Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: May 2022

Letters to the Editor: May 2022

A Disturbing Demotion

Jason M. Morgan is a superb writer, but I remain confused by his column “The Age of Thoth: Words vs. The Word” (Cultural Counterpoint, March). I hope he can set me straight.

While relying on the written word — what else is there when we are separated by time and space? — Morgan diminishes the importance of writing because Socrates argued that the written word is once removed from the only true way of instigating thought: the dialectical, face-to-face method. Morgan’s other source is the French postmodernist Jacques Derrida, who makes a similar point, having written that writing is a secondhand transmitter, just as the Son is once removed from the Father.

Jesus, however, once removed if you will, assures us He is an accurate Transmitter of the Word, often backing up His words with the assertion, “It is written.”

Of course, we would have no Socrates if Plato, his stenographer, had not written down Socrates’s memorable conversations, just as we would not know Jesus without the Gospels. Yes, Morgan does write that “the Flesh and Blood truly save us.” But without the Gospels, how would we know the Eucharist?

Morgan writes of “the centrality of writing to government control.” But so are the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, which were intended to limit the power of our government. Besides, codifying law produced the nation-state, which, despite its weaknesses, is the Ah-just-right-Goldilocks alternative between tribalism and globalism.

Socrates in the Phaedrus seems to make the pedagogical point that nothing can duplicate the persuasiveness of the dialectic when handled by a master teacher like himself. Or was he an educational Luddite, wanting to destroy the threatening new “machinery” of writing that would render his method obsolete?

As for Derrida, he represents the terminal point of the subjectivism that began with Kant, or earlier in the Garden of Eden. More recently, with the repudiation of Stalinism and the ongoing disillusionment with Marxism, the cognoscenti changed the subject, insisting that truth does not exist, that everything is “a construct.” Apparently, Morgan sees Derrida as a valid source, which makes me wonder what I am missing.

Finally, Morgan demotes language to a lesser place than ritual. But when one considers that Catholics remain ignorant of the Bible and the roots of their faith, such a demotion disturbs me.

Terry Scambray

Fresno, California

Jason M. Morgan’s written screed against writing would have been best argued in person, for he would have quickly discovered just how many counterexamples are readily available to the discursively skilled opponent.

As a thoughtful writer, Morgan is no doubt aware that his column is provocative, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as both Voltaire and G.K. Chesterton would confide to you in their living rooms. Morgan could have risked confiding in us, however, with a more balanced perspective when balancing his pen. As he himself indicated, what is put into persuasive writing is often consequential and influential, especially in an age when good writing is often confused with sophomoric and monosyllabic “texting.”

Let us celebrate, then, the fact that there are more inspirational poems available on the Internet than all the thousands of suffocating pages that comprise Obamacare legislation. Let us read aloud, in group settings, the encyclicals of the Holy Fathers and the Confessions of St. Augustine. Let us silently pore over the texts of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Christian philosophy with our Kindles, iPads, and yellowing hardcopy books, and then burst forth in ecstatic debate over the particulars as well as the fundamentals. Let us praise God that the Word is not merely words but is indeed the Word — spoken, written, and in action — as it is inscribed in our Bibles and in our hearts.

And let us pray for more columns from Dr. Morgan’s desk!

Christopher M. Reilly

Fredericksburg, Virginia

Jason M. Morgan writes that “the hand that holds the stylus rules the world with the books of the law.” Using the example of Egyptian mythology, this is “the subversion of Ra’s authority by Thoth,” he says, the “stealthy substitution of the pharaoh’s authority for the scribe’s,” as Thoth now “mediates the word for Ra.”

Prior to the advent of the teachings of Aristotle — and periodically recurring from then to contemporary time — intellectuals have made a persistent effort to insert themselves as mediators between ordinary, commonsense knowers and known reality. Way back in ancient Greece, Plato reported that charlatans, frauds, and hucksters claimed that no human has the innate power to sense, or intellectually apprehend, anything exactly. Without the benefit of these charlatans’ special gifts from the gods, we uninspired folk are doomed to know only our own backward ideas. We are condemned to live our lives looking through a glass darkly.

These charlatans made themselves the means for escaping our solipsistic caves. They assumed for themselves and those of their profession the role of mantises, or augurs, who must constantly mediate between ordinary humans and some oracular being (like the Oracle at Delphi). Without their help, all we ordinary humans could ever know are our own solipsistic, misguided impressions or feelings.

In different ways, this intellectual elitism appears in the Greek neo-Platonist Plotinus (d. 270); in the Muslim thinkers al-Farabi (d. 951), Avicenna (d. 1037), Avempace (d. 1138), and Averroes (d. 1198); in Renaissance humanists like Francesco Petrarcha (d. 1374); and even in Galileo (d. 1642), who could not help succumbing to its muse when he falsely and hyperbolically claimed that the Book of Nature “is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.”

During the 20th and 21st centuries, this sophistry again raised its ugly head in the form of scientific naturalism, or scientific positivism, and — as Morgan has well documented — in the so-called postmodernist deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida. After reading Morgan, anyone seeking an antidote to Derrida and his ilk can do no better than to turn to what St. Thomas Aquinas said centuries ago.

If it were true that ordinary humans cannot know things as they exist independently and that the human intellect understands only its own impressions or ideas, St. Thomas said, then the things we understand as the objects of science would exist only within the psyche of individual human persons. Science would be about individual ideas, not about independently existing organizational wholes or universal relations (cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q.85, a.2).

If this were true, contradictory opposites would simultaneously be true. If a human faculty knows only its own impressions — that is, is essentially solipsistic — it can judge only its own impressions, and it will always judge its own impressions to be true. For example, if people perceive only their own impressions and not what exists independently of themselves, then when someone with a healthy faculty of taste perceives that honey is sweet, he would judge truly (the honey would have the quality of being sweet). But if someone with an unhealthy taste perceives that honey is bitter, this would be equally true (this same honey tasted by the other person would have to have the quality of being bitter). Each would judge according to his taste, or whatever faculty is involved. Real being, including all real science, would be reduced to perception.

To avoid this absurdity, Aquinas concludes that what we know as activating our faculties are not impressions, feeling, emotions, or ideas. We know that material beings and organizational wholes exist independently of our psychological impressions. Our psychological impressions are simply the means through which we know these independently existing things.

With St. Thomas Aquinas, Morgan stands on the side of common and uncommon common sense. Hopefully, so too will the readers of his wonderful column.

Peter A. Redpath

Cave Creek, Arizona

Jason M. Morgan’s ability to make one think is always appreciated, and his thoughtful and informative comments about ancient Egyptian belief, Socrates, and Plato provide a new way of looking at past understandings. But his quote of Eric Meljac about “the manifestation of Jesus Christ, the son [sic] of the Hebrew god [sic]” was a surprise. Jesus never said He was the son of the Hebrew God. The Universal Creator God He described as His Father is not like, or even similar to, Yahweh, the God worshiped by the Hebrews. The claim that Jesus is Yahweh’s son denies the truth not just about the Father of Jesus but about the importance of Jesus’ ministry.

The following are conspicuous differences between the Hebrew God and the Universal God, the Father of Jesus:

  •  The God of Israel made a covenant with one man, Abraham, and his descendants, the “chosen people” who were favored at the expense of others. Jesus, however, taught that His Father is concerned about all mankind.
  •  The Hebrew God may have been the first materialist, killing the Canaanites and giving their land to the Israelites. The Universal God does not kill and does not support killing for personal gain or help aggressors conquer others.
  •  The Hebrew God is described as angry and vengeful, believing that the inclination of the human heart is evil. At the time of the flood, Yahweh destroyed most of humanity. Often, He killed not only the enemies of Israel but sinful Israelites. The Universal God does not do this.

The Old Testament is clear about the beliefs of Temple priests, but it is not clear what the average Israelite believed, as readers are repeatedly reminded of the generations of Israelite polytheism and worship of idols. Christians worship the Universal God of compassion, love, and forgiveness. Jesus was certain who His Father was. He did not worship Yahweh and did not teach Judaism. The angry God of the Torah is not the Universal God whom Jesus and His Apostles shared, and Christian missionaries continue to share, with the world.

Monta Pooley

Port Orchard, Washington


I am grateful to all four writers for their insightful readings. Peter A. Redpath puts perfectly the realism I also embrace, and the solipsism he warns against is precisely what I want to avoid. No words can do justice to the life we have been given or the senses that allow us to know our world. In his insistence on commonsense sense realism, Redpath also addresses, if I may be permitted the extension, Terry Scambray’s concerns about whether I have gone over to the camp of Derrida.

Scambray’s letter presents other opportunities to de-Derrida our discourse. When Christ appeals to Scripture saying, “It is written,” He ultimately speaks on His own authority. For He is the Word from which the Torah derives its sense. Without Christ, no words would have meaning. Without the Logos, all is lost, and everything is unintelligible. And without the Messiah, the Torah is unmoored. When Jesus of Nazareth said, “It is written,” it was another way of saying, “Let it be as I command.” He and His teachings are one. He does not transmit. He is.

A similar movement is afoot in Scambray’s point about the Gospels and the Eucharist. “Faith comes through hearing,” St. Paul tells us (Rom. 10:17). At Mass I hear the Good News from priests upon whose heads have been laid the hands of bishops, whose own heads had been similarly touched, in a chain of hands and heads going back to the Head of the Church, Christ Himself. Protestants read the Bible. Catholics live it. The Mass is a diorama of the Holy Book, a Golgotha and an empty tomb, a Pentecost and a binding of Isaac, a miracle of word and form. Let us read the Bible, all of us and all of it. But nothing can take the place of a good priest preaching God’s Word from the pulpit and exhorting us to be Christ-like in our every moment on earth. Christ’s Blood and Flesh are what save us. It’s the carpenter I seek, not the text that limns Him. The Bible is a book about the God-Man we meet in the Host.

About Socrates in the Phaedrus: I have a hunch Plato was grinning to himself at the delicious irony of a book about why you shouldn’t read books. The page is a mask, and sometimes the play is a comedy.

But I disagree with Scambray about written constitutions. Ours has done precious little to prevent the government from twisting our nation’s founding documents to its own expansion. Words are temptations for fallen men, especially those who fancy themselves practitioners of the manmade law. The tortuous interpretation of the “interstate commerce” clause alone would make the Founders spit their brandy through their noses. The Anti-Federalists tried to warn them. The Federalists didn’t listen, so now we have what Christopher M. Reilly rightly calls “the thousands of suffocating pages” of Obamacare.

Reilly’s letter celebrates old books and good poetry. This reminds me of something I read recently by Southern writer Cormac McCarthy about the Kekulé Problem. Friedrich August Kekulé was a 19th-century German chemist who figured out that benzene molecules are shaped like rings. How did he know this? He had a dream about an ouroboros, a dragon eating its tail. The dream image was what benzene must look like, Kekulé somehow knew. In other words, words failed Kekulé. His insight came from somewhere else, somewhere language doesn’t — maybe can’t — go.

With that in mind, I have a confession to make. My little columns are the same. I don’t know what they are or where they come from. The magazine you hold in your hands is a recording, not the original. All the books on my shelf are, too. Behind the lines is a writer who, I suspect, has no idea what is really going on, who is just praying, as I must, that something will arrive. I live in that gap, between words from a mist and words on a page.

What we have in Christ, though, is no gap at all. He is the Word made flesh. The circuit is closed and, therefore, gloriously open. Books yellow with age, their pages crumble. Christ is ever ancient and ever new. Words on paper are dead things, butterflies pinned behind glass. In Heaven, there are no distinctions between the living and the dead, between what will age and what will remain to edify us.

On that note, Monta Pooley’s letter helps us situate Jesus of Nazareth within human history and, because He is the Son of God, outside it at the same time. The historical fact is that Jesus was a Jew. He was born to a Jewish woman who was kept sinless by, yes, the Hebrew God. Jesus and His Mother, and His first disciples, too, were all Jews. Their world was the Jewish Levant. The metahistorical fact, the fact of God’s working in our world, is that, in the fullness of time, the Hebrew God chose to send His Son to redeem mankind, to make the human race His own by adoption, as He had once made the Chosen People of Israel His own by adoption. The same Yahweh who was with the Maccabees was with the Christian fleet off Lepanto. The same Yahweh who said, “Let there be light,” also said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The continuity of the God of Abraham and the God of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is the bedrock of our faith — because that bedrock is Christ, who is with us in the new covenant just as was promised in the old.

It is, perhaps, the trick of the philologists, of lower-casers like Meljac — whom I cited as a foil — that has led Pooley astray. I invite her to go to Mass, where she will hear the Old Testament read, and then the New, and will then be able to partake of the Body and Blood of the One who is Lord over both and all.

Investigating a Killer’s Conversion

I thoroughly enjoyed “The Conversion of Ruth Snyder” by James K. Hanna (March). Not only was it well researched, it was an intriguing investigation into the authenticity of her Catholic conversion nearly 100 years after the fact. The way Hanna dispassionately examines the circumstances of Mrs. Snyder’s conspiratorial crime, with her paramour against her husband, makes her suggested conversion all the more compelling. Like in a good detective story, Hanna provides an alternative interpretation of Snyder’s motivation with the possibility of a pardon from New York Governor Al Smith, a well-known Catholic politician.

For those of us interested in accounts of the human heart in conflict with itself, Hanna offers insight into the struggles of one such heart. The story becomes all the more engaging as it involves the possible conversion of a woman on death row. Hanna has done more than merely raise the specter of a story that captivated the American public prior to the Great Depression; he has reminded us of the mysterious movement of God’s grace in a soul seeking forgiveness.

Fr. Richard Infante

St. Paul of the Cross Parish

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In 1928 New York Governor Al Smith became the first Catholic nominee for U.S. president. But Herbert Hoover’s campaign of national prosperity and, even more so, a pervasive anti-Catholic mentality utterly wiped him out. One wonders if the same forces were at play when Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Smith four years later.

James K. Hanna’s article shows the vital need for evangelization via prison ministry. Let us pray for the incarcerated and the justice system, remembering that the conversion process is ultimately in God’s hands: “Balances and scales belong to the Lord; all the weights used with them are his concern” (Prov. 16:11).

Br. Mario Parisi, O.S.B.

Robertsville, Missouri

I was deeply moved by James K. Hanna’s article on Ruth Snyder’s experience in jail and prison, and her conversion to Catholicism. As one who has worked in prison and jail settings for 15 years, first as founding director of Saint Louis University’s college-in-prison program, and, more recently, as a participant in Duquesne University’s inside-out teaching program, what struck me most was the concept of “presence.” In a profound realization of Matthew 15, two young priests, Frs. George Murphy and John P. McCaffrey, lived the opportunity to find Christ in Ruth Snyder by being present in the jail and prison. They enabled her to listen to the voice of God and recognize the image of God in her being.

I was intrigued by Fr. McCaffrey’s reference to the three parts of the soul, which we Catholics borrowed from Plato. He seemed less able to articulate the fourth dimension, synderesis, which St. Jerome inserted into our theological discourse. Jerome explained synderesis as the “objective” knowledge of the divine law written on our hearts that tempers the soul when the mind, will, and emotions are disordered. Clearly, the priests who ministered to Mrs. Snyder awakened in her that “objective” dimension of conscience that had been silenced by her experience in the world, enabling the “subjective” dimension of conscience to guide her to repentance and redemption.

What a wonderful story of a journey into the Catholic faith.

Kenneth Parker, Chair

Catholic Studies Department, Duquesne University

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

James K. Hanna’s article about Ruth Snyder’s death-row conversion was quite good. But a series of questions cast doubt on the sincerity of her conversion.

First, did she make any effort to encourage the conversion of her partner in crime, especially in light of her vigor in persuading him to commit the crime? Second, how vigorously did she pursue appeals or other efforts to avoid execution, especially if they argued against her guilt? Third, and relating to the first two, were any claims in her favor predicated on shifting blame to her paramour? Fourth, did her appeals for the governor’s clemency rest, to any degree, on her alleged conversion?

I am a retired lawyer and followed the record of the trial. The stupidity of the two killers is almost without comparison in the annals of crime.

Bruce Graham

Winter Park, Florida


That folks take the time to respond to an article is gratifying, for what they have read has touched them in some way, provoked a thought or emotion, or given rise to new questions.

The commentary of Fr. Richard Infante, an author himself (Last Priest Standing, 2015) who knows well in his own prose the conflicted heart, prompts a quote attributed to William Faulkner when he accepted the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature: “The human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing that can make for good writing and the only thing worth writing about.” I wish I could claim that, but it was simply Ruth Snyder’s capriciousness that first attracted me to her story.

Br. Mario Parisi reminds us that though Ruth’s prison chaplains may have been effective, conversion lies entirely in God’s hands. Even so, as with the unnamed detective at her arrest, we find that old Catholic category of cooperative grace. Thanks to Br. Mario for the cue to pray for the incarcerated and those who minister to them.

Dr. Kenneth Parker, with years of experience in the field, brings to the fore the import of “being present,” conscience, and synderesis. Of these three, I find his introduction of St. Jerome’s definition of synderesis as “knowledge of the divine law written on our hearts” most interesting as it hearkens back to Fr. Infante’s emphasis on the conflicted heart, and why it is so.

Finally, Bruce Graham posits questions reflecting his courtroom expertise. My knowledge of the specifics is drawn solely from reading Landis MacKellar’s The Double Indemnity Murder (2006). Ruth did not encourage her accomplice to convert and had little or no opportunity to do so in Sing Sing. Judd Gray was a lifelong practicing Presbyterian and when imprisoned “detested the very mention of Mrs. Snyder’s name.” At her clemency hearing before Gov. Smith, her attorneys never brought up her conversion, but one lawyer did bring up St. Paul, telling Smith: “The letter of the law killeth, but the spirit of the law giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6), to which the governor replied, “I know, but the New York State Legislature says differently and that’s a later authority and one I am sworn to uphold.”

Reading MacKellar’s account of the planning, prelude, and murder of Albert Snyder, one must agree with Mr. Graham’s assessment of the stupidity of the two killers. And yet the New York State Lunacy Commission unanimously found the pair sane.

Serving & Stealing

David Mills has a way with words, but sometimes he gets carried away. Mills mentions the slave Robert Smalls, who reportedly “stole [a Confederate] ship and sailed it to Northern waters” (Last Things, March). Mills asks, “Where is the stealing?” It seems to me that “stole” here is a literary evoking of a daring and adventurous man gaining his freedom while simultaneously providing a helping of restitutional justice. There’s nothing larcenous about it. If he had been described as merely “taking” the ship, it would reduce the glamor and make him just another pizza-delivery man.

As for Smalls’s being described as “serving” on the CSS Planter, I think that’s a simple identifier to denote who he was. It has a certain dignity to it — don’t we all serve at some time or other? — and isn’t a dastardly ignoring of the desperate plight of slaves. Would “working” make it any better?

I think Mills has spent too much time in the courthouse, Your Honor.

Lionel Hanaghan

Sheffield, South Yorkshire

United Kingdom

A Large-Enough Loophole

Readers who sympathize with the quandary in which parents find themselves when their child dies before birth or otherwise before baptism, as Kody W. Cooper explains it in his article “A Common Grief, Re-observed” (Jan.-Feb.), might dig out of the NOR archives an article I wrote, “On Freeing Children From Limbo” (April 2008)I noted that the obstacle to the goal of having unbaptized infants succeed to the beatific vision results from the combination of the Church’s doctrine of original sin coupled with the Church’s belief that baptism is necessary for salvation.

After reviewing various official Church pronouncements, I noted that in 2007 the International Theological Commission (ITC) said that “if an unbaptized infant is incapable of a votum baptismi, then by the same bonds of communion the Church might be able to intercede for the infant and express a votum baptismi on his or her behalf that is effective before God.” The possibility was not further developed by the ITC, but I suggested that “the loophole of ‘baptism by desire’ would seem to be large enough to let unbaptized children slip through.” The baptism of desire would erase the child’s original sin.

Alternatively, I suggested that “the Church has the power to erase the effects of original sin by granting a general absolution to children below the age of reason who die unbaptized. The Pope could proclaim this annually on the Feast of the Holy Innocents.”

Letters hostile to my position were published in the June, September, and December 2008 issues. In the June 2008 issue, I gave this defense of my thinking: “The Church’s use of the ‘keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 16:19) is appropriate.” After all, the doctrine of original sin is something the Church uses to “bind” on earth — and Jesus gave her the power to “loose” whatever she binds.

Hurd Baruch

Tucson, Arizona

Kody W. Cooper’s logical, almost mathematical analysis of whether his son’s death before baptism resulted in his having the beatific vision seems to hide a fear that he didn’t. But the logic is clear to me, without the sin of presumption: God is good; God judges us with mercy and justice; there is nothing to judge where justice is concerned in a boy who never exercised his will; so there is only mercy left to God, who loves this logic anyway.

So take heart, Dr. Cooper. As I see it, your son is in full communion with Jesus Christ.

David Condit

El Cajon, California

Is CRT an S-I-N?

I was surprised to read in Brian Dunne’s letter (March) that, “as things stand, Biden et al. can receive the Eucharist while supporting and promoting abortion, same-sex marriage, transgender ideology, and critical race theory.”

I can understand the first three things in Dunne’s list, but is critical race theory (CRT) now considered a sin, the promotion of which ought to prevent one from receiving Holy Communion? If so, has this been officially decided and announced by Church authorities? As a regular Mass-goer who subscribes to a number of Catholic publications across the ideological spectrum, I don’t recall sinfulness ever being announced in connection with CRT (a concept to which I don’t subscribe).

Gerald H. Early

Easton, Maryland

Survival in a Fool’s Paradise

Joseph Collins’s letter “What’s a Faithful Catholic to Do?” (March) is quite moving, and, unfortunately, it speaks to issues typical of our times. Perhaps they are issues typical of all times, but they have a peculiar acerbity now due to the omniooze of electronic media mastered by some who, at times, care not to distinguish propaganda with felonious intent from the issues of which citizens in a democracy need to have a reasonable knowledge.

By way of substantiating Collins’s concerns and questions: Our family moved from an urban setting to the country, buying 20 acres that in some antediluvian period had been an apple orchard and mixed hardwood forest. It would be criminal to call what we did “farming,” but it was serious gardening. We ran a stall at the local farmers’ market, my wife became an EMT, I drove the local ambulance, and with various other means we pieced together something resembling an income.

For 39 years we have not had a connected television set. For other than printed news we are forced to rely on the audial leavings of National Public Radio (about which I wrote in the Sept. 2019 NOR). We try to keep the Catholic and nominally conservative presses running by maintaining a large number of subscriptions. An Alexa device was inflicted on us, and, thanks to the good intentions of the donor, we listen to classical music thereon. But “she” obviously spies on us and feeds data to some smorg that develops algorithms for our ultimate undoing. Cellphones have slithered into our lives via the best of intentions of near relatives who, bless their hearts, still miss conversing with us and, despite my kicking and screaming, feel justified in dragging us into the 20th if not quite the 21st century.

Nevertheless, in the evenings my wife and I read together, as ever we have done throughout our married life. I read aloud; she knits or engages in other reparative practices.

Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is both the message and the massage.

We have homeschooled six children via all sorts of available Catholic programs. We also had the benefit of a large local group of homeschooling parents who cooperated on such things as communal plays and provided a social group larger than the family and different from a religious denomination. When our natives became restless, we tried several alternatives, such as enrolling them at local Catholic schools or sending the more headstrong or better organized to resident Catholic or private high schools. We enrolled two of our eldest in a fine science class at the local public school, but the student body was infested with various droogs. A droogette in that class offered contraceptives to her classmates whenever the teacher had to leave the room. At great expense (we moved 300 miles to facilitate this enrollment) we sent a musically talented daughter to a diocesan high school for the sake of its musical instruction. Net result: Within a year or two she was on drugs, provided locally. With great irony, her lesbian music teacher reported her to the principal, who advised the teacher to just let things go. A friend of ours who was on the local police force subsequently told us that if you were new in town and wanted drugs, the place to go was the parking lot of this diocesan school.

All this is by way of attempting to provide our bona fides to Collins and other readers. We know what he means. And the question remains: What is to be done?

Fr. Romano Guardini provides relevant though startling advice in Letters from Lake Como. He suggests that, though ours is an era dominated by physical science and material technology, we are not allowed the luxury of retreating from it, for this age “is not just an external path that we tread; it is ourselves.” He says we must engage our age because there is something in modern science and technology’s search for truth to which we must respond, “even if this should make life impossible…[or] call all human being into question…[through their] transformation of the world.”

We are quite capable of betraying ourselves to “the times” and do not need assistance from the clergy in this regard. What we do need, though, are clergymen who, while walking the path we walk and not failing to respond to the in-formation of science and technology, are capable of inspiring us with a vision beyond material measurement or the blandishments of politics.

Over a century ago, Walter McDonald, an Irish priest who attended Maynooth University in Dublin as a student and then taught there for 40 years until his death in 1920, gave a telling indictment of the Irish clergy that spoke of their lack of scientific and technological understanding, and the suborning of at least their higher ranks by the eternal allure of politics. Fr. McDonald wrote of his years as a student, for example, that “Darwin was then revolutionizing thought; but we overturned him in two or three brief sentences. Kant was a name of which we read in a paragraph of our books…. We were educated in a fool’s paradise” (Reminiscences of a Maynooth Professor). He concluded by speaking of “the Revolution, which the official guardians of our religion will not see coming, or will endeavor to keep out with their broomsticks.”

That was then, of course, and this is now. I cannot hope to speak knowledgeably of the current structure of seminary education, though for years I was familiar with some of it. From what I saw, it seemed to be like so much of Catholicism today: sweating under the ghost of a council past, dominated by a mixture of Matthew 25 and the tactics of Saul Alinsky, an inflexible sense of the flexibility of human sexuality, a metaphysics not based on physics, and a broad-leafed spirituality sporting enough shady spots to allow for conniving at advancement in the profession. Fr. McDonald reflected that Catholic seminaries are good at producing average people. But perhaps there is another revolution coming not susceptible to being swept out by clerical broomsticks.

On the incidental level, and to personalize my sympathy with Collins’s account: My mother was a Sullivan, her father one of 14 children born this side of the water, and his father and mother from Ireland (from Kerry, I believe). So I, too, know the pull of the moving mention of ancestors eating grass along the roadside to prevent starvation and thereby preserve family, culture, and religion. And though my only acquaintance with Knock was on a visit in 2004, something at least mystically startling happened to me there. It was March 19, Mass was over, and a woman in appearance identical to my mother passed across the back of the church, smiling at me. My mother had died two years earlier on this exact date, the Feast of St. Joseph.


John Lyon

Ferryville, Wisconsin

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