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The Faithful Peripheries

Most of us that grew up in the peripheries don’t buy the central premise of this pontificate of making the Church less European. I agree with R. R. Reno’s assertions in “Rome’s Concordat” (March 2024) that this pontificate sounds like a focus group at the World Economic Forum or a DEI department at Harvard.

We also see this pontificate as attempting to be highly transformative of our beliefs in the peripheries. For example, for any Latin American person, La Virgen de Guadalupe or La Virgen Morena was a devotion that combined our cultural roots with our religious sensibilities. It never replaced prayer and contemplation. We always acknowledged the role of women in the Church. I grew up in a rural town in the Caribbean, and our parish priest always said: The prayers of the women religious sustain us. Catholic women ran Catholic hospitals, schools, and other charitable organizations. The current pontificate has embraced the Western feminist view of women. 

I didn’t find it surprising that the peripheries sharply rejected Fiducia Supplicans while the childless, wealthy nations like Germany, Austria, and Switzerland embraced it. Fiducia Supplicans attempted to address a first world problem that the peripheries couldn’t care less about. It will continue to be sharply rejected because the Holy Spirit cannot be misled.

Ysais Martinez
columbus, ohio

Marriage and Divorce

Scott Yenor’s “Compulsory Feminism” (March 2024) was great. With manly courage, he tipped one of the most sacred cows of our age: the anti-sex-discrimination regime. I think he should go even further. There’s a case for sex discrimination, the kind that is rooted in the created order, not just social “roles.” Indeed, our very existence is predicated on the unity-in-distinction (discrimen) between the sexes. Conception, pregnancy, and birth all discriminate. And since we need to be raised, not just born, we need a whole culture of life marked by the way we came to be in the first place.

We need a common life between non-exchangeable persons who cannot live without each other, not a homogenized one between persons who can. On the assumption that no one sex is superior to the other, society should promote (just) sex discrimination. It ought to want mothers to be in close physical proximity to their young children—for at least three years—and fathers to do what mothers cannot. In short, it ought to want children to be raised by mothers and fathers.

The anti-sex-discrimination regime discriminates unjustly against actual mothers, fathers, and children, and it shows unjust partiality to an abstract counterfactual: functionally equivalent, sexless “parents” and “caregivers.”

By tracing sex discrimination back to the created order—and to the Creator himself, who is a Unity-in-Distinction—we can get beyond the Tocquevillian need to balance the sexual constitution with the spirit of freedom. That constitution makes us free in the first place.

Margaret Harper McCarthy
john paul ii institute
washington, d.c.

It is surprising that Scott Yenor does not mention the impact of divorce laws in his article. There was a dramatic jump upward in divorce rates at the beginning of the 1970s. Women whose husbands walked out were faced with the prospect of raising large families on the minimum wage. I remember that time well. Divorce laws were not particularly favorable to women in many places. One reaction was for mothers to teach their daughters never to put themselves in such a vulnerable position. This kicked off the spiral of demands for more pay and more opportunities in education and the workplace. Arguably, the pendulum has now swung too far, and men are disadvantaged by divorce laws. Why work to become a marriageable man if marriage is now such a risky proposition, especially in an era of relaxed sexual norms? The solutions Scott Yenor suggests are needed, but the problem of divorce is an elephant in the room left unaddressed.

Stacie Beck
landenberg, pennsylvania

Scott Yenor replies:

Often analysts document the social disaster that proceeds from the decline of family life, but then prescribe small-ball solutions like ending marriage penalties or tweaking welfare programs as the only public policy choices. The beginning of wisdom is this: If problems are grave, solutions must be somewhat commensurate. However, thinking too boldly risks political oblivion. Merely howling at the moon does not reshape public opinion. The time for bold thought in defense of the family must precede bold action. Margaret McCarthy and Stacie Beck join me in thinking through how to manifest enduring, fruitful man–woman marriages, here and now.

My article focuses on how our anti-sex-discrimination constitution misshapes relations between the sexes. McCarthy wants to see a defense of a discriminating sexual constitution that reconciles the interests of men and women toward achieving the common goods of marriage. A discriminating sexual constitution would be more consistent with the demands of nature and with the Trinitarian cosmological order. A society that broadly expects men and women to do different things within the family—and where men and women want complementarity—is indispensable to reviving marriage and family life. Such a society would also be more Christian. Efforts to reconcile the anti-sex-discrimination regime with God’s natural order are sophistic. I am happy to clear the underbrush while McCarthy describes a new sexual constitution with sex discrimination near its heart.

Divorce reform would be difficult to pull off politically, but Beck insists that stable family life, where the interests of men and women are secured, demands an end to no-fault divorce. True enough. Unfortunately, the push for at-will divorce presupposes the feminist push to free women from marriage. Tackling divorce requires also looking at how that push emerged in our laws.

Not Just War

Richard Cassleman’s essay “Undermining Just War” (March 2024), argues that capital punishment and just war are so closely related that to deny the legitimacy of the death penalty is also to reject the just war tradition. Unfortunately, the analogy is not sound.

Capital punishment and just war are two different kinds of acts, even though both must be authorized by legitimate civil authority. Even if we grant that some civil authority—the judge—rightly has the capacity to sentence a criminal to death, we should note two things. First, the accused can only be sentenced once he is tried and found guilty of a capital crime. Second, the intention of the act of execution is not to render the convicted person harmless; it is, uniquely among civil actions, to make someone dead.

By contrast, neither of these points applies to war. In particular, the death of individual enemy combatants is not the intention of military action, even though we may behave as if it were. The intention, as distinct from the immediate object of action, is to suppress their unjust project and to secure a just remedy for the harm their nation has done. A sign of this is that the laws of war prohibit killing an enemy combatant once he has been rendered harmless; to do so would be a war crime. We do not fire on pilots who have ejected from their aircraft. The real analogy here is not with the death penalty but with the domestic use of lethal force by the police in situations where the lives of others are threatened.

If we grasp this point we can see that even if we were to repudiate capital punishment, the just war tradition would be unaffected.

Robert G. Kennedy
university of st. thomas
saint paul, minnesota

I appreciated Richard Cassleman’s attempt to clarify church teachings on just war and capital punishment. I respectfully disagree with some of the theory he articulated.

For example, Cassleman wrote that “Vladimir Putin could declare a unilateral ceasefire and the Ukrainian forces would have to stand down.” To begin with, the phrase “stand down” literally means to relax after a period of tension or readiness, which sounds ridiculous when applied to a state’s armed forces.

Yet if Vladimir Putin did declare a ceasefire and the Russian soldiers laid aside arms, it would be incumbent upon the Ukrainian command to refrain from destroying the enemy in this state, “just as a man defending his home must refrain from killing if the intruder puts down his weapon.” Some of the most barbaric incidents in military history arose when an enemy ignored these conventions of war.

I also disagree with the common interpretation of Romans 13:4. Cassleman gives ammunition to my belief that the authority of the state to take action against criminals and the authority to defend itself stem from different principles when he writes that the state “has natural jurisdiction over its own citizens, whereas greater ambiguity surrounds the question of external jurisdiction among countries.” The state has the right to judicate its own cases, but it does not have the authority not delegated to it by another state to interfere with its processes. Furthermore, a foreign state does not disobey a state’s laws when it invades. Instead, if it is in transgression of a law, it is a law of the community of states. When the apostle to the Gentiles writes “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities . . . for rulers do not bear the sword in vain,” he speaks of a nation’s authority over its subjects. 

Cassleman is correct that capital punishment is not defense; instead it is punishment. The difference between punishment and defense is clear. Similarly, Austria had no authority to punish Serbia. Ukraine, however, does have the right to defend itself. When the Holy Father seems to destroy capital punishment, it does not damage the foundations of just war.

Isaac Misner-Elias
benton, maine

Richard Cassleman clearly sets out the reasons that so many Catholics feel perplexed that the just war theory has received such stiff scrutiny of late.

I would suggest that the New Testament itself undermines the just war theory. Jesus rejects violence in the most thoroughgoing terms, and he never qualifies his views with exceptions for just wars or even for self-defense (Matt. 5:21–22, 38–45; Luke 6). Cassleman relies too heavily on the traditional understanding of Romans 13:1–7 to support his case that “St. Paul authorizes the political sovereign to use the power of the sword to avenge wrongdoing.”

Although the passage has been interpreted in such ways in the past, we are witnessing what Dei Verbum called the Church’s ability to mature in its judgments on the Scriptures. Concerning Romans 13, Paul had just reaffirmed Jesus’s teaching on violence in the verses immediately preceding the chapter (Rom. 12:12–21). It would be surprising if Paul thought he could boldly reverse the Lord’s pronouncements as if to say, “Love your enemies, unless the state tells you to wage war on them.”

Mark Nanos suggests that the term “governing authorities” refers to synagogue officials who administer the Temple tax. To treat the passage as if every political governing authority is instituted by God requires the reader to make so many unstated background assumptions that it strains credulity. Paul’s reference to the sword (machairan) in Romans 13:4 indicates a ceremonial small sword symbolizing the authority of a synagogue official to impose his will. The passage has nothing to do with just war.

Pope Francis is helping the Church mature, which should involve a reassessment of the Scriptural foundations for just war.

Gerald J. Bednar
euclid, ohio

Richard Cassleman replies:

Like Professor Kennedy, I am exceedingly grateful we do not shoot pilots after ejection. There are several problems that result if we say all killing in war is unintentional. Unintentionality implies that all killing in war is defensive, but clearly much of wartime killing is offensive in nature. Therefore, it seems you must either suggest there’s such a thing as unintentional offensive killing, or you must deny that killing is offensive by appealing to a broader notion of defense at the state level. The first case appears to be contradictory. The second option might logically get you to wartime killing, but the same appeal could then be made for capital punishment, rendering what was forbidden on an individual level (killing offensively) permissible. In this sense, it is not the executioner that kills the criminal (as if he himself wanted the criminal dead), but the sovereign. The intention of the state is multifold: defensive, retributive, and deterrent. This is similar to just war’s broad intention of suppression of unjust action.

The difficulties brought up by Mr. Misner-Elias can be better discussed using the Hamas example. Hamas isn’t surrendering but is merely returning to its own territory under its own jurisdiction. Israeli soldiers are forbidden from entering Gaza because they have no jurisdiction there. Akin to my intruder analogy, Israel can only defend itself when in the process of being attacked. Outside this circumstance, the intrusion into Hamas’s territory and the subsequent offensive killing cannot be justified by individual self-defense. Israel needs a legitimate authority (with jurisdiction), or it is acting immorally.

I appreciate the countering view on Scripture from Fr. Bednar, but I am still hard-pressed to believe Romans 13 has nothing to do with killing. St. Paul specifically says that the authority does not bear the sword in vain (eikē), as if the sword were only ceremonial and never used. This sword is used to “avenge” and involves “wrath.” The same word for sword (machairan) is used to describe Peter’s sword that cut off the servant’s ear, and it was used in Acts to describe Paul’s guard who very nearly killed himself. Shields are for defending; swords are for killing. In John 19:10–11, Pilate tells Jesus that he has the authority to crucify Jesus. It’s notable that Jesus does not revoke Pilate’s authority to execute; he seems to confirm that authority by saying “You would have no authority over me unless it had been given you from above.” Thank you to all who took the time to respond with critiques.

Left-Brain Machines

Iain McGilchrist’s piece (“Resist the Machine Apocalypse,” March 2024) admirably illustrates the promise, limitations, and perils of the “machines” that threaten to make permanent the triumph of the left over the right hemisphere of our brains. I admire that he ignored the temptation to give “left” and “right” political meanings.

Most resonant of all was his warning that left-brain machines may excel at turning data into decisions, but when these decisions involve people, much of what makes us human is at risk of being eclipsed. I thought immediately of the typically sarcastic lyrics of Donald Fagen’s song “I.G.Y.” (short for International Geophysical Year), which seem increasingly prescient: “Just machine to make big decisions / Programmed by fellas with compassion and vision / We’ll be clean when their work is done / We’ll be eternally free, yes and eternally young . . .”

William G. Kussmaul III
media, pennsylvania

Lonely Men

Hikers on the Tomales Point Trail in California often spy a large herd of bull tule elk lounging on the soft grass. These are the ones who lost the stag fight and will spend the rest of their lives hanging with their bros, lonely together.

I thought of these loser elk when reading “The Anti-Family Right” (March 2024) by Matthew Schmitz. I would put the online human equivalents of these elk neither on the right nor the left. They should go where they probably dwell: the basement.

The internet has given misogynists a voice and meeting place, but they have always been with us. These men ought to be put in the bigger context of deadbeat boys who aren’t excelling because they don’t have the virtues necessary to be successful. They represent a family problem that is difficult to solve through public policy.

Lonely men are less of a threatening political factor when compared to the anti-natalist forces in the world, which are insidious, well-organized, and well-funded. They aggressively corrupt the youth at all ages. 

Organizations like the American Family Project are working at the federal level to make things easier for families across the country, but such efforts require the foundation of sturdy family life.

Strong, virtuous, and pious parents are needed to face the headwinds of the culture. Fathers with the fortitude to forbid their sons playing video games, instilling in them the courage to face the future. Mothers loving enough to demand their daughters dress and behave modestly in accord with their dignity.

There are enough examples of this happening that we should remain hopeful for the future. If we are faithful, then the world will once again belong to those whose great-grandparents were fruitful and multiplied.

Tom McDonough
washington, d.c.

Selfish Pride

If my own household had been more stable, I might still be able to grab my old copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” from my 1970s student days. I am certain its contents would appear tame and trivial next to the policies and interventions described in Kerri Christopher’s “Our Bodies, Our Anger” (March 2024).

Evil, like fermentation, grows in an exponential way that leaves this aging feminist reeling.

I see no inaccuracies in Christopher’s wild ride through our current “women’s health” morass. What I wonder is when will we stop playing the well-researched game with humanity’s spiritual adversary. When confronting such a grim adversary, prayer in the name of Jesus Christ must still be part of the answer. Our enemy, with his evil inventions and strategies, can be—indeed, already has been—defeated. 

It was the word “ourselves” in the original title that gave it all away. We have to root out selfish pride, and prayer is an essential part of that process. Otherwise new policies designed to alleviate our present dilemma will fall on deaf ears.

Patrice Harrison-Inglis
chico, california

Image by Daniel Schwen, licensed via Creative Commons. Image triplicated, triplications combined, cropped.