BURNING BRIDGES

I would like to thank First Things for the kind invitation to respond to Fr. Paul Mankowski’s review of my book Building a Bridge (“Pontifex Minimus,” August/September). Sadly, I found the review almost entirely divorced from the experience of the majority of LGBT Catholics in this country, and from the pastoral practices of the Church. This disconnect is apparent from the review’s first line: “Is sodomy a sin?” Would Fr. Mankowski begin a review of a book on how to build a bridge to divorced Catholics with “Is adultery a sin?” Or is the focus on the sexual act confined to the treatment of LGBT people alone?

Fr. Mankowski believes that the LGBT community is not a “true community.” Imagine saying that about any other group in the Church. Also, he says, its goals are purely “political.” Such claims, if anything, show why LGBT Catholics feel so marginalized. What the LGBT Catholic community desires most is not any political outcome but something more essential: God. They want to experience God’s love, they want to serve Jesus, and they want to feel at home in their own Church. 

The reviewer also states that the Church has “no pastoral interest” in LGBT people, other than telling them they are sinners. This is a deeply un-Christian claim, especially when we consider how Jesus treated people who were on the margins: by welcoming them first. Unfortunately, Fr. Mankowski’s is the only message that LGBT people usually hear from their Church: They are sinners. No other community of Catholics—though we are all sinners—is treated so.

Fr. Mankowski further objects that I did not instruct LGBT people on the Church’s teaching on celibacy for them. But Building a Bridge is not a book of moral theology or sexual morality. Does Mankowski believe there are any LGBT Catholics who do not already know the Church’s teaching on celibacy? Rather than focus on areas where the Church and the LGBT Catholic community are still miles apart, I preferred to focus on possible areas of commonality. 

Building a Bridge is an invitation not only to dialogue but also to prayer—though this was apparently lost on Fr. Mankowski, who entirely ignores the second half of the book, the invitation to prayer. It baffles me that a reviewer would neglect the book’s most substantive part. Is prayer less important than dialogue? Is the Holy Spirit not active in the lives of LGBT people? Or perhaps the reviewer in this case is worried—worried that we might have something to learn from the prayer of a community that has been for too long marginalized, excluded, and despised.

Rev. James Martin, S.J.
new york, new york

Paul Mankowski, S.J., replies:

I’m not buying Fr. Martin’s suggestion that the LGBT movement isn’t hostile to the Church. Whereas many of us know individual gays who are social conservatives, every LGBT organization without exception backs the sexual revolution in the culture wars. Their political uniformity is so reliable that I take an LGBT voter’s guide with me into the polling booth, knowing that in voting against their endorsements I can never, for example, inadvertently harm a pro-life candidate. The LGBT ruse of presenting the caucus as a “community” is itself ideologically motivated, and I decline to play along. Further, I deny the name of Catholic to persons who associate with the Church on the understanding that her doctrine—any doctrine—will be repudiated. 

Finally, I am reminded of an observation that the blogger “Camassia” once made regarding A Place at the Table, a book by a gay author named Bruce Bawer: “The unintentionally funny part of Bawer’s book was that he accused other Christians of not being real Christians because, among other things, they accuse other Christians of not being real Christians.”

MIDDLEBROW MAESTRO

I was saddened to read of the death of Brian Doyle (“While We’re At It,” August/September), a frequent contributor to First Things in recent years. I never met Brian, but I appreciated his work enough that I regret not following through on my intention to write and request “more Doyle.”

In announcing Doyle’s death, R. R. Reno notes that he had to “overrule [his] severe fellow editors who feared Brian had edged too close to schmaltzy emotional manipulation.” I’m glad Reno overruled them, and if Doyle was schmaltzy, I request “more schmaltz.”

To be honest, I never found his work “schmaltzy,” but rather unapologetically middlebrow, which is where the glories of civilization and religion find purchase in the souls of ordinary, common people.

Most of us will never be genuinely cultured in the Old World/Old University sort of way; our formation and education (and abilities) don’t allow for it. But the best and highest can be carried to us through the middle. Think, for instance, of the good accomplished through the bourgeois efforts of the great books movement of Mortimer Adler and friends. The great classics, translated, edited, digested, purchased through mail order, and yet available. Or the transmission of a kind of gritty, lived theology in the “good enough” fiction of Edwin O’Connor, Rumer Godden, J. F. Powers, or Walker Percy. (Percy wasn’t schmaltzy, but the others were, at times.) Consider also the importance of the middling, accessible, but still intelligent scholarship of a Maritain or Gilson. These weren’t originative geniuses, but they made the genius of the faith present to others.

Doyle is no longer with us, but please, “more Doyles.”

R. J. Snell
lawrenceville, new jersey

HOPE AGAINST HELL

In “Make Hell Hot Again” (August/September), Marc Barnes claims that I argue the following in a recent article for the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly: “A world populated in the end by saints and sinners is a better cosmic whole than a world that contains only saints, because in the former world, where God brings at least some human beings to glory, and eternally as well as justly punishes the rest, God is able to manifest his goodness the most clearly and fully.” In fact, however, I do not make this argument. I state merely that “it does seem possible” to make such claims—then proceed to show why I think it is wrong to argue that God needs hell, and specifically the eternal punishment of damned human beings in hell, in order to manifest his goodness the most clearly and fully.

In my view, it is equally consistent with divine goodness for God to create a world in which there are not any damned human beings, or a world in which there are some (so long as he also ensures that every damned human being in that world possesses a life, as bad as it may be, that is still worth living, even for all eternity). In the latter world, by punishing unrepentant sinners for all eternity in hell, God ensures that the evil of unrepentant sin actually contributes to the justice, and so goodness, even beauty, of the world as a whole. (As Augustine puts it, “the ugliness of sin is remedied by the punishment of sin.”) In the former world, God brings about a fully just and so good world by bringing all human beings to heavenly glory, with their willful cooperation: a world beautified by sinners who, in the end, have all become saints.

My hope is that our world is one in which God brings all human beings to glory, and so I agree with Barnes that it is possible and desirable (perhaps even obligatory) to hope—and pray—that all will be saved. But unlike Barnes, or so it seems, I also hope and believe that even if some, or many, are not saved—if God permits some, or many, human beings to damn themselves eternally—he will still ensure, consistent with his perfect goodness, that the badness of hell contributes to the goodness of the world in the end.

Paul Macdonald
colorado springs, colorado

Marc Barnes replies:

My essay was sufficiently unclear in referring to Paul Macdonald’s description of the argument in question as to imply that it was his argument, rather than merely a “possible” argument.

Nevertheless, my purpose was not to argue against the idea that Macdonald rightly expresses—that God does not need hell to manifest his goodness. My purpose was to argue against his idea that human beings can adequately conceive of a “cosmic harmony” in which the evil of unrepentant sin “harmonizes” with the goodness of heaven to make a good cosmic whole.

Given Aquinas’s description of sin as a “disturbance of the divine order meriting punishment,” the presence of eternally sinning human beings indicates an eternally disturbed divine order, in which God “is forever unappeased by the punishment of the wicked.” Augustine’s solution, that “the ugliness of sin is remedied by the punishment of sin,” does not propose a “remedy” outside of a punishment that gives sinners their due, but neither rids the world of this disturbance nor appeases God. We might consider a rough analogy. The presence of malicious criminals being punished by a just ruler is certainly a description of a just community, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would call the situation harmonious. As the continued presence of active lawbreaking and unappeased rulers rebels against the concept of a perfected society, so the eternal presence of sin and an unappeased God rebels against the concept of a perfected cosmos. In both cases, a fundamental disturbance of order remains—and a disturbance of order is antithetical to what we mean by “harmony.”

I do not argue that this end-state is not “equally consistent with divine goodness for God” as an end-state in which everyone is saved. The “eternal sin, eternal punishment” model maintains God’s innocence and justice and may very well be, given the free choices of human beings, “the best of all possible worlds.” Rather, I argue that this end-state is not consistent with what we mean when we say “cosmic harmony” any more than an orchestra continuously undergoing the disturbance of out-of-tune violinists could be called a “harmony.”

By faith, I know that, at the end of all things, God will wipe away every tear, perfect the cosmos, and draw all things unto himself—with or without souls in hell. But when my reason attempts to fathom how, precisely, this kingdom will be a harmonious one when it includes its own disturbance, I am unable to provide an answer. My argument, then, is to advocate a leap of practicality precisely at the point that reason, stretching for an answer, finds itself baffled. If, to the human understanding, the eternal damnation of even one person upsets our desire for a “harmonious cosmos,” this should be motivation not to explain how it would really be harmonious after all, but to pray for the salvation of all.

MORALS AND MACHIAVELS

Carson Holloway’s Machiavellian defense of Donald Trump (“Donald Trump, Principe,” August/September) has the same strengths and weaknesses that Machiavellianism has always had. One such weakness is that Machiavelli’s redefinition of virtue led him to overlook the insight of classical political philosophy that rulers cannot rule their cities well unless they rule their own souls with moral virtue, classically understood. A vicious man in the classical sense, a man dominated by disordered passion, cannot recognize his own true good, and even when he partially recognizes it, he is unable to achieve it. A wrathful man, for example, cannot understand that it is better for him to suffer injustice than to inflict it. And even if a drunkard does in some way realize that it would be for his good to remain sober, his disordered passion for drink overrides the insight of his reason. When such a man comes to rule a city or a nation, the same problems replicate on a grander scale.

Donald Trump would like to make America “great again,” but he does not understand where true greatness might be found—in succoring the poor immigrant, for instance. And even where he does in some limited sense see what would be good for America, his uncontrolled passion cripples him. Once, Trump seemed to understand that an interminable war in Afghanistan is undesirable, but when his generals showed him pictures of Afghan girls in miniskirts, disordered passion overpowered his reason. And so the war continues.

No one who lacks true moral virtue can be trusted, least of all a politician.

Edmund Waldstein, O. Cist.
heiligenkreuz, austria

In Machiavelli’s God, an exploration of the philosopher’s religious beliefs, Maurizio Viroli writes that “Machiavelli had a God . . . around [which] he developed a religion of liberty.” That ominous phrase—religion of liberty—is just the first sign that Christians shouldn’t turn to Niccolò Machiavelli for instruction in the faith. Christianity is liberating, but not in the sense Machiavelli meant: He “exhorted his listeners to seek eternal life,” Viroli writes, “by loving one’s fatherland.”

Well-ordered patriotism may be a virtue, but the fatherland is a sorry substitute for our Father in heaven. If Machiavelli seems a decent guide to Christian politics, it is only because Americans are uniquely tempted by the liberal civil religion he touted—a backward, Hobbesian monster of a thing, wherein civic virtue shapes Christian practice instead of vice versa, trading eternal things for temporal ones.

It was thus startling to see Carson Holloway’s recent article asking whether or not Christians can rightly support President Donald Trump find its answer in Machiavelli. The shift from a Christian frame to Machiavelli’s comes when Holloway defines a wicked political leader as one “without principle,” and then proceeds to argue that Trump cannot be such a leader, as he appears to have a strong, consistent interest in amassing power.

It is indeed evil to lack principles, yet it is also evil to have the wrong principles. Trump probably has some fixed values, but the strength of one’s convictions matters not a jot to God unless those convictions are the right ones. In his article, Holloway mainly succeeds in proving that Trump deeply desires power. For Machiavelli, “it is a thing truly very natural and ordinary to desire to acquire,” and a pity to let principles interfere. Libido dominandi is what St. Augustine named this urge, though he knew better than to defend it.

Christians should care about what our leaders desire: Governance is pedagogical, after all, and the expressive powers of law shape us in virtue and practice. If the most authentic principle Trump’s example can attest to is that it is “natural and ordinary to desire to acquire,” it’s hard to imagine that his politics will be any less venal, or that they will inculcate any virtue into we the people.

Elizabeth Bruenig
washington, d.c.

After reading Carson Holloway’s discussion of Donald Trump as a Machiavellian leader, I wonder whether there is anything this president—or any anti-left-wing politician, for that matter—could do that would make it impermissible for Christians to support him. Holloway affirms that “we are not to do evil that good might come” and that “we should not endorse a wicked political leader, even if he holds out the promise of forestalling greater evils.” But he then proceeds to explain that there are, in practice, no circumstances under which we are justified in identifying an anti-progressive politician as sufficiently wicked not to deserve Christian votes, even if he is a “dark Machiavellian.”

This leads to the next question raised by Holloway’s essay: What is actually distinctive, in practice, about the Christian approach to politics? Holloway uses nice phrases like the “call to love” and the “spirit of charity,” but his actual prescriptions for Christian political action are only distinguishable from secular guidance by differences of emphasis—a little less self-interest, a little more charity. The fundamental political calculus he endorses is no different from that of secular interest groups: Choose the candidate who promises the maximum good (or at least the minimum damage) without regard to extrinsic costs.

The problem is that, for the Christian, there can be no such thing as extrinsic costs. We are not at liberty to regard, for instance, the security of the immigrant as distinct from real Christian political concerns. This doesn’t mean that we can only endorse perfect candidates; that would be foolishness. But it does mean that there are times when no candidate is suitable; to discount this possibility, as Holloway does, is to neuter the prophetic—and sometimes costly—nature of Christian public witness.

There is a whiff of despair in this. A great deal of Holloway’s argument is about the inescapability of human venality, especially in politics. But why should the Christian view of politics focus on accommodating rather than transcending and transforming this venality? This is what grace does, and politics does not take place outside the order of grace. The disintegration of American liberalism should be cause to rediscover this truth, not to double down on the desacralization of politics.

Brandon McGinley
pittsburgh, pennsylvania

Thanks to Carson Holloway for his well-meditated reflection on Donald Trump and Old Nick. He speaks for those who want to manage (the evil of) Donald Trump in circumstances where there seems no better alternative. Indeed, Trump’s “base” consists largely of followers and managers—the latter being those who want to use him for better purposes than his own.

The trouble with resorting to Machiavelli in our situation is that lack of principle leads to a new, contrary principle of flexibility. By being flexible, a man or a party or a country learns to adjust to evil instead of managing it. You try to be a winner by always taking the side of the stronger and never standing up against it. This can mean appeasement rather than aggression—winning by never taking the risk of losing. The person you want to manage may make a deal with the powers you want him to oppose. So he uses you.

Here one might think of our Constitution. The Constitution manages the evil of demagogues, and as in the case of Trump’s Electoral College victory, may even make them winners. But it also provides formidable barriers against the demagogue by empowering the ambitions of various leaders to take him on. Defending the Constitution can become a moral principle by which we may use Machiavelli without surrendering to him. Trump got elected, as he loves to remind us, but under the Constitution. Let’s keep him there.

May we not recommend the Constitution to Christians for recognizing the possibility of using evil to do good without falling into the trap of forgetting that evil is evil?

Harvey Mansfield
harvard university
cambridge, massachusetts

Carson Holloway maintains that Christians can support Trump because the president is a “benign Machiavellian.” Unfortunately, Holloway errs in his characterization of both Machiavelli and Trump.

Holloway suggests that Trump is a “Machiavellian” because he openly appeals to the self-interest of the people in material prosperity and a strong national defense. However, as Holloway acknowledges in passing, Machiavelli is hardly alone. The American founders also “recognized that self-interest is a powerful force in politics,” which “a realistic Christian approach to politics must accommodate.”

What’s more, Trump’s appeal to the desire of the people for peace and prosperity is fraught with contradiction. Although he is a self-declared billionaire, Trump presented himself in the campaign as a champion of ordinary men and women victimized by the wealthy elite. Yet the fact that he did not win a majority of the popular vote in the election implies that his claim to represent the interests of “the people” in opposition to the few is rather weak. Nor do his conduct and rhetoric since the election demonstrate a concern to protect the poor against the rapacity of the rich. He appointed members of the elite—generals, CEOs of large corporations, and a few Republican politicians—to his cabinet. He pressed for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act that would have deprived an estimated twenty-three million Americans of health care. And his proposed tax reform disproportionately benefits the wealthy.

Holloway acknowledges that “it would be absurd to suggest that Trump’s statesmanship is guided by well-formed Christian conscience.” However, by consistently seeking “to restrict immigration, renegotiate trade deals, and transgress our current foreign policy consensus,” as promised in his campaign, Trump has displayed “more integrity than many politicians.” He can thus be seen to be following Machiavelli’s insistence that a “prince must always appear to be moral.”

What Machiavelli actually writes is that a prince must appear to be “merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious,” even though he cannot always be so in fact. But if Trump wants to appear to be moral, he has not succeeded. In a recent Fox News poll, almost 80 percent of the respondents characterized Trump as a bully, and 60 percent thought that he was unstable. Less than half thought that he was honest, compassionate, or a moral leader. In sum, he is no Machiavellian prince.

Catherine H. Zuckert
university of notre dame
south bend, indiana

Carson Holloway replies:

My critics all share a common trait: a lack of realism that reveals itself in exaggerated expectations of politics, exaggerated criticisms of Donald Trump, and inattention to the constraints that induced many Christians to support him.

Elizabeth Bruenig sees politics as a choice between the good (where Christianity shapes politics) and the monstrous (where politics shapes Christianity). In reality, almost all politics happens between these extremes. Our country is no substitute for God, but it is still worthy of our care. This care often requires us to work with people who do not live up to Christian standards of virtue, as St. Augustine knew well. 

Brandon McGinley errs in presenting Christianity as a politically transformative religion. God’s grace is real, but sound Christian teaching, confirmed by two thousand years of experience, informs us that the effect of grace is to save and sanctify willing souls, not to create a new political order in which self-interest is irrelevant. McGinley’s unfounded hopes distort his understanding of despair. Despair is giving up on our salvation. It is not the realization that politics requires us to work under imperfect conditions with imperfect people.

Contrary to Edmund Waldstein, the classical political philosophers did not think that politics is ordinarily a simple choice between rule by the virtuous and rule by the vicious. They realized that politics mostly takes place in the vast middle ground between virtue and vice, the realm of what Aristotle calls self-restraint and unrestraint, where human beings struggle to be good, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. American politics falls squarely within this middle ground. Perhaps a handful of our presidents have scaled the heights of classical virtue. The rest have been imperfect men—some impressively conscientious, others less so—with whom their fellow citizens had to work as best they could.

This brings us to the exaggerated criticisms of Donald Trump. Contrary to Waldstein, there is no reason to think that Trump is so dominated by passion that he cannot think rationally. His decision on Afghanistan is perfectly intelligible as an accommodation to difficult realities that are not of his own making. Does anyone seriously believe that it results from his being shown pictures of women in miniskirts?

Similarly, while I agree with Harvey Mansfield that we must call evil by its proper name, I see no reason to think that Trump is an evil man—as opposed to an imperfect man whom one can support when he is right and oppose when he is wrong. I also favor defending the Constitution, but I see no evidence that Trump threatens the Constitution.

Nothing Catherine Zuckert says refutes my presentation of Trump as a Machiavellian populist. Trump’s appeal was clearly populist in character, and it helped him to win states that Republicans ordinarily lose. That he lost the popular vote does not change this. Machiavelli teaches not that the astute prince can master every contingency, but that he can master enough of them to succeed—as Trump did.

Nor has Trump abandoned this populism since the election. He staked his populist claim on a promise to pursue certain policies, which he is in fact pursuing—not on any silly promise to fill his cabinet with unknown and inexperienced people. Seeking to reform the Affordable Care Act is not a betrayal of populism but an effort to keep faith with the particular populist coalition Trump assembled, with which the law is very unpopular. Besides, as Zuckert knows well, but neglects to mention here, Machiavelli taught that the prince may have to resort to “cruelty well used.” Political reforms always impose costs on some people, and realistic leaders have to be willing to face that.

My critics are also unrealistic in that they ignore the very real political problem that led many Christians to support Trump. The hard left has made it clear that it regards traditional Christianity as a backward religion that should be made to submit to the continually escalating demands of leftist “social justice.” Ordinary American liberals have shown little interest in trying to moderate those to their left. It is very unrealistic to expect Christians, faced with this combination of fanaticism and indifference, to refuse a willing and effective ally.

Was this a deal with the devil? Hardly. We have now had nine months of Trump as president. Leaving aside his brawling rhetoric, what public policies has he adopted that would make it impermissible for Christians to support him? There are none.

DEVIL’S ERRAND?

In “My Shamanic Healing” (August/September), Matthew Schmitz attempts to account for the rise in popularity of occult practices by doing some first-person reporting. On his own telling, Schmitz participated in an occult ritual (however laughably inauthentic the ritual may have been) simply for the sake of a two-page story. This is objectively scandalous and should never have been approved, written, or published. As St. Paul tells us, pagan sacrifices are sacrifices to demons; to participate in their ceremonies is to be a partner of demons. “You cannot drink the chalice of the Lord, and the chalice of devils: you cannot be partakers of the table of the Lord, and of the table of devils.”

If he truly believed in demons (as every well-catechized Catholic should), he would never risk “provoking the Lord to jealousy” by participating in such a sinful and spiritually dangerous pagan ritual. The tone of the article, however, is not the tone of a man who genuinely believes demons to be real. The experiences he relates (save for the brief moment of terror) are treated as a joke.

Schmitz’s participation was unnecessary. His reflections on the nature of religion and the rise of this new spirituality could have been written without any such participation. To the extent that reporting was necessary, he could have satisfied his curiosity by interviewing or observing, and the article would have been no weaker as a result.

That First Things allowed this is objectively scandalous. The author and the magazine should retract the piece and apologize publicly.

Joel Feil
washington, d.c.

Matthew Schmitz replies:

If my essay provoked in Mr. Feil these admirable reflections on the reality of evil and the folly of man, then it succeeded in its aims.