Letters to the Editor: July-August 2019
Charity on the Run
Jason M. Morgan seems to look askance at any act of charity that is not given directly to those in need — particularly “charity runs,” which he seems to consider merely “virtue-signaling” (“‘Raising Awareness’: Reducing Philanthropy to Vanity,” May). As someone who participates in multiple charity runs per year, I beg to differ. Perhaps some people run for ego trips, but many do so for a cause that is close to their hearts — for example, a charity related to a medical condition from which a relative has suffered. Local charities, lacking a national source of funding, can benefit from not only the income the charity run provides but the exposure received.
Almsgiving in private is fine, but why should Morgan object to people coming together for a good purpose, being united with other people in support of a common goal? And not only that, charity runs benefit the individual by promoting exercise and good health. Moreover, having completed a run gives you a feeling that you have actually done something — not just written a check but sacrificed time and effort. What corporate sponsors do may be a different matter, but I doubt many people pay attention to the logos on the back of the shirts they receive at the end of the run.
And, of course, many charities couldn’t function if money were only given directly to the person in need. How could a homeless shelter function if it didn’t receive money to provide its facility? How could a soup kitchen function if it didn’t receive money to buy the soup? How could a medical-research charity perform any research if money weren’t forthcoming? It is all very well to give money “in secret” or do charitable works directly, but this does not thereby eliminate the need for, or the usefulness of, acts such as charity runs. One does not preclude the other. Both are acceptable ways to help those in need.
I will continue to participate in charity runs; perhaps Mr. Morgan might benefit from joining in!
Andrew M. Seddon
JASON M. MORGAN REPLIES:
Andrew M. Seddon lists some very worthy recipients of charitable donations: soup kitchens, medical-research centers, homeless shelters, and so forth. It is a fine thing to support such endeavors. I sincerely applaud him for doing so.
The point of my column was that turning charity into public displays of munificence short-circuits the connection between giver and receiver and throws the door open to distortions by human pride. For example, the feeling you get of having “done something” after a charity 10k can be an ambiguous thing.
I shun exercise as a form of torture, but I can remember from my high-school days the euphoria of long-distance running. You reach the finish line and are very glad. That is not the feeling I get when I volunteer at the homeless shelter. I usually feel useless, petty, ashamed, and generally in the way. My charity ain’t the grand thing I once thought it was. Agape is harder than it looks.
Leaving the homeless shelter after a round of “giving,” I rarely feel like donning a t-shirt advertising my good deeds. I rarely feel that I’ve done any good deeds at all, in fact. If there were any standard uniform for a sinner like me, I reckon it would be not a t-shirt but sackcloth and ashes.
Like a Prism
Each word, each sentence, each paragraph in “Dale Vree: A Remembrance” (various contributors, May) seems to explode with admiration and thanksgiving, but mostly with love. Thus, the journey of Dale Vree seems a radiant kaleidoscope, a brilliant pattern of unparalleled magnanimity. In truth, the outpouring of testimony caused in me an emotional crescendo of pure joy!
In Vree, God entrusted a talent, a grace, not only to convey truth but to live it. No aggrandizement here! He was as a prism that splits a ray of light in order that human understanding may grasp spiritual reality.
I borrow a theme from Hans Urs von Balthasar that trumpets Vree: “The arrogant person is like a black object. In order to acquire some energy and thus be able to ‘shine,’ he sucks up all light into himself, not knowing that precisely because of this he no longer reflects a single ray and so is wholly darkness. The humble person is already bright: whatever he receives he passes on, and he ‘shines’ precisely because he doesn’t clutch at things. Because he readily transmits the borrowed light that falls on him, he becomes light. Love and mission are one.”
Yes, as Dale Vree would say, “Count it all joy.” Reading and learning about Vree from the love letters by his family and friends was just that: pure joy. Like Dutch Carmelite friar Bl. Titus Brandsma, he was a man after God’s own heart.
Thelma Scarpa Bucikowski
Vineland, New Jersey
Classic Spiritual Navel-Gazing
With regard to “Your Guide to the Interior Life” by F. Douglas Kneibert (May): I know that The Imitation of Christ is considered a classic of Christian spirituality. I know that Pope John Paul II read a chapter from it every day. I also know, however, that the Devotio Moderna, from which it sprang and of which it is the best exemplar, was a seriously problematic school of spirituality. It introduced, for the first time in the history of the Church, a “turn to the self” — a precursor to much of modern psychology.
All previous schools were focused on the mystery of Christ and/or one’s mission beyond the self to the Church and even the world. The Devotio Moderna sanctified spiritual navel-gazing, as well as an orientation of the self to God, absent any serious connection to the Church or her sacraments. Should we be surprised that one of the persons most influenced by both the Devotio Moderna in general and The Imitation of Christ in particular was none other than Martin Luther? How many versions of Protestantism thrive, at least for a time, on the basis of promoting a “Jesus and me” form of Christianity? Doesn’t that likewise logically lead to private interpretation of Scripture, with everyone’s access to the Holy Spirit being equal, deracinated from a community of believers, let alone an authoritative source?
As I am making bold to question sacred cows, let me also say that a worthy successor to the mentality of The Imitation of Christ is the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, similarly very light on Church and sacraments, and very heavy on personal “discernment,” which has caused untold problems in the Church — especially over the past six years, as the occupant of the Chair of Peter is himself a son of Loyola.
Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
Editor, The Catholic Response
Pine Beach, New Jersey
Thomas à Kempis did not write The Imitation of Christ, and he never claimed to be its author. He translated it from Flemish into Latin and signed it “Translated by Thomas à Kempis.”
The original manuscript was not discovered until 1921. It existed when Thomas was four years old, and its author was Gerard Groote of Belgium (1340-1384). Thomas joined the religious order that Groote had founded. He discovered Groote’s writings in 1424 and completed his translation in 1427. It was originally called The Following of Christ. I have a version published in 1924 by Benziger Brothers and one from 1944 published by America Press with the subtitle The Spiritual Diary of Gerard Groote.
St. Francis de Sales read The Imitation of Christ for inspiration 400 years ago. At the time, he referred to the book as Gerson because the author was thought to be a priest named Jean le Charlier de Gerson. The first three books of The Imitation were by Groote. Thomas did write the short “Book 4” of this masterpiece.
Virtually every month a Catholic publication refers to The Imitation as “by” Thomas à Kempis. I’m 85, and I’d hate to go to my grave seeing this error continue in print.
Robert Anthony Brothers
F. DOUGLAS KNEIBERT REPLIES:
I’m astonished to learn that a priest of Fr. Stravinskas’s standing would not be an admirer of The Imitation of Christ, for it is very much Catholic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls interiority a “requirement” that is “necessary” in view of the many distractions of the modern world (no. 1779). Many of the greatest saints practiced it, and it’s not an either/or proposition in which you either look inward to find God or are loyal to the Church and her sacramental theology. You can do both.
I’m not familiar with the Devotio Moderna, but if one of its precepts is “an orientation of the self to God,” wouldn’t that be a good thing?
As for “spiritual navel-gazing,” that was not what Thomas à Kempis was about. As I wrote in my article, in addition to its spiritual riches, The Imitation is a practical guide for action — ordering one’s life in every area to conform with Jesus.
To leap from The Imitation of Christ to Martin Luther (and by inference the Protestant Reformation that he triggered) is a bit of a stretch. The myriad errors of Protestantism are the inevitable result of its separation from Christ’s Church.
If Mr. Brothers can produce hard evidence that a copy of The Imitation was signed “Translated by Thomas à Kempis,” then he will have accomplished something many others have failed to do. Some 700 copies of The Imitation are known to exist, but not one lists Groote as its author. Surely, some of Thomas’s contemporaries would have spoken out if his book weren’t original, but none did. Recent scholarship, including comparing Thomas’s writing style in The Imitation with other works he wrote, has supported his authorship.
Not a Remnant but the Real Thing
I disagree with Eric Jackson’s implication in “Lutefisk, Latin & Liturgy” (April) that the Catholic Church is a “remnant of true culture,” like the Lutheran church he visited.
The Catholic Church is not a remnant of culture; the Catholic Church is the one true culture. She is the very fullness of culture in the world. The world we live in was shaped by Judeo-Christian principles — principles that were initially established by God through the Jewish faith, which come to fruition in the Catholic Church. As the Jewish faith was the guiding light throughout the Old Testament, so the Catholic Church is the guiding light throughout the New Testament. Today, the Church boldly and without hesitancy proclaims to the world what true culture is and how it is to be lived.
The Catholic Church, from her inception and continuing to the present day, embodies the fullness of faith and Tradition. Nothing has changed, and nothing will ever change. To imply that it does is to imply that the Gates of Hell have somehow prevailed against God’s Church. This simply cannot and will not be; Jesus said as much (cf. Mt. 16:18). Discord and non-belief will not sink the Barque of Peter.
In the Catholic Church there is Tradition (capital T) and tradition (small t). When the Catholic Church talks about faith and Tradition, she does so in reference to the testimony of the Apostles, which was first transmitted orally and then carefully handed down from generation to generation. Changes to the rules of fasting and abstinence, for example, as well as changes to the non-essential parts of the Mass, fall under tradition (small t) — these are not part of the Tradition handed down to us by the Apostles. It is, therefore, misleading to imply that the Tradition of the Church suffered a severe blow when changes to the Mass were instituted.
It is also misleading to suggest, as Jackson does, that a return to the Tridentine Latin Mass will serve as the springboard for “cultural renewal” in the Church. The Tridentine Mass will not halt the march of modernism, as history has already shown us. You will hear no dispute from me about the beauty of the Tridentine Mass or the beauty of old churches, nor am I against the use of the Tridentine Mass; but these are not the answers to the problem that infects the Church today. What the Church needs are leaders who will stand up against modernism, much as they did in the days of the Arian heresy.
As Jackson says, we must pray and trust in the Lord — a most appropriate message for our time. On that point, I could not agree with him more.
Alphonse C. Bankard III
ERIC JACKSON REPLIES:
I don’t think we disagree as much as Mr. Bankard seems to suppose. I applied the phrase “remnant of true culture” not to the Catholic Church but to Norwegian American Lutherans. Bankard puts it well when he asserts that the Church “is the very fullness of culture in the world.” In the most important sense, what we possess as Catholics always surpasses that which is available in Protestant churches. Nonetheless, I was struck that this remnant retained elements that were not my inheritance as an American Catholic who came of age in the post-conciliar Church.
I suspect that Bankard is correct to be skeptical that “a return to the Tridentine Latin Mass will serve as the springboard for ‘cultural renewal’ in the Church.” At the same time, the Norwegian language undoubtedly cemented the cultural unity of Mindekirken. American Catholics are now divided by language. Latin alone will not save us, but it could unite us as it once did.
Bankard is right on the money when he notes that we need “leaders who will stand up against modernism.”
It is embarrassing for Catholics that a serious challenge to Roe v. Wade is coming from Alabama, a heavily Baptist state. Meanwhile, the soi-disant Catholic states of the northeast, with their nominally Catholic politicians and silent episcopacy, are effectively pro-abortion.
Ed. Note: This May, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the Human Life Protection Act, which has been described as a near-total ban on abortion. The new state law reclassifies abortion as a Class A felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison (for doctors). Attempted abortions are now Class C felonies, punishable by up to ten years in prison (again, for doctors). Though the law makes no exception for victims of rape or incest, it does make an exception when “abortion is necessary in order to prevent serious health risk” to the mother. Needless to say, abortion is always a serious health risk to the baby — regardless of the state in which it occurs.
Essential Commentary …Missing!
It was with sadness that I observed that there were no New Oxford Notes in the April issue. The commentary provided by that column on world events is essential to the comprehension of our society’s current condition. I hope some substitute for it returns.
Ed. Note: The final New Oxford Note appeared in our September 2018 issue. After 20 years, we felt it was time to refresh our approach. As announced in an editorial the following month, that column was replaced by four new ones: New Oxford Notebook by Pieter Vree, Cultural Counterpoint by Jason M. Morgan, Revert’s Rostrum by Casey Chalk, and Literature Matters by Michael S. Rose. Last Things by David Mills joined the armada in April. New Oxford Notebook is a continuation of the old New Oxford Notes column. We hope you find it to be a suitable substitute. The latest entry can be found on p. 26 of this issue.
About That Medieval Catholic “Bible” Culture
I followed David Mills’s suggestion to search out Beth Allison Barr’s blog on the topic of the Bible in medieval Catholic culture (Last Things, May). She claims that “medieval people really were expected to know their Bible, and hearing sermons would have been one of the most common ways that they would have learned it.”
Yes, Catholic parishioners were exposed to small portions of the Bible in sermons and sacramental liturgies, but parishioners never actually owned a Bible, nor were they able to find one to read. Since the ninth century, the Catholic Church has taken the position that it is dangerous for parishioners to read the Bible — hence the arrival of the Catechism, in which dogma is presented by rote learning.
I am a survivor of Catholic grade school. Never once did the nuns read from the Bible. There was not even a Bible in the classroom. Protestants, on the other hand, live by the book. Their practice is to present every first-grade pupil in Sunday school with his own personal Bible with his name inscribed in it, and they tell their pupils to read their Bible and keep it all their lives. The hallmark of the Reformation was the printing and distribution of the Bible, something the Catholic clergy never did, to this day.
THE EDITOR REPLIES:
The assertion that the Catholic Church believes it is “dangerous” for Catholics to read the Bible is patently false. It was the Catholic Church, after all, that assembled and codified the Bible. And this wasn’t done merely to reserve it for a select few. Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” states, “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful…. The word of God should be accessible at all times” (no. 22).
Seventy years earlier, Pope Leo XIII wrote in Providentissimus Deus that it was his “desire” that Scripture “be made safely and abundantly accessible to the flock of Jesus Christ” (no. 2). Making the Bible “better known and understood,” he said, is “praiseworthy work.”
Centuries earlier, St. Jerome wrote, “To be ignorant of Scripture is not to know Christ,” and “a man who is well grounded in the testimonies of the Scripture is the bulwark of the Church.”
Do these sound like the judgments of a Church that thinks it “dangerous” for parishioners to read the Bible?
Even revered Protestant historian James Gairdner, a specialist in the Reformation, debunked this myth. “The truth is,” he wrote, “the Church of Rome was not at all opposed to the makings of translations of Scripture or to placing them in the hands of the laity under what were deemed proper precautions” (Lollardy and the Reformation in England: An Historical Survey, vol. 1, 1908).
Those proper precautions included ensuring that “no unauthorized or corrupt translations got abroad.” It was these unauthorized or corrupt translations that the Church deemed dangerous. “To the possession by worthy lay men of licensed translations the Church was never opposed,” Gairdner continued; “but to place such a weapon as an English Bible in the hands of men who had no regard for authority, and who would use it without being instructed how to use it properly, was dangerous not only to the souls of those who read, but to the peace and order of the Church.”
That precaution still obtains. Leo XIII stated that the Church would not “suffer any attempt to defile or corrupt” Scripture. And Dei Verbum points to the need for “suitable and correct translations” of Scripture even in our times.
What Mr. Cosgrove seems to miss about medieval times is that it was virtually impossible for parishioners to read the Bible — not because the Church thought such an activity “dangerous” but due to widespread illiteracy, not to mention widespread poverty and the high cost of printing Bibles. Virtually the only way medieval parishioners could have learned the Bible was through hearing sermons. “The medieval world was an oral culture,” Barr writes, “built on the memorization of text.” This type of transmission of information “is vastly different from our modern world.” In medieval times, the Church encouraged parishioners to “memorize large portions of the psalms and biblical prayers and even Gospel texts…. In short, medieval people really did attend sermons regularly and medieval sermons really did preach the Bible.”
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