Letters to the Editor: October 1983
Dorothy Day or Doris Day?
You have run several pieces on the Catholic Worker Movement recently, and I would like to contribute my own perspective on it.
The Catholic Worker has been active locally for well over a year now. Begun somewhat shakily in the back of a van, and originally serving only cheese sandwiches, this exemplary eleemosynary operation now serves hot lunches seven days a week, provides breakfasts for children two days a week, distributes clothing two days a week, and last Christmas conducted the most successful toy giveaway in Sonoma County history. Not bad for a voluntary, non-state-supported enterprise.
The doyenne of the Catholic Worker is, of course, Dorothy Day who, though no great fan of free enterprise, was even less sympathetic to Marxism. She argued, sensibly enough, that the only true revolution was necessarily personal, ending in a renewed capacity to love one’s fellow man. In support of her very personalistic view of things, she quoted not Marx and Lenin but Dostoyevsky, John of the Cross, and Catherine of Siena.
Most of the local Catholic Worker volunteers know very little about Dorothy Day. At a recent meeting, one of them referred to her as Doris Day, and another said, “She was a radical, wasn’t she?” A third replied, “Yes, and in a time when it meant something to be a radical.” These three remarks highlight two important facts about the Catholic Worker volunteers here. They are more interested in charitable practices than ideological inanities, and they apparently are able to recognize the latter.
I worked intermittently as a Catholic Worker volunteer for about six months before finally going to one of its meetings. Indeed, I went with salacious curiosity, confidently expecting that very few people would attend. Those I expected to attend, I was sure, would be mostly the ideologues and the professional proletariat who constitute a very small minority of the volunteers. Sallying forth with a warm sense of malice, I went to bear witness to their clichés.
Although I detest surprises, I was on this occasion fated to be surprised. That, as it turned out, was to be my only unpleasant experience of the evening.
The co-founders’ house in an old and somewhat decrepit section of Santa Rosa, California, was scented with the aroma of pizza, warmed by the rustle and buzz of a great many people and punctuated by the pop of opening bottles of beer. A quick olfactory inspection revealed the absence of more exotic intoxicants. A casual survey, one designed to satisfy the most rigorous canons of social science, turned up six ideologues and approximately 39 avis Americanus middle classus.
I recognized almost no one, and I generally did not know the names of even those with whom I had worked on the serving line or in the kitchen. There is something about noodles dried on the bottom of a 15-gallon pot or a small, bird-like, always smiling woman with four children waiting to be served that keeps conversation focused on essential things. “Where’s the Brillo?” “We need more carrots on the line!” Names under such conditions go the way of most superfluities, making room for the fundamentals like civility and generosity. Someone always finds the Brillo, and the carrots always come.
After being served a piece of pizza and directed to the icebox for a beer, I returned to the living room. There, a man who occasionally had played blue grass during the Saturday evening meals wondered aloud why Christians did not take poor people into their homes. An older woman, somewhat incredulously, replied that people with families simply could not do that. Even the man who broached the matter agreed that was certainly true and did not pursue the issue. The family, I thought: a radical, restraining idea whose time has come again.
A woman sitting across from me next to her retirement-age husband took a sip of white wine and expressed the hope that it wasn’t Gallo. When no one responded to this bête noire of radical chic, she explained to all of us that Gallo was driving the growers out of business by fixing prices. Still no response. All the right flags were out, but no one saluted, or cheered, or said, “Amen.” As a gentleman and minor authority on Gallo wines, I cheerfully considered resolving her anxiety with a definitive taste. Instead, I went back to the kitchen to read the label on the wine jug, but I was offered another piece of pizza and forgot to do so. The beer, I am ashamed to say, was not Coors.
When I got back to the living room, the conversation meandered around a TV talk show some of the volunteers had seen. Apparently, an irate member of the cognoscenti had phoned in to denounce a black guest as a traitor for “wearing a designer suit.” Even the Gallo lady was embarrassed by this story. Just think of it! Everybody understands that black men are free not to do bad imitations of Rap Brown. Why it was almost enough to make a curmudgeon happy.
When we all gathered in the den, an old man read a poem and everyone settled on the couches, chairs, and floor. In general, this mostly older, mostly Catholic, mostly female, and dominantly middle-class group handled their own first name introductions with great modesty. “I’m Doris,” one of them said, “and I work in the distribution of women’s clothes.” In fact, she both collects and distributes clothing, and she manages those operations with a dedication that would make Mr. J.C. Penney deliriously happy.
When the camaraderie, warmth, and modesty of these introductions was occasionally broken by ideological overflow, people mostly looked politely embarrassed in the way they would if there had been a sudden intrusion of the rude noise that makes little boys laugh and grown men blush.
Thus the Gallo lady got no response at all when she urged us to picket a local electronics firm that does defense work. Not even when she solemnly declaimed, “The arms race is right here in Sonoma County,” did anyone follow her clarion.
Nor did the young man who said his job was “organizing round-table discussions” get one half the welcome given to even the most modest kitchen scullion. These people were good Americans, and they understood that it is work, not talk, that feeds the hungry.
The most embarrassing moment of the evening came when a very soulful individual proudly announced that he had been arrested for “praying at Livermore,” and got no response whatever. Somewhat nervously his girlfriend (or wife) whispered, “Maybe you should tell them what the Livermore Laboratory is.” “They do weapons research there,” he said. Still nothing.
Then this same young man, who had done yeoman service in organizing the Christmas toy distribution, began to tell us how he was trying to “figure out” what the Catholic Worker philosophy meant. One of the local co-founders interrupted to say of him that he had also written a book on the arms race to be used in local high schools. Again the expected waves of applause did not come.
These are wise people, I thought. They know the young man was not arrested for “praying at Livermore.” He was arrested for blocking a road at Livermore. Safely out of the way, presumably he could have prayed there until the Russians dropped a bomb on him — Livermore being a likely target. Perhaps they also know, I thought, that there is nothing to “figure out” about the Catholic Worker philosophy. It is really quite clear, that philosophy, and it is called Christianity.
Prof. Harold Alderman
Dept. of Philosophy, Sonoma State University
Rohnert Park, California
“Creationism” & the Church Fathers
Regarding S.L. Varnado’s September article, “Confessions of a Lapsed Evolutionist,” I would like to say the following:
The late C.P. Snow was concerned in his books to build bridges between men educated in science and men educated in the humanities — the two cultures. I am more concerned with building bridges between scientists and Christians, two complementary aspects of the wholeness of truth. Enmity between the two, it seems to me, springs not only from too narrow a view by each of the other but from too narrow a view by each of itself as the only way to truth.
A good many scientists ignorantly suppose that most Christians hold to that literal view of Genesis that is regrettably called “creationism” — regrettably in that the name suggests that there is no other way to believe in divine creation. Even scientists who are aware that some, more educated, Christians do accept the probable truth of evolutionary theory suppose that it is merely the irrefutable truths of modern science that have forced Christians to compromise the faith of their fathers. Indeed, some Christians may themselves believe that. I have read remarks by scientists implying that a faith that has been thus compromised is on the way out, and that the final destruction of the Genesis account will leave that faith in ruins. Christians may smile, albeit a little uneasily, yet it must be conceded that 19th-century debates in the time of the elder Huxley over Darwinism might appear to support the idea that orthodox Christianity must collapse without the prop of the seven 24-hour days of creation a mere few thousand years ago; and even more to support the idea that only the inexorable demonstrations of modern science caused Christians to modify (we don’t care for that word “compromise”) their faith.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The outline of history just given, pleasing to the enemies of Christianity, discomforting to many Christians, is not the truth. The truth, in fact, is that long centuries before modern science was so much as a gleam in Copernicus’s eye — in the early Church of the Fathers — there were significant views of the Genesis account of creation that hundreds of years later science was to support in perfect harmony. But — I emphasize — the Christian interpretation came first, not that of science.
The following quotation is from The Marriage of East and West (Templegate, 1982, pp. 112-113) by Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B. Speaking of the early Church, he describes the literal interpretation of Genesis of the school of Antioch and the symbolic interpretation of the school of Alexandria. He continues: “But there was another school, represented by St. Gregory of Nyssa in the East and St. Augustine in the West, which held with the school of Alexandria that the world was created at a moment of time by a single act of the divine power, but that it was produced not in the form in which we know it but in its ‘potentiality.’ According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, God created not the forms of things as they now exist but certain ‘powers’ or ‘energies’ which were destined to develop in the course of time into the present forms of nature. The seven days of creation were interpreted simply as the stages in the evolution of these primordial energies according to what he called a ‘necessary order.’ In the same way St. Augustine spoke of the world being created in its ‘causes’ or ‘seminal principles’ (rationes seminales), that is to say that certain principles were implanted in nature from the beginning like seeds, which were destined to develop their specific forms according to the laws or tendencies inherent in them.”
These very great Christian thinkers lived in the late 300s when the legions of Rome still upheld the ancient order, more than a thousand years before Darwin and his followers. It is evident that enlightenment is not the exclusive province of the Enlightenment or of the brilliant scientists of today. Not only should Christians be aware of it, but it is for them to make the scientists aware of it, too.
Why Pick on the Swiss?
For a magazine who’s editor acknowledges “an increasingly Roman Catholic readership,” the September NOR is laden with good articles that appeal to evangelical Protestants like myself. I especially appreciated S.L. Varnado’s “Confessions of a Lapsed Evolutionist.” NOR readers who wish to pursue the topic of evolution vs. creation further, can, at the cost of a 13 cent post card, get on the mailing list of the Institute for Creation Research. All they (and I) ask is that thoughtful people look at more than one side of such topics as how old our planet actually is, and whether or not the flood described in Genesis 6-8 actually took place.
I am considerably less enthused with Arthur J. Sleight’s letter, “Usury & Morality.” The NOR has a tendency to accept the thesis of Max Weber, linking capitalism and (especially Calvinist-Reformed) Protestantism, as a given. I think there is much to the Weber Thesis, and even more to Dale Vree’s recent articles, which seem to expand on it. But when I was in college, it was at least a debatable issue.
In light of Vree’s series on what is spiritually wrong with the USA, Canada, and Western Europe, why does Sleight single out Switzerland as a “harlot nation”? It is my understanding of “Church history” that many of the Swiss cantons remained staunchly Roman Catholic in response to Calvin in Geneva — albeit Swiss Roman Catholic. (I lack statistics on how many banks are located in Catholic cantons and how many in Protestant cantons.) I also feel that much of the neo-orthodoxy besetting the various Churches in the USA — first Protestant, and now, apparently, Roman Catholic — came from Western Europe. But why pick on the Swiss?
Finally, let’s face it, capitalism is efficient — much more so than socialism, communism, government bureaucracy, or whatever. But Christians, of whatever denominational label, who are engaged in capitalism, should, when they cite, say, Ephesians 6: 5-8, also remember to include verse 9. (My New King James includes 9 in the same paragraph as 5-8. So do New International and the Jerusalem Bibles.)
Yosemite National Park
Ends in Themselves?
In Dale Vree’s article “On Christian Self-Indulgence” (July-Aug.), one notices a tendency to assimilate religious faith to the ideal of duty, sacrifice, and discipline as ends in themselves. Thus he writes that, “The only manageable and durable solution to decadence is, as I learned in East Germany, religious faith — which mandates the heroic life of self-discipline and sacrifice as ends in themselves.” But duty, self-discipline, sacrifice, and faith are not ends in themselves; they are subordinate to the order of goods, whose author is the sovereign Good who is God.
John F. Maguire
DALE VREE REPLIES:
Your point is well taken. Indeed, the sentence you quote troubled me — for the same reason it troubles you.
When I was going over the article manuscript for the last time, I thought of rewording that sentence in order to avoid the misunderstanding you focus upon. But, because of a scarcity of time, I decided to “let it slide,” assuming that, because of the context, no one would take those words quite so literally. But my judgment was faulty. I gratefully accept your correction.
Tears of Sadness
The Rev. Stephen W. Roman (letter, Jul.-Aug.) fails to understand that God only punishes us for actions knowingly taken against His teachings. A tremendous amount of damage has indeed been caused by the unintentional mistakes of the now-honored Henri Cardinal DeLubac, S.J. The latter’s naïve defense of notorious fellow Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin was fully exploited by modernists attempting to give Teilhard’s theology some respectability. But we must remember that DeLubac was a close friend of Teilhard and only wished to believe the best. The same could be said for Thomas More’s blindness toward Erasmus’s peculiar theological views.
It is when we observe DeLubac’s loyalty to the magisterium that we realize why he was awarded the red hat. Roman’s comparison of DeLubac to Hans Küng is outrageously misinformed. The former has always immediately given complete assent of mind and will to correction of his theories whenever the teaching authority of the Church has so demanded. The indirect condemnation of his ideas regarding the Supernatural by Pius XII is an excellent example of this. It has been recorded that tears of sadness graced DeLubac’s eyes when told of the blatant disobedience of other Jesuits toward the Holy Father. One most certainly cannot claim the same virtue for Fr. Küng!
Fort Worth, Texas
Desire to Become a Catholic
I have greatly enjoyed the New Oxford Review. I am enclosing a small donation for its continuance. As one who was raised in a Southern Baptist home, I have been interested in your ideas about an ecumenism centered around Christian orthodoxy. For a very long time (preceding my subscription) I have been attracted to the Catholic faith. I still attend, along with my family, an evangelical American Baptist church. There is no question about it: in this church there is no hesitancy about preaching of Christ’s deity, His virgin birth, His death and Resurrection, and His Coming Again. And yet it is evident that what is so glaringly absent is a doctrine of the Church, and for that matter, a fully developed view of the Incarnation.
Frankly, I have met few evangelicals who would be attracted to the notion of some sort of Catholic-evangelical rapprochement. I am speaking now of the “man in the pew,” as opposed to academic types. There seems to be an ingrained feeling of hostility to the notion of creeds, Councils, or Tradition. There is a feeling of suspicion specifically reserved for the Roman Catholic Church. To this day, Baptist-type evangelicals usually think of the average Catholic as one who is “lost,” who has never heard the Gospel. For myself, I find I am most attracted to the Catholic Faith precisely to the extent that it still upholds the creeds and pronounces, through the magisterium, the teaching and dogmas that God wishes to convey to His people.
It is difficult to describe, in these few words, just how a Protestant evangelical goes through a process in which Protestantism, as a belief system, is rejected, and how, inwardly at least, it is replaced by a desire to become a Catholic.
La Verne, California
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