many thanks to Alex Pinelli for his guest column responding to the attacks on Pope Pius XII (“Piusmania 25 Years Later: Apology, Reaction & Remedy,” Oct.). I suspect I may be one of only a few remaining people who met Pius XII and spoke to him. It was the highlight of a trip to Europe with my parents and four brothers, for our education and enlightenment, when I was 17 years old. My father, Edwin, and his brother Charles had contributed money to the efforts by the Vatican, headed by Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, to rescue and hide Jews and American soldiers from the Germans. The Pope shook my hand, asked me where I was going to go to college, and gave me a blessing. He also gave my mother a relic of Christ’s cross, which I later flew into space on Skylab and then returned to the Vatican.

Pius has been my hero ever since, a warrior for both Christians and Jews, and lied about by the communists, whom he fought for another 10 years. May his memory be blessed.

Joseph P. Kerwin

Bryan, Texas

Ecumenism in the Trenches

Although Thomas Storck felt “a certain disquietude” in voicing criticism of ecumenism, he nonetheless discussed the issue in his usual insightful way in his article “Ecumenism: A Reassessment” (Jul.-Aug.). The responses from R.V. Young and Dennis Taylor (letters, Oct.) seem to approach the issue from a “top-level,” or theoretical, perspective. Allow me to address it from the trenches, so to speak, as I have served for over 20 years in rural Midwestern parishes. I believe that my experience will support much of what Mr. Storck says.

There is a phrase I’ve heard frequently that absolutely grates on me. It goes something like this: “Well, we all worship the same God,” which usually means, “All churches are the same.” Although it is often uttered by recent converts, who don’t seem to have completed their conversion, I am dismayed when I hear it from cradle, or longtime, Catholics. I usually try to correct the error in a charitable way, but I’m not sure how successful I’ve been.

Part of the problem, at least in the rural areas, is that there is much social interaction between Catholics, who are usually in the minority in small towns, and Protestants, and sometimes that interaction is during town religious activities. When I was a child in the 1950s, we were not allowed even to enter a Protestant church (and vice versa for Protestants and Catholic churches). I’m not so sure that the common interactions that take place today in the name of ecumenism are a good idea. We want to see our neighbors as real people, not as caricatures, but sometimes we lower our defenses in such circumstances — this is true particularly of poorly catechized Catholics. There was a time when Catholics could be part of the local community without compromising their faith. That time seems to have past.

Another phrase I find terribly misleading is when “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church” is amended to “one, holy Christian church.” (This is almost always done by Protestants.) In those circumstances, I’m not so charitable, and I don’t hesitate to point out that there is no such thing. There is one Catholic Church, but outside of Catholicism there has never been one Christian church. My Diocese of Peoria is undergoing a major reorganization, and there is a good likelihood that at least one of my small parishes will close. Yet, I have heard some of our people say that if their parish closes, they’ll just go to another church in town, none of which is Catholic. I ask if they are serious, and unfortunately, they are. Because of this, I have recently begun an intermittent series of sermons (not really homilies) called “What It Means to Be Catholic.” One of the points I make, in discussing heresy, is that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to the Church to lead her to all truth, not to individuals to oppose that truth. I don’t know how well this has been received.

Along those lines, homiletic training may have something to do with Catholics’ ignorance of basic doctrine. If you were to read older sermons, you would see that they are often heavy on doctrine. These days, seminarians are taught “homiletics,” which focus on the scriptural readings at Mass. This in itself is, of course, not bad, but priests need to know how to draw Catholic doctrine from those readings and not merely talk about Scripture in general. And the doctrine is there, as any Catholic understanding of Scripture will clearly show. In my opinion, there is not enough catechesis from the pulpits that reinforces Catholic doctrine for those in the pews.

I am also appalled, as Storck seems to be, that the Vatican would honor Martin Luther. He is one of my favorite enemies, and I don’t hesitate to mention from the pulpit his many errors and to explain why they are errors. Some of my comments have not been well received, but if it looks like a heretic, walks like a heretic, and sounds like a heretic, then it is a heretic (not a popular word anymore). I was pleased to see Jacques Maritain’s book Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau (originally published in 1925) back in print from the outstanding Catholic publisher Cluny Media, in which Maritain describes Luther as semi-Pelagian. Sadly, this excellent treatment is no longer considered politically correct, as is also the case for Hartmann Grisar’s multivolume study of Luther (1930). But again, when some of their neighbors are Lutherans, Catholics too often have given them the benefit of the doubt religiously, without realizing that they are surrendering too much and thus weakening their own faith. Sadly, the Vatican has not been helpful here.

We often complain about young people not knowing their faith, but I have seen it much too often in older people, too, at least some of whom are old enough to know better. I’m not sure that a Catholic priest can assume that his parishioners have even a basic understanding of their faith and culture anymore. Why is it that, generations ago, Catholics could mix with their non-Catholic neighbors and not be infected by false ideas? Probably because robust explanations and defenses of Catholicism were common. But now, people look to political and cultural norms for their beliefs. And the culture is no longer friendly to the Church or to proper morality. Is it any wonder that publications such as the NOR are not welcome in many places?

I don’t want this letter to sound like a litany of complaints. I remain optimistic about the future because God has always found a way to renew His Church, and I have no doubt that He will do so again. But there is much work to be done — and some that needs to be undone. We must always remain faithful to the truth of our faith and not be afraid to proclaim it and encourage people to live it. After all, we have a promise from Jesus Himself that the Church will be here until the end of time. And God does not make promises lightly.

Fr. Thomas Shaw

Walnut, Illinois

Ed. Note: For a detailed look at what has been lost in Catholic teaching, preaching, and culture, we refer readers to Donald Lospinuso’s article “‘Not as the World Giveth’: The Lost Civilization of American Catholicism” (Dec.).

Genuine Development vs. Inauthentic “Reform”

I was much enriched by Richard Upsher Smith Jr.’s guest column “The Halifax School & the Fallacy at the Heart of Anglicanism” (Nov.). Inasmuch as I am a Catholic priest, the application of his insights is for me within the communion of the Catholic Church. Those who would damage that communion from within may often act out of the same fallacies.

Smith elaborates on Rev. Dr. Wayne J. Hankey’s critique of Anglicanism. According to Smith, Hankey’s fundamental point is that “the Anglican ‘reform’ was actually as much a doctrinal development as any in Roman Catholicism.” In my experience, Hankey’s rebuttal is equally effective against would-be reformers within the Church. The progressives in “the spirit of Vatican II” would, of course, expect such a critique inasmuch as they typically advocate for a more licentious approach to development.

Traditionalists, too, are vulnerable to the charge, yet they are often blind to the ways in which they have appropriated a variety of modernist habits. We thus witness the spectacle of lay theologians and lay ecclesial commentators who, without any practical pastoral responsibility or accountability to authority, arrogate to themselves a public platform. It’s common to hear them speaking in the most republican manner, jockeying for the support of various lobbies, and turning the public against their lawful pastors. And they articulate their positions with an absurd deficit of nuance, as if celebrating Mass according to the Latin missal of 1962 would by itself reverse the errors in evidence subsequent to the Second Vatican Council, despite its historical failure to do so in 1962.

Smith also cites Hankey as demonstrating the necessity of the Roman Magisterium as an arbiter of the difference between inauthentic innovation and genuine development. This claim is likely familiar to both progressives and traditionalists. But now that the Magisterium seems unusually disposed to welcoming development, both camps have, on occasion, adopted unfamiliar postures: The progressives gleefully insist on papal fiat while the traditionalists renounce the validity of magisterial rulings.

Smith attributes a third insight to Hankey concerning “the dialectic of changelessness and change.” My knowledge of Hegel and German Idealism is perhaps inadequate for a fair grasp of either Smith’s or Hankey’s analysis, but I take him to mean that the reformers have failed to negotiate the epistemological upheavals of recent centuries and, therefore, succumb to one or another of two simplistic resolutions. They are either “overwhelmed by a notion of discontinuity,” in which ideas of one time or place hold no value for another, or by the delusion that they can revert to “the purity of the primitive Church.”

On this score, traditionalists and progressives within the Church also fail, but not always according to type, with traditionalists embracing continuity and progressives discontinuity. On the contrary, nothing would seem to make some traditionalists happier than were the Church to renounce Vatican II and all its works and promises — never mind the hermeneutic of disruption! And many a progressive romanticizes a long-lost Church of the past — before industrial development, before the Council of Trent, or even before the maturation of the clerical hierarchy. Neither camp trusts the movement of the Spirit in the Church or the power of human reason to discern authentic growth and underlying continuity.

My own habit of faith has recourse also outside of reason, or rather, in a pre-modern epistemology. In particular, I find a credible witness in the institutional continuity of the Church as communio, and in the promise of Jesus conveyed through the sacraments. But I am grateful for the ways in which Smith’s retrieval of a critique of Anglicanism can help bring healing to those of us within the Catholic Church.

Rev. David Poecking

Regional Vicar, Diocese of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

RICHARD UPSHER SMITH JR. REPLIES:

Fr. David Poecking sees the application that can be made of Dr. Wayne J. Hankey’s arguments on the development of doctrine to groups within the Catholic Church. I had not recognized this application, though it is correct. To be sure, after I converted from Anglicanism in 2001 and became involved to some degree in “conservative” Catholicism through friends and connections at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, where I taught from 2004 to 2017, I had an uneasy feeling of déjà vu. Adherents of the Traditional Latin Mass reminded me of those Anglicans who had fought for the retention of the 1928 Prayer Book (in the U.S.) and the 1959 Prayer Book (in Canada).

But there was one big difference. The old Anglican Prayer Books stood in the place of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Without the old Prayer Books, anything was possible in the Anglican churches. Thus, Prayer Book adherents were really fighting for the preservation of sound doctrine.

In the Catholic Church, however, the Magisterium does exist. It is the Church’s organ and guarantor of orthodoxy. Therefore, a traditional Catholic could rest safely in his Holy Mother Church’s arms and could even attend the Novus Ordo Mass with assurance. And so, it seemed to me that, though it would be fair and reasonable for the hierarchs to allow the Traditional Mass, it would be willful for us to be angry at Rome or our own bishops if it were not allowed. In fact, it was our place to practice docility — teachability, a humble openness to the Magisterium — which is critical for Catholic moral flourishing.

Fr. Poecking shows the indocile, nay, sinful state both of conservatives and progressives in the Church. His answer to these divisions would be a new appreciation of communio, and of a deeper participation in the Mass. We Catholics are a table-fellowship of friends, and friends of the deepest kind. St. Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167) wrote a masterwork on friendship based on the teachings of Cicero, the great Roman philosopher, and of Jesus of Nazareth. Three levels of friendship exist in this teaching: a friendship that seeks pleasure in another’s company, a friendship that seeks profit with and from another, and a friendship that sees the friend as another self in Christ. This last friendship, this highest friendship, this divine friendship is what we are given at Baptism, what is restored in Penance, and what is deepened and strengthened in Holy Communion. Fr. Poecking is absolutely right.

However, he sees in the doctrine of development as outlined by Dr. Hankey, and in an inner appropriation of its truth by the warring parties in the Church, a possible way forward. In fact, it might even be a preliminary step toward a renewal of communio. And so, here it becomes necessary to consider the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), Hankey’s source.

Nineteenth-century thinkers invented and employed the notion of development in many ways. John Henry Newman employed it in his great theological treatise An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), in which he proved the necessary emergence of the papacy and the Magisterium from early Christianity. Charles Darwin used it in On the Origin of Species (1859), in which he proved the necessary emergence of higher lifeforms from lower ones. Hegel gave it philosophical form in his magisterial The Science of Logic (1812) and in The Encyclopaedia Logic (1817), in which he overcame Kant’s “proof” of the impossibility of metaphysics — i.e., that the subject cannot know the object — with an account of the necessary development of the union of the object and the subject in the unfolding of logic.

The major sections of Hegel’s two logical texts cover object and subject, the former examining being and essence, the latter notion, or the union of object and subject in true cognition. Regarding development, Hegel observes:

Transition into something else is the dialectical process within the range of Being: Reflection (bringing something else into light), in the realm of Essence. The movement of the Notion is development: by which that only is explicit which is already implicitly present. In the world of nature it is organic life that corresponds to the grade of the notion. Thus e.g. the plant is developed from its germ…. It is this nature of the notion — this manifestation of itself in its process as a development of its own self — which is chiefly in view with those who speak of innate ideas, or who, like Plato, describe all learning merely as reminiscence.

Hegel’s notion of development philosophically grounds Cardinal Newman’s notion of the development of doctrine, as Hankey argued. The Magisterium — by grace recognizing the genuine union of object and subject in theological speculation — judges which elements of theological speculation are “organic” developments of the deposit of truth known in Tradition and Scripture. It is, therefore, the duty and the delight of Catholics to submit in docility to the judgments of the Magisterium. And so may communio flourish.

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