Letters to the Editor: September 2019
Make America Decent Again
Terry Scambray’s brief review of two books on Donald Trump (Fear by Bob Woodward and Unhinged by Omarosa Newman, June) was hardly a serious critique. Scambray accuses Newman of engaging in a “craven betrayal of her mentor.” Does he mean that one cannot become disillusioned with a mentor? Or that one shouldn’t be allowed to criticize a politician, especially a president?
Scambray accuses Woodward of coming to “the preordained conclusion that Trump is a blackguard, a nincompoop, and a bully.” It’s easy to find evidence that Trump exemplifies all these qualities. My wife and I have raised our children in the spirit of what we consider to be essential Christian values: empathy, decency, tolerance, self-sacrifice, and good will. Trump displays none of these qualities. He has shown time and time again that he has no interest in following Christ’s example of loving one’s neighbor.
Regarding the Mueller Report, Scambray says Mueller didn’t find anything germane to his investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Among other things, Mueller was charged with investigating the issue of obstruction of justice. Since turning in the report, he has stated both in writing and in public that he and his team were unable to exonerate Trump. I have read the Mueller Report. It is a shocking indictment of shameful behavior by the President. Everyone should read it.
We are at a tragic point in our history. For my children’s and grandchildren’s sakes, I hope we will discern a way to make America decent again.
A. James McAdams
South Bend, Indiana
TERRY SCAMBRAY REPLIES:
Like most writers, I like hearing from readers. But Mr. McAdams’s letter is itself not a serious critique of my review because it’s vague. I would have hoped for more.
The only conceivable specific he offers is to question my portrayal of Ms. Newman as “disloyal,” arguing that a person may simply become disillusioned with a mentor. Certainly, Newman can change her mind; I just didn’t see any real reason for her change other than what I mentioned.
Likewise, McAdams goes on to claim that “it’s easy to find evidence” that Trump is a poor role model, after which he lists the Christian “values” Trump purportedly lacks. But again, McAdams notes no specific infractions by Trump.
McAdams writes that the Mueller Report contains evidence of “shameful behavior by the President,” including obstruction of justice. What crime President Trump was intending to conceal by his obstruction of justice is, once again, unstated.
All of which leaves me wondering whether McAdams’s intention was solely to do a hit-and-run on the President or to call for a higher standard of behavior for public figures.
I prefer to think the latter, considering his earnest tone. Closing with of what I hope is our mutual desire for a better America, I suggest a focus on the specific problems bedeviling our country, the main one of which is the destruction of Christian virtues by the prevailing neo-Marxism, which is the real enemy of the values McAdams says that he embraces and that he hopes will be enjoyed by his progeny.
Frustrated by a Static Concept of Culture
I was very impressed, even moved, by Jason M. Morgan’s sensitive review of John C.H. Wu’s Chinese Humanism and Christian Spirituality (June). Morgan gets right to the point when he boils down Wu’s argument to the question: “Do Christians view Chinese culture as a Donar’s Oak or as a Christmas tree?” This is the question that has dogged many of us who work at the interstices of Christianity and non-Western cultures. We are often frustrated by a deeper intransigence that is not as open as Morgan is to the ways in which grace completes nature. I’m referring to those among the “orthodox” Catholics who see their faith as largely synonymous with Western (European, or even American!) culture and consequently have great difficulty seeing Chinese, Japanese, or other “non-Western” cultures as equally capable of becoming carriers of God’s grace on earth.
What is really at stake was best identified by Pope Benedict XVI, who, in Truth and Tolerance (2003), described a false anthropology based on a belief in a static notion of culture that doesn’t exist in reality. This static notion of culture often underwrites a desperate clinging to Western or European cultures and a concomitant hostility to non-Western cultures as, well, beyond redemption. Conversely, it can also provide the assumptions behind efforts to find Christianity in a reified concept of Chinese culture as a changeless repository of Confucian virtue.
Both cultural anthropologies suffer from an ahistorical understanding of the relationship of grace and nature, or perhaps better, from a failure to understand the analogical nature of the relationship of grace and nature. Benedict reminds us that all cultures are historical and that “the historical character of culture signifies its capacity for progress, and that implies its capacity to be open, to accept its being transformed by an encounter.”
Let me offer an anecdote that illustrates this capacity of cultures for progress toward a fuller understanding of the Truth. Much of Morgan’s review of Wu’s book rests on a critical engagement with Wu’s claim that the indigenous Chinese term T’ien (“Heaven”) can signify God. One does not have to share Matteo Ricci’s enculturation approach (which relies on the static concept of culture) to see that the introduction of Christianity in various cultures has always raised the problem of nomenclature. Here, I find it a bit ironic that the Catholic Church in Japan used the concept of Tenshu (“Lord of Heaven”) for God until 1960, for fear that the indigenous term kami opened up greater theological problems than Ten (T’ien) did. In fact, older Catholic churches in Japan still have the characters for Tenshu on their façades, signifying they are Catholic churches (the Protestants abandoned the term Ten in favor of kami in 1879). And now, the Catholic Church in Japan also uses kami for God, which creates problems of its own. The progress must continue!
All this talk of language may seem like postmodernism. Here, I must say that Morgan’s critique of Wu’s mysticism in trying to locate God in the unknowable (the postmodern?) is right on target. Nominalism, or its contemporary cousin, postmodernism, will not resolve the problem. The better argument comes from the natural law and the claim that virtue is a possibility for every man. If Wu’s book offers us a timely lesson, it is surely that no human being, no child of God, is by nature or culture incapable of a relationship with God — whatever terms are used for Him.
Kevin M. Doak
Dept. of East Asian Languages & Cultures, Georgetown University
A Profound Divide
Derya Little, in “The Qur’an as Allah’s Logos” (June), does a superb job of reminding us of an important truth. Notwithstanding the well-meaning but wrongheaded attempts by interfaith-dialogue practitioners such as Hans Küng to minimize differences between Christianity and Islam, the theological divide between the two faiths remains substantive and profound. As Dr. Little perceptively notes, Islam assigns to the Qur’an, rather than to Christ, the status of eternal Word of God.
In my latest book, The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch: A Christian’s Companion for the Study of Islam (Ignatius, 2018), I’ve also noted the following with regard to the radically divergent ways Jesus is understood in Christianity and Islam:
Islam claims Jesus as a Muslim prophet of Allah. The Qur’an emphasizes the notion of Allah’s prophets as triumphant successes who are vindicated here on earth: “In truth, We deliver Our messengers and those who believe, both during life in this world and on Judgment Day” (40.51).
As a consequence of this fixation on worldly triumph in the eyes of the world, the Qur’an denies the reality of Christ’s Crucifixion (4.157-158). Instead, the Qur’an prescribes the use of crucifixion as punishment for “those who wage war against Allah and His messenger” (5.33). (This explains the use of crucifixion as a form of punishment in recent years by both Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State.) Crucifixion is viewed as exemplary public humiliation, the opposite of vindication and success in the eyes of the world.
Unsurprisingly, then, the Qur’an never describes Jesus as experiencing suffering.
All this, of course, contrasts radically with Christian belief. The New Testament tells us of a God who so loves this world that He sends into its anguished chaos His Son, His eternal Logos, who suffers in loving solidarity with our human condition, to the point of self-emptying death on a cross.
Public humiliation in the eyes of the world? Yes, I tell my incredulous Muslim colleagues — and that gives us at least some idea of how vastly the Son of God loves us.
Dept. of Religious Studies, Santa Clara University
Santa Clara, California
Derya Little gives an excellent theological explanation for why Islam is a Christian heresy, and she points to its differences with Catholic teaching. But hers is a highly intellectual argument that the average Muslim layman is not likely to understand or accept. For them, we must stick to the basics:
- Islam lacks a valid foundation. Muhammad claimed to have received a divine revelation. But when God gives a revelation, He also provides the means to make sure people recognize and understand it. The means He provides are witnesses to the transmission of the revelation, and miracles to indicate His approval of what is claimed to be revealed. Islam has neither of these. Muhammad makes no mention of any witnesses, and the events he claims are miraculous — the beauty of the language in which the Qur’an is written and military victories against huge odds — are not true miracles.
- Muhammad was an immoral person, in both his personal life and his commercial ventures. He had relations with a nine-year-old girl and sanctioned marriages for girls of that age. His laws regarding business conduct brought profit to himself.
- Muhammad’s teaching denigrates women.
- To impose physical or financial penalties, up to and including death, for refusing to accept or be faithful to a religion is the height of injustice.
Little, according to her book From Islam to Christ: One Woman’s Path through the Riddles of God (Ignatius, 2017), began to rebel against Islam when she concluded that the violence she deplored in our modern world was simply a reflection of the violence used by Muhammad to bring about the spread of Islam. She overcame the pervasive, deep-seated fear that Islam engenders to retain its adherents, turned to alcohol, accepted the writings of atheistic philosophers, came to regard science as the explanation for all life, and adopted a moral code that allows a person to do whatever he likes. It was only later that she accepted evangelical Christianity, until its contradictions led her to the Catholic Church.
While we try to convince Muslims to give up Islam, we do not want them to turn to atheism, as Little did at first. We must lead them to recognize the truths she discovered on her way to becoming a Catholic and to see that their practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can and should be used in the service of another religion. The Catholic religion has a solid foundation for its claims to divine revelation because of historical evidence for the transmission of that revelation witnessed by 12 men who devoted their lives to proclaiming that truth. And that truth is backed by authentic miracles, hundreds of them by its Founder, Jesus Christ, and by modern miracles such as the one that took place in Fatima in 1917 and was witnessed by some 70,000 people. Jesus Christ is a person of totally virtuous moral character worthy of imitation; He performed acts of self-denial, even to the point of voluntarily enduring a torturous death in order to bring about the salvation of the human race.
Like Muslims, Catholics seek the conversion of the world, but not by military force; instead, we seek it by calling people to accept the truth, even at a cost to themselves.
New York, New York
A Disgusting Cheap Shot
I was disheartened that one of your contributors found a way to offend many of your longtime subscribers. In his Last Things column (May), David Mills, referencing “celebrity preaching,” disparages John Corapi by lumping him with Joel Osteen in the “unfortunate” category of speakers. I, for one, found the comparison a disgusting cheap shot. In a period of Church history when the faithful were witness to the systematic dismantling of our liturgy and churches — and now her doctrine and mission — Fr. Corapi, along with Mother Angelica, was a breath of spiritual sanity.
I found Fr. Corapi to be in the mold of Fulton Sheen in his dynamic and orthodox preaching. In early 2000, my wife and I, along with a couple of our children, had the pleasure of sponsoring and working Fr. Corapi’s resource table in Colorado Springs, where he was a guest speaker.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
THE EDITOR REPLIES:
“Unfortunate” in regard to John Corapi is putting it mildly. But you don’t have to take David Mills’s word for it. Let’s direct our memories back to 2011, when, in March of that year, the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), Fr. Corapi’s religious order, placed him on “administrative leave.” Why? A statement SOLT released to the press three months later, signed by Fr. Gerard Sheehan, Corapi’s religious superior, offered the lurid details:
SOLT’s fact-finding team [which included a priest-canonist, a psychiatrist, and a lawyer] has acquired information from Fr. Corapi’s e-mails, various witnesses, and public sources that, together, state that, during his years of public ministry:
He did have sexual relations and years of cohabitation (in California and Montana) with a woman known to him, when the relationship began, as a prostitute; He repeatedly abused alcohol and drugs; He has recently engaged in sexting activity with one or more women in Montana; He holds legal title to over $1 million in real estate, numerous luxury vehicles, motorcycles, an ATV, a boat dock, and several motor boats, which is a serious violation of his promise of poverty as a perpetually professed member of the Society.
The statement made clear that the order had forbidden Corapi — who was, against the order’s wishes, living in what’s been described as an isolated compound in rural Montana — from engaging in any preaching or teaching, from the celebration of the sacraments (he “didn’t do very much of that,” he later admitted), and from any other type of public ministry. “Catholics should understand that SOLT does not consider Fr. John Corapi as fit for ministry,” the statement concluded.
In response, Corapi declared that he “resigned” from the priesthood (which is not possible; it’s not a “job” one simply “quits”). And then he disappeared from the public eye.
Unfortunate? Yeah, that’s a nice way to put it. The saga of John Corapi is like a modern-day morality tale: It underscores the problem of “celebrity preachers” in any ecclesial milieu — the temptations to which they themselves are subject, and the misplaced devotion laymen are tempted to give them.
A Timely Opportunity
As Casey Chalk relates in “A Tree Grows in St. Louis” (Revert’s Rostrum, June), Lawrence Feingold wrote this in 2001: “Theology is concerned with the truth of particular arguments and conclusions defended through theological reasoning. It is served by not being afraid to examine positions on their own merits.” This is a prudent message that needs to be proclaimed even louder today, when political persuasion is the polarizing ingredient most of us cannot avoid looking at in our daily consumption of information.
Chalk comments that Catholics shouldn’t be “uninformed about the political machinations of churchmen,” but he warns that “obsession with their machinations can easily overshadow, if not define, our religious experience.” Obsession is the right word to use — I might add exhausting. A timely opportunity presents itself to Dr. Feingold’s method of discourse. There seems to be an emerging market of people who are tired of political polarization and the attendant lack of peace in their quest for wisdom and religious experience. I have great hope that Dr. Feingold’s method of discourse proves inspirational to peers and future educators.
Spring Mills, Pennsylvania
I wish both to applaud and echo Brian Dunne’s call for God-fearing people to “cut all ties with anything related to Disney” (letter, June). If we truly care about the spiraling corruption of marriage and family in our culture, it’s time we stopped pretending that this corporation is anything other than a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
A few years back, my diocesan newspaper published a syndicated review praising the 2016 Disney film Finding Dory and its star, Ellen DeGeneres. Never mind that Ms. DeGeneres was an outspoken leader in the effort to legally redefine the God-given institution of marriage. And apparently it didn’t bother anybody at our diocesan newspaper that Disney has similarly been a leader — as opposed to a follower, like many other businesses — in efforts to legitimize sodomy. For example, before it became fashionable, the company used its theme parks to promote “pride” in renouncing chastity and living out one’s same-sex attraction, which, according to the Catechism, is “grave depravity” and can be approved “under no circumstances” (no. 2357). Nor did the review make any mention of how the film briefly depicts two women in a way meant to imply that they are a practicing homosexual couple. As far as I’m aware, Disney has not confirmed this, but — much more tellingly, in my opinion — it has not denied it either.
It baffles me that nearly every one of the devoutly Catholic families I know continues to patronize Disney without reservation, even going so far as to praise the company for the “values” it teaches. Indeed, my children’s classmates and teachers at their Catholic school have always reacted with puzzlement when we tell them, “Our family doesn’t support Disney.”
This widespread indifference toward, and praise of, Disney by Catholics seems like the perfect illustration of the words of Pope Pius XII: “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin.”
Battle Creek, Michigan
John, the Noble Savage
Brave New World becomes more clearly prophetic as our culture sinks deeper and deeper into the darkness Aldous Huxley envisioned almost a century ago. Michael S. Rose’s synopsis (Literature Matters, June) captured the essential elements of this bizarre, dystopic “New World.” I was, however, perplexed as to why he did not include the most conflicted, complex, and tragic figure in the novel: John (“the Savage”).
John was born of a woman, an obscene aberration, on a remote Indian reservation in New Mexico, a fashionable tourist attraction for the hedonists of the New World. His mother had been left behind, pregnant, on one of those trips by, of all people, the Director of London Hatcheries. John was raised on a hybrid blend of pagan Indian lore and rituals and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, to which his mother had introduced him.
Ultimately, John, along with his mother, is brought back to the New World by the radically insecure Bernard Marx as a curiosity and status symbol. The “culture” of the New World is not only alien to John but thoroughly repulsive. He is not “normal,” but he is far more human than the mindless inhabitants of the New World. When a voluptuous young woman approaches him to engage in the normal, correct behavior — namely, fornication — he is appalled and repelled, calling her a “strumpet” and a “fitchew,” à la Shakespeare. Thus begins his personal rejection of and hostility toward this bizarre world.
At one point, John causes a riot by scattering the daily rations of soma for a lower-caste “Bokanovsky” group of multiple identical twins, and he ultimately retreats to the Puttenham Lighthouse to live in seclusion, purity, and the self-flagellation he learned on the reservation.
John’s retreat, however, is soon discovered by the citizens of the New World:
Drawn by the fascination of the horror of pain and, from within, impelled by the habit of cooperation, that desire for unanimity…they began to mime the frenzy of his gestures, striking at one another as the Savage struck at his own rebellious flesh….
Then suddenly someone started singing “Orgy Porgy” and, in a moment, they had all caught up in the refrain and, singing, had begun to dance. Orgy Porgy, round and round and round, beating one another in six-eight time….
It was after midnight when the last of the helicopters took its flight. Stupefied by soma, and exhausted by a long-drawn frenzy of sensuality, the Savage lay sleeping in the heather. The sun was already high when he awoke. He lay for a moment, blinking in owlish incomprehension at the light; then suddenly remembered everything.
“Oh my God, my God!” He covered his eyes with his hand.
Then John elects the final rejection and retreat from the New World: He hangs himself inside the lighthouse.
Hero? Anti-hero? Hapless victim? Certainly the most compelling character in the novel.
Warren, New Jersey
The Rich We Will Always Have with Us
Regarding “The Myth of Meritocracy” by Pieter Vree (New Oxford Notebook, June): I find it interesting that America’s Protestant work ethic has been best put to use by Catholics for at least the past three generations. For better or worse, it works.
Vree attacks the wealthy parents who used money and payoffs to get their little snowflakes into Ivy League schools. How terrible are the rich! But Vree doesn’t mention how many of the hundreds of thousands of so-called minority students are placed in schools, especially state universities, who have never cracked a book in their lives; stay there five, six, seven years, and never graduate; all the time taking the place of deserving students “who can’t get in.” If he would take the time to research the cost to taxpayers, he would see that for the few who do graduate, it is close to a million dollars per student.
The old saying is we have always had the poor with us. That also goes for the rich — they have always been with us. And guess what? If you want to better your state of life for yourself and your family, no country offers more opportunities or roads to success than the ol’ U.S. of A. I look at my relatives, associates, and friends who have achieved the American dream. Some did not graduate from high school; some are not the sharpest knife in the drawer; some are not physically attractive, are short, and have no athletic ability; and some have physical disabilities. Many came from poor or working-class parents. But they all seem to have certain qualities in common: They do not look for handouts. They have a stable family atmosphere, with husband and wife working as a team. They are sober, with no heavy drinking, drugs, or gambling. Most belong to a church, one to a synagogue. All are focused and have definite goals and a plan of action. “I try not to make any stupid mistakes, at least not twice,” as one put it. None is lazy!
Do we have a perfect merit-based system in our society? Of course not. But as the grandson and son of coal miners, I’ve studied the lives of the successful and prosperous around me. Instead of being envious, I learned, and used, what I thought would best work for me and my family.
Joseph E. Staskewicz
Southampton, New Jersey
I disagree with Pieter Vree’s contention that meritocracy is a myth. The fact that some people of means commit crimes does not diminish the value of meritocracy.
In July 2015 Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization, published a report titled “Economic Mobility in the United States,” examining the transmission of economic advantages across generations. The report found that children born into lower-income families can expect very different futures from those born into higher-income families. Among the key findings:
- “Approximately half of parental income advantages are passed on to children.”
- “Children born far apart in the income distribution have very different economic outcomes…. The expected family income of children raised in families at the 90th income percentile is about three times that of children raised at the 10th percentile.”
- “The persistence of advantage is especially large among those raised in the middle to upper reaches of the income distribution…. Approximately two-thirds of parental income differences…persist into the next generation.”
This means that one-third of people are not dependent on the level of parental income and may indeed rise above that level through individual ability and achievement.
Our meritocracy is not perfect. Nothing this side of Heaven is. Yet I maintain that it is the fairest system upon which to base civilization. Socialism, the alternative to meritocracy, offers no such opportunity and is anathema to civilization.
As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently noted, “Although we Americans strive to provide equality of economic opportunity, we do not guarantee equality of economic outcomes, nor should we. Indeed, without the possibility of unequal outcomes tied to differences in effort and skill, the economic incentive for productive behavior would be eliminated, and our market-based economy — which encourages productive activity primarily through the promise of financial reward — would function far less effectively.”
Victor M. LaPorte
PIETER VREE REPLIES:
Ironically, the study Mr. LaPorte cites contradicts the typical talking points Bernanke delivers in support of an American meritocracy. Erin Currier, director of Pew’s financial security and mobility project, said the study’s findings “are at odds with our country’s aspirations for equal opportunity.” In a press release (July 23, 2015), Pew summarized the study thus: “Parental income differences benefit children from higher-income families more than those from lower-income families. The results indicate that opportunities for economic success are far from equally distributed” — which was precisely the point of my column.
Aristocracy, Not Meritocracy
It seems that the esteemed Pieter Vree is having difficulty identifying types of social disorder. In “The Myth of Meritocracy,” he takes aim at ills he perceives as part of that order. Really though, what he identifies is more akin to an aristocracy. This is not too surprising given the marked bias toward socialism that the editor and magazine have demonstrated over the years. Such a worldview tends to find flaw with any order that’s not egalitarian, which is fine so long as we remember that reality is not so absurdly simple.
Perhaps our American system was at one time a meritocracy, though never purely so. Such an order went a long way toward making this country great, but that old order is passing away before our eyes, to be replaced by an aristocracy.
I began to recognize this at the election of the second Bush and the near-election of the second Clinton. The unofficial aristocracy in this country no longer sees fit to maintain the façade that it does not exist. Having consolidated power, these families stand poised to initiate the next phase of their ascension.
With a cursory investigation, you can see parallels between our nation and the Roman Empire of antiquity. Our nation is, in many respects, the child of that ancient state, and it is traveling the same route, more or less, toward tyranny.
The abuses Vree cites have less to do with a failure of a meritocracy than with the unmasking of a shadow aristocracy. And like Rome of old, today we perhaps experience our own Scylla in the current executive. Our Caesar is coming and is perhaps already among us — no doubt enjoying the perks offered by our ruling class that have little or nothing to do with his own merit.
Avon Park Correctional Institution
Avon Park, Florida
PIETER VREE REPLIES:
I have a “marked bias” toward socialism? That’s news to me! If I’ve ever expressed any sympathy for socialism, it’s been purely accidental. Pointing out the evils in the American system doesn’t automatically make one a proponent of its opposite evil.
The Other 99%
I am in complete disagreement with the NOR’s stance on the removal of Confederate monuments (“Twilight of the Idols,” Oct. 2017). Such a practice not only has the overtones of fascism but is a blatant attempt to rewrite history and is tantamount to modern-day book-burning. Your support of this offensive position is disappointing and certainly out-of-sync with your usual thoughtful analysis. That egg will remain on your face for a long while.
However, the other 99 percent of your magazine is thoroughly engaging, uplifting, and spiritually stimulating. You should be congratulated and encouraged to retain your zeal for the truth and sustain the high quality of your publication. As subscribers and donors to what is our common cause, we salute your efforts and look forward to the learning experience that is the hallmark of the NOR. May you continue to flourish and be an influential part of our lives.
It is extremely difficult to find a publication with good, solid, orthodox articles spiced with humor. I wish that those who write in to cancel their subscriptions would appreciate what they have. We’re not always going to agree with every article in the NOR, but it helps us to “think outside the box,” and it stimulates the mind.
I can’t imagine a world without the NOR. It’s too depressing to contemplate!
Balreask Village Navan, County Meath
Having recently renewed my own subscription, I will contribute a one-year subscription through your Scholarship Fund to anyone who would enjoy the NOR but is unable to afford the price of a subscription as a counterpoint to the readers who have chosen to leave the NOR fold over the magazine’s content.
The formula is usually the same: a statement of intent not to renew, expressed in a passionate, often volatile, screed intended to cause the stars, moon, and planets to fall from the sky. How silly. I am reminded of the spoiled child who, not getting his way with his playmates, stomps his foot, picks up his toys, and leaves the sandbox.
Rather than a publication content to relax amid the lotus, I would have a magazine that willingly navigates the idea stream between Scylla and Charybdis, knowing the dangers of either side. To the disgruntled and dyspeptic, may I suggest a browse of the blogosphere? You will discover an abundance of denatured, treacly pabulum meant to offend no palate.
The NOR came my way via a Catholic friend who thought I might enjoy its content. He was right, though I myself am not Catholic. My faith, such as it is, is best described as an admix of heathenism in equipoise with vegetarianism. I doubt I will be among the saved. It is doubtful that even the NOR can perform the Augean task of converting this 79-year-old outsider to the One True Faith; but, to quote Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.”
I look forward to my monthly NOR. May it long continue.
Ed. Note: Through the NOR’s Scholarship Fund, gratis subscriptions are awarded to those who cannot afford them. Please consider donating to this fund.
Someone once said that the Cross holds firm while the world is spinning out of control. Thanks be to God for holding the NOR firm while the world is spinning out of control. Hang in there!
Kenneth E. Floyd III
Ed. Note: The motto of the Carthusians is Stat crux dum volvitur orbis (“The Cross remains constant while the world turns”).
When Thomists Abandon Thomas
I am thankful to John Lyon for reading my book Aquinas and Evolution with attention and providing interesting feedback (review, June). I hasten to clarify some issues, especially for those who haven’t had a chance to read the book itself.
First, we need to keep in mind who says what in this debate. My main claim is that Aquinas’s philosophy/theology is incompatible with — in fact, it flatly excludes — the Darwinian idea of species having emerged by a continuous natural process of transformation. I even say it doesn’t matter, in light of Aquinas, whether the process is guided by an intellect or entirely blind, as most Darwinists believe. It does not follow, however, that one needs to abandon a modern scientific theory for Aquinas. My point is that one cannot hold on to both simultaneously.
Although I think Aquinas was indeed closer to the truth, I can imagine (and understand) a philosopher or scientist abandoning Aquinas’s metaphysics for the sake of Darwinian metaphysics. I disagree, though,
with those Thomists who twist and stretch the teachings of Thomas in all directions in order to prove an alleged compatibility that is simply not there.
Second, if I say that the timeline of creative events is nonessential for Aquinas’s concept of the origin of species, I do not mean that it is completely irrelevant for him, let alone that it is irrelevant in light of our current knowledge. As I show in my book, Aquinas leaned on Augustine’s concept of onetime creation with all species appearing simultaneously, but this has been excluded by modern science. We know that species appeared over eons of time. So I don’t think the timeline is irrelevant for a modern scholar, should he work toward some modern concept of the origin of species. (By the way, I thoroughly explain in my book what I mean by species, and that is something different from biological species as understood by modern biology.)
Third, Aquinas never uses the word intervention when speaking about the creative activity of God. As I explain in my book, intervention applies to the change of the regular (natural) course of events in the universe, but creation begins those events. Creation, therefore, is not an intervention. This confusion may explain why so many scholars today, not just atheists but even Christians, feel like a cat that is about to plunge into water whenever they think of special creation.
The bottom line is that Thomists should either admit that they abandon Thomas when they believe in the evolutionary origin of species, or they need to rethink biological evolutionary theories. A lot of good science has been done recently by proponents of intelligent design. This makes room for remaining at peace with both Aquinas and modern science.
Fr. Michael Chaberek, O.P.
Polish Dominican Province, Warsaw
JOHN LYON REPLIES:
I am deeply appreciative of Fr. Chaberek’s book and clarifications. More needs to be said to further the conversation, but this is presumably not the setting in which to do so. Some comments, however, might be in place.
In the absence of an index in Fr. Chaberek’s book, one must rummage about frustratingly through the text and one’s notes thereon to search out definitions of terms central to its argument. Those of us who are the beneficiaries of something vaguely resembling a classical education can perhaps move through the thicket of metaphysical terms of Greek and Roman origin with “awkward ease” — e.g., nature, substance, accident, matter, soul, nominalism, realism, evolution, creation, epigenesist, and…species! Fr. Chaberek does define his terms, but it is unnecessarily hard to find them.
Species: It turns out, with some irony, that there is a genus of species (logical species, metaphysical species, natural species, and biological species), which Fr. Chaberek notes in his book, as well as varieties of species “in nature” (man, animals, plants, and the inorganic). A notoriously fugitive concept indeed. One can, for instance, look through the eight volumes of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy and not find a direct entry for species.
It would be a mistake, of course, to conceive of species as identified by exemplars pinned down on corkboards, rather than as populations in movement in time and space. But populations of what? And it appears that the description of species and related terms in cast-iron categories would also be a mistake. On the one hand, we must know what we are talking about; on the other hand (at least on the natural and biological level), it appears that we simply don’t. The origin of species reduces to the origin of speciousness, the defense of the use of metaphysical terms to a process of “saving appearances.” Unless something is “pinned down,” however, we are reduced to the position of a nominal hunter who sits by a window and periodically lets loose with a shotgun blast in the hope that something roughly resembling a bird might fly by.
And the level of discourse passes from one type of “species” to another readily, sometimes without warning. Explaining the origin of species, we are told, belongs to theology and not to science. But are these logical, metaphysical, natural, or biological species? Most of us are not unconcerned with epistemological issues, but we are also concerned with “natural and biological” species, not just so we can surely identify what we are eating for Thanksgiving dinner but for philosophical and theological reasons, for reasons of meaning.
In an unpublished article of mine relevant to the current discussion entitled “Genomenalism,” I have set forth this query: Christ died for the sins of man, St. Paul tells us. Was he speaking of Greeks, Hebrews, and Romans — or was he speaking of a logical or metaphysical species? Fr. Chaberek tells us that “philosophical conclusions are permanent because they are derived and separated from changeable particulars by abstraction.” Is man a philosophical abstraction? What would it mean to be saved as a philosophical abstraction? If Paul’s statement is theological, just what does that mean? On the other hand, just how many changes do we have to ring up on the human genome before we have produced, out of our own loins, as it were, a being for whom it could not be said that Christ died?
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