Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: November 2018

Letters to the Editor: November 2018


Your New Oxford Note “‘Uncle Ted’ McCarrick: Queen Pin of the Lavender Mafia” (Sept.) was most disturbing, gut-wrenchingly so. It offers a seemingly justified inference as to why Theodore Cardinal McCarrick was able to advance to the utmost reaches of the American hierarchy despite the rumors, allegations, and substantive claims made against him. It should be required reading for every member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Perhaps they would come to terms with its contents in a transparent way.

Deacon Jim McFadden

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church

Folsom, California

Don’t Tune Out a Much-Needed Voice

I am not always on the same page with what I read in the NOR. However, I find much of it edifying, constructive, and thought-provoking. In essence, I find it to be, over all, good journalism. That is why I am dismayed when I read letters demanding indignantly, “Cancel my subscription!” (most recently in the Sept. issue). I invite those good people to reconsider.

The NOR doesn’t claim, as far as I know, to be perfect, but to be a much-needed voice, among others, in public debate and in Church matters. I appreciate that voice, though I do not always agree with it. Indeed, it would be a bit odd if I did always agree!

I appreciate the editors’ candor and attempts to arrive at truth, and the many helpful articles I continue to find within the covers of the NOR. It is a voice that, I believe, is needed in these times.

May the Lord bless the NOR and all its readers!

Fr. Tony Blount, S.O.L.T.

Holy Redeemer Catholic Church

Detroit, Michigan


We have repeated this often over the years and will repeat it again here: We don’t expect readers to agree with every proposition set forth in these pages. We don’t demand assent; rather, as should be evident from the many and often critical letters we print each month, we relish vigorous debate. And no, we’ve never claimed to be perfect.

Like Fr. Blount, whose continued support we deeply appreciate, we too don’t understand why some readers feel that they must consent to every jot and tittle in this magazine or else cast it aside. Are fans of a particular football team who disagree with the coach’s strategy or the general manager’s personnel decisions obligated therefore to abandon allegiance to that team? We hardly think so.

The mission of the NOR is to promote the exploration of ideas within the framework of orthodox Catholicism, not enforce ideological conformity; it is to challenge presumptions rather than confirm prejudices. We say what we think needs to be said, and then we leave it to you, our readers, to make up your minds about what’s what.

If you’re here for ready-made answers to difficult questions, you’re bound to be disappointed, for we’d rather help you think through the difficult questions than tell you what to think. But, as we’ve come to realize from the cancelation letters we receive, many people prefer reworded versions of the thoughts that are already in their heads. If that’s what you want, the Catholic-oriented echo chambers on the Internet are always looking for more clones.

However, if you’re looking for challenging fare that doesn’t conform to prepackaged standards, engaging prose that will induce you to think, read on!

A Turn in Every Direction

Thank you for publishing F. Douglas Kneibert’s guest column “A Pro-Life Pivot?” (Sept). What an apt title, as the one who pivots keeps one foot down but can turn in every direction. That is a good description of Pope Francis’s recent actions regarding the pro-life movement.

In the past, we pro-lifers were much criticized for being a one-issue group. But as Kneibert points out, “If everything is now a life issue, then nothing is.” We knew that if we spread our efforts to all pro-life causes, we would not be effective in any one.

I am truly saddened by Francis’s approach, but the pro-life issue has, from the beginning, been mainly a grassroots battle, and I believe it will continue, even without papal encouragement, as it has for almost 50 years in the U.S. since the Roe v. Wade decision. We battle-weary soldiers will continue to fight for the precious babies whom God loves as much as He does you and me.

Mitzi Linsenbardt

Sedalia, Missouri

Misunderstanding Humanae Vitae

Karl A. Schultz offers a lot of interesting information about Pope St. Paul VI and Humanae Vitae in his article “The Triumph & Tragedy of the Most Misunderstood Document in Modern Church History” (Jul.-Aug.). But I disagree with some of his points.

Schultz states, “In the pastoral-directives section of the encyclical, [Paul VI] also left the issue [of contraception] open to further reflection in the future.” I find nothing to support this claim.

Commenting on the decision in the majority report of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control to approve marital contraception, Schultz writes, “If the issue were clear-cut, Paul would not have deliberated over it for so long.” The minority found no such ambiguity. They pointed out that the approval of marital contraception would logically involve the approval of sodomy. The response from the majority was that they did not approve sodomy, but that was only their personal preference — that is, they did not logically conclude against the approval of sodomy. The approval of marital contraception involves the approval of sodomy as one form of contraceptive behavior, and there is no logical stopping point. Paul VI saw through the verbiage to the reality.

As to why Paul VI delayed almost two years before issuing Humanae Vitae, it is partly explained by the back and forth of different documents. When he saw that Fr. Jozef Fuchs of the majority could only give a response based on personal preference but not logic to Fr. John Ford of the minority, Paul was truly shocked, and that might have contributed to his delay. For more on the Fuchs-Ford exchange, see chapter 15 of my book Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality (Ignatius, 2005).

As for Schultz’s claim that some Humanae Vitae supporters “conveniently fail to recognize that they do not have the challenges others do with regard to contraception,” it should be noted that the majority of these supporters have been married men and women with families.

John F. Kippley, President

Natural Family Planning International

Cincinnati, Ohio

I take it that Karl A. Schultz says that Humanae Vitae is “misunderstood” because it is taken as the settled and irrevocable teaching of the Church, whereas Pope St. Paul VI simply “believed that the time was not ripe for revising Church teaching.” Presumably, then, sometime in the future the time will be ripe for the Church to revise her teaching on sex, marriage, and procreation.

I’m puzzled how the NOR could publish an article contending that Paul VI didn’t really get it right — that is, not securely and divinely right.

Rev. James Reidy, Ph.D.

St. Paul, Minnesota


To John F. Kippley

As for leaving the issue open to further reflection, Paul VI, in his first weekly audience after the publication of Humanae Vitae, stated that the encyclical “clarifies a fundamental chapter in the personal, married, family and social life of man, but it is not a complete treatment regarding man in this sphere of marriage, of the family and of moral probity. This is an immense field to which the Magisterium of the Church could and perhaps should return with a fuller, more organic and more synthetic exposition” (July 31, 1968). Paul concluded the encyclical with an appeal to the family apostolate, doctors and nurses, priests and bishops to persevere in their efforts and continue their dialogue with and service to the Church.

As for the delay, Paul VI stated in the same audience, “The first feeling was that of a very grave responsibility. It led Us into and sustained Us in the very heart of the problem during the four years devoted to the study and preparation of this Encyclical…. We studied, read and discussed as much as We could; and We also prayed very much about it. How often have We felt almost overwhelmed by this mass of documentation! How many times, humanly speaking, have We felt the inadequacy of Our poor person to cope with the formidable apostolic obligation of having to make a pronouncement on this matter! How many times have We trembled before the alternatives of an easy condescension to current opinions, or of a decision that modern society would find difficult to accept, or that might be arbitrarily too burdensome for married life!”

To Rev. James Reidy

Humanae Vitae was and remains misunderstood first because many people have never read and re-read it through — it is not the sort of document one fully grasps immediately. It was born of much reflection and study, and it requires such if one is to properly comprehend it. Second, the encyclical was issued during a turbulent and unstable time in Church and secular history. In St. Ignatius’s rules of discernment, such is not an opportune time for a decision. Paul felt he had no choice but to decide in a timely manner, and he could not control the events around him.

Fr. Reidy presumes what I did not state nor intended to imply. I prefer to focus on what Paul VI actually said and did, the way he said and did it, and the events surrounding his decision, in light of his overall papacy. He recognized the complexities and contingencies of the issues he faced, and those who scrutinize his decisions and actions should do the same. I avoid the kind of simplistic assessments and judgments Fr. Reidy attributes to me, such as “Paul VI didn’t really get it right.”

Too often Paul’s pontificate is conflated into Humanae Vitae, Populorum Progressio, and the Novus Ordo Missae. My three books on Paul VI, and those of many others, amply document that it was far more than that. The rest of his teachings, papacy, and evangelical witness is ignored or distorted to our great detriment.

Counteracting Suicidal Ideation

Regarding Amir Azarvan’s guest column “The Politics of Suicide in Post-Christian America” (Jul.-Aug.), a study in The American Journal of Psychiatry titled “Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt” found that among depressed inpatients “religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior” (Dervic et al., Dec. 1, 2004). It also stated that “religion may provide a positive force that counteracts suicidal ideation in the face of depression, hopelessness, and stressful events.” It is no surprise, then, that atheist regimes, as well as countries with a former policy of state atheism, have the highest suicide rates in the world (Bertolote et al., 2002).

The religious tradition with which I am most familiar, Christianity, can resonate with individuals who are suffering because Christ Himself suffered due to injury caused by humans, who can often be cruel and unforgiving. While the sick rest in their hospital beds, they can find hope by reflecting on the crucifixes that hang on the walls of their rooms: Jesus was in agony on the Cross, but the pain He endured led to the Resurrection, which provides mankind with hope amid adversity. Sharing this hope with others can provide them with a beacon of light during the darkest moments in their lives, as well as reverse societal decline. How might this occur?

In general, religion plays a positive role in strengthening society, not only in ameliorating mental-health outcomes. This includes religiously observant children earning higher GPAs than their atheist counterparts (Glanville et al., 2008), religiously active adults having lower blood pressures than those who are less devout (Koenig et al., 1998), and religious people being more charitable than their non-religious counterparts (Eckel et al., 2004). Faith is, therefore, a gift that improves the human experience and has much to offer. If we know of a way to improve ourselves spiritually, as well as our social environment, should we not share it?

LifeWay Research reported in 2016 that 35 percent of people would be willing to attend a worship service at a church if invited by a friend, and 79 percent would be willing to engage in a conversation about faith if their religious friend finds it important. In a society in which people are increasingly encouraged to keep their beliefs to themselves — beliefs that are often a fundamental part of their identity — it is imperative to be vocal, especially when large percentages of the population are open to exploring Christianity.

The emergence of the American Solidarity Party (ASP) is news that should be welcomed. It provides the thoughtful believer with a third option, allowing him to support traditional values while also supporting policies that aid the marginalized. Perhaps those without faith might see that the just and merciful platform espoused by the ASP has been shaped by a philosophy that resonates with the social teaching of the Church, encouraging them to reflect on the party’s inspiration, the Gospel. People of faith, both individually and collectively, can start a movement that just might reverse the trend toward secularization.

John A. Das, M.D.

New Philadelphia, Ohio

Amir Azarvan compares suicide rates with changes in theistic beliefs, hypothesizing that a decline in the latter leads to an increase in the former. He then suggests that the decline of religiosity in America can be attributed to the Christian Right. “The more that Christianity is associated with this movement,” he writes, “the more that our increasingly liberal population turns away from religion altogether.” According to Azarvan, there is a trade-off between what people equate as the values of the Christian Right (“protecting the unborn, preserving the traditional family”) and progressive liberal values (“comforting the poor, the sick, and the elderly”). Azarvan suggests that we should try to establish a more “holistic” Christian approach, one that is more predisposed to social-welfare programs than the Republican Party and more socially conservative than the Democratic Party, as a happy medium to resolve the challenges ahead, forestall the decline of religiosity, and thereby reduce our nation’s suicide rate.

I don’t believe the Christian Right is responsible for the decline in religious beliefs. That movement has not played a dominant role in Western Europe’s welfare state, and yet Western Europe has witnessed a precipitous drop in religious belief. There are hundreds of empty churches in Europe, despite the uptick of social-welfare programs European nations offer to their citizens. It seems that only Eastern-bloc countries — those that suffered a great deal under communism and socialism — are experiencing a resurgence of religious belief. Isn’t it ironic that in an environment in which economic security was less assured and survival was stark and immediate, people more readily turned to God and yearned for life and not death?

Maybe Azarvan should look into these countries and their history to find an answer to his dilemma of bridging the gap between religious decline and suicide rates.

Mario Rubino

Enfield, Connecticut


I thank John A. Das and Mario Rubino for their thoughtful comments. Mr. Rubino takes issue with the assertion that the Christian Right is to blame for America’s religious decline, and he believes that the fact that a similar movement “has not played a dominant role” in Western Europe, which has witnessed an even more dramatic decline, undermines this assertion.

To attribute causality to the Christian Right is not to imply that it has been the sole cause. However much we might desire parsimonious explanations, the reality is that most, if not all, phenomena of scientific interest are multi-causal. For example, the claim that high-cholesterol foods are a significant contributor to heart disease is in no way belied by the fact that many millions of people develop it through smoking, obesity, and other causes. Indeed, I acknowledged the multi-causality of religious decline in an article in the Catholic Social Science Review (“Are Highly Theistic Countries Dumber? Critiquing the Intelligence-Religiosity Nexus Theory,” 2013) that attributes atheism to several factors, including materialism and the effects of living under communist rule.

That the Christian Right ought to be added to this list of contributing factors is evidenced by the several empirical studies mentioned in the American Conservative article I cited in my NOR column. However, it is not necessary to review the scholarly literature in order to perceive the Christian Right’s pernicious effect on religiosity. Just consider the rhetoric of today’s so-called New Atheists, who so often equate Christianity with its more fundamentalist, far-right strains. The fact that they rely so much on this approach to discredit Christianity suggests that their caricatures resonate with a lot of people.

On a separate note, I would like to mention that, after I completed my column, the American Solidarity Party underwent a positive change in its leadership. (I had expressed some dissatisfaction with the direction the party was headed at the time.) I would thus more eagerly encourage readers to consider this socially conservative yet economically progressive party as a political alternative to the two parties that currently dominate U.S. politics.

Very Wrong

Rita Ferrone wants Robert Cardinal Sarah fired because of what he said about Communion in the hand (“Off with His Head!” New Oxford Note, Jul.-Aug.). There are some things that Ferrone and others who champion this method of receiving the Holy Eucharist need to know.

When the change to Communion in the hand came about, I went along with it, as did just about everyone else. I even became a Eucharistic minister for several years before quitting. Why did I quit? Being up front and observing close at hand what was happening to the sacred Host, I realized something was wrong — very wrong. I observed Hosts placed in pockets. I saw Hosts dropped and being stomped as people walked away. I should have stopped immediately and picked up the Hosts but, to my shame, I did not. I saw a Host placed in a briefcase once, and I tried to stop the person, but he walked away.

The last straw was when a new church was being built for my parish. We were given baskets to hold the Hosts. After Mass, I witnessed the ministers banging the baskets against the trash can to “clean them out”! I spoke up but was ignored. The others just shrugged. I went to the pastor and complained, but he did nothing. So I left and went to a parish where people still believe that Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist, and I haven’t looked back.

Whatever anyone likes or thinks about the speed and ease in handling the Communion line, Cardinal Sarah is absolutely correct that Communion in the hand is an abomination. There are no express lines in my church for Communion, and it works just fine. Communion is distributed to kneeling people on the tongue. There is no chance for desecration of the Host.

Judith Martin

Powell, Ohio

The Nuptial Meaning of the Body

John F. Kippley is one of the foremost pioneers of not only the sympto-thermal method of natural family planning (NFP) but also of the covenant theology of the marriage act. In his article “Why Humanae Vitae Got It Right” (Jul.-Aug.) he explains succinctly Christ’s teaching on God’s original plan for marriage as an indissoluble covenant precluding divorce (Mt. 19:3-12) and how this is expressed in the marriage act itself. As someone who has specialized in the anthropology of St. John Paul II, I can only say that Kippley’s theology of the marriage covenant is in full accord with the “new language” of the late Pope on the nuptial meaning of the body.

The marriage act, as God has designed it, is both unitive and procreative. Contraception, in breaking that connection, has brought untold evils to Western society — indeed, globally — which Kippley lists and Pope St. Paul VI foretold. As a practical solution, Kippley recommends the teaching of chastity and fertility awareness, as well as giving instruction on all methods of NFP, in parish programs, with an emphasis on generosity in child-bearing. Not to be forgotten is the importance of ecological breastfeeding as an aid to both mother-child bonding and the spacing of births.

Kippley’s forceful and clear article presents the good news of the Church’s teaching on life and love.

Mary Shivanandan, Professor Emerita of Theology

Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family, Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C.

I entered the seminary as a 17-year-old three weeks after the publication of Humanae Vitae, a document that has hovered over my entire clerical life. Dissent from the encyclical affected every aspect of seminary life — doctrinal, moral, liturgical, spiritual, psychological — making for the worst eight years of my life. That dissent was forced underground during the pontificate of St. John Paul II but has resurfaced with a vengeance in the Bergoglio years, as the “papal posse” of Kasper, Spadaro, James Martin, Coccopalmerio, and Fernandez has attempted to undercut moral absolutes.

Given the aura surrounding the Casa Santa Marta, many thought that an evisceration of Humanae Vitae was in the offing as a kind of birthday gift for its 50th anniversary. Thanks to Divine Providence, that did not happen. Quite surprisingly, L’Osservatore Romano even published a front-page re-endorsement of it.

Many commentators highlight the “prophetic” nature of Humanae Vitae, especially pointing to St. Paul VI’s predictions about what would ensue if artificial contraception became the name of the game. All his predictions have occurred — in spades. One prediction the Pope did not make, however, is interesting. He did not suggest that legitimization of artificial contraception would lead to legitimization of same-sex activity. That connection is absolutely valid: If the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexuality can be separated, then it is arbitrary to say that homosexual activity is immoral.

At a conference some years ago, someone posed a question about same-sex relations. After giving a rather comprehensive response, I ended by saying, “If any of you have practiced artificial contraception, please take responsibility for the acceptability of same-sex relations.” A receptive mood turned sour, with no further questions presented.

In its jubilee year, I am happy to say that the vast majority of young priests are “all in” on Humanae Vitae. Many Catholic high schools have good “theology of the body” courses, with units on the nexus of the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marriage act. Similarly, dioceses in increasing numbers require NFP education in their marriage-preparation programs. These positive developments can be credited to the persistence of loyal sons and daughters of the Church like John Kippley, who has been an indefatigable warrior on behalf of the true and full meaning of marriage. May their tribe increase.

Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas

Editor, The Catholic Response

Pine Beach, New Jersey

John F. Kippley gave a stalwart defense of Humanae Vitae. He had my admiration until the end of his article, when he asked bishops and priests to “insist” that NFP programs teach the “crosschecking fertility-awareness systems.” Further, he wants couples to make “informed decisions.”

Pope St. John Paul II said, “From the scientific point of view, these [natural] methods [of regulating fertility] are becoming more and more accurate and make it possible in practice to make choices in harmony with moral values. An honest appraisal of their effectiveness should dispel certain prejudices which are still widely held, and should convince married couples, as well as healthcare and social workers, of the importance of proper training in this area” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 97; italics added).

It is this “honest appraisal” that needs to be attended to. I challenge Kippley to convene a conference that would make an honest appraisal of the scientific findings by the proponents of the various methods. Let the best science win out!

Drs. John and Evelyn Billings have pointed out that “in the use of the multiple-indicator or Sympto-Thermal Method the mucus component is subjected to Rhythm calculations in the first part of the cycle even though irrefutable scientific evidence for the validity of the Early Day Rules of the Billings Ovulation Method exists as well as proof in the field for over 25 years.”

Aurora Saporosi of the Centre for Research and Study on Natural Regulation of Fertility at Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Rome, has written, “It is a fact that Billings Ovulation Method has been subjected to more scientific research of the highest standard than any other method of regulating fertility, natural or otherwise, and it is now essential knowledge for the medical profession.”

A couple could legitimately question the teaching of an unreliable sign as a “crosscheck” against a reliable sign. It would be folly to insist on teaching a method that was inaccurate. Though a method may be morally acceptable, it also needs to be scientifically accurate.

In 1982 John Paul II said, “It is necessary that various groups dedicated to this noble work appreciate their respective work and mutually exchange experience and results, firmly avoiding tensions and disagreements, which could threaten this important and difficult work.” There should be no disagreements but only recognition of the findings of scientific studies. Let go of turf and get going with truth.

Kathleen Blossom

Eureka Springs, Arkansas


My thanks to Mary Shivanandan for her reference to ecological breastfeeding, which has many health benefits for babies. A study published in late 2017 indicates that frequent and extended nursing has a tremendous power to prevent Crohn’s disease — a disease that was not reported in traditional breastfeeding cultures prior to the introduction of a Western diet. Even if it does not provide 100 percent protection, it is still very significant.

My thanks too to Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas for his perseverance in teaching the divine truths in New Jersey and to all priests who have remained faithful to their vocations despite the McCarricks, Kaspers, and Martins.

Kathleen Blossom has opened the NFP “relative effectiveness” can of worms. She challenges me to “convene a conference that would make an honest appraisal of the scientific findings by the proponents of the various methods.” Such an effort was made 40 years ago.

In the 1970s there were contrasting claims about the effectiveness of two systems of fertility awareness: the Billings Ovulation Method, which focuses primarily on cervical mucus observed externally, and the Sympto-Thermal Method, which uses in a crosschecking way the observations of cervical mucus and a woman’s waking temperature plus previous cycle data. Lawrence Kane of the Human Life Foundation (established by the U.S. bishops in response to Humanae Vitae) persuaded the National Institutes of Health to conduct a comparison study, which was undertaken at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles in 1976-1978. The researchers published their preliminary results in 1979, received criticism, concluded that the criticisms did not affect the value of the study, and published their final results in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology (Wade, McCarthy et al., Oct. 15, 1981).

The results were conclusive. Drs. John Billings and Thomas Hilgers criticized the first report; in fact, both had been involved as consultants to the study. The investigators responded but did not change their conclusions. They wrote, “The final results of a prospective comparative study of two methods of natural family planning indicate a significant difference in the 12-month net cumulative pregnancy rates between the ovulation [OM] and sympto-thermal methods [STM]. These differences are on the order of two to one in favor of the sympto-thermal method…. During the study phase, 62 pregnancies occurred (42 OM and 20 STM). There were 36 user failures and six method failures in the OM group during the study phase. There were no method failures in the STM group…. Results of this study show the STM to be superior to the OM of NFP in terms of use effectiveness.”

Also significant is a sentence on the final page of the report: “After couples were informed in August 1978 that a statistically significant trend in the pregnancy rates between the OM and STM groups had been found, almost all of the STM volunteers continued in training and virtually all of the OM volunteers requested to be, and were, thoroughly trained in STM.”

Blossom also challenges the teaching of rules based on previous cycle history when applied in the presence of cervical mucus. If she checks the NFP and More manual Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach, she will find that we teach that rules based on previous cycle experience are not to be applied in the presence of cervical mucus.

Why do we teach rules based on cycle history? Because they work very well. In June 1967 Dr. G.K. Doering published his study of a calendar-temperature method in a German medical journal. He reported a 99 percent level of effectiveness for avoiding pregnancy among those who abstained from the beginning of menses until the evening of the third day of a well-elevated temperature pattern. Among those who used previous cycle calculations to determine pre-ovulation infertility, he found 97 percent effectiveness. That included those who had marital relations during the most fertile part of the cycle. An English translation of his study is available at our website: NFPandMore.org/Doering-1967-100315.pdf.

Why don’t the mucus-only systems teach the temperature sign? According to Dr. Billings, it’s too easy! In the 1970s Billings was a regular speaker at the annual NFP symposia hosted by Fr. Paul Marx at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. At one of these I heard him explain why he had dropped the temperature sign: Women found it so easy to monitor and interpret their daily temperatures that they became sloppy with regard to the mucus sign. He has a point. A better approach is to warn users about that tendency and emphasize that at times they will really want to know how to interpret their mucus patterns.

During the 1970s and 1980s the International Review of Natural Family Planning provided a forum for information and discussion relevant to NFP. Its Spring 1985 issue carried an article titled “Use-Effectiveness of the Creighton Model of NFP” by Joanne Doud. In the abstract she stated, “The use-effectiveness of the method as a means to avoid pregnancy was 97.3 at the 6th ordinal month and 96.2 at the 12th ordinal month.” She also listed 68 pregnancies as “unplanned.” I replied in the Winter 1985 issue and applied the Pearl formula used by the rest of the NFP movement at that time to those 68 pregnancies. This standard way of doing statistics yielded a use-effectiveness rate of 67 percent, a far cry from the 96.2 percent Doud claimed.

One of the most basic principles of psychology is that you can choose only what you know. We are all familiar with Jesus’ saying, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8:32). While it is true that He was speaking about Himself, the latter phrase can also be applied to many areas, including the science and art of NFP. Couples deserve to know the full truth so that they can exercise their Christian freedom to choose, among morally valid alternatives, what they believe is best for them and their babies. Every man and woman has a right to know the morally valid options dealing with all aspects of fertility awareness and the practice of NFP. These include ecological breastfeeding, external cervical mucus, internal cervical mucus, the cervix, temperature, and Catholic moral teaching about the call to generous parenthood, chaste NFP, the covenantal theology of the marriage act, and relative effectiveness. These are spelled out at our website: NFPandMore.org/right_to_know.shtml.

Surmounting a Wall-Building Ecclesiology

As someone who has the long and well-developed habit of reading the New York Times Book Review weekly, I occasionally run across reviews that reveal far more about the reviewers, even down to their quirks and pet peeves, than about the books themselves. Such, unfortunately, is the case with Casey Chalk’s review of my and Jerry L. Walls’s book Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years After the Reformation (Jul.-Aug.). Chalk seems far more concerned about discussing his personal issues with Protestantism than the contents of our book.

Nowhere in his rambling, inchoate review does Casey engage our basic argument, which is artfully weaved throughout our book. Instead, he declares in his opening sentence that “it was all about perspicuity,” and he then trots out the well-worn, jejune, and inane stereotype of Protestants as radical individualists ever lost in a “consumerist paradigm” in which their own idiosyncratic and self-referential will is the center of all. So understood, Protestant believers pick and choose churches and decide on interpretations of the Bible the same way consumers decide on a set of tires. “Within Protestantism no authority exists to determine what counts as being ‘necessary for salvation,’” Chalk insists. Such a caricature of Protestants — it’s just me and my Bible! — celebrated in the lowest grades of Roman Catholic apologetics is actually mischievous since it is oblivious to the realities of Protestantism in a host of ways. For example, it separates Protestants from their communities and rich theological traditions, strips them of their vibrant and engaging history, and, to top it all, isolates them from their norming doctrinal materials and standards such as Books of Discipline, Worship, and Polity.

Chalk’s review also falters in terms of both historical method and issues relating to historiography, especially with respect to how we understand the long history of the church from the perspective of 21st-century realities and in the face of many vibrant Christian theological traditions, not simply one. To illustrate, failing to recognize that what Roman Catholics mean by the Mass and transubstantiation today are in fact historical products that gather up centuries of reflection, Chalk apparently attributes both teachings to first-century Christianity, where they are conveniently placed on the lips of Jesus Himself. Indeed, many Roman Catholic apologists (such as Delvin Rose) are well known for their stance that Peter was the first pope! However, declaring Peter a pope (surely a later historical product) commits the error of anachronism (reading back later historical products to earlier times where they simply do not belong) and is equivalent to saying that the U.S. didn’t have very many people in the 14th century. To be sure, timeframes are badly garbled in Chalk’s review, and what order they do evidence comes not from serious and critical historical reflection but from the dictates of dogma. The problem for Chalk, then — and it is considerable — is that even Roman Catholic historians will cry foul.

As with so many other Roman Catholic apologists, Chalk fails to appreciate the public teaching of the Roman Catholic church itself in matters that have been raised throughout our book. For example, the anti-Semitism of the Roman Catholic church during the Middle Ages was merely mentioned in passing in Roman but Not Catholic — that is, it in no way formed the major argument of the book. To be sure, much more evidence could have been cited on this particular point (and Protestants have been guilty of this sin as well). However, instead of humbly acknowledging the shortcomings of the Roman tradition over time (something that all Christian traditions need to do) in a refreshing and forthright way, Chalk becomes remarkably defensive, turns aside this troubling observation, and leaves the pretense in place that this ill has apparently never marred the Roman Catholic tradition. Oh, really? The problem here, of course, is that the Second Vatican Council clearly acknowledged such a shortcoming. According to Jean Stern, “The Council not only considers the persecution of the Jews as an evil, but it reaches the point of recognizing that in the past, some Christians were also to blame” (Tertium Millennium, a publication of the Holy See, Nov. 1997). Moreover, as Stern points out in terms of no one less than Pope John Paul II: “He recognized that the suffering of the Jews are for the [Roman] Catholic Church a reason of sincere pain, especially when we think of the indifference and at the same time the resentment, which, in particular historical circumstances, divided Jews and Christians.”

Toward the end of his review, Chalk actually reveals what the heart of the issue is, as he understands it — and it’s not perspicuity, as he led readers to believe, but ecclesiology. And that’s the major issue that Roman but Not Catholic identified all along! This shift from perspicuity to ecclesiology is undoubtedly jarring for readers, and it points out in a fresh way that in key places Chalk’s argument is garbled, confused, and lacks coherence. For Chalk, the Roman Catholic tradition is nothing less than “the true inheritor of the fullness of divine truth communicated by Christ, transmitted to the Apostles, and preserved through apostolic succession and the principle of unity, the bishop of Rome.” There are, of course, in light of the rich and diverse history of the Christian Church, a number of historical, biblical, theological, and even ethical problems with this claim, as John Wesley himself understood as a good Anglican during the 18th century after he had read the writings of Lord Peter King and Edward Stillingfleet. Issues that Chalk should have considered and that cast doubt on how this claim is specifically made include the following:

  •  How can an apostolic succession made up of monarchical bishops describe first-century realities when the consensus among historians, which includes both Roman Catholics and Protestants, is that the monarchical episcopate did not emerge until the second century, at first in the East, and some historians add that it did not arise until the following century in Rome?
  •  Why is the fullness of truth communicated only to the Roman Catholic theological tradition and not, let’s say, also to Eastern Orthodoxy? Did Jesus Himself prefer Rome?
  •  Was not the Apostle Peter principally associated with the cities of Jerusalem and Antioch instead of the city in which he was murdered?
  •  How is Roman Catholicism the center of the Church when this particular theological tradition broke the ecumenical consensus represented in the Nicene Constantinopolitan Creed by the interpolation of the filioque clause at the Third Council of Toledo in 589?
  •  Again, how is Rome the center in which the Church subsists in light of the Great Schism of 1054?
  •  Is not the claim that the bishop of Rome is the center of the unity of the Church an empty one since neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Protestantism accepts it? In fact, it is one of the key elements that divide Roman Catholicism from both Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestants today.

The crucial issue Chalk nowhere addresses, and which was, after all, one of the prominent questions raised in Roman but Not Catholic, is “to what ends is this particular ecclesiology put?” In other words, is this ecclesiology employed to celebrate the unity of all orthodox Christians, even though they live out their witness in distinct theological traditions? Is it a call to transcend all tribalism and party spirit in which one theological tradition is mistaken for the whole? On the contrary, this well-worn and deeply troubled ecclesiology is used to question not only the integrity of Protestant ordination but also to doubt the sacramental efficacy of the Protestant Lord’s Supper, of which Roman Catholics are forbidden to partake. Again, such an ecclesiology is an engine of schism in that it divides the Lord’s Table and separates Christian believer from Christian believer, though the very heart of the Christian faith is the overcoming of such divisions in those who know Jesus Christ salvifically (cf. Gal. 3:28). And though Pope Francis likes to go around saying that society should not build “walls but bridges,” there is no greater wall or separation than that which occurs every Sunday morning when Protestants — real Christians indeed — are barred from Roman Catholic communion tables.

Oh, but it gets much worse than this, for Pope Francis sits atop a hierarchy and doctrinal structure (the magisterium) that has, for instance, publicly condemned (both in canon law and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) those many former Roman Catholics in Latin and South America who are now exuberant Pentecostal believers. That is, in Rome’s view it’s okay for a Protestant to become a Roman Catholic (think of Richard John Neuhaus), but it’s not okay at all for a Roman Catholic to become a Protestant. Indeed, Rome’s aberrant, divisive, and wall-building ecclesiology (which floats by Chalk’s review like a blur), one that ever makes Rome the center, requires such a judgment.

Accordingly, to break out of this divisive ecclesiology, to argue in a very ecumenical fashion that the two conversions are in reality equivalent, would be to affirm in an historically and descriptively accurate way that the Roman Catholic church is one Christian theological tradition (though an important one) among many. That’s an affirmation Rome will not allow, and one Chalk has not considered. It would be best then for Chalk to go back and reread Roman but Not Catholic. Its major argument has escaped him.

Kenneth J. Collins

Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary

Wilmore, Kentucky

Contrary to Casey Chalk, my and Kenneth J. Collins’s book Roman but Not Catholic is not “all about perspicuity.” And despite Chalk’s dismissive response to our argument, Protestants have perfectly good reasons to accept the Nicene Creed as authoritative. The fundamental reason is due to the very claim that Scripture is revelation from God. Reveal is an achievement verb, and if Scripture is revelation from God, then we have good reason to believe that the recipients of the revelation understand the essential message God intended to reveal. Otherwise, it does not succeed as revelation. What has been perfectly clear from Scripture all along is that Jesus is Lord, He died for our sins, God raised Him from the dead, and He is the Son of God — which are the fundamental truths one must believe to be saved (cf. Rom. 10:9-10).

The Arian controversy dealt with a question that is inescapably raised by the biblical revelation in the extraordinary claims it makes about the central character of the New Testament narrative. Given the fact that Scripture itself forces the question of whether Christ is fully divine, there is every reason to believe that the church, the recipients of the biblical revelation, would discern the correct answer to this question when they are pushed to state the heart of their faith more precisely. If God inspired Scripture in the first place, we have good reason to think He would not only give the church discernment in recognizing the canon but also in correctly discerning its essential message.

The fact that the Nicene Creed did not win immediate assent from a number of bishops during a period of great controversy, and that even today some do not accept it, does not undermine this reasoning. The authority of the Creed and our basis for accepting it does not derive only from its initial formulation but also from the fact that it has achieved overwhelming assent in the centuries since then throughout the church. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church observes, “It remains common to all the great Churches of both East and West to this day” (no. 195). For my detailed argument, see chapters 4-5 of our book.

By contrast, the Roman authority structure puts even these consensual doctrines on a very tenuous foundation — particularly the Roman claim that its magisterium has exclusive authority to interpret the word of God, and that Scripture, Tradition, and the magisterium are so connected that they stand or fall together (cf. Catechism, nos. 85, 95). For a vivid example of these claims, consider the Marian dogmas of immaculate conception and bodily assumption that were declared infallible in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Neither of these doctrines can claim substantial biblical support or ecumenical agreement, as can the doctrines of the Nicene Creed. And yet, when these doctrines were officially promulgated, the Roman magisterium elevated them to the highest degree of dogmatic authority. Indeed, the popes declared that proper assent to the whole faith depends on affirming them. When Pius IX formally defined the immaculate conception, he declared that anyone who does not accept it should “know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith.” Pius XII made an even stronger claim when he declared that anyone who denies the doctrine of Mary’s bodily assumption should know “that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic faith.” Now, these are remarkable claims. The integrity of the whole Catholic faith depends on accepting dogmas that have scant, if any, support from Scripture and the earliest Patristic sources. But for those committed to the Roman authority structure, the whole faith hinges on the truth of these dogmas.

It gets worse. The distinctive claims Rome makes for the authority of its magisterium hinge essentially on the traditional claims that Peter was the first pope, and that his successors have jurisdiction over the whole church. In view of this, it is quite telling that Chalk dismisses the scholarly consensus that there was no monarchical bishop in Rome — let alone anyone exercising authority over the whole church — until the late second century, at best. The fact that Chalk is compelled to dismiss the best historical scholarship indicates that he understands, on one level, what is at stake in these claims. But it also shows he has not come to terms with the realities of historical scholarship as it pertains to traditional papal theology. He waves off the groundbreaking work of Peter Lampe, claiming that Collins and I merely cite him as an authority because of his credentials but do not present his argument. In fact, my co-author sketches the details of Lampe’s argument (see pp. 107-111 of our book).

But it is important to stress that the historical evidence that has led to the current consensus does not consist merely of a critique of Irenaeus’s famous list, but, more importantly, of a careful reading of late-first-century and early-second-century Christian authors who lived in Rome and reported on ecclesiastical life, none of whom give any indication of a monarchical bishop (see my chapter “Papal [Im]probabilities”). Bedrock historical evidence is what has led to the consensus among historians that there was no bishop of Rome in the first century, and this consensus includes leading Roman Catholic papal historians, as well as Eastern Orthodox and Protestant historians. Popular apologists like Chalk who reject the best scholarship of their own church are very much like “young earth” creationists who wave off the best scientific scholarship, including that produced by Christians, and appeal to dubious theories to support their dogmatic claims.

This puts the whole faith on a very fragile foundation, to put it mildly. The essential clarity of biblical revelation as reflected in the common faith of Nicene orthodoxy is a preferable place to stand.

Jerry L. Walls

Professor of Philosophy, Houston Baptist University

Houston, Texas


Strangely, Kenneth J. Collins and Jerry L. Walls seem surprised and perturbed that their 432-page polemic against the Catholic Church elicited a critique not only of their arguments but their underlying presuppositions. They complain that Roman but Not Catholic is not about perspicuity but ecclesiology. I never said it wasn’t, and I didn’t claim the book is “all about perspicuity.” Rather, I said that many of their arguments “presume perspicuity” and that “much hangs on perspicuity.” Yes, Collins and Walls devote chapters to attacking Catholic ecclesiology, sacramentology, and theology, but they often do so while relying on their own interpretations of biblical texts. Their presumption of perspicuity (or “the clarity of Scripture”), a doctrine Catholics do not accept, is palpably in play every time they make a claim about what Scripture “clearly teaches.” Indeed, even in their letters they can’t avoid presupposing perspicuity — for example, in reference to Marian theology, the nature of the Eucharist, and what is necessary for salvation.

Collins resorts to rhetorical flourishes and logical fallacies when he accuses me of faltering in historical method. He alleges that I “fail to recognize” that contemporary Catholic conceptions of the Mass and transubstantiation are “historical products” containing “centuries of reflection.” In truth, I don’t fail to recognize this — indeed, depending on what Collins means, I might agree with him. Yet my review didn’t discuss the Mass or transubstantiation. If not discussing something means I “fail to recognize” it, then my review fails to recognize lots of things. This is just cheap point-scoring.

Collins also makes hand-waving assertions — e.g., that my “timeframes are badly garbled,” and my review lacks “serious and critical historical reflection.” Yet he provides no examples to substantiate either claim. He might be surprised to learn that prior to my review’s publication, I sought feedback from a tenured and widely published religious-history professor at a secular state university. He had no substantive concerns with the contents of my review, and certainly not with my section on history.

Collins also erects a straw man in response to my analysis of a claim he and Walls make regarding the Church’s treatment of Jews. In their book, they accuse Pope Innocent III of anti-Semitism for mandating distinctive dress for Jews. But, as I pointed out, Jewish leaders petitioned for this to prevent Jewish miscegenation. Yet my exposing their error somehow means that I am unwilling to acknowledge that Catholics have been guilty of anti-Semitism. This is absurd. Of course Catholics have perpetrated acts of anti-Semitism. This fact doesn’t give the authors warrant to play fast and loose with historical data.

Regarding Collins’s remarks on historical anachronism: To call St. Peter the “first pope” is indeed anachronistic, in a sense: The early Church did not attribute to the leading Apostle all the qualities the modern Church attributes to the bishop of Rome. Yet the Christian tradition — including plenty of Protestant scholars and theologians — applies titles to biblical figures that are equally anachronistic. Adam, for example, is often designated a prophet and priest — titles that would have been entirely foreign to him. Yet, in certain senses, Adam acted in both of those roles. Peter was likewise never called “pope,” but plenty of historical evidence points to his being the leader of the early Church and a principle of unity, as well as naming a successor. Whether we speak of Peter as pope or Adam as priest, the point is that a seed containing an essential truth can develop over time into an understanding of something greater, though still of the same essence.

To support his claims regarding apostolic succession and monarchical bishops, Collins offers “the consensus among historians.” The consensus of scholars on any historical topic is an authority worth consideration, but it cannot be exclusively normative for the reason I offered in my review: Historians can, and have, gotten things wrong. Indeed, if we were to consult the “consensus among historians” on the Resurrection, we’d find that the majority derides it as a historical fiction. There goes our faith, which St. Paul tells us is “in vain” if Christ is not raised (1 Cor. 15:14).

Collins seems to think if he applies enough derogatory adjectives (“well-worn, jejune, and inane”) to the Catholic criticism of Protestantism as inherently individualist and consumerist, he will invalidate the criticism. He accuses those who present such an argument of being “oblivious to the realities of Protestantism,” including its “communities and rich theological traditions,” “vibrant and engaging history,” and “norming doctrinal materials and standards.” Yet these things have no real authority for Protestants. They are all embraced — or dispensed with — according to the scriptural interpretations of individual Protestants. Protestant ministers exempt themselves from various parts of their theological traditions and doctrinal standards as they see fit, and if they ultimately conclude that their particular denomination doesn’t accurately represent the Bible, they either seek to change the denomination, move on to another one, or create an entirely new one. When I was a Protestant, I witnessed plenty of this.

Collins asks why the fullness of truth would be communicated only to the Catholic Church — yet such a question is itself anachronistic. Of course Jesus didn’t “prefer Rome”; He preferred Peter, the principle of unity in the early Church. Eastern Orthodoxy’s refusal to submit to Peter’s successor is why they lack the fullness of truth, though their retention of apostolic succession gets them quite a bit closer than Collins’s and Walls’s Protestant traditions. Yet Collins insists that the principle of Petrine primacy must be fully formed in the early Church to be plausible, rather than existing as a seed that slowly germinates, as is the case with many of the essential doctrines of Christianity: the Trinity, Christ being homoousion with the Father, and even the biblical canon.

Collins accuses the Catholic Church of perpetrating schism — based on a definition of “catholic” that he must (ironically) derive from outside of Scripture, since the term doesn’t appear in the Bible. Of course, all his bluster begs the question. If the Church is who she claims to be, then she must reject “sacraments” offered in Protestant communions that cannot be valid without apostolic authority. She must also criticize those who depart from her — for such individuals are departing not only from a human institution but from Christ Himself, offered in the Eucharist. Indeed, some of the Church’s earliest extra-biblical documents, the seven letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, emphasize that true churches are those that are united to the apostolic office of bishop and celebrate the Eucharist in union with their bishop.

If we apply Collins’s criteria, any ecclesiology that draws the line in the sand between orthodox doctrine and heresy is necessarily an “engine of schism.” Yet, presumably, the Christian traditions to which Collins and Walls belong also draw that line over some doctrinal point. Are they therefore also being “divisive” and engaging in “wall-building”? Or are they seeking to maintain the integrity and unity of their own religious tradition?

Walls argues that based on the content of Holy Scripture, “there is every reason to believe” that the Church “would correctly discern its essential message.” I applaud this reasoning, which is a rebuke of “ecclesial deism,” the idea that God is not guiding His Church regarding essential matters. If only Walls were consistent in applying his argument! We could just as easily deduce that if God created His Church, He would not let her fall into error, and that He would ensure a visible principle of unity whereby all Christians could be united to her. This, so Catholics argue, is the reason we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in union with the bishop of Rome.

Regarding Walls’s claim that the Immaculate Conception and Assumption have “scant, if any, support from Scripture and the earliest Patristic sources,” suffice it to say that I, and the Catholic Church, disagree with that assessment. Alternatively, from a Catholic perspective, many Protestant doctrines, including those expounded by Collins and Walls, have little, if any, biblical support — sola scriptura, sola fide, and perspicuity come immediately to mind.

This brings us back to the authors’ original objections to my review — that perspicuity is not a central part of Roman but Not Catholic and that my focusing on it does them a disservice. Yet their argumentation, as Collins’s letter in particular makes abundantly clear, is emphatically polemical in nature. Their book reads like an exhaustive attack on everything and anything about Catholicism. Surely Collins and Walls must have known such a text would elicit strong critiques from Catholics. I presume that NOR readers are discerning enough to recognize that I didn’t intend to offer a systematic account of Collins and Walls’s book but to summarize some of their arguments and launch a precisely targeted counterattack. Readers can judge for themselves whether I was successful.

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