Letters to the Editor: June 2022
Those “Noxious” Protestant Heretics
After reading Jason M. Morgan’s review of Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History (April), it became apparent that Dr. Morgan has serious issues with anything to do with Luther and the Reformation. “Lutheranism, Docetism, Islam: these heresies distort the Church and Her Head, Jesus,” he writes. “Particularly noxious [has] been Lutheranism (and its various Protestant iterations).”
As I am a longtime teacher of history, logic, and the Bible in what Morgan would probably identify as a “noxious” Protestant academic institution, and as I have pictures on my classroom walls of Dr. Luther, along with other “heretics” such as Booker T. Washington, Robert E. Lee, and St. Augustine, I too must share in this “rebellion against Rome.” The fact that we recite the Lord’s Prayer every Monday, the Apostles’ Creed every Tuesday, and the Nicene Creed every Wednesday doesn’t change the fact we are “heretics.” Morgan’s inclusion of Luther with “Voltaire, Tom Paine, the Bible-snipping Thomas Jefferson, the Masonic George Washington, and the rest of the Enlightenment crew” as rebels who hate Rome is one of the most foolish things I have ever read.
Morgan then reveals his complete disdain for everything Protestant when he writes, “Thus, we have Ben Shapiro, a Jewish man, desperately trying to apologize for the wreck of Christendom that Protestant and Enlightenment rebels brought about by appealing to those same Protestant and Enlightenment rebels for some fitting substitute for the peace of Christ, a peace that was only obtainable while Christendom was still intact.” Wow! So, the division of Christendom is the fault of the Protestant heretics and their hatred of “Mother Rome”? Morgan might want to consider that the division might actually be due to the moral corruption and “rebellion” of Rome. Gee, it’s a wonder a little-known monk from Germany was able to gain the support of millions throughout Europe against the wonderful purity of the Roman Church. St. John warned the Ephesian Church that “your lampstand may be removed, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5). Maybe that could have happened to the Church in Rome some 500 years ago?
One last question for Morgan. Was the election of the second Roman Catholic president of the United States also the result of that rebellious heretic Martin Luther and his destructive hatred of all things Rome? Joseph Biden supports everything transgender, sodomite marriage, and the continued “right” to murder the unborn. Yet Pope Francis called him “a good Catholic” and embraced him! I wonder if Morgan voted for this “good Catholic.”
Rome excommunicated the “heretic from Wittenberg.” That same Church warmly embraces the heretic in the White House. Is that Dr. Luther’s fault as well?
I hope Jason M. Morgan feels better after getting off his chest all his frustrations about the failure of Protestants to create a perfect world after the break with Rome in the Reformation. But I kept waiting for him to describe the Catholic utopia that would have given the world a paradise of prosperity and ordered liberty better than the one John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and all those misguided Protestants and deists created here in the United States.
Perhaps that was edited out for brevity so Morgan had room to instruct us that “human rights has long been the handmaiden to totalitarian nightmare” and that the Declaration of Independence is mere “Locke-cribbed drivel” rather than the finest expression of human freedom ever put on paper. But he left out explaining why it has been admiringly “cribbed” by freedom-seeking cultures around the world. It must be because the imitators are not Catholic and don’t know any better. Would Morgan be happy with the Declaration and the Constitution if they had been written by Catholics? Is it the society they produced that he hates or only the fact that its producers weren’t Catholic? The Anglo-American culture of ordered liberty has, like it or not, emerged from Protestant societies and Protestant statesmen. Have Catholic statesmen produced a similarly successful and durable government? Where is it?
Was it really necessary for Morgan to insult every sincere Protestant among his readers? I won’t say among his friends because, with an attitude like his, it seems unlikely he has any. If he does, they must be very graciously forgiving.
Morgan tells us Ben Shapiro is on the side of the enemy. What enemy? The enemies of freedom? The enemies of human rights? Does Morgan mean anyone who is not Catholic is an enemy? Are those of us among the NOR’s readers and contributors enemies?
Morgan says “Rome” built science and human rights. In what sense did Rome build science? We agree it was Christianity that made modern science possible, but it was not necessarily or exclusively Catholic. However else one regards the Enlightenment, many of the giants of scientific advancement who followed it were not Catholic: Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, James Clerk Maxwell, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, et al.
I am baffled by Morgan’s statement that Catholics raised billions out of poverty. Where did this happen?
Morgan writes, “If history has a ‘right side,’ and the United States occupies it, then that seems not too different from history having a right side and its being held by the Soviet Union.” I have no idea what he is trying to tell us here. To this heretical, misguided, spiritually blind Protestant, it sounds crazy. Please open my eyes to the truth.
Morgan also writes, “Fail to understand that [the statues on St. Peter’s are Catholic saints] and you have failed to understand what America is, and why liberal-Protestant America is fundamentally incompatible with the true Catholic vision of man and the cosmos.” What is the true Catholic vision? How would it be different from “liberal-Protestant America” in terms of producing ordered liberty and a standard of living that is envied throughout the world?
The NOR should consider taking an informal poll of its readers to see how many agree we should dismantle the Statue of Liberty because it is a pagan goddess. And while the demolition team is engaged, should they also take down the obelisk of the Washington Monument and the pagan temple of the Jefferson Memorial?
In informal correspondence, a few Catholics have been dismissive of my puzzlement over Morgan’s review and implied that Protestants are simply too intellectually impoverished to understand his points. It will be instructive to see if Morgan takes the same position.
Preston R. Simpson, M.D.
Certain historical discrepancies and anachronisms interfered with my appreciation of Jason M. Morgan’s review of The Right Side of History. Islam cannot usefully be considered a heresy in the same sense as Albigensianism, Lutheranism, and Docetism. And lumping John Calvin in with the St. Gallen group makes little sense, in that the Catholic clergy who met from 1996 to 2006 assuredly disagreed in major and minor ways with the 16th-century French Protestant reformer.
Though I can understand and am comfortable with Morgan’s describing Martin Luther as an “arch-heretic,” labeling him a “proto-Enlightenment hero” does a great disservice to Morgan and the NOR’s editors and readers, as well as Luther himself and various Enlightenment figures. The height of the Renaissance in Western Europe is usually identified as the 1400s and 1500s; Luther lived from 1483 to 1546. The widest range of dates for the Enlightenment spans the period 1637-1789, with its heyday residing comfortably in the 18th century. Of course, it will not do to link Luther to the Renaissance times in which he lived; the Roman Catholic Church herself was an important element in the European Renaissance.
I was struck by Jason M. Morgan’s description of a “particularly noxious” Lutheranism (and its Protestant iterations) that challenges the unity of Christ and His Church. Dr. Morgan’s analysis may benefit from the fact that Martin Luther abhorred the term Lutheranism and never once spoke or wrote the term Protestant. In fact, the Reformation of the Catholic Church that Luther launched occurred 12 years before the word Protestant came into use in 1529 at the Diet of Speyer, where the protest was over the power of princes to decide whether their provinces were to be Catholic or Protestant. The protest was not doctrinal but political. Luther loved the Church unified with Christ’s Cross, which removed both the penalty and power of sin. From the Scriptures he saw that one need not indulge oneself in anything but the forgiveness of God’s grace through faith based on the merits of Christ alone.
I’m wary of any term that ends with ism. Is Lutheranism code for Protestantism? Is Luther’s theology of the Cross and his robust ecclesiology “Lutheranism”? Morgan states that “Protestantism is the rejection of Rome, of Christendom, of the Church.” I agree. But Morgan is confused about Luther’s theology vis-à-vis Protestantism. Luther would never have called himself a Protestant. Had he lived in the 18th century, he would have abhorred the Protestantism emanating from the Enlightenment. Luther was Catholic in his grasp of a Christendom constructed upon the Church founded by the “God-man hanging from a tree in Golgotha.”
I’d also suggest that any Catholic analysis of a Jewish author’s Westernism (i.e., Ben Shapiro’s) must be preceded by the writer’s proper understanding of Luther’s theology rather than subsuming it into some amorphous concept of Lutheranism or, worse yet, Protestantism.
That said, I wholeheartedly agree with the path Morgan takes in his analysis of a “Western ‘virtue’ which replaces Christ” as the link between Abraham and the present.
Jason M. Morgan has written an excellent critique of Ben Shapiro’s book and its underlying error. Shapiro is a Jew, which means he doesn’t accept the divinity of Christ and the identity of the Catholic Church as His Mystical Body on earth. What can it mean for someone to accept the heritage of Jerusalem and Athens but not their providential historical, cultural, philosophical, and theological synthesis in the res publica of the Church? The answer is that one must replace the Church with an ersatz unifier. In Shapiro’s case, as Morgan makes clear, that unifier is the “West” and “Judeo-Christianity” — i.e., the United States of America.
As D.C. Schindler shows in his latest book The Politics of the Real, liberalism is ultimately a counterfeit of the Catholic Church, and Lockean Americanism is its most deceptive form. Schindler writes:
The deepest act of liberalism, the one that reveals it in its essence, is its putting the reality of the Church “out of play,” denying and suppressing her status as a res publica. But because the Church has radically entered history from the inside — rather than from without, as a foreign invader — rejecting the res publica of the Church comes at the cost of surrendering the real as a principle of political order. If the Church loses her status as res publica, she no longer holds the ontological ground that enables her to hand on the synthesis of these great traditions. A deep rejection occurs only by way of an attempt at ersatz: liberalism recovers the apparent legacy of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, but without their historical and concrete unity, and so we are left with a subjectivistic faith, an abstract nature (either mechanized or vitalized), and a formalistic, proceduralist legal order. Each of the elements of this synthesis encourages and reinforces the others. This synthesis is essentially artificial, in the sense of being fabricated without the support of nature’s own organic movement, because it lacks the heart of flesh that is the authoritative reality of the good.
Shapiro is attracted to the good, as is clear from the admirable career he has made of attacking the most pernicious of ideological and cultural evils from the Left, all of which are attacks on the heritage of Jerusalem and Athens that he loves. But in his rejection of the reality of the Catholic Church, his weapons are ultimately the same as those of his adversaries. Americanism vs. liberalism is really liberalism vs. liberalism.
The reality of the good revealed as the Living God to Jerusalem and known as logos to Athens was divinely incarnated in Bethlehem and extended in space and time sacramentally in the Catholic Church and culturally in the civilization of Christendom. The res publica of the Church, not America, is the “heart of flesh that is the authoritative reality of the good.” The limbs of truth, goodness, and beauty that grew providentially in the cultures preceding the Incarnation were integrated once and for all into the living body of the Church. Separated from her living heart, they become gangrenous, having no life in them.
Shapiro needs to see that his “Judeo-Christianity” and the “West” are just masks for the liberalism he claims to combat, one that must be atheistic in practice due to its own internal logic, no matter how much it praises “nature’s God” and religious freedom. God, in His severe mercy, has permitted the West to become a living hell so we may see the counterfeit for what it is in all its satanic ugliness, repent, and cling to His Heart of Flesh in the Eucharist, and to His Mother who gave that Heart to the world.
JASON M. MORGAN REPLIES:
Richard Grote is correct that Martin Luther should not be included with Voltaire, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Luther was far worse. I am not aware, for instance, that any of those men called for, or cheered along, a massacre of the poor, which Luther did in his tract Against the Robbing and Murdering Horde of Peasants (1525). He wrote, “Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel.”
I also think Voltaire et al. wouldn’t have followed Luther’s instructions to burn down synagogues, tear down houses owned by Jews, confiscate Jewish writings, and muzzle rabbis “on pain of loss of life and limb,” as Luther wrote in his treatise On the Jews and Their Lies (1543).
Based on the crazed calls for violence and anti-Semitism, I can think of another German whose portrait I would place beside Luther’s, if Mr. Grote insists on keeping the heresiarch’s on his wall of fame.
Much more could be cited, a lot of it unprintable, to demonstrate that Luther’s depravity was sui generis and not justly compared to the other anti-Catholics on the list I provided in my review. Voltaire was against priestly celibacy; Luther mocked the celibacy of Jesus of Nazareth. “Christ committed adultery first of all with the woman at the well about whom St. John tells us,” he said (Table Talk, pub. 1566). “Was not everybody about Him saying, ‘Whatever has he been doing with her?’ Secondly, with Mary Magdalene and thirdly with the woman taken in adultery whom he dismissed so lightly. Thus, even Christ who was so righteous must have been guilty of fornication before He died.”
That is blasphemy, but even more grievous is Luther’s heresy. He is a heretic by definition. Canon 751 begins: “Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.” There is not enough space in this entire magazine to list the truths Luther denied.
(St. Augustine is not a heretic. It’s unclear why Grote includes him in his list. Luther was an Augustinian, but surely we can’t hold that against the Bishop of Hippo.)
Grote ends by expressing, in spite of himself, the problem of the Protestantization of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis “embraced” Joe Biden. He also lauded Martin Luther. One cannot blame Luther for Francis’s dismissal of Catholic teaching. But one can see how the Church’s attempts at ecumenism have ended in relativism, in suppressing truths to accommodate personal feelings and failings. Having it as one would like, and not as the hard teachings command, is the spirit of Luther, expressed in one defiant passage after another in his own writings.
John F. Kennedy as a Catholic president is as much a charlatan as Biden. The price of success in Protestant America is repudiation of the Catholic faith. During his campaign, Kennedy addressed a group of Protestant ministers in Houston (1960). “Because I am a Catholic,” Kennedy said, “and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately…. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again — not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in. I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act.” The Catholic faith is not private, as Kennedy insisted, but meant to be lived in public. Thus did Kennedy repudiate the Social Kingship of Christ. It worked. Protestants were sufficiently reassured to vote for him.
Preston Simpson makes a spirited defense of “the Anglo-American culture of ordered liberty” and the “successful and durable government” it produced. England was Catholic before Luther spread revolt across Europe. Protestants cannot claim the common law, which originated in the Middle Ages, as their invention, although I do give the Anglicans credit for knowing a good thing when they saw one. Liberty is the respect of human dignity. Liberty is not something Protestants discovered during the age of rebellion.
As for “ordered liberty,” I wonder if Dr. Simpson means the bombing of Hiroshima, the fame of Ru Paul, or the endurance of abortion on demand. Are these aberrations, or are they contained in seed in the elevation of liberty? If we had the Social Kingship of Christ, we would not have total war — against foreign peoples, against the unborn, or against the sexual integrity of the human person. Once one has defied the Church in favor of one’s personal predilections, there is no end to the devolutionary process.
However we set the genesis of liberty, Simpson’s assumption appears to be that liberty is ordered by words on paper — the Declaration, the Constitution, and so forth. This is sola scriptura, so we are back at the Protestant starting point. However Simpson defines the “success” of his preferred government model, it seems not to be the Social Kingship of Christ, so we are talking past each other.
Was this Social Kingship of Christ ever realized? I would say yes, to the extent that fallen man is able. Europe was once filled with monasteries and convents, the members of which went into the world and treated everyone as the image of Christ. Mother Teresa, a much later example but one in our living memory, was not a president or a queen. She was a simple religious sister who brought the Social Kingship of Christ to everyone she met.
Monks and nuns are not the only ones who have brought Christ to us. Louis IX, king of France, was sainted for his holiness. Andrew Willard Jones’s book Before Church and State is a must-read for understanding what the Social Kingship of Christ looks like and how it works to tame men’s baser instincts. (If only the book had been published before Kennedy’s speech!) D.C. Schindler’s book The Politics of the Real, which Thaddeus Kozinski recommends — or Kozinski’s own books, The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism and Modernity as Apocalypse — go a long way toward clarifying some of the problems with the Lockean heuristic it seems Simpson wishes to uphold.
Taking a poll is a very Protestant thing to do. The truth is assumed to reside in the general will, if not in the individual will unaggregated. I did not say the Statue of Liberty should be dismantled. I said it represented a pagan goddess. Does Simpson disagree that an Enlightenment idol is pagan? I don’t worship at the feet of Lady Liberty, and I don’t think anyone else should, either. Brazil, a Catholic country (once, at least), built a different kind of statue overlooking its main harbor: a statue of Christ. Would Simpson join me in building an even bigger statue of Our Lord to dominate the skyline of New York? I believe he would.
I don’t think Protestants are “intellectually impoverished.” I do think that many, perhaps most, American Protestants live in two bubbles, one called the United States of America and the other called modernity. My review was the opposite of the way of thinking that created those two bubbles. If a new light has broken in through a popped certainty, then I hope it will redound to the benefit of all. What I am saying requires no special intellectual ability to understand. All that is needed is faith seeking understanding.
Simpson asks if I have any Protestant friends. I do. Why wouldn’t I? Many in my family and among my friends here in Japan are Shintoists and Buddhists! The Holy Ghost will convert people in His good time. The Holy Ghost was able to reach even me, so there is hope for anyone.
Simpson’s underlying premise seems to be that truth is subjective, which is precisely where Protestantism goes wrong. Truth is objective. The Catholic Church has truth, which is very convenient — one doesn’t have to fret over who has it and who doesn’t. It doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s free for the taking. (Even Francis Bacon and Niels Bohr found bits of it, although Bohr denied that he was investigating reality at all. The Enlightenment tied science’s shoelaces together.) I am not sure why I, or anyone else, would need to be “forgiven” for speaking the truth. The truth is not personal. So, I can relax and speak to anyone I please.
Ken Stewart raises some good points. My thinking on Luther has been shaped by a splendid volume titled Revolution and Counter-Revolution, in which Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira argues that human revolutions are part of “the Revolution,” the “profound cause” of which is “an explosion of pride and sensuality that has inspired, not one system, but, rather, a whole chain of ideological systems.” He continues:
Their wide acceptance gave rise to the three great revolutions in the history of the West: the Pseudo-Reformation, the French Revolution, and Communism…. The Pseudo-Reformation was a first revolution. It implanted, in varying degrees, the spirit of doubt, religious liberalism, and ecclesiastical egalitarianism in the different sects it produced. The French Revolution came next. It was the triumph of egalitarianism in two fields: the religious field in the form of atheism, speciously labeled as secularism; and the political field through the false maxim that all inequality is an injustice, all authority a danger, and freedom the supreme good. Communism is the transposition of these maxims to the socioeconomic field. These three revolutions are episodes of one single Revolution, within which socialism, liturgicism, the politique de la main tendue (policy of the extended hand), and the like are only transitional stages or attenuated manifestations.
In this way, the various innovations and revolutions of human history are conceptually linked as part of one malign impulse. Thus, for Corrêa de Oliveira, “Like cataclysms, evil passions have an immense power — but only to destroy. In the first instant of its great explosions, this power already has the potential for all the virulence it will manifest in its worst excesses. In the first denials of Protestantism, for example, the anarchic yearnings of communism were already implicit. While Luther was, from the viewpoint of his explicit formulations, no more than Luther, all the tendencies, state of soul, and imponderables of the Lutheran explosion already bore within them, authentically and fully, even though implicitly, the spirit of Voltaire and Robespierre and of Marx and Lenin,” and “Arius and Mohammed were prefigures of Luther.” I find these insights highly compelling, and they have shaped my analysis of politics and history.
Nevertheless, the historical dating and periodization Stewart emphasizes are of great importance, and I should have made clear in my review that I was working in overlays of history and concept, individual and type. I am grateful to Stewart for pointing this out to readers, and to me.
Paul Bischoff makes a similar distinction, which works to a point, but which he carries both too far and not far enough. Yes, it is important to separate Luther from his ism. But Luther’s not calling himself a Lutheran or a Protestant does nothing to separate him from the consequences of his revolt. Luther was no Catholic after his rebellion (and for quite some time before he went public with his heresies), and he had no love for “the Church unified with Christ’s Cross.” Luther made his own creed to suit his diseased mind. His protest was personal first, then doctrinal, then political. Fallen men were quick to figure out how to use Luther’s vitriol to their political advantage. It was many years prior to 1529 that Luther had raised the standard of opposition, on doctrinal grounds, to the Church of God. There was hell to pay for Luther’s rebellion — and it was his rebellion, not the rebellion of an abstract idea called Protestantism. The ism is the individual turnings-aside in aggregate, down through the centuries.
I hope that everyone who did me the favor of reading my Shapiro review, and especially the above men who took the time to write a letter about that review, will read Dr. Kozinski’s books and follow the footnotes and references therein to see how our shattered, Protestantized world came to be so broken, and how, by returning to God’s Church, we can be made whole again.
Evil in the Semblance of Good
Upon reading Paul Krause’s article “Jonathan Swift, Proto-Feminist?” (April), I immediately recognized Swift as a friend, at least according to Krause’s reading of him. The term friend is only vaguely defined today, and the influence of social media has thoroughly diluted the potency of its significance. I will try to explain what I mean by friend, and by doing so, I think it will also be clear why I hold Swift to be one.
If one fish comes across a worm, and a second fish tells him to eat it because of the pleasure and satisfaction it promises, while a third fish warns him of the hook on which it hangs and advises him against indulging unless he wishes it to be his last supper (and perhaps his becoming supper for someone else), which of his fellows is his friend? It seems to me that Swift is a friend of mine precisely because he is, foremost, a friend of God’s. A person cannot be a true friend of man without first being a friend of God any more than a pitch can exist without sound. Someone, indeed, who encourages me in the pursuit of short-term pleasure at the expense of ultimate happiness is not a friend, no matter how amicably he presents himself to me and no matter how enticing his promises. Satan, in fact, has been telling us just what we want to hear ever since Eve first gave him an audience in the Garden.
In this vein, it seems a regrettable fact that it is in the name of love that we seem continually to sabotage the fruition of it, squandering our resolutions in vanity. Satan has been called “the ape of God” because he dresses up evil in the semblance of good. I am reminded of a hall of mirrors, in which every good is seen “through a glass, darkly,” and hence every inch nearer I come to its image is another inch by which I distance myself from true being. “False images and hyper-sensuality do not fulfill the longing deep in the hearts and souls of men and women,” Krause writes. “Only good marriages ‘made in heaven’ do.” Not only do such false images fail to fulfill our longing, they actually foreclose its fulfilment by standing in place of true love.
As much as I might like to find some bone of contention to take up with Krause for the sport of argument, I find myself in full agreement with what he laid out in his article. One of its virtues was to reveal to me that Swift is worth a deeper look beyond the excerpts from Gulliver’s Travels that I read as an undergraduate. For that, I am grateful.
I read with pleasure Paul Krause’s article on Jonathan Swift’s progress poems. Krause does here what he does often and well: correct the record when modern critics attempt to shoehorn the great authors of years past to fit narratives currently in vogue, narratives they favor.
Although it may indeed be the case, as some modern commentators like to point out, that “fact-checking is the lowest form of journalism,” Krause goes beyond that simple exercise; instead, he reminds us first of Swift’s own theological commitments. And, second, through liberally quoting Swift’s own words, he reminds us that a body of work and all the great stylistic choices such inevitably entails ought never be grossly oversimplified and reduced to a few sweeping claims made for ideological or political purposes.
Erich J. Prince
Editor, Merion West
Processing the Synodal Process
I, for one, am glad that Pieter Vree took it upon himself to attempt an explanation of what the Synod on Synodality is supposed to be about (“A Synod on What?” New Oxford Notebook, April). I must confess to harboring for these past several years a general lack of curiosity about the works and days of Papa Francis & Co. in the interest of preserving my own peace of mind.
Having read Vree’s column, I now know more than I needed or wanted to know about synodality, as fascinating as it might be to those who are intent on foisting it on the rest of us. (This is to take nothing away from Vree’s column, which was a lot more interesting and enjoyable than the subject itself.)
The only thing Vree left out of his account is, perhaps, this: The synodal process is yet more evidence (if we needed it) that the Catholic Church is divine. She must be in order to survive the foolishness, the banality, the superficiality, and the machinations of many of her leaders, from the top down.
This observation, by the way, is not original. I owe the citing of such signs of the Church’s supernatural status to Walker Percy, who made the same point in connection with the slapdash sermons inflicted on his convert’s ears.
Walker! Thou shouldst be living at this hour: The Church hath need of thee.
Thomas H. Hubert
Cary, North Carolina
In “A Synod on What?” Pieter Vree quotes Joseph Cardinal Tobin as saying, “Synodality is…a journey that fosters ongoing conversion.” That sounded sensible enough until I read Tobin’s explanation that the Church will have “undergone conversion” when “the peripheries have been brought to the center.” Immediately, two images involving a pot of stew on a stove came to mind.
In the first, when a stew is having its “peripheries” brought to the center, it is undergoing a thorough mixing so as to spread the heat equally throughout the pot, bringing the whole concoction to the same temperature. Stir and heat enough, however, without regard for the end result (which seems to be the case with the Synod on Synodality), and the pot boils over, making a mess and ruining supper. Those doing the stirring — in this case, the synod fathers — run the very real risk of explosions.
In the second image, unfortunately for Cardinal Tobin, when the same pot of stew is having its “peripheries…brought to the center,” the stuff in the middle is rudely displaced. And then what? We are still left with something on the peripheries!
Miriam S. Dapra
Living as we do in a remote town in the Mojave Desert, we can perhaps offer a perspective that, while certainly less sophisticated and informed than those of your readers who live on either coast, gives an insight into how the Catholic Church’s messages are being delivered in rural areas. I am commenting, of course, on Pieter Vree’s fascinating — and laugh-out-loud funny — column, “A Synod on What?”
I have three simple points to make. Both my husband and I are former mainline Protestants, and as converts we can say that we have had much more academic religious training than have our fellow adult Catholics who went through Confirmation. Years of exposure to Lutheran and Methodist sermons provided us not only lengthier time for biblical teaching (please note I said biblical, not evangelical, as neither he nor I was raised in evangelical or Pentecostal churches) but also higher-level informed analysis and perspective.
In the time I have been a Catholic (all of which I’ve spent in a remote desert town), none of the priests assigned to our parish has ever taught anything about doctrinal permissiveness or its absence. They subscribe to printed homilies from a service. Save for one case, these priests seem scarcely educated, and I doubt they read privately in their homes. What my husband and I gained in the ceremonial richness of Catholicism we lost in insights from highly educated men who know what modernism entails.
The second point derives from the first. When there is no intellectual appetite or anything intellectual and challenging on the Church menu, parishioners default, not surprisingly, to their love for the sacraments. That said, if there is no lively source of post-Confirmation adult faith enrichment or faith development, how can we expect young people to stay in the Church? Certainly not for the playing out of what they perceive as old, sometimes quaint, practices.
Thus, I can say that in my brief ten years of being a Catholic, I have seen several exceptions made to who can be baptized and who cannot, and who may become Catholic at the Easter Vigil and who may not. While I’m sure all would agree that the priests’ decisions were human (they don’t know what modernist progressivism even is, I suspect), these decisions would in no way adhere to the East Coast Catholic’s view of the Church’s teachings (though they would, perhaps, to those embraced by people in Berkeley…smilingly written). As people are streaming away from the Church, the priest without tools will struggle to find ways to keep them in the parish. A hardline approach would not fall on fertile ground out here in the desert.
Finally, Mr. Vree gives us a nice summary of what the cardinal in charge of the Synod on Synodality, Jean-Claude Hollerich, wants to do, and comments, “The synod fathers (and token mother) must think we laity live in ghettoes, without contact with the outside world, which is full of former and non-Catholics.” Ouch! Perhaps Vree is not far from the truth. But we who live not in cities but in small towns and rural areas do live in educational ghettoes, and we are taught by men who have not stayed current with what’s happening in the Church and who, in their humanity, find that bending the sacramental rules may at least stanch the bleeding.
To people like me and my husband, both college graduates (one with an advanced degree), the final paragraphs of Vree’s column seem elitist. Yet we seek the same thing, don’t we? We seek to be both mindfully and spiritually engaged by the leaders of our Church, expecting them to be true to their vows and inspire us with their respect for the Church and her doctrines.
It starts at the very beginning. Those who have a calling must be given decent educations and taught to think (not just consecrate) and to inspire parishioners to love one another wholly. In that context, “listening to the people” doesn’t seem like such a flighty idea after all, does it?
The Paradox That Brings True Life
Kenneth Colston’s depth of understanding good literature radiates an old Christian truth, that only through littleness and weakness can the countercultural nature of the faith shine gloriously (“Why a Self-Indulgent Age Needs a Rough Religion,” March). In St. John Henry Newman’s two novels, Loss and Gain and Callista, martyrdom is presented as the paradox that brings true life: intellectually as an Oxford dandy is pulled into the perceived lower-class Catholicism of his intended state in life, and physically as a young woman is put to death in the cruelest of ancient pagan ways.
Colston’s article is a fine invitation to find these two 19th-century novels, which may still inspire readers to holiness today.
David Vincent Meconi, S.J.
Director, Catholic Studies Centre, Saint Louis University
St. Louis, Missouri
Kenneth Colston’s reflections on Newman’s appreciation and promotion of “rough religion” were most thorough and needed. However, he makes one historical error, namely, that Newman was “received into the Church at a Passionist convent.” Newman was received into the Church by a Passionist Father, Bl. Dominic Barberi, at Newman’s “quasi-monastery” in Littlemore, not at a Passionist residence.
That said, Dominic was elated to receive the famous Anglican into the Catholic Church, causing him to exclaim, “What a spectacle it was for me to see Newman at my feet! All that I have suffered since I left Italy has been well compensated by this event. I hope the effects of such a conversion may be great.”
Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
Editor, The Catholic Response
Pine Beach, New Jersey
The Rational Foundation of Religious Faith
Thomas M. Lessl’s article “Is Religious Belief a Type of Knowledge?” (April) admirably contributes to our understanding that science and faith are complementary instead of contradictory, as God, the Creator of the Cosmos, is clearly the author of both. However, from an epistemological standpoint, Lessl could have done more to make his case. He correctly states that man’s belief in nature’s intelligibility is a form of knowledge, yet he neglects to add that this claim is true precisely because belief itself is rational, as all human faith, whether natural or supernatural through grace, is built upon human reason.
I have a natural belief in the existence of Tokyo, although I have no personal experiential knowledge of that city, because it would be unreasonable to conclude otherwise based on all the supporting information and claims by others who have lived or traveled there. Supernatural belief in the divinity of Christ, who lived 2,000 years ago, is similarly rationally founded upon the extensive historical evidence of a man named Jesus who exhibited remarkable virtue while making claims to divinity that He supported by numerous miracles.
The intelligibility and order of the universe is certainly confirmed by religious faith, but it is already known simply by reason’s experiential encounter with the world, as demonstrated by Aristotle and, later, Aquinas, and affirmed by St. Paul when, referring to the natural law, he stated, “The Gentiles who…do by nature those things that are of the law…are a law unto themselves” (Rom. 2:14).
The efficacy of man’s reason flows from the first three principles of his rationality: the principle of identity or noncontradiction, the principle of sufficient reason or explanation, and the principle of finality by which every agent acts for its own end. From these first principles proceeds the natural philosophy that becomes the rational foundation upon which the grace of faith can be built. This self-same natural philosophy is the rational foundation that makes all successful scientific inquiry possible.
To suggest that man’s reason is incapable of true knowledge of the world in all its intrinsic order and intelligibility is to give credence to the nominalist error of scientific materialism that Lessl so eloquently and appropriately tries to refute, namely, that the only true knowledge available to man is the raw mathematical data of scientific experimentation, a self-contradictory position that cannot be proved by experimentation itself. This epistemological error of modernity allows only an esoteric “spirit,” or the selfish mind of man, to impose any meaning or purpose on what is otherwise an unintelligible and valueless material world. The natural philosophy of Aristotle, which was later “baptized” by Aquinas, is the only rational path away from this self-destructive descent of modernity into Gnosticism.
Douglas Miller, M.D.
Hickory, North Carolina
I was thrilled to read Thomas M. Lessl’s excellent discussion of religious belief and scientific beliefs because I have long puzzled over the issue and have come to suspect that the academic dismissal of faith as “not real” is a hustle based on a deliberate confusion of terms. Let me try to explain, starting with a few definitions.
Truth is accurate information about the universe or any of its parts. Truths are sometimes called facts. We often assume them to be certain, but most of them have uncertainties.
Belief is the assent our minds give to information presented as true. Sometimes the word faith is used this way. All these words have multiple definitions.
Science is not facts about the universe. It is a process, the scientific method, a compilation of rules for conducting a proper experiment. You start with a hypothesis (water boils at 212˚ Fahrenheit). Then you describe each step in your experiment (add x ounces of water to a beaker, place it over a heat source, add a thermometer, record the temperature when it starts to boil, repeat ten times, etc.). These numbers are called data. When you have averaged the results and corrected any errors, you may declare that water does indeed boil at 212˚ Fahrenheit. The data are now considered information, and the hypothesis, having been proved, becomes a theory.
An entire branch of statistics has sprung up to describe how probable it is that the results of your experiment are true. This is crucial. Many outside conditions affect those temperature measurements: the room temperature, the accuracy of your thermometer, the purity of your water samples, and so forth. Some affect the spread of temperature; some don’t affect the spread but bias the end result. You’ll end up, if you were careful, with a figure that your statistician can say is accurate to two or three standard variations, or 99+ percent. Not certain, just very probable.
You: “Do you mean not all science is true?”
Me: “Well, yeah, sort of.” Let’s take a look: What can we take to be certain?
First comes the realization that science is absolutely dependent on measurements to get results. This, not defects in intelligence, is why our Stone Age friends and relations didn’t develop cellphones. First they had to develop tools with which to measure the earth — rulers, strides, scales, thermometers, telescopes, microscopes, stethoscopes, ways to write all this information down — notice the connections, and save them for their descendants, us. Those are the shoulders we stand on. On the way, from 10,000 years ago to last week, they have made discoveries and had Eureka! moments as great as Newton’s and Einstein’s.
Second, the scientific method as described can’t be used to understand the universe, because you can’t run off ten Big Bangs to see what happened. We just measure, over and over, and clarity about the Big Bang, the age of the universe, etc., is slowly achieved. This is great science. But certain? No way.
Third, consider the largest source of data by which we live our lives: testimony, that flood of data from other humans (e.g., on Twitter) and from our own senses. We conduct criminal trials, decide for whom to vote and even whom to marry, based on other people’s word. But, oh boy, is it ever hard to sort out the truth. In the “soft sciences,” thousands of experiments with published results are based on questionnaires and even on polls. More than half of them have results that cannot be confirmed or repeated. But the press picks up many of them and megaphones them to us as though they were scientific discoveries. Garbage in, garbage out.
This gives testimony a bad name. How to sort out the truth from the lies and errors? Science is useless. History and great writing from the past are useful. Best of all are our own observations, using our five senses and the mysterious mind that can put them together.
Now, here’s the biggie: as thinkers in science, religion, and philosophy gained understanding, they realized — Eureka! — that all effects have causes, and that that principle is the key to understanding nature. You could call it an assumption; you can’t prove it, but you have to have it, or all your experiments are useless. That’s what science is good for: identifying causes and effects. And it means that a Prime Cause, an uncaused Cause, is necessary to make sense of all our measurements. Assent to a Prime Cause is the basis of science.
This Prime Cause must have the potential within it to comprehend and control all reality, just as a complex computer program must have the power to calculate its designed-for conclusions. That means it must be the source, not only of the material universe, but of everything human: our spiritual and moral dimensions, love and sin, music, all of it. It must understand the terrible fix we’re in, and the way home.
The positivists can’t have that, and it’s almost funny to see them multiplying experiments to demonstrate that all man’s highest achievements and concepts are the results of impulses reaching our brains. That’s their Holy Grail. They mount tons of experiments, but they’re stuck, because they can’t understand or replicate the human place where it all takes place: our consciousness, the thing that makes us human. But they continue. They — yes! — have faith.
Scientific data, observation, and human testimony are all inputs to our conscious minds. We assess and deduct, reject the outliers, and assent to what passes the test.
Atheists just think the evidence for a Prime Cause is an outlier, and consciousness an illusion. May God bless them and teach them better.
Joseph P. Kerwin
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