Letters to the Editor: November 2023
Rescue: Right or Wrong?
We are in debt to Jonathan Darnel for his call to renew the pro-life rescue movement (“The Case for Reviving the Rescue Movement,” Sept.). The nonviolent interposition of the rescuer between a preborn baby and the threatening abortionist is praiseworthy. The object of the rescuer is to save one of the least little ones, in contrast to the object of the attacker, which is the destruction of an innocent human being. Any “law” that fails to acknowledge this difference is corrupt.
What can we say of the consequences of the rescuer’s act? They are at once multiple, often unpredictable, and sometimes incommensurable. If the act is immediately successful, a life is saved, at least for a time. Given the disruption of the rescue, other lives might also be saved, again if only for a time.
There are, of course, further consequences. In the act of interposition, the rescuer can confirm and deepen his will to accompany a child fashioned in God’s own image. At the same time, the abortionist and those who commission the abortion meet a resolute challenge to their lethal assault. This challenge might lead them to a change of heart.
To be sure, there are also wider social responses. For the present, rescues give rise to a sharp and punitive backlash. Over time, this might change, but if there is a change for the better, it is likely to be over several decades. (The number of abortions in states that allow it is growing.) The punitive consequences to rescuers include harsh prison sentences. Some rescuers will endure; others, no doubt, will be broken in spirit.
Nonetheless, Darnel contends that “only when we physically prevent people from killing their children are we truly without compromise. Only then are we genuinely ‘anti-choice.’” While I respect his call for rescue as interposition, his insistence that only such rescues are without compromise is wrongheaded.
There are many people who are already striving, in some instances heroically, to do a great good. Consider the peacemakers who, at personal cost, engage in disabling nuclear weapons. (The “enhancement” of the nuclear arsenal continues apace.) Or think of parents who are raising a family, or caregivers of the sick and infirm, or hard-pressed people who do both. Think of priests who are pastoring a parish, or professed religious contemplatives. All these people are spending their lives acting for the basic goods that honor human life.
St. Thomas Aquinas proposes an order of charity, that is, an order of love. We are to love God above all, and our neighbor as ourselves. Nonetheless, some neighbors are more united to us than others; some are of our own family. Thomas writes that “other things being equal, we ought to help those who are most closely connected to us. And if of two, one be more closely connected, and the other in greater want, it is not possible to decide, by any general rule, which of them we ought to help rather than the other…and the matter requires the judgment of a prudent man.” Even courage is a virtue only in conjunction with prudence.
What is prudence? It is right reason in acting. As such, it is never optional. Nor is it reducible to temporizing in comfort.
Darnel is on the mark when he contends that “rescue as direct, immediate, and uncompromising interposition for the sake of abortion victims provides a center around which the rest of the movement can rally.” In my view, nonetheless, rescue calls for a special charism. We ought to welcome this charism and announce our welcome by frequently and urgently praying for imprisoned rescuers, by name, in our parishes.
James G. Hanink
Jonathan Darnel makes many good points, and he has the heart of a lion. But I take issue with his thesis that a return to lawlessness will benefit the pro-life movement. I believe it will do more harm than good.
Pro-aborts like to call pro-lifers like myself “religious fanatics,” and it is water off a duck’s back. If, however, they can call us “lawless religious fanatics,” they have a powerful weapon in their hands, which they can use to manipulate public opinion. And once they have public opinion on their side, they can pass legislation prohibiting peaceful prayer at the entrance to abortion mills.
Msgr. Philip J. Reilly founded the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants in 1989 to conduct prayer vigils outside abortuaries throughout the U.S. and in many foreign countries. Msgr. Reilly is estimated to have saved over 100,000 lives through his ministry. He also trained the founder of 40 Days for Life, which has saved an enormous number of babies using the Reilly method. What would happen to organizations such as these if they could no longer pray within a hundred yards of the killing mills?
On the practical side, months in prison may be a small price to pay for saving lives, especially when the price-payers are people like Fr. Fidelis Moscinski and Joan Andrews Bell. Neither has children to support. Yet I don’t think the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (Fr. Fidelis’s organization) would want folks to know that it is lending its support to lawless activities. One wonders, too, if Joan’s husband, Chris Bell, would want a similar association. He runs crisis-pregnancy centers (Good Counsel Homes) that have saved countless infants from death in the womb.
My point is that, yes, lives can be saved by the use of civil disobedience that pits pro-lifers against the police. But for every life saved this way, there may be hundreds that could be saved but are not because the pro-life cause will have frittered away its most powerful weapon: peaceful, prayerful witness on the ground. We cannot afford to lose the tolerance we currently have from a public that could easily become more hostile. At the same time, we need the police to protect our churches, as well as our crisis-pregnancy centers and prayer vigils.
Judging from the history of the pro-life movement since Roe v. Wade, there is a tendency for lawlessness, once embarked upon, to turn to violence, and for violence to increase as time passes. The record shows that in the long run such tactics have failed.
Frederick W. Marks
Forest Hills, New York
The bulk of Jonathan Darnel’s thesis I will leave to the critique of those who know better the movements of history and politics. I was disappointed, though, by his renewal of an old argument from the rescue days, namely, that as long as the pro-life movement does not physically intervene at abortion facilities, it is essentially pro-choice. Well, I don’t force my children to go to Mass anymore, I don’t compel my students to read Pride and Prejudice, and I didn’t overturn the shopping cart full of carbohydrates and soda an obese fellow pushed by down the aisles of the grocery store. Does that make me pro-choice?
Ideologically, what does it mean to be pro-choice? It means the exercise of free will is the highest human good, or that we choose merely for the sake of choosing (or as the old Star Trek episodes piously intoned, the journey, and not the journey’s end, is its own good). I have been consistently present in front of abortion facilities for 30-plus years as a sidewalk counselor, and personally I don’t know any pro-lifers who believe that choice is the ultimate good. As a rule, they tend to believe that choices are oriented toward a higher good, the good of life, the ultimate good of God Himself. They also know that the current cultural orientation toward death does not come from laws, political agents, or economics. Rather, it comes from the individual will. I didn’t hear it 30 years ago, but I do now: I hear mothers and fathers laughing at my words, telling me plainly that they are going to kill their children. Our culture teaches them that if that’s what they want to do, it is a sacred action. Pro-lifers don’t believe that. They do believe, however, that a sane, fruitful cultural environment proceeds from the free, individual act of love.
Darnel knows that, in most cases, the mother or father who is impeded from access to the suction machine will simply wait until the path is clear or will make an appointment for another day. The matter will return, then, to the personal habits and orientations of the human heart. I don’t know the most effective means of reaching or changing those habits and orientations, but I do know that’s where the battle is.
Edmund B. Miller
Los Trabajadores de Guadalupe
Jonathan Darnel is right that the rescue movement “was finally snuffed out by FACE” (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act) in the 1990s. The weaponization of the judicial system had begun earlier, with RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) charges against pro-life activists, myself included. But very few people have been willing to face the prospect of draconian penalties under FACE — not nearly enough to make blockades effective. Still, I have nothing but admiration for people like Darnel who are willing to make the sacrifice, particularly in light of increasingly aggressive prosecution under the Biden administration. I trust that their sacrifices, and those of the many thousands who were arrested years ago, will eventually bear fruit. I don’t know how, but I firmly believe that in the spiritual economy, all such investments reap returns.
Philip F. Lawler, Editor
Catholic World News
Our group, Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, has conducted 36 Red Rose Rescues (RRRs) without incurring FACE charges. Some of those RRRs took place since Joe Biden got into office. I believe that if the October 2020 rescue at Cesare Santangelo’s clinic had been an RRR, Jonathan Darnel and the other brave pro-lifers would not be in jail now.
I spent ten days in court observing, taking notes, and composing summaries of their trial. I love these rescuers, but so much of what they said and did was imprudent. They said in text messages and livestream videos during the rescue that they intended to block the clinic with locks and chains. Hearing that, I knew they had no chance in court. Pray for these heroes!
If rescues are going to be done, there must not be any blocking of ingress and egress. That’s the wiser course.
Monica Migliorino Miller, Director
Citizens for a Pro-Life Society
South Lyon, Michigan
Ed. Note: This September, Jonathan Darnel, along with Joan Andrews Bell and Jean Marshall, was found guilty of violating FACE during the Oct. 2020 rescue at Santangelo’s Washington, D.C., abortion mill. These three pro-lifers, along with five others found guilty in August, face up to 11 years in prison and a maximum fine of $350,000. FACE prohibits “violent, threatening, damaging, and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain, or provide reproductive health services.”
I have a great deal of admiration for Jonathan Darnel’s righteous indignation at the abomination of abortion and his substantial dedication to its elimination. However, I believe the rescue he champions is both morally defective and strategically flawed.
The moral defect consists in engaging in — and promoting — physical force against pregnant women as means to the laudable end of saving unborn children. A moral end does not justify immoral means. Doing a bad act is simply bad, regardless of the act’s ultimate purpose or goal. Darnel’s invocation of defense of others is inapplicable because, unfortunately, under current law in many states, abortion is not an unlawful act that physical violence may lawfully be applied to prevent. Were violence against another person allowed whenever a “defender” — rather than societal law — deemed it appropriate, we would have a situation similar to Judges 17:6, in which every man does what is right in his own eyes (not, of course, a good thing).
But lurking within Darnel’s article is a deeper problem. He first characterizes the rescue process as “peacefully” blocking pregnant women’s access to abortion facilities. But interposing one’s body to prevent someone else’s chosen and lawful path — and presumably using some degree of bodily force should that person try to advance past — is neither peaceful nor conducive to peace. Likewise, his analogy to the practice of civil disobedience fails because true civil disobedience is always nonviolent (the exact opposite of applying physical force to another person).
Any doubt about peacefulness versus physical force in rescue is put to rest in Darnel’s most chilling and concerning central manifesto: “Pro-lifers are really pro-choice…. If they [pregnant women] still choose to carry out their malicious intent [abortion], we will not stop them from exercising that ‘choice.’ Only when we physically prevent people from killing their children are we truly without compromise. Only then are we genuinely ‘anti-choice.’”
If it is the Christian duty of one person to substitute his will for the will of another and physically force that other person to comply, I certainly missed it in every religious and philosophical text I’ve ever read. Obviously, as members of a society, we all acquiesce to certain collective ideals and principles, possibly ceding our individual wills regarding specific matters, consenting to some amount of societal governance and personal restraint because, overall, we think that’s for the best. But the existence of a social contract (and surrendering some personal freedoms) in no way justifies one person (or group), no matter how well intentioned, in physically suppressing another person (or group) absent legal or societal sanction.
In fact, rescue by physical coercion will surely galvanize the resistance of pro-aborts against any attempts to change their hearts and minds. For a pluralistic society to hold together, the common sense of the majority (as expressed in legislation or constitutions) must be accepted — regardless of whether it is liked or respected — even where there is significant factional disagreement, and even involving matters of life and death. Adopting the use of physical force against persons engaged in lawful (though immoral) acts and fostering disdain for the effectiveness of our democratic political process, both of which Darnel appears to do, are not likely to help the pro-life movement convince nonbelievers of the scientific, philosophical, and moral strength of the arguments against abortion.
Given the strategic goal of eliminating not just individual abortions but abortion at large, the solution must be broadly societal, via the democratic process. Coercive and potentially violent activities will not further that goal because their only impact on abortion at large will be to alienate the very people whose minds we would like to change.
Finally, if sincere belief in the righteousness of one’s cause justifies private and illegal physical force against other persons, get ready for the anti-Catholic version of that, coming to a parish school near you. It is not hard to envision a pro-LGBT group arriving some Monday morning to block children from entering their Catholic school on account of the group’s sincere belief that anti-LGBT indoctrination poses a serious threat to personal safety, human rights, and justice in American society. It would be ironic yet accurate for said group to cite Darnel’s version of abortion rescue as precedent for their blockade.
Charles R. Splawn
Greensboro, North Carolina
I have rescued and led rescues and violated FACE multiple times and suffered over 100 arrests. I wholly support those who rescue, and I pray that God gives them courage and comfort. They will need it.
Jonathan Darnel writes that “pro-lifers are really pro-choice. Not ideologically, but functionally. We might speak out against abortion, campaign against abortion, and offer pregnant mothers options to deter them from abortion, but if they still choose to carry out their malicious intent, we will not stop them from exercising that ‘choice.’ Only when we physically prevent people from killing their children are we truly without compromise. Only then are we genuinely ‘anti-choice.’”
This is something I wrestled with in 1988 after a rescue. How could I say it was imperative for me to rescue last week but not today? Am I pro-choice if I do not lay down my life daily to rescue children? By that measure, Jonathan is guilty as well.
I would not discourage anyone from rescue if he feels called by God to do so. It is a holy act and a laying down of one’s life for another, if done in obedience to God’s will. It is not, however, a sacrament; it is a tactic and a witness and should be employed as such without condemning others.
I know Jonathan. I know his heart and love for God’s little ones. And I urge those whom God is calling to rescue to do so with confidence in His protection, purpose, and delivery. Each of us must weigh our actions and inaction against our convictions and God’s leading. In the end, we all fall short. May God have mercy on us as we work to rescue those sentenced to death.
Twin Peaks, California
When we fully understand that we are in a literal war against abortion, our response should be, as soldiers of the cross, to say, “Lord, where, how, and what would you have me do?” We all are required by Proverbs 24:11 to engage in the battle, but the what, where, and how are different for everyone.
As I share in my memoir Only if God Says So!: Finding the Courage to Protect Life in a Pro-Choice World (2022), I started an effort to prevent abortion-on-demand beginning in the late 1960s. From there I became active in every facet of the battle, and in my 16 years in Atlanta as a full-time pro-life missionary, I learned just how vital every warrior is, whether male or female, young or old. One couple gave me a car, paid the insurance, and gave me a gas card so I could get to abortion clinics when I wasn’t in jail. Others worked nine-to-five jobs to support both me and the pregnant women to whom I ministered both in front of clinics and in jail. Others took me into their homes, sacrificing comfort and privacy to give me a safe place to live. Some undergirded me with notes of encouragement while others collected the maternity clothes, baby clothes, and baby equipment needed by the women to whom I ministered. Most never came to the clinics or went to jail themselves, but they made it possible for me to do so because they met my every need. I could not have done it without them. They were faithful to “stay with the stuff” (1 Sam. 30:24), and I believe they will share in the reward equally.
Rescue has the potential to effect great change, if not the actual cessation of abortion. But I believe it will fail again if those involved don’t count the cost before going to war (cf. Lk. 14:28-35). We suffer when trying to eliminate the suffering of others, and none of us can withstand what is involved in rescue and the possible fallout unless we are called to, and fully equipped for, the task. Too often I saw many well-meaning, enthusiastic rescuers quit, saying they later realized that the Lord hadn’t actually called them to rescue.
I was asked recently if I would rescue again if a “new” movement began. I felt an immediate panic run through me as I recalled the experiences of my 24 arrests. However, the experience of those arrests made me remember that God never failed me then and He won’t fail me now, if He calls me to it again.
My previous call to rescue was sure, as evidenced by the children saved and hundreds of inmates trusting Christ, as well as needs met in miraculous ways and the sparing of my life after repeated threats (including being shot at and receiving a death threat from the mafia). I have always said that unless we are willing to actually die in place of one of these preborn children, something will stop us.
Rescue changed my life in a remarkable way, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity and privilege to do so. To those considering it, I say, “Be wise and make sure you are called!” Only then will you be equipped to stay the course.
Karen Black Mercer
Terre Haute, Indiana
Rescue is necessary. It is not wrong or ineffective. Rather, it elevates what the rest of the pro-life community should be doing. It challenges us and helps us examine our hearts about this matter: “Are you laying down your life for your neighbor? Jesus rescued us. How do we rescue the unseen, those He loves very much?”
We do not get anywhere only by praying and voting. Progress is made by direct action centered on God’s love. Rescue challenges the status quo many of us have allowed to go on for decades. The action of rescue says, “This abortion clinic is not a legitimate business. We cannot continue to go on with our lives while the unborn, the most innocent of God’s creations, almost 3,000 of them every day, are being slaughtered.”
After Jonathan Darnel was sent to jail, I was able to speak with him on the phone. He wanted to remind us that “rescue continues here in prison. The penalty for rescue is just jail. It’s not hard labor and it’s not the death penalty. People need to get past the fact that our jail time is wrong. This is a normative part of serving God in a nation that hates Him.”
Joan Andrews Bell, a longtime rescuer, author of You Reject Them, You Reject Me: Prison Letters (1988), and another of the rescuers currently in jail, said, “Whenever a human being is being tortured or killed, we have to rescue them. You can debate issues all you want to. You can argue and debate and disagree. But the innocent are being murdered and sanctioned by law. It’s absolutely inexcusable, unthinkable, and that’s why we keep rescuing.”
“Why didn’t you call the police when my dad hit me?” I quietly asked my mother. This was not the first time I had asked her this, yet she still did not have an answer. She muttered something under her breath, and like usual, the subject was dropped.
The greatest pain from my childhood was not the abuse I suffered at the hands of my father but the lack of response from my mom. I was filled with shame for a long time, thinking my father’s anger and violence were somehow my fault. I had horrific stomach problems from the anxiety I felt just being near him. However, what always remained in my mind was why my mom didn’t do anything about it. She knew my father hit us kids, that he cussed us out, and, most importantly, she knew we were afraid to be near him. “Rescue is a proportionate response to the injustice of abortion,” exclaimed Will Goodman at a talk in my church. Suddenly, without warning, tears began to fall down my cheeks. I finally understood.
As I write, nine friends of mine have been prosecuted for FACE violations, eight of whom are facing up to 11 years in federal prison. One of my closest friends, Fr. Fidelis Moscinski, received the maximum sentence of six months and is currently serving time in Pollock federal prison in Louisiana. It has been a cross to see my friends crucified, not only by the corrupt justice system and the liberal media but by outlets and organizations that claim to be pro-life yet hide under the guise of “following the law” when it comes to rescue.
I struggled for a time with the concept of rescue, wondering if it was really the best way to end abortion. Yet, as time goes by, I find myself more convinced that it is the only correct response to this injustice. Abortion is murder, the grotesque killing of a child under the liberal mantra of “choice,” but you wouldn’t know that by looking at mainstream pro-life groups. Though I love the work of Students for Life and Sidewalk Advocates, their actions are political and offer a choice to someone seeking an abortion; they do nothing to prevent an abortion from happening. Their response is not proportional to what is actually happening behind abortion facilities’ doors.
My mother looked at me a little shaken. She had found clumps of bloody hair in my room. My father was extremely angry that day, and my childhood moodiness had ticked him off. My mother asked me, “Do you want me to call the police on your father?” And like any eight-year-old would, I said, “No.” I didn’t want my dad to go to jail, especially as he had been arrested when I was very young for domestic violence, and that prior charge could lead to a long incarceration. Years later, my mother would hold this against me. “It was your choice not to call the police!” she would say. “I asked you, and you said no!” It was difficult to understand that the “choice” I made was not correct, but someone should have stepped in to do the right thing.
The same thing happens with a rescue. We rescuers are not “pro-choice,” as Jonathan Darnel cleverly parallels in his article. We are against the choice of murder because it should never be a choice to begin with. The majority of pro-life groups complain, write letters, and propose legislation, but they still let the murder happen. They will plead and beg with an abortion-minded woman, but as soon as she steps through the doors of the clinic, they do nothing further to stop her. Like my mother’s concerned countenance as she dabbed ointment on my bruises, I couldn’t help think, “You knew this happened and did nothing to stop it.”
Jonathan, Joan Andrews Bell, and Jean Marshall were found guilty on September 15, 2023, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Bell gave her belongings to her husband, made the sign of the cross, and was escorted out of the courtroom to be taken to jail. Marshall took off her scapular and handed it to her lawyer. Jonathan waved to us as he was taken into custody. These rescuers could lose a decade of their lives for trying to save the unborn. They put their reputation, freedom, and sense of safety on the line to follow the command of God and “rescue those being taken away to death. Hold back those stumbling to slaughter” (Ps. 24:11). Seeing them go, I realized they had risked so much to save people they will never meet, with whom they have no connection, and yet my own mother averted her eyes from my abuse.
Rescue is needed because it opens the eyes of society to what abortion actually is: the murder of a child. No reasonable person would see a child being killed and say, “Maybe I can try to talk the murderer out of it,” or “What we need to do is educate people on why this is bad.” Instead, they would do everything in their power to stop the killer and save the child as soon as they recognized the injustice. My mother’s lack of action was due to the complex psychological response common in “battered women’s syndrome” that causes people to freeze when violence breaks out. She had an excuse for her inaction, but the rest of the pro-life movement does not.
That said, I love the work pro-life organizations do. We need pregnancy centers, education workshops, ultrasound vans, quality training for sidewalk counselors, and retreats to help women who are struggling with the grief of abortion. All these services are good and necessary, but these organizations must also advocate rescue. If they are serious when they say abortion is murder, they need to act like it.
Years later, my mom apologized to me for not doing anything when my father became violent. I forgave her and am still alive to tell the tale. Millions of unborn children are not so lucky, and the pro-life movement cannot apologize to them for its inaction. On the day of judgment, the Lord will ask, “I was unborn and about to be killed, and what did you do?” How will we respond?
New York, New York
A Hollow Simulacrum of Life
Jeffrey Wald’s guest column “Flesh Is Best” (Sept.) begins with the pandemic of video games, which is destroying the lives of young men, and moves on to consider the calamity of declining birth rates in the developed world. You don’t have to be Elon Musk to recognize the plausibility of Wald’s views. Educated American adults — and Wald emphasizes our “cultural elite” — are too selfish, picky, lazy, or overwhelmed by survival in a backbreaking world to reproduce. They aren’t having children, and Wald includes data to prove this.
Who is bothering to have kids? Teenagers.
It is, perhaps, no coincidence that every summer weekend, a potpourri of TikTok and Instagram videos is on offer. Would you like one of ATVs by the dozens driving down Main Street, or bacchanalian teen hordes swarming convenience stores or shopping districts? Let’s view an assault on an Asian woman, the harassment an “old head,” or the humiliation of a shop owner who is doing his best to raise a family by legitimate means. And when our heroic leaders lament the oppression these young drag racers and mob enthusiasts have faced in their lives, we long for the days when we never saw our nation’s teens because they were busy playing video games on basement couches across the land.
As for why the people who’d most likely be able to raise children well are hardly having any, Wald says, “Those of us in wealthier nations have lost the will to live,” and it can be challenging to see it any other way. Once we include the power brokers on “the other side” — the ones purportedly fighting for fathers in the home, parents’ rights, and more Western classics than TikToks in the classroom — who are busy doodling each other in public theaters, we see well the fine fiddle in which America appears stuck.
Which set of accused octogenarians and arraigned colleagues will be most likely to get us out of this mess and headed in a healthier direction? I can’t say, but I believe we need more Jeffrey Walds — parents raising active kids — and a lot less of the rest of it.
Jeffrey Wald writes compellingly in defense of the embodied, imperfect life that society increasingly shuns in favor of a disembodied, seemingly more perfect, hollow simulacrum of life. He’d rather his sons carouse the old-fashioned way, with the attendant risks, than spend their adolescence and young adulthood in virtual realms.
If you must sin, I wholeheartedly agree, sin oldly. Sin in a way your grandparents could have sinned. New sins, online and otherwise, seem to demand their wages both more harshly and more insidiously than those that have stood the test of time.
I am thankful for the presence of Wald and his wife in the lives of those young teenagers expecting children. Parenting is playing the long game, and those entrusted with caring for new lives — often through “love’s lonely and austere offices,” as poet Robert Hayden put it — need and deserve all the help they can get, regardless of age or wealth.
Can You Hear Me Now?
James G. Hanink (“On Not Hearing Back,” From the Narthex, Jul.-Aug.) wants to hear about having been heard (or not), so here goes.
For me, it’s been a mixed bag. I began by writing my once-upon-a-time U.S. congressman every few years over a span of time, informing him of my desire for income-tax reform. I always received a reply that seemed to be a form letter, informing me that he was in favor of tax reform but needed to study all the different proposals before he could make a decision. Before I could write back demanding particulars — how many proposals and what are they? how many pages in each proposal? how many hours does it take to read a page? — he was involved in a scandal near the end of his term and decided not to run for re-election.
Our parish once solicited input from the congregation. Many people showed up, were seated in groups at big round tables, and brainstormed. They went off to do research, came back the next week, sorted and assembled all the information, went away to finalize the results, and came back to submit the completed proposals. The next time everybody assembled, there were no decisions regarding any of the proposals. So they gathered more data to bolster their case and resubmitted the proposal. Then they resubmitted it again. After a few more weeks of unresponsiveness from the parish, people started drifting away until eventually nobody was left. Lack of responsiveness doesn’t seem to be constrained to correspondence.
I live in Dalworthington Gardens, Texas, which abuts Pantego. Arlington had annexed territory, completely surrounding the two of them. When I heard of Arlington’s plan to do something that would have disrupted the local Carmelite convent, I wrote a letter, which I sent to every Arlington city councilman. I told them that though I was unable to cast a vote against them, should their plan come to fruition, I would happily drive to faraway Fort Worth to do my shopping, thereby depriving Arlington of sales-tax revenue and, in the process, filling their nostrils with my extra tailpipe emissions, in the process depleting the petroleum reserves on which their grandchildren would one day depend. A few months later, I received a personal reply from a very nice lady who apologized that she had not been able to respond sooner due to some kind of incapacitation. Nothing from the rest of them, but the convent remained undisturbed.
I called my representative in the state legislature with a suggestion for handling the immigration crisis at the border. No one answered the phone, so I left a voicemail. Early the next week, I got a cogent reply explaining why my idea couldn’t be implemented, which I found satisfactory. Sometime later, however, a modified version of my suggestion managed to get implemented anyway.
JAMES G. HANINK REPLIES:
Jim Rice, I hear you! And I praise your persistence. Along with you and maybe your ex-congressman, I also have a tax plan. Tax the rich! Some disagree with my nuanced approach. But I bet we at least agree that if a congressional reply seems like a form letter, it is one.
You are brave as well as persistent. Blimey, mate, you go to meetings! For my part, I await a meta-meeting. A meeting on meetings, one at both the highest and lowest levels. Maybe even a meeting that will insist on my, well, peripheral attendance. Let me know, should one occur, what it decides.
It’s clear, moreover, that you are willing to put your money where your epistolary mouth is. Long live faithful Carmelites! Phooey on the feckless Arlington city council! “Incapacitation” is the last refuge of elected leaders.
Here’s an idea on handling the immigration crisis at the border. How about putting the people on the north side of the border on the south side, and putting those on the south side on the north side? Perhaps you will have a cogent reply to this proposal. No, it wouldn’t be easy to implement. But a modified version of it seems unstoppable. Folks on the south side are moving to the north side. Mostly because they are persistent, brave, and willing to put their feet where there is a longer life expectancy.
Defending the Best of the West
Cicero Bruce’s article “An Elegy for Bloom” (Jul.-Aug.) should be on the syllabi of every college literature class in the country, a reminder to students that a better way of understanding poetry, drama, and fiction is available to them. But then we cannot expect those “purblind doomsters of the humanities” to give Bruce a fair hearing, for what would their culturally sophisticated (and oh-so culturally sensitive) colleagues think? Worse, how might some of those impressionable students — still hopelessly drawn to beauty, wisdom, the meaning of life, and other antiquated notions — react to such an article? Would they pick up a copy of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon and, Heaven forfend, read it with sympathy? Best to din some Foucault into their naïve little heads before it’s too late.
Bloom insisted that a work’s aesthetic power, including the truth and wisdom that can be accessed only through a reader’s intimate encounter with it, is the chief concern of literary criticism and study. As he put it in the introduction to Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (2004), “I have only three criteria for what I go on reading and teaching: aesthetic splendor, intellectual power, wisdom…. The mind always returns to its needs for beauty, truth, and insight. Mortality hovers, and all of us learn the triumph of time.” That last sentence goes to the heart of Bloom’s devotion to the old masters: We read against the clock; therefore, what we choose — or choose not — to read in this life has eternal ramifications.
Bloom was a man of staggering erudition, unapologetically professing the very thing his fellow professors had ceased to profess: literature itself. Whatever our differences with him, whatever our opinion of this or that critical judgment, this or that eccentricity of taste, this or that dismissive remark about religion, we can agree that Bloom spoke forthrightly against the decline of the humanities at a perilous moment in Western cultural life. He knew that students arrive on college campuses already steeped in the worst; he was determined to show them the best. Those of us who teach literature to the young would do well to honor and emulate Bloom’s defense of the masterworks.
I share Prof. Bruce’s hope that “others in higher education will fight to preserve the integrity of canonical literature with unabashed reverence.” The highest literature is not mere political discourse, though many see it as just that and nothing more; it is not a vehicle for radical social change, though many wish that it were; it is not grist for the sociological mill, though many treat it as such. Whenever I listen to those who would subordinate literature to ideological fads, my mind turns with pleasure to the wise and moving words of Ihab Hassan: “Something in the masterpieces remains finally unintelligible to us, as love or death, as life itself, remains. How absurd to read certain works, from Gilgamesh to The Castle, grid in hand, ideology at the ready. How pathetic to believe that reality must serve obediently our logic and insecurities. As in all great art, the rogue power of literature is its deeper wisdom, its multivocal mystery” (“Let the Fresh Air In: Graduate Studies in the Humanities,” from Beauty and the Critic: Aesthetics in an Age of Cultural Studies, edited by James Soderholm, 1997).
Professor of English, Sandhills Classical Christian School
Pinehurst, North Carolina
What Harold Bloom’s masterwork does for the literary canon, Cicero Bruce’s article does for Bloom: It encapsulates the essential elements of something while reminding us of what we already know to be true of it.
Far from simple recapitulation, Bruce pierces the essence of Bloom’s uncompromising assertions regarding literature, namely, that it does not and cannot affect morality, either for better or worse. Bruce puts Bloom into conversation with poets and thinkers across time and contrasts Bloom’s conception of literary study with that of the “School of Resentment” whom Bruce, echoing Thomas Hardy, refers to as the “purblind doomsters” of contemporary literary study.
The high point of my appreciation for Bruce’s article rests in its penultimate paragraph, in which he emphasizes a crucial side of Bloom often overshadowed by his controversy: a love of reading. Though Bloom’s long career was marked by innumerable works of criticism and opinion, in his final book, Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles, published before his death in 2019, Bloom chose to discourse on reading itself. He writes in the book’s prelude, “Returning to Dante or Milton will not prolong my existence by a single minute, whereas endless exercise almost certainly will. But if life is to be more than breathing, it needs enhancement by knowledge or by the kind of love that is a form of knowledge.”
Like Bloom, Bruce rejects the notion that “literature is a mere opportunity to condition the minds of the masses” and instead upholds it as “a means to condition the souls of individuals through the acquisition of wisdom.” However, as both Bloom and Bruce would contend, what you read makes all the difference. As Bloom pronounced and Bruce elucidates, “The canon is not where one’s reading ends; it is where one’s reading begins and is the touchstone for judging literature generally.”
Bloom closed his final book with the following exhortation: “Rise up at dawn and read something that matters as soon as you can.” Having done this, Bruce closes his percipient discussion of Bloom with an exhortation to teach that which you have read: “It is the present writer’s hope that others ensconced in higher education will fight to preserve the integrity of canonical literature with unabashed reverence.”
I will be starting my Ph.D. in English literature one week after composing this letter. Graduate study of literature seems to be one never-ending torrent of reading material, much of it drivel. It is difficult to ascertain where to begin. After reading Bruce’s article, I think I’ll start with Bloom.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Cicero Bruce offers a cogent and timely analysis of not only the importance of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994) but also the sad state of what passes for higher education in the West. Given that much of contemporary higher education is now poisoned by activists intent on a social and intellectual revolution, and that these activists disparage both Western civilization and traditional education, it is no wonder that great works, great thinkers, and even the fundamental ideas of the West are held in such low regard.
Like Bloom, academics who see in the Western tradition the cornerstone of modern democracy, prosperity, and progress should be defending that which has been proven to be of merit. Bruce’s elegy is both a defense of Bloom and a call to action. I hope his voice will be heard.
John D. Fowler
Professor of History, Dalton State College
Cicero Bruce’s meditation on the integrity of the Western canon is consistently astute and remarkable. The universities have ceased to think; they are the land of the living dead, a pandemonium of parrots who repeat the same mindless things over and again. Higher learning is now higher only because of the hollowness needed for the cacophony of spiritually larcenous pressure. This creates the echo chamber of modern education, ruled by pragmatic utility. The openness of the youthful mind has been stolen, sequestered, parroted into submission.
The squawks and shrieks of the cultural and identity harpies go on and on. Who are these birds of prey, exactly? They are, as Bruce puts it, “an irresponsible professoriate for whom literature is a mere opportunity to condition the minds of the masses rather than a means to condition the souls of individuals through the acquisition of wisdom and the development of philosophical habits of discernment.”
The canon has been thrown as pearls before swine. We are in something deeper than the closing of the American and European minds; this is the closing of the unrepeatable singular, of the intimate mind before the Transcendent Other, which buoys the individual’s very face and gaze toward beauty and into timeless aesthetic witness that conditions souls through wisdom. What results from this gaze may be community, order, art, culture, ethics, and religious appetite, but the canon is not taught so students conform to these things; it is “a supervening high culture that results not from the inculcation of morality or ethics but from the mental cultivation of thinking men.”
The Western canon, for Eliot, Auden, Bloom, and Bruce, is sacred because it never reduces itself to a handbook of sociological demands, nor does it degrade itself into rote signage replacing rigorous thought. It is never a roadmap of identity politics, nor is it a ledger of wrong-think and right-think. The aesthetic witness is never a mere social aim to be sublated within those all-too-engulfing Hegelian-Marxist waters with yet another social aim.
Here is the gift and crucial insight (among many) of Bruce’s exceptional article: For all the aggrandizing social ultimatums that the individual is absolutizing, absent the Western canon there is no cultivation of the individual, there is no person truly realized as an absolute unrepeatable singular!
The person cannot be a unity of consciousness, self-surpassing, and capable of surrender anymore. Instead, the subject is the reconfiguring of events, effects, and stimuli over the decomposition of meaning and language, which is the terrible result of education held hostage to eroding time and place, to cultural demands and not the timeless revelatory bearing of aesthetic witness.
Caitlin Smith Gilson
Professor of Philosophy, University of Holy Cross
New Orleans, Louisiana
Cicero Bruce illuminates a problem felt painfully within the world of literary study, one that is not contained within the ivory tower but reverberates out to the daily world and is symptomatic of severe ideological flaws in our culture: literature is being torn asunder by people who would press it into service for political agendas. When literary study does not prove a good slave for propagating the myriad fervid causes and political movements with which the current social actors are obsessed, these same social grand marshals seek to snuff out the entire living body of works that have historically composed the Western canon.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said that if you tear out a page of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the page will bleed. Sheen understood the animate properties of timeless literature. There is something about the human creative genius that mimics the intellect of the Creator who brought all the world into being by the Word. In a humbler but still genuinely creative way, the truly inspired author speaks something into existence. His literary work then stands on its own, not as a point of isolated Cartesian blockish existence but as a living thing that incarnates again and again in the minds of readers.
The current misaligned expectation for literature is not beauty or aesthetic quality but that it be efficient propaganda. Both sociopolitical sides, conservative and liberal, want literature to serve them this way. It is appalling to see true literary works hacked to bits so the pieces can be cobbled together to support trending sexual and social ideologies. It’s like watching the grisly assembling of Frankenstein’s monster from etherized living bodies.
The irreverent use of literary works is indicative of a deeply disturbing habit in our culture: the equation of uselessness with worthlessness. We could blame industrialization, Descartes, or even Original Sin for this inability to see value extrinsic to one’s own goals and desires, to assess a thing’s worth outside the one burning question of our age, “What does this do for me?” Whether it is a priceless work of art, a pearl of great price, or a person in vitro, the consuming ego is now the arbiter of worth.
The inspired author is a creator who births something into this world that has a value and a right to exist in itself. Those trends desiccating and burying the Western canon are unable to see the carnage they are causing because they are incapable of conceiving of the sacred. Harold Bloom was right to hold on to a monastic hope. The history of human learning is a series of waxing and waning cycles. There is a tragedy in the present time, but it is a recurring tragedy in the human story. And, after all, tragedy can have its own transcendent beauty.
©2023 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
To submit a Letter to the Editor, click here: https://www.newoxfordreview.org/contact-us/letters-to-the-editor/
You May Also Enjoy
Angela Watrous's theology: God loves people "regardless of whom they slept with."
Here we review Cyborg Mind: What Brain-Computer and Mind-Cyberspace Interfaces Mean for Cyberneuroethics.
In our December 1984 editorial, we needed to appeal to you, our subscribers, for donations…