Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: March 1986

Letters to the Editor: March 1986

Ed. Note: New Book Review Editor

With this issue, Greg Erlandson steps down from the post of Book Review Editor (see his farewell Let­ter in this issue). Greg has done a first-rate job, and the Editors in the main NOR office have been priv­ileged to have a close per­sonal and fruitful profes­sional relationship with him. All of us — editors, book reviewers, and sub­scribers — are in his debt.

The NOR is proud to announce that Greg has a worthy successor: James J. Thompson Jr. has accepted appointment as our new Book Review Editor. Jim has long been familiar to NOR readers, having first contributed to our pages back in October 1979. He has been a regular contri­butor ever since. Jim brings a wealth of experience and wisdom to his new task. A professional writer, he re­ceived his Ph.D. in history from the University of Vir­ginia, and was a professor for 10 years at the College of William and Mary. His specialty is American intel­lectual and cultural history. He is the author of three books: Tried as by Fire: Southern Baptists and the Religious Controversies of the 1920s; Christian Classics Revisited; and a forthcom­ing spiritual autobiography.

Raymond Brown Revisited

Regarding the renewed in­terest in the works of Fr. Ray­mond Brown that the NOR sparked last year in its March and June letters to the editor from Sheldon Vanauken and James Tetreault: I find further com­ment on Brown appropriate be­cause it is my belief, having con­verted to the Roman Catholic Church from Anglicanism and having been a follower of the NOR from its beginning in 1977, that your readership may well find Fr. Brown’s contribution to the battle for orthodoxy as cru­cial as that of people like Cardi­nal Newman, Msgr. Ronald Knox, and C.S. Lewis in the past. There has been a tendency among followers of the Oxford Movement to paint people like Lewis and Knox in glowing col­ors and to throw people like Brown into a nebulous catchall of Catholic neo-Modernists and paint their portraits in shades of the most uncompromising black. I would suggest that a more real­istic portrait of Brown would be in more nuanced shades some­where between grey and white.

The dominant approach to the Bible has changed dramatical­ly in the Catholic Church in the last half of the 20th century. Un­der Popes Pius XII and Paul VI, this change has been officially encouraged in the attempt to move the Church away from a fundamentalist, literalist ap­proach to the Scriptures, whose chief sin, as Anglican theologian Robert E. Webber has noted, is its gnostic denial of an “incarnational theology” which allows the Word of God to be seen as gloriously incarnate in the all too human words of men. Pius XII’s 1944 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu insisted that the Bible contains a gold mine of literary “forms,” including drama, po­etry, myth, epic, beast fable, parable, as well as narrative his­tory. Conservative evangelicals largely ignore these forms or feel threatened by them, partly be­cause they see the Bible as having an almost watertight immaculate “inerrancy” that makes it seem almost sacrilegious to analyze and criticize its seamless fabric. A fundamentalist, be he Protes­tant or Catholic, does not ask whether the inspired section of the Bible that reports an event like Jonah in the whale or the three magi in Bethlehem is in­spired parable, inspired history, or even a type of literature that lies somewhere in between. This is especially so when it comes to the Gospels.

Under Paul VI, the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1964 gave a subtle answer to this problem by stating that, while the Gospels are substantial­ly historical, pace the Modern­ists, they are not literally histori­cal in every detail. The statement affirmed that the Gospel mater a passed through at least three stages of development: (1) Jesus did and said things; (2) eyewit­nesses later incorporated these acts and sayings into their preaching; (3) this preaching and its resulting oral apostolic tradition still later became the source of the writers who gave us the finished, no doubt edited, Gos­pels. This is modified by yet two other developments: first, the Sitz im Leben of those original oral traditions was adopted by the apostles from the third half of the first century to a later set­ting to fit their purpose in presenting Jesus to the audience of their time; and second, the apos­tles and their communities adopted that message from stage two to stage three by translating that oral tradition into another language.

It should not surprise us, then, that the finished product was not always presented chron­ologically, or at least with the sort of modern standards of chronology that would satisfy a 20th-century historian. Consider only the following examples, from Brown’s Anchor Bible Se­ries Commentary on the Gospel of John: in John there are differences of style in the Greek which betray editing or possibly differ­ence of authorship at various per­iods in the Johannine communi­ty. There are inconsistencies in sequence: in 14:31 Jesus con­cludes His remarks at the Last Supper and gives the command to depart; yet this is followed by three more chapters of discourse and the departure does not seem to take place until 18:1. In 20: 30-31 we are given a clear con­clusion to the Gospel; yet this is followed by another, seemingly independent chapter with anoth­er conclusion. At the Last Sup­per Peter asks Jesus where He is going (13:36); yet in the same setting Jesus complains that no one has asked Him “Where are you going?” John’s Gospel also reports Our Lord’s cleansing of the Temple at the very beginning of His public ministry; Matthew reports it as occurring at the very end, just after the Triumphal En­try into Jerusalem. (There are actually fundamentalist scholars who resolve this with their view of inerrancy by saying that He must have cleansed the Temple twice.)

By the time of Paul VI, the renaissance in Catholic biblical scholarship had led Catholic exegetes to abandon nearly all the positions on biblical authorship taken by Rome at the beginning of the century, particularly the authorship of the Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Gospel of John, and the second epistle of Peter. This turnabout was tacitly acknowledged in 1955 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which stat­ed that Catholic scholars now had “complete freedom” with regard to those decrees of 1905-1915 which had formerly com­pelled them to accept the tradi­tional dates and authorships. Rome’s only concern now was that this freedom be seen within the bounds of what is not threat­ening to faith or morals. (It should be obvious to readers that if Mary lied about the Virgin Birth and slept with a man out of wedlock, that would be a threat to faith and morals; it is less ob­vious to see how the chronology of Our Lord’s cleansing of the Temple is a threat to faith or morals.)

Why then do ultraconservative Catholic periodicals make a caricature of Brown’s Johannine scholarship, passing him off as a “secular humanist” who alleges that John’s Gospel is a second-century, fictional account of du­bious historicity? (This in spite of Brown’s insistence in his An­chor Bible Series commentary that John’s Gospel should be giv­en a quite early, first century dating, possibly as early as A.D. 70?)

This setting up and knock­ing down of a straw man can also be found on the ultra-liberal end of the theological spectrum: Thomas Sheehan lumps Brown’s view of the Virgin Birth in with an imaginary “liberal consensus” and leads people to think that Brown, along with Hans Küng, agrees with the following state­ment: “Nor did Jesus know that his Mother, Mary, had remained a virgin in the very act of con­ceiving him…. Most likely Mary told Jesus what she herself knew of his origins: that he had a na­tural father and was born not in Bethlehem but in Nazareth.” To prove Brown believes this, Shee­han quotes a famous passage from Brown’s The Virginal Con­ception and Bodily Resurrection, which Vanauken also quoted out of context in his March Letter: “The totality of the scientifically controllable evidence leaves an unresolved problem.” What nei­ther Vanauken nor Sheehan men­tions is that Brown goes on to say that the scientifically con­trollable evidence favors the his­toricity of the virginal concep­tion, and that in Brown’s judg­ment the Church correctly teach­es infallibly that Mary conceived as a virgin. In a recent issue of Cross Currents (Fall 1984), Brown publicly states this in an­swer to Sheehan’s charge, and adds, “I have indicated no sup­port whatsoever for the sugges­tion that Jesus did not know that his mother had remained a virgin in the act of conception, and that Mary told Jesus that he had a natural father.” Brown also points out that, with the exception of Küng, from whose views Brown utterly disassociates him­self, more than half of Sheehan’s so-called “liberal consensus” have been honored by the Vati­can through papal appointment to the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission. I might also sur­prise some readers by mentioning that all of Brown’s books — I re­peat, all — have the official im­primatur, declaring them to be free of doctrinal or moral error.

There is but one more case in point to be considered: the alleged blocking by Brown and his supporters of the publication in English of the distinguished French theologian Rene Laurentin, who had ventured to criticize Brown’s work on the Infancy Narratives. Having lived for six months at the Benedictine priory that published the English edi­tion of Laurentin’s work, I feel I can speak with more knowledge about what actually happened than can Vanauken, who once told me in conversation that he feels Brown “comes close to be­ing a neo-Modernist” on the Laurentin issue.

Laurentin is a noted French mariologist. In 1957 he wrote what Brown himself considers to be “an important contribution” to the structure and theology of the Lucan infancy narrative, which was not primarily concern­ed with New Testament criticism but with Old Testament symbol­ic background used by Luke. Ironically, Laurentin’s stress on the superb Old Testament allu­sion to symbolism moved Catho­lic exegesis away from the sort of myopic fascination with histori­cal accuracy that has since caus­ed fundamentalist scholars to come up with the above-mentioned theory of Our Lord’s “double cleansing” of the Tem­ple to keep inerrancy intact at all costs.

In 1966 Laurentin wrote what Brown and others consider a “less satisfactory” book, again on Luke’s infancy narrative, this time concentrating on the Find­ing in the Temple. By crossing out of his field of mariology and into biblical criticism, Laurentin thought the scene to be so histor­ical that he could reconstruct Mary’s psychological reaction at the moment of finding her Son. In Brown’s The Birth of the Mes­siah, he politely expressed his disagreement with Laurentin’s amateur foray into history. Says Brown in the above quoted Cross Currents article: “I noted in par­ticular Laurentin’s recalling a Ro­man discussion that if one were to deny that Mary knew Jesus’ divinity from the annunciation on, one would not be ‘sufficient­ly generous to the Madonna.’… I reject resolutely his using in an exegetical and historical study the principle: ‘One cannot sup­pose that Mary lacked the knowl­edge that befits the Mother of God.’” In 1982 Laurentin’s third book, The Truth of Christ­mas Beyond the Myths, appeared in French. Brown, far from try­ing to block the book’s recep­tion, wrote a long review of the book in the March 1985 issue of Marianum. In that review Brown stated that Laurentin accuses Catholic priests of no longer dar­ing to preach “the basic gospel of Christmas, knowing that it is a myth.” Laurentin attributes this to a denial of the supernatural, and negatively infers that Brown is one of the causes of this anti-miraculous presupposition. But as Brown himself has stated in reference to his own Birth of the Messiah, “I stated that it was un­scientific to presuppose that mir­acles are impossible.”

In conclusion, I would con­cur with James Tetreault in his June letter that we orthodox Christians do ourselves a disser­vice by thinking, as Vanauken thinks, that a century and a half of biblical criticism has established little or nothing. The very way the question is phrased (“What, in fact, have the critics established — proved or disprov­ed?”) would make not only New Testament studies but 2,000 years of Christian apologetics an empty endeavor — for if com­plete, full proof certainty is to be the criterion, then Tertullian, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and St. Robert Bellarmine, to say noth­ing of Newman, Belloc, Chester­ton, Lewis, and Knox, have not “proved or disproved” a single thing about Christianity or the defense of the faith. But that is the whole point: Christianity is a faith: apologetics, like biblical criticism, is motivated not by the rationalist’s desire to nail down the Truths of the Faith in coffin-tight boxes of certainty, but rather by the believer’s desire of “faith seeking understanding.” Raymond Brown has made an enormous contribution to Chris­tians in their search to under­stand their Faith. By painting his nuanced contribution of greys and whites in uncompromising black, we may well find, 10 or 20 years down the road, that we have hindered more than we have helped the cause of orthodoxy.

Brother James Jacob Hege

St. Martin’s Abbey

Olympia, Washington

Good News, Bad News

The good news is that I will soon be leaving this country to work as a journalist in Rome. The bad news is that I must therefore resign as Book Review Editor of the NOR.

I’ve appreciated the oppor­tunity to work for the NOR these past three years. The maga­zine is not fueled by profit mar­gins or fat cats, but by lots of love and dedication on the part of both readers and writers. Book reviewers, for example, work for little else than a copy of the book and a clap on the back. But their commitment to the vision of the NOR has been consistently high, and it’s been a privilege to know such fine Chris­tians as Jim Thompson, Carl Schmahl, Juli Loesch, Robert Coles, Jim Hanink, and so many others.

People are willing to write for the NOR because of the unique role it plays today. In a polarized Christian community in which the faithful, particular­ly those who put pen to paper, are increasingly judged and con­victed on the basis not of faith but of ideology, the NOR is one of a few notable exceptions.

Those of us who read the NOR, and who have worked for it, may not agree with every sin­gle article or editorial viewpoint, but that’s not important. What is important is that it is a publica­tion that is attentive to the “signs of the times,” yet faithful to Tradition and Scripture. The strength of NOR’s vision, its commitment to the Christian ad­venture, and the honesty with which it expresses itself have at­tracted a wide range of contribu­tors and readers. It’s been an honor to know and work with so many of them.

Greg Erlandson

Venice, California


I am indebted to my men­tor, Christopher Lasch, for shar­ing his back issues of the NOR with me. During dinner one eve­ning recently, I lamented to Prof. Lasch that Roman Catholicism (at least in Rochester) is sliding into a destructive coalescence with theological modernism.

I have been frustrated by exactly the problem observed in the March 1983 issue of the NOR: “for some reason…the social action emphasis went hand-in-hand with doctrinal skepticism…. That one could combine theological orthodoxy with political radicalism didn’t seem to be a live option….” As an antidote to this frustration, Lasch recommended your jour­nal to me — and my subscription check is enclosed.

I am struck by the similari­ties between your journal and Dorothy Day. I believe the im­portance of your work is to re-emphasize the wonderful Catho­lic tradition that she, in her time, embodied.

Dominic A. Aquila

Rochester, New York

Nuclear Weapons & Abortion: Not Comparable

In his November article, “A Chestertonian Adrift in an Ideo­logical World,” Christopher Der­rick wonders why conservative pro-lifers don’t “discuss the in­struments of indiscriminate mass killing in the same tone of voice [they] use when discussing abor­tion.” He says he wasn’t attempt­ing to present a case in moral theology why they should, but I wish he would have, for I sim­ply cannot understand the ratio­nale of comparing the possession of nuclear weapons with the slaughter each day of thousands of our most innocent and de­fenseless brethren. How in the world are those sensitive to the reality of abortion supposed to “naturally and without effort” feel the same about our nuclear deterrent and this horror of doc­tors tearing apart babies?

The answer to Derrick’s question is that these weapons aren’t murdering people. Weap­ons can’t murder people. People murder people. The morality of our possessing nuclear arms de­pends on the purpose they serve, which for the West is to secure innocent lives and rightful liber­ties from an enemy whose record for murdering and trampling up­on human dignity is perhaps un­matched in history. Supporting a strong defense posture against the Communists is not inconsis­tent with being antiabortion, for it proceeds from the same desire for justice.

The Roman Catholic Church sanctions our deterrent force. She cautions against uni­lateral disarmament, calling in­stead for “a true beginning of disarmament…one proceeding at an equal pace according to agreement, and backed up by authentic and workable safe­guards” (Vatican II). Facing an adversary whose very way of life rests on violence, terror, and de­ception, this is a difficult task in­deed. It is not served by simply wringing our hands over how ter­rible nuclear weapons are. This only encourages our enemy to believe he need not bargain be­cause we will in the end capitu­late.

The state has the right to defend the lives and liberty of its citizens, and the Church recog­nizes this as its primary function. Our attention should be focused on how this can be accomplish­ed without relying on the dangerous and morally flawed strategy of deterrence through fear of mutually assured destruction. This is what Reagan-type conser­vatives say they hope to achieve, and I should think their solidar­ity with us in opposition to abor­tion would give them credibility.

Stephen Schuberg

Palmdale, California


Mr. Schuberg states his case in terms of public policy; and that’s a subject about which — as Catholics — we speak with no special authority. But with the Church behind us, we do speak with special authority about personal morality; and in the last analysis, there’s no morality that isn’t personal or individual. Na­tions and governments cannot sin or repent.

It needs to be remembered that while we can sin by our ac­tual deeds, we can also sin — no less seriously — by “conditional intention,” by “formal and/or material cooperation,” or by “giving scandal.”

I would illustrate all three possibilities as follows. Consider a girl who is virtuous and virginal and means to stay that way. But she knows the weakness of the flesh; so she buys a do-it-yourself abortion kit and keeps it handy, just in case, hoping that she’ll never “have to” use it. The for­mal guilt of abortion is already on her conscience, by condition­al intention alone.

Then, consider a father who says: “My daughter is a good and sensible girl, and I’m sure she’ll retain her virginity until mar­riage. But if she does get preg­nant before that, I hope she’ll have enough sense to have an abortion. I’ll pay for it if neces­sary.” There we have formal and material cooperation in the sin of abortion, even while the girl remains virginal.

Finally, consider a candi­date for public office who says: “I’m personally opposed to abor­tion, being a Catholic; but in a pluralist society, I don’t want to impose my own…” etc. That candidate gives scandal, and most seriously.

My point is that moral guilt is not only incurred in respect of what is actually going on at the moment. It can also be incurred in respect of the hypothetical fu­ture.

So far as abortion is con­cerned, Schuberg will doubtlessly accept that analysis: he should have no difficulty in applying it to the other sins against the Fifth Commandment.

“The state has the right to defend the lives and liberty of its citizens”; that’s true, but only if some such words as “within the moral law” are added or clearly implied. No end justifies inher­ently sinful means.

Abortion and genocidal warfare: the two questions are closely related and should indeed be discussed in the same “tone of voice.” Catholics act rightly when they speak of the former in tones of horrified condemnation. But when they speak of the lat­ter in tones of extenuation and excuse, they give great scandal.

Infuriated, but Addicted

I guess I’m one of those in­furiated readers nonetheless ad­dicted to the NOR. Christopher Derrick claims in his article “A Chestertonian Adrift in an Ideo­logical World” (Nov.), that no­body who knew “moral theology and spoke within the full Catho­lic tradition” has ever challenged his own well-known and critical views on the moral status of Western nuclear policies.

Well, I certainly challenged Derrick, in a lengthy exchange of personal letters with him in 1984. I profess total loyalty to the papal magisterium, and while I don’t know what counts in Der­rick’s eyes as knowing moral the­ology, I at least managed to gain summa cum laude grades for all six moral theology courses com­pleted at Rome’s most Thomistic pontifical university, the Angelicum.

Anyhow, I will be glad to send, to anyone who requests it, a 5,000-word paper entitled “Threats and Intentions in Nu­clear Deterrence,” in which I critique the views of Derrick as well as the similar (but more nuanced) ones of Germain Grisez.

Rev. Brian W. Harrison

Pontifical Nepomucene College, Rome



Your editorial statement of purpose and self-evaluation (Nov.) was welcome. I have come to love the NOR and agree that you are indeed unique. I’ve found myself unable to throw any issues out (I’m usually an unsentimental weeder), not because of any specific articles or insights gained, but because of the tone of the NOR — its belief that God is worth considering and that He turns up in unexpected garb and cannot be shoehorned into a skinny space in the political spec­trum. (And the layout of the NOR is attractive and calm — it doesn’t detract from considera­tion of the words by a visually flashy or cluttered presentation.)

You are right in believing that you challenge people to think and that that is a rare thing to do; virtually all the other peri­odicals I subscribe to either pon­tificate or try to reinforce what they calculate to be my deeply held preconceptions and preju­dices. (I’ve found it helpful in forming my own opinions to sub­scribe to periodicals that scream at me from both ends of the po­litical and theological spectrum; it’s expensive, but often quite amusing, and, I have to admit, often allows me to feel eminent­ly reasonable.)

The NOR helps me in my awkward attempts to seek God — help that has been hard for me to find in the institutional church, and is painfully absent from ev­eryday life. Enclosed is my con­tribution.

Janet Zimmer

Boston, Massachusetts

Here is a small token of sup­port from a retired senior, used to be Adventist, enrolled Sev­enth-Day Baptist — not keeping any day separate — and a think­ing member of the present king­dom of God.

William E. Baer

Anniston, Alabama

Disappointed & Disturbed

I recently subscribed to the NOR after seeing it advertised as “an ecumenical and literary monthly” under the bold caption “Intellectuals and Religion.”

When receiving my first is­sue (Oct.), I was moved by the wisdom I found in certain arti­cles — e.g., Part Two on the spir­ituality of peacemaking by Henri J.M. Nouwen. However, I was deeply disappointed and disturb­ed by the Guest Column on “Sterilization and an Unformed Conscience” by Ann Kelly. Many of us “ecumenical Christians” are firmly convinced that the prevention of unwanted preg­nancy is one of the most chari­table and peacemaking actions we can promote, both in terms of individual well-being and glob­al survival.

Mae Tinklenberg

Palo Alto, California

Ed. Note: The full clause in the ad you cite is: “an ecumenical and literary monthly edited by lay Catholics.” We try to be both ecumenical and Catholic, but where there may be a conflict we do not feel entitled to surrender our Catholic distinctives. Also, please bear in mind that Kelly said nothing about wanting to “impose” her rejection of sterili­zation on people such as yourself by means of legislation.

Abortion Trauma

Regarding the exchange on abortion in your letters section (Sept. & Nov. issues): I would like to say that abortion is a very traumatic experience for the woman who has had one. I know, for at the age of 17 I had an abortion.

I was very young and imma­ture, but that is no excuse for killing a baby. No matter what anyone may say, it was a baby. There are many women who re­gret the decision they made. It is too late for us, but it is not too late for the woman who finds herself in a crisis pregnancy situa­tion. There are many people who are willing to help these women. We will give any help that is needed.

Abortion does not solve the problem of pregnancy; it adds far more problems than it solves. Abortion causes guilt that some­times never goes away; it causes relationships and marriages to fail; it can cause nervous breakdowns.

In my case it caused two problem pregnancies, two cesar­ean sections, and at the age of 28 I had to have a hysterectomy. I can never have another child. For some women it has caused steril­ity.

Abortion not only takes the life of an innocent human being; it also ruins the lives of many young women who decide abor­tion is the only answer. Many women never forget the date the baby was due or the date on which they had their abortion.

This obsession can cause serious mental problems, such as depres­sion, drug or alcohol abuse, and sometimes suicide attempts.

Abortion is a billion dollar industry for the abortionists. Most doctors or clinics charge $210 to $250 per abortion. Doc­tors can do several hundred abor­tions a week. They are getting rich on the killing of babies.

There are alternatives to abortion. Crisis pregnancy cen­ters are now available. Adoption has always been available, and the waiting list gets longer every year for couples who wish to adopt a baby.

I belong to an organization called W.E.B.A., Women Exploit­ed By Abortion. There are W.E.B.A. chapters all over the country. Our main function is to counsel the woman who has had an abortion and regrets her deci­sion. We also counsel the woman who is considering having an abortion.

Dottie Jewell

Lansdale, Pennsylvania

Keep Government Out of Abortion

Thanks for laying your cards on the table in the Novem­ber editorial. You are against abortion, but one thing that hor­rifies me more than abortion is giving government the authority to dictate in matters that should be personal moral choices. When government takes that power it is a very small step from “no abor­tion” to a decree of “mandatory abortion” such as we now see in China.

Esther Kilcup

Seattle, Washington

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