My Jewish children are proud Americans born and raised in New York. When they were young, they learned a game from older children that they played and taught to younger children. It is a form of tag in which the person who is “it” yells a catchphrase, and everyone on “base” has to quickly run away. The catchphrase, and the game’s name, is “Galachim,” the Yiddish word for priests. Somehow, more than fifty years after Vatican II, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Jewish immigrants have inherited a cultural fear of Roman Catholic clergy.
Romanus Cessario reminds us why Jewish children have been taught to flee at the sight of priests in his discussion of the Mortara affair (“Non Possumus,” February), in which a Jewish child was secretly baptized by his nanny and then forcibly removed from his family by the papal police to be raised as a Catholic. While I appreciate Cessario’s discussion of the dilemma facing Pope Pius IX, torn between his religious obligation to raise the child as a Catholic and the humanitarian plight of the child’s parents, Cessario seems more interested in the PR impact of the event than in the parents’ loss of their child. His article made me think about what I would do if faced with a similar scenario in which my religious obligations conflicted with some other parents’ desire to raise their children in their faith. For raising this interesting question, I thank the author. However, I wish he had explored the question in more depth and with more sensitivity to the human concerns.
From my perspective, it seems that the pope under discussion suffered a failure of theological and practical imagination. Was there no compromise available, if not to first save all the children born into lapsed or neglectful Catholic families before pursuing coerced conversions, then at least to find some form of joint-custody arrangement? Could the pope not wait until the boy was an adult, and invite him to learn about Catholicism then?
Today, religious people across the Western world face secular coercion. I would have hoped for Cessario to take the opportunity to consider how we reached this sad state of affairs and what could have been done differently to prevent it. A seemingly uncaring and dictatorial pope who snatches babies from their mothers invites worldwide contempt for, and rebellion against, organized religion.
Maybe in another 150 years, Jewish children will run away from the “P.C. police,” but today cultural memories of the danger to Jewish families once posed by the Catholic Church still run deep.
Rabbi Gil Student
brooklyn, new york
As a Lutheran pastor, retired international lawyer, father of two Jews, and spouse of another, I read with interest Romanus Cessario’s book review, “Non Possumus.” Fr. Cessario defends the pope’s actions as an affirmation of Catholic teaching and rightly ordered political priorities. Perhaps he’s been too long on the inside looking out. As becomes clear over the course of the essay, the pope sought to put the priorities of the institution, the Church and Papal States, ahead of other values many Christians would consider more important. Fr. Cessario eloquently expounds Catholic theology of baptism—but where is his trust in God and confidence in his sacraments when it comes to the soul of Edgardo Mortara? Would it not have been more fitting for the pope to let the child go, if he really believed that the “indelible mark” of baptism had made Mortara fireproof, regardless of his upbringing?
There are values that surpass even the sanctity of a unified family and the right of all children to live with people who actually love them, are responsible for them, and are able to care for them. But four decades of service in governmental and religious organizations have taught me that bureaucracies and institutions do not love people. God left that loving to us, one by one, one relationship at a time. The various institutions we have formed and called churches over the years have at times been powerful advocates for such works of love. But our eternal salvation is God’s work, and not of any earthly institution so convinced of its own righteousness that it thinks it can justify kidnapping children. It is not necessary to destroy the family in order to save it.
Pastor Joe Leavengood
Romanus Cessario, O.P., replies:
I acknowledge with gratitude the courtesy and gentlemanliness that characterize the communications from Rabbi Gil Student and Pastor Joe Leavengood. Since the political regime that Pope Pius IX led came to an end in 1870, it is difficult to assess Rabbi Student’s worthy suggestions for alternative arrangements that the pope may have employed. I should point out, however, that the pope did welcome the boy’s parents in Rome.
Both Jews and Christians join in resisting secular coercion. As the pages of First Things often suggest, the best means for accomplishing this goal may not be easier to identify now than it was during Pius’s pontificate (1846–1878). Pastor Leavengood raises, from a Christian perspective, other possible courses of action that the pope may have taken. Allow me to recall that, according to Catholic teaching, the character of baptism does not work like magic. The new life that Catholics believe baptism brings requires instruction in the faith of the Catholic Church. Such instruction precedes baptism for adults. On the other hand, baptized children require rearing in the faith just as any child requires instruction in order to develop his or her human capacities.
The two letter-writers make arguments consonant with their respective traditions. Catholic theology proposes a different view. St. John Paul II, remembered for dialogue with Jews and non-Catholic Christians, confirmed Catholic tenets on baptism. Despite some objections that have reemerged within recent weeks, the pope chose to beatify Pius IX. A beatification does not endorse every political decision of the blessed. It does, however, preclude the view that Pius IX was an unrepentant sinner committed to violations of the natural law. John Paul II further chose to carry over into the 1983 Code of Canon Law provision for the licit baptism of a child in danger of death, even against the will of non-Catholic parents.
If Catholics are to respond effectively to David Kertzer’s allegations in The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which two upcoming films will soon popularize, they might strengthen their grasp on certain facets of the question that did not require full treatment in my review of Mortara’s memoirs. One involves the facts of the case: Evaluation of Pope Pius IX’s actions in regard to the Mortara family, and of the family’s as well as Edgardo’s reactions, should be based on the most accurate detailing of the facts that political, legal, and religious history can provide. A second is the Catholic doctrine of baptism, especially its emphasis on the regenerative quality of the sacrament and its possible domestic and political implications, which the Church continues to acknowledge in her codified counsel regarding near-death situations, as well as in her use of the Pauline privilege, which allows for the dissolution of a marriage between two non-baptized persons if one of them should subsequently receive baptism. A third and final facet of the question relates to the possible forms that distributive justice can take in Catholic confessional states, which Dignitatis Humanae admits may differ legitimately from the shape that distributive justice typically assumes in liberal regimes.
My review of a book that reports the story of a man who died in 1940 does not in any way purport to compromise what, in 1965, Blessed Paul VI set down in Nostra Aetate, especially no. 4: “In her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
I was deeply troubled by R. R. Reno’s brief comments in support of the tax on university endowments (“While We’re At It,” February). His unqualified gratification “that the tax bill passed by Congress includes an excise tax on investment income earned by super-sized university endowments” dangerously downplays the important role played by nongovernmental institutions in a pluralist civil society. While Reno is correct that it is “unhealthy for our society when cultural power becomes too concentrated in just a few very wealthy institutions,” using the state’s tax power to attack “institutional giganticism” in the name of “philanthropic subsidiarity” as he proposes would only open the way for government to control, and even destroy, such institutions.
The good of university endowments extends far beyond their merely instrumental value in performing “public service,” such as funding scholarships and research. These services are valuable and need to be defended. But if endowments are conceived solely as instruments, rather than equal partners with the state in pursuit of the public good, then the classic principle of private association in liberal democracies has been lost, for instrumentality implies that government alone is the public good’s ultimate arbiter. In fact, there are two sovereignties in the temporal order. The state claims that it is the only one, but in reality there is another, equally important pillar of civil society composed of private institutions with public purposes. Liberals assume that the “public sphere” should be under governmental control; conservatives, and especially Christians, insist that such institutions as churches and private schools have public functions, and that one should never equate the public with the governmental.
Traditionally, the Catholic Church has been strongest in defending the “freedom of the Church” against statism. The independence of its institutions has been secured, in the temporal and material sense, by endowments of land and property. Reno’s logic, which counts the taxation of university endowments as a “good idea,” must also permit the taxation of church endowments, beginning with termination of their tax-exempt status. This is the same logic that led to the dissolution of the monasteries in England under Henry VIII. Reno may have legitimate concerns about the ideological capture of large philanthropic foundations and universities by the managerial class, but the remedy of an endowment tax, even at 1.4 percent, sets a dangerous precedent.
Again, Reno is partially right to seek a “wider dispersion of educational and philanthropic interest.” But too wide a dispersion only weakens the impact of nongovernmental institutions and strengthens the state. Concentrations of power are a reality, and the way to carve out free space, even for subsidiarity, is through countervailing power. American higher education is the strongest in the world precisely because it has an informal public-private “system” which allows for pluralism and competition among diverse institutions.
Appearing in the same issue of First Things in which Reno praises the endowment tax is an essay lamenting the infantilization of university students (“No Patrimony,” February). Many of these students are at public institutions, while private institutions, led by the University of Chicago, have adopted stringent standards protecting academic freedom of expression. It is endowments that give such private universities the freedom to act in ways that temporarily contradict public opinion and, in the long term, serve the public good.
The new tax bill ranks university endowments on a “dollars per student” basis, taxing those endowments above an arbitrary threshold set by the state. One shudders to think of the intrusion of state power that would result if taxes were levied on churches based on a comparable census of worshipers.
Fred W. Beuttler
R. R. Reno says that we should impose a tax on advertisements on pornographic websites, because this would be a constitutional way of decreasing the amount of pornography making its way to children and young adults online (“While We’re At It,” February).
Now, I have no brief for naughty pictures. I’m old enough to remember when Hugh Hefner, that old sinner, published pictures of Marilyn Monroe’s bare backside. I thought that sort of thing was wrong then, and I think it’s wrong now. But doesn’t Reno know that the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly—in decisions from Grosjean v. American Press Co. (1936) to Leathers v. Medlock (1991)—to strike down laws imposing differential taxes on speakers because of their content or viewpoint? You don’t need to be John Marshall to deduce that, if a class of speech is protected under the First Amendment—as the Court has ruled sexually explicit material is—then you can’t tax it more than other kinds of protected speech.
Unless, of course, Reno meant to tax not “pornographic” websites but “obscene” ones. Then the precedent is different, though Reno wouldn’t seem to know either way. Perhaps he should consult a lawyer before he opines about the law?
Augustus V. Nadoyeda
new york, new york
R. R. Reno replies:
Every action of consequence sets a dangerous precedent. The first community to define an act as a crime set a precedent, making it possible that virtuous deeds might be criminalized by a corrupt body politic. The same goes for taxation. There are no failsafe procedures of governance. As a consequence, we must assess our circumstances and make prudent judgments about what best serves the common good.
It seems obvious to me that cultural power in our society has become far too concentrated in super-rich institutions with skewed priorities. A modest tax on the endowments of these institutions seeks to break down this overconcentration of power. By my reckoning, that tax should be much higher, something along the lines of 5 percent of endowment principal for the thirty or forty largest endowments. As a limited-government conservative, I’m not happy that significant taxation of this sort is now necessary. But we must address the problems of our time, one of which is the ascendancy of an arrogant, bloated set of elite institutions with far too much power to shape our society against our wishes and without our consent.
Which means I respectfully disagree with Fred Beuttler. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford are not well-functioning institutions. They have trained two generations of elite students to be soulless technocrats, now so isolated from the common man that they cannot lead our country. There is no “pluralism” in mainstream higher education. It is relentlessly homogeneous. Nearly all the universities in our system kowtow to the methods and mores of the super-rich schools at the top of the food chain.
Augustus Nadoyeda urges me to consult a lawyer. Count me among those who regard our present constitutional law on pornography as an obscenity. That we must live under the ridiculous conceit that smutty videos and pictures constitute a species of artistic expression is a leading sign of the intellectual corruption of our regime. We can only change bad legal precedent by forcing the issue, which my proposed tax would do. So I say to Congress, “Pass that tax!”
Mark Bauerlein’s welcome defense of handwriting (“Phenomenology of the Hand,” February) offered sound advice: If we wish students to take writing seriously, we should provide them with serious instruments. Just as a finely ornamented Bible communicates reverence for its contents or a magnificent church beckons us to worship, a noble writing instrument fosters devotion to the craft of writing.
Nevertheless, while Bauerlein provided a solid theoretical foundation for the writing renaissance, his concrete recommendations were a bit lackluster. Parker is a storied company, but it is not what it was forty years ago. As one who outlines, drafts, and edits exclusively with fountain pens, I feel obliged to assist Bauerlein in saving this and future generations from word processors and laptop keyboards. Here are a few recommendations for those pursuing, or inspiring their children to pursue, a fruitful life in letters.
Parents of young students or those with a modest budget might be interested in the Lamy Safari fountain pen, which features a molded grip section to ensure the pen is held properly. For serious writers interested in classic design, a Japanese fountain pen, such as the Sailor 1911 or Pilot Custom 823, would make an excellent choice. A teenager or young adult might prefer the sleek lines and minimalist, Bauhaus aesthetic of the Lamy 2000, which, legend has it, was at one time displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. The gift-giver of means—one who fancies himself a patron of the arts—might take an interest in a Namiki/Pilot Maki-e pen or one of the neo-Victorian, hand-crafted pens from the English company Yard-O-Led. Pairing any of the above with ink from the French company J. Herbin or the English company Diamine would be sure to inspire reverence for the craft in any writer who puts pen to paper (preferably Rhodia paper, or a leather-bound journal from U.K.-based Bible seller R. L. Allan).
Again, my sincere thanks to Bauerlein for his timely piece. I would, however, like to voice one final concern. His essay ends with the suggestion—deliberately provocative, no doubt—that we begin emphasizing cursive. I disagree. Much more urgent, I should think, is the task of ennobling contemplation, from which great writing will follow. We are, therefore, duty bound to encourage smoking. As it happens, pipes make for excellent eighteenth-birthday gifts.
Onsi A. Kamel
princeton theological seminary
princeton, new jersey
Mark Bauerlein replies:
I welcome Onsi Kamel’s recommendations, and I’ll look up the models he suggests. I admit, too, a measure of nostalgia for the old Parkers and other vintage pens that may not much impress the young. Parker’s Duofold fountain pen with General Douglas MacArthur’s signature commemorating the end of World War II (in a limited edition of 1,945) probably doesn’t much appeal to the nineteen-year-old.
But I do insist on the importance of cursive. Yes, as Kamel says, great writing may follow from “ennobling contemplation.” But the separation of acts of mind from acts of the hand is not so clear-cut. Cursive script, I believe, has precisely a contemplative effect. It’s more artistic than print, certainly more so than the keyboard. I urge all teachers of classes with any writing component to run an experiment: On the next assignment, require students to submit handwritten copies, in cursive, and judge for yourselves. Did the prose improve?
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?