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Never Retreat

The whole history of the West can be told as a history of getting Augustine wrong. So I could only smile at the title of R. R. Reno’s recent column “Getting Augustine Wrong” (April). It happens. 

I read the column with great interest, expecting some illuminating commentary on how a whole generation had wrongly followed Robert Markus’s influential interpretation of Augustine’s City of God as the seedbed of a “neutral” liberal order. In many ways, First Things played an important role in shaping how I read Augustine’s City, so it wasn’t such an odd expectation. After all, Richard John Neuhaus’s “naked public square” was a tacit rebuttal of Markus’s all-too-Rawlsian way of getting Augustine wrong. But it turns out there’s a lot of different ways one can get Augustine wrong, and Reno found a new way: Augustine’s City as seedbed not for a neutral liberal order, but for the Benedict Option. 

To think, as the empire seemed to be crumbling through endless expansion and mass migration, as elite hostilities to Christianity were being ­renewed almost daily, Augustine found himself making detailed and persuasive arguments in the various public squares of his time. Never once did he call for intentional communities. He did say the Church was the refuge of Rome. 

Augustine’s City is almost entirely about discerning true religion from false, good acts from evil ones, and distinguishing these as movements within the soul, within the city, within Israel, within all the nations, and within the Church. It’s complex. There is refuge in the pilgrim city of God, but there is never retreat. There are only movements of the soul toward God, or obstinate rebellion against him. I expect that the ­Benedict Option is about moving souls toward God. And in this, ­Augustine would see the signs of the heavenly city. I’m not so sure Reno has nailed ­Augustine either, but make no mistake, he’s correct to say that one shouldn’t confuse ­Augustine’s City with the ­Benedict Option, especially when it was probably Charlemagne who got ­Augustine right all along.

C. C. Pecknold
the catholic university of america
washington, d.c.

R. R. Reno responds:

I’m not sure C. C. Pecknold disagrees with me. By my reading, City of God lays out the history of the world according to two stories. One is Rome’s story. It falters, because like so many other stories of what ultimately matters, it does not tell of the one true God. The other is the biblical story. It illuminates the contours of history because it is based on divine truths.

We must orient ourselves spirit­ually and in accord with the biblical story. The temptation I want to warn against is this: to buttress our faith by downplaying or even denigrating our worldly loyalties. Rome’s problem did not rest in her solicitude for civic virtue and public goods; it stemmed from her story, which sought to provide a spiritual rationale for prizing these otherwise fitting, though finite, goods as ultimate. At root, this perversion is spiritual, not political. We make a less dire error, though a real one, when we regard civic virtue and ­public goods as vain illusions and mere distractions from our true vocations as disciples of Christ. It is a mistake to try to generate a “yes” to God by ginning up a “no” to worldly loves. The proper way forward in our confusing times requires allowing the romance of our “yes” to God’s story to subordinate and reorder our worldly loves. In some cases that will mean tempering or even renouncing those loves. In other instances, however, it is precisely by finding their proper place in God’s story that our finite loves will be renewed and ­reinvigorated.


During the early years of the AIDS epidemic and in the absence of any drugs proven effective at fighting the disease, many in the patient community embraced the supposedly curative effects of a compound derived from egg yolks called AL-721 based on anecdotes about its ability to bring sufferers back from the brink of death. Not surprisingly, AL-721 was not among the treatments that ultimately stopped the AIDS epidemic in its tracks. 

To conclude, as Christopher Caldwell does (“American Carnage” April), that we cannot medicate and counsel our way out of the opioid epidemic based on the experience of the last ten years would be akin to concluding that we could not treat our way out of the AIDS epidemic based on the failure of AL-721.

Let us first make a concerted effort to address the opioid epidemic with evidence-based approaches grounded in science (rather than the decidedly unscientific, non-evidence-based Twelve Step approach Caldwell seems to favor) before reaching any conclusions about what is or is not possible. What we need now is exactly what it took to beat AIDS—a massive initiative of government, the private sector, and affected communities focused on identifying what ­actually works to keep people free from opioids. Then we should make that widely available.    

Christian M. McNamara
hamden, connecticut

Spirit and Truth

Martin Mosebach’s “Return to Form” (April) will undoubtedly be read and discussed by Catholics devoted to tradition, especially the traditional Latin Mass, for a long time to come. It is a blueprint for the bottom-up restoration of tradition in the wake of Benedict XVI’s great gift to the universal Church, the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. However, in his enthusiasm for the traditional Mass, Mosebach carries a couple of points too far. 

First, Mosebach describes the offertory of the traditional Latin Mass as “ancient,” having an “essential” function in the Mass. However, the offertory prayers are not ancient in comparison to other parts of the Mass. The great Fr. Adrian Fortescue, both in The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy and in his contributions to the Catholic Encyclopedia, demonstrates that the offertory prayers were among the last additions to the Roman Rite before St. Pius V’s Missale Romanum of 1570. The ancient Roman practice of the offertory procession and the offertory chant varied over time, and, for some time, the secret was the only prescribed offertory prayer. As the offertory procession faded away, additional prayers were added, seen first as private prayers of the priest and later as connected to the secret. These prayers, which became eventually the offertory prayers in St. Pius V’s Mass, were drawn from Gallican and Mozarabic, not Roman, sources. 

Additionally, Mosebach insists on finding an epiclesis in the offertory. Presumably, he is referring the Veni Sanctificator, which is said at the very end of the offertory prayers. However, the question of the epiclesis in the Roman Rite has been contentious historically, with scholars searching high and low for the epiclesis or its remnants. The assumption is that if the great Eastern liturgies have an epiclesis, the Roman Rite must have one, too. Fortescue, drawing on the scholarship available to him, argues in an appendix to The Mass that, if the Roman Rite had an epiclesis, it was abandoned before the time of the ­Gelasian Sacramentary or the ­Gregorian ­Sacramentary. This was most likely done to ensure that the words of institution were understood as the form of the sacrament. As a matter of historical fact, the epiclesis was not, as ­Mosebach suggests, “essential” or “critical” to the Roman Rite. 

Given the thrust of his argument about the crisis in the Roman Rite in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, it is strange that Mosebach would wade into the question of the epiclesis at all. It was an important point for the professional liturgists who deformed the Roman Rite in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Few of them would have objected to the idea that the Roman Rite needed an epiclesis, which is no doubt why they wrote an epiclesis into the three post-­conciliar eucharistic prayers. Furthermore, few of them would have disagreed that the apostolic tradition and the experience of the Eastern Church require an epiclesis in the Roman Rite. However, Fr. John ­Hunwicke—following Dom Gregory Dix and other “patrimonial” scholars—has argued convincingly that the sacramental theology of the Roman Rite does not require an epiclesis. 

Mosebach rightly argues that laymen have a duty to participate in and help restore tradition in the Church. This is unquestionably true. But it is essential that laymen understand the tradition—and the theology it ­represents—correctly. 

P. J. Smith
bedford, indiana

Sham Pain

My compliments to Matthew ­Walther for his entertaining and fascinating review of A Scent of ­Champagne (“Champagne for All,” April). However, I am mystified by his statement that “Champagne—not André or Barefoot Bubbly or even halfway decent cava—really should belong to everyone, and it drives me almost to despair to think that people, especially in a country as wealthy as ours, should go without it.” Low-end sparkling wines have done exactly, or nearly exactly, what Walther hopes for: They have made champagne, or something so like it the difference is a technicality, available to middle- and even working-class people.

Flying Southwest Airlines on my honeymoon, I was congratulated over the intercom and given a bottle of Barefoot Bubbly. I toasted my brother and his new wife with André. There is a bottle of Brut in my refrigerator, waiting to celebrate the discovery of the gender of my future child. I am thankful to be able to celebrate with sparkling wine, a luxury unavailable to my grandparents. I may be a Philistine, but I don’t feel deprived.

Joshua Baggett
dallas, texas

Matthew Walther replies:

I should like to begin by congratulating Joshua Baggett and his wife on the upcoming birth of their child. At the risk of outraging the sensibilities of genteel-minded readers, to say nothing of running afoul of the social services crowd, I should like to point out that in my (admittedly somewhat limited) experience as a father, one of the best things about having small children is that every “milestone,” from baptism to crawling to first words and steps to birthday number one and, presumably, all the way up to first Communion, confirmation, and holy matrimony or—God willing—the taking of religious vows, can be made an occasion for parental drinking. 

I am also very grateful to Baggett for his kind words about my review. Is it insensitive to add that we could all do with hearing reports of hospitality from the aviation industry these days? About champagne, however, I am afraid I am going to have to be disagreeable, albeit on his behalf as much as my own.

Cheap sparkling wines are emphatically not “something so like [champagne]” that “the difference is a technicality.” Suggesting that they are, “nearly exactly” or otherwise, is like saying that my older daughter bumping along on her tricycle and Chris Froome gliding down the Champs-Élysées exhibit roughly the same degree of athletic prowess because they are both able to move above a snail’s pace on pedal-powered vehicles. There are, of course, many fine sparkling wines made outside the historical Champagne region, including many produced along the same lines: the so-called méthode ­traditionnelle in which sugar, yeast, and other agents are introduced in order to initiate a secondary fermentation that ­eventually ­results in additional alcohol content and the production of carbon dioxide in bottled wine that is then further aged for at least fifteen months. But Barefoot Bubbly and the like are essentially grape-based ­Mountain Dew; the all-important fizz is exogenous, present only because carbon dioxide has been pumped from a cylinder into a tank full of still wine, which is only later bottled. These wines have very large, almost obnoxious bubbles that soon disappear and a sweet, gassy taste that cannot be compared with the dry, crisp delicacy of the genuine article.

While the prospects for champagne socialism on the scale I have in mind are admittedly not very ripe in ­Donald Trump’s America, I am happy to announce that First Things has sent Baggett a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut NV. I am certain he will come round to my way of thinking.