Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Matthew Schmitz

Take the train to Brussels, walk across the Warendepark, and into the Berlaymont building. This is the home of the European Commission. Depending on which entomologist you consult, it is either the cocoon from which a new Europe will emerge or the center of a vast spider-web of regulation that is choking the continent.

My favorite entomologist, though I can’t say I trust him, is Robert Menasse, an Austrian writer who went to Brussels with the intention of writing a novel about a Eurocrat (now there’s an idea for a bestseller). Instead, he produced a short polemic in defense of the European project. Don’t let its cumbersome title (Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits) discourage you. This is a vivid, oddball screed, the most eloquent defense of an indefensible secular Europe.

Menasse unapologetically defends the European Commission’s high-handedness, which he sees a modern variety of josephinism, the enlightened top-down reform of the Holy Roman Empire during the reign of Joseph II (1780-1790). “Everything for the people, nothing by the people,” is the motto for this revolution from above. Menasse has various political and economic schemes in mind for making sure the resulting order is democratic despite its elite construction. So far, so Habermasian.

Then Menasse turns to the vexed question of cultural policy. Whereas every other door at Berlaymont is open to him, he can't seem to get a meeting with any of the relevant officials in the culture department. Persistence has its reward when he finally sits down across from Deputy Chief of Cabinet Themis Christophidou:

THEMIS CHRISTOPHIDOU. I’ve been told you’re writing a book.

ROBERT MENASSE. Yes, that’s correct.

TC. I don’t understand why you want to speak to me. My spokesman can give you all the statistical information you need.

RM. I don’t need any statistical information. I’m writing a novel.

TC. A novel? Why, for heaven’s sake, are you writing a novel?

And so we see that Europe’s cultural policy has been left in the hands of philistines, a fact that Menasse blames on underfunding and a resulting lack of prestige. He wants to increase the money for promoting a “diversity” of European cultures. Expand culture’s budget line and we can breathe life into a secular, ahistorical, and anti-imperial Holy Roman Empire!

That might be, but I have my doubts. Every culture requires an underlying cult: Rome had its vestal virgins and civic pieties, Christendom its martyrs and Mass. Perhaps progress, liberation, and hygenic sex can become the hearth gods of a new European civilization, but any culture produced by such idols will not be worthy of the talents of a writer like Robert Menasse.

A final note: This book was published by Seagull Books, a publishing house in Calcutta that prints beautifully designed and bound translations into English. Earlier this year I read another of their titles, What Was Before, and I’m now reading a third, Apostoloff. They deserve all the praise they can get.

Elliot Milco

In light of the recent (and increasing) rumors of Pope Francis's inclination to grant canonical recognition to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, I've been reading up on that group. Currently I'm working through the first volume of Michael Davies's trilogy Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, which is a collection of documents relating to the FSSPX, paired with contemporary news items and interspersed commentary. The books favor a certain side of the FSSPX question, but they offer an unparalleled level of detail regarding the formation, investigation, and suppression of the religious order, as well as Marcel Lefebvre's relationship with Pope Paul VI and the Vatican.

What strikes me so far in reading the book (and I should note that this is not my first foray into the history of the post-Conciliar fallout) is how right Lefebvre was in the early 1970s about most of the things going on in the Church. (I recommend his 1983 Open Letter to Confused Catholics to anyone who has been dismayed by dissolution of Catholicism in Catholic institutions.) Today if one wants to know about the fruits of disciplinary relaxation and innovation in seminaries in the 1960s and 70s, one need only read the USCCB's report on the origins of the clerical abuse crisis. Very sad that the FSSPX was treated with such hostility by the curia under Paul VI, and unfortunate that Lefebvre disregarded the authority of John Paul II. Wouldn't it have been better to allow him to continue with his “experiment of tradition”? And now, over the past ten years, aren't we all inching our way toward the realization that that “experiment” is the one that needs to be undertaken?

Bianca Czaderna

Victor Lee Austin, an Episcopal priest in the diocese of New York, is theologian-in-residence at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. He was also in our editorial office last night speaking on his newly released book, Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away, which I've just read.

One of his answers in the Q&A after he spoke sticks in my mind: To the question, “Was this therapeutic for you to write?” Austin replied with a knowing, patient smile, “I’ve been asked that a lot. The answer is, yes, I suppose it was. But that’s not why I wrote the book. I wrote the book for others, because I thought people might be helped by hearing how a pastor-theologian has dealt with the mystery of pain and suffering.”

And indeed, this book is unique in that its author speaks of love, faith, and suffering pastorally, theologically, and intimately, all at once. It’s very readable—Austin is quite witty and self-deprecating—and the theology is so well-integrated that you don’t really realize he’s doing it. He begins by recounting the first time he met his wife-to-be, Susan, at a Bible study; he writes of his attraction for her, and on how, for the first time, he could understand how loving a person and loving God could exist and grow together. There are the joys of their young married life together. Then Susan is diagnosed, and declines slowly. Austin describes how making to-do lists daily, for him and for her, helped him to cope with what was before them—how it took the enormity and confusion of it and split it up into more manageable pieces. He writes about caring for her body when she was unable to, and how, amidst many frustrated and tearful moments, it actually (to his surprise) brought him joy. And all of this he weaves into a greater meditation on the Book of Job and the Song of Songs. And God's ways remain as mysterious as ever. But it helps to hear a pastor-theologian say it.

Alexi Sargeant

Bearing False Witness by Rodney Stark is a generous book—though more importantly, a judicious one. Stark is a Protestant who grew up believing many anti-Catholic myths, including that old canard from Washington Irving that Columbus's voyage had been discouraged by the Church because of her belief that the world was flat. Stark dismantles this quaint piece of ahistorical folklore in his Introduction, then sets his sights on the whole panoply of “Black Legends” maliciously promulgated throughout history to justify bigotry towards Catholics, first by rival denominations (English and Dutch Protestants invented the lurid, baseless cartoon we picture when we hear “Spanish Inquisition”) and then by secular forces (I learned here that it was Soviet propagandists who started the lie that Pius XII was “Hitler's Pope”). Every chapter includes a box identifying the leading historians whose work Stark draws on to refute these common misconceptions and historical frauds.

In Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, Queen Hermione, unjustly accused of and tried for adultery and treason, defies her tyrannical husband, saying “More than mistress of/ Which comes to me in name of fault, I must not/ At all acknowledge.” The Church should do the same: be willing to grapple with her history, without bowing to the mad falsehoods brought to her charge. On Stark's part, the book is an across-the-aisle attempt to right some wrongs of Christian historiography. In his introduction, he offers a Garrett Mattingly quote as a statement of purpose: “Nor does it matter at all to the dead whether they receive justice at the hands of succeeding generations. But to the living, to do justice, however belatedly, should matter.”

Jordan Zajac, OP

It is not often that one finds a clear correspondence between modern psychology and the Gospel. Yet that is what I am discovering as I read Born Only Once: The Miracle of Affirmation, by Catholic psychiatrist Conrad W. Baars. In his work with patients that suffer from various neuroses, Baars identified a common thread: that individuals who had not received adequate love and affirmation in their lives suffered from arrested psychological development, a phenomenon he terms “Affirmation Deprivation Disorder.”

This connection may seem unsurprising. But I’ve been struck by Baars’s descriptions of how, when shown appropriate love and care, these same individuals essentially grow up. Their psychological development resumes. Writing on the meaning of affirmation, Baars states

I have defined “being affirmed” as having one’s goodness revealed to oneself by another. This means that in being affirmed we come to know, on the sense level as well as on the intellectual level, our own goodness. We “come to possess” in acts of sensory or intellectual cognition . . . that we are good and lovable.

Here a ready parallel between natural and supernatural affirmation opens up. Think of how the Gospel is fundamentally the announcement of the love of God (good news, indeed). The pronouncement of Divine love thereby affirms man, awakening supernatural faith and leading to spiritual growth. Man cannot discover this knowledge on his own, but must have it revealed to him. In Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict speaks to the ways in which “[c]ontact with visible manifestations of God’s love can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved” that “engages our will and our intellect” as well as our heart (§17). Cultivating these kinds of “visible manifestations” are what Born Only Once is all about. At first glance, “affirmation therapy” sounds cheesy, but Baars is on to something here—something that is not merely part of the life of the believer but actually generates faith in the first place.

Dear Reader,

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

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?

Make My Gift
More on: WWBR

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles