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Shame the Devil

I was deeply perplexed by Patricia Snow’s “The Devil and Hilary Mantel” (February 2017). Did the author reach out to Mantel before publishing such a personal analysis of her psyche and spiritual life? I ask because if what the author claims is true, based as it is on Mantel’s own memoir, then as well as suffering from a tragically distorted (even abusive) childhood, unless she has subsequently turned to Christ, Mantel still presumably carries the demonic affliction so vividly described.

If that is the case, then the Christian response must be one of compassion, and willingness to pray in the realm of spiritual warfare, or connect Mantel with someone experienced in this field. The author wonders that “it never seems to occur to Mantel to discuss her situation with a priest.” Yet, if she truly was afflicted with a demonic visitation as a child, how can we expect such an act would not have been opposed by dark powers?

How terrible if Mantel discovered such a deeply personal analysis by chance, or if that was the first time she explicitly realized she may be afflicted with a demon! It is more terrible still that the Christian publication carrying this analysis does not offer any hope of redemption, but merely coolly observes the evidence of the demonic. If this is done to promote the idea that Mantel’s anti-Catholic ideology is truly demonic, and therefore is a coded ad hominem attack, then this surely steps away from legitimate literary analysis. In my view, this means First Things was in this instance no better than an intellectualized version of a gossip magazine at a grocery store checkout.

We may disagree with Mantel’s vision of the lives, ideologies, and motives of her historical subjects. We may find it compelling to understand why she writes as she does. But if that investigation shows us a woman crippled under the bondage of Satan, then ought not our response to be imitating Jesus in Luke 13:16, and so offering her a means of redemption? If not, then we are no better than the hypocrites that Jesus condemns.

Jack Adams
durham, north carolina

Patricia Snow responds:

Unfortunately, psychoanalytic criticism, by definition, is an ad hominem affair. In my efforts to account for Mantel’s animus against God and the Catholic Church, I have indeed written about her personal life. But bear in mind, Hilary Mantel is not a private person. She is a hugely popular, profoundly influential writer whose childhood experiences, by her own choice, are a matter of public record.

Am I concerned about Mantel? Yes. But I am also concerned about her readers, who soak up her views. Jack Adams accuses me of offering Mantel no hope, but I do offer her hope, just not on his terms. Mantel was raised a Catholic, and however alienated she may be from the Church at present, if she were to read my essay, my references to the rite of exorcism and the role of the priest would not be lost on her. As for my “cool” tone, when one is dealing with matters like these, becoming overheated serves no purpose.

Adams seems to be speaking the language of Evangelical Protestantism. Evangelicals and Catholics agree on many things, but their approaches to so-called spiritual warfare differ. Evangelicals often talk as if bad things simply need to be prayed off. In my experience (I was an Evangelical before I became a Catholic) this approach sometimes works, but sometimes does not. Sometimes it actually makes things worse, as people stir up things that they are not equipped to dispel.

The Catholic Church, for better or worse, is slower and more skeptical in her discernment, for many reasons. Sometimes there is a natural explanation for strange symptoms. Sometimes people are lying or exaggerating. Sometimes God seems to be asking for patience or growth in virtue. (Recall the Desert Father who, when asked why the demons were so afraid of him, replied, “From the moment I became a monk I have striven to prevent anger rising to my lips.”) Despite everything, some situations remain mysteries: in Guardini’s words, “mysteries not solved but lived.” Many great saints, remember, endured infestation for years.

The only thing that always and everywhere avails, it seems to me, is truth, the ground of all authentic Christian freedom. Truth clearly matters to Mantel. In her memoir, she writes at length about what happened in her family and in her backyard, and even about Satan himself, as she tries to make sense of her experience. In response, I tried to be equally frank about the observable effects of her experience on her work and worldview. I tried, in other words, to meet candor with candor. If I knew Mantel personally, I would have had other options, but I do not know her personally. By writing the essay, I tried to meet her on her own ground, the ground of her published work, on terms that she is free to take or leave.

Drunk on Heresy

As an admirer of Peter Hitchens’s iconoclasm, I fear that, in his understandable zeal to debunk an emerging victimology (“The Fantasy of Addiction,” February 2017), he may have thrown the corkscrew out with the empties.

There is certainly a problem with the prevailing idea that addiction is a blameless state arising from involuntary behaviors. But it is a leap too far to suggest there is no such thing as addiction, or that, if they even exist, addictions have no involuntary dimension.

We agree that alcoholism is not in any conventional sense a “disease”: That white lie gained ground in early Alcoholics Anonymous because it helped unburden the alcoholic of guilt and self-hatred at the outset of recovery, enabling him to perceive that his own sense of powerlessness was not the last word. But the concepts of “disease” and “addiction” are quite different—disease implying a thoroughly blameless condition; addiction is a state for which there may be degrees of moral culpability, but which remains beyond the sufferer’s immediate control. In modern AA literature, the disease concept is frequently hyphenated—“dis-ease”—to convey disharmony with reality. But there is no infantilizing in AA: Seven of the Twelve Steps (steps four through ten) are concerned with the repair of moral shortcomings and the necessity for amends. The objective is twofold: to reconstruct the fractured psyche of the alcoholic and restore his lost connection with the absolute.

The chief problem with the word “addiction,” Hitchens writes, “is that it describes a power greater than the will.” Perhaps he oversimplifies the idea of human will: the “Big Book” of AA indicts the alcoholic as “an extreme example of self-will run riot,” the first requirement for recovery being that he becomes “convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success.” So addiction, far from being a failure of control, may be an excess of control based on deranged thinking. If there is a sense in which addiction can be called a disease, it might be as the “disease of modernity,” a symptom of humanity’s escalating disenchantment with authority, especially divine authority. Man kicks God off his throne and takes his place, assuming possession of his own life and denying anything given, miraculous, or non-accidental. But, on acquiring God’s responsibilities and none of his powers, man is visited by great terrors, from which he escapes only in oblivion. For a time, alcohol enables its abuser to feel that playing God befits him. But eventually, because of the physiological changes wrought by its poisonous elements, the drug ceases to work and begins corroding the addict from inside. The AA program seeks to reverse this catastrophic farrago by rewriting the mental pathways of the addict using his residual spiritual notions to restore God as the ultimate witness to his behavior, coaxing him to live again in harmony with his given nature and natural limits.

I agree with Hitchens that our culture has disastrously shifted toward the exoneration of drunkards and the like by pathologizing their conditions. This arises from the encroachment of the psychobabble industries and their supplanting of the transcendent idea with a touchy-feely approach. But it is a little astonishing that, in a three-thousand-word article in First Things, Hitchens devotes just a couple of sentences to the idea at the core of the AA program: the Higher Power, otherwise “God.” He correctly notes that this notion has become diluted or sidelined in latter-day AA, yet it must remain the cornerstone of any attempt to understand addiction. The idea of an “absolute antidote” suggests a different concept of the human than is presumed in Hitchens’s argument: a being capable of enslavement by his darker side, one whose infinite desire for something beyond himself can be short-circuited into various “false infinities” (Ratzinger), who can redeem himself only by restoring the circuitry of his absolute relationship with his Generator.

In his book Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, Ernest Kurtz crystallizes that “the fundamental and first message of Alcoholics Anonymous to its members is that they are not infinite, not absolute, not God.” Kurtz posits addiction as a symptom of confusion due to separation of the physical, mental, and spiritual elements of the human personality in technocratic societies. He defines the alcoholic’s obsessive-compulsive appetites as “thirst for transcendence . . . perverted into a thirst for alcohol.”

John Waters
dublin, ireland

In “The Fantasy of Addiction,” Peter Hitchens writes of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Somehow I suspect that God plays less of a part in modern AA doctrine.” As an AA member who has attended meetings from New Hampshire to Mississippi, I can lay his suspicions to rest. Submission to a “Higher Power,” usually called God, is still a central and indispensable feature of recovery in AA. Far from surrendering to the self-obsessed therapeutic culture Hitchens decries, AA regularly brings thoroughly secular people into an authentic personal relationship with the living God, and most of our meetings even close with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

AA did originate the “disease” model for addiction. Alcoholism is called an “illness” in our founding text, but that is a distinction without a difference. Our experience tells us that we have a disease. Most people can regularly take two or three drinks and call it a night. But I can assure Hitchens that some of us simply cannot. AA sees that condition as, yes, a disorder of the body and the mind, but also of the spirit. By submitting our will to the will of God, we find that we can avoid the first drink that leads to all the others.

Danny C.
waddy, kentucky

In his article “The Fantasy of Addiction,” Peter Hitchens attempts to correct what he considers a deeply held belief about addiction, namely that it overthrows the will, thus rendering its victims powerless to change and beyond accountability. Unfortunately, in combating this false understanding of addiction, Hitchens errs to the other extreme by implying that the will remains untouched by addiction and asserting that if addicts are held merely accountable for their actions and blamed for the outcome of those actions, then “huge numbers of people will give up a bad habit even if it is difficult.”

In reality, the truth concerning addiction and the will lies between these two extreme positions. Philosophically and theologically, Aristotle and Aquinas do not deal with addiction, but they do write extensively concerning the power of vice, which is intimately related to the more modern understanding of addiction. Both insist that vice (as well as virtue) profoundly alters a person’s being to such an extent that it becomes a kind of second nature, and even though the vice can be removed, that task is extremely difficult. When one’s sensitive appetite is corrupted by vice, as is the case with substance abuse, Aquinas is clear that the will necessarily becomes remiss or impeded.

Neuroscience and the experiences of clinicians treating addicts confirm these insights. For the substance-dependent person, each act of use involves a series or chain of choices and behaviors mediated by a variety of cognitions (automatic thoughts, cognitive distortions, permission-giving beliefs, core beliefs/early maladaptive schemas, etc.), which interact with emotional states and past learning, strongly reinforcing “self-medicating” for emotional and existential pain. Preclinical and clinical research demonstrates that repeated substance exposure leads to molecular and functional neuroplastic brain changes that powerfully contribute to the vicious cycle of use.

Within the chain of choices that lead to each act of use, the will loses its power to choose a different course the closer the person gets to actual use. The will’s power is not completely eviscerated, but it becomes extremely diminished. Addiction is not a fantasy, but neither is it an inescapable reality. Sadly, Hitchens’s treatment of addiction fails to recognize the various ways in which addiction impacts the will, and rather than empowering addicts, his position runs the risk of encouraging people to abandon them to their own diminished willpower.

Anna Pecoraro and
Christopher Gross
divine mercy university
arlington, virginia

Peter Hitchens responds:

John Waters makes a simple issue needlessly complex. The word “addiction” is defined in practice by the behavior of the law, the state, and the medical profession. These all treat those designated as “addicts” or “alcoholics” as involuntary sufferers, rather than deliberate criminals or (in the case of habitual drunkards) deliberately selfish persons. This is the only definition that matters, and the only one I seek to counter and defeat.

The use of the term “disease” (for example, here in “Is AA for You?”: “We found out that many people suffered from the same feelings of guilt and loneliness and hopelessness that we did. We found out that we had these feelings because we had the disease of alcoholism.”) is a clear claim that the drinker’s state is involuntary.

And that in turn is a clear claim that it is not a deliberate act but a thing that has happened to the person involved. It seems to me to fall under the specific warning contained in 1 John 1:8. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” This applies to all of us, all the time. Evade direct, total responsibility for your wrongdoing, and you will not cease to do it.

However much ingenuity Waters devotes to trying to show that when AA uses the term “disease” it does not mean “disease” or that “self-will” is not actually will (if I have him correctly) because loss of self-control is somehow an excess of control, it doesn’t alter the problem. A huge tottering edifice has been erected on top of a fiction for which there is no objective evidence at all. Former drinkers known to me all stopped because they decided they wished to stop, for various reasons, and did so.

I am not engaging in “iconoclasm.” I am merely the child who says that the emperor has no clothes. However, I would add that I have for many years thought the ending of that story to be highly implausible. In real life, the child who noticed and proclaimed the emperor’s nakedness would have been dragged away, along with his family, by soldiers. He and they would then have been beaten until they agreed that the emperor was in fact wearing a very fine suit of clothes. Then they would have been paraded (once the bruises had faded) to make a public confession of their error, before being sent to live on a remote pig farm or perhaps executed. A huge industry, employing hundreds of thousands and indulging millions, rests upon this fiction. It turns with alarm, contempt, and wrath (plus a large measure of “peer-reviewed” pseudoscience and psychobabble) upon those who question it.

I cannot challenge the experience of Danny C. at AA meetings from New Hampshire to Mississippi. My greeds and weaknesses are for other things, and I have attended no such gatherings. But I still suspect that, outside the exceptional territory that is the USA, God plays a smaller part in AA than he used to, just as he plays a smaller part in almost everything than he used to. This is a great pity, but it would be unwise to pretend it is not so.

Reading Tradition

Thank you for Mats Wahlberg’s irenic review of Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s Christian Dogmatics (“Reformed Ressourcement,” February 2017). It is helpful to highlight the root of the divide between Rome and the Reformed, and Wahlberg is surely correct to find it in sola Scriptura.

He argues that Protestants have an “inescapable problem” of hermeneutical authority: Who says what is or is not “scriptural”? For Wahlberg, the only solution is for an authoritative church to have the final say. But I wonder: How does the Church then actually communicate this final say? With words, I presume. Like, for example, the recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the meaning of which seems to have the College of Cardinals currently at odds. Thomas Aquinas might be called on to mediate, but Wahlberg reminds us in his own review that with the live debate between de Lubac and his many detractors, there is not even, alas, a final say on what he meant. It is hardly a Protestant problem that words are contestable things.

It is an understandable temptation to resolve hermeneutical disagreements (and they are inevitable, given both sin and finitude) with appeals to an institutional final say. But this simply relocates the interpretive problem from the text of Scripture to institutional utterances. I wonder at the supreme confidence of this argument in light of raging Roman Catholic debates over the status of Thomism, Vatican II, Amoris Laetitia, etc. It seems more an eschatological hope than an inaugurated reality.

One might, of course, attribute to Rome’s institutional utterances certain qualities like absolute authority, infallibility, sufficiency, and (one would have to say?) perspicuity, all of which are called into question given the realities noted above. The Reformed love each and every one of those terms, but we think applying them to words other than God’s is no real solution to the universal problem of interpretive authority—a problem from which not even the Roman Catholic Church is exempt.

The “final say” argument is popular, but mutual edification between Rome and the Reformed might increase when it is retired. At the very least, I will consider it a bit more persuasive when Rome can finally say who’s right about Aquinas.

Brian Mattson
billings, montana

Mats Wahlberg responds:

I want to thank Brian Mattson for his thoughtful response to my review. He raises a legitimate, critical question about hermeneutical authority. Before I address this issue, a brief clarification is necessary. In the review, I did not argue that only an “authoritative church” could solve the problem of divergent biblical interpretations. The Reformed theologians behind the “Reformed catholicity” project acknowledge that the Church has—and must have—hermeneutical authority, and the point of my critique was merely to question whether their view of this issue is consistent with their understanding of the Church. Given a Reformed ecclesiology, an individual believer seems to have no reason to accept a particular ecclesial body as part of the “true Church,” unless its interpretation of the Gospel matches the believer’s own.

Calvin, for example, denied that Roman Catholic ecclesial communities were churches (except in a very attenuated sense), because they failed to preach what he took to be the true Gospel. In the review, I found it difficult to understand how any ecclesial community could have real interpretive authority under these circumstances. The claim that the Church has interpretive authority, however, is common ground between me and the “Reformed catholicity” theologians (at least Allen and Swain).

That being said, Mattson is surely correct to identify me as a defender of the Roman Catholic position on hermeneutical authority. Indeed, I think that a cogent argument can be made for the necessity of something like the Catholic magisterium—a divinely assisted authority that has the “final say” in fundamental questions of interpretation. The need for such an authority arises, among other things, from the undeniable fact that the Bible is very difficult to interpret. To believe that interpretative disagreements in the Church could be harmoniously settled without an authority that has a “final say” is much more unrealistic than to believe that U.S. citizens could reach agreement about what the U.S. Constitution says without an authority such as the Supreme Court.

Of course, in the Church, consensus is worthless unless what we agree about is the truth. This is why ecclesial authority must be underwritten by a promise of special divine assistance. Only if individual believers have reason to believe that the magisterium receives divine assistance—over and above the inner guidance that God gives to each and every believer—can it be rational for believers to submit to the judgments of the magisterium.

This argument must be further developed, of course, and there is not sufficient space to do this here. So I will just address Mattson’s objection to the idea that an authority with a “final say” can solve the problem of divergent scriptural interpretations. This is how he argues: “It is an understandable temptation to resolve hermeneutical disagreements (and they are inevitable, given both sin and finitude) with appeal to an institutional final say. But this simply relocates the interpretive problem from the text of Scripture to institutional utterances.” His point seems to be that since any interpretation of the Bible must be communicated with words, the same interpretative problems that pertain to the biblical text must inevitably reappear at the level of the magisterial utterances.

But this is not true. Clearly, some texts are more obscure and difficult to interpret than others. The Book of Revelation, for example, is much harder to interpret than, say, the instructions in a user manual for a television set (unless the manual has been auto-generated by some translation program, of course). One main reason why texts differ with respect to transparency is that they are written in different genres and for different purposes. If the popes made it a habit to express themselves like the prophet Isaiah, for example, then Mattson would surely have a point. But, usually, the popes choose a genre and a manner of expression that are adapted to the purpose of their communications: to dispel some particular interpretative disagreement, or to communicate some other important decision.

The fact that the pope, or a council, can address contemporary situations and issues directly, and tell us how the biblical teachings apply to them, is another reason why we can expect the utterances of the contemporary magisterium to resolve disagreements more effectively than the biblical texts themselves. Pope St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, for example, communicates an interpretation of the Bible and tradition with respect to the issue of marriage and sacramental discipline in the contemporary Catholic Church: Divorced and remarried persons may not receive Communion (Familiaris Consortio §84). John Paul II’s words in §84 can hardly be misinterpreted, while the Bible itself only speaks indirectly to the issue.

Of course, it happens now and then that a particular magisterial pronouncement is less than clear. Mattson exemplifies this with Amoris Laetitia, and its controversial eighth chapter has certainly generated many different interpretations. But this situation is not indicative of a general inability of the magisterial system to resolve disagreements in the Church. The whole debate about the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, at least concerning the issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried, could very easily have been avoided. Had the pope either quoted Familiaris Consortio §84 in full, or clearly stated that the Communion prohibition in that paragraph is abrogated, nobody would have been able to misunderstand his teaching. An advantage to having a living magisterium, however, is that it can issue clarifications of previous pronouncements whenever need for this arises. Let us hope that this will eventually happen with respect to Amoris Laetitia. As for the debate about the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas: Luckily, there is no need for the Catholic Church to agree on a certain interpretation of his work.

Lost and Found Sheep

I appreciated many of Mark Bauerlein’s reflections in “Our Canaanite Woman” (February 2017), especially the importance of shedding ego in the pursuit of God’s mercy. However, I would propose a different view of Jesus’s behavior in this tricky passage. In many interpretations, projection takes the place of true perception, and the resulting Jesus is more a reflection of us in our sinfulness than “the invisible God.” Certainly, as a human being, he knew all the weariness, heart sores, and difficulties of dealing with dense humanity. But can we truly say he was disdainful of the Canaanite woman, or grumbled, or wasn’t “in the mood” for her importunities, or uttered cruel words? Love is not rude or irritable (1 Cor. 13).

Instead, I believe he may have been using “reflective listening” for the dual purpose of drawing out the woman’s faith, and training his disciples. Reflective listening is verbally mirroring people’s words and thoughts to help them understand better what they actually think or feel; it can effectively prompt students toward “aha!” moments of self-awareness. I sometimes employ this with my children when they grumble about chores: “Ah yes, lifting that shirt off the floor is too grievous a burden to be borne!” My joking reflects their silly attitude, to help them see sense.

Jesus no doubt aimed to enlarge the vision and hearts of his disciples. His own did not need it, as his previous interactions with Samaritans and the centurion attest. So when a woman comes crying out after him, he is silent, giving the disciples room to react. She is the wrong gender and nationality to secure their compassion; they beg him to get rid of her. He reflects their attitude: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Yet the woman doggedly keeps coming. He continues, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Isn’t this how the disciples view outsiders—as dogs, perhaps unprintable ones? But rather than giving up, the woman responds, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Suddenly the table is turned: The woman is commended for her faith, and the disciples receive an oblique rebuke.

It was a highly fruitful one, though: Eleven of those disciples later went to the ends of the earth to preach to people who would never more be “dogs” to them.

Amy Vinson Ritter
wheaton, illinois

Mark Bauerlein responds:

I take every word of Ms. Ritter’s “different view” of the Canaanite woman passage as an illumination. Her development of an instructional dynamic between Jesus and the disciples in this episode is one I overlooked, but it strikes me as relevant as soon as she describes it. It is another sign of the miraculous virtue of the Gospels to fold so much psychological depth and moral and spiritual truth into seemingly simple and natural human encounters.