From the Apocalypse to the Rule of Law

The new issue of First Things is out”the August/September issue, filled with as broad a range of material as we’ve ever published. There’s economics, politics, legal theory, literary theory, history, poetry, and ethics. And then there’s René Girard”the grand literary theorist turned anthropologist turned theologian”who contributes an essay, drawn from his forthcoming book, on the lessons of war and the apocalypse. “Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure,” he writes… . Continue Reading »

Calvin, Conversions, and Catholicity

Since the sixteenth century, conversions and counter-conversions between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have been the stuff of controversy, polemic, and recrimination. The Lutheran-Catholic concord on the formula cuius regio, eius religio virtually guaranteed the escalation of political strife as parties competed for sovereignty. With the emancipation of church from state in the post-Reformation era, churches in North America have inherited a rather different set of implications for the conversion of political figures. When Newt Gingrich announced earlier this year that he had converted to Roman Catholicism, and when news broke in 2002 that Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas had done the same, relatively few outside of the Beltway took more than passing notice… . Continue Reading »

The Uncharacteristic Catholic Moments of Friedrich Schiller

Peter Oswald’s version of Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart,” whose run at New York’s Broadhurst Theater ends in mid-August, succeeds in making this 1801 warhorse of the German Classic crackle on a modern stage. Schiller (1759“1805) was guilty of historical distortions no worse than those in Cate Blanchett’s “Elizabeth” films, and his treatment of character is infinitely superior. At his best, no tragedian after Shakespeare surpasses him. “Mary Stuart” depicts the conflict between the Protestant Elizabeth and the Catholic Mary, quite differently from the two Blanchett films, which crawl with ominous Spaniards and lurking Jesuit assassins. It is noteworthy that the Catholic cause gets a more sympathetic look from a nineteenth century enemy of the Church than from twenty-first century Hollywood… . Continue Reading »

The Social Gospel of Charles Dickens

“I hold my imaginative capacity,” Charles Dickens once wrote, “on the stern condition that it must master my own life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands upon me, and, sometimes for months together, put everything else away from me.”

And yet, such isolation always made him uneasy. Privately and publicly, Dickens extolled the vita activa and warned of the dangers and vices that often overwhelm those who withdraw morosely from society, or who hold themselves above the common run of humanity. Dickens’s novels repeatedly make snobs, solipsists, and self-absorbed spongers the targets of satirical scorn. In Bleak House Harold Skimpole appears contemptible when he boasts of his egocentric and conniving ways”his brazen habit of cadging money and sympathy from susceptible friends.

Of course, in the same novel, the kind and generous Esther Summerson behaves quite otherwise. … Continue Reading »

Defending Truth

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (1877“1964), was the twentieth-century Catholic theologian whose outlook and intellectual projects epitomized the confident intransigence of the pre-Vatican II Church. Professor of theology at the Angelicum in Rome for many decades, Garrigou-Lagrange taught Aristotle and St. Thomas to many generations of seminarians. As a consultant to the Holy Office, he played an important role in the intellectual politics of mid-century Catholicism. His reputation was clear: hardnosed about truth and in favor of the use of church authority in its defense.

In recent decades, Garrigou and the Catholic sensibility he embodied has been out of style, very out of style. Richard McCormick, Roger Haight, Elizabeth Johnson, Monica Hellwig, Charles Curran, Gregory Baum, David Tracy, and other post-Vatican II theologians emerged as the standard bearers for what they hoped would be a new church, a new spirit, and a new age. They wanted to be flexible and pluralistic when it came to truth, and they were suspicious when it came to authority, especially church authority.

Time has passed. The young progressives have aged and grayed… . Continue Reading »

Caritas and Economics

Editor’s Note: In 1995, Michael Novak wrote a lecture on the subject of “Caritas and Economics.” The original text is reprinted here in the hopes that it will shed further light on the widespread reflection on caritas and economics about to be requested by Benedict XVI’s upcoming encyclical

In one of the two greatest lines of world poetry, Dante bows gently toward “The Love that moves the sun and all the stars.” Many moralists speak of love as the one fundamental and universal moral principle, the golden rule honored in all traditions. But what do we mean by love? In English we are hampered by having but one word for many kinds of love. In Latin at least six different terms are available for six different loves.

The most general term is amor”the term that Dante used for the force that moves the sun and choreographs the stars in their millennial dance across the skies. Amor means pull, attraction, being driven together. One can use it of Earth’s gravity, the passions that pull the sexes to cohabitate, and “the force that through the green grass drives” (e.e.cummings).

But eros is a love more driving, and obsessive, almost mad… . Continue Reading »

Awaiting Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate

The Vatican has announced that Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, titled Caritas in Veritate, will be released Tuesday, July 7:Pope Benedict XVI - Caritas in Veritate

Those participating in Tuesday’s conference will be: Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino and Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, respectively president and secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, president of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum,” and Stefano Zamagni, professor of political economy at the University of Bologna, Italy and consultor of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Signed by the Holy Father on June 29th, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, and released in time for the G8 international summit in L’Aquila, Italy (July 8-10), Caritas in Veritate will be the first social encyclical to be written in almost two decades. There has been much speculation as to what the encyclical will say.

Fortunately, the Pope himself has given several helpful indications… . Continue Reading »

What, Another Marxist Predicts the Collapse of Capitalism?

Vatican watchers in Italy are getting into a fever about the new economic encyclical by Benedict XVI, due out in a month or so.

The same thing happened almost twenty years ago, in 1991, just before John Paul II issued his much-proclaimed economic encyclical “100th Year” (Centesimus Annus). Then, too, the beehive of the European left was feverishly abuzz, fantasizing in print that the pope would shortly move to the left of Willi Brandt, Neil Kinnock, and all the other famous leaders of the European left. Then John Paul II issued the most pro-enterprise, pro-human capital instruction of any pope ever (“In our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.” Centesimus Annus #32).

The hive fell unforgettably silent… . Continue Reading »

That Nothing May Be Lost

This spring I was out of the country for a week. Attending Mass shortly after my return, I went forward to receive the Eucharist and opened my mouth in the traditional way. But I received, instead of Jesus, a frown, a shake of the head, and silence. Distressed, I opened my hands questioningly, and the priest pressed the Host into my palm. Back in my pew I watched as this small drama was reenacted with other communicants. Afterward, on a back table I found a letter from our archbishop, outlining “temporary precautions for the celebration of Mass” due to the spreading of swine flu.

When I entered the Catholic Church in 1996, I was taught by an energetic, abrasive, and intensely orthodox Dominican priest. He taught mostly from memory, stalking about in a theatrical way, fingering a large rosary that hung from his waist. His teaching was both unsystematic and vivid, and when he spoke about the Eucharist I remember he urged us to receive Communion on the tongue—because, he said, we should be as docile and receptive as children being fed by their mother.

The idea alarmed me, like the idea of kissing a crucifix on Good Friday or viewing a corpse at a wake. Open my mouth and stick out my tongue? Let the priest see the inside of my mouth? Continue Reading »

Economic Heresies of the Left

What exactly is in Benedict XVI’s new encyclical on the economy and labor issues is not yet known. Catholic leftists and progressives, though, are already trembling with excitement. Three glaring errors have already appeared in these heavily panting anticipations.

An accurate presentation of real existing capitalism requires at least three modest affirmations:

1) Markets work well only within a system of law, and only according to well-marked-out rules of the game; unregulated markets are a figment of imagination.

2) In actual capitalist practice, the love of creativity, invention, and groundbreaking enterprise are far more powerful than motives of greed.

3) The fundamental systemic motive infusing the spirit of capitalism is the imperative to liberate the world’s poor from the premodern ubiquity of grinding poverty. This motive lay at the heart of Adam Smith’s important victory over Thomas Malthus concerning the coming affluence”rather than starvation”of the poor. Continue Reading »