Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: September 2021

Letters to the Editor: September 2021

Who’s in Charge?

Michael S. Rose’s provocative interview with Richard Gallagher, M.D. (“Diagnosing the Spectrum of Diabolic Attacks,” April) left me with a rather bewildering concern that was not addressed in the subsequent letters from readers (June).

In the Acts of the Apostles we read, “Some itinerant Jewish exorcists once tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were possessed by evil spirits…. Another time, when the seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest, were doing this, the evil spirit answered, ‘Jesus I recognize, Paul I know; but who are you?’ Then the man with the evil spirit sprang at them and overpowered them all. He dealt with them so violently that they fled from his house naked and bruised” (19:13-16).

Dr. Gallagher was, at best, very light in referencing the need to properly invoke authority when issuing commands to evil spirits. He mentions Catholic and Protestant personnel almost in the same breath, as though those of good will with enough discipline and training would have more or less equal success in ejecting a demonic spirit. As the account from Acts indicates, proper (or divinely ordained and dispensed) authority is needed for an exorcism to have any real chance of success.

Although I am not formally trained in this area, I have had numerous interactions with fellow priests who’ve participated in exorcisms, and the crucial element is the need for permission, granted through the unbroken line of Apostolic Succession, to invoke the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. For an (albeit highly trained) layman, acting on his own initiative, to blithely invoke the name of Our Lord in an attempt to drive out a preternatural being could likely result in his also being treated “violently,” as the seven sons experienced in Acts. Indeed, Dr. Gallagher recounts a similar scenario involving a Protestant deacon who attempted an exorcism but got thrown about by a possessed woman weighing less than half his bodily weight.

This paramount matter of episcopal permission goes far beyond Dr. Gallagher’s vague comment that “there has developed a perception, however, that Catholic clergy may have special expertise and sometimes enhanced efficacy in these matters.” It’s not “expertise” but the authority Our Savior imparted to the Apostles and their present-day successors that evokes horror in demons and is behind a priest’s “enhanced efficacy” in an exorcism.

Accounts abound of a priest’s initial encounter with a suspected victim in which the priest is abused and mocked. However, once securing permission from his bishop to proceed with a formal exorcism, the subsequent encounter shows that the terror now resides on the part of the afflicted person and/or the demons involved.

In the end, it’s all about who’s in charge.

Fr. Joseph Klee

Columbus, Ohio

Michael S. Rose’s masterful interview with Dr. Richard Gallagher eloquently epitomizes the scholarship and wisdom a classics-trained, board-certified, clinical and academic psychiatrist can bring to the misunderstood subject of spiritual warfare and demonic interference. While in the military as a senior behavioral health officer, I petitioned Dr. Gallagher to provide mentorship (still ongoing). That was followed by my training at the Pope Leo XIII Institute in Libertyville, Illinois. Recalling our Green Beret motto de Oppresso Liber, I hoped to apply Dr. Gallagher’s remarkable insight to the Catholic deliverance ministry.

Readers will find in Dr. Gallagher’s book Demonic Foes: My Twenty-Five Years as a Psychiatrist Investigating Possessions, Diabolic Attacks, and the Paranormal much of the wisdom and insight he’s imparted to those lucky enough to have worked with him in person, as well as those fortunate seminarians who’ve taken his courses at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, New York. Dr. Gallagher did not choose this field; the Lord chose him. What advantage would Dr. Gallagher possibly gain by pursuing, teaching, or writing about such a highly debated subject? Secure in his remarkable credentials, this Ivy League psychiatrist was compelled to volunteer for this discreet and often silent service.

Skeptics who argue that only religious individuals seek or benefit from clerical interventions, including the Rite of Exorcism (which they believe somehow proves that demonic interference is contrived), ignore the weight of the historical and cultural evidence for possession. It is almost a certainty that those suffering demonic attack would not be referred to the Church for cases refractory to medicine or psychotherapy, especially by those who do not believe in the demonic or cannot see beyond the empirical sciences. The agnostic or even Christian clinician who rigidly adheres to secular methodology often has no knowledge of this ancient arm of the Catholic Church, replete with 2,000 years of documented case studies. Skeptics who demand empirical evidence for demons simply do not understand their non-empirical, incorporeal nature.

Those involved in spiritual warfare might be misdiagnosed with schizophrenia with auditory and visual hallucinations or even dissociative identity disorder, which, however rare, is much more common. Only those trained like Dr. Gallagher might see both causes. Most skeptics will not see the depths to which Dr. Gallagher goes to find a natural, organic, or pathological cause for these disturbances. He himself emphasizes that perceived possession is a very rare event, usually the result of psychopathology.

To sharpen the point, even an atheist who eschews psychiatry or the paranormal will benefit greatly from reading Demonic Foes. I hope Dr. Gallagher writes another book!

Thomas Jarrett


Lutherville, Maryland


I thank Col. Thomas Jarrett for his appreciation of my interview and my general work. It is certainly gratifying to hear of more and more fellow mental-health professionals who are open to these conditions and eager to educate themselves to be able to assist exorcists in the complex discernment process that is sometimes required in evaluating possible diabolic phenomena.

I also thank Fr. Joseph Klee for emphasizing the importance that all of us who labor in this particular vineyard acknowledge the strong advisability of working within the authority of the true Church founded by Christ and based on the authority structure and canonical recommendations passed down by the official successors of the Apostles. (Common sense and experience are also key assets here, apropos some problematic episodes when these were also lacking!)

I detect no provocativeness in my remarks; I think Fr. Klee may have misunderstood my aim in conveying the “perception that Catholic clergy have special expertise and enhanced efficacy in these matters.” I described it as my “perception” — further, my clear observation over the years! — about Catholic exorcists precisely because it is an important and valid one. My intent was to be somewhat irenic and diplomatic to our Christian brethren who often work with diligence and admirable spiritual zeal with all manner of demonic attacks, too. Yes, their prayers are sometimes successful.

In addition to my work as a professor at two medical colleges, I am also a faculty member at an archdiocesan Catholic seminary. I have sworn a literal oath to be faithful to the Magisterium. As such, I am well aware of and fully recognize the supreme value of the venerable Catholic and Orthodox traditions of apostolicity and the crucial role in this particular area of pastoral ministry of invoking the unequalled and powerful authority of our Church.

Let us not forget, however, that all faithful exorcists have recognized that it is not by their own authority, but by that of Our Lord Himself, that demons are driven out. This obviously explains why some faithful non-Catholic Christian clergy have led efficacious deliverances, as I have witnessed myself on a number of occasions. It perhaps also helps us understand why, for instance, in the early Church, laymen might serve as exorcists and why, later in Church history, a number of saints, such as Catherine of Siena, were able to invoke Our Lord to liberate possessed victims (as famously depicted on a later engraving). Canonical customs have changed throughout history, though I do agree that the modern restriction of official exorcisms to bishop-sanctioned clerics is a valuable and sensible reform to prevent abuses and that the appeal to the Church’s proper authority remains of great significance.

As referenced in Acts, the episode involving the “sons of Sceva,” a Jewish high priest, requires a nuanced view. What appears to have been the case in that instance was that some Jewish exorcists attempted to “piggyback” on the success of Paul and his invocation of Christ without the suitable spiritual bona fides and preparation to serve in that role. Who knows their intent? As in today’s world, so-called exorcists and deliverance teams may operate out of all sorts of unsound motives, such as exhibited, for instance, by the greed of some televangelists, who, I’m sure Fr. Klee would agree, inherently lack the suitable spiritual motivation, let alone legitimate authority, to perform their often exhibitionist deliverance tasks, an unwise state indeed to expect fruitful results.

A Top-Down Assault

Edwin Dyga makes the important point that conservatives often adopt their opponents’ assumptions, such as that democracy is an overriding good (“Is Democracy a Transcendent Good?” March). He issues a clarion call for conservatives to stand firm, to trust their values, and to be sovereign.

Democracy is not a supreme value in Western political evolution. This is clear from the history of the English political tradition. The democratic component is not transcendent but derivative from and secondary to English liberalism, encompassing rule of law, division of powers, and habeas corpus. The Anglo-American tradition kept democracy in a constitutional straitjacket by adopting the Roman practice of representative democracy, not the ancient Greek practice of direct popular vote. Classical liberalism developed from earlier institutional stages unique to the West, including the medieval Church’s imposing monogamy on the aristocracy, a precedent for rule of law. The Church had a role in forcing the Magna Carta on King John in 1215.

Unbridled democracy is hallowed by today’s progressives but was held in suspicion by the ancient Greeks and by philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries. They saw democracy as a fragile institution that could only be managed by an educated, independent people. The American founding fathers saw democracy as a part of republican government prone to descend into mob rule and demagoguery. They protected against this at the national level by including constitutional provisions limiting the power of the federal government and mandating an electoral college to bring into balance the interests of small and large states.

To restore independent, principled conservatism, Dyga urges doctrinal solutions: “The only practical solution is for conservatives to break away from the mental framework permitted them by their progressive opponents.” This is surely necessary for any renaissance of traditional values. The sovereign conservative must positively ignore the madness of the crowd. That is the vital starting point. The next step is the practical one of creating objective conditions for cultural renewal. From the sociological perspective, this will be difficult because leftist liberalism is hegemonic in universities, schools, and the mainstream media.

Any break with the progressive mental framework must be organized because it is unlikely to occur spontaneously. Measures need to take into account the undemocratic origins of progressivism. This movement did not come from the people. Despite worshiping popular will as an abstract ideal, in the real world, progressive victories have been won by elites, not by ordinary citizens. Conservatives are confronted by a top-down assault on their values.

Dyga understands the theory of elites, having written on the ideas of the American social theorist James Burnham (Quadrant, Oct. 2020). There he identified the illiberal source of corporatist ideology. In addition to facing progressivism head-on, it might be prudent to construct parallel educational and media institutions, as the Catholic Church did historically in the face of triumphalist modernism.

Frank Salter

Ourimbah, New South Wales



The critique of democracy, or rather the state to which it has devolved in the mass societies of the hyper-liberal, secular West, points to deeper questions about what it means to live within a civil society and what a healthy, functioning culture entails. The overemphasis on economic matters in the modern era has perverted social policy by putting the financial interests of the abstract market above all other considerations. This has given rise to a managerial consensus that is almost completely disconnected from reality. Both the post-Marxist Left and its ostensible laissez-faire opponent share this near obsession. Men cannot, therefore, be faulted for thinking, at times, that their role is to serve the “economic good” as isolated “individuals” rather than gear economic policy to the maintenance of the hearth, community, and nation.

I find it appalling that the localist Left has been allowed to monopolize the slogan “We live in a community, not an economy.” This is a quintessentially conservative sentiment, one any faithful Catholic ought to treat as axiomatic. But the consumerist-driven idée fixe has sadly led to the bankruptcy of the spirit that gives the politics of localism its dynamic force. It has also led to the atomization and alienation of people who are then driven to search for a lost sense of belonging.

Though traditional conservatives have historically appealed to Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” as the foundation of community, their contemporary counterparts have largely forgotten that cooperation in the public square requires a certain homogeneity of cultural values. This is routinely undermined through progressive government policy that survives irrespective of whatever party is in office. It is in this resulting void that the dysfunction of representative politics occurs, and with it, the opportunity for corruption to spread and fester.

While the hearth, community, and nation are more tangible than the abstract marketplace, their meaning and significance to the well-being of the polis are often impossible to quantify in mere economic terms. The word economy derives from the Greek oikos (household) through oikonomia (the management of family industry) to the more readily recognizable French économie. The contemporary fixation on the corporate and national bottom line has blinded the political elite to the fundamental contingencies of wealth creation. These are essentially social in nature, governed by the internal dynamics of family life and the shared culture between extended family networks. These dynamics and this culture continue to fray, and those who govern don’t seem to notice.

Frank Salter is correct that a practical approach to ameliorating this problem would necessitate the creation of “objective conditions for cultural renewal.” What those conditions should be depends on the particular circumstances of each community: They may be related in some principal way but differ in form. One thing they would definitely share is a worldview inimical to the ideology of the corporate Left and its enablers within the mainstream political class. The latter has made a mockery of consultative decision-making as a result of interest-group pressure and the correspondingly increasing irrelevance of the individual voter. If indeed the status quo is the result of an elite-driven agenda motivated by various utopian conceits, the opposition must be organized from the bottom-up with the consent and voluntary subscription of its constituents via covenant communities or welfare associations.

A “Benedict option” of some sort has been discussed widely among people who feel the rope of the New Totalitarianism tighten around their necks. This talk is an implicit admission that what remains of the liberal mainstream is structurally irreformable, at least via its own mechanisms of change. Why else would an increasing number of people be looking for an “exit”?

Building conditions for cultural renewal requires ways of thinking that are radically at odds with fashionable orthodoxy and, therefore, necessarily set apart from the mainstream. However, breaking away from the mental framework of progressivism is nigh impossible because openly challenging today’s privileged and “woke” ideologies risks often irreparable damage to one’s reputation and livelihood or, at the very least, results in some form of social or professional ostracism.

If the back of this aggressive and uncompromising liberal hegemony cannot be broken, or even meaningfully challenged, then the conditions for renewal need to be organized on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity among people committed to a long-term program of reconstruction. Dr. Salter is right that this cannot happen spontaneously: Leaders must step up to lead. If none appears in the social landscape, those with initiative must do what they can, and those who can help should feel an obligation to do so.

Momentum can grow in small increments. The creation of parallel educational and media institutions is essential, as coordinated and effective operations are impossible without unfettered channels of communication. Equally important is an infrastructure that offers economic assistance, welfare, and employment to those unfortunate enough to be “de-platformed” for transgressing progressive dictates or committing some other modernist heresy.

Other ethno-religious groups have attempted this to varying degrees of success; there is no reason it should not work for us. The ideas inherent in such projects as the Catholic Land Movement may resonate with the readers of this magazine, but the practicalities of bringing such an endeavor to fruition may be less viable today than when Flee to the Fields was first published in 1934. Nevertheless, difficulties should not be a bar to action. What is necessary is always possible. Autonomous communities can be established with the help of mediating technologies that give rise to opportunities unimaginable a century ago. Like the Benedictine monks of the past, these communities may become the repositories of civilizational memory vital for the “renaissance of traditional values” Dr. Salter mentions.

What we expect from democratic civil society may be denied us today by a managerial elite who see cultural traditionalists, people of faith, and political reactionaries as obstacles to their grand schemes of “human improvement,” but it can be recreated from the ground up, organically, by people of good will. We often forget that we are the agents of a functioning civil society and a healthy culture; without our participation, nothing of the sort would exist. The initiative is entirely with us.

Permanent Temps

Gerard T. Mundy’s otherwise excellent article “Spiritus Domini: How the Exception Became the Rule” (June) contains one factual error. He writes that Pope St. Paul VI’s “instructions were that when instituted lectors and acolytes were unavailable for liturgical assistance, both male and female laity could ‘temporarily’ stand in as replacements.” Though that was true of lectors, that was not the case with acolytes. It was not until 1994 under Pope St. John Paul II that females were allowed to serve at the altar.

Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas

Editor, The Catholic Response

Pine Beach, New Jersey

Gerard T. Mundy writes that Pope Francis “amended [canon] law by altering terminology from the previous ‘Laymen’ to the gender-neutral ‘Lay Persons.’” By definition, a Layman is a member of a church who is not a clergyman or is a person outside of any particular profession. It is a gender-neutral term. In Genesis 1:27 we read, “God made man, male and female He created them.” Though the word man may at times refer specifically to a male, in Scripture as well as in many Church writings, it is actually gender-neutral and, in such cases, should be understood that way. Using the term Lay Person removes any doubt as to how the word man is to be interpreted.

Canon 230 does not speak of the right of the laity to assume liturgical functions; rather, it speaks to their having the capability to assume some liturgical functions. This capability comes from their Baptism. The right belongs to the clergy. The laity are capable of performing some liturgical functions, but they do not have the right to do so, as that right rests solely with the clergy.

Canon 230§3 spells out that when clergy are lacking, the laity can exercise the ministry of the word, preside over liturgical prayers, confer Baptism, and distribute Holy Communion. Once again, this capability emanates from their Baptism, as Pope Francis indicates in Spiritus Domini.

Pope St. Paul VI in Ministeria Quaedam made the following points:

  •  Generally, though not everywhere, these minor orders were reserved for those moving toward priesthood. This implies that minor orders are not the hard and fast rule we thought they were.
  •  In preparation for and prior to Vatican II, many bishops requested that minor orders and the subdiaconate be revised. Thus, the revising of minor orders and the subdiaconate was in the works well before Paul VI assumed the reins of the Church.
  •  Minor orders have not always been the same; many functions connected with them have also been exercised by the laity.

Paul VI operated under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which, at the time, stated that the ministries of reader and acolyte were reserved to males. Pope Francis is operating under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which removed the restriction of males only for the liturgical functions of reader and acolyte. Therefore, it is incorrect to argue that Francis has changed canon law. Altering a word from Laymen to Lay Persons does not change canon 230 of the 1983 Code, nor does it change its intent.

Canon law clearly and precisely defines the roles of the laity and the clergy in the Catholic Church. The lines between the two are distinct. Neither is there any such thing as “official ‘lay clericalism’”; it is just a figment of Mundy’s imagination.

If Mundy wants to blame someone for “cracks” in the liturgical reform, he should begin at the source. It was Pope St. Pius X (r. 1903-1914) who began the process of involving the laity in a more meaningful participation in the liturgy. Those who came after him — Pope Benedict XV, Pope Pius XI, and Pope Pius XII — continued in the same manner. How convenient it is to ignore those facts and point only to Paul VI! Doing so weakens Mundy’s argument. I would not be surprised if Pius X’s desire for liturgical reform was the seed that blossomed over time into Vatican II.

Alphonse C. Bankard III

Baltimore, Maryland


To Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas

The terms acolyte and altar boy — or, in recent times, altar girl or the now-preferred altar server — are sometimes wrongly used interchangeably. (This reply will use the contemporary Vatican term altar server for precision and clarity, except in reference to altar boys specifically.) The original article (“Consequences” henceforth) used only acolyte in the proper sense, also for precision and clarity.

Pope St. Paul VI, in Ministeria Quaedam (Ministeria henceforth), reordered the ordained offices; one of the moves included altering the ordained acolyte role into an “instituted” “ministry.” Altar servers, however, are not acolytes; altar servers simply perform some of the functions proper to the post-Ministeria acolyte role.

Prior to Spiritus Domini (Spiritus henceforth), in which Pope Francis amended canon law and expanded on Ministeria, only males could be instituted as acolytes by a bishop or the proper religious ordinary. Ministeria allowed stand-in laity to fulfill these functions; these persons were not officially instituted by the bishop or religious ordinary but were asked by parish clergy to fulfill functions “temporarily.”

The altar server is neither an officially instituted ministry nor a “temporary” fulfillment of the acolyte role. Altar servers, whether male or female, do not perform all of the acolyte duties. Prior to Spiritus but post-Ministeria, nothing in canon law expressly prohibited a woman from “temporarily” fulfilling the functions of the acolyte.

Altar servers sit outside of the acolyte institution and were governed by their own customary norms, although of course those norms cannot conflict with law. It took some time for the Church to arrive definitively at the conclusion that no prior canonical law prohibited female altar servers. The eventual codification of Ministeria in the 1983 Code of Canon Law made it even clearer that “lay persons” (emphasis added) could take on any of the functions held by the two instituted roles. Legally speaking, then, from Ministeria to Spiritus, there was no express prohibition on women fulfilling “temporary” acolyte functions.

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), in Inaestimabile Donum (1980), interpreted the norms as excluding females from being “altar servers.” First, note that the CDW’s language does not use the term acolyte. Second, recall that altar servers’ “traditional discipline,” while not outside the law, was not technically and precisely covered by Ministeria, thus leaving the stage ripe for confusion and varied interpretations. Third and most important, this 1980 instruction was easily interpreted otherwise in accord with what Paul VI promulgated in Ministeria. Canonically speaking, the logic for female altar servers was strong: If the law does not prohibit temporary female acolytes (or temporary female lectors reading Scripture from the altar), then how could it prohibit female altar servers, who have fewer and lesser duties than the acolyte? The 1983 Code made clearer that there were no gender restrictions, but confusion continued regarding altar servers. Over a decade later, the CDW finally interpreted the law concretely.

Contrary to popular belief, the Vatican did not “lift” restrictions on female altar servers in 1994. Rather, the CDW issued a letter that changed no law but instead provided legal clarification related to the existence of canon-law language expressly prohibiting girls from serving at the altar. The letter’s interpretation, which had already been decided in 1992, set down without ambiguity that nothing in canon law prevents women from either non-ordained or non-instituted altar assistance. (The 1980 instruction could be called a legal misinterpretation; the language of the 1983 Code and the 1994 letter could stand as evidence of the Vatican’s own admission to this claim.) Spiritus opened things wider, of course, changing canon law to allow women to instituted altar assistance. Practically speaking, though, the 1994 letter surely helped expedite the movement away from the tradition of only boys serving at Mass.

In “Consequences,” the discussion focused on how male-only “instituted” roles were, over time, unofficially opened to non-instituted females, which, the article argued, led to the normalization of women carrying out these roles and, eventually, to Francis’s allowing official institution of women to the lector and acolyte roles. There are so many related developments that they could not all be named. In sum, each “crack” leads to a “climate.” The CDW’s 1994 letter surely contributed to a climate that more and more became accustomed to females serving and assisting at Mass in different capacities. This argument can act as further evidence in support of the central thesis of “Consequences” regarding the compounding nature of seemingly minor changes over time.

To Alphonse C. Bankard III

Francis writes in Spiritus, “I have decided to modify canon 230§1 of the Code of Canon Law. I therefore decree that Canon 230§1 of the Code of Canon Law shall in future have the following formulation.” Paul VI likewise declared in Ministeria that the new norms contained therein had the character of law and superseded all prior conflicting law: “[B]y our apostolic authority we enact the following norms, amending — if and in so far as is necessary — provisions of the Codex Iuris Canonici now in force, and we promulgate them through this Motu Proprio.”

The semantics involved, as Bankard discusses them, have no bearing on what Spiritus changed and what those changes mean for the liturgy and lay liturgical involvement. Disagreement over the Vatican’s language would better be directed to the Vatican.

Arguments related to the “rights” of functional participation have no apparent relevance to “Consequences,” which mentions the laity’s “baptismal priesthood” argument. The reason for Bankard’s desire to relitigate that topic here is unknown. Some of Bankard’s subjective claims regarding canon law are factually and objectively incorrect. Further, it must be noted that the pope has the authority to enforce canon-law changes, and that the 1917 and 1983 Codes are, in short, compendia of heretofore promulgated teachings.

Regarding “lay clericalism”: One is fortunate if one has not yet been confronted by laity in parishes who believe that they have greater standing than other lay persons because they are visible actors in the liturgy. It would be overly optimistic to claim that these visible actors will not flaunt even more when officiated titles are given them.

“Consequences” never denied that the “cracks” began earlier than official legal changes pertinent to the offices and ministries. Rather, “Consequences” dealt with the prominent beginnings of a specific legal “crack.” Surely, the article’s wording implied that these types of legal decisions were not made in isolation, with “climates,” “spirits,” and precursors beginning well before and eventually leading to openings for explicit changes in law.

The Precariousness of Life

I read with great interest and appreciation Jeffrey Essmann’s guest column “On Feeling Safe” (June). Though his jumping-off point is the coronavirus pandemic and the quest for total safety it has inspired, Essmann’s argument about the essential precariousness of human life, and Christ as the ultimate consolation for that inevitable state, is one that transcends our current moment. In particular, I found his reading and recommendation of the Book of Job moving and valuable. Thank you for publishing this beautiful meditation.

Kathleen E. Urda, Chairperson

Department of English, Bronx Community College, CUNY

Bronx, New York

The sources of anguish throughout these long months of the COVID-19 pandemic have been legion. As we have struggled to cope with them, some of the gnawing questions for thinking beings with a spiritual life have been “What’s this about? What’s God trying to tell us?” In a sense, it is unwise even to try to go there: Acts of God are, by definition, unfathomable. But Jeffrey Essmann offers a reflection that helps us begin to look at those questions in a way that is grounded in truth.

I am a Benedictine nun, and I find great spiritual nourishment in the Rule of St. Benedict, a document written in the sixth century but timeless in wisdom. One of St. Benedict’s maxims is that we should “day by day remind ourselves that we are going to die.” That seems to be what Essmann is getting at. As Essmann points out, feeling safe in an absolute sense is one of our deepest human cravings. But, he reminds us, even in the best of times (if such times exist), that kind of safety isn’t realizable. That we will die one day is our only certainty, and yet we spend so much time trying to deny it. What if we didn’t? What would existence be like?

Perhaps Essmann offers us a path forward in our desire to understand something of what God wants of us during this time of pandemic. Despite the opinion of the very frightened lady in his church’s vestibule, Essmann is in no way advocating the immediate abandonment of all scientifically grounded precautions against the spread of COVID-19. But he is talking, I think, about the way the pandemic challenges us to accept, prayerfully and in the presence of God, the non-negotiable fragility of the human species. Or, to say it in St. Benedict’s words, he’s talking about keeping death before our eyes each day.

This pandemic has made the certainty of my own death feel a lot more certain. Let me come clean: There are moments — and only moments — when I am able to accept it. But when I do, a freedom comes and a peace of soul that I have not experienced before.

Sr. Johanna Caton, O.S.B.

Minster Abbey

Minster, Kent, England

What intrigued me about Jeffrey Essmann’s guest column was not so much the idea of safety as the relationship of feeling to faith. In the greatest sense, each of us is always safe. Whether we die today or in 50 years, a loving and merciful God has prepared an eternity of bliss for His people.

Safety is a temporal concept in which we estimate from one moment to the next the likelihood of being harmed in some manner. But the feeling of being unsafe does not necessarily mean that we are actually in danger, any more than the feeling that God does not love us negates His love. God often provides consolations (positive feelings) to draw us closer to Him. When God removes those consolations, we grumble because we no longer feel His presence, even though His presence hasn’t wavered in the least.

Feelings are simply our body’s reaction to external events. We cannot control our feelings, but we can control how we react to our feelings.

Memento mori is not only a reminder of the inevitability of death; it is also a reminder of our eternity with God. When things look bleak in our lives, it is well to remember that our current pain — and feelings of being unsafe — are fleeting.

Tim Bete, O.C.D.S.

Dayton, Ohio

Dissent Cloaked in a Veneer of Orthodoxy

Thomas Storck’s review of Can a Catholic Be a Socialist? by Trent Horn and Catherine R. Pakaluk (June) takes the tone of a reproach, and rightfully so. Their book is another iteration in the all-too-long tradition of conservative American Catholics cloaking their dissent from the Magisterium in a veneer of orthodoxy.

Though I nodded along with Storck’s observations, my overall reaction to the review was mixed. On one hand, it was good to see a response in print and know where to point readers who were led astray. On the other hand, it was depressing to have another confirmation of the weary sage’s words: “The perverse are hard to be corrected, and the number of fools is infinite” (Eccl. 1:15).

As Storck observes, the partners in error make all the classic moves: selectively quoting encyclicals to hide the clarification that the next sentence provides, using changing definitions and sloppy histories of capitalism and socialism to match their rhetoric, quoting liberal (“Austrian”) economists as if they were authoritative, etc. Storck notes that Horn and Pakaluk “speak out of both sides of their mouth” by claiming to support strong unions but justifying sweatshops in Bangladesh.

For many conservative Catholics, Humanae Vitae’s teaching on contraception is definitive and absolute, but the consistent teaching of Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Laborem Exercens, and Centesimus Annus on just wages is “complicated” or “unclear.” This is the unfortunate result of the conservative/liberal theological divide.

Orthodox Catholics, who accept all of Church teaching — from social doctrine to sexual morality — must be ready to abandon their loyalties to modernist ideologies. Let us instead follow the path of the first Pontiff: “Behold, we have left all things, and have followed thee” (Mk. 10:29). Storck’s review is worth reading because it does precisely this.

Sean Domencic

Director of Tradistae Holy Family Catholic Worker

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

What Thomas Storck describes is the sloppy thinking that dominates the “conservative” side of the theological divide. Conservative Catholics identify socialism with communism, and then, step by step, identify “lesser” forms of socialism with this greater (redefined) socialism, so that any socialized good whatsoever can be denounced as somehow leading to communism. It is not so much a “debate” as a stratagem.

But the debate is wrongheaded from the start. While communism and capitalism might be contraries (though even this is doubtful, as both lead to the collectivization of the economy), markets and socialism are not; they are, in fact, complements. All markets depend on the presence of “socialized” goods and a “socialized” population. It doesn’t matter how good you are at making things; if there are no roads to take them to market, you will not be successful. If each entrepreneur had to dig his own latrine, drill his own well, provide his own security, educate his own customers and workers, or replace any of the dozens of socialized services, he would have no time to spend on his business.

Beyond socialized infrastructures and services, there is something even more important and harder to build: a “social” people, a citizenry with a certain level of decency that allows business to function at all. If you have to assume that everybody is likely a thief and operating in a lawless market, the transaction costs of monitoring each exchange would simply be too high. This is to say that the whole structure is dependent on the one institution capable of socializing the mass of men, that is, the family, and after that, the local community. So all economic activity, without exception, should be judged by its effect on these institutions, and it exists only to support them.

In truth, all socialized goods depend on the market to be funded, but all markets depend on socialized goods to exist. The relationship between them is reciprocal, not antagonistic.

The proper political debate, therefore, is not “socialism vs. markets,” but “What are the proper boundaries and domains of each?” So, for example, should health care be a market good or a socialized good? The answer cannot be given in advance, in the “abstract,” as it were. It is always a particular answer, dependent on the particular configuration of technology, education, distribution of wealth, etc. that pertains to this situation, which may, of course, be different in another situation. That is to say, the answer will always be political, and the standards of judging the answers will always be ethical; politics cannot be its own source of ethics, and ethics cannot be the source of the solutions. As with any humane science (and surely economics is such a science), the ultimate regulative principle must be justice at the natural level and caritas at the supernatural level, and neither level can be ignored.

These principles (and for the sake of argument, let’s say I got the principles plausibly right) are not all that clear in Rerum Novarum, are a little better in Quadragesimo Anno, but really come into their own in Laborem ExercensCentesimus Annus, and especially in Caritas in Veritate and Laudato Si’.

All this is to say that though I agree with Storck, I don’t think one can really answer the Horns and Pakaluks of the right-wing think tanks without going more deeply into the nature of markets themselves and connecting to the ethical order at a much more basic level. This is not meant as a critique of Storck’s review so much as a call to rethink our strategies.

John Médaille

Irving, Texas

In his review of our book Can a Catholic Be a Socialist? Thomas Storck agrees with us — and, more importantly, with the Magisterium — that Catholics cannot support communism or even moderate socialism. And we agree with Storck’s prudential judgment that Catholics should not adopt the socialist label, even if they are not advocating for socialist policies.

In spite of this agreement, Storck chides us for identifying socialism with “the worst sorts of regimes and programs.” Of course, it’s not our fault that when socialism is put into practice, it reaps what Pope Leo XIII called a “harvest of misery” (Graves de Communi Re, no. 21).

Storck implies that there can be a “Catholic socialism,” provided it doesn’t (1) embrace moderate socialism’s materialist and humanist philosophies and (2) adopt the label of “socialism.” But the only example Storck cites in this vein is the Nordic countries: “[Horn and Pakaluk] say Venezuela is an example of socialism but Scandinavia is not…. They say that the Nordic countries aren’t really socialist, despite the existence there of free college, national health care, and so on…. Whether these countries are socialist seems to be more of a verbal quibble than anything else.” Storck makes the classic error of identifying socialism with the welfare state. Catholics can support generous entitlement programs, but in our book, we also note Pope St. John Paul II’s concerns about their tendency toward inefficiency (cf. Centesimus Annus, no. 48).

Socialism is not defined by government “giving people free stuff.” Its defining feature is government not letting people be free to make their own stuff because it owns the majority of businesses. Moreover, any rational comparison of Venezuela’s business-confiscating, socialist-praising elite to Nordic governments that openly disavow socialism and have more billionaires per capita than the United States shows our judgment is sound and not a “verbal quibble.”

Storck asks, “Why do Horn and Pakaluk suggest that certain policies of Nordic countries might be acceptable to Catholics, but when similar policies are proposed in the United States [like government-controlled health care], they ‘should concern Catholics’? And if they are not examples of socialism, why even bring them up in a book dealing with socialism?” We bring them up because there are many people like Storck who mistakenly think these policies are identical to socialism. These policies can represent a “slippery slope” toward central planning, but we recognize that the gulags won’t immediately follow universal health care. However, such a system’s potential to foster evils like abortion within a healthcare monopoly is certainly a “cause for concern.”

Concerning capitalism, we are thankful that Storck agrees with the Magisterium that capitalism is, unlike socialism, not evil in principle. However, his central complaint seems to be that capitalism nevertheless causes a variety of evils. Of course, this is a facile objection that can be applied to any economic system, and Storck fails to show how a socialist economy would achieve better results or why capitalism is uniquely to blame. For example, Storck says that some capitalist countries have better living conditions than others, but this is to be expected as countries traverse the economic “march of progress” at different speeds. Blaming capitalism for this inequality is as wrongheaded as blaming democracy for the inequalities that exist between representative governments around the world.

Storck claims that the persistent stereotype of the shady used-car salesman disproves the idea that capitalism’s voluntary transactions sufficiently inhibit bad actors. At least under capitalism, people remain customers who can choose to go somewhere else after they’ve been hoodwinked. In government monopolies, they have to put up with Kafkaesque “customer service” because there are no competitors.

Storck objects to our observation that less-than-ideal working conditions in some capitalist economies are often better than alternatives like starvation by saying, “Such an argument can also be used to justify prostitution or slavery, as these likewise prevent ‘death by starvation.’” But we don’t praise these evils as ends; we recognize them as intermediate steps to tolerate as economies grow. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas justified limited legal prostitution in order to prevent greater evils (cf. Summa Theologiae, II-II q.10 a.11), and the Bible tolerated slavery in order to keep people from starving to death (cf. Gen. 47:19). The more relevant question is: Has capitalism dramatically improved living conditions for the vast majority of human beings? The data we provide in our book show the answer is an undeniable yes.

Storck misunderstands our argument related to incentives. It’s true that the incentive to work in many difficult entry-level jobs is not a high wage. However, the recent worker shortage caused by unusually generous pandemic unemployment benefits does show how socially redistributed wealth creates “disincentives” toward this kind of work, which was our entire point.

Finally, Storck says that capitalist arguments about harnessing greed for the common good are “not likely to promote virtue in [an evil man’s] soul.” But capitalism is not meant to form virtue on its own, and nothing in the system prevents a person from being as conscientious as a distributist like Storck.

Speaking of which, it’s no surprise Storck would disagree with our brief treatment of distributism. Space does not permit us to address his concerns here. We will instead comment on his final claim that “unlike the ideologies of both socialism and capitalism, the Catholic Church teaches and promotes a society in which all of life functions as a harmonious whole leading to Heaven.” Every economic model will be incomplete if it is not guided by Catholic principles. However, neither the Church (cf. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 41) nor logic gives us a “third way” between government owning the majority of productive property (socialism) and private firms owning it (capitalism).

Capitalism can always benefit from the insights of thoughtful people like Thomas Storck, but socialism is something no Catholic should support or even identify with, and that is something about which we and Mr. Storck can firmly agree.


Trent Horn
Catholic Answers
Keller, Texas

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk

The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C.


Thanks to Sean Domencic for his kind words about my review. He identifies the root problem when he notes that the theological mess within the Church is “the unfortunate result of the conservative/liberal theological divide.” Few Catholics seem able to overcome their adherence to one or the other of the secular ideological blocs that dominate American political discourse and identify simply as Catholics, adhering to all the teaching of the Church “from social doctrine to sexual morality.” I am not optimistic about this situation changing anytime soon, but if it did, it would go a long way toward overcoming the sad lack of unity that characterizes today’s Church.

John Médaille is correct that the functioning of markets depends on all sorts of non-market goods, the existence of which free-market ideologues take for granted and which they themselves indirectly undermine by their relentless championing of the commercialization of society. Traditional Catholic societies were based on a vast network of institutions and practices that were not rooted in commercial relationships. Their economic activity was rooted in social life as a whole, not seen as a separate compartment of life subject to its own laws. Modern Catholics who have fallen victim to libertarian or quasi-libertarian ideologies do not recognize how different are the policies they advocate from those our Catholic ancestors took for granted.

I appreciate Trent Horn and Catherine Pakaluk’s generous designation of me as “thoughtful,” but I fear they have missed the point of most of my review of their book. Apparently, it is impossible for them to take seriously Pope Pius XI’s careful discussion of socialism, which I quoted, including Pius’s crucial statement that “it cannot be denied that [moderate socialism’s] programs often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers.” Instead, Horn and Pakaluk claim that socialism’s “defining feature is government not letting people be free to make their own stuff because it owns the majority of businesses.” I am not sure where they get the idea that this is the “defining feature” of socialism. Certainly not from Pius XI. What they describe is some form of communism, and throughout their book they insist that there is no real difference between socialism and communism. Indeed, Horn and Pakaluk quote a sociology text that “the terms socialism and communism are often used more or less interchangeably,” but for some reason Horn and Pakaluk do not quote the very next sentence in that text, which runs, “However, it is important to differentiate between them.”

Likewise their quotation from Leo XIII ignores what Pius XI wrote: “Socialism, against which Our Predecessor, Leo XIII, had especially to inveigh, has since his time changed no less profoundly than the form of economic life.” Pius goes on to distinguish communism from what he calls “moderate socialism.” Yet Horn and Pakaluk claim that logic gives us no “‘third way’ between government owning the majority of productive property (socialism) and private firms owning it (capitalism).” It surprises me that writers with any knowledge of economic history could make such a simplistic claim, as history is full of examples of all sorts of economic arrangements with varying types of property ownership, as Pius XI himself notes.

Because I attempted to be fair to socialism, and true to Pius XI, Horn and Pakaluk suggest that I favor socialism in some way. “Storck fails to show how a socialist economy would achieve better results or why capitalism is uniquely to blame,” they write. But I never said a good word about socialism in my review. Apparently, they feel that any attempt to be accurate with regard to socialism is to be an advocate for it.

Next they write, “Storck says some capitalist countries have better living conditions than others, but this is to be expected as countries traverse the economic ‘march of progress’ at different speeds. Blaming capitalism for this inequality is as wrongheaded as blaming democracy for the inequalities that exist between representative governments around the world.” When I pointed out that capitalism differed in important respects in different countries, this was not an indictment of capitalism as such. I merely made the point that some forms of capitalism, such as the German social-market economy, go to lengths to guard against the evils that American-style capitalism all too frequently creates.

Then the truly bizarre. It is correct that St. Thomas “justified limited legal prostitution in order to prevent greater evils,” as did St. Augustine. But I do not think either saint would have approved of an economic system that forces mothers into prostitution because the only alternative is starvation, as Horn and Pakaluk do with regard to mothers working 12-hour days in the factories of early 19th-century England, even if this was only an intermediate step “to tolerate as economies grow.” If, according to capitalist ideology, the only way we can have material progress is to sacrifice an entire generation of working-class families, then may I suggest that there is something profoundly wrong with such an ideology?

I am glad Horn and Pakaluk walk back from the strange suggestion in their book that under capitalism, workers in dangerous or dirty jobs are paid high wages as incentives for choosing this kind of work. Now their “entire point” is simply that “socially redistributed wealth creates ‘disincentives’ toward this kind of work.” But this is not what they wrote in their book. They spoke of higher wages creating incentives for those sorts of jobs. But where does this happen? Not in American capitalism, to be sure. So, what utopia are they speaking of here?

Horn and Pakaluk appear to misunderstand what I said about their quotes of Adam Smith, in which he praises selfishness as the motivating force in the economy. Here the authors seem to have adopted the typical modern attitude that sees the economy as operating independently, under its own laws, and in which its bad tendencies are to be restrained merely by private virtue. But the classical Catholic attitude was different, in that it sought to subject the economy, like all the life of society, to Christ, so that, as Pius XI wrote, “the particular purposes, both individual and social, that are sought in the economic field will fall in their proper place in the universal order of purposes, and We, in ascending through them, as it were by steps, shall attain the final end of all things, that is God, to Himself and to us, the supreme and inexhaustible Good.”

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