Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: June 2021

Letters to the Editor: June 2021

Diagnosing the Demonic

Reading Michael S. Rose’s interview with Richard Gallagher, M.D. (“Diagnosing the Spectrum of Diabolic Attacks,” April) from the perspective of a practicing Catholic who is also a practicing addiction psychiatrist, it occurred to me that some of the qualities and virtues that are important to both patient and clinician in the context of addiction are similarly important in addressing those victimized by oppression and possession.

Over the course of 30-plus years as an addiction psychiatrist, I have learned that the person suffering from addiction must be an active participant — the most important participant, in fact — in the recovery process. This is analogous to what Dr. Gallagher describes as the “larger pastoral process” in which exorcisms are performed: “The exorcism prayers are often critical, but victims must also engage in their own spiritual efforts and progress on their own personal religious journey; they have to join in the battle against the evil spirit(s) through their own intensified devotional practices and prayers.”

Simply put, in the same way that one cannot rid a victim of an evil spirit without the victim’s active participation, one cannot rid another person of an addiction without that person’s active participation.

Understanding the recovery process (and the exorcism-related pastoral process) in this way has led me to espouse the importance of the three H’s for both clinician and patient. The first is humility. Whether you are a member of the addiction-treatment team or the exorcism team, you have to remember that you are not the most important person in the room. And, in both situations, the victim is encouraged to humbly acknowledge that he needs help to overcome his affliction. In fact, within both traditions (exorcism and recovery) there is a tested and respected process of appealing to a Higher Power.

The second H is hope. Both the person afflicted by addiction and the person confronting an evil spirit may be prone to giving in to despair. After all, the object of addiction and the demonic spirit are both powerful. The antidote is hope in the help that is forthcoming from that Higher Power and His human instruments. I have often said to my colleagues, “In the end, we are in the business of giving people hope.”

The third H is a sense of humor. I have found this especially helpful on those days when I struggle to remember that it’s the addiction, not the person with the addiction, calling me names. (Analogously, it’s the evil spirit, not the person suffering the possession, belittling the exorcist.) Confident that nobody else can be as critical of me as I am of myself, I have found that a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor goes a long way toward neutralizing the addiction-fueled verbal attacks.

In the end, when dealing with malevolent spirits — demonic or alcoholic — success is not typically characterized by a dramatic cure but by the more mundane practice of certain virtues, including humility, hope, and humor.

Mark J. Albanese, M.D.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

In reading Michael S. Rose’s interview with Richard Gallagher, M.D., one is struck, first of all, by Dr. Gallagher’s professional credentials. Skepticism about matters of theology is so widespread that only those with impeccable credentials can escape immediate dismissal. One reads Dr. Gallagher’s credentials respectfully: Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Cornell, the Vatican. They are presented not in any boasting way but reflect the rigorousness needed in establishing unwelcome truths.

As Dr. Gallagher reviewed the criteria for judging phenomena as having demonic involvement, one notices that it is not based on any particular psychiatric diagnosis. The criteria involve things that defy the rules of logic. Levitation, speaking an unlearned language, and knowledge impossible for the person to have obtained are three of them. Certainly, the latter two require careful investigation; the former is simply impossible without the supernatural.

I routinely see patients who believe that Satan is attacking them. While I encourage patients to visit their clergy, most of these cases can be handled the standard way: with compassion, psychotherapy, and medications. As Dr. Gallagher points out, possessions are rare. However, of the myriad cases he and many psychiatrists see, I cannot help but wonder: Was the Devil involved here? I think having rigorous criteria assures our unbelieving colleagues and preserves laypeople from undue fear.

We must live, and living in constant fear of the supernatural is unhealthy. But awareness of the demonic is important for one’s spiritual well-being. As one preacher once said, “The devil is strong, but Jesus is stronger.” That knowledge can lead to a closer relationship with Christ.

Dr. Gallagher ends his interview with a brilliant observation: “The spiritual nature of this warfare can be seen as a kind of microcosm, and reminder, of the stark truth that we are all engaged in a spiritual struggle of our own, whether we realize it or not. The main significance of God’s allowance of these episodes, throughout history and even in today’s world, may be to call our attention, via a more overt and blatant exhibition of these unequivocal realities, to the need to be more diligent in waging our personal spiritual battles.” It is a loving God who wants us to recognize that, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, when one becomes a Christian, one joins an army.

Frank Pastore, M.D., F.A.P.A.

Medical Director, Partial Hospitalization Program

Bronx, New York

Like Richard Gallagher, my father was a physician and surgeon (M.D. at Rush in Chicago). I was the middle of his nine children. He was a great father, a daily communicant. When I was studying the history and philosophy of physics at St. John’s University in New York, my dad told me of his experiences with demonic possession. In those days, doctors still made house calls, and his mornings were always open for that purpose. He noticed that certain mentally unbalanced individuals would become extremely hostile if he arrived soon after receiving Holy Communion. He began to be suspicious, and so, on a couple of occasions while walking behind the patient’s couch as he entered the room, he would sprinkle the patient with holy water, at which the patient would leap off the couch as if burned by a hot iron.

My father once approached the bishop and asked if the diocesan exorcist (a Franciscan named Fr. Theophilus) could do a diagnostic exorcism. The bishop countered that instead my dad should perform a prefrontal lobotomy on the patient. My dad was horrified because the procedure is nonreversible.

My father was cited in the book Begone, Satan!: A Soul-Stirring Account of Diabolical Possession in Iowa by Fr. Celestine Kapsner, O.S.B. (1935).

Stanislaus Dundon

Paso Robles, California

DR. RICHARD GALLAGHER REPLIES:

It is a real pleasure to read the comments of two highly qualified psychiatric colleagues who demonstrate the (perhaps slowly!) growing trend of the mental-health field’s finally showing more recognition of both the reality of the demonic as well as the need for careful and cautious discernment of any putative “extraordinary” attacks.

Mark J. Albanese makes an interesting analogy to addictions; knowing his status as a Harvard psychiatrist, I am aware that he is not arguing that addictions are in any way predominantly demonic-induced; rather, he is at pains to remind readers to appreciate the complexity of any model of “biopsychosocial” causation of such substance-abuse problems as not excluding, at times, the spiritual and moral realm, that is, as needing to encompass sometimes a spiritual and moral component, most certainly in terms of treatment possibilities (as the 12-step movement has, in fact, long recognized).

Frank Pastore also offers a number of sound reflections, not least of which is the proper prudence in evaluating patients, again without arbitrarily excluding a spiritual element when appropriate and kept in perspective.

Finally, I found Stanislaus Dundon’s reminiscences about his physician father interesting and illustrative of a point sometimes missed by critics who want to medically pathologize all such cases, say, of possessions and who regard their (admittedly quite rare) contemporary diagnosis as inherently misguided and anachronistic. Though I highlight in my book Demonic Foes very recent, unequivocal, and dramatic examples of authentic diabolic possession, Mr. Dundon also mentions another striking and well-documented case from the previous century that his physician father encountered (and to which I also allude in Demonic Foes). Dundon implicitly references that the Church, contrary to popular misconception, has for centuries been hardly hesitant to involve doctors when indicated and as explicitly recommended right in the text of the original Roman Ritual of 1614.

Such attacks, also well documented in the Gospel literature, of course, are realities that Dr. Pastore rightly reminds us may serve as timely lessons of a more overt and stark manner of the more quotidian spiritual struggles that all humans are called to wage — consciously or not!

A Shakedown by Race Pimps

Thank you to Casey Chalk for explaining the book Reparations: A Christian Call to Repentance and Repair and the arguments for and against following Presbyterian authors Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson’s prescriptions for Christian penance for past sins against black Americans (“Should Christians Pay Reparations for Racial Injustices?” Revert’s Rostrum, April). The Church should run far and fast from this red-herring issue. Phony reparations represent bribe money collected out of ill-chosen, feel-good political expediency, a never-ending shakedown by the race pimps in media, academia, and government. Even if Christians pony up $100 trillion, the successful business of racism will not disappear.

“The difficulty of making rightful reparations is not a justification for not making them,” Chalk states. This is a nice sentiment, but examples from the book are not rightful reparations. Kwon and Thompson assert that the “identities, agency, and prosperity of African Americans are systematically stolen and given to others.” This is Critical Race Theory, a subset belief within neo-Marxism. We humans are not analogous to ant colonies, with leaf-eating black ants pitted against carnivorous red-ants. We are individuals of one human race, and when people of differing ethnicities procreate, they produce offspring who are also made in the image of the Holy Trinity.

Georgetown’s example is a fascinating case study. The university sold its slaves before Pope Gregory XVI condemned slavery. The school could have done better by offering the descendants of those ensnared by the “peculiar institution” lowered tuition rates or Masses said in their names, rather than reinforcing the idea that the innocent are monetarily responsible for the sins of the dead. Those slave-selling clerics either reconciled themselves at some point with God, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and its required acts of atonement, or they died in grave error (if slaveholding was a mortal sin at the time, which, after the fact, may be difficult to argue). Their sins were either exonerated or the perpetrators died outside the communion of God’s Church.

The Christians of today are not communally responsible for individuals’ past sins that required the sinners’ atonement. Jesus’ saving blood redeemed the world from the sins of fathers being passed down to their sons. We are not dabblers in past-life Hinduism!

Why are individual evil deeds considered communally inherited but individual good deeds are not? If someone’s great-grandmother risked her life to hide blacks from lynching during Tennessee’s Reconstruction, for example, shouldn’t that mitigate the cost in restitution her descendants supposedly bear?

The Catechism excerpts Chalk cites also view wrongs in terms of individuality: “Every offense committed…entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven…. Likewise, all who in some manner have taken part in a theft or who have knowingly benefited from it…are obliged to make restitution in proportion to their responsibility” (nos. 2487, 2412; italics added). This wisdom only makes sense if the authors of the sin in question dwell among the living.

The authors of Reparations appear to do a bait-and-switch, with Christianity’s culpability in transgressions against blacks morphing into government’s and society’s anti-minority travesties. Who can believe that non-black Catholics are responsible for the evils of federally mandated affirmative action and unfair lending practices?

This form of reparations is not in line with our faith and will be an invitation to continued demands for atonement for transgressions throughout the ages against women, homosexuals, polyamorists, and a host of other supposedly oppressed groups. Eventually, the earth worshipers will demand reparations for birds, trees, and bees. The very wood sheltering a multitude of Blessed Sacraments across the planet could be proclaimed the stolen property of Mother Earth! This menace would plunge the Church headlong into a never-ending campaign to find ever-more deserved reparations.

Craig McEwan

Portal, Arizona

My father and grandparents fled Russian and Prussian tyranny in the early 20th century and legally immigrated to our republic. Upon arrival, they moved to Milwaukee, which then had a very small black population, and got jobs in the dangerous industries of the time. They saved money and bought homes, obeyed our democratically enacted laws, and brought forth law-abiding and hard-working children. As far as I can determine, they did not derive any benefits from the long-gone enslavement of blacks or the then still-existent Jim Crow laws.

Therefore, I must deny that any of my ancestors’ descendants can morally be expected to pay for the sins of others.

Assigning “guilt” or assessing “reparations” to today’s whites (or Asians), even if they are descended from slaveholders or beneficiaries of Jim Crow laws, is too much like assigning guilt to all Jews because of the acts of a very few of them against the Christ.

James Pawlak

West Allis, Wisconsin

Regarding Casey Chalk’s column on reparations: I would like to suggest that there is no justice in this world. It will come only when Jesus returns to “judge the living and the dead.” As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Spe Salvi (2007):

I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the…strongest argument in favor of faith in eternal life…. God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an “undoing” of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgment is first and foremost hope — the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries…. Only God can create justice. And faith gives us certainty that he does so…. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine…and, conversely, my life spills over into that of others…. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened. (nos. 43, 44, 48)

Sr. Mary Pius, O.S.C.

Abbess, Monastery of St. Clare

Kiryu-shi, Gumma Ken, Japan

CASEY CHALK REPLIES:

Thanks to all who read and commented on my column on racial reparations. I knew it would stimulate a lively debate. I share some of Craig McEwan’s concerns with reparations. For example, he believes that regardless of how much reparation money Christians (or various local, state, or federal governments) pay, the business of anti-racism will continue — and perhaps even grow! Given how lucrative that industry has already become — popular “anti-racist” writer-speakers like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo are making millions of dollars — I do not doubt he is correct.

Some of McEwan’s criticisms are, however, less valid. He claims that the language of theft as it pertains to African Americans is “Critical Race Theory.” Certainly, those who subscribe to CRT (I am not such a person) use such language, but its pedigree is far older than this 20th-century Marxist phenomenon. Former slaves themselves asserted as much, and they were right. Moreover, the idea of reparations paid to the descendants of those wronged is as ancient as the Old Testament. Two generations after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, Persian kings uninvolved in the sacking of Israel not only returned the items taken from the House of the Lord (cf. Ezra 1:7-11) but even collected taxes to restore the descendants of Israelites who endured the Babylonian conquest (cf. Ezra 6:6-12).

McEwan seems to conflate the forgiveness of sins with the forgiveness of debts. No doubt those who profited from American chattel slavery could have had their sins forgiven in their lifetime. But if they stole wealth from black Americans and passed that wealth on to their children, then their descendants are, in some respects, the inheritors of property at least some of which is not rightfully theirs. And justice demands that they pay something to account for this theft, even if they themselves were not the ones guilty of stealing.

Granted, things become progressively more obscure when we are not talking about one generation but six, seven, or eight. How, exactly, is a white American who is more than 150 years removed from his Southern slaveholding ancestor culpable for that ancestor’s sins? Or, for argument’s sake, what about a biracial American whose ancestors were both slavers and slaves? (Vice President Kamala Harris likely fits the latter category, though her slave-owning ancestor was Jamaican, not American.) What mathematical formula can be applied to determine the percentage of such a person’s wealth that is not rightfully his? This is impossible to answer and exposes one of the problems with the reparations movement.

Like James Pawlak, I too am descended in part from Eastern Europeans who fled poverty and oppression at the beginning of the 20th century. Many of my Polish relatives stayed, and some died in the Second World War, including at Auschwitz. Perhaps Pawlak is familiar with German reparations to Poles and Jews for various evils historically committed, and is aware that many Poles are still petitioning for reparations for injustices committed multiple generations ago. And why shouldn’t they? My family in southern Poland had no running water until the 1970s in large part because Nazi and Soviet theft and destruction of their property in the 1940s depleted much of the wealth they had acquired over many generations.

Sr. Mary Pius is certainly right that there is no justice in this world, in the eternal and perfect sense. Yet, I imagine that if someone committed a crime against her, her monastery, or a loved one of hers, she would hope that the police would not simply shrug their shoulders and declare, “There’s no justice in the world.” The Church teaches, and has always taught, that inasmuch as we are capable of furthering the cause of justice, however imperfectly, we must do so (cf. Catechism, nos. 1928-1942). Indeed, the greedy tax collector Zacchaeus, whose biblical story Kwon and Thompson cite, paid fourfold to those from whom he stole (cf. Lk. 19:1-10).

I do not write any of this because I am persuaded by Kwon and Thompson’s particular argument regarding reparations, which proposes that individual white Americans are obligated to pay black Americans for historical injustices because we live in a “white supremacist” society. I find such arguments simplistic and reductionist. Kwon and Thompson’s proposals — like the aforementioned exhortation that individual white persons pay some ambiguous amount of their wealth for historical wrongs — are, in many cases, unreasonable, unworkable, and even inimical to the perpetuation of a cohesive body politic. Yet I do recognize that certain persons in America — many of them black — suffer because of crimes committed against their ancestors. And I believe Christ calls us to work toward remedying those injustices, however inchoately and imperfectly. I do not know exactly what this looks like. I think the Georgetown University example, whatever its flaws, represents a commendable, good-faith attempt at reparations for a clearly defined historical wrong. I’d also argue that the Christian who performs volunteer work or offers a charitable donation aimed at aiding a historically disenfranchised racial group does much the same.

Perhaps Kwon and Thompson’s vision fails not because it is too broad and impractical — for example, how could we possibly pay for this, and how would we know when we are done? — but because it is too narrow. We are called as Christians to love and serve our neighbor, regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed. And as citizens, we are obligated to work for the good of our fellowman in what the ancients called pietas. In a sense, we owe all our fellow citizens some of our labor and money, because we are called to use all the gifts God has given us for the benefit of the polis. We must help and serve our neighbor or fellow parishioner, both because it is our obligation (vis-à-vis justice) and because we must exemplify Christ’s love (vis-à-vis grace). Such a perspective fosters humility and good-will among Christians and fellow citizens, because we acknowledge that the debts we owe are incalculable, yet we still seek to give and repair, and we trust that God will make up the difference.

I fear too that Kwon and Thompson’s project will foster entitlement and abuse among some, and resentment and exhaustion among others. That would be the inevitable result of any program that categorically and superficially heroizes one group of people while reprimanding and censuring another. We must seek solutions that reinforce, rather than undermine, civic and ecclesial unity. As St. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Zen, Catholicism & Merton’s Ghost

You are fortunate to be able to add Fr. John A. Perricone as a contributing editor. He is a fine writer and quite right in pointing out that the Church has suffered a terrible decline since Vatican II (“The ‘New Spirituality’ & the Ghost of Catholicism,” Jan.-Feb.). He is, however, mistaken in his estimation of Thomas Merton.

Merton’s superiors did indeed allow him to go outside the monastery. St. Bernard of Clairvaux also went all over Europe on Church business. Merton had his own business, and he went about it with the full permission of his authorities. He was a world-famous writer, so was treated accordingly, but he never lost his identity as a Trappist monk. His writings, up to the end of his life, are ample proof of this.

In one of the talks he gave on his trip to Asia in 1968 (shortly before his death), Merton said, “The deepest level of communication is not communication but communion…. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My brothers and sisters, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. So what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

This echoes Merton’s longstanding stress on our belonging to the Body of Christ: “Our glory and our hope. We are the Body of Christ. Christ loves us and espouses us to His own flesh.” Is this “ghostly”?

Merton expanded his horizons to include Eastern religions, seeking to know how Easterners found their way to God. In writing about Lao Tzu, he didn’t repudiate John of the Cross. Must we only talk about one thing at a time? Yes, Zen is non-Christian. But is it anti-Christian? Dom Aelred Graham wrote a book called Zen Catholicism: A Suggestion (1963). Is this only the “ghost” of the real thing? Certainly, one need not appreciate every facet of Merton’s kaleidoscopic interests but can pick what one likes.

Many people consider Merton a letter-writer par excellence. He formed what he called his “apostolate of friendship” on the basis of the vast number of letters he wrote (and received). This he called “the church of my friends.” His method of communication leads to communion, that is, celebrating our being the Body of Christ.

Can any of the above be labeled the “ghost of Catholicism”? Not a ghost of a chance!

The Rev. Philip M. Stark

Cumberland, Rhode Island

FR. JOHN A. PERRICONE REPLIES:

Fr. Philip M. Stark is quite kind in his compliment. I would like to return it by remarking on the rarity of letters to the editor written with such panache and learning.

I am afraid, however, that Fr. Stark is not seeing ghosts where they are. Perhaps because, by their nature, they are so protean.

Yes, indeed, St. Bernard of Clairvaux traveled throughout Europe, winning for himself, along with his rich oeuvre, the title of the Last of the Fathers. Two factors must be kept in mind: He did this reluctantly (often at the invitation of popes), and he was the superior of his reformed order, the Cistercians. Thomas Merton might have received the permission of his superiors, but I worry that those superiors had already been softened by the Spirit of the World. Many other titanic spiritual writers of the cloister (Fr. Gabriel of Mary Magdalene and Dom Eugene Boylan come to mind) performed their valuable work (including voluminous letter-writing) without breaking the sacred enclosure. Shouldn’t Merton’s ruptures with tradition, albeit cum permissionem, worry us?

Merton’s line, “The deepest level of communication is communion,” is deeply moving. But its charm is philosophical and aesthetic. Theologically, it is too porous. Transposition to theology requires some expansion based on dogmatic principles, mutatis mutandis. St. John of the Cross’s writings were all dogmatic expositions of his poetry. But he recognized that poetry alone could not stand without erroneous interpretations. This is highly instructive. Merton was certainly adept at minting memorable phrases; after all, he was a poet. However, his line, “What we have to be is what we are,” while poetically winsome (for a Hallmark greeting card or diocesan priest’s convocation, I suppose), can lead in a hundred directions; for a Catholic, many quite dangerous to the faith.

Fr. Stark asks whether Merton’s lovely line, “Our glory and hope. We are the Body of Christ. Christ loves us and espouses us to His own flesh,” is “ghostly.” Of course not. But this is precisely my point. There are two Mertons: he of wholly Catholic lines like this one, and he of lines like “What we have to be is what we are.” I fear that the contemporary cult of Merton follows the latter, which explains their disinterest in a firm fidelity to the depositum fidei.

Both Graham’s and Merton’s flirtations with Zen are perilous for Catholics. There is no one better than G.K. Chesterton to ferret out the profound dangers. He wrote in Orthodoxy:

No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The medieval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive…. Love desires personality; therefore love desires division. It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say, “little children love one another,” rather than to tell one large person to love himself. This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God.

My dear Fr. Stark, we must beware of ghosts. They are wily things and can hold us hostage without our ever knowing it.

The Benefits of Fasting

Regarding Christopher Beiting’s article “Fasting: A Personal Witness” (March): I’ve never gone nine days without food, as he has, but I have gone four days a couple of times. My incentives were a book by Steven Brooks called Fasting and Prayer: God’s Nuclear Power (2012) and TV calls for revival from Protestant evangelists through fasting and prayer. Brooks’s story is replete with examples of the Holy Spirit refilling his cup.

I also read a book by a German nutritionist named Arnold Ehret who experimented with fasting as a healing process and a cure for disease. His ideas can be found in his book Rational Fasting: A Scientific Way of Fasting Your Way to Health (1971).

The benefits of fasting for me were clarity of thought, a sense of spiritual and even physical strength, and direction to pray for and support Christians in Syria.

Julie Mannarelli

Lorain, Ohio

CHRISTOPHER BEITING REPLIES:

I thank Julie Mannarelli for her reply and for her witness. It sounds like our paths have been more than a little similar, even down to the inspiration for our fasts coming first from Protestant sources. This would appear to be yet another one of those areas in which our Protestant brethren have left us Catholics in the dust and given us a lot to learn.

With regard to the nature and length of fasts: There’s no fixed way to do it and no reason it has to be for nine days. My friend who taught me how to fast likes to pray novenas, and when he got practiced enough at fasting to do it for nine days at a stretch, he simply decided to yoke a novena to his fasts and found the resulting combination very effective. I’m just following in his footsteps, although doing so can lead to some unusual situations. This Lent I was planning a long fast, but it lasted only a week before illness forced me to stop. This left friends shaking their heads at me in disbelief as I lamented that I felt like a failure as I only managed to go without food for seven days (only, he says!).

But, really, any kind of fast is good, as long as it’s done in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. The fact that Mannarelli felt called during her fasts to pray for others — in her case, Christians in Syria — is likely a sign that she’s Doing It Right.

I tend to fast a little longer than four days because, medically, that’s about how long it takes for your digestive system to go into standby mode — signified by that oily taste in your mouth finally going away — and I usually don’t get physically comfortable with a fast until after that point. If Mannarelli’s life situation and health allow it, and if she feels called by the Holy Spirit, she might want to add a few more days to her next fast and see how it goes. It’s a different experience for everybody, and everybody’s different.

Lastly, keeping in mind Our Lord’s injunctions in Matthew 6:16-18, I nevertheless think it is important for people who have experienced the benefits of fasting, as Mannarelli has, to share that positive witness with others. We are in the midst of a particularly trying time in the history of the faith, and Christians need all the help we can get these days. She and I both know how powerful a thing fasting is; hopefully we can encourage others to try it. The more, the merrier!

My Own Private Homo Sacer?

Jason M. Morgan’s provocative two-part series “The Fetus as Homo Sacer” (Jan.-Feb. and March) lays out society’s need for a homo sacer, a class of humans who serve as expendable nonpersons. Recourse to the homo sacer seems to be embedded even in ostensibly just societies. The governing power holds legitimacy and maintains order by demonstrating that it can kill the homo sacer at will.

Morgan’s case is particularly convincing in the example of how the unborn replaced blacks as America’s homo sacer. Broad legalization of abortion followed on the heels of the 1960s civil-rights movement because blacks were elevated out of homo sacer status, and a new nonperson was needed. Women, each a sovereign unto herself in the liberal order, became the new paterfamilias, pushing aside men who apparently had been in charge of keeping a boot on the neck of blacks (from which role it seems they derived their erstwhile legitimacy as sovereigns). Our feminized culture, in its railing against “toxic masculinity,” appears to bear this out.

At the end of his second article, “Why the Modern Democratic State Needs Abortable Children” (March), Morgan leaves the reader in a rather dour place: It’s all well and good to try to overturn abortion rights, he argues; but even if that could be done, we would need to find a new homo sacer to take the old one’s place. Societies would come apart at the seams if not for such a scapegoat. We are given to believe that the need for a homo sacer is a sort of iron law, immovably built into every society. There is no explanation of why that might be the case.

But society is made up of human persons, and while it is true that society is something more than the sum of its parts — that is, it is not simply a conglomerate of individuals each acting out of his own self-interest — it is human beings who commit evil out of their own hearts. Demonic influences, present as they are, primarily manifest through individual men. The flaw in Morgan’s series is that it discusses humans in the aggregate, lacking treatment of the human person as such.

So the question is: Must every man have a homo sacer? Must each man necessarily relegate someone to the status of expendable human? While fallen man undeniably has the tendency to do this, can the human heart nevertheless be taught to treat all people with respect? As a Christian, I think the answer has to be a resounding yes! Metaphysically, we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and a man can learn to respect this intrinsic human dignity, which Christ demonstrated in its perfection. And if one man can respect others, then society can also be thusly transformed. If one man can accept forgiveness of his sins by the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, and so calm the rage that seeks to lash his own burden to another, then so can many do this.

The state, then, can be based on something other than power over designated nonpersons. The state can derive legitimacy by upholding just laws, indeed even to the point of brandishing the power of the sword when necessary. And what are just laws? Those flowing from recognition of the intrinsic worth of each human individual. In this way, society and its governing bodies learn to hate what should be hated (evil) and love what should be loved (God and one’s fellowman).

I think Morgan identified the perennial human tendency to order ourselves according to the exercise of power. However, we must not be resigned to this as an unbreakable tendency but rather continue to exert the principles of Christ’s reign, even against the long odds we face today.

Paul Malocha

Ann Arbor, Michigan

JASON M. MORGAN REPLIES:

Paul Malocha’s excellent letter states the problem of the homo sacer in the clearest of terms. His letter hinges on four simple words: “As a Christian, I….” As a Christian, I agree with Malocha. As a Christian, I reject using anyone as means to an end. As a Christian, I abhor the very idea of the homo sacer, and I pray that I may be given the grace to love my neighbor as myself. As a Christian, I have my hands full with the daily Pauline struggle against the evil that I would not do but do anyway. As a Christian, I remember my baptism and wait in joyful hope for the Second Coming of Christ.

But then Malocha shifts to the state, which, he writes, “can be based on something other than power over designated nonpersons.” Here I disagree. It does not follow that a state, even one ruling over devout Christians, will be Christian itself. The question is: Can the state be baptized? My answer is no. I am an old-school Augustinian. The state is evil. The state’s logic is conquest, exploitation, taxation, and war. Choose any age, any place, and history will bear this out.

Pontius Pilate is the obvious exemplar of the political calculus. But think about Confucius, who lived a life exasperated by the failure of princes to live by a moral ideal. Think of Machiavelli, and then of the early liberals who tried taming the Leviathan that Machiavelli unleashed. Give a man a state, and he will use it for objectives orthogonal to the opening lines of the Baltimore Catechism.

God speaks to each of us as individuals. In the Old Testament, Yahweh railed against Israel and other collectives. But He died on a cross to save the criminal hanging next to Him. He didn’t die for a group, but for me. The state cannot be baptized, cannot be redeemed. It is the working-out of man’s sinfulness on earth, the Cain in us always looking to dominate the Abel in the other.

There has been a movement lately among certain Catholic traditionalists to turn the state into an instrument of morality. This is going to end in disaster if those traditionalists really do end up taking control of a state. Simply put, you cannot have a state without incarceration and murder. The state rises higher and higher the more the individual cowers in fear. However “Christian” in styling, it will attract the same ladder-climbers and power-brokers as any other state. George Washington was a Christian man; the town named after him is an abomination.

It’s precisely because we will always be stalked by the homo sacer — because our hearts are darkened with sin — that we must stick to battling our own demons and not get tangled up in the affairs of any state. The state, at best, apes morality. The state rests ultimately on the horror of the homo sacer. There’s no escaping it. As a Christian, I render unto Caesar, and I keep the godly portion for my own salvation.

Five Little Words

Carl Sundell has done NOR readers a great favor by introducing them to The Everlasting Man. Why? Because in his trenchant article (“Chesterton on Man, the Religious Animal,” April), Prof. Sundell shows how the prince of paradox convincingly explains that “Jesus was not just a man of His time but for all time.” With both His preaching and His life, Jesus gives undeniable witness to His message of “universal love”: real love, agape love, godly love, intentional and self-sacrificing love.

St. John the Evangelist was reputedly very old when his disciples asked why he preached the same homily every Sunday. Week after week, “Little children, love one another” is all he’d say. Five words. Why no more than that? “Because,” the saint replied, “it is the Lord’s command, and if this alone is done, it is enough.”

It is Chesterton’s presentation of Christ’s “new way” (cf. Heb. 10:19-20) — a religion in which adherents are wholly dedicated to living lives of unselfish and untiring service to both God and others — that makes Sundell’s article so compelling and thought-provoking. He offers a brief glimpse of Chesterton’s delightful and profound encounter with “the Man of whom he wrote so well.”

Please, everybody, read Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man! You’ll thank me later.

Deacon Leroy Behnke

Slaton, Texas

CARL SUNDELL REPLIES:

I thank Deacon Leroy Behnke for pointing to love as being at the heart of what Jesus was all about. Malcolm Muggeridge remarked once that religion became more relevant to him when he realized that all the modern excitement about Darwin and evolution was sorely overdone. Had Darwin never lived, had evolution never been discovered, there would be no substantive difference in the history of the world. But had Jesus never lived, had the Gospel of Love never been preached by the Everlasting Man, imagine how many more everlasting horrors we might have suffered over the past two millennia and how much more difficult it would have been to find God’s love at work in the world. H.G. Wells only wrote about the history of the world. Chesterton wrote about the history of God in the world.

A Dictatorship of Pleasure

Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, observed that democracy means mediocrity. Edwin Dyga, in calling democracy a “dictatorship of the lowest common denominator,” has rediscovered the wheel (“Is Democracy a Transcendent Good?” March). Yes, indeed, that is the nature of democracy. It is unheroic, uninspiring, and unimaginative. It is dull.

Like Dyga, I also yearn for an aristocratic system with its spirit of heroism and excellence. I am afraid, however, that it is not to be had just yet. As Evelyn Waugh stated in the context of his support for the anti-communist side in the Spanish Civil War, had the conditions been analogous in Great Britain, he would have joined an English General Franco. England, fortunately, was not facing such a tragic predicament. “It is mischievous to think that the time has now come,” Waugh concluded.

Therefore, Catholic conservatives should heed Winston Churchill’s bon mot about democracy’s being positively the worst political system, except for all the others. So, democracy it is for the foreseeable future.

The meaning of democracy and freedom has morphed over time. Our iteration is radically egalitarian with a strong tilt toward omnipresent libertinism and antinomian individualism. Thus, democratic and liberal abstractions tend to degenerate in practice into a dictatorship of pleasure. Democracy turns into ochlocracy; freedom careens into license.

To remain relevant, most conservatives have opted to embrace the democratic and liberal language of “rights” with all the consequences. They believe, as did William F. Buckley Jr., that the best they can do is “stand athwart of the train of history, yelling Stop!” But the train proceeds at a breakneck pace, leaving most conservatives flapping their clipped wings impotently. To stay relevant, they resign themselves to inevitable determinism. They elect to follow the train of history, instead of derailing it or at least kicking out the engineer and replacing him. Or perhaps they should assume the role of the stationmaster. He has many tricks up his sleeve. He can sidetrack the machine; he can starve it of fuel; he can reroute it; and, ultimately, he can decommission it.

Conservatives refuse to consider that things are also in their own hands, if they only act or not. They should navigate between Edmund Burke, who advised that “for evil to prevail it is enough if good men do nothing,” and Joseph de Maistre, who held that “sometimes the hardest thing is to do nothing.” Neither of the sages admonished us to follow the mob.

In their unenviable predicament, conservatives are stuck between “never fight your battles on the enemy’s terms” and “the absent are never right.” It would be lovely to afford the luxury of retreating into the wholesomeness of solitude à la Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option.” But it is untenable. And so is the vision of recreating a dissident underground in the West based on the paradigm of the Soviet bloc in the 1970s. The Gestapo will come for us, even into a Benedictine monastery. Further, the NKVD will break up most, if not all, dissident clandestine cells, pace Dreher.

Admittedly, then, in the grand scheme of things, Dyga is right. We face a dictatorship of pleasure under the scepter of mediocrities. We must endure, organize, and prepare for a counterrevolution. That entails communicating, networking, and reclaiming the language. We must first restore the true meaning to words. For example, we must rediscover that tolerance denotes putting up with an unsympathetic phenomenon to a point, but not embracing and celebrating pathologies. That is the task at hand.

Everything ends. That means everything human also comes to a terminus, including democracy. And when that time comes, we should be ready for a Reconquista. It may come to a point at which nothing but a crusade will do.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies & Center of Intermarium Studies, Institute of World Politics

Washington, D.C.

Edwin Dyga’s excellent article (March) makes clear that democracy is not, in fact, a “transcendent good.” Is the “tyranny of the majority” any better than a tyranny of one? Nope. In the United States, the vice president’s locked-and-loaded, tie-breaking vote makes a 50-Republican Senate the functional equivalent of a zero-Republican Senate. States have now hinted that unwelcome dictates may not be enforced within their boundaries, and we’re back to an 1850s primed-to-unravel Union. Not for nothing is democracy second from the bottom (just above anarchy) on Socrates’s “declension of regimes.”

In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville also warned of a democracy unhinged from the natural law. The Gospels include the parable of the “strong man, fully armed,” guarding a dwelling and keeping the owner’s goods safe (Lk. 11:21-22). Religion is democracy’s “strong man.” Once the strong man is overcome, the invader will pillage and divide the spoils.

Dyga is crypto-optimistic that genuine conservatives can reclaim the initiative by standing up for what’s good versus what’s merely democratically arrived-at. The United States pushed for Mideast democracy and affected vexation when Muslim Brotherhood candidates were elected. The same thing, essentially, has happened here and all over the world where, as Dyga explains, the process is made an end in itself.

File under: petard, hoist by one’s own.

Paul Tormey

Orrington, Maine

It’s always a pleasure to read something by Edwin Dyga. While I agree with his verdict on conservatism, he blames the victim by singling out democracy as the source of our present woes. The COVID lockdown, cancel culture, Internet pornography, and virtually every other woe came about through the oligarchic subversion of representative government, not as a result of the will of the people. We quite simply do not have a government that represents the will of the people. We have two parties that represent oligarchic interests. And what is true here in America is true now throughout the world.

E. Michael Jones

Editor, Culture Wars

South Bend, Indiana

Edwin Dyga has written a marvelous article, setting out some of the mechanisms behind what has become the characteristic decay of the conservative movement: to be ever burdened with the conservation of the institutions that replaced those which their forebears failed to conserve. Dyga asserts that this occurs because conservatives have casually adopted the language and institutions of the Left and thus opened themselves unwittingly to the foundational precepts underlying them. In brief, conservatives have failed to observe the injunction to be “in the world but not of it.” If anything, this decay is increasing in rate as the polity moves overwhelmingly from traditional, absolute references to social, relative references of an apparently ever-shortening timeframe.

Where I would diverge from Dyga is in regard to what is to be done. He contends that the ultimate objective of good governance is public service in the interest of human dignitythat conservatives should place human dignity at the center of their political programs. He introduces this notion without justification, as something that should be remembered.

Yet dignity is not a particularly worthy end in and of itself; putting it at the center of a program to restore good governance would merely enshrine the strategic and ethical failings of conservatism for another generation. Seeking dignity will not prevent a repetition of the errors of those who went before. If we, as Dyga suggests, focus on the why instead of the how, we see that conservatism casually adopted the language and institutions of the Left because it wished to remain dignified.

At the core of the mindset necessary to be “in the world but not of it” is the devaluation of earthly honors and reputation, and a focus on obtaining our reward in Heaven. In our efforts to influence this world, it is all too easy to accept the honors it offers, as doing so allows an easy path to influence. Yet, having received earthly honors to achieve heavenly ends, we find ourselves subject to the authority that issued the honor. Once subject to that authority, we are in the position in which what has been given can be taken away, and many fall away. We become the “rich young ruler,” burdened with great “wealth.”

This is to take nothing away from the insights in Dyga’s article but to suggest that further reflection on the path out of the bind in which conservatives find themselves is necessary. My sense is that while the focus remains on conservation rather than on restoration and greater glories, while we look to what we can hold on to rather than what we can establish, we will continue to lose that which we seek to preserve. Without vision, the people perish.

Alistair Hermann

Launceston, Tasmania

Australia

EDWIN DYGA REPLIES:

Good-faith defenders of the democratic process often assume the integrity of two phenomena that are essential for the maintenance of democratic living but no longer exist in any meaningful sense: a healthy culture in which individuals are motivated by a desire to pursue the common good, and the existence of a marketplace of ideas fettered only by rules that suppress or marginalize what is universally taken to be corrosive to the community or individual. These are essential for individualism to flourish, without which democracy would lose its dynamic force. Certainly, there has never been a “Golden Period” in which culture and the public square were unblemished by social pathologies or undisturbed by nefarious agitators, but I believe there is a qualitative difference between what we suffer today and what our grandfathers experienced in their time.

I acknowledge E. Michael Jones’s point that the failures of democracy are in large part caused by the manner in which the system has allowed itself to be gamed by bad actors, and that this is not, therefore, an inherent fault of the system itself. However, I wonder to what extent that corruption is a cause, not a symptom, of the present crisis. Had democracy not been reduced in the minds of its most ardent advocates to pure process, then it may not have been susceptible to being gamed in the first place. Bad actors are served by a system that favors the election of mediocrities; it is difficult to claim that modern democracy is sincerely meritocratic.

Paul Tormey draws our attention to Luke the Evangelist and states correctly that “religion is democracy’s ‘strong man.’” The root of the problem is that democracy’s defenders have allowed form to triumph over substance, arguably because of the evaporation of the metaphysical dimension from our political life. That missing dimension has had a direct impact on how the political class conducts itself, and this reflects in the quality of representative government as well as its resilience to corruption.

The “freedom” celebrated by apologists for Western civilization can only exist within a certain framework that sets limits on conduct, and those limits can only be legitimately derived from a transcendent authority. Likewise, individualism can only be meaningful if it refers back to a community within which it has been nurtured and in which it is expressed: Man is no tabula rasa. Be that as it may, Alistair Hermann identifies a legitimate problem in taking “human dignity” as the focal point around which conservative praxis should revolve. My position was intended to contrast against the vacuous idolatry of democracy-as-pure-process favored by the doctrinaire opponents of “authoritarianism.” However, Hermann is quite right that a dignity-oriented politics would fall into the same trap of subjectivity we see today in the rhetorical struggle of competing “values”: between those who believe that freedom can be found only within the scope of creation and the natural law that governs it, and those who believe that man is self-created and can therefore engage in a form of “creative” self-destruction at will, that is, those who normalize various dysmorphias, both physical and mental, as well as the advocates of “Critical Race Theory.”

Today, man-as-tabula-rasa has become an article of secular faith, the public square has lost its dynamism, and our political culture shows it. Americans may be proud of their revolutionary history, but I recall the words of Joseph Sobran, who questioned whether any “tyrant” king of Europe would have arrogated the same powers to himself that are today exercised daily against the citizens of the U.S. republic by its presidents.

Perhaps this quandary might be cured by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz’s injunction that we rediscover the true meaning of words — such as freedom and dignity — if we are to have any hope of mounting an effective resistance against the dictatorship of pleasure and mediocrity, else we end up “embracing and celebrating pathology.” I wholeheartedly agree: The deconstruction of culture has been facilitated, in large part, by the intentional confusion of language for ideological purposes.

Jones is correct that this has been a cultural affair external to the machinations of parliamentary politics; however, now it has subsumed the whole system in a positive feedback loop. If there is uncertainty in the meaning of terms, effective communication is impossible, the public square is atomized, man is alienated from his neighbor, and the only persuasive methodology becomes the blunt application of will. This brings to mind an episode of the culture wars here in Australia that illustrates a closely related point.

When The Persecution of George Pell (Quadrant Books, 2020) was launched at the Sydney Archdiocese’s Polding Centre this past November, author Keith Windschuttle concluded his address to those attending with a call for the robust re-engagement in the marketplace of ideas. His thesis was that the most effective way for the rationally minded to reclaim lost ground in the culture wars is through an unapologetic and uncompromising public manifestation of what they believe to be true. After all, it is precisely because of the spirited defense of Cardinal Pell by those not swept up by the narratives of outright falsehood that he managed to prevail against the lynch mob of anti-Catholic bigots on the street, the mainstream editorial boards, and, of course, within the Victorian state legal system itself.

But I respectfully believe that this example (though justice was ultimately served before the highest federal court) proves the opposite point. Can we really appeal to reason and the “marketplace of ideas” when our assailants rely on the application of emotionally charged brute force, as has been and will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future? Prof. Windschuttle’s solution presupposes the vitality of civil society in its present state; however, the various cartels and monopolies that plague its “marketplace of ideas” render the necessary exchange of intellectual goods virtually impossible. The only reason an innocent man is free today is not because of the power of truth and the courageous men who spoke it within the pages of the few literary organs that provide space for dissenting voices (such as Quadrant, which Windschuttle edits), but because the Left’s Long March through the Institutions has not yet made its presence felt on the bench of the High Court as assertively as it has in other state institutions.

Today there is no consensus about what it means for a body politic to be “healthy,” what constitutes the “common good,” or what criteria or standards to apply when determining what is considered “corrosive to the community or individual.” In a radically atomized society overlaid with the ideology of multiculturalism, a sense of communal membership and mutual understanding needed for such a consensus is simply eliminated from the hearts and minds of the people. Where shared sensibilities once formed an unspoken convention between all but the eccentric few, and were therefore taken for granted under the rubric of common sense (sometimes even by the eccentrics themselves, who would reserve their eccentricities for private amusement), now we have the perennial confusion about how to think, speak, and behave before a neighbor who may have proximity but cannot be said to form part of the polis in which we live. This confusion is exacerbated by militant conformism, such as the increasingly expanding nonsense of “hate speech,” which often pathologizes something as basic as empirical pattern recognition. This not only makes rational debate impossible, it makes any discussion about what is reasonable impossible as well.

It is an indictment of modern democracy that the only place where “ideas” can be exchanged between individuals who are able to express themselves freely is in alternative media. What is today called “democracy” is something altogether different from the romantic ideal often pictured in the minds of its contemporary apologists: It is not inclusive, impartial, or tolerant in the classical liberal sense; rather, it is a process now at the service of forces dedicated to undermining the very conditions that made it one of our civilization’s crowning achievements. It is here that my critique of its idolatry by conservatives rests.

(I finish with an errata: While my copy of Libido Dominandi is a “first print” of 2018, the volume was, in fact, originally published in 2000; Nemesis came off the press in 2019, not 2018. I pray the authors forgive my errors. Mea maxima culpa.)

©2021 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

 

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

You May Also Enjoy

The Underclass, Part II: Widespread Teenage Pregnancy

Girls in the ghetto are hungry for love, and desperately afraid of not going along with the social, cultural, and sexual pressures of the street.

A Rare Novel of Worth

Although Murdoch’s characters have banished God, they have yet to rid themselves of sin, guilt, and evil; God is dead but Satan thrives.

How Not to Be Ecumenical

Review of The Panther and the Hind