Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: July-August 2020

Letters to the Editor: July-August 2020

The Measure of the Level of Civilization

Thomas Storck’s article “The Deepest Bias of the American People?” (May) reminds me of an observation attributed to Francis Cardinal George. As cited by Peter Kwasniewski in Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness, the late archbishop of Chicago said, “American Catholics are Protestants who go to Mass on Sunday.”

With this truism in mind, and since, as Storck puts it, “Every religion creates a culture that reflects its doctrinal tenets and shapes the whole of life and society,” the question is: How are American Catholics to retain, or regain, their Catholic identity in Protestant (post-Protestant, really) America so as to transform the culture from the cesspool it has become to a culture that reflects authentic Catholicism?

I would like to offer a solution: We must fly into the arms of our Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Storck identifies two fundamental anti-Catholic elements of Protestantism that have effectively negated the influence of Catholicism as a general culture in America. The first is the rejection of rational knowledge, such as philosophy and natural theology, due in large part to “the Protestant understanding that the Fall of our first parents resulted in the total depravity of human nature.” Reason can no longer be trusted to help us discover truth beyond the physical order. This explains in part why “Protestants who see Catholics incensing a statue of Mary or carrying it in procession are likely to be provoked to charges of idolatry.” In their view, Mary, being fully human and only human like the rest of us, must also have a totally depraved nature. So, why would we venerate her?

The overall result is that, modifying St. John Henry Newman’s quote, “In their fairs and places of amusement, in the booths, upon the stalls, upon the doors of wine-shops, [there] will [no longer] be paintings of the Blessed Virgin,” or Marian processions, or the communal celebration of Marian feast days — in other words, some of the most important traditions that help create a general Catholic culture. Now, if we are lucky, we may occasionally see someone wearing a T-shirt with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on it, and even then, it may be more for reasons of fashion than from a love of Our Lady. We can do better than this.

The second fundamental anti-Catholic element in Protestant-influenced American thought is that of individualism, with its “suspicion of, or even hostility toward, social authority, hierarchy, and restraints on one’s conduct, whether in the religious or political spheres.” Storck believes the sources of this hostility that have given rise to American individualism are the doctrine of the social contract, especially as found in John Locke’s writings, and reliance on the biblical text alone for moral guidance, as only grace can be trusted, not nature, which includes man’s natural reason. Every Protestant is, therefore, free to interpret the Bible as he sees fit — which is why there are thousands of Protestant denominations — further reinforcing this strong tendency toward individualism in the American character.

While not disagreeing with Storck’s points, I would like to offer what I believe is a more fundamental explanation for American individualism. In his book The Flight from Woman, Karl Stern says of one of his patients, “He acted like someone who feared tenderness. And when it came to faith, he refused to ‘swallow’ anything which he could not rationally prove. However, his protest against matters of faith was too furious not to be regarded as part of the other problem — namely a fear of dependence.” What else causes an undue emphasis on individualism but a fear of dependence? Stern goes on to write, “Rationalism and positivism have influenced our Western civilization during the past three centuries to an extraordinary degree.” (This is reminiscent of Storck’s citation of Mortimer Adler’s complaint in 1940 that the faculty members of American universities were positivists.) Stern continues, “If we equate the one-sidedly rational and technical with the masculine, there arises the ghostly spectre of a world impoverished of womanly values.” Is there any doubt that this is true in a culture in which motherhood is increasingly rejected, promiscuity and pornography flourish, and, in some very influential circles, abortion is considered the highest good? Hence the title of Stern’s book, the premise of which I believe can be further traced to the flight from “the Woman” among Protestants.

The Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in The World’s First Love, observed, “When a man loves a woman, it follows that the nobler the woman, the nobler the love; the higher the demands made by the woman, the more worthy a man must be. That is why woman is the measure of the level of our civilization.” Carrie Gress, commenting on these words in her book The Marian Option, says, “This, of course, also applies to not only the women men want to marry but also Lady Mary. When men love the most noble of women, the bar of culture is raised to new heights.” Thus, if Catholics want to raise the level of civilization and the bar of culture in America, the most important thing we can do is love our Mother, with all that this entails.

Brian Dunne

Indianapolis, Indiana


I appreciate Brian Dunne’s remarks on my article. I was glad to see his mention of Karl Stern’s The Flight from Woman, a favorite of my wife’s, though I haven’t read it. I have read Stern’s autobiography, The Pillar of Fire, which I highly recommend.

I’d like to amplify one point Mr. Dunne makes. He writes, “If Catholics want to raise the level of civilization and the bar of culture in America, the most important thing we can do is love our Mother, with all that this entails.” It is possible for the level of a culture to rise or to fall, as fallen human nature is capable of both greater or lesser virtue, and greater or lesser vice. That’s why the work of the Church, but also of the state, in this sphere is important. The law, said St. Thomas Aquinas, ought to lead men to virtue, not simply restrain their bad conduct. And this is doubly the case with the Church, who alone has possession of the sacraments, which can do so much to raise the level of culture. Through the sanctifying and civilizing actions of the Church and of Catholic princes, the wild barbarians of central and northern Europe became more or less good Christians. Of course, a large part of this was the growing cult of the Blessed Virgin, who gave to Christendom a tenderness that made that culture unique. Indeed, this is the reason for the traditionally and uniquely high status of women in Christian culture.

Far from Pointless

In his review of American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh (May), Michael V. McIntire alleges that Fr. Wilson Miscamble’s biography is “pointless,” “not an easy read,” and “as interesting as home movies.” I could not disagree more. I found it engaging, probing, objective, and an insightful portrait of a powerful 20th-century priest who had — for good or ill or both — an enormous influence on American Catholic education. Far from pointless, it is an important contribution to understanding the evolution of American Catholicism and the university that is “synonymous” with it.

I share many of McIntire’s concerns over where Fr. Hesburgh steered Notre Dame — the fateful Land O’Lakes declaration of independence from the Catholic Church, the effort to so modernize the university that it impaired its Catholic identity, and the decision to emulate the elite secular universities among them. But McIntire gives too little credit to Fr. Miscamble for sharing those concerns — even as most of McIntire’s criticisms of Hesburgh come right out of American Priest itself! In fact, Fr. Miscamble has taken considerable heat from Hesburgh admirers for his willingness to criticize this “icon.”

It is noteworthy that Fr. Hesburgh did stop short of the path taken by Georgetown and other Jesuit universities. Indeed, he tried — as his successors still do today — to do the “both/and” thing, to be both Catholic and modern “elite.” This is Notre Dame’s ever-present dilemma. As the academic world and society in general continue to hurtle toward chaos, Notre Dame will find that sitting on the fence will not work much longer. Hesburgh’s “punt” will no longer be viable. Notre Dame must choose. The profound and chaotic political and cultural trends and events like those swirling around us now will force the issue.

I believe there is still hope for Notre Dame. It needs a leader of Fr. Hesburgh’s caliber who is committed to a thoroughly Catholic vision. Right now, Notre Dame is a follower. I pray that it can find its Catholic voice and lead — and even be a light to the nation. In God’s Providence, it could happen. Fr. Miscamble’s book is a significant contribution to understanding how Notre Dame got to be where it is and how it might rediscover its Catholic vision.

Randall Petrides

Grand Blanc, Michigan

It was breathtaking to read about the reign of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh and his phenomenal quest to change not only the traditions of Catholic teaching but the moral certitude expressed in Catholic doctrine. Fr. Hesburgh appears to have been a man driven by pride, who saw himself as the Prophet of Change with his own vision of what that change should be. He seemed driven by a force that was more political than doctrinal. He even seemed bipolar in that he practiced his priesthood almost rigidly (saying Mass, administering the sacraments, having an active prayer life) but compromised the teachings of the Church that had brought him to that point in his life, for the sake of modifying — even discarding! — those same elements that made him a faithful priest. He was driven to gain acknowledgment by elite institutions that Notre Dame and other Catholic schools are their equals. What price glory?

I am appalled that Rome did not vigorously counter his “reformation” or his mini-council in Land O’Lakes to redefine Catholic teaching at the university level. What puzzles me is how he was able to wrest control of Notre Dame from his religious order.

I always admired Fr. Hesburgh and how he put Notre Dame “on the map,” but I certainly would have withheld this admiration had I known it came at the expense of Catholic doctrine.

Paul Scheckel

Pullman, Michigan

Horror Too Great to Face?

I was shocked to see an article written in English about Croatia, Alojzije Cardinal Stepinac, and the Ustashe (“Beyond Balkanization,” May). While I did find Thomas Basil’s article thorough, I can’t deny my disappointment that he failed to mention some of the most horrific parts of Cardinal Stepinac’s time — namely, the concentration camps for Serbian children run by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Basil also didn’t mention the Franciscans’ motto, “Take up your rosary and your gun.”

I consider this to be the darkest and most tainted part of our Church’s recent history — and, Lord knows, we have had many dark parts — which is why I was exuberant that a Catholic publication would even expose it at all. But since we’ve come this far, why not address the whole issue?

In all the popes’ apologies ever made, I haven’t found anything in English that addresses Catholic involvement in Nazi concentration camps in Croatia. Could it be because the horror is too great to face? Or has this truth been buried so deep that the whole Catholic world is oblivious to it?

I believe these bits of information add more clarity to the controversy surrounding Cardinal Stepinac’s canonization. If he presided during a time when Catholics and Catholic orders were directly involved in the massacre of Serbs, Jews, and Roma children and families, there’s certainly a lot to be cautious about when making any pronouncement on the matter of his sainthood.

Please give this topic more coverage, and may we start owning up to it and making reparation for these atrocities — or, at least, publicly denounce them.

Thank you for your dedication to spreading the truth!

Julia Caline

Toronto, Ontario


A Great Croatian Honored in America

In June 1948 my parents were in a quandary. I had just graduated from parochial school. Their choice was to enter me in public high school or no school at all. They were abhorrent of either choice. Out of the blue, they heard that a new Catholic high school was taking registrations for its initial freshman class. My mother immediately registered me. The name of the school: Archbishop Stepinac High School.

This was 12 years before Stepinac’s death in 1960, and he was being honored by the Catholic parishes of Westchester County, New York, for his heroism in the face of his communist enemies. I believe it is, to this day, the only Catholic school in the United States named for this great Catholic leader.

As an aside, my high school studies earned me a scholarship to college, where I earned a B.E.E. in 1956, which led to a successful career as an engineer. I’m forever grateful for the grace that led me to Archbishop Stepinac High School. Thomas Basil’s article “Beyond Balkanization” (May) brought to mind many happy memories.

Michael DiMartino

Little River, South Carolina

A Revolution Unimaginable to Gnostics

Nicholas J. Healy’s article “Socialism: A Christian Heresy?” (April) is wrong in its main point and in its details. A thorough refutation of his argument would take an entire article, so I’ll just offer a few observations in this letter.

First, Healy’s main point: socialism’s origin can be traced to ancient gnosticism, the early Church’s most serious competitor, as Henry Chadwick understood it. The gnostics, in Healy’s view, saw men as good and the material world as bad, and they saw collective human effort as the solution to man’s predicament in the world. (Healy relies on the contemporary German philosopher Thomas Heinrich Stark, who himself was presenting the ideas of the recently deceased Russian mathematician Igor Shafarevich. He might rather have relied on Hans Jonas’s fine old book The Gnostic Religion or Kurt Rudolph’s magisterial Gnosis.) These gnostic tenets never died, according to Healy’s argument, but were transmitted to the modern world by medieval heresy, which was tout court gnostic. The same tenets were incorporated by Comte and Hegel into their philosophies, which thus produced socialism. Thence, gnosticism’s tenets passed on to postmodernity and cultural Marxism. And so, ancient gnosticism, every single medieval heresy, early postmodern philosophy, including socialism, and the postmodern philosophy of cultural Marxism share the same philosophical premises: man’s goodness, the evil of material reality, and the human responsibility to correct this evil collectively.

Healy’s argument, as it stands and without going into details, is fallacious. Most obvious is the fallacy of hasty generalization. Because ancient and medieval gnostics believed such and such, then those who believed such and such in modernity and those who believe such and such now must be gnostics. The fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc reinforces the previous fallacy — i.e., the argument that because one phenomenon follows another, it is caused by the first.

Neither of these fallacies would nullify Healy’s argument if sufficient evidence could be supplied to fortify it. However, the evidence he adduces in the details of his argument is largely false.

First, of the three characteristics of ancient gnostic thought upon which Healy’s argument depends, only one is true: the belief that the material world is evil. The gnostics, in none of their sects, ever believed that man is good or that by collective action he may right the world.

(1) The gnostics believed that only the pneuma (a spark of the divine fullness, the Pleroma) concealed within the psychic soul (the Aristotelian soul) was good. The psychic soul and the body were material and thus evil. As the pneuma was a minuscule portion of the divine, and would pass back into the divine, what individuated a human being — the psychic soul and the body — was evil. One cannot say the gnostics believed man is good.

(2) Moreover, gnostic cosmogony and soteriology did not support an interest in the improvement of the world. The gnostics were radical dualists. What was to be the cosmos, what Christians know as creation, was generated accidentally as matter by the lust of the lowest member of the Pleroma, and sparks of the light which is the Pleroma were plunged into matter and lost to the divine. Matter was organized as the phenomenal cosmos by a material demiurge sometimes identified as the Hebrew God, the God of the Torah, who maliciously hid the pleromatic sparks as pneumatic souls within the psychic souls of human beings. Thus, the gnostics associated law with darkness and ignorance, with the material world and its demiurge. They were, therefore, antinomians. Their antinomianism was expressed in some sects as severe asceticism, in others as unrestrained libertinism.

(3) Salvation for the gnostics required knowledge and light — gnosis — revealed by a messenger from the Pleroma, often identified as Christ. Gnostic eschatology taught the liberation of the pneumatic spark from the evil matter of the individual through knowledge of its own existence, and its reunion with the divine fullness outside and beyond the cosmos. The goodness of the pneuma was de sese. It had nothing to do with grace or merit or a life of virtue lived among men.

So, the prerequisites for collective action to reform the world did not exist among the gnostics. Collective action of this sort requires that men recognize that law and morality fulfill human nature, and that they are preserved, practiced, and perfected in temporal communities. The gnostics, antinomian and otherworldly, simply had no interest in these aspects of the dark and ignorant material world. Thus, the foundation of Healy’s argument is sand and cannot bear the weight of the building he erects upon it.

Second, it is simply false that all medieval heresies were gnostic. Apart from Catharism and its varieties, medieval heresy, as Gordon Leff argues in Heresy in the Later Middle Ages, arose out of the same striving after an evangelical life that moved those who remained orthodox. The Waldensians actually preached successfully against the Cathars!

Third, gnosticism was not smuggled into modernity from the Middle Ages disguised as socialism. Socialism arose in modernity and belongs to modernity. As Hannah Arendt argues in her book On Revolution, “The social question began to play a revolutionary role only when, in the modern age and not before, men began to doubt that poverty is inherent in the human condition, to doubt that the distinction between the few, who through circumstances or strength or fraud had succeeded in liberating themselves from the shackles of poverty, and the labouring, poverty-stricken multitude was eternal.” Indeed, in Arendt’s argument, revolution, which Healy sees as belonging to the aims of ancient gnosticism, did not exist before the modern age, as revolution aims at a new beginning of things in this world, which neither the ancients nor the medievals, gnostic or not, could imagine.

Fourth, Healy, following his authorities, distinguishes the “state socialism” of the early Mesopotamian dynasties from the “chiliastic socialism” of the early gnostics. We have already seen that no such socialism — or any communal action oriented to the betterment of the world — was possible for gnostics. However, it is important to note that a sort of “chiliastic socialism” was practiced at Jerusalem by the earliest Christians (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35).

Finally, it must be observed that the real parallel in postmodernity to ancient gnosticism is found in nihilism and existentialism, as Hans Jonas proved decades ago.

Richard Upsher Smith Jr.

Steubenville, Ohio


I thank Richard Upsher Smith Jr. for critiquing my article. However, I made no attempt independently to research ancient heresies. Rather, I presented the findings of Stark, Shafarevich, and Solzhenitsyn — men of no mean academic credentials — so his real quarrel is with them.

Smith’s main objection seems to be the overly broad use of the category “gnosticism” in citing ancient and modern heresies. Yet the political philosopher Eric Voegelin uses the term gnostic to describe such varieties of modern movements as Marxism, German idealism, and National Socialism. The common keys are rejection of, and violence against, the transcendent order as revealed by Christ and taught by the Church (Science, Politics & Gnosticism, 1968).

Then there is this comment from Fr. George Rutler, pastor of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in New York City and one of the most erudite Catholic priests in America: “Perhaps not by coincidence have social riots accompanied the health crisis. The anarchists, whose numbers include ignorant pawns, are the latest effervescence of the ancient Gnostic heresy which in modern times has assumed the fatal dialectic of Marxism” (parish bulletin, June 28).

My principal objective in writing the article was to cite evidence that modern socialism has an appeal much deeper than the reform of political economies by state control, as all such reforms have failed to improve the lot of workers and actually bring about economic decline. The success of cultural Marxism demonstrates that it has an appeal based on such objectives as ending Christian marriage, dissolving Judeo-Christian morality, and abolishing or severely limiting private property. These are common to many, if not all, Christian heresies. The essential element of gnostic heresies is the belief that the material world is evil. This might help explain some of the passion behind the violence and destruction our nation is currently experiencing.

Overcoming Centuries of Impasse

William Hasker wrote that if one wishes to maintain a “libertarian conception of free will” and “a ‘strong’ view of providence,” then “Molinism is the only game in town” (Philosophical Studies, Sept.-Oct. 1990).

David D. Jividen, in his review of R.J. Matava’s Divine Causality and Human Free Choice: Domingo Báñez, Physical Premotion and the Controversy de Auxiliis Revisited (March), has brought to our attention a bold thinker who has dared to challenge this assumption, and who (perhaps more so than any of our contemporaries) has used his theory to directly address the de Auxiliis controversy. The question now is: How well will Matava’s elegant resolution be received?

Many of today’s stakeholders in this age-old question seem to have divided along party lines. Notably, there are latter-day Bañezians, with these compatibilists mounting an orderly defense of Praemotio Physica. Those who would defend a strict libertarianism take heed. If Molinism, the competing theory based on the work of Luis de Molina, has ceased to be “the only game in town,” then Matava’s Total Personal Creation could well be a game-changer. Matava offers a coherent solution to the controversy, but if he can also demonstrate that it is the elucidation most in keeping with the reasoning of the Angelic Doctor himself, its impact could be far-reaching.

Promisingly, another relevant monograph has also recently appeared from Bloomsbury Academic: Freewill and God’s Universal Causality: The Dual Sources Account by W. Matthews Grant, which has more of a philosophical focus. Its thesis shares many of the same conclusions as Matava’s book. This attention to the problem of divine causality and free will gives me reason to hope that Total Personal Creation (or that theory by any name) shall not be left in the dark, avoided, or obscured by the larger players in this controversy.

Agree or disagree with Matava’s thesis, this discussion has been long overdue for something truly original or fresh to occupy it — the centuries of impasse being arguably the most frustrating indication that something vital has been missing all along. Perhaps God’s Providence has chosen now as the time to reveal what this has been, and it is an answer that lies at the very heart of God’s transcendent yet immanent creative power.

Joseph Gora

Launceston, Tasmania


David D. Jividen, in his review of Divine Causality and Human Free Choice, mentions a potential objection to Total Personal Creation, “that it makes God responsible for sin.” But Jividen fails to elaborate and prove that God does not cause sin.

Sandor Balogh

North Port, Florida


I thank Joseph Gora for his insightful letter. I agree that Providence may have chosen now as the time to resurrect and resolve this critical issue. The failure to address human freedom’s ability to thrive within God’s providential will is what led, in many ways, to the lamentable split in Christendom and, ultimately, to deadly secular humanism. As Mr. Gora notes, reintroducing the world to God’s transcendent, immanent, creative power as enunciated in Total Personal Creation (TPC) theory could be the antidote to the unprecedented intellectual and political turmoil challenging us at the present.

Sandor Balogh asks how TPC responds to the objection that it leads to the conclusion that God causes sin. As a predicate point, this objection is not leveled only against TPC; it is also lodged against other positions that similarly attempt to reconcile God’s Providence with human freedom. As I noted in my review, TPC focuses on God as the transcendent cause of all that positively is, thus breaking the impasse between the Dominican and Jesuit views on the issue. Although TPC affirms that God creates man’s free acts, what God brings about is man’s free acting; God’s initiative is the ground of man’s moral responsibility for his own self-determination through free choice.

More specifically, TPC adopts St. Thomas Aquinas’s view that evil is privation. According to this view, evil, as privation, is a kind of non-being. This does not mean that the particular immoral choice does not exist, or that evil is not real. Evil is objectively real. It is an objective lack of what ought to be, like an abscess or a limp leg. As a privation, it is not created. Accordingly, the first cause of the defect is not God but man, who by his abuse of freedom deviates from God’s guidance and causal cooperation when he makes an immoral choice. The specific defect that makes the act a sin — namely, the lack of conformity between human choice and God’s moral law — owes its origin strictly to man’s (defective use of) freedom.

In this way, the sinful choice is somewhat like a diseased limb: Insofar as it is a limb, it ultimately owes its being to God the Creator. But the abscess that afflicts the limb is like the defect — namely, the lack of rectitude or conformity between the free act and moral truth — that makes an act of choice for evil to be a sin. This non-being, or privation, is from man. It has no entity that needs to be (or even could be) positively explained by God’s agency.

If one were to press the further question of why God tolerates this defect, more would have to be said. But it is important to realize that this question is not unique to TPC; it has to be answered by anyone who admits the existence of a good, omnipotent God. Christianity has the resources and insights to posit a reply, even if the mystery of evil eludes complete understanding in this life. No matter how incomplete, the Christian reply to the problem of evil and sin needs to be shared with our increasingly secular-humanist world.

A Tiny but Vital Detail

Jason M. Morgan, in his review of John W. O’Malley’s book Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Jan.-Feb.), offers this misbegotten statement: “The one-word version of Vatican I is ‘infallibility.’ Vatican I determined that the pope’s pronouncements, when made ex cathedra and according to certain other criteria, have the force of the divine afflatus. But why the sudden need to elevate the pope’s directives to the status of Holy Writ?”

It is difficult to imagine a more compact collection of distorted, misleading, and false statements about the First Vatican Council. Nothing in the council’s definitions asserts that a pope’s pronouncements ever have “the force of the divine afflatus,” that his directives are elevated to “the status of Holy Writ,” or that his directives are other than fallible. In fact, Pastor Aeternus, Vatican I’s First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, clearly states, “The Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter, that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine; but that by His assistance they might inviolably guard and faithfully expound the revelation or the deposit of faith delivered through the Apostles” (italics added).

It is true that “infallibility” did very much dominate the thinking and discussion of the participants in the council. Perhaps that is why so many Catholics today fail to notice the tiny but vital detail that the council’s actual definition does not assert that either a pope or his ex-cathedra definitions are infallible. Rather, the council asserts that a pope’s ex-cathedra definitions are “irreformable.”

That word, irreformable, irked me for years. How much simpler it would be to explain the council’s meaning if only it had said “infallible.” Even after reading Frank Sheed’s precise and accurate explanation of this doctrine in his book Theology and Sanity, it took me years to understand why irreformable is the correct word. Sheed explains the crucial difference between the two words. He says that this defined doctrine of the Church does not account for any of the truth in a pope’s ex-cathedra definitions. God’s protection only accounts for the absence of any error in his definitions. All the truth contained therein is included because grace aided the fallible and possibly incomplete efforts of a pope.

Morgan attacks the current pontiff with his statement, “Pope Francis, whose loose lips have already torpedoed a whole flotilla of theological ships, is just one result of turning the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter into a kind of interpreter of the will of God.”

It is one thing to understand that Pope Francis is not infallible in what he teaches or does; it is quite another to undermine the fact that Francis has been appointed by Christ as the current recipient of God’s uniquely provided means of protecting the meaning of His revelation between those historic occasions when an ecumenical council of the College of Bishops can be convened.

As Pastor Aeternus concludes, every faithful and informed Catholic must accept with the assent of faith that “the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals: and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church” (italics added).

James J. Harris

San Diego, California


This is a curious letter. James J. Harris says I have misconstrued Vatican I (there goes my own infallibility!) by focusing too much on something beside the point of the council and its document, Pastor Aeternus. Mr. Harris comes right out and says it: “The council’s actual definition does not assert that either a pope or his ex-cathedra definitions are infallible. Rather, the council asserts that a pope’s ex-cathedra definitions are ‘irreformable.’” But as goes my own infallibility, so goes Harris’s, because in his last paragraph, he quotes, accurately, the closing lines of Pastor Aeternus, in which the Roman Pontiff is declared to be “possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals.”

Neither Mr. Harris nor I apparently have much of the divine afflatus. But surely we can agree that, according to the plain words of the document in question, it is “infallibility,” willed by Christ for His Church, which is the sufficient condition for papal pronouncements to be irreformable. Pastor Aeternus says just this, and in the same sentence: “Therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church” (italics Harris’s; infallibility the pope’s). The irreformability flows from the infallibility. Full stop. If Mr. Harris doesn’t like the ascription of infallibility to the Supreme Pontiff, he’ll have to take it up with Pius IX, not with me.

But the oddity of this hair-splitting loses its queerness when we discover the true reason for Harris’s letter: defending Pope Francis, whom he thinks I have unfairly maligned. To protect Francis, Harris would endow him with a kind of de facto infallibility by virtue of holding the office of the papacy: “It is one thing to understand that Pope Francis is not infallible in what he teaches or does; it is quite another to undermine the fact that Francis has been appointed by Christ as the current recipient of God’s uniquely provided means of protecting the meaning of His revelation.” The pope is not infallible, Harris says, but to question him is tantamount to questioning God. To me, this sounds like a distinction without much of a difference. Indeed, Harris goes well beyond what even Pastor Aeternus sets out and surrounds the Pope with a kind of “cone of critical silence,” like an episode of Get Smart filmed at the Casa Santa Marta.

This is precisely why infallibility is a bad idea. Bergoglio joins Harris and me in being a sinner with a darkened human intellect for whom a declaration of saintliness, if we make it that far, is reserved for after we are dead. While we walk around down here, we are likely to get a great many things wrong. Yes, the pope gets special graces from God, but that doesn’t make him God’s automaton. Even as pope, Francis can err. He loses none of his humanity by becoming Vicar of Christ — a title Francis has minimized in yet another wrinkle to this debate.

I can understand why Harris would want to set up Francis — especially Francis — as divinely cushioned from error. But consider that Peter himself betrayed Christ. True, this was before Peter became pope. But Christ promised us hardship for believing in Him, and the Son of God, crucified by men, had no illusions about human nature. He created us; He knows how far we have fallen. This is why He came to save us, after all. When Francis led the procession of a pagan Pachamama idol into St. Peter’s this past October, was he still acting as the Vicar of Christ? I could list similar Bergoglian outrages for half this magazine’s length, but you get the idea. Here is the crucial distinction: The papacy was instituted by Christ, but Jorge Mario Bergoglio was not appointed by Him. He was appointed by men, no different from Harris and me. We are supposed to follow the counsel of the Holy Ghost at all times, and cardinals in a conclave are supposed to be doing that on overdrive, but, well, what is the Italian equivalent of sausage-making? Just because someone is elected pope doesn’t mean that all the power plays get overlooked. Francis has stacked the College of Cardinals with his own kind, a very human political ploy that seems entirely too seedy to ascribe to the will of God.

Before the election of Francis, I tended to conflate papal infallibility with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. How blessed I was to have known only John Paul II and Benedict XVI as pontiff! But I am also blessed, now, to have had my mind cleared by a dose of human reality. Francis was not conceived without sin. He is capable of wickedness and intrigue, and I am heartbroken to say that he has not refrained from indulging in those to the great detriment of the Body of Christ. Who knows what Bergoglio is going to say or do next? How much unconvincing spinning and backpedaling can Francis’s minders do before even Mr. Harris concludes that it is not the Holy Ghost, but a white-robed sinner, who is “mixing things up” and “making a mess”? We can attach all the conditions we wish, but the fact remains that none of us is “irreformable” — much less “infallible.” I will follow Christ, who remains the only perfect Man, and His mother, the only perfect woman.

When the next pope is chosen, he is likely to be even worse than Bergoglio. So do we scrap the Vatican I novelty, which, as Fr. O’Malley brilliantly showed, was the product of a particular moment in Enlightenment history, or do we keep going double-or-nothing on the Magisterium every time a wacky Jesuit approaches a microphone?

Scholarship in the Service of Politics

Kenneth Colston’s review of Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (April) was fun reading. For years I have enjoyed Greenblatt’s scholarship and respected how his work has enabled discussions of classic literature within the framework of history. Like Greenblatt, I am something of a Shakespeare enthusiast who also greatly enjoys reading history. I also make my living as an educator and have taught various plays of Shakespeare for most of the past 30 years. However, as Colston’s review made clear, there are some sharp differences between me and Dr. Greenblatt. He has far greater influence in the academy and far different politics; perhaps those two things go hand in hand. And so, while I have enjoyed his scholarship, as it has served to advance our understanding of Shakespeare, I must part ways with his scholarship as it now serves to advance his politics.

Colston raised several worthwhile questions in his analysis of Greenblatt’s political scholarship on Shakespeare. I would like to take Colston’s critique a step further. Let’s try a different — in fact, contrary — answer to the title-question of Colston’s review: “Did William Shakespeare Predict Donald Trump?” My answer would be yes, in the character of Henry V. When Prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V, is first introduced to the audience (in Henry IV) he is a reckless, immoral “party animal,” with friends who carouse, drink, and say things like, “We have heard the chimes at midnight” — implying that they are still “out” when good, decent, and godly folk are all abed, sleeping. When Henry is crowned at a young age, the bishop of Ely describes him as “a true lover of the holy Church.” The archbishop of Canterbury replies, “The courses of his youth promised it not.”

One area in which Trump haters and Trump supporters can agree is that Trump does not “behave.” His mannerisms are crude, narcissistic, petty, and, frankly, similar to those of a middle-school bully. In 2016 did it seem like he would make a good president? Certainly not — at least not to me, and probably not many others who withheld their vote from him, as I did. The “courses of his youth” and much of his prior adult life “promised it not.”

However, like Henry V, one could argue that Trump’s “reign” has shown him to be a far better leader than his past behavior led us to expect. There are those on the Left whose minds are closed to this possibility. Whatever brilliance Greenblatt may have in advancing the academy’s understanding of Shakespeare, in the area of how the academy understands Trump, he falls into this closed-minded category. To Greenblatt et al., Trump is a “tyrant,” a “fascist,” and a “racist.” For the first two charges, I would simply ask: How many people have been jailed for criticizing him? How many hostile publications and media outlets have been shut down by his minions? How many opponents have been assaulted by his “brownshirts”?

A substantial argument could be made in the other direction: A certain “hygienic fascism” has resulted in the arrest and jailing of business owners who dared to defy the COVID-19 restrictions of local mayors and governors, usually the “lefty” ones who are among the first and most frequent to call Trump a “fascist.” And while the number of vocal Trump critics who have been assaulted seems rather low — nonexistent, in fact — there are several incidents in which Trump supporters have been victims of assault, vandalism, and even grievous bodily injury at the hands of Trump haters.

As for the “racist” charge, as a growing number of African-American commentators have observed, the lot of blacks in America (looking at indicators such as unemployment and successful black-owned businesses) has never been better, even under Obama, than it has been under Trump.

In the area of history, some have compared Trump to the worst of fascist dictators, but the evidence seems lacking. As for his crude manners, I would compare him to Andrew Jackson, a backwoodsman who, despite his “roughness,” nevertheless turned out to be an able and formidable president. With regard to Trump’s ambivalence about religion, I would compare him to the Emperor Constantine, who did not proclaim himself a Christian until well after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, but who ended up as one of Christianity’s strongest and most consequential defenders. Trump has certainly done more to defend Christian belief than self-proclaimed Catholics like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden.

I did not support Mr. Trump in 2016, and I still find his personality somewhat repulsive. But when I consider the job he has done — the successful economy (until the COVID-19 shutdown), the defense of our friends (e.g., Israel) and confrontation with our enemies (e.g., Iran and China), the restoration of constitutionalism in the judiciary, and the defense of religious liberty (in support of such groups as the Little Sisters of the Poor, who were victims of Obama’s anti-religious “velvet glove” fascism) — I concur with Exeter, in Henry V, Act IV. He tells the Dauphin, the Prince of France, between the battles of Harfleur and Agincourt:

And, be assured, you’ll find a difference
As we his subjects have in wonder found
Between the promise of his greener days
And these he masters now.




To submit a Letter to the Editor, click here: https://www.newoxfordreview.org/contact-us/letters-to-the-editor/

Larry A. Carstens

Castaic, California

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