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Terror & Tragedy

In “Amis Amiss” (June/July 2008), Alan Jacobs asks, “When it is time to talk about terror, tragedy, and world-historical occasions, what do writers”precisely as writers ”bring to the table?” Might I suggest that what writers as poets have to offer is a unique penetration of universal issues via carefully chosen particular experiences and persons. I draw this notion from Aristotle’s Poetics: “Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” Martin Amis’ attempt to understand “terror, tragedy, and world-historical occasions””via personal relations and experiences”may be done well or ill, but it seems an essential way of coming to grips with these realities, which neither straightforward historic description of particulars nor philosophic treatment of universals may replace.

Joel M. Potter
Mount Vernon, Ohio 

The Modern Schoolman

Russell Hittinger’s article (“Two Thomisms, Two Modernities,” June/July 2008) was perceptive and revelatory, especially in his analysis of the “four threads” of Thomism and Modernism that had to be untangled. I found, however, his description of the Syllabus and its aftermath somewhat hurried. If Catholics were left “scratching their heads” over the propositions of the Syllabus,

Hittinger should have at least mentioned the critical work of Msgr. Dupanloup, Bishop of Orleans, in his pamphlet The September Convention and the Syllabus of December 8 . As E.E.Y. Hales has succinctly pointed out in his Pio Nono: First Modern Pope , Dupanloup posited the thesis and the antithesis of the propositions”the former referring to the ideal of the true society, the latter to what is possible and just in the existing state of society. The Church’s opponents were talking in terms of absolutes; therefore the Church had to assert what were the true absolutes. For example, if a teaching held that the Catholic Church had to be everywhere disestablished (proposition 55), it is not true to say that everywhere she should be an Established Church.

It should be stated that this proposition was condemned in the allocution Acerbisimum of September 27, 1852. In reality, if the Syllabus is to be discussed at all, it should be with mention of the documented citations attached to every proposition. To read the Syllabus straight through without stopping to check the citations, it might just look like Pius IX is condemning every notion Americans hold dear.

If 630 bishops plus Pius IX himself thanked Dupanloup for writing his clarification, could there not have been a clear understanding of the Syllabus even then, and not the imputed embarrassment, the scratching of heads?

Charles J. Morgan
Dowling College
Oakdale, New York

Three cheers for Russell Hittinger’s identification of the problem created by the split in Thomistic philosophy as a result of the attempt to respond to modernity. He outlines the theological history of that split, but he does not share with the reader the philosophical integration and synthesis that has been taking place since at least Etienne Gilson as a result of drawing out from the metaphysics of St. Thomas what is implicit in his writings.

Gilson concluded on the basis of his own historical research that the only authentic Thomism was the Christian philosophy that he had discovered in the theological works of St. Thomas. He discovered that St. Thomas’ own philosophy was always present in the context of theology and that its exposition followed theology’s descending order from God to world. Previous major commentators and even interpreters had failed to grasp the essential role of the act of existence in St. Thomas’ own philosophy of man.

For Gilson there was only one authentic Thomistic metaphysics”a metaphysics of existence whose starting point, although located within the theology of St. Thomas, is sensible being.

In addition to Gilson’s discoveries, the latter half of the twentieth century has seen further development of a distinctive metaphysics of the person and of the relationality implicit in the metaphysics of St. Thomas. Thomistic personalism is now an important force in Catholic philosophical thought. In America, an independent neo-Thomist, Fr. William Norris Clarke at Fordham University, carried on a lively dialogue with American linguistic philosophers and Whiteheadian process philosophers.

Clarke studied in Europe for some time and incorporated into his own Thomism elements of participation and relationality which he believes are also implicit in Thomas’ metaphysics. From these texts, and his own reflections, he elaborated a Thomistic personalism in which the prime instantiation of existence, from which it should be studied, is the conscious human person, whose essential structure is made manifest through philosophical reflection on concrete interpersonal interaction.

Through his dialogue with process philosophy, Clarke opened an innovative philosophy of divine knowledge, as well as proposing some significant revisions in the Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics of both existence and relations. It remains to be seen how well his work and the ideas of the late John Paul II are integrated into Thomas’ metaphysics of existence.

It is also my opinion that these ideas are implicit in the writings of St. Thomas and that therefore any attempt to address modernity or postmodernity without an integrated and full Thomistic metaphysics that includes participation, process, and personalism is doomed to failure. Thomism still presents a unifying weltanschauung that explains not only contingent being but also addresses the integrity of the human person. It is capable of reconciling the “being of the ancients with the subjectivity of the moderns,” as Kenneth L. Schmitz notes in his recently published The Texture Of Being: Essays in First Philosophy .

Clifford Simske
Tuscon, Arizona

While Russell Hittinger’s piece is an informative outline on the historical sequence of papal documents on modernism and well points out that the Catholic Church’s obeisance to king or nation is not the ideal (and hence not traditional). Hittinger is wrong, however, in his diagnosis of an early twentieth-century Thomistic schizophrenia in the Church. The crux of Hittinger’s criticism is that “the Vatican had in place two entirely different Thomisms”one broad and oriented to social questions, the other narrow and focused on capita that could not be debated.” To say there are “two entirely different Thomisms” because of the breadth of their applications is fallacious. Rather, it is in the application of these theories where the difference lies.

Thomism itself remained amazingly integral and singular (subject as it is to some variation in interpretation). Naturally, the responses of Thomism remain nearly static when as “preambles of faith” they are applied to an unchanging (or even slowly, organically developing) sacred doctrine. And naturally, when Thomism was applied to the ever changing, indeed metastasizing, social and political realm of the twentieth century, it yielded new and varied responses”but the variable was the environment, while Thomism remained the constant.

There is, however, a two-Thomism trend, and that is exactly where Hittinger claims that the supposed early twentieth-century split is healed. It is in the phenomenological and humanistic “Thomism” of the latter part of the century, of Karol Wojtyla and others: a Thomism that is ordered toward human experience rather than being. Hittinger correctly points out that this new Thomism finds its point of reference in the human experience: “The Church has held Thomas as the master because humans themselves thirst for the kind of wisdom Thomas pursued and taught. The metaphysical questions are neither divine nor angelic, but human ”because man stands at the frontier of matter and spirit.”

Thomism, however, is to be revered not because of the thirst but because it guides man to the living waters that quench that thirst. It is the waters, the light, the truth, the Supreme Being, that is all important, not the human experience of thirst or inadequacy.

What the human experience, as opposed to “the divine or angelic,” brings to the equation is a limited and darkened intellect. Thus, while it is true that the metaphysical questions are human, the answers are divine. Whether this new phenomenological and humanistic Thomism and classic Thomism can ever be united is, to put it mildly, highly controverted, and indicative of much that is at issue in the Vatican II debates, doctrinally, pastorally, and socially.

Finally, by listing the errors of modernism in syllabus form, the Vatican did, contrary to Hittinger’s assertions, take the less constrictive approach. While condemning errors is no doubt easier ( mea culpa ) than proclaiming defined rectifying truths, it also graciously allows all other options save those being condemned; definitive positive statements do not.

G. C. Dilsaver
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

It is rare that an essay aids one in understanding the landscape of one’s own faith community and tradition, but Russell Hittinger’s article did just that for me. Hittinger admirably illustrates how the bifurcation of two Thomisms”one focusing on the metaphysics of the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologiae and the second concentrating on the social and political questions of the Secunda Pars ”is intellectually untenable.

The fissure caused by this bifurcated reading of St. Thomas is perhaps more radical for Catholicism in America than Hittinger hints. He writes: “We need only survey the chronic and significant differences of opinion over the systematic grounding of natural law today, as well as the extraordinarily complicated and controversial skirmish lines over questions of moral theology, to see that this is so.”

Indeed, he is correct, but I suspect that the ramifications extend to liturgical questions, doctrinal opinions, devotional practices, attitudes toward ecumenism, ecclesiological models, understandings of authority, and the general understanding of how Catholics are in relation to the world at large. Moreover, John Paul II clearly understood the divide in terms not only of the universal Church but also of the intellectual superficiality of reading one pars at the expense of another pars . The whole of his pontificate can be seen as a magisterial effort to restore the Church to reading the Summa as a whole. Every Sunday we pray at Mass that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Intellectually, we should recommit ourselves to reading the whole Summa as well.

Lucas Lamadrid
Belmont Abbey College
Belmont, North Carolina

Russell Hittinger replies:

Charles Morgan is right to bring up Msgr. Dupanloup. My discussion of this intervention, alas, was left on the cutting room floor at First Things . But you can find it in Nova et Vetera (5:4). Briefly, Dupanloup argued for a sensible principle of interpretation. He contended that the erroneous propositions listed in the Syllabus should be read as liberal theses”liberal universals as it were. But the ordinary person had to keep fixed in mind that the Syllabus lists liberal theses rather than Catholic doctrines, and then had to go in search of just the right negation. Given that every one of the eighty propositions could be negated (plausibly) in several different ways, it was almost guaranteed that a mélange of different opinions would ensue.

It is important to remember that the courts and cabinets of Europe were developing church-state policy on the basis of what seemed to be affirmed or denied in that document. To add to the confusion, Civilt Cattolica had reversed the distinction. Fixed principles of ontology were identified with the thesis , while the hypothesi s stood for things as they might become by intrusion ofaccidental circumstances. On that version, the Syllabus was turned upside-down. Now people went in search of reasons to derogate from the Catholic ideal. The reverberations of this confusion continue well into the twentieth century.

I cannot add much to Clifford Simske’s recommendation about reading Gilson, except to say that Gilson insisted “that Pope Leo XIII was the greatest Christian philosopher of the nineteenth century and one of the greatest of all time.”

Gilson tells the story of how, on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his election (March 19, 1902), Leo recalled the main acts of his pontificate. He listed nine encyclicals, beginning with Aeterni Patris; all of the rest were social encyclicals with applications of Thomism. It was that line of Thomism that I wanted to highlight in my article.

Perhaps G.C. Dilsaver reads a bit more into my article than what I said. It is not my interpretation that anyone (in or out of the Vatican) intended to put the two tasks at loggerheads. I tried to explain how the two tasks (doctrinal and social) came under different disciplines and levels of supervision and why the social theory tended to thrive under a broader set of directives.

As for his brief pitch for the value of condemnations, Mr. Dilsaver might be right in principle, but of course it all depends how things are stated and how they are received. Pius IX himself called the Syllabus “raw meat.” To see how that meat was rather delicately prepared and cooked, read Leo’s encyclicals.

I couldn’t agree more with Lucas Lamadrid’s comment about John Paul II. A brief example: In Centesimus Annus he insists that the social-economic issues in Rerum Novarum must be read “within the context of Pope Leo’s whole magisterium” ( CA 17). Then follows a note with precise references to Leo’s encyclicals that wed together the metaphysics, anthropology, and social teachings”including Quod Apostolici Muneris (1878), where Leo begins with the prima pars account of divine governance of the angels, and moves along to the problems of socialism.

Crime and Punishment

Fr. John Coughlin’s excellent review (“Scandal and Canon Law,” June/July 2008) of Nicholas Cafardi’s equally excellent book Before Dallas: The U.S. Bishops’ Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children is marred by approval of setting aside “prescription,” the statute of limitations for the prosecution of a delict in canon law. Coughlin asserted that prescription rendered canon law ineffective for the prosecution of accused clerics because “victims of child abuse sometimes do not bring accusations to the attention of church authorities until many decades after the abuse has occurred.” This is a mantra chanted often in the media by self-serving contingency lawyers and victim groups, but the claim lacks both context and proof.

The prison where I have lived for the last fourteen years houses some 2,500 prisoners, 40 percent of whom are convicted of sexual crimes”most against children. That translates into a population of some one thousand sexual offenders in this single prison, with another six thousand in the state’s parole system. Two of these are Catholic priests, one accused three months after a series of claimed assaults and the other accused of an assault from twenty-seven years ago.

The other 6,998 are accused parents, grandparents, step-parents, uncles, teachers, ministers, scout leaders, and so on, and for them the typical time lapse between alleged abuse and a victim coming forward to report it was measured in weeks or months, or years”certainly not decades. There is simply no evidence to support Coughlin’s contention that sexual-abuse victims typically require decades to come forward.

So what sets the accusers of priests apart from other victims? The John Jay Report revealed that a full 70 percent of the claimants against Catholic priests came forward not in the 1960s to 1980s, when the abuse was claimed to have occurred, but in 2002, when Church institutions were forced into “blanket settlements.”

Before the Church abandons the rule of law in favor of the cascade of media bias, much more study of the relation between settlements and claims is needed. Financial settlement appears to be the sole common denominator that sets claims against priests apart from most other claims. As Archbishop Charles Chaput has asserted elsewhere in the pages of First Things , “statutes of limitations exist in legal systems to promote justice, not hinder it.”

Rev. Gordon MacRae
Hampton, New Hampshire

John Coughlin, O.F.M., replies:

In response to Gordon MacRae, I would offer two points of clarification. First, I fully agree that prescription (statute of limitations) is a significant aspect of the rule of law, and I did not argue that canonical prescription ought to be ignored. Rather, I described Cafardi’s explanation that certain canonists advised bishops that prescription would bar canonical action against priest abusers. Bishops apparently followed this advice. They routinely failed to rely on the canonical process even when prescription would not have barred canonical action. The failure was particularly egregious in notorious cases when canonical action was not brought against serial child abusers.

Second, I did not contend that all sexual-abuse victims require decades prior to reporting the offense to authorities. Again, I was simply describing the reality of what in fact occurred. As MacRae’s letter itself acknowledges, a great number of accusations against priests were not brought to the attention of diocesan officials until after the 2002 crisis although the alleged abuse had occurred decades before. At the same time, I do think that it is true that victims of sexual abuse are often reluctant to report the abuse, and I find it quite understandable that, in certain cases, it may take years for the victims come forward.

Apart from Cafardi’s book or my review of it, MacRae’s letter suggests an important context from which to consider the 2002 sexual crisis on the basis of the statistics he provides about the New Hampshire state prison population. The fact that Catholic priests account for an insignificant number of the total number of child-sex offenders in the state prison population may suggest that the priests account for only a small portion of the much larger problem of child abuse in society as a whole, the great majority of which is perpetrated by married men. Statistical studies of the frequency of sexual abuse of minors in the general population as well as statistics about abuse among other groups such as public school teachers lend support to MacRae’s point. More scientific studies would be helpful in this regard.

This does not in any way negate the John Jay statistics that prove the Catholic Church had a serious problem with sexual abuse perpetrated by its clergy. The valuable context, however, seems to have been almost entirely overlooked during the 2002 sexual-abuse crisis, in which priests were depicted as posing a special threat to the public good.

Representing Race

Departing from his column’s usual standards, Richard John Neuhaus (“Lives Lived Greatly,” Public Square, June/July 2008) seems quite unfair to Sen. Barack Obama and his speech on race when he writes: “The single most telling statement in the Philadelphia speech is this: ‘I can no more disown him [Rev. Wright] than I can disown the black community.’ The most reasonable interpretation of that statement, maybe the only reasonable interpretation, is that the Rev. Wright represents ‘the black community.’”

No, another reasonable interpretation is that Rev. Wright does not represent the black community even while being a part of it. Obama seemed to understand this better when he went on to say in his speech that he could also not disown his own grandmother for her white racist comments, as much as they hurt him. She also does not represent the white community even while she remains a part of it.

Likewise, Neuhaus does not “represent” the Catholic community nor do I, even though we both belong to it. I would not accuse him of “complicity in the explicit slander””his words about Obama’s view of America”of the Church for saying things other Catholics, including me sometimes, find wrong.

Finally, Neuhaus writes: “It’s true that white people have spent decades learning the protocols of respect, sensitivity, and fairmindedness in dealing with race.” Really now, have all whites learned this? Have no blacks learned this?

And if Sen. Obama “inadvertently launched” a demeaning of black America, does not Neuhaus do the same for white America by his perhaps inadvertent condescension toward Obama and other blacks?

Clifford P. Hackett
Berkeley Springs, West Virginia

Personally Opposed

Do I detect an unseemly bias in Fr. Neuhaus’ comment on Michael Mukasey (While We’re At It, June/July 2008)? It appears the comment would allow him to be “personally opposed” to waterboarding, even if he feels it is torture (which I assume is clearly against Catholic teaching) while not saying so publicly because he may believe “this is a question of law, not of his personal moral judgment.” Yet, of course, Neuhaus did not allow that grace to Mario Cuomo or others who say they are “personally opposed” to abortion but have to deal with the law as it is.

I, too, oppose abortion and feel it should be illegal as soon as possible, but I also favor an evenhanded treatment of public officials in your esteemed magazine. If Mukasey is opposed to waterboarding because it is “ineffective,” he has little to lose by saying so (and it’s surprising that he hasn’t). Others, including John McCain, have said as much. If Mukasey is opposed to waterboarding as torture, does he not have a moral obligation to speak out, just as much as those opposed to abortion?

Rev. Richard Patterson Jr.
Clifton Park, New York

RJN replies:

An interesting question, but the two cases are quite different. As I understand it, Mukasey was being asked to prejudge a legal question: Is waterboarding torture? It was a question not yet decided by the Justice Department or the courts, and therefore, as attorney general, he declined to answer. With Mario Cuomo, there is no question about whether abortion is abortion. And as an elected political leader his task is not to render a legal opinion but to bring his best judgment, including moral judgment, to bear on public policy. Further, Gov. Cuomo, along with many others today, do not simply “deal with the law as it is” but energetically work to keep the law as it is with respect to the unlimited abortion license.

In the Congregation

Richard John Neuhaus’ remarks on the United Church of Christ (While We’re At It, June/July 2008) prompt this response from a regular UCC reader and sometime contributor to the journal.

While we have our share of “elderly white ladies” and self-congratulatory marketing strategies that make more than a few of us blush, please remember there is more to it than that (although many of us are glad for the still vigorous witness of the former). For one, our most notable theologian was Reinhold Niebuhr, whom you have rightly honored over the years and who is still celebrated as such in the church’s fiftieth-anniversary literature. For another, our origins as an ecumenical experiment looked, and continue to look, to the John 17:21 passage so current in the wider ecumenism to which this magazine professes loyalty. Indeed, it was the UCC antecedents in the Mercersburg theology of Nevin and Schaff that planted the seeds of ecumenism in this country, a theology that lives on in our liturgies and today’s Mercersburg Society. For yet another, there are movements within the UCC, calling for a Barmen-like commitment to classical Christian faith contra cultural accommodation”such as the fifteen-year-old “Confessing Christ” movement and the Craigville Theological Colloquies celebrating this year their twenty-fifth anniversary.

Finally, if one goes by texts and not anecdotes, the UCC Constitution and Statement of Faith represent who we really claim corporately to be, not to mention the seven recent volumes of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ , tracing our lineage from the ancient creeds forward. And who knows could the next U.S. president, who gives evidence of resonance with all of the above, be a UCC member?

Gabriel Fackre
Hyannisport, Massachusetts

RJN replies:

Prof. Fackre and others who are working to restore orthodox Christian teaching in the United Church of Christ are to be warmly applauded.

As to the next president, Sen. McCain lists himself as a Baptist and I understand that Sen. Obama is no longer a member of Trinity UCC. I was not aware of Sen. Obama’s interest in the theological initiatives mentioned by Prof. Fackre. 

A Different Hamburger

Richard John Neuhaus’ comment on Douglas Laycock’s “Substantive Neutrality Revisited” law-review article (While We’re At It, June/July 2008) referred to Philip Hamburger’s 2002 book Separation of Church and State as a “magnificent” debunking of Jefferson’s wall between church and state. I beg to differ.

In a published review of Hamburger’s book, I wrote that while Hamburger “tries to convey the impression that separation represents only nativist, anti-Catholic, and ultrasecularist bigotry . . . . [He fails to mention] that Catholic voters in Massachusetts, New York, California, and Michigan . . . have in recent years voted to reject attempts to remove state constitutional provisions aimed at preserving church-state separation. [Nor does he discuss] the long history of federal and state court rulings upholding separation . . . [or] that in the predominantly Catholic Commonwealth of Puerto Rico the 1952 constitution states that ‘There shall be complete separation of church and state.’”

It might also be noted that conservative, separation-unfriendly lawyer Bruce Fein, reviewing the Hamburger book in the conservative, separation-unfriendly Washington Times , wrote that “not all Protestant worries over the infiltration of a despotic and reactionary papal culture into the American demos were figments [of the imagination].” Fein cited papal opposition to democracy in Europe, papal insistence that Catholicism be established and preferred by governments, the Index, and the 1858 Edgardo Mortara case, involving the controversial papal kidnapping of a six-year-old Jewish child, which incensed the world. My observation is that most Catholics prefer to line up on church-state matters with John F. Kennedy and Justice William Brennan.

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Maryland

RJN replies:

Admittedly, a lot of bad things happened in history. And, were there a papal kidnapping, we can agree that it would have been and should have been “controversial.” Fortunately, there was not. But it is perhaps useful to be reminded that not everybody agrees that Philip Hamburger’s magnificent book is magnificent.

A Mormon Reading

The June/July 2008 issue of First Things had a kind of synchronicity for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

First, N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, responded (Correspondence, June/July 2008) to Richard John Neuhaus’ comments on his new book, Surprised by Hope, which had included a criticism that its “concrete eschatological expectation” of a physical resurrection on a perfected earth was “more suggestive of Joseph Smith than St. Paul””noting that Mormons were simply taking seriously the relevant passages in the New Testament at the very time that “the Western Protestant church . . . was eliminating the ancient concrete eschatological expectation.”

Then Joseph Stanford, commenting on Robert Louis Wilken’s discussion of Christological interpretation of the Old Testament, noted that the Book of Mormon is replete with the affirmation that the Old Testament prophets actually foresaw Christ.

Finally, Fr. Neuhaus (While We’re At It, June/July 2008) takes note that the long-held Orthodox doctrine of theosis, or deification” paraphrasing Irenaeus, “God became man so that man . . . might become God””is “getting serious attention from evangelical Protestant theologians” as evidenced by the new book Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions. “And yes” he says, “Mormons also have what appears to be a version of the idea.”

All three of these ideas”the ultimate possession of the transformed earth by the physically resurrected saints, the explicit prophecies about Christ by pre-Christian prophets, and the deification of man as the ultimate goal of salvation through Christ”are ideas for which Mormons are still deemed un-Christian, because they are distinct from the teachings of most Protestant denominations. Yet, as is evident from the pages of First Things , these so-called Mormon ideas are ones with a long Christian pedigree, dating back to the original saints of the New Testament period, a fact noted by scholars like Wright, Wilken, and the contributors to the book edited by Christensen and Wittung.

Fr. Neuhaus and others writing in the pages of First Things have taken up the question “Are Mormons Christian?” a question that was renewed with the past candidacy of Mitt Romney for the presidency. Since these three ideas are now identified as within the spectrum of legitimate Christian belief, a Mormon can hope that, the next time the question is raised in these pages, these three beliefs held by the Latter-day Saints will be moved from the down side to the plus side of the answer.

Raymond Takashi Swenson
Idaho Falls, Idaho