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Defending Distributism

Rambling in the April Public Square the other day, minding my business and enjoying the view, I was suddenly set upon by a distantly familiar figure. It was Father Neuhaus, armed with nothing stronger than a back issue of the Chesterton Review and a bad dose of pique (“Economics in Verse and Prose” and “But To Be Fair . . . ”). The Review contained an article in which I defended “distributism,” the creed of small proprietorship frequently associated with G. K. Chesterton and his circle, in vogue a few years ago but now thought invincibly innocent in the face of a harsh competitive world. Initially taken aback, I was assured that my assailant would treat me with “an irresistible penchant to be fair.” Up to a point this was true. He accused me of promoting poetry and preaching. Catching the glint of a clerical collar, I thought this promised well: he was about to hand over his own wallet. Here was the kind of distributism I could support any day of the week. The presentiment of fairness was not sustained by what followed. Leave aside the oddity of a complaint of distributism’s vacuity that omits mention of any of its arguments. Forget the peculiarity of dismissing poetic avenues to truth while quoting Johnson’s verse as the beginning of political wisdom. Marvel rather at the skill with which straw men are tossed and gored. “Today it would seem that there are no alternatives to the market economy.” Here is a proposition no distributist disputes. “It is a sloppy . . . habit of mind that blames the failings of this or that social order on ‘capitalism.’” Any habit of mind so obviously sustained by cliche is sloppy. (Even more sloppy, by the way, is to assume equivalence within definitions of capitalism and anticapitalism.) “Distributism is an [antiquarian] economic theory . . . [rescued] by Chesterton’s devoted disciples.” It is not primarily an economic theory; it is not the property of any particular group; it has been criticized with more subtlety by Chestertonians than by “neoconservatives”; and it certainly makes no claim that only one model of economic behavior, ancient or modern, should be sanctioned. The burden of Father Neuhaus’ complaint is that distributism, engaging as social vision and even necessary as corrective to consumerism, has nothing but sermons to offer to “the world of economics daily chronicled by, say, the Wall Street Journal .” Could this be the same Father Neuhaus who has written that “the question about consumerism is not-certainly not most importantly-a question about economics. It is first of all a cultural and moral problem requiring a cultural and moral remedy” (Doing Well and Doing Good , p. 202)? The busy world of commerce is not to be denied or wished away, and Father Neuhaus is right to demand of distributists that they speak to it. The difficulty is not their silence but their garrulity. They have any number of responses to the Wall Street Journal , none of which deny the need for enterprise, competition, profit, personal responsibility, or creative engagement by individuals and communities with the earth’s bounty. Distributism has its peculiarities and occasional inconsistencies, but it can offer a perfectly respectable self-justification on purely economic grounds. Yet to speak of the dismal science is to miss the point. Distributism is less an economic theory than a moral anthropology. Its economic claims proceed from anterior moral claims about the acting person and the nature of charitable community. It is concerned above all with the creative subjectivity of human persons, their openness to transforming grace, and their capacity for dignity through work and property. So also is Father Neuhaus. Insofar as the debate between distributists and “neoconservatives” is interesting, it is for this reason. The uninitiated must wonder, however, at the heat of a dispute surely more notable for agreements than disagreements. The commonalities are easily rendered. Each offers, with John Paul, a defense of private property, of the family, of subsidiarity, of the economic autonomy of the individual, of solidarity. Each lays claim to a distinctive notion of “community” about which there may be honorable debate. Each deplores the emptiness of collectivism and mass culture, the indignity of welfarism, the sterility of consumerism. Perhaps-that irresistible penchant to be fair again-a period of charitable cooperation is therefore in order.

Dermot Quinn
Department of History
Seton Hall University
South Orange, NJ

As the co-organizer and chairman of the International Chesterton Society’s Croatian conference mentioned in the April issue, may I try to clarify a couple of points? I invited to Zagreb a mixed group of theologians and economists, experts on law and Catholic social teaching, Chestertonians and non-Chestertonians. The purpose was not to “preach distributism” to Eastern Europe but to open a debate on the interpretation and application of contemporary Catholic social teaching in post-Communist societies. That debate did begin, and it continues. Some of its participants (such as Dermot Quinn, Russell Sparkes, and those influenced by Dorothy Day, Wilhelm Roepke, or E. F. Schumacher) were and are much more sympathetic to the ideas and intuitions of the distributists than others. Some (notably David Schindler) developed their position expressly in terms of Centesimus Annus and the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. For all of us, the starting point and assumed framework for our discussion was the teaching of John Paul II that a free economy is now the only option for Europe. It is simply that many of us remain convinced that certain enduring principles affirmed by distributism and particularly by G. K. Chesterton can be helpful in fleshing out what exactly the Pope means by this “free economy.” However, it is important to make clear that the debate started by the conference, which has been taking place since that time within the pages of the Chesterton Review, Communio, New Oxford Review and elsewhere, is not and never has been merely about the relevance of distributism to Eastern Europe. In fact, talk about distributism can function as a distraction from the broader issue, which is precisely an attempt to respond to what Fr. Neuhaus calls “the structures and policies of the world of economics daily chronicled by, say, the Wall Street Journal .” That response is (and must be) in the first place theological. In other words, it must engage those structures at a level more profound than any at which the Wall Street Journal itself habitually operates. Some of the participants in our dialogue are professionally more concerned with engaging those structures at the level of economic policy, while remaining convinced, as I do, that the theological level is fundamental. Inevitably, the bringing of this debate to the public eye has involved some of us in attempting to express our differences with the neoconservatives. I am sure that as a group we would regret giving any impression of unfriendliness through the tone of these criticisms, and would not wish to detract from the considerable neoconservative achievements of the last few years-not the least of which is the journal First Things itself. It would be a good thing if we could talk in a serious way about the matters that still divide us. No one here (least of all David Schindler) is proposing to “die for an economic theory,” as Fr. Neuhaus puts it. But to take Christ seriously, we have to take theology seriously; and if we do that, we may find ourselves looking at economics in a different light.

Stratford Caldecott
Oxford, England

. . . One wonders if Fr. Neuhaus does not protest too much over the persistent criticism of American capitalism. He appears to find such criticism particularly inappropriate after the collapse of the purportedly only “real” alternative-state socialism. He dismisses as dreamy and naive any system other than capitalism, especially the distributism championed by Belloc and Chesterton. Christians ought to have continuing reservations about a system that by its inner logic allows pornography, drug trafficking, prostitution, and child labor. Through law derived from our religious traditions we restrain these social pathologies, but capitalism itself makes no such moral distinctions. It knows nothing of love and mercy, without which no human civilization can long survive . . . . If we believe, as apparently does much of the Catholic tradition, that small entrepreneurship, worker participation in the ownership of industrial concerns, and family farming are also good, i.e., conducive to a more stable society and tending to foster a more Christian way of life, then a set of policies and a legislative agenda to promote these are not difficult to formulate. Tax incentives (and disincentives) alone can easily encourage small scale entrepreneurship and the growth of ESOP’s (Employee Stock Ownership Plans). The elimination of agricultural subsidies to large concerns would benefit the family farm. Zoning laws can favor traditional shops over the proliferation of Wal-Marts and other megastores. Even giving the poor access to capital can be achieved by adjustments in the tax treatment of loans or seed capital to those not yet in the “circle of productivity and exchange.” The issue then is not whether the distributist ideal can be approached through the democratic process; it certainly can and in some aspects it already has. The real issue is whether we as a Christian people are willing to put limits on our material prosperity for the sake of a more authentically Christian way of life.

Nicholas J. Healy, Jr.
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Steubenville, OH

I rather suspect that if G. K. Chesterton were alive today he would, far from sharing Father Neuhaus’ infatuation with “democratic” capitalism, be mourning the fact that his warnings were not heeded, that corporations have grown unbelievably huge and centralized while family farms and shops have nearly disappeared. But defending Chesterton against the criticisms of Catholic neoconservatives is rather like defending a giant against a band of pygmies: the pygmies may appreciate being taken seriously, but it is hardly a pressing or necessary task. And why do you misrepresent Dr. David Schindler’s criticism of neoconservatism as “a dispute over an economic theory”? His criticism is primarily a theological one and I have never seen any of the neoconservatives address his objections. The economic critique put forward by others is secondary.

Daniel Nichols
Wooster, OH

Cure for the Blues?

James Nuechterlein’s “Lutheran Blues” (April) have been just what I have been singing lately too. But what makes them wonderful is the echo of Luther’s lament heard in them. Twelve years into the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote in the preface to his Large Catechism that the clergy should “feel a little shame because, like pigs and dogs, they remember no more of the Gospel than this rotten, pernicious, shameful, carnal liberty.” “As it is,” he went on, “the common people take the gospel altogether too lightly.” Then, twenty years after the Reformation had begun, he wrote in the preface to his Smalcald Articles : “There are some who are so spiteful-not only among our adversaries, but also false brethren among those who profess to be adherents of our party-that they dare to cite my writings and teachings against me. They let me look and listen, although they know very well that I teach otherwise. They try to clothe their venomous spirits in the garments of my labor and thus mislead the poor people in my name. Imagine what will happen after I am dead!” Unlike Mr. Nuechterlein, however, Luther did not “find it difficult to imagine how things might be turned around.” In his 1519 Treatise on the Sacrament of Penance , he wrote how to straighten out the wayward. “One must first soften them up with the terrible judgment of God and cause them to quail, so that they too may learn to sigh.” Reintroducing what is hard-hitting-like the wrath of God, penance, fasting, and self-mortification-will go a long ways toward ending the Lutheran blues.

(The Rev.) Ronald F. Marshall
First Lutheran Church of West Seattle
Seattle, WA

James Nuechterlein’s article on the state of Lutheranism was an interesting one. However, Mr. Nuechterlein betrayed a lack of insight into the internal dynamics (admittedly byzantine) of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Nuechterlein suggests that the Synod’s position on biblical inerrancy has caused a “susceptibility to evangelicalism and church growth” and styles of piety alien to Lutheranism. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most prominent defenders of inerrancy in the Missouri Synod, the theologians Kurt Marquart and Robert Preus, are also among the most vigorous opponents of the Church Growth Movement and Reformed worship styles. Defenders of inerrancy are almost absent in the Church Growth and Charismatic camps. I agree with James Nuechterlein’s diagnosis that anti-Lutheran viruses abound in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. But the cause of the sickness that pervades the Synod is not to be found among the defenders of God’s inerrant Word.

Kenneth J. Schmidt
Pompton Lakes, NJ

I wish that James Nuechterlein would be more precise in writing about what he sees as problems in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. For example, he says the LCMS’s insistence on literal inerrancy leaves it “vulnerable to charges of biblicist obscurantism.” Webster’s defines “biblicist” as “a person who interprets the Bible literally.” “Obscurantism” is defined as “1. opposition to the increase and spread of knowledge; 2. deliberate obscurity or evasion of clarity.” What exactly does the Missouri Synod’s alleged insistence on literal inerrancy obscure? Does it prevent LCMS members from a careful, historical study of the biblical text? (In several cases, I would argue, “Yes, it does!”) Or does Mr. Nuechterlein mean that it prevents the Missouri Synod from getting sucked into “the assured results” of the latest liberationist, feminist, or multiculturalist study? (In several cases, I would argue, “Yes, it does!”) But what exactly does the First Things columnist mean to say? I really don’t know . . . .

Robert J. Mueller
Mandeville, LA

How Should He Presume?

In “Poverty and the Partisan Press” (April) Michael Novak points out that since the advent of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and its socialist transfer of wealth programs, crime rates and illegitimate births have soared. He writes, “Those of us who were in favor of the poverty programs never predicted such outcomes.” But free market economists did, as well as most other conservatives, who understood that the federal bureaucracies administering AFDC, food stamps, and public housing projects would only multiply the problems of the underclass. Mr. Novak sounds like Eliot’s Prufrock: “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”

Gregory Galassini
Astoria, NY

Michael Novak replies:

My comfort is the parable about those who came to labor in the vineyard late; but my sin was exactly as Prufrock puts it. Rivers of Blood?

A footnote to Dennis Teti’s fine article “John Brown Redux” (April). On the scaffold from which he was hanged on December 2, 1859, this convicted multiple murderer declared: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but by blood.” Just over sixteen months later the Civil War began and the rivers of blood began to flow. Mindful of today’s abortion crimes-1.5 million unborn babies killed annually, justified with arguments chillingly identical to those once used to justify slavery-can we say that our land is less guilty than that which John Brown beheld for the last time on that December day in 1859?

(The Rev.) John Jay Hughes
St. Louis, MO

Understanding Glossolalia

It was heartening to read in Peter Berger’s “The Vernacularist Illusion” (April) something positive about the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement. First Things seems to be ignoring or disparaging this influential movement. Charismatic gifts and ministries are powerful antidotes to the rationalistic tendencies of modern theology and culture. The associated praise and worship music that is sweeping the world may not be to the editors’ taste, but it is, I believe, maturing into a lasting religious expression. Next time may Mr. Berger visit a church (Anglican or otherwise) that is alive in the Charismatic renewal.

Ralph Gillmann
Burke, VA

Peter L. Berger’s article uses a most inappropriate argument, or maybe says more than he realizes. Catholic and Episcopalian liturgies have gone to vernacular English to make them more intelligible to the congregation, and hopefully, thereby, help decrease the loss of members. Mr. Berger argues that liturgical intelligibility is not the problem because Pentecostalism is “spreading like a prairie fire” despite its unintelligible glossolalia. This argument is invalid. Liturgy attempts to create a sense of religious wonder and awe by touching the intellect and emotions of the individual, whereas glossolalia results from an individual experiencing the transcendent, supernatural power of God. The liturgy, like good theater, stirs the individual internally by using external stimuli. In contrast, glossolalia is a result-not a stimulus. It is the bursting forth of exalted worship. An overwhelming visitation of God calls forth a depth of worship that is beyond the ability of the individual to express. In a state of ecstasy the individual is caught up into enraptured worship that when voiced comes forth as glossolalia. The rapid spread of Pentecostalism is a result of the concrete, physical contact with God that Pentecostals teach and experience. Conversely, liturgy is commonly good theater that often provides little more than an emotional stir-if that. Mr. Berger is correct. Intelligibility is not the problem.

Forrest H. Scott
Middletown, OH

One never knows quite when to take Peter Berger’s On the Other Hand column seriously. When he used the example of Pentecostalism as an argument against the vernacularizing tendency in worship, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or think. Since then I’ve done both. As one who has participated regularly in charismatic services recently, I can confirm the basic accuracy of Mr. Berger’s statements about glossolalia (speaking in tongues). An appealing feature of this kind of worship is its “divine otherness” compared to the mundane activities of life. I suspect one of the driving forces behind vernacularization is a fear of looking foolish, a feeling that outsiders will listen to the Latin or Elizabethan words and think, “How silly! These people are really behind the times.” But St. Paul said that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.” Pentecostal worship puts “God’s foolishness” right out in the open. Observers may draw their own conclusions, but at a typical charismatic service there is no question in anyone’s mind that something out of the ordinary is going on. You can’t mistake it for a Rotary Club meeting . . . .

Karl D. Stephan
Belchertown, MA
Frankly, I don’t think Peter Berger gets it. He asserts that the rise in Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement is due to people’s desire to relate to God in a language they don’t understand. Mr. Berger then calls for the return to “higher” or more poetic language, as if this will bring more people into church. I agree that many mainline denominations are shrinking because their members are going elsewhere to find “transcendence.” However, transcendence is not a matter of what tongue one speaks in, be it of angels or men, glossolalia or Latin. First of all, the typical charismatic church service is not “dominated by glossolalia,” as Mr. Berger asserts. The songs (be they hymns or choruses), the sermon, the Bible readings, even the liturgy (if it’s an Episcopal or Catholic charismatic church) are all in English. Worshippers may sing or speak in tongues during the singing time, and sometimes a prophecy might be given in tongues (which is then interpreted), but most of the service is conducted in English . . . . Mr. Berger ends his column by extoling the service he attended in London with a few old ladies and an even older vicar. His description of the state of this dying church belies his thesis that it is the vernacular that turns people away; if people want the transcendence of the “unexpurgated” Book of Common Prayer then why aren’t they filling the pews of this nearly empty church? I have nothing against traditions (I happen to like the Book of Common Prayer), but we must not let them take the place of real worship, or use them to shut out people who have not grown up in the tradition. I’m not advocating dumbing down the Gospel, but I am advocating communicating it. So many mainline churches are buttoned-down places where people go to sing a couple of hymns, as staidly as possible, hear a sermon, and leave. They have heard about God, but there is little opportunity for relating to God during the service. This is what the charismatic churches try to provide. Through heartfelt songs, moments of silence for personal prayer and reflection, and an openness to hear from people who feel God is speaking to them (whether or not it is God is a matter of discernment), this type of service encourages the expectation that God is here and that we can experience Him, individually or corporately, during the service. This provides the transcendence so many of us seek.

Shannon K. West
Mountlake Terrace, WA

A Persistent Pattern

In the “While We’re At It” section of The Public Square (April) Fr. Neuhaus makes the comment that “last summer, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine ran an article titled ‘Regulating Physician-Assisted Death.’ Getting implicit support from NEJM was a big score for the pro-euthanasia side.” Not at all. The NEJM first hinted at support for direct patient killing in a 1988 editorial, and since then there has been a disturbing pattern that hints at a deliberate editorial bias in favor of legalizing euthanasia. Since the 1988 editorial, there have been eight pro-euthanasia articles, four of which devised guidelines; what is more significant is that, in a journal that turns down nine out of ten papers, six of the papers were written by only four authors. In contrast, the neutral or “anti” forces have managed to get only five articles published. Perhaps more significantly, other points of view were not given coverage. For example, “religious” points of view weregiven one paragraph in one article-and, as the saying goes, “he just didn’t get it”-even though the value system of most Americans has a theological basis. The blind denial of the NEJM of the limitations of bureaucratic regulation as evidenced by the problems of undesired euthanasia in the Netherlands is, however, long-standing. Nine papers published between 1988 and 1992 pointed out that the Dutch had successfully implemented physician-aided dying under “strict guidelines” (this was even mentioned favorably in papers opposing the practice!), and there was no mention in the NEJM of the problems of unwanted euthanasia in that country until mid-1993. Yet problems with the “Dutch experiment” were reported in the lay press and in ethical journals as far back as 1988 and confirmed by the 1991 Remmelink Report of the Dutch government. This is an astonishing omission in a journal that claims: “There is nothing reprehensible about honest error, but there must be a willingness to search it out, report it faithfully, and follow the new evidence wherever it may lead.” Apparently, with respect to medical ethics, political correctness is more important than scientific integrity. The party line is succeeding, since few other medical journals have alerted their readers to the “adverse effects” of the “Dutch experiment.” As a result, there has been little opposition in the medical community when those who support changing our social policies continue to repeat the myth that guidelines would protect the public.

N. K. O’Connor, M.D.
Nanty Glo, PA

Death and Feeding Tubes

Nancy Harvey’s article “Dying Like A Dog” (April) motivates me to give another point of view on feeding tubes. She says that we cannot overcome death. That states the obvious, but it is important to keep that point in mind. That leads to what I think are the key questions: when should we attempt to delay death, and to what lengths do we go to accomplish this? To me, Ms. Harvey implies that regardless of the patient’s life expectancy, doctors should always insert a feeding tube. She writes about situations that range from a patient given a few weeks to live to a young person fully alert but physically handicapped. The context that guides my thoughts is the patient in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease who has lost the ability to swallow. By this time, she no longer recognizes family members and friends. This patient can feel pain, confusion, depression, and anxiety, but feels little pleasure. I agree with Ms. Harvey that we should never remove food and liquid from a patient. However, she seems to take an either/or approach to the feeding tube: either you insert the feeding tube, or you have withdrawn food and liquid. This should not be the case and does not have to be the case. Staff or family can make food available and attempt to spoon feed. The important question regarding a feeding tube is when is it the appropriate way to give food. When an Alzheimer’s patient reaches the advanced stage, I don’t believe death should be delayed by inserting a feeding tube. I do think family, friends, and nursing staff should try to spoon feed liquids and food at regular intervals. I think the patient should be treated with care and compassion. But I don’t think death should be delayed by a feeding tube.

Jim Elliot
Atlanta, GA

Nancy Harvey replies:

Mr. Elliot expresses concern about the severe Alzheimer’s patient who is being offered nourishment by family, friends, and nursing staff. Of course, staying with a patient and coaxing him to eat is much better than using a tube. It is certainly more fun for the patient. It is also more difficult to label a spoonful of scrambled eggs “medical treatment” and have it stopped so that the patient starves to death. Tubes are needed only when that patient cannot or will not eat. It is unfortunate that they are widely used to save time and money, when the patient could be enjoying a spaghetti dinner. The problem with the tube and the Alzheimer’s patient comes when the patient will not eat or drink no matter how hard we coax. We insert the tube, but the patient pulls it out. Do we tie such people down, sedate them, and use the tube anyway? I am not sure, but I do know two things. Once a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is made, some doctors look no further, and every problem is labeled “Alzheimer’s.” There may be other causes for loss of appetite, or refusal to eat-cancer, Chrohn’s disease, or, as in the case of my aunt, paranoia resulting from over-medication. We did “force” her to have a stomach tube (with restraints), but when her medication was adjusted she was able to walk to the dining room and enjoy her favorite foods. Finally, I think we must be very cautious when a doctor says that someone “doesn’t feel it.” We simply cannot know exactly how that person feels. It is true that some older people do not feel heat and cold and pain exactly as we middle-aged folks do. But pain thresholds vary among people at any age. I know a man in his nineties who seems to be as sensitive to pain as I am. And starvation and dehydration are not exactly pain. They are immensely overwhelming sensations-every part of the body suffers, and the mind knows it, unless it is completely unaware of any sensation at all. I find the idea of restraints and sedation repugnant, and restraints without sedation horrifying. But I also find horrifying the idea of a person starving because his mind is so confused that it no longer knows how to satisfy the painful cravings of his body. A Sacramental Gift

I would like you to know how much I enjoyed Matthew Scully’s interview with Viktor Frankl in the April issue. Mr. Frankl is now ninety and that generation is slipping away from us. Soon there will be no live witnesses left to remind us of how fast we can fall from being a civilized society to something unspeakable. Frankl’s transcendence and sanctification (I’m sure he would forgive and understand the use of that word) of his suffering is surely one of the most extraordinary events of the era. Someone once said that as a visible sign of God’s presence on earth, the Jews were the first sacrament. After reading Mr. Scully’s account, could any Christian argue against Mr. Frankl’s life as being sacramental using even that classical catechism definition of a sacrament as being a visible sign instituted by God to give grace? Thanks to Mr. Scully for reminding us of that which is so rightly to be remembered and even cherished from an otherwise nightmarish era.

Michael J. Reynolds
Tarrytown, NY

Real Issues

I was disappointed and even somewhat troubled to read Fr. Neuhaus’ commentary regarding Alister McGrath’s discussion of the new Roman Catholic Catechism (“Protestant Reformation and Universal Church,” Public Square, March). I agree that one should not expect the new Catechism to deal extensively with the Reformation. Yet Fr. Neuhaus responds by trivializing sola fide as a “sixteenth-century” concern not relevant to the majority of Christians. Sola fide is the sole means of receiving the grace of justification, which is in turn the very core of the Gospel itself. Fr. Neuhaus’ response illustrates that our two camps may have rather more substantial disagreements than mere semantic issues and adiaphora . I gladly support, with a few qualms about wording, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document. I recognize that many Roman Catholics are fellow regenerate Christians. Yet I cannot accept that all are, any more than I can accept that all who warm pews in evangelical congregations are. Sola fide is an essential issue, as important as Chalcedon and the Athanasian Creed. It answers the basic question asked not only in the sixteenth century, but also in the first, and, nissi Dominus frustra , in the twenty-first: “How might a man be saved?” . . .

Stephen D. Schaper
Saint Louis, MO

Woman With Baby

Apropos of the comment (recorded in While We’re At It, April) on the “sexism” of the Baby with the Madonna always being a boy, a woman in New Jersey last Christmas asked a postal clerk if he had stamps other than those with candy canes. His reply: “Well, we have some with a woman and a baby.” Honestly! Yours for Christian education.

Robert H. Moore, Jr.
Bluefield, WV

Greek God Gaffe

“John J. Savant on Dionysius,” said your May cover, and so I eagerly opened my copy anticipating a discussion of the Areopagite, author of record of the Christian Neoplatonic treatise “On the Divine Names.” Imagine my surprise when I discovered an article about “Dionysus,” in which the god’s name was misspelled (no casual misprint this) eleven times, ten times too many for a journal of the quality of First Things . To be sure, between Dionysus and Dionysius the difference is only a single iota, but an iota’s difference can be considerable: witness the fourth-century controversy about the nature of Christ ( homoousios versus homoiousios ). The article itself was no better than the confusion in its spelling would lead one to expect. But Dionysus has proved to be the graveyard of common sense and clarity many times before this. Here murk and obnubilation are the rule, and to invoke Dionysus to shed light on the problems of our age is an example of the fault obscurum per obscurius explicare. No more on Dionysus, please: he who would sup with that devil must have a long spoon. Occasional lapses apart, First Things is a great pleasure to read. But iotas (this time missing ones) remain a problem. “To deprecate” is to wish the nonexistence of, while “to depreciate” is to speak slightingly of: the modest are self-depreciating, deprecating praise of themselves, but only the suicidal are self-deprecating. If Fr. Neuhaus would instruct his copyeditors to check all instances of the first to make sure it shouldn’t be the second (and also replace the substandard “alright” with “all right”), First Things would be as perfect as sublunary conditions allow.

David Kovacs
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

The Editors reply:

Alright already. In fact, there is a longstanding in-house dispute over “alright” and “all right,” so we play it by ear. As for “deprecate” and “depreciate,” our office dictionaries offer contradictory testimony, so we will stick by the one that agrees with us. But Prof. Kovacs did catch us with our classics down on Dionysus (a.k.a. Bacchus). The proofreaders responsible have been informed that they get only water at the next office bacchanalia. (To our teetotalling subscribers: Just kidding. All right?)

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