Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: November 2019

Letters to the Editor: November 2019

Beware of Malevolent Ghouls

Pieter Vree is a socialist? Shocking! Is not even the NOR safe from such baleful incursions? Thanks to Alexander Clayton for pointing that out (letter, Sept.). I will no longer allow my brown tabby cat, Louie, to browse this publication.

As I near my 80th birthday, I have no idea what “socialism” or a “socialist” is. Is a “socialist” some malevolent ghoul that inhabits dark closets, or is it a label we toss around at one another? Words have meaning. We should select them thoughtfully.

Mr. Clayton opines that, in many respects, we are the “children” of ancient Rome. I hope not. I would argue that we are children of classical Greece — demos rather than res republica. (My Greek surname may make impartiality problematic.) Historical analogy can be instructive, even cautionary, but it remains analogy, not equivalence. Analogy should be used cautiously.

To compare a perceived decline and “fall” of the U.S. and its culture with ancient Rome is too facile. With apologies to Edward Gibbon, Rome did not “fall” in the sense that one bright morning, the centurion Marcus awoke, looked out his door, and exclaimed, “By Jove, we’ve fallen!” Rather, Rome transitioned to something different: a Christian empire of Eastern orientation that, with its crises and eccentric rulers, endured for a millennium. From its regal period through the republic to the expulsion of the last emperor in A.D. 476, Rome survived 1,200 years. Not at all a shabby run.

If I were to risk an analogy, it would be that the Church — the oldest continuous institution on earth, with her crises, her schisms, and her often worldly leaders — always recovered and became a more robust institution than before. Of the three great power centers of antiquity — Rome, Byzantium, and the Church — only the Church has endured. One need not have made the journey across the Tiber to marvel at such remarkable resilience.

Now that Mr. Clayton has alerted me to Mr. Vree’s inclination toward pernicious “socialist” screeds, I will keep a sharp eye out for such incursions in future issues of the NOR. It is never a dull read.

John D. Karkalis

Cleveland, Ohio

In Memoriam

The enclosed donation is made in memory of Dr. John Lukacs, who was my college history professor 50 years ago. He taught his students not only history but how to think about history. Seeing him listed as a contributing editor of the NOR made me confident that I would profit immeasurably from subscribing, and my many years as a happy subscriber are proof that I made a good decision.

Regina F. McKeever

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Ed. Note: We thank you for your many years of support and continued reading. We too mourn the passing of Dr. Lukacs. In this issue, we present a remembrance of our late contributing editor, who was one of the great historians of the 20th century, written by Will Hoyt.

As the Scales Fall

Thanks to Michael Wisniewski, one of my idols has been shattered (“The Communist Era: The Golden Age of Catholicism in Poland?” guest column, Sept.). For many decades, the Polish Catholic Church has been to me a bastion of muscular and vibrant Roman Catholicism, the last redoubt of a Catholic faith relatively untouched by the ravages of either secularism or a secularized Catholicism. But Mr. Wisniewski’s artful and convincing arguments have disabused me of such illusions.

His column is a cautionary tale as well. Unless the faith goes beyond mere devotion or aesthetics, it remains hollow and soon topples. Both authentic devotion and beauty must build on the mighty dogmatic pillars of the faith. Only then are they secure. The true faith breathes heroic virtue into us, primarily charity. If these are not present in the Church’s priests and her faithful, all is vanity.

Wisniewski will help many scales fall from Catholic eyes. They did from mine. Let us pray daily the supplication of the blind beggar to our Savior: Dominus, ut videam (Lord, let me see). The answer always comes, but, to our surprise, from the least-expected places.

Fr. John Perricone

Prof. of Philosophy, Iona College

New Rochelle, New York

Communion & Community

David Mills’s experience visiting a parish where everybody stands together after Communion (Last Things, Jul.-Aug.) is pertinent to my own experience in my local parish. I loved his response to the man who tried to instruct him on the local custom: “I don’t care.”

For many years, and through three bishops, a group of people has been requesting an extraordinary form (EF) Mass in our once-large diocese. Some of these people are now deceased, though many who have joined the group are young people — mostly younger than I. We are not seeking some Catholic revolution or trying to get rid of the vernacular, ordinary form (OF) Mass. We simply want an EF Mass. Many in the group made long drives to attend EF Masses in other areas, so, we thought, why not have one in our own diocese?

Finally, our current bishop listened to us. He proposed bringing in a religious order that specializes in celebrating EF Masses. He selected our old, beautiful church as the site, which is dying in our nearly empty downtown — not only from lack of money but lack of people. Children are almost nonexistent, and most of those in the CCD program make their First Confessions and First Communions and are never seen again.

Our bishop was wise and had many meetings with parish staff and parishioners. He introduced the religious order, discussed the proposal, and answered all questions and concerns. He assured them that everything else in the parish would continue as it always had. He did not move forward until all were comfortable with it. There would be a Sunday EF Mass, a daily EF Mass, and confessions before all Masses. Little did I know what was ahead.

It was wonderful to see young, old, and in-between people, including families with children and teens, at the Sunday EF Masses. Many were new to the parish, and we encouraged them to join the parish and participate in parish life. Then the axe fell.

A small group of parishioners protested. They made remarks about the appearance of the women and girls who attend the EF Masses, some of whom wore skirts or dresses and — horrors! — chapel veils. The EF Mass is a strike against women, they said, as it shuts women out of the sanctuary. The EF Mass is taking us back to the Dark Ages, they said. Then this group took to social media with all their venom. It was terrible. It’s difficult to go to a church where you are vilified. The religious-order priest instructed the “EF Mass people” not to respond, and we didn’t.

As it stands now, there is a Sunday EF Mass, and that’s it. So much damage has been done, and there is still an undercurrent of dislike and small acts of sabotage. It is a sorry mess. Where it will all go is in God’s hands.

But I’ve learned that there is a blessing in every mess. While these attacks were going on, I ran into a woman I used to know who lives in another town. She had left the Catholic Church many years ago. She said to me, “I want you to know that I’ve returned to the Church.” I was amazed! I asked her what had brought her back. She said she had been thinking about it for quite a while and finally decided it was time. Then she told me she was going to my parish and attending the EF Mass. I almost fell over! She was so happy as she talked about the reverence of the Mass, the prayers, the beautiful music, and how she loves seeing people dress up for Mass, making it seem like a special day, and seeing all the families there. Her adult daughter is now going with her. When we parted, I gave her a hug and said, “Welcome home.” I also prayed she would never find out that she was in the middle of a minefield.

So thank you, Mr. Mills, for your “I don’t care” response. I shall continue to kneel after Holy Communion, whether at the EF or OF Mass. You’re right: “Nothing creates real community, real communion, more than Communion. Start by making that as reverent as you can, if you want to unite your people.”

Pamela Ahearn

Hammond, Indiana

Not the Best Reasons

I found Casey Chalk’s column “All Catholics Should Major in Double E” wanting (Revert’s Rostrum, Sept.). Chalk writes that the first “E,” the episcopacy, and the second “E,” the Eucharist, are the most compelling reasons to become or remain Catholic. But why isn’t the first “E” the Eucharist, which is Christ, and the secondary “E” the episcopacy, which is clearly not Christ? Chalk says that the Eucharist is “the principal means through which Catholics receive grace.” But what about Baptism? And if we are to consider the two “E’s” as the essence of Catholicism, where does that leave “the people of God,” whom Chalk doesn’t even mention?

Chalk says that “the sins of the hierarchy cannot fundamentally undo the authority and spiritual power of the Church because both derive directly from Christ Himself.” There are so many issues with this statement. First, is “the hierarchy” here a synonym for “the Church”? Second, doesn’t “spiritual power” in human beings and institutions depend, in some measure, on human free will rather than pure divine fiat?

If we accept Chalk’s proposition that “the Eucharist without the episcopacy is invalid,” based, I suppose, on apostolic succession, how is this an argument for joining or remaining in the Catholic Church when the Orthodox Church has a valid Eucharist and valid apostolic succession as well, as Chalk admits?

In today’s world, an apologetic focused on the hierarchy as a draw does not offer the best reason for becoming or remaining Catholic, and belief in the Real Presence may be more properly a subject for prayer for the gift of faith rather than rational or scriptural arguments.

Janice Hicks

Oak Ridge, Tennessee

The Time Dependence of the Origin of Species

During my 25 years as a subscriber and financial supporter of the NOR, I have found the book review section consistently valuable and informative. John Lyon’s review of Fr. Michael Chaberek’s book Aquinas and Evolution (June), as well as Fr. Chaberek’s letter to the editor and Lyon’s reply (Sept.), are, in my opinion, of tremendous importance. They touch on the subject of the time dependence of the “origin of species.” As is well known, NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe reported in 2003 that the time elapsed since the Big Bang is 13.7±0.2 billion years, a finite time.

I hope Fr. Chaberek would agree that St. Thomas might have been favorably surprised to know — as any well-informed physicist today knows, in agreement with Einstein, Fr. Georges Lemaître, and many others — about the cosmological space-time dependence of the origin of species, which in a contingent universe is not necessarily due to chaos or necessity — namely, a contingent cosmos not coming out of nothing but created by the Unum Necessarium (one thing needful).

Julio A. Gonzalo



Erroneous Conflations

There are a few errors in Terry Scambray’s review of Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West by Raymond Ibrahim (Sept.). I went back to the book to make sure that Ibrahim himself hadn’t made the errors. As far as I can tell, the errors lie in the review.

Scambray seems to conflate the Seljuk Turks and the Ottomans, asserting that they had gained control of “the Islamic Empire,” and that the Ottomans were victorious at Manzikert. The Ottomans did not yet exist at the time of the Battle of Manzikert. Moreover, by the time of the Seljuk conquest of Baghdad, “the Islamic Empire” had long since fragmented. The Seljuks were merely one among a kaleidoscope of Muslim rulers of the 11th century.

Even more serious is Scambray’s conflation of the Ottoman and Ayyubid dynasties. Calling the Battle of Hattin an Ottoman victory is like calling the fall of Byzantine Constantinople a loss for Richard the Lionheart — both were Christians, yes, but they were of different ethnicities, spoke different languages, and were from different eras.

Padraic Rohan

Berkeley, California


Padraic Rohan points out two serious errors in my review of Sword and Scimitar. I am sorry for misleading NOR readers and am grateful for Mr. Rohan’s scholarly corrections of my mistakes. Indeed, the Seljuk Muslims were an earlier hegemonic empire whereas the Ottoman Muslim Empire, one of the largest and longest lasting in history, began in the 13th century and ended, officially, in 1922.

I would also point out that I placed Charles V at the Battle of Vienna, likely leading readers to think of the better-known Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. However, I meant the lesser-known Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, but failed to include his full title.

The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, did send troops to defend Vienna during the earlier Siege of Vienna in 1529, another of the relentless attempts of Islam to break into Europe, which Mr. Ibrahim’s book so graphically recounts.

Conscience, Clarified

James G. Hanink, in his brief review of my translation of Hendrik G. Stoker’s Conscience: Phenomena and Theories (Jul.-Aug.), has performed a valuable service by providing an example of how Stoker’s work might be interpreted by an intelligent Catholic reader whose only resources concerning Stoker are the text of Conscience itself and my translator’s introduction. In this respect, his review has left me in doubt about the adequacy of my introduction. And I am afraid that Hanink leaves the impression that Stoker’s analysis of conscience suffers from the sorts of defects one would typically expect from a phenomenological approach in general and from Max Scheler’s approach in particular. I wish, therefore, to offer some clarifications that I hope will dispose NOR readers more favorably toward Stoker’s masterful treatment of the phenomenon of conscience.

Hanink is rightly concerned about the inadequacy of any moral theory or account of conscience that grounds itself, as do many phenomenological theories, in the subjectivism of human feelings. He notes that Scheler had a deep influence not only on Stoker but on Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II). Hanink neglects to note, however, that Wojtyla’s 1953 habilitation thesis was itself a phenomenological critique of Scheler, showing that Scheler’s phenomenology fails to provide an adequate basis for Christian ethics. Therefore, not all phenomenological approaches suffer from the same defects as Scheler’s. Wojtyla’s approach, for example, is grounded in traditional Thomistic metaphysics. This fact escapes many whose exposure is limited to English translations of Wojtyla’s works. Just as readers of the tendentiously anti-metaphysical English translation of The Acting Person might erroneously suspect that Wojtyla’s phenomenology lacks a proper Thomistic grounding, Hanink suspects that Stoker’s work suffers from similar defects. These alleged defects become apparent in the presuppositions Hanink identifies in Stoker’s definition of conscience as “the real internal disclosure of personal evil.”

The first problematic presupposition, according to Hanink, is epistemological. For Stoker, emotional intuition, not the judgment of reason, discloses personal evil with certainty. Conscience is a matter of the “heart,” not “understanding.” This yields what Hanink calls “the conflict problem” — namely, how to resolve the problem of people with conflicting moral feelings. As I note in my introduction, however, “While Stoker does indeed embrace…a certain primacy of the emotional over the rational in our experience of bad conscience…he refuses to isolate emotion from reason,” unlike Scheler. Stoker distinguishes conscience in the sense of “a real internal disclosure of evil” from its secondary sense as “a deposit of insight into the good.” The former he locates not in the objectively correct detection of evil but in the awareness of our subjective consent to what we perceive as evil. In other words, like Aquinas, Stoker would affirm that (1) we can never violate our conscience without doing violence to our deepest subjective understanding of right and wrong; (2) following our conscience does not guarantee that we will do what is objectively right, as our conscience could be improperly formed; and (3) we have an obligation to be open to correction and to have our conscience properly formed in light of our insight into the good. It is true that the “deposit of insight into the good” is not the central focus of Stoker’s phenomenological analysis of conscience, but he clearly presupposes it and refers to it. (Calvinist tradition does not, like Karl Barth, reject the natural law.) Perhaps both Stoker in his work and I in my introduction should have made this clearer.

The second presupposition is metaphysical. For Stoker, conscience is chiefly negative, warning against personal evil rather than apprehending the intelligible good. This yields what Hanink calls “a reification problem.” Stoker reifies, or makes real, something (bad conscience) that cannot be said to exist on its own but only appears “parasitically” as dependent on a previously existing reality (the good). Hanink asks, “How can we make sense of evil without a more basic grasp of the good?” We can revisit our experiences, yes, but insofar as they are personal and intelligible, they are, Hanink writes, “ordered first to what is real [the good] and second to what falsifies the real.” This is true. Stoker’s analysis, however, in no way denies this. The primacy of bad conscience in his analysis does not exclude the ontological primacy of the rationally intelligible good but highlights the negative way in which conscience first makes itself known to us in our experience.

The third presupposition is theological. Stoker holds, according to Hanink, that “one can grasp the character of conscience and yet remain neutral with respect to God’s existence.” Accordingly, although Stoker is a personal theist, Hanink says Stoker “dismisses accounts of conscience that center on God’s action in the very constitution of personal conscience.” I do not see how anyone could reach this conclusion after reading chapter six of Conscience. It is clear not only that Stoker “writes as a committed theist,” to quote Hanink; he also views conscience as a divine vocation (or “call”) to repentance and reconciliation, even for those who do not recognize this call as divine. Stoker clearly assumes God’s role in the very constitution of conscience. However, like Aquinas in his treatment of the classic arguments for God’s existence, Stoker, in his treatment of the phenomenon of conscience, refuses to take divine revelation as his starting point. Stoker is doing philosophy in the light of natural reason and experience, not theology in the light of divine revelation — even though his philosophy presupposes Christian commitments throughout, as does St. Thomas’s.

Hanink offers a brief exegesis of the Catechism’s account of conscience, ostensibly to highlight what is lacking in Stoker and to reinforce a proper understanding of conscience. I have no reason to believe, however, that Stoker would have any cause to quarrel with what Hanink says, even though Stoker’s language is not that of classical Aristotelian-Thomism but of phenomenology. He would not likely say that conscience is “an exercise of practical reason,” or that it is “a judgment of reason,” though I think he would readily accept that the experience of conscience presupposes a judgment of reason, and he suggests as much in a number of places throughout his work. As I summarize in my introduction, for Stoker, conscience “is ultimately an emotional experience, but it involves moral knowledge.” Quoting the Catechism (no. 1776), Hanink writes, “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey.” Nothing is emphasized more repeatedly and profoundly by Stoker in chapter six than precisely our experience of this very fact.

Hanink concludes, “To abandon this sanctuary, wherein we are alone with God, is to undercut the compelling authority of conscience.” I can imagine Stoker responding with nothing less than a heartfelt “Amen.”

Philip Blosser

Prof. of Philosophy, Sacred Heart Major Seminary

Detroit, Michigan


Again, I am in debt to Philip Blosser, this time for instructively revisiting Stoker’s Conscience. NOR readers will find their study of this massive work rewarding — as, no doubt, will I in returning to its chapter six. It would, moreover, be a mistake to dismiss the great contributions of the realist tradition in phenomenology. The interplay of reason and emotion is, indeed, intricate. Perhaps the best course is to treat the two as inseparably interwoven in experience. Stoker’s recognition of the ontological primacy of the good reassures me that his pervasive emphasis on evil is to be seen in that context.

It is also reassuring that Stoker affirms that God is present in the very constitution of personal conscience. But just why a phenomenological account of conscience cannot reflect this remains unclear to me. Perhaps I wrongly suppose that what is assumed or implied should be brought to center stage. Stoker does insist that “only before a personal God can we behave as someone with a troubled conscience behaves.”

Whether or not Stoker begins his phenomenology of conscience with the ground of its intelligibility, that ground is present from the beginning. Here I think that Newman’s turn to conscience as the most telling argument for God’s reality gains traction.



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